What Is Surf
Part IV: Do Surfers Play Surf Music?



What is the involvement of surfers in Surf Music? When a surfer plays a song, does that make it Surf Music? Is a song a surf song if a surfer likes it? If it makes you wanna surf, is it a surf song?

phantom surfersAt the annual Santa Cruz long board soiree back in '88, the Phantom Surfers were the guest band...dry dock surfers all. During an interlude, I was kibitzing with all around great guy & longboarder Dan Young, when square roots I mentioned my surf show. His eyes lit up and he boasted "I have a surfband!". Excitedly, I asked what the name was, and he said "the Square Roots." He sent me a demo, on which I discovered that they were a really cool reggae/ska band populated by surfers. This story repeated itself numerous times over the past decade, with bands like Bug (Web Fingers of San Francisco commercial alternative radio Live 105) and DI, both Punk bands manned by surfers.

There's the notion that songs about surfing are surf music, and this is harder to argue against, unless the purist instro definition is applied. Think about the wacky & wonderful Surf Punks. Here, you have a bunch of surf rats playing keyboard oriented modern ugly dance drum machine-esq music about surfing and the surf life style. Totally killer stuff, but is it surf? Farther affield, are bands like the Surf M.C.'s (a studio/label concoction) surf mc's and Thermo (ex-Half Church) who played incredibly great Surf Rap and were surfers all, or at least skate punks. Is it surf? Well...

On the lighter side of the aisle, the Closet Surfers play a cool post-Oingo Boingo brand of neo-new age music that certainly appeals to surfers and calls to the sea. They use surf videos in their shows, and they are very entertaining. They are surfers. Their 2 CDs are good. I enjoy listening to them. I play their stuff occasionally on Surf's Up! But, is it surf music?

Long time surf legend and well like surfer Corky Carroll has been recording for what seems like a millennium. I first heard Corky's "Skateboard Bill" and wondered why a surfer would play a country tune about skate boarding kids? Corky's music is enjoyable, and I'd guess he's entertaining to see. His latest CD is getting closer with more instros including a peaceful Hawaiian guitar track that is hypnotic and beautiful. Still, where's the surf.

Longboard ace Denny Aaberg records "surf music" (translates blues), and has even sat in with the Eliminators at events in front of friends (surfers). His brand of the blues is good, but calling it surf music is one gigantic leap of illogic unless you believe in the if-surfers-play-it dogma.

The notion that surfers making music is surf music is a bit like saying anything Al Capone tinkled out on his grand piano was punk rock 'cuz he was a punk, Bill Clinton's sax drones are progressive pop-rock because he is a progressive socialist, or undertakers play death rock. The reverse would then also have to hold true, such as all punk bands are bootleggers, or all progressive socialist politicians play prog, etc. Even worse, if you link such unrelated segments, what do you do with siblings... Darryl Dragon (Captain & Tennielle) and Dennis Dragon (Surf Punks) surf punks are both either surf punk beach bums or sappy MOR pop singers. Well, maybe that's a bad example, but you get the drift. All blacks don't vote democrat any more than all surfers who play in bands are in surfbands. It's a ludicrous argument on it's face.

The connection between surf music, surfing and surfers is tenuous at best. Historically, surf music was not about surfing, it was simply the adoption by surfers of instrumentals. Anything instrumental was surf music in their minds. In the minds of the musicians, the definition narrowed quickly to exclude all but the Orange County Sound and the South Bay Sound, and in hindsight, primarily the Orange County Sound. According to Thom Starr's CD liner notes, Dick Dale was not a really surfer. He spent hours with the photographer to get up enough to shoot the picture on the cover of Surfer's Choice. In response to the question "Do you still surf?" he told me in an interview in 1986 that he "hadn't been out for 20 years" and that "the only thing I use a surf board for now is to carrying my guitar". Surf was not a creation of surfers. Paul Johnson never had anything to do with surfing.