As soon as one reads or even hears the word “surf,” it triggers the imagination to daydream of fantastical images of the Eden that is California. Beautiful, soft sand beaches; foamy waves ridden by handsome, talented, tanned surfers; gorgeous, golden-skinned women sunbathing in bikinis; beach boardwalks with their attractions, rides, and ice cream; as well as heavenly scarlet and gold sunsets that give way to clear, starlit skies and warm, summer nights are just a handful of the visions people have - for decades now - related to the “California Myth” - the fantasy of the endless summer. Even I, who was born and raised in Northern California and personally know that these myths are sometimes far from factual, find myself succumbing to this universal fantasy occasionally. The California Myth was celebrated by the 1960s surf rock craze and then carried on by the surf music revival that began in the 1980s and continues on through the present. However, surf music is definitely not the origin of California being viewed as a paradise.
THE CALIFORNIA MYTH
California has been viewed as paradise since the 1500s, as Mexican folk artist Dyana Agur writes in her article entitled “Origin of the Name California”: "It is widely accepted that the origin of the name 'California' is from Garci Rodriguez [de Montalvo’s] chivalric romance, 'Las sergas de Esplandián' [published in 1510], a story about an island called California and its inhabitants the Calafias, black Amazons who lived with no men and made their weapons with gold." Also according to Agur’s article, “in the years that came after Hernan Cortez…the name California was used referring to the area or part of it several times.” The first known map in which the term “California” was used to describe the area was published by Diego Gutierrez in 1562.
As we fast forward to colonial and early America, manifest destiny was the ideology of the day, as everyone was rushing to get from the East Coast of the country to as far west as possible: the goal of Lewis and Clark’s expedition was to reach the Pacific Ocean. The 1840s and 1850s fulfilled the prophecy of Rodriguez’s California paradise in “Las sergas de Esplandián” when gold was found in 1848, and California officially became a state in 1850. People flocked to California from all over the globe as its bounty was thought to be the answer to everyone’s problems.
The same beliefs were held during the 1930s when the Dust Bowl hit the Southern and Midwestern portions of the United States, and many immigrated to California to look for work and to live a better life. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) portrayed the pervasive mentality about the Golden State in one of my personal favorite quotations from the book: “All of California quickens with produce, and the fruit grows heavy.” As the productivity of World War II pulled the United States out of the hole of the Great Depression and into the stable homogeneity of white, middle class, suburban Americana of the late 1940s and 1950s, the fantasy of the California Myth once again resurfaced, but this time in a wholly original way.
SURF ROCK’S MODERN INTERPRETATION OF THE CALIFORNIA MYTH
The surf rock craze, which was the first incarnation of geographic rock and roll, started with Dick Dale, the King of the Surf Guitar, who is most famously known for his surf instrumentals, such as the legendary “Miserlou." Even though Dick Dale is the father of surf music, The Beach Boys as well as Jan and Dean - with their jazz/barbershop vocal styles, adding lyrics - created the modern California Myth. The echo of that myth would not be forgotten, for soon surf revival bands would raise up like a 40-foot wave and once again remind us of the fantasies of the land of California.
1960s Surf Rock and the Creation of the Modern California Myth
The Beach Boys. Even for those of us who are educated in the history of rock and roll or the history of surf rock, as soon as someone mentions the phrase “surf music,” The Beach Boys come to mind first. Not only because nearly no one else was doing the same thing at the same time - making surf music with lyrics that hit and topped the pop charts - but they were the architects of the image of the modern California Myth. The Beach Boys grew up in Hawthorne, California, and they sang about what they knew, which would become the California Myth we still cling to today.
The Beach Boys were white, middle-class teens who lived in a suburb of Los Angeles in the early 1960s, so it was easy for them to sing about the beach, surfing, cars, drag racing, girls, teen romance, and school because those things made up their everyday lives. A few of the lyrics that really show how The Beach Boys got the entire world to believe that California was paradise were the first four lines of “Surfin’ U.S.A.” (1963): “If everybody had an ocean/Across the U.S.A./Then everybody’d be surfin’/Like Californi-a” (also in the song, they list a total of sixteen surfing spots, all of which but two are in California). “California Girls” (1964) also portrayed paradise: “The West Coast has the sunshine/And the girls all get so tan/I dig a French bikini on Hawaii island/Dolls by a palm tree in the sand."
Not only were people of all ages from all over the world tantalized by The Beach Boys’ narration of images they saw every day as Californian teens - of the beach, surfing, and beautiful, bikini-clad girls sunbathing, but also of another lesser-known sport that was popular at the time, in some places just as popular as surfing - drag racing - and thus, of cars. The best example of this music comes from The Beach Boys’ Little Deuce Coupe album (released in 1963) in which nearly every song is about drag racing, cars, or both, with song titles including “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Car Crazy Cutie,” “409,” and “Shut Down.” The inclusion of drag racing and fast cars to The Beach Boys’ repertoire led to California not only being seen as a beautiful, romantic paradise of fun in the sun but also as a fast-paced, but gorgeous lifestyle, which is how drag racing and many of the “machines” were described in The Beach Boys’ songs; the first lines of “Cherry, Cherry Coupe” (1963) provide a prime example: “The wildest short around is my cherry, cherry coupe/It’s the sharpest thing in town and the envy of my group/It’s one of a kind and it looks really good/Chopped nose and deck with louvers on the hood.”
The Beach Boys, to say the very least, not only affected music and pop culture, but American and definitely Californian culture forever. The State of California has made that point very clear as the Beach Boys Historic Landmark (or Site of the Childhood Home of the Beach Boys, as it is officially called) in Hawthorne, California, was given its status as a California State Historic Landmark in a unanimous vote by the California State Historic Resources Commission in 2004. The monument was dedicated in 2005. The plaque on the monument reads: "It was here that the childhood home of Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson developed their unique musical skills. During Labor Day weekend 1961, they, their cousin Mike Love, and a friend Al Jardine, gathered here to record a tape of their breakthrough song 'Surfin.' This marked the birth of the rock group known worldwide as the Beach Boys, and the beginning of a historic musical legacy. The music of the Beach Boys broadcast to the world an image of California as a place of sun, surf, and romance." The only other group ever to come close to The Beach Boys’ music style and contribute to the creation of the image of the California Myth was Jan and Dean.
Jan and Dean
Every time I have someone listen to Jan and Dean, their response is usually, “Oh, that’s Jan and Dean? I thought that was The Beach Boys.” As I stated previously, since The Beach Boys dominated both the nation’s charts and the globe’s hearts, Jan and Dean were largely forgotten, even though their “Surf City” topped the US charts in 1963, the first surf song to ever do so (The Beach Boys wouldn’t have their first #1 song, “I Get Around,” until a year later in 1964) and were nearly The Beach Boys’ musical twins. The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean traded and performed much of each other’s music, and they were definitely friends in the music business, a great example of their friendship was revealed with The Beach Boys’ “Catch A Wave” and Jan and Dean’s “Sidewalk Surfin,’” which are both the same song - just with different lyrics. However, Jan and Dean were a bit more doo-wop/vocally-based than The Beach Boys (as seen in their songs “Linda” and “Baby Talk”). Even though The Beach Boys are known for their harmonies, they also focused heavily on their instruments, particularly the surf guitar (as seen in their 1963 instrumental “Surf Jam”), whereas Jan and Dean focused primarily on their vocals. The two groups’ stylistic differences can be heard in many of the songs that both The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean performed. A great example is “Surfin’ Safari,” from The Beach Boys’ 1962 album of the same name. “Surfin’ Safari” was a very big hit for The Beach Boys and the surf guitar and surf beat are very prominent and add greatly to the song. However, in Jan and Dean’s cover from their 1963 album Surf City and Other Swingin’ Cities, the background music is nearly muted and the vocals are much more prominent.
However, the overshadowed power duo of Jan and Dean contributed to the surf rock scene with well-known favorites such as “Drag City," “The Little Old Lady (From Pasadena)," “Surf City,” “Dead Man’s Curve,” “Ride the Wild Surf," and “Sidewalk Surfin,’” probably at least most of which the novice surf listener believes is The Beach Boys. Jan and Dean’s upbringings were very similar to The Beach Boys’ except instead of living in Hawthorne, they were from Los Angeles, so they also sung about what they knew, which was early 1960s white America by the Southern California beach, thus contributing to the creation and perpetuation of the California Myth. The best example of this contribution remains the very first line of their 1963 number one smash hit “Surf City,” which rings loudly as soon as the needle is put to the groove: “Two girls for every boy!” This line helped solidify the legend of California as a place of romance under the sun as there are enough pretty girls for every boy to have two. This song definitely helped plant the seeds of the California Myth and the “California stereotype” as some of the lyrics include “I bought a ‘30 Ford wagon and we call it a woodie” and “You know they never roll the streets up ‘cause there’s always something goin’/You know they’re either out surfin’ or they got a party growin’/Yeah, and there’s two swingin’ honeys for every guy/And all you gotta do is just wink your eye,” which only further eternalized California as a paradise of endless surf, sun, fun, and “honeys.”
THE SURF REVIVAL AND THE PERPETUATION OF THE CALIFORNIA MYTH
By the 1980s, a surf music revival was happening all over the world: from MAN or ASTRO-man? and Los Straitjackets of the American South to The Mermen and Drifting Sand of the San Francisco Bay Area to The Tormentos and Los Kahunas of Argentina to The Surfites of Sweden and Laika & the Cosmonauts of Finland, surf was once again taking the world by storm, but this time, as more of an underground, obscure style of music rather than as a pop phenomenon. The bands of the surf revival are much more “themed” than the ones of the 1960s, as surf began to divide into subgenres such as surf punk, space surf, horror surf, and exotic-specific-place-themed surf, such as south-of-the-border and Soviet-Union/communism-themed surf, just to name a few examples. However, all of these subgenres of the revival still have one image they want to make clear: that surf music should make you think happy thoughts of some sort of paradise.
A few of my personal favorite more modern surf bands that rely heavily on the image of the California Myth are The Mermen and Drifting Sand. Just like The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean decades before them, both of these bands are from California (specifically the San Francisco Bay Area), so they too relay their first-hand experiences with the Pacific Coast through their music.
The Mermen are an instrumental surf band from San Francisco. Even though I earlier focused on The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean as being architects of the modern image of the California Myth due to their addition of lyrics to the surf guitar style already made relatively popular by Dick Dale, The Mermen do a beautiful job of addition by subtraction. The Mermen’s omittance of lyrics is definitely redeemed by their unique, dreamy, beachside guitar sound; their music is some of the most imagery-inducing I have heard. Their songs not only literally sound like the ocean, but their entire image - the band being called The Mermen, their album names being Food For Other Fish (1986) and Krill Slippin’ (1989), their songs having names such as “Ocean Beach” (the name of a beach in San Francisco), “Neptune’s Revenge," “Splashin’ With the Mermaid," “Big Day At The Bay," “Abalone Daze,” “Soul Surfin,’” and “By The Sea I Will Stay Forever” - only help them accentuate the idea that California will forever be a paradise of seaside relaxation, even in this bustling modern day and age.
Drifting Sand, a self-proclaimed “San Francisco Bay Area Surfpop Band,” are a much more “traditional-sounding” surf band. While The Mermen’s Neptunian instrumentals have the listener contemplate the ocean and its eerie beauty, Drifting Sand’s songs, including “Summer Splash,” “Santa Cruz’n,” “Beach Tour USA” (which really just lists beaches in California), “Every Day is Summer,” “Surf With Me,” and “Strawberry Blonde,” speak of beaches, fun in the sun, girls, surfing, and the endless summer just as The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean had fifty years ago. Their direct inspiration from the traditional 1960s surf bands can be heard in their harmonies, song titles, and lyrics, such as their “Brian Speaks for Dennis," obviously dedicated to The Beach Boys’ Brian and Dennis Wilson, which opens with “Brian speaks for Dennis/Dennis speaks for me/And all the soul surfers/Out there at sea” speaks of how beautiful The Beach Boys’ music is and will be forever. However, the song that reflects their mission to preach the California Myth is their 2003 song, “California Myth,” which is where I actually took the term that I have been using throughout this essay. The lyrics are nothing short of the truth:
"A long time ago in an innocent world, Southern Cal was the place to be
The Beach Boys were boss, and the girls were so sweet, and the longboarders ruled the sea
Everyone had as much fun as they could, see we all lived in harmony
But the times they have changed and the world rearranged, so let’s go back to 1963."
The second verse then continues:
"So here we are now and the world is so tough, but it isn’t if you can see
That things all around aren’t as bad as they sound if you think relatively
Brian Wilson still rules, girls and cars are still cool, so take a trip down the coast with me
We’ll go to Big Sur or any beach you prefer and go surfing in the sea."
Drifting Sand’s songs and overall style are most definitely concrete evidence that the California Myth is far from dead and that the entire globe will be “always feeling the spirit of the California Myth.”
For half a millennium, California has been viewed as paradise. In the 1500s, “California” was a fictional land of Amazons who crafted weapons of gold in a novel, and the name was then used on early maps of the area around the Gulf of Mexico. Throughout the colonial and early American period, manifest destiny swept through the mind of our fledgling nation - California and the Pacific Ocean became the destination. After gold was discovered in 1848, as Rodriguez’s novel had prophesied nearly 350 years earlier, California would forever be the Golden State and the land of opportunity. After the poverty of the the Dust Bowl as well as the Great Depression, America began to prosper once again following the economic boom of World War II. Classic surf music refreshed the image of the California Myth in the psyche of the world. California once again became a land of golden opportunity but also of romance, surfing, beaches, hot rods, and happy, endless summers. Surf music has been the most recent incarnation of the spirit of the California Myth, and the California Myth will continue to influence Californian, American, and global culture until the moon no longer controls the tide, and there are no more waves crashing upon the shores.
From guest contributor Robyn Perry, California State University, East Bay