From original beachcomber personalities like the Waikiki Beachboys to the rise of Venice Beach as a creative center for music, art, and film, Pop Surf Culture traces the roots of the surf boom and explores its connection to the Beat Generation and 1960s pop culture. Through accounts of key figures both obscure and popular, the book illustrates why surf culture is a vital art movement of the 20th century.
Pop Surf Culture includes essays about the popular beach” movies of the fifties and sixties, which featured such stars as Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon and the music of Dick Dale & His Del-Tones, Brian Wilson, the Pyramids, Gary Usher, James Brown, and Little Stevie Wonder.
Sixties art figures Michael Dormer and Rick Griffin as well as the surf magazines which promoted their art are featured alongside the progenitors of surf music,” from the little known (the Centurians) to the wildly popular (the Beach Boys). Duke Kahanamoku, the Gas House, Gidget, surfing on television, the bohemian surf aesthetic, surf music hot spots, Mickey Da Cat” Dora . . . the entire spectrum of pop surf culture is covered within these colorfully illustrated pages.
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Brian Chidester is a staff editor for Yahoo.com and the co-editor of Dumb Angel #4: All Summer Long. He has been a segment producer for documentaries by the BBC, PBS, Showtime, and the Carl Wilson Foundation. Chidester lives in New York City.
Domenic Priore is the author of Riot on Sunset Strip: Rock ’n’ Roll’s Last Stand in Hollywood, Beatsville (with Martin McIntosh), and Smile: The Story of Brian Wilson’s Lost Masterpiece. He has written documentaries for Paramount Pictures Inc. and American Movie Classics (AMC). Priore lives in Los Angeles.
Kathy Zuckerman is the real life inspiration for the fictional character of Franzie Gidget” Lawrence from the 1957 novel Gidget, written by her father, Frederick Kohner. She was named No. 7 in Surfer Magazine’s 25 Most Influential People in Surfing. Zuckerman lives in Los Angeles.
Billy Al Bengston is an American artist and sculptor whose work is found in many public and private collections, including the Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), LACMA, MOCA (Los Angeles), MOMA (New York), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York), the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.), and the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York). Less famously, he is/was the original "Moondoggie." He lives in Los Angeles.
Surf Music at the Drive-In: The Beach Party Film Genre
From its first step into public awareness, the Hollywood-ized version of the surf lifestyle had been culled from a variety of source inspiration. Columbia Pictures’ Gidget (1959) was based on the book written by screenwriter Frederick Kohner, and built around the stories that his daughter Kathy (aka Gidget) had told her father about learning to surf in post-WWII Malibu (a surf community that would be recognized for its cultural importance at the dawn of the ’60s). The commercial-capitalistic side of what came from her stories would start the cycle of movie execs, fashion designers, PR men and advertising moguls coming to the realization that they could take the bohemian surf culture and turn it into a product; it was the right thing at the right time, and could make a collective impact on American youths.
The Gidget film starred a young Sandra Dee in the title role, and featured elements of what would later become the beach party genre, as well as providing an inspiration for the surf music boom that would reach fruition by 1961. The surfers in Gidget spent their days at the beach, under the presiding word of Big Kahuna, trying to find a way to make enough money to live year-round by the sea. Summer’s end brought the big luau, with modern vocal-harmony group the Four Lads providing the music. In 1961, the Beach Boys recorded their first single, Surfin’” b/w Luau,” again bringing together the themes already inherent in Gidget, augmented by the fact that they would also fuse modern vocal-harmonies with a surf instrumental backbeat. That the Beach Boys would cover the Gamblers’ Moon Dawg,” for their Surfin’ Safari album only furthers the notion of the Gidget-influence on pop surf culture Moondoggie” was the name of Gidget’s love interest (and was actually based on artist Billy Al Bengston, who surfed at Malibu then).
Sandra Dee hit the screen again in 1959 with another seasonal film, A Summer Place (Warner Brothers). Like her role in Gidget, Sandra Dee strikes the perfect balance between teenage angst and youthful self-discovery. The Percy Faith Orchestra’s Theme from A Summer Place” was a sweeping instrumental smash hit in 1959, yielding a captivating melody that was covered successfully as a vocal tune by the Lettermen in 1960.
MGM’s 1960 summer flick, Where the Boys Are, was not about surfing, but was yet another indication that seasonal-themed films, centering around carefree life at the beach, would prove popular with teens from the rock ’n’ roll generation. The box office smash from a major studio reached adults as well as teenagers, and its success would set the tone for the mass-marketing of teenage beach culture through the rest of the decade.
It was American International Pictures’ Beach Party in 1963 that truly became the blueprint for a rock ’n’ roll-oriented version of this film genre. In the course of five years, it spawned more than 40 clones. Itself an exploitation of the dollars made from Gidget, A Summer Place and Where the Boys Are, Beach Party banked on their popularity, but added two crucial ingredients that made these cherry bombs explode: rock ’n’ roll combined with teenage junk culture. Along the way, Frankie Avalon unintentionally proved that he was a better comic actor than singer. Meanwhile, Annette Funicello found that there was indeed a world outside easy-goin’ Disney vehicles. Helping them out in the Beach Party series of films were comedians of the highest rank: Morey Amsterdam, Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett, Buster Keaton and many more. In Beach Party, Bob Cummings makes his mark as an anthropologist studying the tribal habits of surf dwellers.
When people dismiss these films, what they’re missing is the beat. Beach Party features Dick Dale & His Del-Tones. So does Beach Party’s follow-up, Muscle Beach Party (1964). The Pyramids of Penetration” infamy tear up during the third, Bikini Beach. In Beach Party, we get the basic lesson: surf dwellers are a true subculture, and this is what they do. Real California surfers attending the premiere of Beach Party turned away in disgust. Such criminal misrepresentation was considered a desecration of everything they held sacred. Things got so bad in the theater that Malibu legend (and surfing stuntman) Mickey Dora released a jar of moths, which promptly covered the screen. But 30 years later, the beach party flicks are one of the few places you can still see Hot Curl art, tiki-culture teen clubs and Dick Dale playing lead guitar on Gary Usher-penned songs like the brilliant Secret Surfin’ Spot.” Candy Johnson dances up a storm, Jody McRea rules as Deadhead and Harvey Lembeck is preposterous as motor-sickle gang leader deluxe Eric Von Zipper.
In Muscle Beach Party, all hell breaks loose with the beach-o-rama brigade. Essentially, it’s an extension of the basics laid down in Beach Party, but in this one, the lunacy is full throttle. Because the Beach Boys were touring during the filming of Beach Party, Brian Wilson couldn’t make an appearance. But he does turn up in Muscle Beach Party with a bag of goodies specifically, six new tunes for the soundtrack. Dick Dale & His Del-Tones are back singing Brian’s My First Love,” Surfin’ Woodie,” Muscle Beach Party” and Muscle Bustle” (the last with Donna Loren). Dick Dale & His Del-Tones would also appear in Let’s Make Love (1961) and A Swingin’ Affair (1963). In Muscle Beach Party, Frankie Avalon sings Brian’s Runnin’ Wild,” which ranks as one of Frankie’s best recordings, but it’s the opening tune, Surfer’s Holiday,” that really takes the cake. Frankie, Annette and Dick Dale all sing a verse, while Dick delivers a blistering guitar break over Brian Wilson’s rich backing track. If that isn’t enough, Little Stevie Wonder ends this film with a rousing Happy Street.”
Les Baxter’s opening credit music is a seamless match for the sequence of shots featuring Michael Dormer’s mural art, which are color versions of his classic Hot Curl-style characters. Les Baxter complements this with an arrangement of vibraphones and other melodic percussion instruments, only occasionally amplified by short melodic bits of reverbed guitar and bass. This opening sequence comes to a fitting end, fading out as we are greeted by a line of Woodies tracking down the highway, whilst Frankie and Annette sing Surfer’s Holiday.” Dick Dale & His Del-Tones are seen playing in the back seat of the second car. The Del-Tones would clearly be the house band for the rest of the film.
Muscle Beach Party is a pretty good watch, too. Morey Amsterdam (as the beatnik club owner Cappy”) meets the genius of Buddy Hackett face to face . . . and outwails him. Later, Don Rickles rains on everyone’s parade splendidly. Annette’s also featured in a cool scene singing A Girl Needs a Boy” against the moonlit surf and Peter Lorre has a crucial cameo as Mr. Strangedour, king of the strongmen.
The Santa Monica beach area, during the 1940s and ’50s, was the stomping ground of a tiny subculture dubbed Muscle Beach,” which still has vast social ramifications in the present, chronicled by Marla Matzer Rose in the phenomenal Muscle Beach: Where the Best Bodies in the World Started a Fitness Revolution. The book recounts tales of veteran bodybuilders like Jack LaLanne and Joe Gold at a pioneering time when the sun and sand were the perfect foil for their existence. Matzer Rose writes: A number of men and women went on from Muscle Beach to achieve some fame as athletes, performers and businessmen. [There were] prevailing attitudes at the time which include[d] stereotypes of women, homosexuals and other groups. . . . An anti-gay sentiment was unfortunately one contributing factor to the opposition to and demise of Muscle Beach in 1959.”
During the 1940s and ’50s, there were three groups intermingling in their association with the Los Angeles beach culture: beatniks, surfers and bodybuilders. Though probably socially exclusive of one another in the ’40s and ’50s, the beatniks and the surfers would eventually merge, ideologically, with the advent of the independent surf film genre. Traces of the beatnik/surf culture could be seen in more commercial ’60s terms, with examples beyond the first Gidget film including Dick Dale’s beatnik in Beach Party (1963), Bob Denver’s hilarious boho caricature in For Those Who Think Young (1964) and hot-rod pioneer Ed Big Daddy” Roth’s Beatnik Bandit as examples of beat and surf coexistence.
Another group of individuals that garnered attention in the ’40s were the California Nature Boys a clan of vegetarian bohemians seeking oneness with the natural world, having studied under the mentorship of John and Vera Richter (German immigrants who owned the Eutropheon health food shop on Laurel Canyon during the ’40s and ’50s). Matzer Rose discusses the Nature Boys with a chapter in Muscle Beach, amongst whose ranks were Gypsy Boots, Emil Zimmerman, Buddy Rose and Eden Ahbez (the last being the writer of Nat King Cole’s #1 hit Nature Boy,” the royalties of which made him financially independent for the rest of his life). Ahbez (whose name was pronounced ahbee”) was often seen hanging around coffeehouses in the Greater Los Angeles area, in particular, the Gas House in Venice and the Insomniac in Hermosa Beach. Lawrence Lipton (author of The Holy Barbarians) frequented the Gas House (owned by Eric Big Daddy” Nord, a North Beach resident in the 1950s, and proprietor of the Hungry i folk club).
The allure of this Los Angeles beach existence had become a popular piece of Americana by 1964, and there would be few from this era who so captured the jovial, carefree spirit better than Brian Wilson. Not only did Brian Wilson write, arrange and produce four albums for the Beach Boys that year, but he also cut a handful of singles for the Honeys, the Castells, Sharon Marie and Paul Petersen, plus co-writing major chart hits with Jan & Dean. Brian Wilson’s penning and producing a great film soundtrack, in the midst of all this, is a notoriously overlooked aspect of his creative contribution overall.
Bikini Beach (1964) is a cheaper version of the successful A.I.P./beach movie formula. Using fewer big names, and even leaving out a few regular cast members, the film’s absolute highlight is an appearance by authentic garage-surf band the Pyramids. This colorful group first hit in 1963 with the reverb-pumped Penetration.” Sometimes they’d arrive at their gigs in a helicopter, and one time they pulled up in front of a ballroom on an elephant. In Bikini Beach, they do not disappoint. Reacting to the mop-top craze of ’64, the Pyramids appear onstage in Beatles wigs. A fishing line from above jerks the mops straight off to reveal shaven baldy beans as the band crashes into Record Run.” Taking another step in the right direction, A.I.P. allowed the band to play an instrumental, Bikini Drag,” and a great one it is. This Gary Usher tune was covered by ’90s surf acts like the Phantom Surfers, the Finks and the Boardwalkers, almost 30 years after its debut in Bikini Beach.
Often overlooked is a scene that best captures the spirit of the A.I.P. beachers. It features Donna Loren wigging out in the middle of a circle of kids, dancing to her girl-group shouter Love’s a Secret Weapon.” The Exciters (later Candy Johnson’s onstage go-go band) really stomp here, too, with Gotcha Where I Want Ya,” and Little Stevie Wonder must have had so much fun doing Muscle Beach Party that he returned to sing Happy Feelin’” in this one. Annette Funicello rules as usual, singing the title song, another Gary Usher classic.
After Bikini Beach, the regular A.I.P. cast members became bona fide rock ’n’ roll celebrities themselves. There are a couple of Beach Party gang” fan magazines, and cast members would appear in their own stories in pulp rock ’n’ roll publications of the period.
There’s little doubt who provides the best rockin’ moments in Pajama Party (1964). Fans of the girl-group sound can thrill to Donna Loren’s Among the Young” and Annette Funicello’s title track. The latter is a fantastic moment during which only a deadbeat would stay in his or her seat. The humor rips off Moe, Larry, Curly, Groucho, Chico, Harpo and even Bugs Bunny. One classic scene features Buster Keaton in a silent perfume fight.” Don Rickles and Frankie Avalon appear as interplanetary invaders, and Tommy Kirk plays alongside Annette (for variety’s sake) as a fumbling Martian teenager. Tommy Kirk appeared in a slew of movies with a similar feel, including The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964, with Annette), The Monkey’s Uncle (1965, featuring a theme sung by Annette and the Beach Boys on camera), Village of the Giants (1965), Mother Goose a Go-Go (1966), Mars Needs Women (1967) and It’s a Bikini World (1967).
Still, it’s the production numbers that really blow Pajama Party through the roof. A.I.P. hired David Winters and Toni Basil to choreograph the proceedings, and their work carries the rest of the picture over the top. Winters and Basil worked on all of the best go-go dancing of the ’60s: The T.A.M.I. Show, Shindig! , The Cool Ones and even West Side Story. They start the movie off with a bang as the gang enjoys some poolside dancing to an extended version of Annette’s It’s That Kind of Day,” one of the most positive songs of the ’60s. Japanese lanterns bob, as Susan Hart explodes volcanoes with a slow hip sway. Later, Dorothy Lamour (a screen siren of the ’30s in The Jungle Princess) sings at a pompous fashion show as girls break out into spontaneous go-go dancing.
Jody McCrea (whose father Joel McCrea starred in the pioneering Hawaiian music film Bird of Paradise in 1932) finally got a starring role in Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), the fourth of A.I.P.’s Beach Party pictures. The Hondells (whose Little Honda” was a hit at the time) were the featured rock ’n’ roll act, and they play in a posh setting as the cast goes high class. Linda Evans is a special guest star as Sugar Cane and sings” some of the better tunes, including Fly Boy” and New Love” with the Hondells. Her voice is ghosted by Robin Ward, who had a hit with Wonderful Summer” in ’63. Annette’s material is better than usual this time around as she bashes out the Wall-of-Sound-alike I’ll Never Change Him.” Frankie Avalon blesses us with the self-gratification of These Are the Good Times,” and Don Rickles gives a great performance as Big Drop (the incidental plot centers on skydiving). Deborah Walley makes her A.I.P. debut here she had played Gidget in Gidget Goes Hawaiian. After this, Ms. Walley became a beach gang regular, and appeared alongside Tommy Kirk in It’s a Bikini World (1967). Not to be overlooked is the sinister role of South Dakota Slim, played intuitively by Timothy Carey, best known for his roles in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) and his own production, The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962).
In How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), the Beach Party gang takes on material that should have been a bad Broadway musical instead. Take, for example, the four times that each and every gang member’s face crowds the screen to blurt out the chorus stuff a wild bi-ki-ni . . .” They know it’s stupid, but the joke’s on you, pal. John (High School Caesar) Ashley does get to hold a guitar in this one, but it’s all for ...
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