by Damien Murphy
“To you I shall put an end, then you’ll never hear surf music again.”
Jimi Hendrix’s lyric from his 1967 album Are You Experienced delivered an elegy to surf music that was well past its use by date.
But it refuses to lie down and die.
Even today, more than 50 years after they were hits Patricia Amphlett is asked to become her younger self, Little Pattie, and sing He’s My Blonde Headed Stompie Wompie Real Gone Surfer Boy and Stompin’ at Maroubra when performing at clubs or private functions.
“They were such innocent joys and its lovely to relive those innocent times,” she says.
Fourteen-year-old Amphlett sang Surfer Joe (“a truly dreadful song”) at a Maroubra Surf Life Saving Club talent quest, was spotted by a talent scout, signed up and had her first hit within weeks as surf music inundated teenage transistor radio programs.
Until the early 1960s, England set the benchmark for being young in Australia but as Baby Boomers hit puberty America stepped up to the plate, bestowing the gift of rock and roll and car idolatry to teenagers across the world.
The US also had a special present for Australia – surf culture. And it was Sydney’s beach suburbs that embraced California dreaming.
In 1961, the Beach Boys, Dick Dale, and the Chantelles started pumping out regional hits for the Los Angeles beach crew. Session guitarists like Jack Nitzsche and the arranger Henry Mancini took the music into mainstream USA – Mancini, who wrote Moon River, Peter Gunn and the Pink Panther Theme, had a hit with Banzai Pipeline that featured a big band sound laced with jazz accents.
But surf movies showing surfers riding waves in California and Hawaii had sound tracks that brought surf music ashore when the films played the northern beaches, the eastern suburbs and the Shire.
A group, The Denvermen, released Surfside in January 1963 and reached No 1 on the Sydney Top 40. In a nod to the tribal wars, a curtain raiser to the Cronulla riots five decade later, Digger Revell joined the Denvermen to record the deathless My Little Rocker’s Turned Surfie.
Other acts, including the Delltones and the Joy Boys, that had been performing a pale imitation of rock and roll switched to surf sounds. Long before the Bee Gees hit big, Barry Gibb wrote Surfer Boy for television songbird Noeleen Batley. And a New Zealander, Johnny Devlin, jumped on the bandwagon but became lost at sea with his hit, Stomp The Tumbarumba.
The high point came in mid-1963 when the Atlantics released Bombora and it too topped the charts in September. An Indigenous word for a wave breaking on an off shore reef, Bombora was a driving, pounding, much emulated sound that encapsulated a moment in Australian pop music and has continued to have a life of its own.
Although the band disbanded in 1969, their song is such a part of Australian life that they played at the 2000 Sydney Olympics closing ceremony and when the ABC’s 2001 documentary on Australian rock and roll Long Way to the Top breathed new life into their music, they toured Europe.
“It was weird,” guitarist Jim Skiathitis says. “They even knew our music in Hungary.” The Atlantics hung up their instruments a couple of years back. “The spirit was willing, but the fingers were weak,” said septuagenarian Skiathitis.
The first surf music boom of the 1960s was ended by the Beatles but musicians recalibrated and when the next surf music fad landed, it was dressed in drugs and hipness.
The 1972 album that went with Albert Falzon’s surf movie Morning of the Earth featured a grab bag of musicians who either changed styles like underwear (Brian Cadd), were caught in some Woody Guthrie time warp (John J Francis), smoked too much dope (Taman Shud) or were slightly strangers in strange land (G. Wayne Thomas).
Whatever, MOTE went on to become Australia’s biggest-selling surf music album.
Richard Clapton and Midnight Oil, GANGajang , the Celibate Rifles and the Cruel Sea kept the surf music flag flying but their surf sound were heavily surrounded by other music.
Then came The Break. The perfect surf band, comprised of former members of Midnight Oil, Violent Femmes and now Hunters & Collectors, it arrived in 2010 and play that old surf beat, laced with reverb-heavy instrumental rock replete with high-pitched notes that can drill a listener to exhaustion: just ask the journalist George Negus who nodded off during the band’s debut at the Annandale Hotel.
The Break will play at the Groundswell Music Festival, Gippsland Victoria on January 2, proof that surf music can still be heard.
Footnote: Dick Dale has dismissed the belief that Hendrix had administered the last rites to surf music telling Surfer magazine in May 2010 that the guitar god had heard the surf guitar king had rectal cancer and had three months to live. “Jimi said, You’ll never hear surf music again. And then he said, I bet that’s a big lie. Let’s pack up, boys, and go home’.”