In 1970 Nat Young turned his back on organized competitive surfing and retreated into the Australian hinterland to eat organic homegrown vegetables and shape and ride organic homegrown surfboards. Most of the Australian surfing community followed him back to “the farm,” resulting in a dynamic era of experimentation in surfboard design, endless articles in Tracks about composting and “negative vibes in the flesh of dead animals” – and one of the greatest surf films ever made: Alby Falzon’s Morning of the Earth.
Now, more than thirty years later, surfers are once again grabbing guitars, splashing psychedelic swirls onto lopsided single-fins, and heading off barefoot and bearded into the bush. And they’ve all brought their video cameras.
What do we make of the byproduct, the growing number of “retro” surf films inspired by Morning of the Earth? Despite the range of theme and quality, movies like Sprout, Shelter and Glass Love share common tendencies: all find their roots in the ‘70s, are somewhat pretentious, and most prompt the seasoned viewer to ask, “What, have Ewoks broken into someone’s antique surfboard collection?” For aside from the requisite halo of unkempt hair, it is the use of outdated surfboard designs that lies at the heart of each of these movies. Looking at them, it is tempting to dismiss the “retro” trend as little more than boilerplate “soul,” where overpaid surf stars dabble in the ‘70s fashion revival by posing on garage sale single-fins as a sort of foreplay to fireside guitar jamborees somewhere in Middle Earth, Stage Left. Nowadays, with technology providing for easier, cheaper and faster filmmaking, anyone can produce and distribute a passable surf film. The result is an immense surf video mill that has become surfing’s vanity press, in which – like the little old lady who pays to publish 150 volumes of poetry about her Pekinese – anyone with Final Cut Pro on their Mac can portray themselves as a “soul surfer” whose deep artistic sensibilities would bloom if only he could throw from his neck the albatross of free money and endorsement contracts.
But if we are to clearly examine this migration back into the ‘70s, we must first separate the beavertailed poseurs from the growing number of surfers and shapers who are building and riding out-of-date designs for largely functional purposes. Because tangled up in all the refried grooviness is an honest-to-God design revolution, which, like Gandhi’s “homespun rebellion,” could emerge as a grassroots backlash against the alarming tendency toward depersonalization in the manufacture of our surfboards. For the major board labels, it may be that the chickens are coming home to roost: During their enormous growth in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, the big brands parlayed most of their momentum into logo placement, clothing lines, huge teams and promotional budgets, while at the same time ignoring research in design and materials – and after bloating the price of new boards by $80 to $100 (shunted into callus-free hands), then turned around and blamed the small or backyard builder for undermining the value of surfboards.
Yet is the retro trend a revolt against how big-label boards are made, or how they perform? Or is it merely a hollow fad made up of wanna-be soul-daddies tripping out on $150 worth of pigment decorating obsolete tubs? Or is history repeating itself – is it indeed the Dawn of the Morning of the Earth – or are we merely stumbling toward the dustbin of history, like other cultures and nations that lose their way by wallowing in nostalgia? Let’s stir up the petri dish, turn up the Bunsen burner, and see what bubbles to the surface.
If we follow the path of the present trend back to its beginning, we almost certainly find wandering at its trailhead the lone figure of Tom Curren. After going walkabout from the ASP tour, Curren became “The Accidental Purist,” surfing in Hawaii on a logo-free Maurice Cole gun – though in truth it was less a soul statement than absentmindedness on his part. It is unclear whether Curren, in his renunciation of his role as a commercial entity, fit more in the role of Rolf Aurness than Nat Young, but as he drifted away from the big top he left behind for his opponents (like archrival Mark Occhilupo) a vacuum equal to what a Masai warrior would face upon extinction of the last black-maned lion. A few years later, in 1993, Curren materialized from the ether at an ASP contest in France armed with a 5’5″ 1970 Rick twin-fin he’d bought secondhand at a New Jersey surf shop. In his second-round heat, held in onshore slop, he paddled out on the stubby 4-inch-thick board and demolished poor Matt Hoy, then number 8 in the ratings, with an astonishing display of jazz-like improvisation, fusing together speedy runs with shell-burst tailslides. After the heat, a stunned Hoy could only beg Curren to let him try the board, while grumbling, “…but why did he have to do that to me?”