Surf fashion shoot, 1965. Photo: Grannis
Surf fashion shoot, 1965. Photo: Grannis

History Of Surfing: Heroes, Villains, and Village Idiots

Exploring the definition of a surfer in the early '60s

In 1964, Joey Cabell was asked by a reporter to describe the allure of surfing. "It's the color of the sky, and the shape of the clouds, and the color and shape of the water, and a wave with the sun shining on it all,” Cabell said. “Then all of a sudden—Wow! It just knocks you out."

Cabell’s attempt to describe the ineffable, the feeling of riding a wave, unfortunately fell on the public’s ears just as a new stereotype of surfers rose in popularity: the stoned moron. Matt Warshaw’s History of Surfing picks up in the early 1960s, as media outlets struggled to define the West Coast’s newest cultural ambassador. Was the surfer a delinquent? A sex icon? A sandy idiot? The answer you heard likely depended on your preferred news source. Warshaw explains:

"The medium is the message." Marshall McLuhan couldn't have found Surf City if you dropped him off on the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Main, but his soon-to-be-famous 1964 dictum fit the sport like a glove during the American surfing’s boom years. As the surfer image filtered out across the cultural landscape, it shapeshifted from menace to sportsman to bohemian to fashion plate to object of ridicule—and as McLuhan predicted, form was determined less by the thing itself and more by the outlet.

Hollywood presented the surfer as a mildly countercultural goof-off; just daring and mouthy enough to be interesting, but likable and ultimately safe—never more than a plot-turn away from returning to school or job. Television dramas were another matter. Maybe because the genre itself was aimed at older viewers, many of whom were uncomfortable with teen culture in general, small-screen surfers were nearly all villains. In "Who Killed the Surf Broad?" a 1964 episode of ABC's popular crime show Burke's Law, members of a local "surf gang" crack jokes when one of their own suddenly dies on the sand, and they get back to their wild beach party as soon as the corpse is removed.

ABC's Wide World of Sports, on the other hand, did their usual respectful and professional job while covering events like the Makaha International, and the US Championships. The camera work was first-rate, and commentators treated surfers no differently then they treated NFL quarterbacks or Olympic swimmers.

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We reached out to Matt for more on surfing’s semantic dilemma of the early ’60s.

The “medium is the message,” as Marshall McLuhan said, but it's endlessly interesting to see how the non-surf public insists there should be a "message" in surfing at all. When Derek Rielly was asked in 2010 what he didn't like about surfing, he said, "That everybody feels the need to talk about it so much."

Could not agree more, except I'd tweak it to read "That everybody feels the need to talk about it seriously so much." Banter and one-liners and all manner of winking verbal fuckery — these are the best conversational tools when talking about surfing. Sincerity has a place. History of Surfing and Encyclopedia of Surfing should absolutely be locked into your browser bookmarks, for reference. But surfing is fun and pointless and ephemeral, and 97 percent of the time that's the most direct, most honest way to talk about it.

It's strange to think of a time when the world’s surf conversation wasn't moderated by surfers, for surfers. Who was the first surfer-turned-media personality who was widely respected?

Bruce Brown was first and best. Endless Summer is 50-something years old now, and every year that goes by, it's harder to remember the degree to which Bruce broke the laws of entertainment physics by managing to please and impress both his core audience and the general public. Nobody since has balanced the two so perfectly.

What led to surf music and beach movies falling out of popularity at the end of the ’60s boom?

Nixon, Vietnam, Sgt. Pepper's, acid. Let any one of those things into your head, and there was no going back to Beach Blanket Bingo.

Los Angeles held so much locational power in shaping how the rest of the world viewed surf culture. It wasn't only the message, or the medium — it was the medium’s home address, as the entertainment hub of the world.

Totally. Which is why, after you've ingested Nixon, Vietnam, Sgt. Pepper's, and acid, and taken the mind-blowing leap from the mid-'60s to the late '60s, it became just about mandatory to hate on not just the movies and music from the previous era, but the place that created them. Los Angeles and Orange County, by 1969, was the serpent, the despoiler, the great plastic untruth. As a surf-culture epicenter, it never recovered.

Did the Hollister Riot or the Zoot Suit Riots tone down the rhetoric any in criminalizing surfers, as a matter of perspective? That surfers weren't so reprehensible by comparison?

No, those both took place in the '40s, way before anybody was paying much attention to surfers. But if you wanted to make surfers out to seem dangerous or threatening, and some people did want to do just that, bikers and various other "bad element" groups from the recent past were handy to have around in that you could throw surfers in there with them.

Poor Fred van Dyke.

You know, I think Fred was better off for the struggle. He embraced the struggle, not just on the silly "latent homosexual" deal, but in every possible way. Fred was a wonderful person to begin with, but he never stopped improving, never stopped listening to others, calling bullshit on others, on himself. He was always moving forward, always becoming a better versions of himself, even into his final years. I have maybe 10 surfing heroes, and Fred's at or near the top of the list.

For more, visit the History Of Surfing website here. Missed a HOS chapter? Click here.