History Of Surfing: Surfer’s New Wave

When John Severson's mannerly publication reached its countercultural high

This piece is also from History of Surfing. For my money, the single most amazing thing about John Severson was the turnaround he made in 1968. SURFER wasn't in trouble at that point, exactly, but it was stagnating while John played golf and washing his Mercedes. New SURFER hire Drew Kampion, I believe, is the one who got Sevo high for the first time, and to his enormous credit, John, already on the north side of 30, immediately went full Sgt. Pepper on his beloved magazine. The results were glorious.

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Surfer founder and publisher John Severson didn't just embrace the counterculture. He turned it into sound business practice. In early 1968, Surfer remained the bulwark of surf media conservatism. The photography was first-rate, the magazine was well-organized and professionally assembled, and circulation was holding steady at a hundred thousand—by these and other measures, no other surf periodical was close.

Surfer was also as predictable as oatmeal. If it wasn't yet square, it was heading in that direction, with how-to advice on forming a college surf team, lengthy coverage of the new USSA ratings, and a worn-out reader-submitted "Surftoons" section. Twice the magazine editorialized against marijuana use: the reader was sternly warned not to rely "on the fumes of a burning Mexican weed to give him a physical edge" and reminded that "there's no substitute for good reflexes, conditioning and the will to win." Severson, then thirty-four, had taken up golf, joined a country club, moved into a gated San Clemente development—next door to just-elected President Nixon's "Western White House," no less—and bought a new Jaguar sedan, which he kept clean and sand-free.

Severson's introduction to pot in early 1968 seemed to break his bourgeois fetters at a single blow—or exhale. Before Christmas of that year, he traded his longboard for a new shortboard, grew a luxuriant Sergeant Pepper's moustache, and began to reassemble his magazine. The first and biggest change was to turn the editor's seat over to Drew Kampion, an intense, Dylan-loving, twenty-four-year-old Buffalo-born transplant with a college English degree who put in enough hours at Malibu during the boom years to know who was hot and who was posing. Kampion was a prodigious writer; earnest and cynical by turns; a peacenik with a sharp tongue and a great sense of humor. He was the driving force behind what was called the "new" Surfer, but other talented Surfer newcomers also did their part: art director Hy Moore, photo editor Brad Barrett, and a sublimely gifted teenage photographer named Art Brewer.

The turnaround was astonishing. Kampion covered the 1969 US Championships with a single vertiginous 2,500-word run-on sentence, and wrote articles with titles like "Conversations with Spirit Forms." Within a year of his arrival, Surfer had a poetry section, a fondness for experimental fiction (sometimes presented in stage-play form), and was set to launch an environmental column called Our Mother Ocean. Antiestablishment bona fides were flashed at every opportunity: Zap Comix cartoonist R. Crumb did a Surfer subscription ad, and a mock editorial notified readers that "at this very moment, the PTA, John Birch Society, Daughters of the Revolution, and the Four Freshman are rallying their forces to march on Surfer magazine." When an Aussie surfer passed a message via Surfer to the American team flying in for the 1970 World Championships that "we await you with open minds and open hearts, and our girls await you with open legs," the remark sailed through copyedit without raising an eyebrow.

Then Murphy returned. Rick Griffin's wildly popular cartoon surf-imp was last seen in the pages of Surfer in 1965, just before Griffin moved to San Francisco, where he contributed to Zap, designed the Rolling Stone logo, and did album art for the Grateful Dead. Severson and Griffin had parted on bad terms, after arguing over Griffin's small but unconcealed pro-drug references in his Surfer strips. With Severson now reborn as a middle-aged flower child, the two reestablished contact and the publisher asked for a new Murphy strip—"something really electric," as Griffin recalled. Murphy's 1969 return to Surfer came in a hallucinatory four-color gush (previous installments had been black-and-white), with our once-chipper little hero now wearing a Hopi Indian mask, gibbering in acid-speak, and briefly igniting into a fire-rimmed eyeball.

Surfer's design changes were just as radical. The magazine's format during the boom years had been loosely modeled after Sports Illustrated. Now it pulled style elements from Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Graphis. Cover blurbs were eliminated altogether for awhile, leaving just a full-bleed photo and logotype. When the blurbs returned, it was mostly to give Kampion a chance to do some irony-flexing: one 1970 cover read "First Annual End of the World Issue."

Not everybody liked Surfer's new direction. "What happened to your magazine?" one long-time reader asked. "It used to be a colorful portrayal of a good, clean sport. Now you've stooped to yellow journalism, poetry, rabblerousing, 'cosmic communion,' 'soul encounters,' and all that other psychobabble." Severson himself occasionally blinked at his own creation. "Drew Kampion came on flashing like a strobe light, but often got a little too serious," he later wrote, recalling the supercharged effect of his new editor. "Remember, we're just a surfin' magazine." Severson's own sister gave up her free subscription when the magazine began printing swear words.

For the most part, Surfer's counterculture plunge was a great success. Communication Arts magazine, publishing's graphic design arbiter, did a five-page spread on Surfer in 1970 and gave the July issue an "Outstanding Cover Design" award. Ad revenue in 1969 and 1970 was actually above what it had been during the surf boom years. Every issue in 1969 was over a hundred pages, a Surfer first, and a minor economic miracle, given how the boardmaking industry was spiraling downward.

The Surfer high didn't last long. Severson sold the magazine in 1971 and retired with his family to Maui. Kampion defected not long after to rival Surfing. New publisher Steve Pezman—who twenty years later would introduce luxe surf publishing with The Surfer's Journal—did well to keep Surfer's alternative-press credentials from lapsing, but in the midseventies the sport's underground period drew to a close, as the sport once again groomed itself for a general audience. No more ironic cover blurbs. No more direct sex and drug references. Lots of great photos and plenty of readable articles. Clean, slick, and safe.

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