Bondi Beach, 1962. Photo: Weeks
Bondi Beach, 1962. Photo: Weeks

History of Surfing: The Rise of Australia

Matt Warshaw on the flight of the larrikins

Australian journalist David Horne intended for the title of his 1964 book, The Lucky Country, to be a criticism, writing how Australia, despite its natural resources and its insulation from the problems of other nations, was a lucky country that was run mainly by second-rate people. If Horne was right, their leaders may have been second-rate, but the Australians’ love of surf culture took a back seat to nobody during the ’60s surf boom. Matt Warshaw explains in his latest History of Surfing chapter how a seminal visit from the California lifeguard team at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games launched the continent on its own surf flight path, which culminated in the first World Surfing Championships held in Sydney less than a decade later. Here’s more from Warshaw:

The sport boomed Down Under, just as it did in America and elsewhere, but with its own particular set of harmonics. The well-muscled "boardman," for example, outfitted in a tight lifeguard club swimming costume and gliding arrow-like for shore, was a national icon. But the sport here had largely been shaped and reshaped by visitors—first Duke Kahanamoku, during World War I, and then the 1956 California lifeguard team. The Aussie surf boom itself was an import: Gidget was as popular in Brisbane as it was in San Clemente, The Australian Surfer was a Surfer replica, and domestic boardmakers stole logos from Jacobs and Hobie. Younger surfers here gleefully bleached their hair white-blond like American champ Mike Doyle, and many of the battered Holden surf wagons ripping up and down the coast were painted with Murphy-like cartoon figures. Aussie surfers and their girlfriends went wild for the Stomp; barefoot teens by the hundreds gathered at weekend club hall parties and shook the floorboards to regional hits like "Bondi Stomp," and "Stompin' at Maroubra." In 1964, "He's My Blond-Headed Stompie Wompie Real Gone Surfer Boy," a novelty record by fourteen-year-old Little Pattie, was heading straight for number one—but got chart-blocked hard by the Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”

Just before the middle of the decade, however, outside influences on Australia began winding down. In the lead-up to the 1964 Championships, Australia already seemed to be drafting along behind California more by habit then necessity. Two or three years later it broke free to become a fully independent and pacesetting surf nation.

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We asked Warshaw to talk us through Australia’s rapid climb in the booming ’60s.

Talk a little more about the "Cultural Cringe" that Australia was stuck in before the 1956 Games. Was there a moment, apart from the 1964 World Championships, where Australia had broken through its cultural plateau to become its own pacesetting country?

Australia at that point had been an independent nation for more than a half-century, but it still had a British colony mentality. That, and the whole "nation of convicts" thing, plus just the sheer distance Australia was from Europe and America. Things always arrived late. Movies, ideas, trends, everything. Australia in the 1950s was young and healthy and cocky. But always tugging a forelock while in the presence of anyone Continental or American.

California in the '60s was a fine time to be a young surfer, but man, Australia gives it a run. Half of Australia was under 30 in 1964?

Oh, yeah. If you're setting the Wayback Machine for 1962, you're going straight to either the Gold Coast or North Coast NSW. Or hell, don't even choose, buy a beater Holden wagon for a 50 quid or whatever and drive back and forth.

What were the differences of the Surfer's symbolic national role between Hawaii, California, and Australia?

In Hawaii during the early '60s, surfing was still very Duke-like. Duke was still alive in fact, and surfing was very much a point of pride for everybody in Hawaii. In California, it was young blonde punks throwing BAs and littering the beaches. In Australia it was young blonde punks throwing up against the wall of the local surf club—until Midget won Makaha in '62, at which point they were embraced as honored sportsmen. I've maybe oversimplified a little.

Were the brawls among surfers and rockers viewed with more amusement than anything by the public? Or were they actually a menace to public safety?

I've gotten a few emails last week from guys who were there, and yeah, I think it was more amusement than anything. That said, it could have gone serious really fast. Bobby Brown, one of the very best surfers in the world, died in a bar fight a few years later. That has nothing to do with the Rocker business, except that it shows how those kinds of things can go from amusing to tragic in an instant.

Considering how they propelled their national industries, how did the work of the Brookvale Six — Gordon Woods, Bill Wallace, Scott Dillon, Barry Bennett, Greg McDonagh, and Denny Keogh — compare to the advancements from Hobie, Jacobs, Weber, Bing, and Noll in the States?

At first, the Brookvale guys were straight-up copying boardmakers from the states, right down to stealing their logos. That started changing in 1965, 1966…but we'll dig into that later. Hello Bob McTavish!

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