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You’re on the coast of southern California in the early 1960’s and the sound is trebly, with a good Fender twang sound, clear and sharp. There is a heavy dose of reverb amplifier, staccato picking and each note sharply detached or separated from the others. This distinctive style of music, surf songs, emerged as the sport of surfing was becoming increasingly more popular on the west coast.
Riding freely on the crest, feeling that inner spirit rise with the waves made surfing and music go together like a nut and bolt, salt and pepper, oreo cookies and milk, and Cheech and Chong. The Best Surfing Songs to help capture that free spirited exhilaration of riding the big one has to include the following music on your playlist:
Wipe Out - The Surfaris (1963)
“Hoo ha ha ha ha ha hah… Wipe Out!” Absolutely essential for any surf music playlist. “Wipe Out” is one of the all-time great surf-rock classics, defining the genre. The song was used in over 20 motion pictures and Ron Wilson's drum riff was considered “the yardstick for every aspiring young drummer in the early '60s”.
Surfin’ Safari - The Beach Boys (1962)
The Beach Boys first record label almost had them called The Surfers, as many of their early songs were about surfing. Fun fact: only the drummer Dennis Wilson was a surfer.
“Let’s go surfin’ now, everybody’s learning how, come on a safari with me”. Wipe Out provides the imagination with an outstanding imagery for a summer cruise along the California coast line to surfing hot spots like, Huntington, Malibu, Rincon, Laguna, and Doheny.
Surfin’ USA - The Beach Boys (1963)
A song that truly captures the quintessential feeling of hitting the beach, all “stoked” to “rip” some “rad barrels” it’s got to be the Beach Boys “Surfin USA”. The Beach Boys said it all when they sang:
“We'll all be planning that route
We're gonna take real soon
We're waxing down our surfboards
We can't wait for June
We'll all be gone for the summer
We're on surfari to stay
Tell the teacher we're surfin'
Surfer Girl - Beach Boys (1963)
Group leader Brian Wilson, in a follow-up to “Surfin’ Safari” and “Surfin’ USA” wrote “Surfer Girl”. Unlike the earlier two songs, “Surfer Girl” is a love song about a commitment to a life together, on the beach, surfing the ocean.
Brian Wilson wrote this song when he was 19 years old with the inspiration being the high school experience of falling in love. The feelings of young love comes through strong and clear when he sings...
“We could ride the surf together
While our love would grow
In my woody, I would take you
Everywhere I go
So I say from me to you
I will make your dreams come true
Do you love me, do you, surfer girl?
Surfer girl, my little surfer girl”
Surf City - Jan & Dean (1963)
Jan Barry from Jan & Dean collaborated with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys to write this song. The team of Jan and Brian had a quick hook with the starting lyrics of “Two girls for every boy”, resulting in teenage boys asking, where can I find this city?
Surf City was the first surf song to hit #1 on the U.S. charts in July, 1963. The collaboration obviously worked and was an interesting twist in the friendly rivalry between the two bands.
Walk Don’t Run - The Ventures (1960)
“Walk Don’t Run” sounds like what I regularly heard during my years in elementary school.
Often debated is the question of whether “Walk Don’t Run” is truly a surf song and are the Ventures truly a surf band? This debate will be left to others. For the purpose of a playlist of surfing songs this one fits the bill. “Walk Don't Run” quickly climbed the charts and peaked in Billboard's #2 slot, behind Elvis Presley's “It's Now or Never.”
Pipeline - Chantays (1963)
If you asked individuals the first song that comes to mind when you say “surf music” it is likely you are going to hear the response “Pipeline.” The Chantay’s 1963 hit quickly climbed to #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is considered one of the landmarks of the surf genre.
The song title “Pipeline” is based on the Banzai Pipeline on Sunset Beach Park in Hawaii, one of the most popular, challenging, and deadliest surfing spots in the world. The title also refers to a term in surfing jargon, in which a wave closes over your head while you ride it horizontally, making it look and seem like you're in a rolling pipe made of water.
California Sun - The Rivieras (1964)
The Rivieras a one-hit wonder and literally were a garage band. The band’s name was inspired by General Motors Buick Riviera. The song reached #5 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart in January, 1964. The song was hailed as the last American rock and roll hit before the British Invasion.
The song was used in the 1987 movie Good Morning Vietnam starring Robin Williams, as well as, the 1991 biographical film The Doors.
Honolulu Lulu - Jan & Dean (1963)
“Queen of the surfer girls” Honolulu Lulu captures some of the undeniable surfer slang that one needs to know to truly understand the surfer world.
“I tell you once upon a time, you know she got a little bold
When she tried to hook a spinner but her wax wouldn't hold
Over the falls 'stead of hangin' ten
But then she'd paddle out and try it again”
Catch a Wave - Beach Boys (1963)
“Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world.” The Beach Boys lyrics are simple and straightforward capturing the laid back, summertime, feel good mood. To a surfer, probably no truer words have ever been spoken.
Misirlou - Dick Dale & The Del-Tones (1963)
Let’s Go Trippin’ – Dick Dale & the Del-Tones (1961)
“Let’s Go Trippin’” is often cited as the first surf-rock instrumental, released in the fall of 1961 and is credited for the launch of the surf music craze.
Hawaii Five-O - The Ventures (1969)
“Hawaii Five-O” popularity was due in large part because it was a television show theme song. The song probably only marginally qualifies but it’s included for the sound that’s closely resembles the early Dick Dale hits. The Ventures were primarily a surf-rock instrumental band and this song can be considered a last go-round for surf music.
Good Vibrations - The Beach Boys (1966)
Brian Wilson, Beach Boys group leader, said the inspiration for this song was his mother, Audree. She tried to explain why dogs barked at some people and not others. Wilson explained that his mother would say, "A dog would pick up vibrations from these people that you can't see but you can feel. And the same thing happened with people."
“Good Vibrations” became the Beach Boys third number one hit.
Surf Rider – The Lively Ones (1962)
The Lively Ones were an instrumental surf rock band. “Surf Rider” was featured in the final sequence, as well as the end credits of Quentin Taratinao’s film Pulp Fiction.
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Surf music was born in the 60’s. In 1964, the Beatles came to America, which was the start of the British Invasion and surf music seemed to die. The Beach Boys’ last surf song to make the Top 40 was “Surfer Girl”(#7) in 1963, and for Jan and Dean it was “Sidewalk Surfin” (#25) in 1964.
Although we may have seen the last of new surf music, the oldies still live on the playlist of surfers and all those who love the freedom, exhilaration and energy we associate with surfing and surf music.
So, add these songs to your playlist and embrace the exhilarating feeling of that big wave coming up behind you, your board picking up thrilling acceleration and you readying yourself to “hang ten.”
Do you have a song you think belongs on our list of the Best Surf Songs? We’d love to have your input in the comments below!
Megan Jones is the lead author of Seaside Planet. She is an avid surfer, scuba diver, and travel enthusiast who takes any opportunity she can to spend time in the ocean. You can learn more about Meg and the rest of the editorial team here.