Surf’s Up: The California Sound

It’s a December day in New York, which means cold rain is falling and the sun is nowhere to be found. A gust of wind pulls steam from who-knows-where past the window and off into the bleakness. On days like these the mind wanders and flirts with dreams of beaches, hot sand, golden sunshine and days when life was much simpler.

The Mamas and the Papas described this phenomenon perfectly in their hit “California Dreamin’.” It’s all too common amongst non-Californians, dead season tolerators and cold people everywhere.

When we find ourselves California dreamin’ there is one thing we can do to help satisfy our desires. In lieu of actual sunlight, we can always soak up a healthy dose of surf music and sunshine pop, also known as the California Sound. Until your luck (or the season) changes, let these tunes warm you up… ride a wave of surf music all the way to its home in California.


The Beach Boys- Surfin’ USA, Surfer Girl & Fun, Fun, Fun

No surprises here. Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys are the dudes who put the surf sound on the map.  The Beach Boys’ melodies about big waves, bikinis, classic cars and the California lifestyle captured the world’s imagination. After “Surfin’ USA” hit the scene, American culture was struck by a massive wave of surf obsession. Sunshine pop and the lifestyle it embodied was everywhere; miles and miles from Cali, its sand and its surf… all thanks to these boys.


Surfing permeated all facets of American culture… Even Fred Flinstone had to try it.


Jan & Dean- Surf City

Surf City is a place where there are two girls for every boy, and there’s always somethin’ going. It’s unclear where exactly Surf City is, but man I’d love to visit. The central motif of this song (and a central motif in surf culture generally) is Jan & Dean’s “woodie.” Not to be mistaken for a pet woodpecker, “woodie” was a term used to refer to those awesome old cars with faded wood paneling on the sides. This was the vehicle of choice when rolling up to the beach or a party. How times have changed.


The Surfaris- Wipe Out

One of the trademarks of surf music and the California sound was the then groundbreaking and now instantly recognizable use of the rolling drum beat. While artists like the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean were focused on vocals, lyrics and harmony, groups like the Surfaris played a large role in developing purely instrumental and riff-based pop music that did wonders to develop the sound of rock n’ roll guitar.



Try not getting a woodie after looking at it.


Beach Youth- Days

The French band Beach Youth prove that whoever said surf pop is dead is mistaken. Even though it’s spacey and full of synthesizer, “Days”  is an example of the legacy that the California sound left behind. The band’s name is no accident.


Dick Dale and the Del-Tones- Misirlou Twist

You’ll recognize this surf classic from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Dick Dale (his Del-Tones aside) was a guitar pioneer, known for his churning sound, quick picking style and a snarling guitar tone that probably made the Beach Boys hop in their woodies and drive off in the early 60’s.


The Ventures- Walk Don’t Run

The Ventures’ “Walk Don’t Run” is a slightly darker, but heinously catchy iteration of the instrumental surf sound. This song is a bit like the brooding dude at the beach bonfire party… you know the one I mean.


Real Estate- Beach Comber & Let’s Rock the Beach

A far cry from some of the more inane surf music (see Little Pattie below,) but not too far off from The Beach Boys or The Ventures. Real Estate is a band from Ridgewood, New Jersey. None of these guys were alive in the 50’s and 60‘s, they probably weren’t even close to being conceived. The band was founded in 2008 and are a testament to the fact that the surf sound lives on.


Little Pattie-  He’s My Blonde Headed Stompie Wompie Real Gone Surfer Boy

Little Pattie, born Patricia Amphlett, sang this hit at only 15 years of age. Though she made music that seemed to fall right out of a California record collection, Little Pattie is in fact from Australia, where surf culture is still alive and thriving (as well as the goofy slang that lengthens this song title.) Pattie turned the tables on all the surfer dudes and sang of the beach life from a female perspective. Just remember, The Beach Boys may have their little surfer girl, but Little Pattie has a blonde headed stompie wompie real gone surfer boy.


The Carnations- Scorpion

Doesn’t get much more surf than this, except for the whole scorpion thing.


Beach Fossils- Daydream

Beach Fossils is an indie band from Brooklyn, one of many that channels a guitar-centric beach sound. While the vocal stylings of lead singer Dustin Payseur and the lo-fi, laid back vibe of the track may not scream Jan & Dean, there’s no doubt that surf didn’t play a part in these sounds.


Elvis Presley- Rock-a-Hula-Baby

This hokey number from The King doesn’t display that paradigm surf sound we associate with the music of The Carnations or Dick Dale, but is a perfect example of the influence that the Hawaii-California surf connection had in mainstream culture. Everybody, including Elvis, was trying desperately to get in on the surf craze. If you don’t believe me, check out this clip from Elvis’ feature film Blue Hawaii. Nice trunks, Elvis.




Hang ten, brahs.

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