There are few bands as synonymous with a particular sport as The Beach Boys are with surfing. The California band, comprised of Brian Wilson, his brothers Dennis and Carl, plus friends Al Jardine and David Marks, later joined by Mike Love, are as stuck to the sort as the wax is to their boards. While their most famous surfing hits ‘Surfin’ Safari’ and ‘Surfin’ USA’ are the most recognisable of their back catalogue, the band started their love affair with their debut single, simply titled ‘Surfin”.
Released in 1961, ‘Surfin” was the first of their trio of homages to the great Californiana sport. The sport of surfing was a unique prospect some 60 years ago, far removed from the global phenomenon it is today. It was a sport primarily engaged with for fun and primarily down the west coast of America, meaning it was the perfect vehicle for The Beach Boys to glide on to the radio airwaves. It was a song that represented their newly established brand and would send the band on their way to stardom.
Naturally, like most of the group’s biggest hits, the track was penned by their maestro at large, Brian Wilson. Inspired by the vocal harmony groups of the day, Wilson was influenced primarily by groups like The Four Freshmen, who used expressive jazz arrangements around traditional vocal harmonies to gain a unique sound. He would couple this with the new craze taking over popular culture to manifest a timeless hit.
It was also the first time that Wilson displayed his meticulous attitude to pop music, a working style that would frame most of his discography. Famously, Wilson spent months on a particular song for The Beach Boys seminal album Pet Sounds, and while there wasn’t quite the level of detail-planning on this song, it did plant the seed of Wilson’s perfectionism. For ‘Surfin” it was the background arrangement that kept Wilson up at night.
Demonstrated on the DVD Brian Wilson Songwriter 1962 – 1969, Wilson became infatuated with ensuring that the vocal harmonies were not only in tune but grabbed the listener. To do so, he ensured that the arrangement was incredibly sparse. David Marks noted that Wilson used his solitary finger to play the snare drum while Jardine played upright bass and Carl Wilson played an unplugged hollow-body electric guitar. It was simplistic instrumentation to allow the vocals to shine brightly.
Thanks to the obvious connection to the coastline, The Beach Boys song got some great radio airplay in California and was a massive hit around Los Angeles. It sold 50,000 copies and became a go-to for any post-surf shindig. It would land the band a deal with Capitol Records and see them start their domination of the 1960s music scene.
Perhaps most curiously, though, the song was not well received by Wilson’s music teacher. Brian Wilson submitted the track as part of his course work for his high school music class — he was given an ‘F’ for his work. Later, when Wilson turned 75 in 2018, that grade was changed to an ‘A’, and the wrongs were righted.
‘Surfin” isn’t necessarily considered one of the band’s best songs. In fact, it likely wouldn’t make the top 20. However, this is the moment The Beach Boys came crashing down on our shores and, for that reason alone, its place in history is confirmed.