Recent years have seen the unlikely revival of a sound and aesthetic that dominated 60s Californian culture: surf pop. Without much of a media hurrah, the sky-high falsettos and warm guitar tones are back, and if you know where to look, there’s a wealth of bands out there making beach-party tunes that are sure to inject a bit of pacific spirit into the bleak British midwinter.
Pioneered by bands in the 60s including The Beach Boys, the hugely popular American ‘rival’ to The Beatles known for harmonious summer songs such as ‘California Girls’ and ‘Surfin’ USA’, surf pop dropped off the radar as rock music really took off. The genre, long considered unfashionable, has undergone a hazy, stoner-pop makeover, eschewing the clean-cut, innocent image of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” for a distinctly lo-fi ethic with a bit more of a punk growl. Surf pop post-2010 borrows as much from rough garage rock as it does from bittersweet 50s doo-wop, creating a weird fusion that is regardless some of the catchiest music you will encounter in the next few months.
America, with its time honoured surfing tradition, is pioneering the way. Notable acts include the psychedelic bummer-pop band Wavves, the bubblegum sweet Best Coast and LA skate-rats FIDLAR. The surf pop label is, however, fairly tenuous. The 60s surfing lifestyle that accompanied the music is largely absent; the label is applied through simple musical association rather than a gnarly commitment to riding the Californian waves. Regardless, today’s surf pop proponents borrow extensively from their forefathers, re-popularising the word ‘rad’ and dressing in questionable and ironic Hawaiian shirts that they (somehow) pull off, as well as overlaying their tracks with endless harmonies and more fuzz than a your first home-knitted sweater.
Britain isn’t lagging completely behind. A new generation of young bands are following the American example including Sheffielders Best Friends and Bournemouth boys Bos Angeles, and whilst largely confined to pubs and clubs, the British scene is on the move. Surf pop’s influence can be felt, however, across the industry. Indie-pop festival stalwarts Friendly Fires draw from the genre’s palm tree lined pool of sounds, and stateside chart-toppers Vampire Weekend hardly shy away from its undeniable charm.
The reason for this explosion is unclear, and the genre is in danger of becoming saturated with a multiplicity of clone-bands trying a bit too hard for cool points. Like most Pitchfork-approved stylistic movements, the hype does tend to obscure the best acts, but if you can see beyond the urban-renewal baseball jerseys that really aren’t worth £40, you’re in for a treat. Dust off your swimsuit, pack a few beers and head down to the beach, because even if it’s -3*C out, surf-pop will leave you sunburnt, smiling and riding the waves (in your mind) in no time.
Bands to check out:
by Joe Stewart, Razz Music Correspondent