The best instrumental surf music conveys more and delivers it deeper than vocal surf music. Vocal surf music is often obvious and trite. Great surf instrumentals have one monolithic ally, the sea. The sea is so wide and deep and long that it determines our weather. Words are trivialized by the sea’s vastness.
We are drawn to the sea like moths to the flame. Why? Our bodies are 97% salt water so there is some level of identification. But there is more. The sea is mother and the sea is death. The sea is our subconscious, the great collective “I” where identities and realities flow through and around each other, yielding at every crux but collectively unstoppable. By moonlight the sea speaks to us through the relentless thrust and retraction of its fluid flesh.
Just behind the wavery crest of the next wave, a flash of light trails a wavering path back to the moon, who oversees the operation of the seas and makes imperceptible adjustments with unseen levers, generating a mountain of water or a surface of glass.
Beneath the dappled and predictably irregular surface of the sea lie atmospheres as large as our airy own, but with gently forgving gravity. You can’t fall in water, you just go in another direction. Neither a feather nor a cannonball falls straight down in a watery environment because each is carried within the blunt fingers of the currents, the sea’s atmospheres.
The sea’s fluid fingers reach out to their greatest extention and flirt with the stalwart land. Though the sea’s caress is winsome, poignant and lulling like the poppy sleep in The Wizard of Oz, we cannot obey our love because we cannot ventilate our sodden bodies with more water, only with air. We can never become all water.
We can never become one with our mother sea as we can never reunify with our birth mother. We have been hurled ashore by the sea as we have been expelled from the watery cocoon of the womb. We spend the rest of our lives longing for this total caress. An instrumental can touch these deep recesses within us.
The mid-’60s surf instrumentals were most popular in coastal communities like Southern California, Japan and Australia. People in those lands know the allure of the sea and sensed kindred emotions in these songs. Surf music, like surfing itself, is a reaction to this attraction.
When surfing, one literally mounts the sea. The great instrumentals do so metaphorically. “Pipeline” is probably the greatest surf instrumental because it is most akin to the rhythms and fluidity of the sea itself. The sea seems to have no depth once it is over our heads, and neither does “Pipeline.” Most of surfing is waiting. “Pipeline” contains great space. “Pipeline” waits for the wave, catches it, buries us in the wash and paddles us back out, giving each action its due.
An excellent surf collection (instrumental and vocal) is Surfin’ Sixties, which contains instrumental greats “Out of Limits” by the Marketts, “Theme from Endless Summer” by the Sandals, the original “Wipe Out” by the Surfaris, “Pipeline,” “Let’s Go” by the Routers (a near instrumental) and the poignant and orchestral “The Lonely Surfer” by Jack Nitzsche. For you vocal fans: “California Sun” by The Rivieras, “GTO” by Ronny and the Daytonas, and “Surfer Joe” by the Surfaris. Cowabunga.