28 Mar Parliament-Funkadelic and Surfing
When Taylor Steele started using punk rock to soundtrack his films, the relationship between surfing and punk rock became common vernacular for anyone growing up near the beach in California. For those familiar with either surfing or punk rock, the parallels are obvious. For one, both are visceral and adrenaline-inducing experiences; surfing possesses an inherent connection to nature’s formidable power that mimics punk’s rage channeled into musical form.
The rush of getting pounded in heavy surf is the physical equivalent to the sonic experience of hearing a snare get smashed so hard that the drum head breaks. Perhaps more significant though is the similarity in lifestyle that both surfing and punk rock entail. From an outside perspective, surfers are kind of an odd bunch.
Surfing is largely a lonely and selfish activity, where there are no rules and lineups are dictated by caveman-like pecking orders. It’s an escape (or denial) from human interaction and responsibility, where one instead engages in a weird cycle of paddling and waiting long periods of time for a brief 30 to 60 second cocaine-like high. In turn, it tends to attract a certain personality: individualistic, nonconformist, and adventure-seeking. As far as punk rock goes, the entire genre and subculture is basically synonymous with these same traits, and even encourages an outsider lifestyle by way of challenging cultural norms. All one has to do is look at song titles: “Rise Above” (Black Flag), “Out of Step” (Minor Threat), “I Fought the Law” (The Clash), etc.
In our current moment, however, this pairing feels a little tired. Surfing and punk rock are timeless and will never die, but there are other musical genres that lend themselves to surfing incredibly well (hot take: not reggae). For example, the parallels between old-school funk/R&B and surfing are undeniably strong.
Perhaps the most obvious connection is that both good surfing and good funk rely on the concept of “the pocket.” With regards to music, the pocket refers to when musicians lock into a groove so seamlessly that it produces an almost hypnotic effect. James Brown, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and Parliament-Funkadelic are all progenitors of the pocket, and utilized it to keep bodies moving on dancefloors well into the 21st century.
In surfing, the pocket is the steepest and fastest section of the wave, just ahead of the curl of the lip. Surfing in the pocket uses rhythm and movement to generate speed, which allows for better and more maneuvers, which then makes for more interesting surfing as both an observer and participant. Funk and surfing also greatly emphasize timing; the ability to time syncopated instruments mirrors the ability to read a wave and time an air reverse or pulling into a barrel. Lastly, funk appeals to the side of surfing that attracts people to the ocean in the first place: good, clean fun. Parliament-Funkadelic, the aforementioned legendary funk group led by George Clinton, were experts in having a good time.
From the costumes they wore to the goofy ad-libs on their recordings, Parliament-Funkadelic channeled a sense of free-spiritedness that every surfer experiences simply by being in the water. Even if they’re too cool to admit it, most surfers suffer through crowds, cold water, and the smell of neoprene to have fun, and a band like Parliament can remind us that seeking physical and mental freedom is what got us in the lineup in the first place.
By James Clifford