This article below is excerpted from a much longer piece I wrote titled Articles of Faith: 35 Years of Surf Magazines. It ran in the Spring, 1996, issue of Surfer’s Journal.
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John Severson and SURFER rolled through the early- and mid-’60s and took rear-guard action as needed, as a dozen or so American upstarts fought amongst themselves for a cleat shot at Surfer. Casualties included Petersen’s Surfing Magazine (’63-’64), Surfing Illustrated (’62-’67) and Surf Guide (’63-’65).
Petersen’s Surfing, housed in the same Hollywood Boulevard offices that produced Motor Trend, Hot Rod and Guns and Ammo was born to fail. Cover and centerspread excepted, the first issue was printed in murky dark green duotone and included a mat surfing article (“Here Come The Mattresses”), as well as I a feeble Murphy ripoff called “Hotdog McDing.” The all-color centerspread of the buoyant Marge Calhoun walking along the shore at Makaha, flanked by daughters Candy and Robin—a great surf family, sure, but the only color picture in the interior of the magazine—had the impact of a State Visitor’s Bureau file photo. A four-point loyalty oath titled “The Surfer’s Creed” ran in the second issue and included the following: “Surfing is our hobby and our recreation. We will not allow it as such to I interfere with any of the duties we owe to our home, our job, our school or community.” Petersen’s Surfing and Barry Goldwater were both shut down in ’64.
Fear of City Hall and beach restrictions doesn’t fully explain why surf magazines in the early ’60s nearly all tilted to the right. The profit motive can never be discounted, as surfboard and clothing manufacturers knew that sanitation could only help sales of boards, gears, and clothes. It’s also likely that most surfers (and virtually all editors) were generally insecure about their young sport. A teenaged Steve Pezman, for example, thought the film Gidget was fairly ridiculous, but wanted his dad to see it anyway because the connection to Hollywood and the mainstream offered a kind of implicit justification for the years he’d spent on the beach.
Whatever the reasons, surf publishing’s solemn efforts to get things on the straight and narrow produced some remarkable moments. “My suggestions are these,” a stern-voiced LeRoy Grannis wrote in ’62 for the premier issue of Surfing Illustrated. “Rules should be drawn up and their knowledge circulated among the surfers. If surfers fail to comply with these regulations, a system of surfboard confiscation should be inaugurated to impress upon the nonconformists the importance of respect for the well-being of the group.” Paging beyond that mildly fascistic introduction, however, Surfing Illustrated delivered a hot photo feature on Rincon and Malibu, followed by an awesome gatefold shot of Jose Angel at Waimea Bay. Designer John Van Hamersveld, photographers Grannis and Don James, writer Peter Dixon and publisher Walt Phillips, in various shifts over five years’ time, took turns I breathing some measure of life into Surfing Illustrated before it folded in mid-’67.
Surf Guide was not only the best looking challenger to Surfer (Van Hamersveld’s touch, again) it also gave voice to surfing’s first ideological shift. Editor Bill Cleary, less than two years after Surfing lllustrated’s lecture on “nonconformity,” wrote about having “sought and found a new identity, a means of giving surfing the character, the individuality and the stature that is its own.” This was exciting, breakaway material in ’64. Cleary continues: “Surfing is more than waves and water. It has a depth, a personality and a meaning. This is the surfing tradition—unconscious, beautiful…and unsure. It cannot be captured, for surfing is that kind of an elusive thing. But it can be painted and represented and written.”
“Surf Guide” John Severson says today, “was the most interesting of all of them. Really strong.” More than that, Surf Guide, by late ’63 and up to its demise in early ’65, was the most progressive magazine in the field—Surfer included. Nearly half of its November ’63 issue was about women’s surfing, for example, and proto-hippy Bob Cooper, one year later, was given a forum at a time when other editors considered him too “far out” for publication. Cleary had only a passing interest in contest coverage. Surfing Illustrated and Surfer ran 12 and 14 upbeat pages, respectively, on the ’64 U.S. Championships. Surf Guide did less than six pages, and called the event a “miserable fiasco of disorganization.” Surfer’s first feature-length interview with Mickey Dora ran in mid-’65. Surf Guide did one almost two years earlier, and it was far more interesting—in part because it included Dora’s virtuoso routine about his experience in Hawaii as a stunt-double during the making of Ride the Wild Surf:
Well, as we all know, they had one of the biggest winters ever. It scared the hell out of me. I couldn’t sleep…little things like the movie crew’s snoring began to bother me. Luckily I was able to sneak out into the bush and catch up on some sleep. But then the tanks from the army base would go roaring by during the night and I couldn’t tell if the surf was getting huge or if it was just another invasion. Then I got up one morning and found somebody’s underwear left on my toothbrush. I was psyched out! My hair began to fall out. I got stomach ulcers. Under all this pressure I had to ride these waves and every time they hit the button on that camera it was a hundred bucks. I rode Waimea, but let’s face it—by choice, I’m a four-feet and under man!
Cleary published a fiction piece one year later in which the evil, power-hungry bad guy is alternately called “Prince John the Stingy” and “Foul John.” Severson considered the piece libelous, and had a lawyer send a saber-rattling letter to Cleary. Already on shaky financial groud, now under threat of legal action, Surf Guide folded three months later. Severson, ever the smart publisher, immediately hired Clear as a Surfer contributing editor.
By late ’65, with Surf Guide negated, young International Surfing already looked like the best of the fledgling publications. “We were talking to the younger guys,” says Richard Graham, ex-Marine, ex-data processing manager and founding editor of International Surfing. “That’s how we got a toehold; that’s how we managed to be a little different. But Surfer was there first, it was always the premier magazine, and we were always number two.” Graham isn’t entirely wrong. From International Surfing’s inception in December ’64 (the name was shortened to Surfing ten years later) until the late 70s, notwithstanding some excellent photographic work by LeRoy Grannis and Don James, the magazine was clearly inferior to Surfer. But there was a brief, four-issue period in ’67 and ’68 when Graham, along with writer Duke Boyd and art director Tom Yasuda, took a huge hit on the Zeitgeist bong and, creatively at least, floated right past everyone, Surfer included.
Severson’s magazine already had an aura of veneration. The ’67 editions of Surfer were colorful, stable and well-crafted, and ace photographer Ron Stoner was at his creative peak, but things were little advanced in design or tone from three years earlier. Meanwhile, while Severson habitually slipped out of the office to work on his golf game, Graham and associates radically overhauled Surfing’s design look and editorial tone. The “Now Look’ debuted July of ’67 and differences between the two magazines nearly screamed out. Surfer that month put a rectangular photo of Surfer Poll winner David Nuuhiwa on the bottom half of the page, against a white background, below a mocked-up Poll medallion hanging from a red-white- and-blue ribbon. Surfing began with a deep purple logo and a yellow and green acid-splash background, then blended four photographs into a modified yin-and-yang symbol. Inside, Surfer trashed Nat Young in “The High Performers Answer Australia.” Surfing hired Young as their Australian correspondent. “The creative era is at hand, with its golden laurels,” Graham wrote in September ’67. “Whole blending rhythm, harmony in motion. The man, the wave, the motive…a flow of oneness.” A six-page poem illustrated with semi-abstract watercolor artwork is found in the same issue, along with Mike Hyson’s Beatlesque meditations: “Commercial images and heroes are passe, competition out. The new philosophy is ‘Love’ for everyone and anything….”
It’s hard to remember that there once was real power behind the late-’60s expressions that now sound so limp, or that the counterculture used to be more than a dress model for Lenny Kravitz and faux-hippy surfers like Brad Gerlach and Donovan (Sunchild) Frankenreiter. But in ’67, the young and tuned-in not only saw the world changing, but felt as if they might even help the process along. Surfing understood this before Surfer. In fact, Rolling Stone wouldn’t print its first issue until November ’67, so it may be that Graham has the distinction of producing the first internationally distributed counterculture magazine.
It ended quickly. The “Now Look” lasted just four issue before Surfing was sold. Publication was halted for two months as a new staff was hired and operations moved from Panorama City to Reseda, where a single issue was printed. Surfing then disappeared completely for six months before turning up in a West 26th Street office in New York City with yet another new staff. Hard, embarrassing months lay ahead.
Graham, Yasuda and Boyd, meanwhile, went back to Petersen Publishing to start another magazine called Surfing. (It’s confusing. International Surfing, the magazine Graham had just left, is what we now know as Surfing. Graham’s new Surfing came to be known as Petersen’s Surfing.) Graham’s new project lasted three years and its best moments came early. In the April ’68 issue, while Surfer sat on its hands, Graham introduced America to the short surfboard. “That was a really, really big deal at the time,” says Steve Pezman who, in ’68, was just getting a start in surf publishing. “Severson was under huge pressure from Hobie, Con, I Hansen, and the rest of the guys in the Surfboard Manufacturer’s Association, not to talk about the shortboard until they’d cleared their longboard inventory. Graham didn’t have to worry about that too much; he didn’t have their ads. He did the story and Surfer got left behind with egg on its face.”
Surfer wouldn’t publish a thorough piece on the shortboard until five months later, in the September ’68 edition. The article was called “The Super Short, Uptight, V-Bottom, Tube-Carving, Plastic Machines,” and was written by the magazine’s newest and perhaps most transformative employee—associate editor Drew Kampion. And just like that, Surfer was back on top.