SURFER Magazine Offers Rare Glimpse Into Early Days of the Sport

In 1960 John Severson published the first issue of “The Surfer.” Its 36 pages were a compilation of photos he took while filming “Surf Fever,” his own illustrations, some editorial, and a few ads. Flyers announcing “The Surfer is coming!” were pasted the windows of surf shops. Former SURFER Magazine Publisher Steve Pezman told the Los Angeles Times “I promptly stole the flyer off the wall of the surf shop, which was how hungry we[surfers] were for printed validation.” Surfers lined up to buy copies.

Many surfers’ earliest memories of SURFER is being a grom and thumbing through it with friends. Somebody would bring the latest issue to school, and try to pull it out of their backpack without it getting ripped to shreds by a pack of fellow frothers. Huddled around the mag, pages would turn, guesses of where the spots in the photos were shouted out, cases pleaded as to why they were right or wrong. Analyzing, absorbing and critiquing every aspect of the magazine before cutting out prime stoke-inducing photos to be scotch-taped to a bedroom wall surf collage—a SURFER Magazine reader tradition that seems to transcend the decades.

As we grew older, we’d thumb through a mag looking for our favorite writers, storytellers, and photographers. We searched for photos and tales of exotic waves to spark our own travel missions. We hunted for shots of our most cherished surfers. We sought connection in the words of thoughtful essayists. It’s hard to remember now in our digital age, but we even flipped through the pages looking for cutting-edge surf news.

Over the years, the stories, photos, art direction and the ads in SURFER became little time capsules for our surfing lives. To celebrate those moments, and to capture a bit of nostalgia, we’re revisiting our video series called “The SURFER Archives” — wherein we thumbed through the earliest issues from the canon that is SURFER’s archive and made corresponding videos. As of October, SURFER has since ceased publication, but that doesn’t mean frothers far and wide have to stop flipping through its many iconic pages. Take a stroll down nostalgia lane with us and enjoy.

[Ed’s Note: The above intro was originally written by Ben Waldron, published in 2018, and adapted to reflect SURFER’s recent changes.]

SURFER Volume 2, Issue 1

After the success of John Severson’s first issue of “The Surfer” in 1960, which sold over 5,000 copies, he decided to go quarterly the following year. Which brings us to the second issue of SURFER: Spring, 1961.

SURFER’s second issue was still mostly a one man show of Severson’s photos, writing and artwork. It’s easy to romanticize surfing as a whole in decades past, but in this issue Severson laments about overcrowded lineups and the homogenization of surf culture even in the early 60s. Ironically, much of this issue’s content is location-oriented with a hand drawn map of Santa Cruz’s surf spots and photo features on Rincon and Swami’s.

Embedded among Severson’s mixed-media content was a comic strip by a “Guest Cartoonist.” That was 16-year-old Rick Griffin. The naturally talented artist’s style would later develop into one of the most recognized of 60s psychedelia. Griffin went on to design the original Rolling Stone magazine logo, a Grateful Dead album cover and much more. His comic strip in this issue, “The Gremies,” pokes fun at surfers’ enthusiasm for big Hawaiian surf and then quickly retreating from it when seeing it in person.

[Read more about SURFER Volume 2, Issue 1 from Ben Waldron, here.]

SURFER Volume 2, Issue 2

The third issue of The Surfer (SURFERMagazine’s original title) was published in the summer of 1961. Founder John Severson shot the cover image of Reynolds Yater, stating that he snapped “the-difficult-to-get underneath shot” just before Yater ran over him.

After only two published issues, Severson already knew his audience loved deconstructing his magazine for the photos. Severson provides a giant two-page spread in this issue sarcastically framed as “suitable for tearing out and glassing on your board, wall, or you.”

Throughout the issue, Severson doesn’t hold back in giving an honest assessment of contemporary surf culture. At the time, beaches were being shut-down and/or considered for closure due to disrespectful behavior by, who Severson refers to as, “gremlins” and “ho-daddies”-the equivalent to kooks and barneys. He offers a satirical checklist of bad behaviors for these “surfers” lacking in actual talent to obtain “their strong need of recognition.” Mixed among the suggestions to “destroy” and “undress in public” was “flip bottle caps and make lewd remarks at surfing movies.” The latter was especially annoying to Severson because the growing negative reputation of surfers as a whole was making it difficult for him to find venues willing to let him screen his surf films.

In a feature about Peru, Severson gives great insight on how he discovered exotic waves to travel to. While surfers today are able to look for potential swell magnets using Google Maps, Severson used a more analog approach to surf discovery. He reports spending hours in his college library flipping through encyclopedias looking for photos of waves captured by photographers on accident. “Usually I had to settle for distant shots of surf lines behind some peasant tending flocks on the coast of somewhere,” he writes on page three.

[Read more about SURFER Volume 2, Issue 2 from Ben Waldron, here.]

SURFER Volume 2, Issue 3

The Fall of 1961 issue of The Surfer (SURFER magazine’s original title) features coverage of the summer’s south swells as well as a preview of the Hawaiian winter. Severson hints at his anticipation for the Island’s warm water and heavy waves with his cover shot of Ricky Grigg at Waimea Bay during “the biggest surf of the year.”

Severson delegates some editorial to Ron Perrot for a feature on Australia and to Gini Kinz for a story about a girl learning to surf.

Letters to the editor from all over the world start to appear, sharing their enthusiasm for surfing and admiration for Severson’s publication. Severson prints a rejection letter from an auditorium unwilling to screen his movies that details the behavior of those who he clearly defines in this issue’s introduction as “gremlins” and “ho-daddys.”

[Read more about SURFER Volume 2, Issue 3 from Ben Waldron, here.]

SURFER Volume 2, Issue 4

In the fifth issue of SURFER Magazine, founder and editor John Severson continues his campaign to “elevate the sport.” In his Editor’s Note, Severson warns that surfing may be outlawed across the state of California if conditions surrounding it don’t change. He pushes his readers to join the United States Surfing Association and pitches it as an insurance policy that will preserve surfing.

In one of the features, San Onofre surfers are asked to define their break. Some seasoned locals argue it had better waves in the ’30s, while others claim the surf has always been the same. Based on the photos in the feature, it looks San O hasn’t changed much since ’61 either

Letters to the editor poured in from all over the world, including landlocked locations. “It is a pleasure to read a publication so literate about a sport so elemental, it augers well for the future respect in which surfing may be held,” writes Kenneth Deardorf from St. Lois, Missouri.

Mixed among the copy, and the growing number of surfboard and shop ads, is an announcement for SURFER’s Cartoon Contest, the subject being “The Surf Car.” With judging based on originality and cleverness, it’s easy to imagine Severson and SURFER staff cartoonist Rick Griffin pouring over all the India Inked, surfboard clad, rat rods mailed into the office (winners to be published in the following issue.

[Read more about SURFER Volume 2, Issue 4 from Ben Waldron, here.]

SURFER Volume 3, Issue 1

“Full of characters, fads and fantasies, surfing is perhaps the most colorful sport to emerge since the Greek bare-handed bullfights,” John Severson writes in the editor’s note that opens up SURFER Magazine’s 6th issue. Speaking of colorful, this is the first issue to feature a color photo; Ricky Grigg rolling into a Pipeline stunner on the cover.

Even in 1962, the Disneyfication of surfing is prophesied through wavepools. On the topic of surfing becoming a viral trend, Severson writes: “Help is on the way. Artificial wave machines are in the process of being built…as are powered surfboards. Next-somewhere between Anaheim and Buena Park-SURFYLAND! ALL YOU CAN RIDE FOR $1, ALL SIZES AND SHAPES! GET ‘EM WHILE THEY’RE HOT!”

There’s a Pipeline feature in which Mike Hynson and a slew of other brave surfers charge the world’s deadliest wave on the single fin logs of the day. Most are outrunning the tube or wiping out. Photos of the latter are captioned by Severson’s signature tongue-in-cheek voice; “He was only successful in nearly killing himself,” and, “Mike was making good progress until the whole Pacific Ocean caved in on him.”

SURFER’s international scope started to grow too, with features on Australia and France, exotic destinations at the time.

[Read more about SURFER Volume 3, Issue 1 from Ben Waldron, here.]

SURFER Volume 3, Issue 2

When SURFER Magazine (then, The Surfer) released the second issue of its third volume in the summer of ’62, it was greeted by a growing, surf-obsessed audience, but one still yet unfamiliar with the much with vast expanse of rideable waves out there in the world-at-large.

The Letters to the Editor section includes mostly fawning missives from waveriders praising the expanded editorial content (12 new pages in the previous issue!), and a few notes lamenting the character of the burgeoning crowds that would—save for the dated vernacular (“Gremmies” and “Ho-dads”), read like a complaint about our current state of surfdom.

As there was much terrain, yet to cover (known and unknown), Vol. 3 Issue 2 features a detailed illustrated map of South Bay surf spots, a short primer on North Steyne, and a feature on Maui, describing its uncrowded lineups, diverse setups, including a premier “Malibu-like” (huh?) point, called Honolua Bay.

[Read more about SURFER Volume 3, Issue 2 from Matt Shaw, here.]

SURFER Volume 3, Issue 3

Here’s a bit of trivia: Which famous surf-star landed the cover of 1962’s Aug-Sept issue of The Surfer? Was it Australia’s Midget Farrely? Miklos “Da Cat” Dora ? The very photogenic Mike Hynson?

In fact, all the real-life surfers of the early 60s boom period were slighted in favor of a then-18-year old Staff Cartoonist’s fictional (though quite popular) surf-star, Murphy, who landed the coveted cover, hand-stalling on his way to a dry hair exit from a Crayola green tube.

Volume 3, Issue 3 of The Surfer is a good indication of the burgeoning cultural phenomenon that was Murphy, as a fair amount of ink is dedicated to Murphy and his creator Rick Griffin, who, in a portrait next to a short profile of the artist, looks relatively buttoned-up compared to the shaggy, bearded Hippy icon who’d soon be known to the world at large.

[Read more about SURFER Volume 3, Issue 3 from Matt Shaw, here.]

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