I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Crystal Voyager: Pink Floyd’s Surf Music


by Timothy Misir
Sept. 8, 2013

The highlight of David Elfick’s 1973 biography about surfer and photographer George Greenough has to be Pink Floyd’s epic 23-minute-long song “Echoes” that closes the film, itself a film within a film, set to ground-breaking surf cinematography shot by Greenough himself.

Taken from the group’s 1971 album “Meddle,” Pink Floyd’s side-long track was a shift for the group Pink Floyd reportedly allowed Elfick to use the footage in his film, in exchange for the rights for footage shot by Greenough to be used as the backdrop to their performances of the song, known by many for its similarity to the riff made famous in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” — Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters noted the song’s similarity but in an interview with Q Magazine that “life’s too long to bother with suing Andrew fucking Lloyd Webber. I think that might make me really gloomy.”

"Echoes" provided the soundtrack to shots taken from a camera strapped to Greenough’s back in a waterproof housing that he made himself. “I wanna surf in places that are not accessible to jet airplanes” Greenough says, as he builds a 37-foot yacht from scavenged materials to take him to those places with his surf buddies, documented in the later part of the film.

Despite his lack of a formal education — Greenough mentions in the film that he was a “straight-D student” in high school and dropped out of college after one semester — he over the years became a master craftsman and engineer, also becoming the creator of the modern surfboard fin.

The swelling and breaking of waves is not synchronized to the song, and beginning with the track’s ubiquitous “ping,” we are taken on a ride from the view of a dolphin. We see the waves as the camera moves in and out of the whitewater, shot at 10 times the normal speed then slowed down to bring out detail as Greenough is dropping in and riding inside the barrel of the wave while the song moves through its lengthy improvisational passages.

The surfing itself is not that spectacular, nor are the waves. Greenough is often shown in the movie riding waves while lying chest-down, sometimes on an air mattress, or sitting up on his knees cruising on his kneeboard (very similar to the modern boogie board, and not popular at that time, where long surfboards were the norm). The usual complaints about crowds in popular surf spots, the allusions to the openness of the ocean, the sport’s connection to nature and the freedom felt on the waves are all there and sound terribly trite by now (Greenough apparently came from a well-to-do family but decided cut ties to pursue his own passions).

Early fictionalized surf movies catered to a mass audience and was often soundtracked by music that epitomised a hedonistic Californian lifestyle of sun, sand and girls — reverb-drenched short instrumental dance music in straight 4/4 time that while catchy, was ultimately shallow (perhaps explaining its quick decline).

And it wasn’t until Bruce Brown’s 1966 travelogue "Endless Summer," which also featured Greenough, that a mainstream surf movie was made portraying surfing and surf culture as more than just adolescent fun and as a form of counterculture (2) — "Crystal Voyager" carries on in very much the same spiritual and introspective vein, and Pink Floyd’s sprawling, warm “Echoes,” and the humanity in its lyrics show how cosmic space rock might be perhaps better suited to the obsession of surfers and the sport’s spiritual nature than what we know as “surf music."

(1) http://utopia.knoware.nl/users/ptr/pfloyd/interview/roger2.html

(2) http://brightlightsfilm.com/80/80-surfing-films-endless-summer-chasing-mavericks-counterculture-engle.php

 

Timothy Misir is a Russia-based Singaporean writer and researcher in urban planning and architecture. He is currently working at The Moscow Times where he is a copy editor and writes for the arts section. He can be contacted at tim.misir@gmail.com.