Surf Guitar Pioneer Brian Carman Dies: 1945–2015


(above) Brian Carman, top center, with the Chantays circa 1963

Brian Carman, a surf-rock legend who was behind one of the premier hits in the genre, has passed away.

Carman was a member of the Chantays, a quintet from Santa Ana who scored a hit in 1963 with a guitar instrumental called “Pipeline.” Though it never topped the charts, the song became a theme for the emerging surf culture, having taken its name from the famed Pipeline wave off Oahu’s north shore.

Carman and his bandmates were just high schoolers at the time. He had started out with a $40 Montgomery Ward Airline guitar purchased with his mom’s credit card.

One afternoon, Carman and his guitar-playing pal Bob Spickard got together to trade licks, and when they were done, “Pipeline” was born.

Originally, though, they called it “Liberty’s Whip,” after Lee Marvin’s whip-flicking antagonist in the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

That changed after they saw a film by Bruce Brown—an early pioneer of surf films—that showed surfers riding the Pipeline.

The timing was perfect. With surf culture in high gear, artists like the Beach Boys, the Ventures and guitar great Dick Dale were enjoying some popularity.

The Chantays recorded “Pipeline” in 1962, but it didn’t get released until 1963. The song’s success earned them a chance to mime to it on The Lawrence Welk Show (see video below), a traditional family-style variety show on which the group’s electric guitars—Fenders, naturally—looked practically rebellious. The band’s choreographed moves look corny today, but it was par for the course in those years before the Beatles arrived in the U.S.

The Chantays continued to make records but never scored a hit as big as “Pipeline.” It probably didn’t matter. The song became an unofficial surf theme—“like the melody of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy,’ ” says Tim Cooley, a music professor at UC Santa Barbara and the author of the 2014 book Surfing About Music. “It’s there, it’s in your head, it’s unforgettable.”

Carman went on to work as a plant manager for a guitar company and held other jobs in the music industry. But he didn’t stop performing with the Chantays until two years ago, when he began to have health problems, including Crohn’s disease and an ulcerated colon.

He passed away March 1 at home. He was 69.

Inset: (above) Carman circa 1963; (bottom) Carman at top left, with a recent lineup of the Chantays