While the pairing of surfing’s first tubular POVs with the late-stage psychedelia of Pink Floyd stands up to all sorts of scrutiny, George Greenough and Roger Waters made for strange bedfellows.
Both sides brought inarguable genius to the table when Echoes, Greenough’s mind-bending back-mounted surf reel, was merged with Britain’s headiest band. But for those who thought they knew George, it was a shocker. He was nobody’s hepcat. Oh, he may have the shag cut with resin shears and the famous dearth of shoes, but it ended there. What with his surfing, shaping, fishing, go-carting, sailing, and filmmaking, he was simply too busy for music. Right?
This 2014 feature tells, for the first time, what really happened when Echoes nailed the biggest musical coup in surf film history.
“It is art that makes life,” wrote Anglo-American author Henry James to fellow bard, H.G. Wells, at the end of the 19th Century. More than 70 years later, a young filmmaker named George Greenough confirmed the sentiment by capturing the ocean as only a surfer could.
His experimental short of 1972—titled Echoes—remains a singular piece in the history of surf cinema, both for its breakthrough disembodied portraits from deep inside the tube and for being the sole surf documentary soundtracked by psychedelic super gods Pink Floyd.
When the film first screened, Greenough was just 30 and, to those who’d followed his rapid ascent, the creative spark seemed limitless. It would, however, be the last film he’d ever release. How Greenough, a relative unknown, came to work with one of rock music’s biggest acts has long been a mystery.
Greenough now resides near Byron Bay in New South Wales, Australia, where he maintains a low-profile existence. At 5′ 9″ and 135 pounds, he lives up to his reputation as a great eccentric. Whether he’s decrying the profit-zapping effects of the Internet or launching into a highly technical monologue on film equipment, fact checking even the basics of his life proves a difficult task—with one iconic exception.
By 1965, Greenough had his first creative breakthrough with a design unlike anything that came before. Taking a cue from pioneering 1940s-boardmaker Bob Simmons—who applied aeronautical design to advances in surfboard materials and fin shapes—Greenough filled a kneeboard with foam around the rail section only, leaving the middle both flexible and so completely hollowed out that it barely floated. He called the board Velo.
“I decided to make it flex like my fins,” Greenough recalls of the board’s impetus. “Fish moved when they swam, so why not make a whole board that moved when it rode waves?” The distinctive spoon soon became the catalyst for his experiments in surf photography and film. Greenough’s photograph of Australian surfer Russell Hughes completely covered up in the tube in 1966 was the first of its kind. It proved the breakthrough needed to solidify his reputation as an innovator. Clips of Greenough’s jaw-dropping rides appeared in popular surf documentaries, including The Endless Summer (1965), Children of the Sun (1967), The Hot Generation (1968), Evolution (1969), and Fantastic Plastic Machine (1969). By 1968, Nat Young had already dubbed Greenough “the greatest surfer in the world today.” That same year, he began shooting his first movie.
The transition, however, that surf culture made from its pop version in the early 60s to the more psychedelic waters of 1968 was not exactly fluid. By 1965, with the Civil Rights movement on the advance and the Vietnam War raging, the innocuous version of surfing best known from the Beach Party film series, seemed an anodyne diversion few cared to perpetuate. The purveyors of surf paraphernalia made feeble attempts to integrate surfwear with mod and paisley designs, indicative of the counter culture taking root in Los Angeles and San Francisco, though such attempts by Jantzen, Cole of California, and others proved largely pastiche. True surfers themselves never much cared for the pop side of things anyway and were more than glad to see the media attention shift elsewhere.
As a result, surfers began drawing again on their natural bohemia to bring the culture in accord with the larger movement. With the creation of the Surfrider Foundation in 1971, as well as an underground shift in editorial at Surfer magazine, the early 70s became a golden era for surfing in terms of relevance.
Much of the guiding light for these counter culture experiments originated across the Atlantic, where, during the mid 60s, colorful explosions in fashion, film, and music zoomed in from Paris, Rome, and especially London. By spring 1966, Time magazine had already declared “Swingin’ London” the city of the decade. What is less known is the number of major epiphanies experienced in Los Angeles by the most popular British acts of the day. The Beatles had played the Hollywood Bowl in 1964 and, upon their return in August of 1965, took their first voluntary hits of LSD with actor Peter Fonda and L.A. folk rock icons, the Byrds. (George Harrison memorialized the dropout on the Beatles 1967 tune, “Blue Jay Way.”)
The Rolling Stones practically transformed themselves from regency dandies to full-blown flower children in L.A., where they cut the albums Aftermath and Between the Buttons, as well as the singles “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Paint It Black” in Hollywood studios.
Van Morrison’s Them played eighteen nights at the Whiskey a Go Go in June 1966 due to the local popularity of their single “Gloria,” which was banned elsewhere in the U.S. for lewdness. The Yardbirds, Donovan, and The Animals had all played to heady psychedelic crowds in L.A. prior to the debut of Pink Floyd from Cambridge, who played Bandstand for the first time in November of 1967.
To be sure, the trans-Atlantic inspiration did not flow in just one direction. The Beach Boys first toured England in 1964, with leader Brian Wilson still playing bass. He’d leave the band to tour without him later that year, focusing instead on advancing their recorded materials. This arrangement led to Wilson’s magnum opus in 1966—the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Though the album failed to reach much of an audience in the U.S., enthusiasm for Pet Sounds reached a climax in the U.K., where the album sparked something of a competitive race to find ever-stranger, more glorious ways of producing rock music. (The Beatles created Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in response.)
By the spring of 1967, the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile was reviewed in Hit Parader magazine next to another new album by EMI’s most mysterious underground act—Pink Floyd and their much-anticipated debut, Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The group had grown out of the UFO Club in Central London, where they became house band to the city’s wildest in sound, art, and drug experimentation. Within a year, both Brian Wilson and Pink Floyd’s mercurial leader,
Syd Barrett, would be forever linked as rock’s most tragic acid casualties. Yet in 1967 the two men’s quirkiness was matched by an immense dynamism for studio craft. Barrett’s magnetism translated also to the stage, where the high coiffed psychedelic dandy was the sex symbol the band would never regain in his absence.
Pink Floyd preceded their lip-synced performance of Barrett’s “Apples and Oranges” on Bandstand with a brief trek up to San Francisco, where they played the Fillmore Auditorium on Geary Boulevard. At the absolute epicenter of the psychedelic explosion, Barrett stood frozen on-stage, strumming the same chord all night long. To those who didn’t know better, such bizarre behavior was easily confused for stage fright or avant-garde posturing. Barrett’s bandmates knew better. Having earlier that year consumed LSD for a month straight, Barrett was becoming mentally unglued.
In L.A. the next week, Pink Floyd played the Cheetah Club at Pacific Ocean Park in Venice, where, according to several attendees, Barrett performed energetically and the crowd responded enthusiastically. An anonymous writer for the Los Angeles Free Press described it as “a hurricane of color, bringing total sensual involvement of audience and performers, each involved in the creation of [an] aural/visual experience. The creation belonged to Pink Floyd, but there was ample room for all of us to share their visions. At the end, [however,] the audience might have been another creation of the facile, collective mind of Pink Floyd.”
The band returned to L.A. in 1968 to play the Shrine Auditorium, near USC. The old Shiners ballroom hosted the Academy Awards in 1947-48, though by the mid 60s, Frank Zappa and other counter culture acts had rechristened it the newest home for psychedelic freak-outs. By summer 1968, a young George Lucas was the in-house projectionist of the ballroom’s acid light shows, while Endless Summer poster artist, John Van Hamersveld, became the designer for the popular Shrine/Pinnacle concert series. Syd Barrett, however, did not make the trip, having been kicked out of Pink Floyd earlier in the year.
As the band went through the process of reinvention following the departure of their charismatic leader, 27-year-old George Greenough was busy cruising the Channel Islands in Central California with his modified 16-foot Boston Whaler. The coupe-style boat was cut from surfboards, re-shaped, and glassed into a shell that allowed him to set lobster traps and go shark fishing along the way to esoteric surf spots. He also continued experimenting with motion pictures, having modified a 16mm camera inside a waterproof casing that he’d mount to his back. The results would comprise his first film as director, The Innermost Limits of Pure Fun (1970).
“It was a no-money project,” reflects Greenough from his home today. He claims no more than twelve hours of total footage was shot over a two-year period. Edited free of dialogue and narration, Innermost Limits featured only the sound of a band who called themselves Farm. Its members included brothers Daryl, Dennis, and Doug Dragon, who’d also played as The Dragons on the soundtrack for Dale Davis’ DIY surf documentary, Strictly Hot, in 1964.
Combining stock surf instrumentals with soulful organ and jazzy vibraphone, both soundtracks prefigured the liquid progressive sound that ran through cosmic surf films of the early-to-mid 70s and set the stage for Greenough’s collaboration with Pink Floyd.
One underground magazine likened Innermost Limits’ slow-motion shots from deep inside the curl to Stanley Kubrick’s fisheye lensing of interstellar space, describing it as “a surfing version of 2001: A Space Odyssey.” The closing sequence of Innermost Limits—titled “The Coming of the Dawn”—boasted nine minutes of close-cropped, slow motion shots of tumbling waves in a kaleidoscope of colors without a single human crossing the screen. Aussie surf photographer John Witzig described it as, “forms and patterns of water… [the] sort of personal experience that’s usually beyond communication.”
Greenough himself surmised its impact in a 1970 interview, saying: “The answer to my identity lies in ‘The Coming of the Dawn.’ All answers lie within yourself. The mind is such a powerful thing with several different planes of thought below the consciousness. The further down you go, the more power there is.”
There were, in fact, a number of skillful cinematographers working in surf documentaries by this time,not to mention the esoteric video installations of Bill Viola, whose footage of oceanic bodies and vast lakes captured the strange subtleties of water as only modern technology could have allowed. And yet, in those nine minutes that closed Innermost Limits, Greenough’s unparalleled skill as an aquatic athlete, as well as his clandestine ability to invent, proved otherworldly.
It is perhaps this rare combination that brought Greenough to the attention of Pink Floyd. By 1970, the band—under the new leadership of bassist Roger Waters—had shored up their reputation as one of the best live acts on the planet. When they saw Greenough’s movie at the legendary Big Yellow House in Sydney, they were so impressed they offered to donate music to his as-yet untitled next work. According to Greenough, Oz filmmaker David Elfick worked out the details, which gave Greenough permission to use Pink Floyd’s music on the condition that his experimental footage be projected behind them during their next tour. With a commitment in place, Greenough set about crafting a longer, more fully realized version of what he’d started with “Coming of the Dawn.” He would title it, simply, Echoes.
To be sure, the film did not feature original music. The title song originally took up the entire second side of Pink Floyd’s 1971 album, Meddle. Originally titled “The Sons of Nothing, Pts. 1-24,” “Echoes” was sewn together from six individual sequences, condensing the band’s signature trance-like drums, droning basslines, ethereal organ, soaring slide-guitar figures, and airy vocal harmonies into what Waters described as an “epic sound poem.” Drummer Nick Mason says it was simply an “attempt to do something by a slightly different method.” In fact, “Echoes” represents the full maturity of the band’s post-Barrett sound and musically set the stage for their breakout success with Dark Side of the Moon (1973).
Echoes begins underwater in the quiet rumble of the ocean’s blue/green undertow, where a series of heavily processed piano notes match the mysterious visuals perfectly. A hand-drawn font of the title soars in from the left corner through the forming wave at center-screen and off into the distance. When David Gilmour’s languorous guitar filters in, a fish-eye view of the first giant swell cascades in super-slow-motion toward the lens, beckoning the viewer unto its shared experience.
“I’m always looking for swells that tell stories,” notes Greenough of the secluded Australian sets he captured over a two-month period. “Most of what was in Echoes came from the kind of winter swells that you get every ten years or so. I can count ’em on one hand. The whole time I was shooting, I was the only one out there.”
As a mix of green algae and white foamy bubbles dance across the screen like abstract marionettes, Pink Floyd captures the ecological romanticism with cryptically poetic lines like, “rolling waves in labyrinths of coral caves…echo of a distant tide,” where “everything is green and submarine.” Greenough synchronizes as the sun spikes the lens, leaving glistening sparkles to glow across the surface of the black water. When the music veers into a funky instrumental cadence, waves crash from all directions, water dripping in a cinematic montage that is both disorienting and invigorating.
“It looks fluid,” quips Greenough of the experience capturing these sets, “but you got punished out there. The camera would just fall off my back, the power of the swells would rip the bolts of the casing right off.”
Midway through, the music descends into an echoey sequence of whale sounds, droney keyboards, wind effects, and distorted seagull squawks. These were created by guitarist David Gilmour, who’d reversed his guitar tone through a wah-wah pedal in between session-takes and found the effect exhilarating. The Byrds had previously created a similar ecological tone-poem on “Dolphin’s Smile” from their proto-progressive Notorious Byrd Brothers album of late 1967. What was a brief experiment within a short rock song for the Byrds is expanded here by Pink Floyd into a fully realized structure that transforms Greenough’s wildest shots into a kind of visual raga junket.
Greenough saved some of his most ominous tube shots for the final third of the film. Herein, Pink Floyd’s music emerges from the drone of the whale sequence with a progressive instrumental buildup, matched visually by a wave that seems to climb up the right side of the screen. Like a gaseous nebula being born around an exploded constellation, Greenough shows the primordial ocean to be made of the same mitochondrial stardust that began the self-cloning process, which eventually yielded each and every one of us.
It may be difficult today to understand what an absolute seismic shift Echoes was in surf filmmaking during the early 70s. Yet, sensing that the film’s strangeness might alienate the average viewer, Elfick suggested he and Greenough put a frame around Echoes.
Elfick’s Crystal Voyager (1973) is a 78-minute travelogue of Greenough’s many adventures and innovations, with Echoes bumped onto the end, just as “Coming of the Dawn” had done for Innermost Limits. If such efforts in straight narrative seemed a step backwards after the cosmic abstraction achieved by Echoes, Crystal Voyager proved a savvy business move. It went on to become one of the top-earning Australian surf films of all-time. It also screened at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival and later shared a doublebill with Rene Laloux’s animated classic, Fantastic Planet, for a record-breaking six-month run in London’s West End.
Pink Floyd themselves screened Echoes to massive audiences in the U.S., projecting the film during live performances of the title song. Greenough, on the basis of Innermost Limits and Echoes, was suddenly in demand as a water photographer for Hollywood commercials and films.
He would serve as cameraman for a number of popular water sequences, most notably on Big Wednesday (1975), which served as an antidote of sorts to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), a film that instilled mass hysteria toward the mysterious sea. Alas, the progressivism of the early 70s would soon fade, exemplified by heroes like the rifle-toting beach ranger who, in blasting a carnivorous Great White into oblivion, brought the natural world back under the control of the establishment. Out of touch with this changing tide of anti-hippie tropes in pop culture, Greenough continued right on making short films that were never released.
By the late 80s, he was working on a documentary about dolphins, for which he crafted a camera housing shaped like the sea mammal to keep pace underwater. Titled Dolphin Glide, the 35mm film would consume his creative time for the better part of fifteen years, where the perfectionist Greenough struggled to bring the production to a proper conclusion, claiming, “lately the water hasn’t been clear—too much pollution.” An edit was sequenced in 2003, though, to this day, few have seen it. Doubtless, it is hard to imagine a film more aloof to the capitalist greed of the late 80s or the disillusionment of the 90s.
In the end, it comes as little surprise that such ideological withdrawal would underpin Greenough’s later work. He came out of a period of spirited descent, where those of affluent background—including the middle-class Cambridge boys of Pink Floyd—became wholly devoted to such liberal prescriptions of unrestrained hedonism. Moreover, what he most presciently shared was a penchant for anonymity. In Greenough, especially, the work is rarely apocalyptic, like that of George Orwell, or preachy like the Beat Generation. Instead, like Courbet’s “The Wave”—a close-cropped, disembodied painting from 1850—Greenough’s films remind us that the great romance we have with the natural world is in its promise of temporality and insignificance. They can be dismissed as anarchical, overly arty, or even pious, but only if you start by taking them seriously. In so doing, one discovers that what is new in Greenough is his execution rather than his theory.