The 10 best beach moments in culture

Don’t tarry at the water’s edge – take the plunge with some of the beach’s hottest starring roles in culture

Beach Party Tonight

Yo La Tengo, 2003

Yo La Tengo Beach Party Tonight.
Yo La Tengo. Photograph: PR

Many songs celebrate the hedonistic pleasures of the beach, but this is one of the few to address the perils of overindulgence. With its languorous beat, woozy atmospherics, muffled vocal and forward-and-back washes of brass, it’s the aural equivalent of mild sunstroke setting in after a day on the sand, when you’re jolted awake after a prolonged doze with a nascent headache starting to pulse, and it seems to you, in your zonked-out state, that the best solution is just to stay exactly where you are and let everything drift in, and out, and in, and out…

Dover Beach

Matthew Arnold, 1867

Dover Beach, Dover, Kent, UK.
Dover beach in Kent. Photograph: MS Bretherton/Alamy

We’re not short of lyrical tributes to the coast – after all, Britain has more than 11,000 miles of it – but the most famous English beach poem is a long way from Oh I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside, despite Arnold composing it while on honeymoon with Frances Lucy Wightman in 1851. He invites his reader to hear “the grating roar/ Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling/ At their return, up the high strand”, as bringing “the eternal note of sadness in”. He invokes Sophocles, bearing similar witness on an Aegean beach to “the turbid ebb and flow/ Of human misery”. The final verse posits that love may be the only solace in the face of these enduring verities, though whether it was added as a result of Ms Wightman entreating Arnold to lighten up remains a matter for conjecture.

Beach Blanket Bingo

William Asher, 1965

Beach Blanket Bingo: Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Mike Nader, 1965.
Beach-sploitation at its best: Beach Blanket Bingo. Photograph: Everett/Rex Shutterstock

Widely regarded as the high-water mark of the Malibu-set 1960s series of teen beach-sploitation movies (though the previous Muscle Beach Party featured the big-screen debut of “Little” Stevie Wonder, while the future Ghost in the Invisible Bikini would feature a bewildered-looking Boris Karloff in one of his final roles), BBB boasts all the genre staples: cheesy songs, slapstick pratfalls, wafer-thin plot lines, Health & Efficiency swimwear and Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello as the bronzed innocents who overcome the mildest of perils (a singing starlet – played by Krystle from Dynasty! – kidnapping by a biker gang, skydiving surfers, a passing mermaid named Lorelei, even a cameo from Buster Keaton) to find true love as vanilla as their ice-creams.

Coney Island Beach

Weegee, 1942

5th July 1942:  A crowded beach of New York's Coney Island.
The Spider among the crowd at New York’s Coney Island Beach, 5 July 1942. Photograph: Weegee/Getty Images

The stock in trade of photographer Arthur Fellig, aka Weegee, was a down-and-dirty, after-hours realism – crime, corpses, mayhem – that went far beyond hard-boiled noir. Not a sneakers-and-T-shirt kind of guy, you might think. But during the hot summer of 1942, he was commissioned by the tabloid PM to document how people were coping and headed out to capture the tens of thousands broiling in Coney Island, a once tiny resort now embraced by – and teeming with – the masses. With his whatever-it-takes brio, he climbed up on a lifeguard station and screamed and danced until everyone was looking his way, including, in a suitably noirish touch, a hangman-like figure in a mask. “He calls himself the Spider,” noted Weegee with relish, “and he likes to frighten people.”

The Terminal Beach

JG Ballard, 1964

JG Ballard at his home in Shepperton, Surrey, 2006.
JG Ballard at his home in Shepperton, Surrey, 2006. Photograph: John Lawrence/Rex Features

Liminal spaces – abandoned high rises, marooned flyovers – were always central to Ballard’s pre- and post-apocalyptic imagination, so it’s no surprise that the many beaches that feature in his oeuvre tend not to be places of bucolic retreat, but, rather, as in this story from 1964, sites of seething menace and latent (or not-so-latent) violence. A disturbed man named Traven, shattered by the recent loss of his wife and child, is washed up on the shore of a Pacific atoll once used for nuclear testing: “Exhausted, [he] walked through the darkness among the dunes, where the dim outlines of bunkers and concrete towers loomed between the palms.” His descent into madness is enlivened by some choice Ballardian dialogue: “This island is an ontological Garden of Eden, why seek to expel yourself into a world of quantal flux?”

Fatboy Slim’s Big Beach Boutique II disaster


Crowd on the beach at the Big Beach Boutique.
Revellers at the Big Beach Boutique II. Photograph: Everynight Images/Alamy

Kim Kardashian’s jaunty rear merely broke the internet – in 2002, Fatboy Slim, AKA Norman Cook, broke an entire beach. The previous year, he’d held a free concert at the water’s edge in his home town of Brighton that attracted 60,000 revellers. The following year, in the midst of a mini-heatwave, about 250,000 turned up. The beach was jammed, traffic was gridlocked, and when Cook finished a truncated set at 10.30pm most people opted for a raddled night on the pebbles, with lifeboat crews hauling drunken partygoers from the sea. Cook paid an estimated £300,000 for the subsequent three-day clean-up operation, which saw 160 tonnes of rubbish picked from the beach and sand-blasters assailing urine-drenched walls.

The Persistence of Memory

Salvador Dalí, 1931

The Persistence of Memory.
Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

The arguments about the meaning of Dalí’s 1931 masterpiece can forever be rehashed – are the droopy watches a surrealist rejoinder to Freudian fear of impotence or Einsteinian theory of relativity? Or were they inspired, as Dalí asserted, by a runny Camembert, or simply the temporal melt induced by exposure to a savage Spanish sun? – but beyond the fever-dream foreground lies a punctiliously accurate beach scene, representing the Cap de Creus peninsula and the strand at Cadaqués in Catalonia, a central part of Dalí’s childhood landscape and a frequent, emotionally charged backdrop for his swarming ants, spindly legged elephants and Great Masturbators.

From Here to Eternity

Fred Zinnemann, 1953

Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity.
Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

Surf’s up and all over Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, he a first sergeant and she the wife of his commander, conducting an affair in Hawaii in the lead-up to Pearl Harbor. The movie’s most famous scene was considerably toned down from James Jones’s source novel, but, as the foam breaks and the orgiastic music swells, there could have been no doubt, even to a 50s audience, that this relationship was being thoroughly consummated. It was filmed at Halona Cove, on the island of Oahu, and it was apparently Lancaster’s idea to do the scene horizontally rather than vertically, thus giving the Hays Code, which stated that adulterous relations on screen should be presented in a way that would not “arouse passion”, a thorough drenching.

Yellow video

Coldplay, 2000

Chris Martin in the video for Yellow.
Chris Martin in the video for Yellow. Photograph: PR

“Look at the stars/ Look how they shine for you/ And everything you do…” It’s a nice irony that the song that, above all others, has earned Coldplay their reputation for inchoate pomp uplift should have the most downbeat video imaginable; a four-minute tracking shot of Chris Martin walking along the deserted beach at Studland Bay in Dorset under leaden skies and in the teeth of a gale, his hair soaked and his kagoule dripping. The sun threatens – and ultimately fails – to peek out somewhere around the clip’s midpoint; otherwise, this iteration of Yellow displays at least 15 shades of grey.

Tracey Emin’s beach hut


Detail from Tracey Emin’s beach hut.
Detail from Tracey Emin’s beach hut. Photograph: Saatchi Gallery

Emin has always had an affinity with the rackety, slightly shopsoiled charms of the British seaside – she was originally “Mad Tracey from Margate”, after all - but the link was made explicit when she plucked a charmingly dilapidated blue beach hut from the seafront at Whitstable and exhibited it at the Saatchi Gallery in 2000 under the title The Last Thing I Said to You Is Don’t Leave Me Here. A somewhat torrid history may have been implicit in the work’s title – Emin had bought the hut with Sarah Lucas in 1992, and had previously shown a series of photographs of herself squatting naked in its splintery interior, taken by her then-boyfriend Mat Collishaw – but it didn’t stick around long enough to gain the same notoriety as her bed; it went up in smoke in the Momart fire in 2004.

Stuart Husband

The GuardianTramp

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