Tell 'Em I'm Surfin'

During the sixties, for Midwestern teens like myself, surf music encapsulated the romantic ideal of California. Waves, sun, mobility, freedom -- it was all right there in the drip-drop of instrumental surf's "wet" sound, and in the Beach Boys' vocal paeans to life by the water. Imprisoned as I was by four months of Chicago winter, the style provided an imaginative door into a way of life I wouldn't experience until I moved to California more than a decade later.It makes perfect sense that Kicks magazine editor Billy Miller, himself a native of Brooklyn, New York, contributes the foreword to Cowabunga! The Surf Box, Rhino Records' new four-CD set devoted to the music, released on May 28. Miller rightly notes that surf music offered "a larger-than-life vision of the Promised Land" to landlocked youths; the durability of that vision is made plain over the eighty-two-track course of Rhino's thoughtfully prepared anthology.Cowabunga! was compiled by Rhino A&R exec James Austin and John Blair, a musician and scholar who may be the man best equipped to chart the genre's thirty-five-year history. Since the late seventies, Blair has led Jon & the Nightriders, the L.A. instrumental surf unit that, with the revitalized Ventures, served as the most high-profile reinterpreters of the style during its first, punk-epoch "revival." Blair is also a surf scholar and critic: The third edition of his book The Illustrated Discography of Surf Music 1961-1965, a handsome tome packed with obscure facts and dazzling pictures, was published last year by Popular Culture, Ink in Ann Arbor, Michigan.In attempting to compile a definitive overview of both instro and vocal surf, Austin and Blair arrive at the gate at just the right time. Interest in surf music, which has prevailed since the beginning of the nineties, has gone through the roof during the past two years, in no small measure due to the cannily assembled MCA soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. There has been no shortage of well-programmed surf collections, and labels like Sundazed, AVI, and Del-Fi have had signal roles in returning the best of the music to print. But Rhino has set out to create the Big Kahuna of boxed sets, and has largely succeeded, though not without a couple of wipeouts.Cowabunga! sets the stage beautifully on its first CD, Ground Swells, by wisely delineating the formulation of surf's instrumental conventions from the proto-surf instro bands of the day. Tracks by The Fireballs (three of whose albums have just been reissued by Sundazed), The Gamblers, The Revels, The Frogmen, and (most crucially) The Belairs show how surf was birthed from the "dry" sound of the sax-and-guitar-led combos of the era.Dick Dale's righteous role as the great architect of instrumental surf gets its fair due; Dale occupies five cuts on the box, three of them -- "Let's Go Trippin'," "Miserlou," and "Surf Beat" -- on the first volume. (He's also given the last word on the set with a track from his 1993 Hightone comeback album, Tribal Thunder.)Guitarist Dale was the right man in the right place at the right time with the right equipment: Playing to a crowd of surfers at Newport Beach's Rendezvous Ballroom in the early sixties, he found his high-velocity, double-picked style -- forged with Fender guitars and, later, outboard reverb units -- adopted, and named, by the wave-riding fans who heard the roar of the surf in his music's echoing rush. Other bands in the region, such as The Chantay's, The Surfaris, and The Lively Ones, rapidly appropriated the sound and the appellation, and some of their quintessential numbers are anthologized here.The second and third CDs, Big Waves and Ebb Tide, chart the ascendancy of surf through 1967, by which time the English invasion and nascent psychedelia had laid the formula to commercial rest. It's hard to fault Austin and Blair's selection of the instrumentals, which include seminal entries by, among others, The Astronauts, The Rhythm Rockers, Al Casey, The Centurions, The Crossfires, The Pyramids, The Trashmen, and The Challengers. I would have made some substitutions -- Bobby Fuller's "Our Favorite Martian" for his "Misirlou," Eddie & the Showmen's "Squad Car" for their "Mr. Rebel" -- but what's here still represents the apex of the genre.The vocal numbers, while not as numerous, are somewhat more problematic. Their inclusion is largely predicated by the importance of the Beach Boys, who invented the surf hymn with their 1961 single "Surfin'," which appears on Cowabunga! with two other early Boys songs. This is fine, but, if you're drawn, as I am, mainly to the purity of the instrumental surf style, you may find songs by the likes of The Surfaris, Chris & Kathy, The Honeys, and Annette Funicello to be hokey and intrusive. Sorry, but I've always found even the best of these tunes way corny, and even a little bit goes a long way. So sue me.The box wraps up with New Waves, a twenty- two-track overview of the post-'77 surf renaissance. Again, the novelty vocals here -- The Malibooz's "Goin' to Malibu" (a Rhino recording, by the way), surfer Corky Carroll's "Tan Punks on Boards," and the execrable Surf Punks' "My Beach" -- are highly expendable. But the instrumentals, highly subjective as their selection is, give a handsome summary of the international growth of the style. Early-eighties stalwarts like the Nightriders and The Surf Raiders are included. The nineties practitioners encompass SoCal homeboys like Insect Surfers, The Halibuts, and The Eliminators; furriners like The Looney Tunes (Germany) and Laika & the Cosmonauts (Finland); and neo-surf experimentalists like San Francisco's controversial but dandy Mermen.Teeth-gnashing aside, the box deftly avoids slamming into a piling, and it largely fulfills its ambitious mission. The nonmusical contents are nonpareil: One couldn't ask for a finer overview of the form than Blair's twenty-thousand-word essay, and hodads will appreciate the lengthy glossary of surf lingo. While not as wholly satisfying as Rhino's superb The Doo Wop Box, Cowabunga! will further feed listeners whose appetites were merely whetted by such previous Rhino projects as the Legends of Guitar and Rock Instrumentals surf volumes. At its finest, the set conjures surf's abiding appeal, as timeless and eternal as a wave crunching against a Pacific beach.

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