Sound Check

For obvious reasons, surf music will be forever linked to summer. This is the time of year that record companies are inclined to blanket listeners with yet another mini-wave of sun-and-fun nostalgia. Not that summer is the only time such sounds are permitted. Historically, February has been as good a month as any for Southern California hits. Plenty of chilly Americans in places such as Akron and Buffalo have eagerly consumed surf's reverbed guitars, chugging, island-style beats and seamless, high-pitched harmonies even though they lacked the appropriate climate and surroundings.

It's easy to understand why. Surf music has always been synonymous with escape -- escape from the cold, the wet, the dreary, the drudgery of the nine-to-five routine, reality in general. The exhilaration of fun without limits, and the implied innocence that comes with it, have sustained the genre through more than three decades. It's likely these same qualities had a hand in sparking surf's mini-resurgence in the 1990s, and they've kept the music's leading father figure, guitarist Dick Dale, afloat and thriving when, nearing 60, he could just as easily be resting on his well-waxed laurels.

This longevity is even more impressive considering that surf music had all the external markings of a fad. Its peak period lasted a mere three years, from 1961 to 1963, and only a small percentage of the tunes that made waves in California during that time had any impact nationally. By 1964, it was pretty much finito for surf's widespread appeal. The Beatles had shifted the attention of suburban American teenagers overseas, the Motown sound was taking hold in the big cities and the public mood was shifting from optimism to cynicism, swayed by events such as the Kennedy assassination. Fun-loving and oblivious to the end, surf music (excluding the Beach Boys, who were never just surf anyway) painted itself into a blindingly idyllic corner.

It's appropriate, then, that Rhino has devoted half of the new four-CD Cowabunga! The Surf Box to surf's early '60s heyday. The Los Angeles label -- which specializes in ingeniously packaged, exhaustively researched reissues and boxed sets -- does a typically fine job on CDs one and two of mixing the most popular singles with the most influential music (these were not always one and the same) of that period. Aware that learning about the people and the stories behind the music is half the fun, Rhino enlisted the aid of noted surf culture authority John Blair to help produce Cowabunga! and assemble its liner notes and booklet. Blair's historical essay is thorough without being overlong, and his track-by-track notes are as well written and informative as Dick Dale's foreword is pointed and witty. Rounding out the effect are band publicity stills; pictorial collages of various memorabilia, including posters from The Endless Summer and other classic surf films; a surf-speak dictionary; and vintage shots of the action in the water and on the beach. The whole package reeks of meticulous detail -- right down to the box itself, which has the speckled look of a freshly waxed surfboard.

Although surf's salad days may have been numbered, an astonishing amount of music was recorded in a brief span by groups that came and went, often in a matter of months. Acts such as the Fireballs, whose coolly executed instrumental "Bulldog," recorded by Buddy Holly producer Norman Petty, kicks off Cowabunga!'s first CD, Ground Swells (1960-1963). Ground Swells contains the tracks crucial to surf's formative years, as well as some fun distractions. "Bulldog," recorded in 1959, falls in the first category; it may well be the first recording associated with the California sound (which is ironic, considering the group was from New Mexico). The song had all the earmarks of things to come, including a raw, rockabillyish mesh of picked notes and strummed chords, a straight-ahead beat and the echo effect (achieved in a special studio chamber designed by Petty) that would come to epitomize surf guitar a few years later when Dick Dale plugged in his first reverb unit.

Dale and his Del-Tones get due credit on Ground Swells with the inclusion of three gems: 1961's "Let's Go Trippin'," Dale's first chart hit and the first single truly distinguishable as surf; the menacing "Miserlou," revived recently in all its devilish glory for the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction; and the less widely known but equally influential "Surfer Beat," with its driving rhythm and dueling sax and guitar. Also on disc one are early essentials such as the Surfaris' "Wipe Out," the Gamblers' "Moon Dawg!" and the Chantays' "Pipeline." Not only were these great surf instrumentals, they were some of the greatest rock instrumentals ever.

Cowabunga!'s second CD, aptly titled Big Waves (1963), focuses on the year surf music came out of its geographic shell. The Beach Boys' "Surfin' " (which is on Ground Swells) may have been the first widely recognized surf single to incorporate singing (rather than barks, hollers and inconspicuous background harmonizing) as a lead element, but it was the group's "Surfin' U.S.A." that became the style's first unabashed vocal breakthrough. The perfect choice for disc two's leadoff tune, "Surfin' U.S.A."'s immaculate harmonies helped push it into the top ten nationwide. Still, a significant chunk of Big Waves eschews singing for playing, which makes sense, considering that instrumental surf bands far outnumbered the vocal groups. Aside from occasional flashes of innovation (the Pharos' "Pintor," with its distinct Mexi-Middle Eastern flavor; Jack Nitzsche's lushly orchestrated mini-opera, "The Lonely Surfer"; and Dale and the Del-Tones' "King of the Surf Guitar") too much of the material merely refines -- or worse, imitates -- the structures, ideas and themes of earlier singles. The intermittent smattering of vocals provided by the Beach Boys' "Surfer Girl," the Honeys' "Shoot that Curl" (produced by Beach Boy Brian Wilson), Jan and Dean's "Surf City" (written by Wilson) and a precious few others help humanize things somewhat.

If disc two only hints at why a few years was more than enough for surf music to run its course, what remains of Cowabunga! drives it home with a disconcerting mouthful of ocean water. Despite noble efforts to keep the California dream alive from the Surfaris ("Bombora"), the Sandals ("Theme from Endless Summer"), the Pyramids ("Penetration") and a few other stubborn hangers-on, the box set's third CD, Ebb Tide (1963-1967), is largely a wash -- repetitive, recycled and only intermittently interesting. And with the exception of the Mermen, the Aqua Velvets and the ageless, unrelenting Dick Dale, the artists that loosely make up surf's post-modern contingent -- represented here on the fourth and final disc, New Waves (1977-1995) -- have little new to offer but improved production values, random novelty appeal (Corky Carroll and the Cool Water Casuals' "Tan Punks on Boards") and, in some cases (Surf Punks' "My Beach"), obnoxious, decidedly unfun attitude. Tag these last two CDs "for completists only." Still, the first two CDs make Cowabunga! a rad investment. (*** 1/2)

Cowabunga! steers clear of the road-related themes that were another aspect of the California sound, perhaps for risk of spreading itself too thin, but where the Rhino set is lacking, Gary Usher Greats Volume 1 is happy to pick up the slack. In addition to his song-writing collaborations with Brian Wilson on "Fun, Fun, Fun" and other auto-related Beach Boys hits, Gary Usher was the all-around handyman at Capitol Records in 1963 and '64. During that period, Usher and his "troops" (as he called his cache of crack studio musicians) were the label's unofficial house band for all things surf and hot-rod related. Greats Volume 1 combines two long out-of-print studio projects from Usher: the Kickstands' Black Boots and Bikes and the Knights' Hot Rod High. Unlike the Beach Boys' four-wheeled material, much of the music on this CD, while sharply recorded, is conspicuously lacking in the pop touch provided by Brian Wilson. Without that melodic ingenuity, most of Usher's well-executed tales of truancy, drag races and motor-bike mamas remain stranded at the starting line. (**)

A little better is Rare Surf Volume 3: Johnny Fortune & Johnny Barakat and the Vestells, which combines the reissue of Fortune's 1963 Soul Surfer LP with a collection of little-known tunes recorded by his pal and onetime touring partner Barakat. Fortune's "Soul Surfer" single was a notable contribution to the oeuvre (which is why it's included on disc two of the Rhino collection), but the rest of Soul Surfer is like-minded surf instrumentals -- pleasant as beach-barbecue background music, but hardly earth-moving.

For his part, Barakat never made it far enough to record a proper full-length release, and these primitive recordings are all that's left as a document of his brief, undistinguished career. You can hear the potential in these tinny-sounding instrumentals, but that's about all -- though there is an amusing bit of tape with Barakat screaming orders to his dad in the studio. Not surprisingly, you won't find any Barakat in the Rhino box. (***)

For anyone but the most die-hard Kahunas, Cowabunga! is more than enough wave action for your wallet (sadly, you can't buy the discs separately; if you could, Ground Swells and Big Waves would be enough). The AVI discs, like the final two in the Rhino set, are really for cultists only. Like all good music should, surf's best moments transcend seasonal, regional, cultural and generational barriers to serve as a universal soundtrack of summer, whether the season is outside your door or only inside your mind. -- Hobart Rowland

***** Hurricane swell
**** Primo pounder
*** Decent point break
** Mild chop
* Flat as glass

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Hobart Rowland