Surf's Up

A new boxed set reveals the dark side of catching a wave.

The exhaustive liner notes that accompany Cowabunga! The Surf Box, a four-CD set recently issued on the Rhino imprint, are certainly respectful of the musical category dubbed surf; you'd expect nothing less from John Blair, author of The Illustrated Discography of Surf Music, 1961-1965, widely acknowledged as the most loving and comprehensive look at its subject. Likewise, Blair's light, just-for-fun tone is certainly defensible, since only a few of surf music's well-known practitioners have confessed to overweening artistic ambitions. Most fans of the style, too, regard it as rather benign--a backdrop for hedonism, perhaps, but hedonism of a freshly scrubbed type. However, dismissing these songs as a harmless good time is selling them short. What jumps out as one listens to this noteworthy package is not simply the energy and immediacy inherent in the music, but the aura of foreboding that suffuses so much of it. As director Quentin Tarantino understood when he placed Dick Dale's seminal "Miserlou" beneath the opening credits of Pulp Fiction, there's something creepy, even disturbing, about the best of this stuff--which is precisely why it sounds so good all these years later.

Dale, who looms over Cowabunga! like the innovator he is, certainly understands that danger and surf music should be twinned whenever possible. In an interview with Westword in 1994, he disclosed that as a youngster, he tried to emulate the explosive drumming of big-band legend Gene Krupa by "picking up a set of knives and playing them on a set of canisters." Later, after settling upon the guitar as his weapon of choice, "I wanted a fat, thick sound," he recalled. "Now, at that time, I was living with cheetahs, leopards, lions and tigers. I found that them and people who surfed were the only ones I could get along with. Surfers were for real and so were animals. If a tiger liked you, he licked you. If he didn't like you, he ate you."

So, figuratively, did Dale. He nicknamed his ax "the Beast" for a reason; he preferred to overwhelm his fans, not soothe or seduce them. His first successful ditty, 1961's "Let's Go Trippin'" (included on Cowabunga!), lacks the growl he'd perfect later with the help of Leo Fender, who invented a special amplifier just for him. His playing, accompanied by a bawdy saxophone, is almost jaunty throughout it. But "Miserlou," from early 1963, is something else entirely. Introduced by a rolling surge of bass strings and random shouts from Dale that reverberate with agony and ecstasy, the song is an aural pile driver dominated by scorching fretboard runs and chaotic trap-work that would do Keith Moon proud. Oblique Spanish touches, including some odd, quasi-flamenco guitar and dueling saxophones that achieve an almost trumpet-like pitch only add to the mystery. Both this tune and its immediate successor, the relentless "Surf Beat" (also on display here), are great dance tunes, but they'd provide just as appropriate a soundtrack for, say, a barroom brawl or an amphetamine party gone awry.

In this respect, surf music mirrors the rise of other bold instrumental rock and roll of the late Fifties and the early Sixties. As Blair points out in his Cowabunga! essay, the raw, edgy quality of these numbers was in part a reaction to the smoother, less raucous rock then being foisted on the public by the record industry. Fabian and his pre-packaged ilk may have appealed to a sizable audience, but their essentially phony creations didn't slam the solar plexus as did the music of Elvis Presley and his young rockabilly rebels a few short years earlier. The Southern California garage bands that eventually fell under the surf umbrella provided an antidote to this disturbing wave of conformity.

Disc one of this set, subtitled Ground Swells (1960-1963), serves as an effective overview of the genre's development. The first track, 1959's "Bulldog" (by the Fireballs, from Raton, New Mexico), contains the seeds of surf even though it makes no reference to oceanside iconography; its echoey guitar is a more polite variant on the approach Dale would eventually take into the stratosphere. The Gamblers' "Moon Dawg!," the Revels' "Church Key" and the Frogmen's "Underwater" exhibit related proclivities, but they lack the sinister air that distinguishes 1961's "Mr. Moto." Recorded by the Belairs, a combo from the South Bay section of Los Angeles, the cut makes no reference to surfing--the title references the protagonist from a series of Peter Lorre movies made during the Thirties. But its moody, minor-key melodicism exuded the restive atmosphere that Dale and his apostles would later explore. Other artists also caught this spirit: Examples on Cowabunga! include the Surfmen's "Paradise Cove," in which nirvana is made to seem positively deadly; the Sentinels' "Latin'ia," a macabre excursion into the world of exotica; and "The Rising Surf," by Richie Allen & the Pacific Surfers, a track that is as ominous as a hurricane warning.

Amid the captivatingly melodramatic gloom that dominates disc one, "Surfin'," by the Beach Boys, seems even sunnier than it otherwise might. But those observers who dismiss auteur Brian Wilson as nothing more than a fluffy popmeister are missing the subtext in his songwriting. For instance, "Surfer Girl," which appears on Big Waves (1963), Cowabunga!'s second disc, showcases the neurotic streak that helps so much of Wilson's material transcend its seemingly humble origins.

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