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Surf's Up

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

That many of the bands that chose to ape the Beach Boys rather than Dale were incapable of infusing their work with equivalent depth partially explains why singles such as "My Little Surfin' Woodie," by the Sunsets--on disc three, Ebb Tide (1963-1967)--date so badly. Cowabunga! compilers Blair and James Austin apparently agree with this assessment; although they include a handful of disposable novelties such as Annette Funicello's "Beach Party" and the Fantastic Baggys' "Tell 'Em I'm Surfin'" for historical purposes, they rightly focus on more substantial instrumental efforts. Acts like the Pyramids ("Penetration"), the Ready Men ("Disintegration"), the Rondels ("On the Run") and Boulder's own Astronauts ("Baja") may be remembered by only a few trivialists, but their sound is as immediate today as it was nearly two generations ago.

Proof of this contention can be found on disc four, New Waves (1977-1995). Eschewing the hit mentality that inspires the producers of many boxed sets, Blair and Austin use Cowabunga!'s final CD to spotlight those combos that have attempted to keep surf music alive. Some, like Jon & the Nightriders ("Storm Dancer"), the Surf Raiders ("Wave Walk'n") and the Cruncher ("The Rebel") do little more than mimic Dale and other role models, while the Malibooz ("Goin' to Malibu") and the Surf Punks ("My Beach") adopt surf techniques mainly because of the easy laughs and goof value they offer. But a majority of the New Waves songs from the Nineties are as notable for their inspiration as they are for their imitations. "Polaris," by the Insect Surfers, is both eerie and celebratory; Teisco Del Rey's "Pier Pressure" is simple, straightforward and beguiling; "A Night in Tunisia," by Laika & the Cosmonauts, calls to mind the late, lamented Raybeats (unfortunately not represented here); "Reverb 1000," from Man or Astro-Man?, is gloriously noisy; and a live version of "Honeybomb," by the Mermen, is an incendiary slab of guitar skronk. As for Dick Dale's "Esperanza," from his 1993 comeback album Tribal Thunder, it's hardly the wildest of his recent compositions. Still, the track is an appropriate way to conclude what is in many ways a encyclopedic look at Dale's influence.

"I do not play to musicians," Dale declared during his Westword interview. "I play to people. I've never taken a lesson in my life, and I can play every instrument there is. I just play by ear, but I can fool everybody into thinking that I went to some conservatory of music. I create a non-chemical river of sound, and I never know what I'm playing next. I never know how I'm going to play it, either. I just start and take what I feel from the audience, and it comes. There's no bullshit." That's some mighty big talk, and most performers couldn't back it up. But as Dale and his legion of acolytes show throughout Cowabunga!, he's not exaggerating. He may market himself as a surfer, but he's actually the Prince of Darkness.

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