In 1996, Rhino Records released Cowabunga! The Surf Box, a four-disc celebration of surf music, both vocal and instrumental, from its earliest days to the then-present. It’s taken more than fifteen years, but James Austin, the co-producer of that long-out-of-print box, has returned with an all-new companion piece. Surf Age Nuggets, released through the RockBeat label (ROC-CD-3098), offers another four discs’ worth of “trash and twang instrumentals,” as the cover promises. Its 104 tracks include some of the rarest of the rare surf tracks, and they’re almost exclusively from artists of whom you’re not likely to have heard. So while the Rhino box included hits from The Beach Boys, The Ventures, The Bobby Fuller Four and Annette Funicello, Surf Age Nuggets instead concentrates on artists with names like The Newport Nomads, The Elite UFO, The Toads and Calvin Cool. Drawn from the period of 1959-1966 (the golden age of the surf instrumental), the box set – nattily packaged in a hardbound book format – is a collector’s dream.
Surf Age Nuggets’ four discs aren’t arranged chronologically, which may be the only detriment to its well-told story of the surf music underground. Virtually every one of these songs conjures up an image of girls on the beach, as the California sun shines bright. Of course, their boyfriends are nearby, showing off their hot rods or their new woodies. So it’s most surprising that many of these tracks were recorded far away from the Pacific Ocean. These fast-and-furious, guitar-driven nuggets originated in places as far-flung as New Mexico, Alabama and Arizona, proving definitely that California was as much a culture as a place. Regional labels latched onto the surf craze and made music as compelling as that being issued by the majors of the day. It’s unclear what guitarist Terry Schmidt of Minnesota knew about 80-foot waves, but he certainly delivered with a song of that title for his band The Vaqueros. (The band’s name, of course, was inspired by The Fireballs’ hit song.)
Long before punk, surf rock quenched a desire for a primal, DIY sound. Though many of these tracks are sonically primitive, almost all burst with the reverb-drenched energy of rippling and twangy guitars, booming drums and distinctive bass. Some even add saxophone or organ to the mix; a piano truly stands out on Steve Rowe and the Furys’ 1965 “Minor Chaos.” Sprinkled throughout these four discs are a few familiar names or titles. Arguably no surf compilation would be complete without at least one song from Dick Dale, so Nuggets has included his less often-heard, Bo Diddley-inspired “Jungle Fever” with its kooky jungle hollers and sounds. Dale’s “Jungle,” however, is less strange than the bizarre, war-whooping “Mr. Custer’s Stomp,” a 1962 single from The Scouts! Dale is also represented indirectly with the 1966 recording of “Misirlou” [sic] by Wisconsin band The Emotionals. Dale’s 1962 recording of the song may be the most influential surf recording of all time, but The Emotionals’ charged versions shows there was still life in the chestnut yet.
What else will you find? Hit the jump and catch a wave!
There are crazy curios a-plenty. The Ric-a-Shays’ “Turn On” features the overdubbed voice of Harry Nilsson and a well-placed quote from The Beatles’ “Please Please Me,” and The Losers’ “Snake Eyes” more spoken-word intoning plus the sound of dice rolling (hence the title) and some oddly-placed saxophone accents. The Avengers VI, out of Anaheim, California, covered The Ventures’ cover of Richard Rodgers’ ballet “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” for a Good Humor promotional LP. What the notoriously purist Rodgers felt about these surf versions of his On Your Toes music is unknown, but The Avengers VI’s version is so hot, it could melt away that ice cream in a flash. Jim Head and His Del-Rays concocted something called “Harem Bells,” which is surf-meets-snake charmer.
The surf genre also frequently tapped into the zeitgeist of popular culture. There are a few songs titled after the Caped Crusader, Batman, although The 4 of Us’ “Batman (Freefalling)” and The Squires’ “BaTmoBile” [sic] bear no relation to Neal Hefti’s familiar Bat-theme. Another costumed hero is referenced with “The Marauder,” a track from Midwesterners Robin and the Three Hoods. All of the band members dressed like Robin Hood and his Merry Men! And lest all of the heroics be left to masked men, The Twilights paid tribute to the suave spy James Bond with their own composition entitled “007” from 1965. John Barry, of course, wasn’t too far away from the surf style when he arranged Monty Norman’s famous Bond theme for Vic Flick on guitar.
You’ll also notice some familiar names outside of just the song titles. But some groups aren’t their more famous counterparts – The Tradewinds aren’t the “New York’s a Lonely Town” group, and The Persuaders aren’t the fellas who walked that “Thin Line Between Love and Hate.” But some artists are the genuine articles. In addition to the Nilsson cameo, you’ll also find an early Frank Zappa production from Paul Buff’s Cucamonga studio. “502 (Getting Pinched on a 502)” from the Rhythm Surfers is just strange enough that it’s completely believable as a Zappa work. The instrumental, titled after the penal code for driving under the influence, is punctuated by hysterical yelps. Bobby Fuller, pre-Four, is heard on “Stringer.”
Though most of the tracks here are filled with attitude, there are some mellow sounds, like the evocative ballad styles of The Vibrants’ “The Breeze and I,” actually recorded at Hollywood’s famed Gold Star Studios, and The Vaqueros’ “Desert Wind.” “Swamp Surfer” from The Irridescents [sic] has a nice tropical vibe to it, which may be no surprise since the Los Angeles group’s most lasting accomplishment was a surf version of another Richard Rodgers song, “Bal’i Ha’I” from South Pacific! And The Debonairs’ moody “High Wall” does The Wailers’ original proud.
A certain amount of similarity does pervade this set from track-to-track, as the genre isn’t notable for its diversity or studio experimentation. By its nature, the exhaustive Surf Age Nuggets aimed most at collectors. But producer/compiler Austin does mix things up a bit with the inclusion of scene-setting and era-defining radio jingles, commercials and movie trailer audio vignettes. Also included are examples of pre-surf music which sound awfully close to the “real thing” and a number of “hot rod”-type songs infused with the sand-and-surf ethos, too. (And don’t turn the fourth CD off after the final listed track! That’s all I’m sayin.’)
The most attractive aspect of the enclosed book is the track-by-track annotation by Dave Burke and Alan Taylor which sheds much-needed light on these artists who otherwise would have remained footnotes in music history. (One small note: it would have been prudent to include the disc/track number with each annotation. Though the information is presented in order, one has to consult the track listing at the back of the book or the box set’s rear cover to find which track is which.) Two fine introductions are also provided by artists for whom surf music was an influence, Mike Campbell of The Heartbreakers and Chris Isaak. Campbell underlines the similarity between surf and punk, noting that “you could start a band with limited technical know-how and get gigs.” Isaak reminisces about his own days immersed in the surf culture, correctly advising listeners to “turn it up loud enough [as] this record can start a swell!” Austin provides an essay, as well, and the entire 60-page book is generously illustrated in full color with fun and nostalgic images of advertisements, album covers, photographs, single labels and examples of surf in mainstream comic books and greater popular culture. Jerry Peterson at Sound Avenger Studio has remastered, and though sound quality varies from track to track, these old 45s still crackle with energy that threatens to overtake one’s speakers.
If you’re ready to ride, ride, ride the wild surf, RockBeat’s Surf Age Nuggets is just what the doctor ordered. Hang ten!
You can order Surf Age Nuggets here!