Surf's Up!

You would be hard-pressed to find a genre besides instrumental surf music that can paint such vivid pictures in the mind's eye. It doesn't take much more than those first strains of twangy, heavily reverberated Fender guitar and primal, frenetic drumming to evoke crystal-clear images: fearless wave riders ripping the curl; parties on sandy, bonfire-dotted beaches; cruising oceanside highways with the top down on a warm summer's night; reruns of Hawaii Five-O on Saturday afternoons (or the original prime-time run if you're old enough to remember). And though surf music incorporates Polynesian rhythms and Mediterranean melodies, it's as uniquely American as jazz, baseball, and cowboys.

But when Jimi Hendrix uttered the words "You'll never hear surf music again" in his 1967 song "Third Stone From the Sun," he was nearly right: Between those turbulent times and the burgeoning heavy psychedelic rock movement, the carefree, idyllic soundtrack to Southern California beach life that had thrived just a few years earlier appeared feeble and superfluous. It had already been dealt a near-mortal blow by the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion, and by the time the Sixties were over, so too, it seemed, was the surf party. For most of the following 25 years, surf music lay fallow -- unless you count stuff like the Ramones' brilliant 1977 cover of the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird," the very modest early-Eighties revival spearheaded by Jon and the Nightriders, or the Pixies' use of it in their demented altrock -- giving credence to Jimi's prophecy.

But then out of nowhere came the landmark film Pulp Fiction and its hugely popular soundtrack, which featured pioneer Dick Dale's masterfully distinctive "Miserlou"; as well as a bevy of well-regarded indie bands -- among them the Mermen, Man or Astro-man?, and Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet -- who introduced the music to a whole new generation while incorporating elements of punk rock, old sci-fi imagery, and even space rock. Suddenly the style was hip again, albeit embraced by two camps: those nostalgic for its original laid-back, clean-cut, playin'-for-kicks-and-chicks appeal; and an equally appreciative yet edgier crowd who, like Quentin Tarantino, often spied a dark, sinister, and even somewhat raunchy vibe in those same tunes.

Unlike other Nineties fads like ska and swing, the renewed attention didn't translate into any major chart-topping hits. Yet surf music hasn't faded away. Still a staple of hipster get-togethers and TV commercials alike, it's even gotten a boost in the last couple of years as an undeniable aesthetic influence and frequent component of numerous bands aligned with the garage-rock renaissance (the White Stripes' Jack White got his start as the drummer for a Detroit surf-country outfit called Goober & the Peas).

And so the search for the old sounds continues. Granted, albums by mainstays like Dale and the Ventures are readily available on CD at any major record store. Rhino even offered a decent overview a few years back with its Cowabunga! box set, which packaged well-known tracks with a good helping of the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. But it's been tougher for fans interested in hearing more obscure instrumental garage-surf combos who also contributed to the genre. Generally that means having to trawl dusty thrift-store bins in the hopes of unearthing some vinyl treasures. For a lot of people, half the fun is in that hunt, but if you're looking for a shortcut Sundazed Records has issued the first three volumes in the Lost Legends of Surf Guitar series. Packed with rarities and previously unreleased songs recorded between 1961 and 1964, the collection is already shaping up to be the Nuggets of surf music.

The first volume, Big Noise From Waimea!, invokes the name of the legendary Hawaiian wave that was considered the true test of a surfer's mettle back in the Forties and Fifties. Performed by the Ebb Tides, the newly unearthed title track epitomizes the stylistic intent of many a surf band: mimicking the sounds and spirit of surfing with their instruments. The reverb provides the necessary "wetness" and sense of open, expansive spaces. The primal drums imitate your quickening pulse as you enter the tube. The bass feels like the board under your feet, solid and reliable yet rumbling from the motion of the ocean. The menacing saxophones remind you of the danger you're facing. The background whoops and hollers and the simple, driving chords capture all the adrenaline and sheer joy you feel as you engage in the ride of a lifetime.

That vibe is best represented on the first disc by Dave Myers and his Surf-tones' "Gear!"; the Centurions' "Ishamatsu" (their "Bullwinkle Part Two" was one of the best tracks on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack); and the Original Surfaris' (not the Surfaris, who are responsible for the ubiquitous "Wipeout") phenomenal "Exotic." Curiosities include the Essex's schlock-horror "Cemetery Stomp," which features some especially tasty organ and fuzz-guitar work; and the Menn's "Ian Fleming Theme," which merges the surf sound with suave spy film atmospherics.

Point Panic! continues that mood via the Catalinas' stirring "Banzai Washout" and the Trashmen's version of "Walk, Don't Run," which was originally a gigantic hit for the Ventures. The second volume also brings California car culture into the mix, whether it's the hot-roddin' "Burning Rubber" by Gene "the Draggin' King" Moles and "Boss Machine" by Jan Davis, or the more leisurely drive of David Marks and the Marksmen's "Travelin'." Two of the disc's most striking and innovative tracks, "The Gremmie Part One" and the suggestively titled "Shootin' Beavers," come from Washington state's the Tornadoes, whose recording sessions were fittingly engineered by a young Frank Zappa.

The third volume, Cheater Stomp!, is almost entirely devoted to tracks produced by Richard Delvy, who was the drummer for one of the first instrumental surf bands, the Bel-Airs. Many of the standout acts here such as the Challengers ("Volcanic Action," which teems with awesome boogie piano), the Vibrants ("Wildfire"), and the Progressives ("Hot Cinders"), were lost in the foamy seas while the Chantays and the Ventures became household names. Lost Legends of Surf Guitar finally gives all of them their due while allowing you to hold onto these waning summer days just a little bit longer.

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Michael Alan Goldberg