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“We’re Gonna Have a Surfin’ Hootenanny!”

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July 4th weekend is upon us, so what better time for an old fashioned “Surfin’ Hootenanny”?
I first took note of Al Casey’s divinely goofy surf pop single on Rhino’s four-disc Cowabunga box set. On disc two, ‘tween a sax-heavy instrumental entitled “Surfin’ At Mazatlan” and Jack Nitzsche’s orchestral surf masterwork, “The Lonely Surfer,” was this cut, and every time it popped up, I’d do a quick Whaaaaa? In basic sound and substance, the track stretched about as far from the genre as you could get and still be called surf music. But it was also wackily appealing.
Sung by the Blossoms (Darlene Love’s early group) under the name the K-C-ettes, the 1963 song is a simple entreaty – C’mon and join the surf music celebration! – with journeyman guitarist Casey (played lead guitar for Sanford Clark’s 1956 rockabilly classic, “The Fool” and was part of Duane Eddy’s pool of musicians for years) doing imitations of three big-name guitarists just to show off his dexterity. Though the lyrics reference the then au courant folk boom, the K-C-ettes sound more like an easy listening choral group than either folkies or rockers. Rosemary Clooney’s kid sisters, perhaps.

The tune was written by L.A. music pro Lee Hazlewood. Like Casey, Hazlewood had worked with Eddy but was on the outs with the twangy guitarist at the time. Just contemplating the song’s conceit, you can pretty much reconstruct the creative processes that must’ve led to his composition: Hey, surf instrumentals are still pretty big and this folk stuff seems to be catchin’ on with the kids, too, so why not combine ‘em? From such crassly commercial logic can sometimes come pop greatness – or at least endlessly replayable folly.
Casey and Hazlewood did a second track with the K-C-ettes, “Guitars Guitars Guitars.” It wasn’t as successful a single as “Hootenanny.” But listening to it today, the cut is even more rollicking: the girls singin’ about a nonstop barrage of rock guitars in their neighborhood (“Guitars groovin’ in the alley/Guitars comin’ through the walls/Guitars sneakin’ round the corner/Guitars wailin’ down the hall”), only they’re not complaining about the noise, just describing how cool it sounds where they live. Casey’s guitar solo is edgier and more piercing than the surf sounds he assays on the earlier track. Perhaps it was closer to the sound he really liked creating.
Both tracks show up on Al Casey’s first full release, inevitably entitled Surfin’ Hootenanny (currently available as a Sundazed reissue). Because it was released in the days of one-or-two-hit-singles-plus-filler LPs, the rest of Casey’s album is devoted to more traditional surf instrumentals, recorded in July of ’63 with session pros like Leon Russell and Hal Blaine. Fun for fans of echoey tremolo (Casey and co. even do a version of “Caravan” sans drum solo and “The Lonely Surfer” without the French horns), but nowhere near as grand as the album’s two vocal numbers. Perhaps if “Guitars” had matched the first single’s fluky success, Casey & Hazlewood would’ve pursued the sound further, reworked it until every teenager across the country had grown utterly sick of the sound. Sometimes, failure can be a good thing.
Still, “Surfin’ Hootenanny” has since become a part of my yearly summer soundtrack. Hopelessly dated, the sound of studio musicians blatantly reaching out to capture the Youth Market yet somehow still having fun as they try, pure summertime silliness . . . what’s not to like?

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.