“You’ll never hear surf music again,” is a very famous line from “Third Stone From the Sun,” from Jimi Hendrix‘s debut album Are You Experienced (1967). That lyric was taken by many (including myself, until I learned the truth), as something of an indictment of the whole surf scene of the early ‘60s. The reality is that Hendrix wrote the words in tribute to one of his heroes, “The King of Surf Guitar,” Dick Dale.
At the time, Dale was diagnosed with what was thought to be an incurable form of cancer. Miraculously, he beat the odds, and is still making amazing music to this day. In a very sad irony, Dick Dale wound up recording a version of “Third Stone From the Sun” as a posthumous tribute to Hendrix. As interesting as I find that story though, my point in including here is that those lyrics about “never hearing surf music again” seem to have taken on a life of their own, regardless of the truth.
If one looks at the surf scene as represented by movies such as Beach Blanket Bingo, then yes, it does appear to have been a pretty innocent time. But give a listen to the brilliant selection of songs on the new four-CD set Surf-Age Nuggets: Trash & Twang Instrumentals 1959-1966, and you will come away with a very different impression. These tracks feature some of the rawest, coolest, and most “rebellious” music as any I have heard. Many of them are also among the rarest 45 rpm singles ever released.
As something of a record collector myself, I am all too familiar with the desire to own the most obscure items ever released. It is almost an affliction really, and sometimes the music itself gets lost in the hunt. It is pretty clear that James Austin, who compiled and produced Surf-Age Nuggets, is first and foremost a music fan though, because there is nary a dud in this collection.
The whopping 104 tracks are spread out over the course of four CDs, and housed in an outstanding box set. You open it up, and the CDs are held in place on the front and back covers. Almost as cool as the music is the 60-page book between the covers. The introduction is written by Mike Campbell, of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Following this is an essay from Chris Isaak about his love of surf music in general. Next comes “Surf-Age Culture,” an article written James Austin. In it, he talks about not only the music, but of the cultural phenomenon that surrounded the era as well.
The main body of the text features a paragraph or so about each song. These notes were written by Alan Taylor and Dave Burke, of Pipleline magazine, and they really know their stuff. There are also some fabulous pictures, including vintage ads for Fender guitars, and even a “Fender Pretender,” from the Kent Guitar Company. That one is hilarious; it features a band set up on the beach, surrounded by some hot chicks with surfboards. The musicians are (of course) all dressed up in their stage suits. There are also some fantastic comic-book covers reproduced, including one featuring Wonder Woman surfing!
As wonderful as the packaging is though, Surf-Age Nuggets is all about the music. If ever there were a collection with which you could just hit “shuffle” on your CD player, and never be disappointed, this is it. There are even some surf-related ads included. These feature spots for radio stations and soft drinks, as well as trailers for movies such as The Horror of Party Beach and House on Haunted Hill.
While I expected that there would be plenty of great music, I was still a little surprised at the consistently high quality of the material. Those ads and movie trailers are an inspired inclusion by the way, as they really make you feel like you are listening to AM radio (in your car, of course) back in the day.
With so much music, we have to begin somewhere, so I will start at the top. “Doheney Run” (1965) by the Velvetones is the first track of the first disc, and rocks most convincingly. As is apparent in nearly everything on the set, the use of reverb, monster riffs, and a rhythm section that holds everything in place, this music just screams “Surf!” Although I have never surfed a day in my life, (living in Seattle is hardly conducive to the sport), these songs seem like the perfect musical representation of what it must be like.
Many of the tunes start out in a manner which suggests paddling out on your board, then hitting that big wave. When the (usually very brief) introduction is over, the music just takes off, and never lets up. Surf music is almost always associated with the guitar, but once in a while the lead is taken by the drums. The very second song is a great example. “Sheba” (1963) by The Shan-Tones (where do they get these names?), is very much driven forward by the drums.
Chronologically, the earliest track on the set is “Scandal” (1959) by King Rock and the Knights. In addition to the previously mentioned musical discussion of each song, the book also lists the label, the number, and the date of release for each. Reading between the lines, it appears that many of these records were one-shots. My guess is that quite a few of them were self-released, and probably sold on consignment in local Southern California record shops. Most of this material is pretty obscure; in fact, there is even an “Unreleased/Undubbed Version” of “One Pine Box” (1965) by The Royal Flairs included.
With the enormous success of the new James Bond film, Skyfall, we are reminded that the original Bond theme was most definitely in the surf mode. Surf-Age Nuggets includes a “James Bond Trailer,” followed by the song “.007” (1965) by The Twilights. The Batman TV show was also very popular at the time. While Neil Hefti’s theme for the program is not included, we do get the wild “Batman (Freefalling)” (1965) by a group called the 4 of Us. There is also the interestingly spelled “BaTmoBILE” (1966) by The Squires. 1966 is the cut-off year for the set, and another very interesting tune from that year is “Tarantula” from a group calling themselves The Elite UFO.
Although the vast majority the groups on Surf-Age Nuggets are quite obscure, there are a few well-known artists included. Dick Dale & His Deltones make an appearance with “Jungle Fever“ (1962). You may remember the Bobby Fuller Four, who had a big hit with “I Fought the Law” in 1966. Before the Four though, Bobby Fuller recorded solo, and his “Stringer” (1963) is on the set.
Surf-Age Nuggets was obviously a labor of love for James Austin, although I imagine that tracking down all of these songs was quite a task. It is intended as a companion to the excellent (and long out of print) Rhino Records box set Cowabunga! The Surf Box, which he co-produced with Jon Blair in 1996. The Rhino collection was awesome, and contained many well-known surf songs such as “Wipe Out” by the Surfaris, and “Surfin‘ Bird“ by The Trashmen.
For the most part, Surf-Age Nuggets contains undiscovered gems that evoke a time and a place that is now simply a part of history. It is definitely one of the finest collections of this sort I have seen though. In closing, allow me the indulgence of flipping the title of a great tune from The Ventures, “Walk, Don’t Run.” In regards to Surf-Age Nuggets, I suggest that you “run, don’t walk” to your local record shop to get it.