Various Artists – Surf-Age Nuggets (review)

Various Artists – Surf-Age Nuggets – Trash & Twang Instrumentals 1959-1966 (S’More Entertainment / RockBeat Records) review

Ladies and gentlemen – please welcome the return of the box set!

Ahhh the multi-disc box set – virtually out of step in the current world of downloadable, package-less music.  These collections peaked during the CD boom of the Nineties, containing inventive tracklists, handsome booklets featuring archival photos and insightful liner notes, housed in clever, lavish packaging.  It was the kind of thing you were proud to own.  But, recent cuts at most of the reissue labels have all but put an end to the format.  Until now.  Along comes RockBeat Records, which is staffed by some of the folks that used to run the great Rhino Records, and a fine new box set called Surf-Age Nuggets – Trash & Twang Instrumentals 1959-1966.

A REALLY great box set doesn’t just compile a genre, it adds to it.  The first Nuggets garage rock box, the One Kiss Can Lead to Another girl group set, and the Beg, Scream & Shout soul collection, are all examples of boxes that contributed a girth of previously unheard songs to each genre (for proof of the impact of this, see the obscure song “Spazz” by the Elastik Band, featured on the Nuggets box, which was recently used in a TV commercial because of the inclusion on that box).

Surf-Age Nuggets continues in this vein, unearthing 100 little-known, and downright unheard of tracks, all in the surf rock style.  No, you won’t hear “Pipeline” by the Chantays, but you will hear a lot of songs that echo that famous instrumental.  With nary a hit in sight, this collection is truly a treasure-trove for the surf instrumental fan.

Things get started on disc one with “Doheny Run” from the Velvetones – the echoed guitar, pounding drums and stop start tempo all pay homage to “Wipe Out” from the Surfaris.  There’s nothing high-tech about this music – this track dates from 1965, but it could’ve been from 1958.  But, there’s an immediacy that’s captured here that you just can’t get in a big expensive studio.  And, not all the bands originate from Southern California – the rockin’ 12-bar blues of “Scrub Bucket” comes courtesy of Johnny McCoy  & the Cyclones from Springfield, Ohio.  The “Pipeline” feel is successfully captured, complete with dripping guitar and cascading organ, on “Night Ride” from the Ramrods.  There are some crazy tracks here – “Earthquake” from the Emeralds is wild, while The Phantoms “X-L3” sounds like surf rock from outer space.  Taking the cake is the politically-incorrect “Mr. Custer Stomp” from the Scouts, with Indian-style whoops and percussion, but its insistent beat is killer.

You’d think 100 obscure instrumentals would drag on after awhile, but there’s just enough diversity here to keep things going.  Check out the screams on the Reekers’ odd “Don’t Call Me Fly Face,” or the Arabian feel of “Garden of Eden part II” from the Lincoln Trio for proof.  And, surf pioneer Dick Dale makes an appearance with his Bo Diddley-infused “Jungle Fever.”  Dale is again referenced when the Emotionals tear through his classic “Miserlou” to begin disc two, while the Velvetones offer up some spy music on the eerie “Mr. X.”  “Windy and Warm” from the Travelers sure sounds like “Stray Cat Strut” from the Stray Cats, which came years later…was Brian Setzer a fan?

Each band seems intent on drenching their guitar in more and more echo.  Eventually you get “Madalena” by the Mockers, which sounds like their guitar is actually under water!  “Snake Eyes” is another standout, complete with honking sax and rolling dice sound effects.  Amongst all this 12-bar blues is “Loophole” by the Royal Coachmen, which almost has a jazzy feel to it.  Sometimes things border on the amateurish, as in the Nautiloids’ “Nautiloid Reef,” which sounds like the drummer just started learning his instrument before entering the studio.

“BaTmoBile” from the Squires actually lives up to it’s title, complete with fake crowd effects and ferocious guitar soloing, while “Road Runnah” from the Road Runners will make you hit that accelerator harder.  “Do It” by the Countdowns is an excellent piece of low fi rock, complete with gut-wrenching screams and super-distorted guitar.  “Uprising” by the Cherokees features an uncharacteristic slinky bass line, over more Indian whooping.

Disc four has probably the most experimental tracks of the lot.  “The Birds” from the Motivations, complete with psychotic bird effects, is one strange record among many, while “Ali Baba” from Dave and the Customs has Spanish overtones.  “The Rise” from St. John & the Cardinals features one of the oddest beats on a rock record, and it’s so frenetic, I don’t know how the drummer keeps it up for the whole song.  There are more ballads on this disc, and Jim Head & His Del Rays’ “Harem Bells” is one of the best.

Interspersed with the great songs are commercials and movie trailers taken from the time period.  The Vox amplifier ad, which name-checks the Beatles & Stones, is a real hoot.  There’s also an added bonus at the end of disc four – over 16 minutes of surf commercials and radio airchecks, which is worth the price of this set on it’s own (hearing a young Casey Kasem do a movie promo for “Pacific Vibrations” and describe it “like Woodstock on a wave” is priceless).

The set comes housed in a long, rectangular hardbound box with surfboards on the front.  The discs all resemble the volume knobs on a popular amplifier of the time.  The real treat is the booklet, which features introductions from Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers and Chris Isaak, both gushing with their love of the genre.  That’s followed by a brief history of surf culture from ex-Rhino VP James Austin.  There’s also entertaining track by track notes, helping explain the origins of these crazy tracks penned by surf aficionados Alan Taylor and Dave Burke.  Also included are tons of great photos, concert posters, comics and other archival pieces that help further tell the surf music story.

Kudos for RockBeat for picking up the gauntlet.  Get ready to catch the wave.  –Tony Peters