“I Am A Surfer / Musician”

Laid Back (EM RECORDS EM1093CD) by Corky Carroll & Friends is the last item in the lovely box sent to us in May 2012 by the Japanese EM Records label, whose choice of unusual, obscure and fascinating reissues is only surpassed by the high quality and attention to detail with which they are produced…in 2008 we took in a scad of excellent Surf Music reissues from this label, all of them superb-i-mundo, having grown into firm favourites for this ho-dad over the years…it was the first we’d heard of The Farm, Peter Finch, Tully, Tamam Shud and the Tim Gaze Band, and these oddities were a rich mix of home-recorded surf music and soundtracks to rarely-seen surf movies, with sleeve notes giving many glimpses into this rarefied hothouse culture…with the reissue of Corky Carroll’s Laid Back, another piece of this odd sand-encrusted jigsaw is now in our fingers. For starters, this 1971 album was produced by Dennis Dragon, the main man behind The Farm, and like Carroll himself a genuine pro surfer first and foremost who had turned to musical endeavours…all the performers on the record were bona fide surfers too, and the record was put together as a sort of road-trip with mobile studio, dropping in on these coast-dwelling sports types at their homes and recording them al fresco, au naturel…a garage surf record…a field recording, in places, if you count the gentle birdsong in background…if surf music by surfers was a form of indigenous folk music, then Dennis Dragon was acting as an unofficial Peter Kennedy or Alan Lomax type…

Of course the record itself is not like The Farm at all, nor is it surf music in the mode of Dick Dale’s razor-edged axe solos or lush Beach Boys harmonies, as Corky himself points out in his plain-spoken sleeve notes (the complete absence of any hi-falutin self-serving nonsense on this whole record is a breath of fresh air). It’s mostly acoustic guitar music played by enthused amateurs, an album which you wouldn’t mind filing one or two inches away from your Fahey and Kottke LPs. Raymond Patterson is a Hawaiian guitarist, and his exquisite ‘Maui Chimes’ would make a grown man cry. Al Oakie is a blues player who also sings without a trace of caustic anger or bitterness and blows his harmonica in melodic ways. David Lyons has a strong and elaborate style of finger-picking that will intrigue followers of Basho. Liane Hirschl warbles in solemn tones like a fourth-division version of Joan Baez; she may not have the protest elements or been loved by the media, but she scores more field goals with her plain manner. Hana is a four-piece band whose splendid ‘Hanalei’ even has the sound of the surf crashing waves recorded in the background as they perform a perhaps surprisingly ultra-mellow piece of cocktail lounge music on two guitars, bass and piano, one you could comfortably use to sip your evening pineapple juice laced with hot lava. Their ‘Ain’t Nothin’ (In the World)’ is also a chord-heavy sweet smoothster, an incarnation of milk-white non-soulful soul boys The Alessi Brothers a few years before ‘Oh Lori’ was a hit.

Carroll himself only appears on the album quite briefly as it turns out, once as part of a combo on ‘Waikiki Shuffle’ and on two short solo bursts, but his sturdy acoustic guitar style is a resonating delight. ‘Sparkles’ last but a minute, was used for a movie called Five Summer Stories, and is sixty seconds of nostalgic warmth; ‘A Walk On Hot Sand’ is another unaffected and moving melody. Carroll would go on to make about 20 albums in the next forty years, but this is his first and represents his all-acoustic phase. Maybe he was playing Jerry Garcia in reverse. It also represents virtually nothing to do with surfing culture per se as far as I can tell; virtually none of the track titles refer to shooting the curl or hanging ten, and instead seem to celebrate the joys of a solitary and simple beach-side lifestyle with lots of sunshine and fresh air. A fulfilling life one suspects, and one that is also of course incredibly relaxed, hence the title. In all a very pleasing if non-essential item, and what I will keep it for is its lack of pretensions and refreshing aural honesty. Interesting fact: Corky Carroll was approached by The Beach Boys in the 1960s and invited to appear in a pop promo movie for them, also to accompany them on a tour just so they could say they had an actual surfer in the famously non-surfing (except for Dennis, a little) surf band. Carroll declined the offer because he was so “into” his professional career as a surfer at the time. Now there’s integrity for you!