Monday, December 15, 2014

CD Odyssey Disc 688: Dick Dale

Today is my brother’s birthday. Happy Birthday, Virgil! He was born in 1963 – the same year this next album came out. Considering how few albums I own from 1963 (this is only the second one I’ve ever reviewed) that’s one hell of a cool coincidence.

Disc 688 is…. Checkered Flag
Artist: Dick Dale and his Del-Tones

Year of Release: 1963

What’s up with the Cover? Dick Dale plays the part of race car driver, complete with sexy grease smear on one cheek. It is always interesting to me how records from the fifties and sixties will print the songs on the front cover (seen here) or include claims about how great the music is (sadly not seen here). Albums as pure art would come later, but in 1963 album covers also doubled as advertisements.

How I Came To Know It: I knew about Dick Dale from his surf guitar music, but when I saw this in the store it reminded me of my youth, growing up with songs about drag racing (I had a few on a skateboarding record when I was a kid). I took a chance that Dick’s racing music would be as good as his surfer tunes.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Dick Dale albums and I really like all of them, so it is hard to choose. That said, I’m going to put “Checkered Flag” at the top, bumping “Summer Surf” down to #2. A win for the Ho-Dads I guess (more on that later).

Rating: 5 stars

The California beach scene in the early sixties was full of young people into two very different hobbies – both very risky in their own way. There were the surfers, hitting the waves and hanging ten and there were the greasers, who were into fast cars and street racing. “Checkered Flag” is a record that gives the greasers their due.

Hot-rod music was a real thing in 1963, and I can’t think of a better album that shows it off than this one. Every track is a lesson in how to pack the feeling of howling down the road in an overpowered death machine into a two minute pop song.

Although not as omnipresent as on surfer records like “Surfer’s Choice” or “Summer Surf,” Dick Dale’s signature guitar sound is still on display. This is particularly true on the instrumental tracks, including “Surf Buggy,” “Mag Wheels,” and my favourite “The Wedge.” “The Wedge” is a furiously picked guitar piece that ranges up and down with the speed and skill of a Spanish guitar instrumentalist, but with a rock edge that defines Dale’s guitar sound.

On “Ho-Dad Machine” Dale slows his guitar down into an almost funky groove, but never loses that signature reverb sound. This is a song for cruisin’ the strip along the beach, checking out bikini-clad girls and giving surfers scornful glances. The car-loving ho-dads and the wave-worshipping surfers were known to often be in conflict for rule of the beach, or at least that’s what I read on the interwebs.

In fact, given that Dale is so well known as a surfer musician, it is amazing that he is so good at capturing the experience of the street-racer so effectively. The racing songs on this album make you feel like you’re right in the car with them. The songs have an urgency that makes you want to press the pedal down (thankfully I listened while walking).

They also have a fine touch of humour as Dale gives variations on the racing theme, whether the singer is playing the part of someone of someone getting beaten (“Grudge Run”) or showing up an overconfident opponent (“It Will Grow On You”). The latter song is about a beetle that has been supped-up into a ‘sleeper’ This is a car that looks like nothing special, but is fast as stink. I knew this term before I could even ride a bike, let alone drive a car. I guess that says a lot about the neighbourhood I grew up in.

Dale has a teen idol voice that is underrated, if for no other reason than his hands get all the attention. His singing style really works telling these songs; Dale comes off like a beautiful bad boy that every girl wants to bring home to scare their mothers. His backing band, the Del-Tones, have great doo-wop vocals on the tracks that call for them. The album also features a lot of saxophone (three different players) and they add another layer to the music that makes everything more festive and frantic. This was E-street band sound layering before the E-street band existed.

While this album is decidedly a hot-rod record, Dale never turns his back on surfers. Two of the songs are about beetles (a surfer favourite), and “The Wedge” can refer to an engine or a wave, depending on how you see it. By the time you get to the final track (in a breathless 25 minutes, you’re not sure if “Night Rider” refers to racing in the streets or surfing after dark. Dale helpfully keeps it as an instrumental, so you can have your cake and surf it too.

If the album weren’t perfect enough, there are two bonus tracks on my edition which are great surf songs. “Secret Surfin’ Spot” is a classic track about not giving away where you go surfing, lest the ho-dads and gremmies start filling the place up and crushing your groove. Of course, if the ho-dads did show up, they’d probably be listening to “Checkered Flag” anyway.

For years I’ve wanted to learn to surf, and to own a 1971 Dodge Charger. This album makes me feel like I’m living both dreams. I’m not sure if that qualifies as “changed me somehow” but this record is just too damned good not to give it 5 stars. When something is this thoroughly enjoyable to listen to from beginning to end, you gotta give it a perfect score. 

Best tracks: all tracks

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