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Monday, November 5, 2012

Bo Diddley: Surfin' With Bo Diddley


1) What Did I Say; 2) White Silver Sands; 3) Surfboard Cha Cha; 4) Surf Sink Or Swim; 5) Piggy Back Surfers; 6) Surfer's Love Call; 7) Twisting Waves; 8) Wishy Washy; 9) Hucklebuck; 10) Old Man River; 11) Oops He Slipped; 12) Low Tide.

Allegedly, this is as much of an oddity in Bo's catalog as Bo Diddley Is A Twister, except that this time around I actually got to hear a crackly LP rip of these twelve tunes — recorded by Bo at the height of the surf-rock craze, in a strange, transparently misguided attempt to fool the young fans of Jan & Dean and the Beach Boys. After all, somebody must have thought, Bo is not on the album photo, and them kids these days will spring for anything with a tidal wave on the sleeve — you gotta be real dumb, after all, to listen to surf muzak in the first place.

Now the image of a «Surfin' Bo Diddley» would not be all that far removed from the image of Disney's dan­cing hippos, or that of King Arthur on ice, but, surprisingly, that is not what is wrong with this album. As a matter of fact, very few of its tunes, despite the misleading surf-related tit­les, have anything to do with surf-rock at all: the whole thing is basically an R&B album, almost completely instrumental and mostly drawing upon Ray Charles, Booker T. & The MGs, and a little bit of old-fashioned Chicago blues for inspiration.

The real bad news is that it does not sound much like a Bo Diddley album. Maybe that was the point — make a Bo Diddley album that does not sound like one. But when the artist already has an established style, such experiments more often fail than succeed, and Surfin' is no exception. For the first time ever, the guitar as such — at least, audible, significant guitar — does not enter in the picture until the third track: ʽWhat Did I Sayʼ is a sax-and-keyboards-dominated rearrange­ment of Ray's ʽWhat'd I Sayʼ, and ʽWhite Silver Sandsʼ is a merry, upbeat, brass-based instru­mental that seems to have been recorded while Bo and The Duchess were enjoying a snack in the cafeteria around the corner. Only on ʽSurfboard Cha Chaʼ does the six-string make its first appea­rance, playing a melody that is more... um, Del Shannon than Bo Diddley.

The biggest surprise of the album is that numbers with titles like ʽSurf Sink Or Swimʼ, which you would expect to sound like The Ventures, sound instead like ʽGreen Onionsʼ — crisp, aggressive, deceptively simplistic early blues-boogie-rock. The biggest disappointment is that there is hardly any need to hear them if you can simply go for the real thing instead. Likewise, ʽPiggy Back Surfersʼ is real­ly the old blues of ʽMe And My Chauffeurʼ, wrapped up in a little twang. And ʽSurfer's Love Callʼ, one of the LP's few vocal tunes, is nowhere near a ʽSurfer Girlʼ in style — it is more like a drunken, good-time Mardi Gras number, with Bo occasionally breaking into yodel­ling instead of bellowing. Some fine surfing out there on 'em pretty Alpine meadows.

The album's most radical rearrangement is that of ʽOl' Man Riverʼ, the one tune that Bo really tries to turn into a surf-pop song (and, perhaps, having a vocal part on top would have made the effort more noticeable). If that were the overall pattern — try to «surf-ify» various non-surf-re­lated stuff — the album could have had some value as a novelty piece. Instead, the overall pattern seems to be just duping the listener by putting false titles on formulaic R&B and blues-rock stan­dards. In a way, that is novel, too, and you could almost say that this is Bo's subtle send-up of the whole «jump on somebody else's bandwagon» movement, but that don't necessarily make it a rewarding listen. Thumbs down, in all honesty.


  1. For your information George (because I know this has been weighing heavily on your heart) the 12 CD boxset "The Chess Years" is readily available on the internet, with wonderfully remastered versions of both this album and "Bo Diddley Is a Twister".

    Btw, "Bo Diddley Is a Twister" is aboust as twist as this album is surf (in fact it opens with a pretty "surfy" cover of 'Detour'.) The real problem is that Bo has cut down on his rockin' power.

  2. Hi George,

    You are quite correct in your assertion that this doesn't sound like a Bo Diddley album. In fact, the majority of the tracks consist of a bunch of instrumentals that were recorded by Sun Records rockers Billy Lee Riley & The Megatons in Memphis, TN in March 1962.

    The 4 tracks that were actually recorded by Bo Diddley and his band are: "Old Man River", "Surfer's Love Call", "Surf, Sink Or Swim" and "Low Tide". They were recorded at the Chess studios in Chicago, IL in March 1963, quickly cobbled together with the Billy Lee Riley tracks by Chess Records and released as "Surfin' With Bo Diddley" to cash-in on the then current surf music craze.

    Needless to say, both Bo Diddley and Billy Lee Riley later disowned the album and it really is for Bo Diddley completists only.

    Kind regards & keep on rockin' & rollin'!

    1. Well, that's sort of a relief to know. Sorry for not doing the research on this, but I made a good guess!