Surf At The Fringes

Imagine a debate between conservatives and liberals where the liberal argues for conserving the past and the conservative argues for natural evolution. This is exactly what is afoot today. This nastiest of all polarizing conflicts exposes the curious underbelly of supporters and foes on both sides. It is often exemplified by emotional and contradictory positions, inflated rhetoric, and in some cases, extreme actions.

Case in point, Surf retro versus envelope pushing.

History plays a big part in this tension, both because of it and despite it. When Surf first emerged, it was just instrumental rock 'n roll. It was surfers that first were drawn to the new variant, and they did what they still do... dub any music they like as "Surf Music." The fledgling genre was practiced almost exclusively by non-surfers, and it was a living evolving idiom, fast becoming a genre.

Within the first few years of it's life, it went from the dry delicate guitar interplay of the Belairs through the heavy handed staccato style of Dick Dale on to the damped reverb sound of the Chantays and finally merged with space, Latin jazz and Mariachi via the Nocturnes and others.

Surf was clearly on an evolutionary path. It's near-complete disappearance at the hands of the British Invasion stopped that evolution cold in it's tracks. For the next twenty-plus years, Surf was a frozen form, worshipped as an historical treasure to be preserved in tact. Indeed, for the first ten years of the Surf Revival, the primary practitioners were purists. From the inauspicious launch from John Blair's living room with his seminal Jon & the Nightriders and the Surf Raiders, through the eighties with bands like the Shockwaves, few pushed the envelope successfully. When they did, they were viewed suspiciously.

Notable exceptions were the Insect Surfers with their desert sounds and twin lead duels, the Mallards with their edgy effected guitar, and the Thrusters with their Sex Pistols approach to Hendrix at the Wedge. This was augmented by the inclusion of some Surf classics in the sets of non-Surf bands fronted by surfers like Agent Orange and Radio Birdman.

As the eighties came to an end, the genre restarted it's evolution. Quietly at first, almost unnoticed, the new life began to drift from the traditional sounds and instruments towards infusions of jazz, psych, garage, punk, pop, techno, and more. In 1988, Jim Thomas breathed the first life into the Mermen with a back-room 4-track recording of some tunes he had just written inspired by Dick Dale, Richie Podolar, and others. Soon, others would follow, bringing in many influences and ideas previously unknown in Surf. If you listen to the new young purists, you'd think this was sacrilege, but notice the vintage artists on this brief influences and elements list:

Surf and...
Captain Beefheart The Reventlos
Country Dave Myers & the Surftones
Junior Brown
Folk Rock The Van Slyke
Fairport Convention
Frank Zappa Pollo Del Mar
Jazz GT Stringer
Jim Waller & the Deltas
Lounge Four Piece Suit
The Astronauts
Jim Waller & the Deltas
Mariachi Dave Myers & the Surftones
The Nocturnes
GT Stringer
Metal The Thrusters
The Reventlos
Psychedelic The Mermen
Yeah Yeah Noh
The Index
Iron Butterfly
The Aqua Velvets
Punk Agent Orange
Squid Vicious
Chachi Bobba Fett & the Wookiee
The Torpedoes
The Thrusters
Rockabilly The Reventlos
The Meteors
The Cadillac Angels
Buzzy Frets & his Surfabilly Orchestra
Johnny Waleen
Ska The Halibuts
The Fender Four
Bad Manners
Roland Al
Southwest Desert The Insect Surfers
Pollo Del Mar
Space The Nocturnes
Spaghetti Western Death Valley
The Insect Surfers
The Aqua Velvets

It is ironic that the folks who want to preserve surf in a sort of living museum, who are so vehemently opposed to bringing in influence such as psychedelia and jazz, are protecting a genre that was full of these very influences. Psych was already creeping in before it even had a name, and surf was a foundation part of the sound of Iron Butterfly
Numerous of the West Coast surf bands in the mid sixties were influenced heavily by West Coast jazz, lounge, and Latin, and took those sounds with them into garage and psych bands like the Index. So why clamor about Steve Khan's "Penetration"?

There is not more clear an example of a song on the cusp than Johnny Waleen's "Mystery Train" with it's "Pipeline" rhythm guitar way out front and pure Rockabilly vocal style. Imagine explaining to an alien that yesterday's evolution is pure and today's evolution is pollution, that change must stop to protect life, which at it's root is change.

Hell, it's arguable that one of the first rock songs named specifically for a drug was "L. S. D. 25", the B-side of the Gamblers' "Moon Dawg". It is the very revitalization of Surf Music via the new evolution that has brought it back to life. The bands with the buzz are the bands at the edges, with the exception of the lo-fi or vinyl worshippers, who are at odds with this.

This is where it gets really funny, because the "alternative" people seem to be the ones shunning the "alternative" to yesterday's sound. What's stranger yet is that the holy war is one sided. The retro folks seem to attack everyone else at every turn, sure the war is to the death, while the "New Surf" crowd seems hardly to notice, loving the traditional sounds just as much as the bleeding edge sounds. This is, of course, the story of all life, and of social and technological change.