What about The Ventures, the Fireballs and The Shadows, and Laika & the Cosmonauts & Los
Straitjackets. When you don't sing, and you sorta have a bit of that sound, are you a surfband?
Suppose you have this little four piece combo with a few friends. Two of you play guitar, one plays
bass, and one plays drums, and some of you sing. Pretty standard fair. Most bands start out like this.
Your band is different, though. Not by intent, but by limitation. Your vocal performances are met
with winces & calls to "shut up" 'cuz the gods of serendipity have granted your entire
entourage a complete and utter lack of singing talent. Undaunted, you continue your performance, but
without singing, thus avoiding a lynching. You've reinvented the rock instrumental, or maybe you are
set the model for instrumental bands for a long time to come, and several elements
of their structure & styling were key elements of surf. But, surf did not exist yet. When it was "invented" (read "labeled"),
some folks wanna go back & say "hey, this is surf too." But is it?
Maybe you're the Fireballs
, and your doing the same basic thing the Ventures
only earlier and in another part of the country. Maybe some 15 year old is listening an saying "Hey,
I can do that, and call myself the Belairs
." Does that make your music surf?
Suppose you're a back up band for sappy pop singers in Britain in the late fifties. Suppose when he
shuts up you play instrumentals. Suppose you're the Shadows
. Major influence, right? But, does
that make it surf?
' band the Storms
did killer instrumentals like "Thunder
the Al Casey
style (Al was in the Storms in-studio) used to such great effect by Duane Eddy
and this all happened before there was "surf." So when some snot-nosed 17 year old surf
punk yelled out "Let There Be Surf
," did that include Jody Reynolds
In nature, evolution occurs through successful mutation. In technology, it is often the recombining
of existing elements in a different way, or the introduction of a single new element. So it is with
music. When rock 'n' roll slammed onto the scene, it was neither new or different than that which
had been bubbling underground for a long time. When grunge suddenly became the darling of the record
business, it was not because it had just happened, but rather that they had just discovered that which
was already there. Mid eighties Seattle bands like Green River
were doin' it then in a mere
micro step of evolution away from what had happened earlier in Minneapolis with bands like Hüsker
, who were just a few steps away from...and so it goes. The question that evolution raises
is one driven by various perspectives...where does surf start & rock instro end?
It's like this. A band later labeled "surf" learns tunes by their early influences the Ventures
& the Fireballs
then write originals a mere micro step away. Once labeled "surf," does that move the envelope
of what is surf back to include the influences? Think of it this way. If you are standing in a blacksmith
shop & notice that the hot metal is giving of light, and you think "hey, maybe I could heat
metal to illuminate the night, and could call it a light bulb," does that make blacksmithing
part of the electric light genre? The answer is, of course not. But that's what we try to do with
music. We confuse the roots of the genre with the genre. The genre can't pre-exist, but rather is
just an envelope on the timeline of evolution, the boundaries of a Jurassic age.
Surfbands have been pushing the envelope of what is surf since the beginning. It's not unlike other
genres. It began with a few disparate styles that had little more than a lack of lyrics in common.
It got a name from it's audience, again a common theme. Over the year or so, the sound scope narrowed
as the definition became clear. Styles included originally would have been rejected had they happened
later. The whole South Bay sound would probably not be included in hind-sight had it developed after
the Orange County sound.
This happens to all genre. rockabilly began as little more than energetic electric country. If we
apply what we have all come to think of as rockabilly to many of the early recordings, we simply identify
them as country, not as rockabilly. That does not make it correct, but rather just exemplifies that
narrowing that yields to the archetypal sound of any genre.
Then, as more time passes, the practitioners begin playing with sounds, just slightly, and just one
day at a time, and begin introducing influences from various other genre. One day, its not that genre
at all, but yet another new sound. That is the normal evolutionary cycle.
Lots of new seeds, then a weeding out of the weakest, and finally a re-seeding to begin again, just
like in nature.
In the sixties, examples of surfbands pushing the envelope include the latter-day Bel-Aires
's line-up), the Fender IV
, the Index, and Iron Butterfly
The latter day Bel-Aires
(their spelling, not mine) also did some expanding. From Paul Johnson
original South Bay sound, defined by the delicate balance between lead and rhythm, evolved a post-Johnson
chunkiness, a grinding rhythmic sound in "Charley Chan
" and a sparse stop/start
kind of approach with a differently applied whammy bar in "Baggies
." On it's
own, it might not even be thought of as surf if it were not for the band's heritage.
LA's Fender IV
did two completely different things with their Orange County sound foundation.
One was the introduction of a prominent ska back beat, a trend not realized in surf fully until the Halibuts
use of it in the eighties. One of the best examples from the Halibuts is their version of the Fender
's "Malibu Run
." The other was injecting the use of a really heavy droning
lead that literally thunders along in their "Mar Gaya
," a song now covered
(worshipped) by many modern surfbands including the Trashwomen
, the Treble Spankers
and the Firebirds
. This heavy drone is just a stone's throw away from
's "Summertime Blues
The third & fourth examples are the late "post-surf" work from two bands with unique
approaches to the same idea. It's really difficult to draw the line where surf ends and psych begins.
Case in point is the Index
, whose "Israeli Blues
uses surf guitars in a most unusual off-time way, and combined with feedback their "Shockwave
neither psychedelic or surf, as you might guess from the title. Even farther a-field is their use
of surf guitars with a wonderful version of the Byrds
' "Eight Miles High
that's not strange enough for you, listen carefully to Iron Butterfly
, a much maligned band
whose best known for the dreadful "Inna Gadda Da Vida
," but whose recordings
are full of surf guitars and reverb kicks. Just listen to the end of "Iron Butterfly Theme
most of "Filled With Fear
." When did it stop being surf and begin being psych?
represent what Pink Floyd
would have been like had they come out of surf
instead of the Blues & "Louie Louie
." Great early Floydian organ and swirly
psychedelic guitar playing the surfiest likes known to man...but if you didn't know what you were
looking for, you might miss it. Their "The Surfin' Secret Agent A Go-Go
," and "Tijuana Marijuana
" are pure surf drowning in
can't really be considered as surfband, yet they did some surf tunes and used "the
sound" during one of their many chameleonic transformations. They are often the first band that
comes to mind for many. Why is that? They recorded precious little surf, probably less than 5% of
their output. Their two guitar-bass & drums format & The use of the whammy bar were foundationally
significant to the development of surf, but they came before it & never quite fit, so are they
a surfband? They did give us surfband standards like "Walk, Don't Run
," and "Diamond
likewise were a Ventures
-esq band, but they did not change styles like
dirty underwear. The same basic configuration, but more country. After all, they were from the South
West, not Seattle/Tacoma. There's reverb, damped notes, and some of their tunes were recorded and
played by many surfbands, most notably "Rik-A-Tik
provide a clearer distinction. They are the primary progenitors of the European
instrumental sound. I can find almost no surf influence in them or from them, yet there are those
that include them without batting an eye. Where's the reverb, the glissandos & the double picking?
Laika & the Cosmonauts
used to record some pretty surfy stuff, though they owed a lot to
. Now, they mostly do Euro guitar & spy themes. I'm not sure they ever really
were a surfband, but rather that they just did some surf tunes. Still, I like 'em & play 'em on
my show. So, why aren't they surf?
are tougher to differentiate. They ride a line between that Nashville cowboy
twang and surf is clouded by their material which also ranges from classic surf to spy themes to Spaghetti
Western. So, when the do the Exports
' "Car Hop
' first penned tune from his days with the Overtones
, it's easy to say surf,
but it gets a bit harder when they cough through "The Magnificent Seven
TV ad theme) or obscuro jaunt through the John Lennon
/ George Harrison
For A Shadow
," and nearly impossible when the do their rockabilly rants or Link Wray