Southern California in the sixties meant one thing, a surf band
in very garage. Most were peopled by teens worshipping at the alter of the
Church of the Deep Reverb. Many never left the relative comfort of
the carport, some wandered the neighborhood, still others played the high
school dance circuit, a few threw their own events at rented halls, and
even fewer played large venues to squirming masses of emergent puberteens.
While it's this latter category that gets most of the notice, some of the
choicest sounds were emitted by the garage and high school sock hop bands.
Looking back on a Johnny Barakat or the Vibrants is all that
is required to understand this point. It's sad that so few of these bands
Some time ago, I received a CD by Rake & the Surftones. It turned out to be a teenage dream come true, delayed thirty years plus by events and musical developments. Leader and visionary of the project is lead guitarist Todd Labrea a.k.a. Jay Graydon. Jay is a studio musician extraordinaire, and has worked on many projects including by major acts such as Toto. Jay played and lived surf music as a teen in Southern California during those innocent years of the early sixties.
I know what your thinking, what's Toto got to do with surf music? First, the shear playing talent required to reach that level of commercial success can't be denied, no matter where your musical sensibilities lie. Second, this "band" is populated almost entirely by first call studio players who cut their teeth on surf as lads during the golden age. So, apply that talent to the pure teen surf sound and that's what this is like.
This project was a studio thing Jay did with friends of similar backgrounds, all first call studio musicians and/or successful artists in their own right. Jay wanted to have some fun with his friends while recapturing their roots. They never intended to perform live. It wasn't even targeted to release. It was a lark for personal pleasure and fulfillment. What they got was a CD that contains some really nice surf instros.
So, Jay decided to have a party for the CD with the players on the album and a bunch of first-rate players and friends. He invited me, and I couldn't resist what promised to be the only performance of Rake & the Surftones. Jay had warned of a brilliant but risky jam concept he was going to try at the end. I won't spoil the surprise by spilling the beans now, but this was the intriguing straw that broke the camel's back so to speak on my decision to go.
I drove down to Malibu from my home in Felton, just outside Santa Cruz. It was the usual 6-1/2 hours down 101 with the cruise control set at 66 to avoid an unplanned conversation with Mr. CHiPs. The party was to start at 7 PM, so I left before noon to allow plenty of time. I rolled into Malibu at about 6 PM. It's a very narrow strip between the cliffs and the ocean, divided by PCH (the Pacific Coast Highway). The party was at a place called Marilyn's. It turned out to be a very nice restaurant right on the beach just south of the Malibu Pier.
I parked my car and walked toward the front door. A cat in a colorful vest asks me if I'm there for the party. I say "Yup!". Then he tells me I shouldn't have parked my car. Now, I'm just a poor boy from the sticks. What do I know about valet parking? I said "I'll bring it up here, and you can park it. He says "No, it's fine." I wonder, if it's fine, why is he telling me this. It must be a hoi-palloi thing. I went inside.
As I entered, I heard a few notes of "Gettin' Air" and a bunch of talking among some guys holding guitars and things. I looked around for a familiar face. I had seen Jay's mug shot on his home page the night before while web surfing. There he was.
I went over, introduced myself, and got a surprising huge hug and welcome, and an immediate introduction to Dean Parks [guitar], Jim Cox [keyboards], Kenji Sano [bass], and Darryl Voss [drums]. It was as if I was Jay's best friend, and as I learned through the night, that's Jay's way, it's no bull shit.
I had no idea what to expect from the evening. I'd traded email with Jay for several weeks about the CD, and our mutual backgrounds growing up around radio. He seemed very intelligent, witty, and friendly. I had no idea that he'd be the happiest guy I've ever encountered. He laughs all the time, pokes fun at everything including himself, and is quite likable. Jay made me feel welcome immediately, and everyone else followed his lead.
I decide to run out to find a room to stay in. As it turns out, there are only 2 motels and one hotel in Malibu, and they were all full. I decided to not worry about it. I'd find a place after the party on my way back into LA. I changed into a comfortable pair of Levi's and a new Halibuts shirt, and returned to Marilyn's.
I'm hangin' out, watching and listening to the chit-chat of "rehearsal". Jay is leading them through a reading of the sheet music, directing the players what to do and where. They had only played these songs once, maybe twice when they recorded, and that was almost a year earlier. It was amazing to watch how quickly seasoned first call session guys can pick this up, even play with such feeling while reading the sheet music. I was dumbfounded by that.
It was also quickly becoming apparent that these guys all genuinely liked each other. They were joking, cutting back and forth, and generally having fun. Every time one of Jay's friends would walk in, they would stop and Jay would call out some greeting, usually accompanied by a humorous jab. There's a guy loitering in the back, much as I'm doing. He keeps looking at me, and he has a familiar look about him. I meandered over, succumbed to my better judgment by refraining from mocking a "Hi ya big boy", and said "You look familiar". He said "So do you". I asked "What's your name?" to which he replied "Jim West." I said "I'm Phil Dirt." Each of us issued that who-the-hell-are-you look, then admitted not having ever met before.
As it turns out, Jim had been in surf bands as a mere teenybopper himself, and still played guitar for sanity. He had grown up (unlike me) and started a business. Jim owns and operates West Precision (2826-D La Mirada Drive, Vista, CA 92083), a precision machining business. I still wondered who he knew that I knew, since he looked so familiar. He hadn't been at the Surfers Paradise show, or any surf show except Dick Dale in decades. He then asked if I knew Paul Johnson. I thought "Bingo!" Jim had jammed with Paul a few times, but nothing more. So, as it turned out, we had never met before. I discovered that Jim knew Jay via his web page and mutual email harassment, much the same as me. We watched Jay and Dean trade instructions and nods with very little playing.
After considerable time passed, Jason Scheff [vocals] walked in, was ushered up to the mic, voiced a few lines, and went to the bar. These guys just turn it on like switch and it's note perfect. They could just talk through it, then play like they'd just come off a six month tour. They only played a couple of songs in their rehearsal, doing mostly the discussion and reading thing. That was all they needed.
As rehearsal ended and people started flowing in, the mixing and matching began. The band merged with their friends and strangers were introduced all 'round. There were many familiar names attached to the regular and irregular folks mingling there. What I've always found fascinating is just how regular luminaries are when their among their peers, or for that matter, just treated like regular folks instead of demigods.
The look of the mob at in attendance was regular...Levi's, tee shirts, surf wear, working clothes, etc. The only noticeable variant to that were the women, who were dressed up a bit, some being in rock 'n roll stage clothes, some gorgeously showy, and a few down right glossy. They seemed more conscious of appearance, where the males seemed more musical buddy oriented. None of that affected the friendliness of the women. They were just as warm and wiggly as the guys. A nice bunch.
I was ready for a starter brew. I found to my surprise that the bar was free. I had expected to pay my own way, but Jay had bought the house for the night, drinks, appetizers, and dinner. It was a nice touch. Very big hearted. I think Jay truly wanted exactly what he said...an evening with his friends to celebrate a CD that marked their mutual adolescences.
Dinner time arrived, and none to soon for me. The quick stop in King City at their bets restaurant (Burger King) many hours earlier had long since worn off. I got in line, an soon arrived at a buffet table with abundant good food and helpful friendly servers. While in line, I could help asking to myself "Doesn't Jay know any schmucks? Even the restaurant staff are top notch warm and friendly!" As I passed each server in succession, they applied the choices I'd made to my waiting plate. Soon, I was faced with finding a place to park my carcass and eat. Finding a likely spot, I sat down and proceeded to munch the nutritional booty.
In a few minutes, Jim West joins my table. Chit-chat ensues, personal and musical. We are both a bit in awe of the names we can identify. That's when I Jim pointed out Tommy Tedesco and his wife. Tommy Tedesco! Wow. This guy has played on everything! Well, that's a bit of an overstatement, but Tommy is like the king of the studio guitarists. He played on a huge number of surf sessions if the sixties [Marketts "Out Of Limits", etc.].
Dinner eventually gives way to more mingleage, and then a call to arms to the players from Jay. The moment of truth has arrived. I'm stoked. With what I've seen so far, it's gotta be good. From the first pick, the performance was note perfect. Their sound was pure, clean, and very infectious. How can anyone play with such energy, emit such joy through their instruments, and be so tight without a bunch of rehearsals at least?
"Gotta Woodie Today" was stellar, as were "Run, Don't Walk" and "Gettin' Air." I'm no trad vocal surf fan, as you know, but when Jason Scheff and Craig Copeland stepped up to the mic for the vocal numbers it was astonishing. I had seen the Beach Boys unintentionally a few months back, and they were really sad. The vocals were not very good, and the falsetto was carried by a youngster. Jason and Craig were right on without monitors or pretensions, and it was really sweat. It almost made me wanna rethink my vocal stance. Fortunately, I realized that they were the exception, not the rule. They were incredibly good.
What strikes me looking back now is that they all had the same matter-of-fact humility about their talent that I had witnessed many times with Ashwin Batish [virtuosos sitar player] in his Santa Cruz home. Ashwin comes from a long line of musicians in India. He grew up surrounded by the best and it rubbed off. He's the nicest guy you'd wanna know. And so it is with Jay and the guys in his band. They were all equals in their own eyes. As you'll see, this is an attitude, not a talent judgment on their part. For forty five minutes, Rake & the Surftones held the rest of us captive. They played with unbelievable precision which coexisted with a genuine musical warmth.
They also traded jabs between songs, looks during songs, and told funny stories about each other and their friends in the audience. Truly magical.
As the "planned" set came to an end, I was eager to see/hear what would happen when Jay coerced the players into following his twisted dream jam concept. In fairness, the idea was given to Jay by John Kurnick, who showed up real late after a gig. He joined the jam line up on guitar [he is one of the soloists on the "Surfers Toe Jam" track on the CD]. The idea? Jay called for every guitar in the house to join in. The folks on stage included Surftones Dean Parks, Jim Cox, Kenji Sano, and Darryl Voss, plus Steve Lukather, Tim May, Bobby Cochran, Teddy Castalucci, Sterling "Biff" Ball and Jim West. Once there, the concept was sprung on them.
Jay would lead them through a chromatic reading of the Surfaris' classic "Wipe Out", and not one player at a time, but all at once. So a half dozen guitarists would be playing together simultaneously, each in a different key. The grins were everywhere among the players as Jay made key assignments. Even the keyboard and bass were assigned keys. The plan was to rotate through the line-up around the stage to take leads as well. Now, this might be hard to imagine. It is even harder to do, since it requires the players to ignore what their ears are telling them about key on the one hand, and listening to stay tight on the other. It took about ten minutes to get everyone assigned, and to actually get up the guts to do it. Then it began.
The sound was simply the most amazing thing I've ever heard. It violated all the rules. It was both horrid and totally magnetic at the same time. It was a monster sound, never before heard. The leads were traded, and the rounds were made, and the whole house roared their approval when it was over. Unbelievable! I wish I'd been able to record that! The chromatic jam could not have happened except among friends such as were gathered here. In Jay's words, "This gig was not 'Hollywood' meaning I only invited people that would appreciate the serious humor without any business attachments. I could have turned this into a record company showcase but this would have been a 'groove killer' meaning the performance would be too thought out and safe. This was a night of total musical fun, good food and drink in the perfect environment. This party was not supposed to be a Hollywood star fest but was meant to be a free for all in musical fun land." It was precisely that environment, of friends and family, that would tolerate...no welcome such a risky performance idea.
Jay left the stage to hang with the punters, and the jamsters continued for quite a while, playing an incredible "Pipeline" for a good ten minutes with everyone taking a lead for a while. It's not enough to imagine just the talent displayed on this surf archetype that impressed me, not that it was in any way unimpressive. What I was struck by was Jim West probably living the dream of a lifetime. Here's a guy who plays his guitar for personal pleasure only. A guy who grew up in a teen surf band as a kid. Here he is on stage on equal terms totally accepted by such an amazing line up. It was very emotional to watch. He was in heaven. When his leads came, he was right in there. Jim's a good player. For me, that was the defining moment of the show as far as attitude is concerned. There were no egos or boundaries, only musicians having a really fun time playing with and for each other. Amazing. After that, they meandered through a number of other standards, and digressed into blues jams and the like. Players came and went. It was all too surreal.
If Rake & the Surftones only performance followed by "Chromatic Wipe Out" and an all-star "Pipeline" with a human side bar weren't enough, the other warning Jay had issued came to pass at about 11 PM. The jam had died down for a while, and the place was quiet.
Suddenly, briskly entering through the front door was a young man in shades who proceeds to the stage which is now vacant. As he gets there, Jay excitedly shouts out "Watch this!" The special guest on the bill was about to slaughter us. He fumbled around for a keyboard that was turned on while he extolled the virtues of his talent, which is a knack for impersonating a lounge musician / singer a la Holiday Inn style. Bill Cantos presented himself as Bobby Barton, master of the lounge. Totally funny. He was laughing with us on the inside while we howled on the outside.
Bill/Bobby made up lyrics about the people at the event over sappy organ beds perfectly designed to make your need to laugh greater than your need to puke. As horrid as that kind of lounge is, Bobby Barton makes you love it through his mastery of spontaneous lyric creation and smarmy lounge keyboard wizardry. This man, with his sharkskin personality and I'm-too-cool-shades, slithered through piano bar stereotypes with the grace of a Southern lady. From his well primed pump of sleaze, Bobby evoked a plethora of reactions like grab your wallet [used car salesman alert], where's the bar ['cuz maybe a drink will make the singer sound good], where's the bathroom [I never thought I'd hear "Kashmir" played THAT BADLY, I'm gonna be sick], dumb-struck fascination [watching Newt talk about morality and wondering why HE isn't as embarrassed as you are for him], and acquiescence [I'm from the government and I'm here to help you - you're too stupid to think for yourself and I'm gonna make you pay for it]. Bobby Barton was brilliant. Never have I enjoyed a parody so much. Gee, I hope it was a parody. What if he meant it?
Time to excuse myself and figure out where to sleep. I bid farewell to the party, and slithered out to my self parked car. As I was getting in, I noticed the manicured attendant shaking his head. Was I supposed to let him get my car for me? I mean, it's only 50 feet from the door, the lot is half empty, and I can walk twice that far, and... I'm just a simple boy from Santa Cruz. What do I know about the up side of the inconvenience of well heeled niceties?
I drove back down PCH until I found the 10 which gets me to the 405 north and eventually back onto 101. Somewhere along that path, I found a motel with a desk clerk who looked like he thought I was gonna rob him. After a reasonable sleep, I trudged up the coast the 460 plus miles back to Felton. Home at last. I can still hear that glorious chromatic "Wipe Out!"
Players & Punters
Rake & the Surftones:
Dean Parks, guitar. Jim Cox, keyboards. Kenji Sano, bass. Darryl Voss, drums. Jason Scheff, vocals. Craig Copeland, vocals (and guitar in jam land). Additional "jam" guitar players: Steve Lukather, Tim May, Bobby Cochran, Teddy Castalucci, Sterling "Biff" Ball and Jim West.
Later open stage players included a female guitar player, whose name I didn't get [Deans girlfriend], Bill Champlin [organ], Tamara Champlin [vocals], and Tris Imbodin [drums]. Also in attendance but not playing were Tommy Tedesco, Ned Doheny, Bill Cantos, and Tommy Funderburk.