Real Life Rock (12/81)

Surf music, which has been called “California’s one true contribution to world culture,” gave millions of ordinary Californians and even more millions of ordinary Americans access to an heroic activity that, so far as actual boards and waves went, was practiced mainly by a select few Aryan gods. True, surfing was invented in Hawaii by non-Aryans (though, significantly, some scholars hold that Hawaiians are in fact descendants of the lost army of Alexander the Great), and it continues here today—but we are speaking of the High Days of surfing, when to admit that one did not know the precise meaning of such terms as “wipeout” and “half-moon” was to ensure instant ostracism from any decent California high school. In such a context surf music, which simultaneously celebrated a secret society and allowed everyone vicarious membership, was inevitable.

As a musical style, surf music can now be said to have originated in Memphis, Tennessee, which despite the lack of adequate tides on the Mississippi produced Roy Orbison’s “Domino”—characterized by shifting, “wavelike” rhythms and reverb guitar—in 1956. However, since “Domino” languished unreleased until 1973, most authorities agree the style can be effectively dated only to 1960, when the Ventures brought out “Walk—Don’t Run,” thus inaugurating a guitar-based instrumental mode of rock ‘n’ roll that became a staple in California dance halls. (While the connection between reverb guitar and surfing has never been precisely explained, many felt at the time that the propulsive yet “cool” rhythms of bands like the Ventures perfectly captured the sense of accelerating übermenschgeist surfers were believed to experience.)

As a genre, surf music began in 1961 with the release of “Let’s Go Trippin’” by Dick Dale and the Del-tones of Balboa, California. (Those who assume that at this early date “trippin'” referred to moving one’s person from one point on the map to another and not to the consumption of then legal “mind-expanding” drugs should note that in this same year the surf band the Gamblers released a 45 called “Moon Dawg!”—the B side of which was the astonishingly prescient “LSD-25,” a disc that, in perfect condition, is now worth at least $4.)

As cultural iconography, surf music began in December 1961 with the release of “Surfin’ ” by the Beach Boys of Haw­thorne, California. This record was not widely distributed, but their next single, “Surfin’ Safari,” kicked off the entire trend. Thus surf music spread to every corner of the nation, especially the Midwest, where people also pretended to ski. And, as tends to happen when rock ‘n’ roll links up with a way of life suffused with code and symbol, surf music became weird.

The Four Frogs, from New Mexico, put out “Mr. Big” on the Frog Death label. The Trashmen, from Minneapolis, made the bizarre “Surfin’ Bird,” which, as a combination of the Rivingtons’ “Papa-­Oom-Mow-Mow” (“mow” rhymed with “wow”) and their “The Bird’s the Word,” was a national smash in 1963. “Sweeping everything of good taste in its path,” as Langdon Winner, MIT professor and author of Autono­mous Technology (and piano player on the Revels’ seminal surf hit “Church Key”), has written, “this oppressive chant… was the essence of totalitarian music.” Nevertheless, or perhaps in consequence thereof, “Surfin’ Bird” provided the inspiration for a brilliant mid-1960s short film called, I think, The Bird which consisted of a frantic montage of still photos of Lyndon B. Johnson run over a soundtrack of the Trashmen screaming, “BIRD BIRD BIRD BIRD IS THE WORD WELL DON’T YOU KNOW ABOUT THE BIRD WELL EVERYBODY KNOWS THAT THE BIRD IS THE WORD,” and so on.

The Pyramids, four whites and one black, shaved their heads and built their show around the wig the black guitarist shook off during the penultimate moment of “Penetration.” Jan & Dean released the epochal “Surf City,” which was followed swiftly by “Drag City,” which was itself followed by “Fun City”—though not until 1975, which was too late. The Trashmen attempted to follow “Surfin’ Bird” with the off-color “A-Bone.” The Furys anticipated the ecology craze with “Sand Flea,” while the Grunion Hunters countered with “The 4-Eyed Tongue-Tied Swimmin’ Surfer Biter,” which was followed by the less successful but no less memorable “Sing Along to the Swimmin’ Surfer Biter.”

Finally, the Surfaris made the definitive exciting surf record, “Wipe Out,” while the Chantays made the definitive transcendental surf record, “Pipeline.” Both were instrumentals, and both were released in 1963. After that, everyone either graduated from high school, got drafted, got married, or was drowned by a wave emanating from, of all places, England—that is, the Beatles.

California’s second “wave” of rock ‘n” roll began only two years later, with the emergence of “psychedelic” bands in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. Though use of marijuana and, as we have seen, LSD was known among surfers, the San Franciscans appropriated trend cha­risma (all up and down Highway 1, the graffiti SURFERS RULE was magically replaced by DOPERS RULE) and were able to draw a line between their existentialist pretensions and what suddenly seemed to be the almost red-neck malingering of the surfers and surf bands. On his first album, Jimi Hendrix announced he would “never play surf music again,” and no one did. The faith was maintained only by the Beach Boys, who in 1968 (when their kar­mic records stopped selling) raised their heads with the pallidly revisionist “Do It Again,” which nobody did, either.

As we now know, surfing outlasted surf music; once out of the public eye, with the masses no longer pounding on the club­house door, the secret society became even more secret. Still, many of those who once turned all heads must have been left stranded: the blond, rangy posers who could not adjust to their peers saying “fab” (or, later, “far out”) instead of “hang ten”—an expression that in 1961 meant to place all of one’s toes over the edge of one’s surfboard, that by 1963 was so generally mythicized it meant, among other things, “goodbye,” “good luck,” “you’re cool,” and “turn left,” and that by 1965 was completely mysterious.

robert palmer deep bluesRobert Palmer’s Deep Blues (Viking) is a lucid, sometimes entrancing study of Mississippi Delta blues from its shadowy origins on and around Dockery Farms about 1900 to its persistence in Chicago today. Palmer, reed man for the adventurous Memphis band Insect Trust in the late 1960s and now pop critic for The New York Times, traces blues roots in African music, slave bands, field hollers, post-Reconstruction story songs; all the pieces are in place, but when the blues finally appears it still sounds “strange,” “weird,” and “primitive”—and those aren’t Palmer’s words but those of turn-of-the-century black professional entertainers like Ma Rainey and W.C. Handy, who were bewildered by what they heard. This sense of mystery is crucial to an account of Delta blues—stylistically narrow, emotionally bottomless, a self-consciously secret language that anyone willing to listen can understand—and Palmer seems as comfortable with it as he is with technical analysis. He understands, for example, that the collection of biographical detail can take one only so far. If behind almost every great Delta bluesman (from Charley Patton, the founder, on down) there lurks an unrecorded teacher who has all but vanished from memory, the music convinces a listener that had we videos and taped interviews of each of them, the essence of the style would remain out of reach, as if the blues was created less to express that essence than to search for it.

This sense of mystery recedes in the second half of Deep Blues, which covers the period from the forties to the present. With the tradition established the book loses its shape. What follows reads too much like a catalog of names, dates, styles, record labels, and hits; while Palm­er can make you feel the power and the purpose of Charley Patton’s rough, little-known music, he cannot do the same with the furious affirmations of Howlin’ Wolf. What the reader gets is a lot of fine stories, such as producer Sam Phillips recalling the first time he heard Howlin’ Wolf on the radio: “I said, ‘This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.’ ”

How much history can be transmitted by pressure on a guitar string?” Palmer asks at the close of Deep Blues; the question raised by Journey is, “How little?” It’s almost shocking to realize that the impoverished music of this enormously popular San Francisco band derives from Delta blues, but it does: by way of Chicago blues, by way of the early guitar playing of Carlos Santana, by way of the commercial success of Cream, Traffic, Blind Faith, and Boston.

There is, to be sure, nothing of the spirit of the Delta blues in Journey’s music. But what one hears on the band’s top ten double-live album, Captured (CBS), is not even the sound of success in the marketplace, but something less vivid: the sound of market research. The emotional fakery is so egregious, the vocal and guitar posturing so perfectly balanced between effeminacy and machismo, that the endless smear of trebly solos and cries of “little girl” can become perversely fascinating—if that’s your idea of a good time.

Despite Journey’s careful pandering (“We’re indebted to you for letting us be on your album,” one of the Journey men says to a crowd on Captured. “This is your album, you know”—presumably all profits will be distributed among Journey fan club members), it’s hard to believe Jour­ney can mean as much to its followers as a good, mean hard rock band like AC/DC does to theirs. I see AC/DC graffiti all over town, but if I ever saw JOURNEY spray painted on a library wall, I’d expect a little © right next to it.

Real Life Rock Top Ten

  1. Romeo Void, “Myself to Myself,” from It’s a Condition (415)
  2. Scritti Politti, “The Sweetest Girl,” from NME/Rough Trade C81 (Rough Trade import cassette)
  3. Chet Flippo, Your Cheatin’ Heart—A Biography of Hank Williams (Simon and Schuster)
  4. John Blair, The Illustrated Discography of Surf Music (J. Bee Productions, PO Box 1584, Riverside, CA 92502; $4.50)
  5. J.J. Cale, Shades (MCA)
  6. Searchers, Love’s Melodies (Sire)
  7. Tony Cohan, Canary, a thriller (Doubleday )
  8. John Fahey, Live in Tasmania (Takoma)
  9. Paul Breeze, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, a novel (Taplinger)
  10. Joe Ely, Musta Notta Gotta Lotta (MCA)

New West, December 1981

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