If it was the instrumental that kept rock ‘n’ roll simmering in the murky years between its ‘50s inception and arrival of the British Invasion in 1963, then surf music would be the instrumental’s final, most colorful efflorescence.
Excited by classy, guitar-based instrumental hits like the Ventures’ “Walk, Don’t Run”, Duane Eddy’s “Movin’ and Groovin’” and the Fireballs’ “Bulldog,” American teenagers everywhere – Southern California included – began forming their own hard-driving instrumental combos in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Some regions would develop their own subtle variations of instrumental rock ‘n’ roll – none, however, as distinct as the Pacific Coast’s. The booming reverberation, the propulsive thrust, the “moody” minor keys and the vibrato guitar accents of early regional hits like the Gamblers’ “Moon Dawg!” (1960), the Revels’ “Church Key” (1960), and the Belairs’ “Mr. Moto” (1961) were the stylistic elements which captured Southern Californian youth’s vision, if not experience, of their own sun-and-surf predilections. Just a year later, numbers like Dick Dale’s “Let’s Go Trippin’” and the Tornadoes’ “Bustin’ Surfboards” embodied surf music in all of its formalized glory, a new aesthetic forged from ringing Fender guitars, sunshine and arcane surfer references. Surf music was like some tanned, grinning evolution of the whole instrumental genre. Peculiarly adapted to beaches and teen clubs, it came crawling from the primordial Pacific waters to capture America’s Kennedy-era consciousness.
Surf music, though clearly something new, nonetheless shared certain characteristics with an unlikely older cousin: exotica. The overlap is especially apparent with a cocktail jazz combo like Martin Denny’s or Arthur Lyman’s. Before vocal harmonies began dominating surf music, both styles were obviously instrumental, and both styles’ adherents occasionally dipped into the same bag of exotic standards like “The Breeze and I,” “Miserlou,” “Quiet Village” and “Istanbul.”
The most significant shared characteristic, though, is that both surf and exotica music sought to summon sensation through sheer atmospherics. The surf groups, with their staccato guitar runs and crashing drums, preoccupied themselves with the dizzying rush of the wild surf. Exotica’s proponents knew that the real action was back on shore, casually dressed and safely settled around the kalua pig at Luau Village, but there would be plenty of moments when surf music crossed, even if inadvertently, into exotica’s tropical waters. Read on.
1. The Blazers, Bangalore (Acree)
The Blazers were a brief-lived Fullerton, California surf group. Their “Bangalore” was the second of two excellent instrumental surf 45s, their first, 1963’s “Beaver Patrol,” was banned, according to legend, from local radio airplay due to its title’s innuendo. Both of the Blazers’ 45s would be released in 1963 on Acree Records, a tiny label formed by Vern Acree, Sr., a professional country and western guitarist and the father of the Blazers’ lead guitarist.
The Blazers’ two singles were recorded at the legendary Downey Records, a small studio located in the back of a record store in Downey, California. Part recording studio, part record store, part record label, Downey Records was the sort of sympathetic, independent operation at the foundation of any thriving regional rock ‘n’ roll scene.
On “Bangalore,” the Blazers themselves – lead guitarist Vern Acree, Jr., rhythm guitarists Steve Morris and Wayne Bouchard, saxophonist Larry Robins, drummer Chris Holguin and bassist John Morris – voyage to the east, completely on their own fabricated terms, and pay homage to Dick Dale’s influential “Miserlou,” surf music’s best-known exotica anthem.
In 1962, surf music was thriving, but it was still largely a phenomenon particular to Southern California. The young Beach Boys would have their first local hit, “Surfin’,” that year. Same for the Marketts’ “Surfer’s Stomp” and Tornadoes’ “Bustin’ Surfboards,” early recordings that directly referenced the lifestyle in their titles. Fender’s all-important standalone reverb unit for its electric guitars had just been introduced. By 1963, however, even the record industry’s major labels, for all of their erratic beneficence, sensed something was afoot, and so did a national consciousness taken with the fantasy of sun, fun and the opposite sex that surf music offered. Providence would smile and a national spotlight would shine, however briefly, upon groups like the Surfaris (“Wipe Out”) and the Chantays (“Pipeline”).
Such would not be the fortune of the Blazers, alas, nor the vast majority of their surf-inclined brethren. They’d play the same high school dances and armory hall teen shows for the next year or two until high school graduation or the British Invasion rendered the whole genre obsolete.
2. The Surfmen, Paradise Cove (Titan)
Composed of Ray Hunt (lead guitar), Nick Drury (rhythm guitar), Armon Frank (sax), Randall Anglin (bass) and Tim Fitzpatrick (drums), the Surfmen were integral to the Southern California instrumental surf music phenomenon from its very inception. The Surfmen grew out of the Expressos, a young group from the Orange County suburbs who issued one 45, “Teenage Express” – with its flipside “Wondering,” an early version of “Paradise Cove” – on the local Trans-American label in 1960. Changing their name, the Surfmen would record and release a handful of 45s on Titan Records before finally metamorphosing, late in 1962, into the Lively Ones, one of surf music’s finest combos.
“Paradise Cove” and its flipside “Ghost Hop” would be the first of the Surfmen’s three 45s, all recorded in 1962. While not quite the deadly thoroughbreds that the Lively Ones were, the Surfmen’s atmospherics and echoing guitar sound captured the spirit, if not the sound, of the nascent surf instrumental.
Paradise Cove is a real place, actually, a formerly popular surfing spot near Malibu. Like Tahiti, Tehran, Thailand or any subject matter popular in exotica music’s geography, the song’s locale is invested with fanciful measures of mystery and intrigue. The real Paradise Cove was a place you went to surf. The song “Paradise Cove” – one of a number of solitary meditations like the Beach Boys’ “The Lonely Sea,” the Essex’s “Pray for Surf” or the Sandals’ “Theme From the Endless Summer” – was nothing you’d want to paddle across. Mostly it was a place for sunset communion and prayers to Poseidon for perfectly cylindrical waves. Dense, savory musical atmosphere was the mission here. Not reality.
3. The Pharos, Pintor (Del-Fi)
Aspiring jazz-musician-turned-entrepreneur Bob Keane formed, after some initial tribulations in Los Angeles’s independent record industry, his Del-Fi Records label in 1957. Ritchie Valen’s Latin-tinged rock ‘n’ roll put Keane’s fledgling label decisively on the map with hits like “Donna” and “La Bamba.” While Del-Fi’s succeeding years served post-War California with a fascinating body of teen rock and pop, exotica, Latin jazz and instrumental novelties, by 1963 – the genre’s apotheosis year – surf music would be the label’s bread and butter, sleek, reverb-heavy productions its specialty. To scan the Del-Fi Records album discography is to scan some of surf’s archetypal instrumental groups: the Lively Ones, the Sentinals, the Impacts, Dave Myers and the Surftones. Perusing the label’s 45 discography gets more obscure, if not interesting.
There seem to have existed different configurations of the Pharos during their brief existence, but, at the time of this recording (May ’63), they consisted of largely of young Hispanic and Filipino musicians – Cesar Aliviado (lead guitar), Emilio Martinez (rhythm guitar) , Greg Tangonan (drums), Bill Bontempo (piano) and Phil Pastrano (sax) – from the La Puente and Hacienda Heights neighborhoods of greater Los Angeles.
Jim Irvin, who is credited for “Pintor,” and who played bass on the track, was actually one Dave Aerni, a local guitarist, bassist, promoter and label operator often associated with the Pal Studios, the Cucamonga studio where much interesting pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll was recorded. Aerni also coordinated recording sessions for local groups, licensing them in turn to local labels for release. Both “Pintor” and its flipside “Rhythm Surfer” would be made under the watch of Aerni, who, several months later, would also produce the Rhythm Surfers, a revamped configuration of the Pharos, for the also-great 45, “502 (Like Getting Pinched On a 502).”
“Pintor” is loosely based on the melody of “Angelitos Negros,” a popular Latin-American ballad of the ‘40s. It is a terrific representative one of surf music’s more endearing legacies, an ephemeral streak, inspired by Latin melodies, running through everything from Astronauts’ “Baja” and the Sentinals’ “Latin’ia” to Trashmen’s “Malaguena” and Dick Dale’s “Spanish Kiss.”