|a new wave of surf rock
Mike Levine - January 16, 2012
What comes to mind when you think of 'Surf rock'? Is it Uma Thurman dancing to Dick Dale's 'Misirlou' in Pulp Fiction? Does that chipmunk’s laugh from The Surfari's ‘Wipeout’ bounce around your skull? (So annoying.)
While Uma would never dance that well again, these moments barely scratch the surface of a storied genre that's gone from party jock jams in the ‘60s to the anthems behind some of the most anti-establishment groups of the past several decades.
This beach-obsessed brand of party music didn't die with Beatlemania as the history books tell it. Instead it went another, more surprising route… underground. Re-emerging a decade later as the DNA behind some of the punkest jams of the past couple decades, happily bouncing its way around from one disenfranchised generation to the next.
Course, you’d never know it from its innocuous, Tween Beat roots. Surf rock was about as mainstream as it got before the hippies had their day in the sun. The Beach Boys were among the first groups to make this sound chart (‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’ was on Billboard’s top five for a record 25 weeks in 1963), they were followed closely by Jan and Dean, The Bel-Airs, The Chantays, and a whole bunch of other groups I’ve never heard of. It took 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' to finally push this genre out of the way for the next big thing, and overnight it went from the soundtrack of the hot rods, to discarded as last year's rage. From then on, the establishment was pretty much done with Surf rock, making sure anyone with taste, culture and privilege had nothing to do with the beast. The genre never really found its way back into the mainstream again, but it didn’t exactly go away either.
After the ‘60’s, the only musicians interested in approaching surf rock were players feeling disenfranchised themselves.
The Ramones to the Rescue
History lesson in brief: In ‘70s lower east side NY, the very foundations of punk were laid on an appreciation of rock's shore roots. Joey Ramone especially was a tremendous fan of surf rock. He insisted his band cover Jan and Dean's "Surf City", and showcased his alliterative talents on The Trashmen’s immortal 'Surfin Bird' (Bird is the word!!). Then we have ‘Rockaway Beach’, ‘Sheena is a Punk Rocker’, ‘Do You Wanna Dance’... ok, I’ll stop, but there you go. More than perhaps any other punk group, The Ramones have a unique knack of turning what’s disposable and goofy into brilliant, high-voltage energy. So they easily recast a discarded art form into a necessary ingredient of the counter-culture.
Anyways, as they say, what's good enough for Joey Ramone is good enough for the rest of the scene. And this pattern kept repeating itself. In the ‘80s, East Bay Ray of the Dead Kennedys and Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago were just two of the DIY heroes taking this genre to new places, retaining surf rock’s warmth and party hype while creating something entirely new at the same time. East Bay Ray re-created surf’s energy as hardcore backbeat, while Frank Black never sounded as relaxed as he did in ‘Here Comes Your Man.’
In the ‘90s, the genre took a much-deserved vacation overseas. Moving far from its homeland, it traveled to far off places like Shanghai (The Beat Bandits) and Australia (Bleeding Knees Club) before settling into a lot of the material behind New Zealand's Flying Nun records. At this local label’s base in Christchurch, NZ, label-mates The Clean and The Verlaines took surf riffs and built a hugely influential scene from scratch.
Each time surf rock was dealt with by subsequent generations, three-chord bands would glorify the genre's stupidity, sanctified corniness and zero sum tolerance for irony. These groups justified surf rock’s claims to good times through their DIY birthrights, stepping to the genre's defense time and time again, refusing to discard what the music industry tried throwing away.
NYC Bands That Call Surf Home
Now, it's come back to America to reclaim its beachfront property. Setting up shop in both California and New York, the two coasts have each given surf rock their own unique feel, each competing for dominance even while it's perfectly obvious to me which ocean the best jams are coming from. Best Coast, Wavves, and Soft Pack make up some of the groups coming from the Pacific while Crystal Stilts, The Drums, Dum Dum Girls, Beach Fossils and Japanther rep some of the finest of what’s nearer the Atlantic.
Citing Flying Nuns bands like The Clean as an enormous influence on his music is the man responsible for much of surf rock's comeback around Brooklyn: singer/songwriter Brad Hargett of Crystal Stilts. Originally from south Florida, Crystal Stilts moved up to Brooklyn in 2004, and arguably represent as close to the center of this town’s scene as you're likely to find. A somewhat spacey, morose group, they lend an entirely original voice to this groove, sounding as if Ian Curtis decided to cover some Velvet Underground tunes a bit closer to the water.
Hargett sings in a way that makes you think about everything he's singing about, mostly as a result of the fact that you really can't make out any of what he's singing. His lyrics are just barely audible, and this only makes you more and more interested in what’s going on in there.
Guitarist/co-songwriter JB Townsend of Crystal Stilts discussed the influence of The Trashmen (again, Bird is definitely the word) on his group in an interview with Denver Westword: “I like the bass and drums because they feel so punky. If you took that out and laid in guitars and vocals from the late '70s, they could be the Ramones, basically.” That just about sums it up right there.
One of my fave local acts is Beach Fossils. Jamming out a more intimate, melodic and less raucous sound than Crystal Stilts, the band has more in common with Ridgewood, NJ’s laid-back scene (Ducktails, Real Estate, Julian Lynch) than a lot of their noisier Brooklyn-bred peers.
I spoke with drummer Tommy Gardner recently (who just released a brilliant new EP himself as Crush) on what this sound is all about, and this is how he broke it down for me: “There has been a move away from the kind of rock guitar style where songs are based on power chords, open chords, and/or blues-influenced lead lines, and bands are instead opting to base songs on melodic, single note lines. This concept often extends to the bass as well, and the result is that the harmony of a song is heard as the sum total of the melody lines, not as a guitar playing a big open chord and the bass playing the root note. It's easy to see how a focus on simple, melodic single note lines could be perceived as coming from surf rock, but at least for Crush and for Beach Fossils, this happens to not be the case. Comparisons to a lot of post-punk or Sarah Records bands, for example, would be more accurate, but even so, I think the sound that gets associated with surf rock is less about influence and more about a particular way to approach writing on the guitar.”
I thought this was a really smart way to put things. Whether or not you call what Beach fossils does ‘Surf rock’, their music reminds me a lot of this genre’s vocal roots anyway. When the Beach Boys sung their parts back in the day, they each took a piece (bass, tenor, Brian Wilson’s very mezzo soprano), which collectively added up to a full chord. This same dynamic is now working for Beach Fossils, The Drums and a lot of other bands’ instrumental melodic lines (after all, we can’t all harmonize like Grizzly Bear).
In fact, the more I look at bands around here, the more I find that groups aren't really finding a big difference between surf and punk jams at all. Take The Vandelles for example. They’re another great up-and-coming Brooklyn group, currently recording their second LP upstate. More than any other band I've heard around here, they’ve been able to pull together several decades of punk/surf legacy into their bag of tricks, designing a completely anachronistic sound from the sum of these parts. Old-school and contemporary at the same time, the Vandelles place rich harmonies alongside hardcore guitar theatrics, as if the Beach Boys included East Bay Ray among the Wilson brothers. It all comes together as an extreme example of what happens when you sample several generations’ worth of punk music indiscriminately, and dot that territory with reverb-soaked harmonies and Stratocaster drones.
Singer/guitarist Jason Schwartz (AKA Jonny Strings) of The Vandelles described how this catch-all sound came about for his group: “…you hear more of the Beach Boys influence with songs like Swell To Heaven and Dead Wave, but we think of our style as a continuation of the surf side of rock n roll - Starting with the surf legends like Davie Allan and Dick Dale, to the Beach Boys, to the Ramones, to the Mary Chain, to us.” To Jason, all these bands work equally well together and I imagine Brad Hargett and Tommy Gardner would probably agree.
This scene's not all about the dudes though. (Ladies be representing too.) The biggest girl group out there has to be the Vivian Girls, NY's answer to LA's Dum Dum Girls. Vivian Girls are only a couple generations removed from the Tom Tom Rock of Phil Spector acts like The Crystals or Darlene Love, and are another one of the bands here that have their dirty jam grooves down so perfectly, it’s almost impossible to hear where the punk ends, and where the surf rock begins.
In many ways, the ladies are taking over the surf scenes of both coasts. The Dum Dum Girls' old drummer Frankie Rose for instance, has played with both The Vivian Girls and Crystal Stilts, and The Vivian Girls’ old drummer Ali Koehler is now playing with Best Coast, so who knows… perhaps the California and BK scenes aren't as far apart as they look on a map.
Know Your Label
Of course, none of this madness would ever be possible without the love and support of some very influential labels, and two of my favorite startup indies are repping many of these groups. If surf rock is your thing, you really can’t do much better than the Brooklyn-based Captured Tracks Records. Boasting a growing roster of up-and-coming talent including Beach Fossils, The Beets and the DC-based band Eternal Summers, this label’s become a halfway home for the three-chord salute.
While Captured Tracks are relative newcomers, Slumberland Records has been putting out some of the most hummable tunes for over twenty years now. This veteran label works with a lot of new new wave acts (The Pains of Being Pure at Heart for one), but works their share of the wavy jangle as well, from Black Tambourine, to Frankie Rose’s solo releases, to The Crystal Stilts themselves.
So why surf rock anyway? How did this cornball party jam genre successfully incorporate itself into so much anti-establishment material over the past couple decades, ultimately finding its home in our own backyard?
I think of surf rock as yacht rock for the punks. Leave Steely Dan’s chill to the Hamptons set (Donald Fagen’s not much of a Ramones fan anyway), while surf rock owns spots like Coney Island and ok… Rockaway Beach.
This is the sound of a party where everyone's invited, and just like some of my favorite backyard BBQ’s where everyone’s invited, it doesn’t always sound smooth, but it’s always a good time. Surf rock might never be allowed to sit at the cool kids’ table or provide the soundtrack to any of Katy Perry’s California jams, so it has to form its own party instead. It's up to you of course if this sounds like fun or just messiness. Like I’ve been trying to say this entire article, ‘bird is the word.’
" This beach-obsessed brand of party music didn't die with Beatlemania as the history books tell it. Instead it went another, more surprising route… underground. "