Brian Chidester and Domenic Priore’s Pop Surf Culture (Santa Monica Press, 2008) is one seriously deep archival dig into the aesthetic flotsam and jetsam that has floated around surfing since time immemoriam. Tracing the sport from it’s prehistoric Hawaiian origins through the surfing zeitgeist that occurred in Southern California during the 60′s and beyond, their eyes & ears take in wacky bikini beach flicks, hand-drawn pre-hippie Rick Griffin comics, the slyly mod marketing that addressed the beach-going/imagining demographics, and all points between. The energetic writing style speaks of a decades-long contemplation of waves and those who’ve ridden them: the deeper meanings, the unique cultural values, and the solitary beauty of it all.
Teeming with evocative photos of infamous surfers, era-specific film posters & handbills, stylish sport mags and bitchen record covers, particular attention is paid to the subtle, bohemian-influenced graphic design sense that grew up around the sport. The authors succeed in making a clear argument: surf subculture should be seen as a clearly defined, suburban folk art style all it’s own. Me, I’m inclined to agree.
But then, there is their take on surf music. With all the love they have for surf rock/pop sounds ca. ’61-’64, there’s real distrust of music that has sought to expand on the narrow perimeters of original surf sounds in the years since. Yes it’s great that they’ve taken the time to sift through so many exploitation surf recs to separate the wheat from the chaff for us, but the little digs at the musics that followed surf – psychedelia, hippie, heavy rock etc. – just make these guys sound like fuddie-duddies. And while they’ve included chapters on the later revivals of surf music in the 80′s & 90′s, these chapters seem forced, with praise falling only on the most trad elements of these scenes. It’s a major bummer for a guy like me, who can handle his instrumental sounds not only twangy ala DICK DALE, but jammy like THE GRATEFUL DEAD, or spacey like HAWKWIND, or heavy & abstract like Ginn’s BLACK FLAG, or cruising indie like PELL MELL, or . . . well, you get the picture.
Which brings me to their discussion of surf film soundtracks. As with the rest of the book, analysis early on is spot-on, but as the 1960′s progress they start dropping the ball, missing out mentioning great scores like SVEN LIBAEK’s To Ride A White Horse and TULLY’s Sea of Joy. Talk peters out entirely around ’72 with meaningless blather about the BEACH BOYS reissues of the time. This, to a surf soundtrack lover like myself, was a tad disappointing.
So what’s a poor boy to do?
Well, PS Recon is gonna rectify this situation. Me, I’ve been listening to a grip of great surf soundtracks lately that dig deep into idiosyncratic, instrumental musical action – all without recourse to cloying surf rock cliche. And I’m gonna tell you about em here in the upcoming weeks. Consider yourself warned.
Tonight I’ll start with a some recent-ish ones:
1) BLUEBIRD – Stylemasters Original Soundtrack CD (Defend Music, 2006) BLUEBIRD were well-established in LA’s heavy rock scene in the mid/late 90′s; the singer used to hang around our record store with a young and pre-SUNN O))) Greg Anderson. But sometime in the early part of the new millennium, they gave up trite things like lyrics, songs, and chord changes, leading to the creation of a pair of hugely effective CDs: Black Presence and this here soundtrack. The sound was a groove-laden form of modal hard rock that might remind me of SPIRITUALIZED or GODSPEED YOU BLACK EMPEROR if I knew what them bands sounded like. But the jammed-out, flowing heaviness of the whole thing spoke more of their stoner rock connections, and trainspotters will note not only that desert-rock producer Mathias Schneeberger was on board here, but that FATSO JETSON’s Mario Lalli guests on gtr. Regular readers of this blog, take comfort: this soundtrack might well’ve been called Under The Influence Of Yawning Man. The film itself was compiled from surf footage from the North Shore of Oahu, ca. ’77-’79, and I’m gonna state BLUEBIRD nails the heady vibes and earthy physicality of that time and space, dead on. Check out the trailer to this film here.
2) MPHASE – Stylemasters 2 Original Soundtrack DVD (Sea Crown Ventures, 2007) Less gutpummeling, but still really effective is the score MPHASE did for STYLEMASTERS 2, the follow-up to the aforementioned STYLEMASTERS. This film documents the end of the single-fin era in Hawaii, right at the dawn of the 1980′s. True to the times, the foundation of this ain’t stoner rock but rather KRAFTWERKian synths and emotionally-detached vocals. That said, gtrs still figure in quite prominently, and a nice groove underpins the whole thing – not unlike what THE CARS once gave us early on, sans the hiccupy vocals of Ric Ocasek. Thus despite the new wave trappings, the flow at work here matches the footage of the waves in a nicely organic way. MPHASE has gone on to contribute to the score of another surf documentary about early 80′s surfing, Echo Beach, and more recently released a neat HUMAN LEAGUE inspired CD all their own . . . but it’s here where they truly shine like VISAGE playing a grip of BRANT BJORK riffs. And if you think I’ve got any bad words to say about VISAGE, well . . . let’s just say you don’t know me very well. Sadly, this was never given the separate CD release it was due. Trailer here.
3) RUSSIAN CIRCLES – Lavese Las Manos Original Soundtrack (Analog Films, 2009) Ok: so this score wasn’t purpose-built; it was compiled from previously released album tracks by the Chicago group known as RUSSIAN CIRCLES. But it’s an important sidestep for surf scores nonetheless. It’s the first time in a coon’s age that a surf soundtrack wasn’t made up of annoying snowboarding anthems, smug JAMES BLUNT wanna-be singer songwriters (Jack Johnson et al.), or boring indie rock twats. It’s instrumental, as it should be. And it fucking rocks! RUSSIAN CIRCLES play a tightly controlled form of heavy instrumental progressive rock, the sort of stuff that you wouldn’t be remiss in calling PELICAN-esque. They do it in a way that’s slick but intense enough to match footage of what’s commonly derided in more esoteric surf circles as “extreme sport bullshit”. Watching this flick the other day had me imagining how mindblowing a big wave tow-in video would be if STINKING LIZAVETA was rocking the soundtrack. I dunno, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here? But hey: this could be The Third Way in surf soundtracking, if more folks would just get a fucking clue. This was another soundtrack not given a proper release but don’t worry, you can watch the whole film for free here.