South Bay Swells

24 Aug

I ain’t no surfer; the couple times I tried, it wasn’t any fun at all – I nearly drowned. Yeah I lived across the road from the Pacific Ocean for a decade and a half, but no, I didn’t ever participate in the surf culture thing. My ignorance was exposed when this surfer dude from Redondo Beach once asked me, knowing I’d grown up in Lunada Bay: “what do you think of what they’ve, ya know, done up there?” I didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about, and told him so. He explained that for years Lunada Bay had been a place you didn’t venture down into with a surfboard without somebody to vouch for you. It was locals only territory; it just wouldn’t have been in your best interest. Had I surfed, such truths would’ve been self evident.

Now instrumental surf – rather than the butt-cold, salty ocean kind – is a kinda surf that I’ll gladly submerge myself in. While South Bay musicians didn’t single-handedly invent such music, they were an integral part of the string of folks who gradually shaped and honed late 50’s instrumental rock toward the reverb-drenched, fleet-footed sound that would eventually be taggable as surf. Along with Orange County, the South Bay was ground zero for where rock was created that reflected and spoke of this unique, regional beach subculture. Granted, instrumental surf adhered to fairly narrow musical perimeters, but within the context of early 60’s popular music, it stood out as some of the most compelling, rhythmically-driven music imaginable.

You can keep Brian Wilson and the neo barber-shop harmonies of his BEACH BOYS (who, not coincidentally, came from this area too). Today, I’m here to talk real surf music made in real time on gtrs/bass/drums by and for teens in and around the ocean at the time. Bands with names like EDDIE & THE SHOWMEN, THE REVELAIRS, THE VIBRANTS, and most importantly, THE BELAIRS. These bands and a dozen others were playing regularly at the Club Bel Air on Catalina Blvd. in Redondo Beach, just as artist Rick Griffin was developing his distinctive artwork on flyers for surf bands while attending high school in Palos Verdes, and as pioneering surf film director Bud Browne was lifeguarding in Hermosa Beach. The South Bay scene was on fire, nearly 20 years before the area became synonymous with suburban HC punk rock. Here are just a few sonic samples of that original South Bay sound:

1. THE BELAIRS – “Mr. Moto” (from The Origins of Surf Music 1960-1963, Iloki/Hep Cat Records, 1993) The original Rolling Hills bedroom demo of the greatest surf instrumental of all time. Like me, you may have learned this one from AGENT ORANGE – but in 1960, these 14 yr olds had only each other to learn from. Primitive and utterly captivating; at this early point, this stuff wasn’t even called surf music. But as these kids did hang out at Torrance Beach, it would be at later gigs that the term started being applied to this sound. Gtrist Paul Johnson observes in the liners that “good music comes from real life flowing between people” – I can’t think of a better way to describe the moment that’s caught on this ancient bit of tape.

2. THE CROSSFIRES – “Out of Control” (from Out of Control, Sundazed Records, 1995) Just rippin’ early ’60s instro action from a pre-TURTLES Flo & Eddie. These boys were from Westchester and held down a residency at the Revelaire Club in Redondo during the dying days of surf, as THE BEATLES were urging everyone toward vocal poprock tunage. Though this one’s pretty straight ahead, their full recordings illustrate a surf band pushing the envelope in a half dozen interesting directions, searching for ways to hold on to their original audience but also stay with the changing times.

3. THE JOURNEYMEN – “Surfer’s Blues” (from Rare Surf, Vol. I: The South Bay Bands, AVI Entertainment Group, 1995) Like me, these guys lived in Lunada Bay and didn’t actually surf. Apparently they represented the late 50’s crossover of ho-dads (non-surfer, greaser types) trying to get with the new surfin’ trend – sort of a naive, early ’60s equivalent to punxploitation – and hence the cheesy title. Talented gtrist Artie was the main attraction here, who’d go on to join Paul Johnson in the way more OG surf band PJ & ARTIE in late ’63.

4. PJ & THE GALAXIES – “Tally Ho” (from Rare Surf, Vol. I: The South Bay Bands, AVI Entertainment Group, 1995) The pinnacle of ’64 South Bay surf, imo. Shows how forward-sounding surf could actually be: close your eyes, and you too will believe this is New Zealand’s THE CLEAN doing their own self-penned post-punk song of the very same name. This was Paul Johnson’s group after he’d left THE BELAIRS, and the first 30 seconds of gtr chiming here (before the melody is introduced) is so intoxicating I usually hit replay a half dozen times before I listen to it all the way through.

5. THE LONELY ONES – “Miserlou” (from the Diggin’ Out comp., Mr. Manicotti Records, 198?) Don’t know jack shit about this one except they were apparently from Hermosa Beach and the lead gtrist shreds. If this isn’t an earlier form of the same suburban rock mania that BLACK FLAG and THE DESCENDENTS eventually made this town famous for, I dunno what is.

6. THE NOCTURNES – “Sticky” (from Rare Surf, Vol. II: The South Bay Bands, AVI Entertainment Group, 1995) Wild, bigger surf band from Tustin/Orange who gigged alot in the South Bay in ’64. The gtrist could almost be heard as a precursor to SYLVIA JUNCOSA, what with that totally compelling, chaotic/messy lead style of his. Certainly a nice palette cleanser after listening to too many of the more buttoned-down, perfectionist surf players out there. Could see these guys besting all the rest on this list live by the sheer size of their cojones.


11 Responses to “South Bay Swells”

  1. mark August 25, 2008 at 9:31 pm #

    Nocturns: very sticky indeed. Spiky, even.

  2. mark August 26, 2008 at 10:05 pm #

    Surf is just great drum music, for sure. Just ask Keith Moon.

  3. mrowster August 27, 2008 at 6:21 am #

    I’d ask him in person, but Kenney Jones seems to be sitting in for him mostly these days.

  4. mark August 27, 2008 at 4:26 pm #

    I thought it was Ringo’s spawn now. Maybe a ouija board? Lemme go and grab my tarot deck.

  5. Brian Chidester October 3, 2008 at 10:15 pm #

    Great blog, man! A few things I might add. PJ & the Galaxies grew out of a band named Thom Starr & the Galaxies. (And, yes, Starr was HIS real last name.) Under Thom Starr, the Galaxies recorded a bunch of tunes, but only Paul Johnson’s otherwise unreleased “Chiflado” and an instro cover of Del Shannon’s “Runaway” ever hit wax (on the Oldies, Goodies & Woodies compilation, 1963). Thom Starr & the Galaxies record a full album for Richard Delvy’s Vault Records, but it was never released. Sundazed has the tapes, but is sitting on them. Shame. It kicks ass.

    The Lonely Ones. What I know about them is that they released an EP titled “Live at Stub’s Pub,” which was a little watering hole in the basement of the Hermosa Biltmore Hotel. That’s where that version of “Miserlou” comes from. The flip-side of the EP has a preacher giving his gospel invitation after the kids having previously waded themselves in scuzz-guitar sin. Hail Satan!

    • Stan October 6, 2010 at 4:15 am #

      We used to go to Stubs often to listen to the Lonely Ones. They were really good. The ticket to admission was listening to some preaching. I can’t remember the lead guitarist’s name, but boy could he play. The good old days.

      • mrowster October 6, 2010 at 8:29 pm #

        Hey Stan, thanks for commenting. I imagine there would be resentment to listening to some preacher when all you came for was to ROCK, but I certainly understand why you put up with it . . . THE LONELY ONES were amazing.

        Have you heard the new TOM STARR & THE GALAXIES CD on Sundazed that came out recently? I’m curious to hear what folks who had first-hand exposure to original surf music think of it. Me, I love it.

      • NSalmon June 16, 2011 at 7:10 am #

        I have the impression that the Lonely Ones’ lead guitarist’s first name was ‘Oscar’. He played a sunburst Fender JazzMaster. Besides playing surg guitar he liked to sing. He sang Geo Gershwin’s “Summertime” (from “Porgy & Bess”) in an operatic style.

  6. mrowster October 4, 2008 at 8:09 am #

    Thanks for the extra info, Brian. I am familiar with those Thom Starr & the Galaxies tracks on Lost Legends of Surf Guitar Vol. III. Would be great if Sundazed released more.

    BTW . . . I’m now wondering if you had anything to do with Domenic Priore’s Riot on Sunset Strip book? I was reading it when I wrote this piece – great book, that one is.

  7. shannon tonin January 31, 2010 at 6:59 am #

    Just wondering if anyone knew where Thom Starr is currently….he and I experienced a lifetime together years ago…….and want to reconnect……


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    […] I admitted here, I’ve never been any kind of surfer, and truth be told actually recoiled from most beach […]

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