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Bali High Note

18 Mar

ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACKBali High VHS (Isomer Productions, 1981)

Breathe easy, all you extreme-sport surf nazis: this is the last of my posts about ye olde surf soundtracks from days gone by. But dammit, I’m ending on a high note here. The gorgeous 1981 video by Stephen Spaulding entitled Bali High had a totally hot, fusionoid score by Mike Sena recorded out on the Hawaiian island of Kauai that’s never seen an LP or CD release. Me, I’d never have even heard of Mike Sena or the film in question either, had not Ryan over at (Mostly) Blue Skies Above Us ripped the damn thing from a warped VHS tape and posted it on his blog, in all it’s murky glory. Thank god for obsessives like Ryan.

The hard rockin’ but tropical feel to this score puts me in the mind not of MERRELL FANKHAUSER, but of an instrumental KALAPANA spin-off trying on the early 80’s RUSH catalogue. And if this doesn’t sound appealing, well, that’s only cause you aren’t listening to it right now! The production has a nicely humid, low rent sonic aura, the riffs & motifs are consistently varied and strong, and the musical interaction kicks up righteous sparks at all key junctures. I like that these players acknowledge older, longhair aesthetics – CARLOS SANTANA for one, and maybe TOMMY BOLIN ca. Billy Cobham’s Spectrum lp – while welcoming KRAFTWERKian, new wavey ideas of beauty to their sonic palate as well. Anyone thinking this is hackwork need only to compare it to the proudly lackluster Band On The Run soundtrack by ex-TAMAM SHUD Tim Gaze from around this time; warmed-over Steve Miller Band, anyone? No thanks.

It is this soundtrack that made for the most perfect early 80’s rides through the last unspoilt parts of Indonesia surfers would ever encounter, and I’m glad it did. Listen to it now.


Good Days, Beautiful Waves

11 Mar

ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACKSea For Yourself (Rural Records, 1972)

Dennis Dragon was thee name in surf soundtracks during the 60’s and 70’s. He first cut his teeth working with THE DRAGONS on Dale Davis’ Strictly Hot way back in 1964, then joined his brother to score a series of Grant Rohloff films including Wild Surf, and eventually teamed up with FARM to rock George Greenough’s Innermost Limits of Pure Fun in 1969. But with the 60’s behind him, Dennis was finally free to indulge a more painterly – in the rockin’, wildass sense of the term – approach to surf soundtracking. A whole bucket of sonic goo gets dumped in here: southern fried twang, hippy-dippy folk hokum, nasty GRAND FUNK-like grooves, keyboard driven prog, orchestral pops, and more. Yes occasionally things catch a near-porno soundtrack rail, but the weird thing is that this crazy quilt actually coheres when the waves start a-breaking.

Dennis’ busy, jazz-inflected drumming is the common denominator linking up alot of the music in the film, but other talents rear their heads too: a bunch of Westside fellas called THE BOZONE who give us a great downer psych spiral called “Stone Crazy“; the I-can’t-believe-this-isn’t-Jimi-Hendrix of VELVERT TURNER, whose track in the flick (“Hear My Train A-Comin'”) was inexplicably left off this LP release; and best of all, ex-SUNRAYS Richard Henn who wrote the beautiful “Rain Ride” and arranged the more orchestral/jazz pop moments included herein. Those quiet bits break up the hectic pace of this collection, helping to mark changing tides, rising suns, and apocalyptic sunsets with the respect they deserve. Not everything here is instrumental, but that’s ok, ’cause the shitty rip from the vhs I’m listening to right now effectively muffles any meaning that may be hidden in them lyrics.

Budding record thieves take note! I don’t actually own this rare-as-hen’s-teeth double LP + 7″ 45 set. I’ve only ever watched the movie. But I’ve done so many, many times, and enjoyed it every time. While a couple of these tracks were unearthed on THE DRAGONS’ B.F.I. CD release and the CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD surf comp. from a few years back, that still leaves like an album and a half of this stuff in the vaults. Here’s hoping the good folks at EM Records will see fit to re-release this, after they give us that CORKY CARROLL Laid Back reish in the ensuing months.

Until then, it’s back to my crappy VHS rip. Ah, the lengths we go to for a good ride . . .

A Bold, Beautiful, Stoked Whirl of Today

5 Mar

ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACKFollow Me (Uni Records, 1969)

Hear me now: Groovy is not an adjective to be used lightly. No, it took quite subtle talent to create a studio smorgasbord of 60’s sound that straddled modern orchestral pop and psychedelia in a way that allowed parents to feel pleasingly hip while not entirely embarrassing their kids. And even if it did entirely embarrass, it was in a giddy, cannabis-induced way – one that left a big, stupid grin on the faces of everyone not made of stone. Quite difficult to achieve, that.

Composer Stu Phillips has rightfully earned Groovy Sainthood for giving us some of the most fabulous exploitation soundtracks of all time, including Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (a desert island disc IMO) and the less heralded but equally great Run, Angel, Run score. In this pantheon must lie his soundtrack to the surfing flick, Follow Me. Here the camp factor is tuned down, but late 60’s kaleidoscopic dynamism is in full effect, with tracks inspired by farflung oceanside destinations the world over – India, Morocco, Ceylon, Portugal, Hawaii. Not unlike how Les Baxter and Martin Denny reimagined ethnic sounds a decade earlier, Stu incorporates regional sound effects and instrumentation into his fanfares that were proto “world music” in all but name. And he always did it with a crazy glee that boring ol’ Peter Gabriel never knew existed.

Best of all, are the cuts here Stu wrote for DINO, DESI & BILLY. For the first and only time in their horrid career, DD&B gave us something worth telling mom about: a lushly produced, baroque form of soft beach pop that, for my money, surpassed anything Brian Wilson lent his name to that year. The ease with which those tracks – particularly “Thru Spray Colored Glasses” – have slid deep into my warmest thoughts is just, well, sick. It’s a darn shame they were left off Stu’s Surf, Sex And Cycle-Psychos comp CD that came out on Cherry Red a few years back.

So while nothing here really captures the thundering power of breaking waves or the awesome grace that is surf riding, it’s aok by me. What Stu has done is get me believing beach culture the world over really is one gloriously intoxicated, all-year-round swinging party. And that’s no mean feat.

Utopic Sounds

1 Mar

ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACKTo Ride a White Horse (Festival Records, 1966)

Sublimely stated, utterly gorgeous surf soundtrack by the uncrowned king of Australian jazz, Sven Libaek. Flute, vibes, and bossa nova rhythyms dominate in a way that sometimes gets me thinking a less-campy Nina Rota, but the whole shebang configures in a way few others – aside from fellow Aussie John Sangster, who, not coincidentally, plays on this here record – were able to make their own. Mod style is nicely enriched by jazz depth, and the subtle timelessness Sven brought to all his recordings is on display, ringing ancient and mysterious. And then, there is that waaaay cool, recurring theme: smooth, glassy, and clearly inspired by the hot instrumental surf music then on the wane Down Under. But this makes perfect sense, since Sven had been the A&R man who signed THE ATLANTICS to CBS in 1963, the group who went on to record the biggest Australian surf instro hit of them all, “Bombora”.

Never seen even a moment of this film, but this record gets me imagining all manner of longboard riders slowing turning across perfectly formed waves along the still-unspoilt Gold Coast of Australia, under the sweetest setting suns you could ever lay eyes on.

Thanks to Pecks Spet Rips for the cover pic

Blown Out

22 Feb

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) BLUEBIRDStylemasters 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) MPHASEStylemasters 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 CIRCLESLavese 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.

Slippery When Wet

11 Jun

As I admitted here, I’ve never been any kind of surfer, and truth be told actually recoiled from most beach culture when I was growing up. In the South Bay, the beach was too easy, too available, too obvious – and I was an awkward, contrary, angry bastard by nature. But all that’s neither here nor there when talking about music, since I frickin’ love much of what’s been called surf music all down the pipeline. While surf began in the early 60’s as a highly structured, narrowly prescribed musical form, by the end of the decade the wide ranging, wildly divergent sounds being used to score surfing films couldn’t be captured under pat definition. And as Australia was the locus for surf documentaries in the late 60s and early 70’s, so too, was it the place for surf music during those times.

The recent Chairman of the Board compilation on Harmless Records did a decent job at surveying the wide-open terrain covered by late 60s/early 70’s Antipodean surf soundtracks, even if it did linger a bit too long on derivative singer/songwriter G. Wayne Thomas for my liking. But it was left to Japan’s EM Records to really dive deep into reissuing the individual scores themselves. Their Under Water Series was welcomed with open arms in this household; here, I’d only ever heard wind of one of these LPs before, and that’s only because I worked at a record nerd outpost in Hollywood 15 years ago! These CD reissues are all beautiful digipacks with copious liners and photos, and they sound effin’ phenomenal. Haven’t actually seen any of the flicks in question, but I did watch the Cali/Aussie surf flick Crystal Voyager just the other night, and can vouch for the fact that endless clips of waves breaking appeals to even us gremmies in a meditative, hypnotic sorta way. So go to it:

FARM – “Animal” (The Innermost Limits of Pure Fun Soundtrack, EM Records, Japan 1968/2007) Filmed largely in Australia, but scored by pure SoCal dudes. Drummer Dennis Dragon (THE DRAGONS, SURF PUNKS, THE BEACH BOYS et al) was still young at this point, but he was already a vet of surf soundtracking – he and his brothers had scored Dale Davis’ Strictly Hot way back in ’64. The primary sound on Innermost teeter-totters from the Dragons’ jazzy, DOORSian organ workouts to Denny Aaberg’s spacey acoustic numbers – all which strain to reinvent the sound of surf music in a post-Sunset Strip, late 60’s way. Mike Curb-like exploitation influences are at work here, too, particularly in the blues rock instrumental stuff – blame the geographic proximity of Hollywood. But repeated listens have brought this CD to lurid Technicolor life: the playing is nimble, the interaction never feels anything less than inspired, and there’s no bogue string or brass sections to bog anybody down. Nice stuff fellas. Now why don’t EM Records go and re-release some other Dennis soundtracks, like A Sea For Yourself, Go For It, or the aforementioned Strictly Hot? I could listen to 10 CDs worth of this kinda unpredictable instro action.

PETER MARTIN & FINCH – “Lady of Truth” (Drouyn Soundtrack, EM Records, Japan 1974/2007) The most soundtrackery of these soundtracks: it’s a very 70’s mix of mellow acoustic strummers, library sound string arrangements, groovy funk cues, faux eastern exotica, and some disorienting ARP synthesiser that speak of studio agility rather than spontaneous garage jamming. But see, this Peter Martin guy is reeeally agile at soundtracking. Every little bit fits perfectly into a totally appealing whole in an oddly seamless, DJ-curated way. Didn’t hurt at all to invite along actual garage jammers FINCH, who play three of their own appealingly overwrought rockers and add texture/muscle to a few of Peter’s own numbers. Perhaps the least crucial of the four soundtracks I’ve talked about here, but that’s only ’cause the others are so fucking singular. Don’t overlook this one, like I almost did – I’m already imagining this will help me through any number of breezy Summer afternoons in my immediate future.

TULLY – “Brother Sun” (Sea of Joy Soundtrack, EM Records, Japan 1972/2007) A true milestone this was: if FARM was groping for something new, TULLY not only found but surpassed it completely. This has quickly become one my favourite soundtracks of all time. It’s a glorious collection of acousticly driven clarinet/flute chamber melodies punctuated by soaring vocals, eerie electric distortion, Indian drones, and even a bit of wet reverb depending on mood and intuition. The band also musters a focused seriousness that speaks of a kind of collective spiritual longing, bringing to mind England’s THIRD EAR BAND. It’s no surprise these folks were devotees of Avatar Meher Baba at this juncture. But this is sooo good, even confirmed atheists will want to crack an ear to the way these folks reinvent surf in their own gorgeous, hippie image. A+.

TAMAM SHUD – “Mr. Strange” (Evolution Soundtrack, EM Records, Japan 1969/2007) Killer post-beat heavy psych action that has that hard-hitting but warmfuzzy low end I associate with contemporaneous PRETTY THINGS and CREAM records. The difference is, this wasn’t no production job: the whole thing was recorded in a matter of a few hours one afternoon! The live-in-the-studio feel has the rolling energy and primal force of big surf waves, and the urgent energy on display here totally wastes this band’s later, inferior Goolutionites & The Real People LP. An argument can be made that SHUD’s great tracks for the Morning of the Earth surf soundtrack in 1972 (buttressed by members of TULLY!) were their absolute pinnacle, but man! The abandon they exhibit in their rockin’ is totally invigorating and like little else I’ve come across from the period. Makes me wanna get naked and dive in the very, very cold English Channel straightaway. Well, almost.

Dada Surf

9 Jan

At a bit of a loss tonight, sitting here as I am trying to get my head around the deeper relationship between surf culture and LA artpunk. Yes: the surf revival dug its skag deep into the late 70’s SoCal music scene, as evidenced by certain aspects of THE GO-GOS, THE LAST, and the TUBESian travesty that was THE SURF PUNKS. And its no secret that alot of early 80’s suburban hardcore punkers rode rhythms and gtr lines straight off of Dick Dale records (see THE CROWD, THE DESCENDENTS, AGENT ORANGE . . .). But those very same tides held sway over Angelenos with decidedly more artistic bents, too.

THE SUBURBAN LAWNS maintained “Gidget Goes to Hell”, while THE URINALS went “Surfin’ With the Shah.” MONITOR infused all manner of eerie Polynesian whatnot into their shrunken-headed sound, when not playing actual surf under the moniker THE TIKIS. Even HUMAN HANDS occasionally went out for a sound ya might refer to as deep sea scuba-punk. Undoubtedly, the sound of surf resonated with them idiosyncratic artistes too, and bigtime. Case in point? New Wave Theatre, ca. 1981:

Frankie Ennui (SUBURBAN LAWNS): We’re talking about outmoded sensibilities, and redundant type mind . . .

Peter Ivers (New Wave Theatre): Outmoded sensibilities like freedom?

Frankie: Like surf culture.

These connections were made explicit on the first LP by THE ROMANS, entitled You Only Live Once (Solid Eye Records, 1983; reissued in wonderfully expanded form by Warning Label Records in 2002). This band was made of art-school guys who’d been in MONITOR, BPEOPLE, and HUMAN HANDS, not to mention AZ’s CONSUMERS. And while the bonus cuts tagged on to this thing showcase their aggro MEAT PUPPETSian roots, the LP proper is striking precisely because it doesn’t come across like an art band. From liftoff to touchdown, THE ROMANS always keep at least one goofy foot firmly planted on their longboard. From high energy breakers like “Moto Tapu,” through the wild fake-jazz soundtrack music of the title track, to country hokum detours that point toward pastures explored more fully on their second rec like “Small World” – this sounds, feels, and smells like a particularly modern, wide-eared instro band ala THE RAYBEATS at work here, not some headache inducing conceptual art project.

Ok ok: so I do hear some of that creepy MONITOR ritual in “Tuned Out”, and the bassline in “Birdbrain” gets me hoping HUMAN HANDS frontman David Wiley (RIP) might leap in with some of his patented aggro speak/singing as some point. But really, this sound was their own. As a teen I had this original LP (with cool Solid Eye postcard insert!) and absolutely loved the glassy Zen calm of “Shorebreak,” which woulda made a great surf b-side back in ’64. At some point I sold it to Dr. Rick, after he asserted he knew ROMANS gtrist Mikey Borenz. Listening to this CD now, I wish I’d never parted with it.

Here’s hoping somebody like Brian Chidester or Sven A. Kirsten will someday write an in-depth exploration into the 80’s surf/art connection, or that the long-promised MONITOR CD/book will shed much needed light on this subject. But maybe I’m making too much of this, seeing as much of what’s on this CD is pretty straight-forward in its rockin’. Perhaps what THE ROMANS really were, were a bunch of folks floating away from their purist art/punk beginnings and coming into their own as great musicians. Who really cares why it often came out sounding like surf music? On that aesthetic plane where beautiful tiki carvings dance to reverb-drenched gtr lines, it makes perfect fucking sense to me.

Sample THE ROMANS’ You Only Live Once CD here