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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