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New Music L A 1987 : Surf Bands Ride An Old Wave At Lace

March 14, 1987|CRAIG LEE

Is the music world ready to canonize one of Southern California's few indigenous rock sounds--surf music--as an art form? That seemed to be the premise Thursday night as Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions presented a night of old wave (literally) instrumental bands as part of the New Music L.A. Festival.

There's actually a lot of justification for re-examining surf music as something more than a pop fad. The best surf bands often included hypnotic Eastern/Oriental modalities and a genuine sense of space and atmosphere. This music formed stylistic parameters based on specific sounds (courtesy of Fender amps with lots of reverb) and scales.

But no matter how carefully one analyzes the stuff, the LACE showcase (complete with retro-surf art by CalArts students, and Hal Jepsen surf films projected on the wall behind the bands) proved that when all is said and done, surf music is still just plain old fun dance-party music.

Headliners Davie Allan & the Arrows, best known in the '60s for their contributions to teen-age motorcycle exploitation films, were the only group with a legitimate link to the first generation of surf bands. Allan's "grungy," fuzz-laden guitar roared like a dirt bike Thursday over a list of oldies and reworked originals.

With matching red jackets, and a sound based on old Ventures and Chantays records, the Halibuts (who preceded Allan) resembled every surf band that ever played a frat house or prom party. The Manhattan Beach sextet includes two current-day competitive surfers, an ironic situation considering that most surfers these days tend to listen to the Beastie Boys or Bon Jovi rather than the Surfaris.

In its set, Lawndale applied more outside influences and more unusual compositional structures to create a modern take on the traditional sound. But often the local quintet seemed to be concentrating more on calculated dynamics and effects than on hitting the pipeline and going for the smooth ride. Get tubular, guys! The Insect Surfers also appeared, opening the show with a buggy set of originals.

In the end, no one could say whether it was art, but it was a great excuse to go trippin'.

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