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Riding a '60s Splashback

Flying in the face of alternative angst, a new wave of surf rockers celebrates guitars, girls and fun in the sun.

August 18, 1996|Chuck Crisafulli | Chuck Crisafulli is a frequent contributor to Calendar

When the edgy industrial-rock band Ministry came through town recently for a pair of shows at the Hollywood Palladium, the group attracted a fashionably alternative crowd--tattooed, pierced and largely dressed in black. The fans no doubt came for a cathartic wallow in Ministry's high-intensity urban angst, but before they got their blast of all that, they were confronted with the music of sunshine, summer and unstoppable up-tempo fun: surf music.

The opening band on the bill was Laika & the Cosmonauts, one of the many groups currently finding inspiration in the music of early-'60s instrumental surf rockers such as Dick Dale, the Surfaris, the Chantays and the Ventures. From San Diego to Seattle to Laika's improbable hometown--Helsinki, Finland--surf is up as young listeners discover the old records and new bands revive and revitalize the surf sound.

That sound, traditionally built of simple chords, steady beats and heavily reverbed riffs plucked on Fender guitars, hasn't ever completely disappeared from the pop subconscious. Rock fans of almost any age can probably recall the manic giggle of the Surfaris' "Wipe Out" and the precise guitars of the Chantays' "Pipeline," both hit singles from 1963.

However, since Dick Dale's explosively energetic 1962 single "Misirlou" resurfaced in 1994 to power the opening titles for Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," a full-scale resurgence of interest in surf rock and instrumental rock in general has taken place.

It isn't likely that this return to surf will lead to a storming of the pop charts--even at its peak, between 1961 and 1965, only seven surf records cracked the national Top 10. None of the new surf groups has even sold enough copies to dent the lower rungs of Billboard magazine's weekly list of the nation's Top 200 albums. In terms of the number of bands now playing the music and the depth of passion behind that playing, however, surf is riding its biggest wave since an earlier revival more than a decade ago.

For the newly stoked surf-rockers, the rewards of the music are self-evident.

"This has been my favorite kind of music since the mid-'80s, when I started buying Ventures records at thrift stores," says Josh Agle, who, under the nom de surf Shag Lono, serves as guitarist for the 2-year-old Orange County-based instrumental group the Tiki Tones. "We had no idea we were part of any scene when we started, but I'm very happy that there are enough people interested in this kind of music so that I can be in a band playing it full time."

"It's not like it's some smart money scheme to 'Go surf,' but it's a lot of fun," adds Jake Cavaliere, organist and songwriter for L.A.'s surf-instrumental combo the Bomboras. "I love the sound, the era, all of it. Compared to a lot of what's out there now, surf is easier to follow and a lot more inviting. And it's happier music. Way happier. Everybody now sings about drugs and dying and how life is crap. I'd kind of prefer to ignore all that and enjoy myself for a little while."

For the last two years, the Bomboras have worked the local club scene and recently released their debut full-length album on Dionysus, a Burbank label specializing in new surf and garage-rock. While the Bomboras take a fairly traditional approach to their instrumentals, making use of such vintage gear as Fender reverb units and Farfisa organ, they also pump up the traditional sounds with a more modern rock 'n' roll energy. That energy occasionally leads to Cavaliere's dousing his Farfisa with lighter fluid and playing while it flames.

"We find some different ways to keep things entertaining," he says with a laugh. "A lot of old surf bands sounded exciting but weren't much to look at. You could turn your back and go get a drink and you definitely wouldn't miss anything. We want to give more bang for the buck."


A surf-rock revival makes sense in sunny Southern California, but the bone-chilling waters of Helsinki, Finland?

That is where the members of Laika & the Cosmonauts fell in love with the wicked surfin' riffs of Dick Dale, the Shadows and the Astronauts. Relaxing in a Hollywood motel room after their first Ministry gig, clad appropriately in a bold array of polyester Hawaiian shirts, the group seems excited to have made it to the part of the world where surf-rock began.

"We haven't been to the beach yet," guitarist-organist Matti Pitsinki says. "We've only been walking around Hollywood Boulevard.

"But right away it makes sense that the music would come from here. There's something in the air. And something in the water too, I suppose."

The band has been together seven years, but only recently have the members been able to graduate from Finland's understandably small surf-rock scene and tour extensively. Their most recent West Coast swing also included a show at L.A.'s House of Blues.

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