IT'S THE SUMMER of '95, and you're cruisin' down Santa Monica Boulevard in your candy apple red GTO convertible. Your favorite swingin' guy or gal moves a little closer, and the tinny AM radio box blasts some truly boss sounds: it's the latest in new "surf & drag" music.
This isn't just a fantasy for some Vitalis-dripping, cardigan-sweatered retro nut. A resurgence of the circa 1962 to 1966 musical sub-genre of California surf & drag is now in full blossom.
The commercial form of California surf music, as defined by The Beach Boys and Jan & Dean, is of course well known and inescapable on the oldies radio dial. The associated "drag" style--using the instrumental form to summon up the smell and noise of a hot rod or drag race--is less familiar to most people.
The side-genre combination of surf & drag also wasn't explored much by the thousands of Sixties garage and Psychedelic revival groups in the 1980s. It has found more popularity in the mid 1990s, however, populated by Sixties aficionados searching for new sounds outside the usual vocal-garage mayhem.
A whole new generation of kids with matching beach shirts, skinny ties and hot-rod "woody" station wagons is now kicking out surf & drag music to widespread attention, at least on an underground level.
Not surprisingly, California is arguably in the lead with new surf & drag combos. Los Angeles' The Finks is a prime example. They're made up of veterans from previous fuzz-garage combos, and together they make some of the best SoCal sounds of any era.
Their lone LP, Fill 'Er Up And Go!, was recorded in authentic manner--"live" in the studio in sparkling mono--with plenty of warbly spring reverb and twangy guitar, plus touches of energetic organ. A 12-inch album cover super-saturated with color is the brilliant topper to the whole affair.
The Finks' "Haunted Fink," "12 Miles To Oblivion" and "The Eliminator" take the simple sunny fun of surf music and combine the grit and grease of the drag-car mentality. The results are reverent but not tame, revved up but not overly trashy. Dig that fez on the happening guitarist, and check out the band's W.W. I German cross logo.
As their own liner notes say, "The sound of waves crashing. The sight of cars smashing. The smell of sweat-drenched cardigans draped casually over the tops of superheated amplifiers...Girls, beer, mystery, and madness--all here in the high octane sound of The Finks."
Lord Hunt And His Missing Finks is an offshoot band with three of The Finks, carrying on in a similar instrumental fashion. The vintage '60s wrestling masks make for some very funny band photos on their German-issued EP--complete with a cheesy Silvertone brand guitar--and you just gotta love that demented laughing throughout their song "Rodan." Similar nuttiness fills the flipside.
As far as I can deduce, Del Noah & The Mt. Ararat Finks is yet another semi-offshoot of The Finks, but I see that the bassist of The Swamp Zombies is in the fold as well.
This constant mixing of the same small pool of like-minded L.A. musicians sometimes creates convoluted band family trees--note that this group probably also has ties to The Witchdoctors, Bomboras and Swinging Fezmen. At the very least they share the genre of instrumental surf-hot rod music.
In any case, the wonderful Rat Fink-ish drag race artwork on Del Noah's Big Sounds Of... seven-inch vinyl EP should clue one into the turbo-charged sounds inside. The liner notes say it all: "Drop your phonograph needle on this record and experience the sounds and smells of nitromethane 'pop' exploding in the belly of an Enderle-supercharged 392 Chrysler Hemi mill...the aroma of composite rubber burning off a set of M&H Racemaster slicks!"
The aforementioned Bomboras is another mutation from The Finks/Witchdoctors pot of musicians, like their kin mining a moody Sixties instrumental-based sound. An understated, restrained aura soaks their Forbidden Planet three-song seven-inch EP, making it a fine addition to the resurgence in the mid 1990s of the California scene. Colorful sleeve art, featuring Easter Island-astronaut stone heads floating in outer space, completes the package.
Another Bomboras EP exists on the eclectic Sympathy For The Record Industry label, and they split time on a Screaming Apple Records seven-inch EP with Lord Hunt And His Missing Finks. The Bomboras' debut long-player, the 12-song Savage Island, will also see the light of day soon.
The Tiki Tones includes several of the more eclectic Swamp Zombies in their roster. Here they dig deep into the instrumental surf, hot rod and outer-space instrumental sub-genres--with great success. Superb musicianship, songwriting and delivery separate The Tiki Tones from the latest crop of similar bands.
I was lucky to catch the Tiki Tones at a Los Angeles show earlier this summer, where they blasted through a cornucopia of instrumental sounds, always with a smile and sense of fun. They also looked quite spiffy in their matching Tiki Tone sweaters, washed in the light of their tiki-head porch lights. They're not to be confused, obviously, with Sacramento's Tiki Men, who also have a seven-inch EP out with similar stylings.
The Boss Martians hail from Tacoma, Washington, but their expert grasp of the genre holds up to their California cousins. Their 1993 "XKE" 45 is a reverb-drenched surf-ish instrumental, expertly delivered and faithfully recorded in 100 percent analog. The flip, "I'm 'A One You Need," is a vocal offering, showcasing the band's R&B rave-up leanings, complete with toe-tapping rhythm and Sir Douglas-esque pulsing organ.
Tony Hilder notes on the sleeve, "Nowadays, when you mention the Pacific Northwest, people think of long hair, plaid and (dare I say it?) 'grunge.' Fortunately for you and me there exists a young musical combo from Tacoma who defy this image--these rebels are clean cut, polite, and TALENTED! Just one spin of this record will prove that The Boss Martians are Washington State's premiere surfing and vocal band!"
There are several other Boss Martians discs available, including a just-released LP/CD on Dionysus Records. It bursts with more timeless spring reverb and wheezing organ, and strong vocals accompanying the reverent instrumentals.
A splendid cover of The Astronauts' "Hot Doggin'" kicks off the LP, followed by a plethora of superior original songs. "Diggin' 58," "Hey Tina" and "The Martian Stomp" all burst with the excitement of a '65 junior prom, complete with smoking Fender tube amplifiers and distorted P.A.
There are dozens of similar outfits springing up throughout the world: these few examples are just the tip of the beaches' iceberg.
The only possible response to all this spring-reverb madness is to wipe away that slacker frown, whip out the Coppertone and start tappin' those feet--the totally boss sounds of surf & drag are here for another endless summer.
All of the records described above--and many more--are available from Dionysus Records mail-order, P.O. Box 1975, Burbank, CA., 91507. Send $1 for a complete catalog.
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