What Is Surf
Part V: Pushing The Envelope
Does a surf foundation mean it's surf music, and when does a band leave the envelope?
Pushing the envelope simply means taking the premise of surf, and evolving, mutating, or redefining it by combining it with other elements. It can be as simple as surf with the John Barry spy ethic, or as far off base as Steve Khan's full jazz fusion excursion over "Penetration." Examples of surfbands routinely pushing the envelope include Jim Waller & the Deltas, the Nocturnes, the Mermen, the Thrusters, G. T. Stringer, the Galaxy Trio, Vibrasonic, and more. But is it still surf?
The Nocturnes were a surfband from the heartland of surf, Orange County. They took the Ventures' "Journey To The Stars" concept and forged a whole sound around it, merging the surf guitars with space sounds & early use of feedback. It was not too far from the center of the envelope, but merely a slight deviation in the direction the whole industry was going. Even so, it was an early effort to evolve beyond the variations on a theme. So it's pretty safe to call surf, right? Depends on where you draw the line.
Jim Waller & the Deltas were from Fresno. Jim's early jazz leanings were anything but subtle. Their work was a blending of the trad surf tunes like "Latiña" and "Exotic," and Jimmy Smith (he recorded "Pipeline" on his Black Smith album) influenced organ & Latino or Mariachi horns, with Latin & R&B rhythms. There was a whole Bal Beat or Pachuko Soul or Surf n' Soul thing that bubbled under the surf scene. Between the Rhythm Kings a.k.a. the Soul Kings a.k.a. the Charades at one end of the spectrum and Dave Myers & the Surftones at the other, lay Jim Waller & the Deltas. It feels like surf, but it sure doesn't sound like it, so is it surf?
There are less distant examples too, like Santa Cruz guitarist Soave Loco's (Douglas Eaton) incredible surfband the Thrusters, a direct lineal descendant of the Surf Pistols, who played full tilt versions of "Pipeline" and "Bombora" next to "Pretty Vacant" and "God Save The Queen." Soave wrote great surf instros and modern surf vocals with a solid surf foundation, and mixed in killer surf instro obscuros like "Bombora," and great rearrangements of standards like "Church Key" and "Surf Beat," as well as early modern surf instros like the Overtones' "Calhoun Surf." The vocals were timely tales of surfin' in war zones ("Beirut Surf"), bein' bummed by the No-Alcohol signs on the beach ("Soul Surf Stomp"), etc. The often misunderstood ultimate threat "May you never hear surf music again" that Jimi Hendrix delivered in "Third Stone From The Sun" (and if you don't think Jimi held surf in a reverent spot, listen to "Peter Gunn Catastrophe," and remember that he studied Dick Dale's style). Soave delivered on the promise. Check out "The Landing" on What Surf III. This band really push the envelope. So, is it surf?
In the land down under, where the surf rolls like thunder, G. T. Stringer took their longboards and jazz band and came up with truly surf feeling originals that shout surf & jazz & employ howling feedback. There are plenty of words elsewhere on my page about these guys, so I won't expand on them here. If little more than the feel of surf is there, is it still surf?
The Galaxy Trio might not immediately come to mind when discussing this subject, but
they have taken true garage sounds and played true surf structures, resulting in something
just new enough to set them apart, while retaining the recognizability, so I guess it's safe to call it surf.
But would you call it surf if they had gone as far a-fixed as Agent Orange, into the
punk arena? And even further into hard-core speed & stylings are the Torpedoes, who are
so fast they smoke. Is it still surf?
In another direct, there's a natural bridge that probably would have happened if surf had survived the British Invasion. It's the place half way between what the Nocturnes were doing and Pink Floyd. That lost bridge is explored by UK band Vibrasonic, who frequently do whole surf sets or psych sets, or a blend of the two. There's no mistaking the surf when you listen, and there's no mistaking the psych either. So, is it still surf? When will they leave the envelope, or do they skate bake and forth across it?
The Mermen are the most controversial example at the moment. It doesn't take long watching the email on Cowabunga for catch some reference to them, pro or con, relative to their being a surfband or not. This is a band who still do great surf tunes in their own way out of the envelope style, songs like "Casbah" and "Unknown" and "Quiet Surf," and also do 12 minute excursions into huge howling feedback sea scapes. There's no mistaking the water and the surf basis, but there is also no mistaking the great distance from trad. If any band has left The envelope, it is them, and yet there is no way I can really say that. Their material reeks of surf, and it shouts tomorrow.
What about surf inspired completely non-genre music by surfers? Well, the Closet Surfers play keyboard oriented melody-scapes about the surf. It has so little to do with trad, that it's hard even think about a connection, yet there is a feel within it. So, is that enough?
So, when does a band leave the envelope, and how do you know if they were never in it?