Monday, August 8, 2011

5 Questions with Kent Crowley, author of Surf Beat


Q. How did this book come about?
I actually felt obligated to write this book because I was fortunate enough to grow up right in the center of the whole surf music revolution and I’d never seen the story reported the way that I witnessed it firsthand. I grew up in Newport Beach just a short walk from the Rendezvous Ballroom and took my first guitar lessons from Norman Sanders of The Tornadoes (the first band to chart a surf - themed instrumental) in early 1963. I worked and played in bands in Laguna Beach at the time ‘Five Summer Stories’ was released and I was playing Gazzarri’s on the Strip in Hollywood when an audience member said during a break “did you know REAL surf music is coming back? There’s this band called Jon & The Nightriders…’.”
     It struck me because differentiating between instrumental surf music and the vocal schools was something one didn’t hear too far beyond the beach – and especially not in Hollywood. When I first heard Jon & The Nightriders, the first thing I noticed was how it resonated both with my younger friends – most of whom were shortboarders and punk, metal or ska fans - as well as the older musicians and surfers who’d grown up with the original sounds of Dick Dale, The Tornadoes, The Belairs and the others.
     My recollection of surf music is that the amps got progressively bigger and louder and the guitar players got progressively more skilled. Yet, to most of the world, surf music was The Beach Boys and Jan & Dean records. Yet these two very different schools of music all originally sprang from the same soil and drew from the same well. Over the years, the two viewpoints had fragmented into opposing camps and I was just hoping to reconcile them. The whole point of surf music was that this was music designed to make people dance and have a good time with as little interference from parents and other authorities as possible.
     Oh, and I do want to mention that I DID surf, but badly. My older brother, who was a very accomplished surfer, once told me I would always be safe from shark attacks because sharks can’t eat and laugh at the same time.

Q. Which aspect of the book was most interesting to write? 

Two aspects of the book particularly stood out: the first was getting an education in the nuts and bolts of the recording and musical instrument manufacturing processes from people like Dave Gold and Stan Ross from Hollywood’s Gold Star Recording Studios. By the time I ever set foot in a recording studio, the standard was 24 tracks and music was a billion - dollar industry, whereas in the early 1960s artists like The Beach Boys, Dick Dale, The Tornadoes and The Surfaris were just making records for their fans and in the hopes that they could quit their day jobs or buy some new instruments.
     The other aspect that impressed me was the degree to which jazz was a huge influence on West Coast rock & roll. The cream of the recording session musicians like Hal Blaine, Rene Hall, Earl Palmer, Carol Kaye and others were all accomplished jazz musicians in their own right. Then, add that to the fact that many of the artists who emerged from the whole surf music revolution were hugely influenced by jazz artists and composers. While Dick Dale personally interacted with some of the finest country western and rockabilly guitarists in the business, he based his guitar attack in Gene Krupa’s drum style. Brian Wilson’s biggest influences were George Gershwin and The Four Freshmen and Frank Zappa was a jazz major at Chaffey College. When they went into the studios, they found themselves working with accomplished jazz musicians who were open to these new styles of music and I think that’s why you have the L.A. rock scene becoming an electronic musical style more than any other music capital because they needed the Wrecking Crew. The sophistication level of the music of artists like Zappa and Wilson rose with each new composition because they were finally working with musicians in the studio who could realize their wildest flights of musical adventure.

What did you learn from writing this book? 

When I first met Dave Gold and Stan Ross, they told me that during Gold Star’s heyday they were like the happy hookers - they could have made more money but they were having too much fun recording all of that great music. What impressed me about this story was the degree to which the engineers, technology designers, surfboard builders and even amplifier and instrument builders viewed their crafts as artistic pursuits. They weren’t looking for financial gain so much as they relished conquering challenges and finding new opportunities in technology at a time when the technology was growing at the most rapid rate in entertainment history. Remember, in the five - year period between ’Surfin’ ’ and ‘Smile‘, recording technology grew from two - tracks to eight tracks while guitar amplifiers grew from primarily single enclosures with ten - inch speakers and wattage in double - digits to massive amp stacks with multiple 12 or 15 inch speakers and triple - digit wattage. Most of this came about because the ‘adults’ like Leo Fender, Paul Buff, Dave Gold and Stan Ross were listening to what the kids wanted and trying to accommodate them. They regarded themselves as being part of a great musical adventure rather than just technicians or businessmen hoping to make a buck.

What's the future of surf music? 

I make a comment in the book that surf music is less like a fashion statement that wanders in and out of style and more like a superhero, called upon when needed and vanishes when the deed it done. The biggest attraction of surf music is the fact that it is a relatively easy style of music to play, learn, stage and perform in virtually any environment. As The Surfaris’ Jim Pash used to say, ’Wipe Out’ probably kicked off more bands than any other single song in history.
     More importantly, surf music never saturated any generation’s ears to the point where people hear it and dismiss it as some other generation‘s music. It’s still new to the ears and still offers enough subtext of rebellion and subversion for any generation to discover it and enjoy it without apologies or excuses. Today, a beginning guitarist can put together a serviceable surf rig for a couple of hundred dollars and it requires only one guitar, one effects pedal and one amp (and LOTS of picks, of course - but they‘re cheap). For an experienced guitarist, today surf music offers a huge canon of work and nearly everything an experienced guitarist needs to reproduce this music with some level of authenticity is available through neighborhood or online music retailers. For purists and novices alike, there is a thriving surf music scene all over the world and all it takes is a search engine to find the bands, the shows, and hundreds of musicians who are willing to counsel and answer questions.
      Another aspect of surf music for younger musicians is that it’s a perfect style for starting a band. Every musician knows there are few things more fun than getting together with a room full of other musicians and flailing away at some poor 12 bar blues until our wives and kids call in missing persons reports on us. However, after a point, we’re playing for each other. Surf music is a great place to start because it’s a very focused style of music - it’s music for dancing. In fact, it got the name surf music because it was surfers who first embraced it. For musicians at every level of skill, it’s a great place to start because it’s more than a musical style - it’s both a folk music and a performance art.

What's next for you?  

It was really difficult to compress this story and all of the characters into 90,000 words. So many of them deserve full-length biographies  - particularly Paul Buff, Dave Gold, Stan Ross, Dick Dale, Carl Wilson, Paul Johnson, John Blair…so many of the artists and the bands are lacking the recognition that far less deserving artists routinely get. Right now, my first objective is to get some historical recognition for both Pal Recording Studios/Studio Z and Gold Star Recording Studios. While I was honored to be part of Rancho Cucamonga’s honoring of Paul Buff up at Chaffey College in 2005 and The Grammy Museum’s special honors for Dave Gold and Stan Ross, those events never reached anywhere near the people who need to know about them…there is just so much more to do.

No comments:

Post a Comment