The surf guitar sound has been surprisingly resilient in New Zealand, ever since it washed ashore in the early 1960s. Here are 10 of the best from this genre, though we’ll start just before the true surf rock era to get some perspective on where the sound came from.
The Bob Paris Combo (1959)
Rock and roll bands often had to do long sets in the 50s, so having some songs that didn’t require a vocalist made sense. New Zealand’s answer to Elvis, Johnny Devlin, did his shows in two halves, each beginning with his band, The Devils, doing a run of instrumentals to build anticipation before the man himself appeared. When it came to releasing instrumental rock on vinyl, The Devils were beaten to the punch by fellow Aucklanders, the Bob Paris Combo, who in 1958 released a 7" with cover versions of the two tracks that started this era in the US – ‘Rumble’ by Link Wray and ‘Rebel Rouser’ by Duane Eddy – as well as their own EP of instrumentals which included their wild original, ‘Dragstrip’.
Max Merritt and The Meteors (1963)
Guitar instrumentals reached a new level of popularity after the emergence of Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, which solidified what a surf guitar track was supposed to sound like – fast alternate-picked guitar notes often slid down the fretboard, a chord progression that derived from 12-bar blues, and the gain on the amp cranked up to full to add a subtle bit of fuzz. And here we have the group who were the kings of the 50s Christchurch rock and roll scene showing they’d already perfected the sound by 1963, even adding a bit of slapback echo on the guitar to exaggerate the twanginess. Max Merritt made his reputation on his voice, but he was also the lead guitarist in his own group and here he shows off his chops like nowhere else. I like this tune so much that I already included it on my Top 10 songs about the sea, but it’s pretty much a must-have for a list of NZ surf rock tunes, so I have no regret about listing it again here.
The Invaders (1963)
It usually seems best to avoid including covers on these top 10 lists, but this track is too great to pass up. During the early days of NZ rock and roll, choosing cover versions was an art in itself and Ray Columbus was a master at picking out obscure numbers that hadn’t been hits overseas to make his own. ‘Ku Pow’ was written by a Danish rock group and hardly made a splash in the rest of the world, but Columbus saw something in it and his taste was confirmed when The Invaders’ version was picked up for radio play in Australia before they’d even been there. On lead is Dave Russell, who joined Columbus’ first band, The Downbeats, at only 16 following a recommendation from his guitar teacher, Tony Athfield (whom he replaced in the band). At the time, The Invaders were most influenced by the hard plucking style of The Shadows (whom they saw play live in Christchurch in 1962) and they ended up following them in purchasing – at great expense – matching Fender guitars. According to Columbus’ biography, Russell couldn’t afford to purchase a proper echo unit (as Merritt had) and instead made his own from an old tape machine, but the resulting sound is nonetheless pitch perfect. Drummer Jimmy Hill is also worth listening out for – he has no trouble matching every lick of Russell’s in the turnarounds with a playful little fill of his own. What a great band!
Gray Bartlett (aka Graeme Bartlett) (1966)
The Shadows were an even bigger influence on renowned guitarist Peter Posa, who took their sound even further from surf guitar by emphasing the topline melody above all else – every note placed perfectly and deliberately, with a sweet, clean tone. His tune ‘White Rabbit’ was a massive hit across Australasia and he made an odd kind of comeback in 2012, when Sony released a best-of compilation and it turned out to be the best selling album of the year! Yet Posa’s guitar sound doesn’t fit well with the others on this list, the lounge music vibe is a little too syrupy. So instead, I’ve dug out this number from the man who was in some ways Posa’s successor – Gray (Graeme) Bartlett. His music varied quite widely through his career – his hit from this album was ‘La Gloria’, an acoustic guitar piece that sold 500,000 copies (!!) in Japan and he was later more known as a country artist, manager and promoter. Here he is definitely in surf mode, with his drummer heavy on the toms and the sound effect of waves in the background to get us in the mood.
The Music Convention (1968)
The Music Convention were more of a psychedelic band. Indeed, I first discovered this track on Grant Gillander’s compilation, A Day in the Mind’s Mind – but when they were asked to contribute music to ground breaking surf film Children of the Sun they came up with this tripped out, tom-heavy number. I don’t think I’ve ever heard sitar played over a surf beat like this before (and doubt I will again). This song exists as both a sign of the enduring appeal of the surf guitar sound, but also its demise. Psychedelia would wipe the slate clean on rock and roll, while prog was far too pretentious to toy with anything as simple as a 12-bar blues turnaround. However, The Music Convention had been around long enough to know the surf sound, since they’d first started out doing covers of instrumental rock group The Ventures. The soundtrack ended up being the height of the group’s output and they faded from view soon after, but fittingly Graham Reid reports in his Elsewhere blog that in the 80s he saw guitarist/sitar-player Greg O’Donnell playing alongside Gray Bartlett on tour in China.
The Clean (1982)
Punk reset the clock on rock and roll, bringing back some of the rawness and simplicity that had been lost. However, the aggressive attitude of early punk had mostly faded by the time The Clean released their first single in 1981. In that respect, it makes perfect sense that they’d also skip early rock and roll and instead pick up on what came directly after, whether that was the Velvet Underground (which is often seen as a key influence) or surf guitar (which is usually not). The latter influence is clear enough, given that The Clean even had a track on their Odditties 2 compilation entitled ‘Surf Music’. However, it’s more interesting to re-examine this well-known number, ‘Fish’, for its surf elements – the reverbed melodic guitar line, the wavering slow-strummed chords, and the double-picking in the middle section. David Kilgour’s playing is more wild than Dave Russell would ever have allowed his own to be, but it’s just as perfect in its own way and provides a nice link to the acts that would follow.
King Loser (1995)
If you think of Flying Nun’s great surf guitar band then no doubt you’d most likely pass over The Clean in favour of King Loser. Chris Heazlewood was a more pure son of the Dick Dale sound, but wasn’t scared to warp it in every direction he could to add his own grit to it. Oddly enough, the band’s most well-known track, ‘ ’76 Comeback Special’, is more a showcase of surf-inspired organ playing than guitar (though Heazlewood’s distorted strums underpin the whole affair). In order to really appreciate his approach, it’s better to check out ‘Surf Lost’, which is a wonderfully noisy slice of classic surf with feedback added for a little colour in the bridge. And, as in the early days, it’s all over and done in under two minutes.
Piha Death Rip
The Hollow Grinders (2001)
As with members of The Music Convention, The Hollow Grinders hail from Hamilton (not to be confused with Christchurch cult band “The Axel Grinders,” which was the original band of Celia Mancini and Duane Zarakov, both later in King Loser). The Hollow Grinders first started in 1996, making them certainly the longest running surf guitar band that this country has ever seen (though closely rivalled by Surfing USSR, which was started by Greg Malcolm and friends in 1999). Founding member Eddie Hodad (real name: Andrew Dean) is the band’s main guitarist, though they often feature the talents of Hamilton legend, Stan Jagger (known in the band as Otis Uhh!), who must’ve been in two dozen bands by now. This is one of the only acts on this list to release a whole album of surf instrumentals (still available via Bandcamp), which adhere to the traditional clean, echo-y sound, even if it’s pretty loose and wild in places. This track has the nice touch of incorporating the old safety ad from the 90s that told viewers to watch out for the “ … calm spot on a surf beach. Don’t swim there, ever, because it’s a rip ... ” Still good advice!
The Tapemen (2008)
I could possibly understand why two bands from Hamilton might start a surf band, given that Raglan is just around the corner, but it’s less clear where you’d get to from similarly landlocked Palmerston North. I guess it just shows that the sound divorced from the actual surf scene a long time ago. It was way back in 1998 when Dylan Herkes first started his label, Stink Magnetic, to release cassette tapes of his own band (Pro-drag) and those of his friends. Somewhat more elusive was the appearance of The Mysterious Tapeman, a guitar wielding maniac, whose face was always wrapped in black tape. There were rumours that he’d been working at a film facility when the cannisters caught light and left his face hideously scarred. In reality, Herkes was just too much of a fan of B-grade 60s horror movies to pass up the opportunity to add some myth around his new act. Stink Magnetic had its biggest release in 2014 when Herkes was asked to put together the Wolf Party compilation album for Swiss label, Voodoo Rhythm Records, who gave it worldwide distribution. For the most part, all the acts on Stink Magnetic seek to bring back the unhinged side of early rock and roll, whether it’s the blasting surf organ of The Chandeliers (a band in which Herkes plays bass), the creepy dirges of acts like Boss Christ and the Damned Evangelist, or the wildness of Voodoo Savage. But when it comes to surf guitar, The Tapeman is still king, so here he is playing with his Tapemen in 2008.
Aquatic Ape Theory
The Drab Doo-Riffs (2013)
Surf guitar has remained popular to the present day, as shown by the successful reunion tour recently by King Loser and the emergence of new groups like The Echo-Ohs who mine from similar territory. Yet the most established act in this field over the past few years has to be The Drab Doo-Riffs. At the front of their sound was the guitar work of Lucy Stewart, whose alternate-picking has the speed of Merritt’s, but whose sound can just as quickly take on the fuzzed out distortion of Heazlewood. And underneath it all are the pounding drums of Mikey Sperring, who also played in indie surf act, Don Julio and the Hispanic Mechanic. Their best instrumental track, ‘Aquatic Ape Theory’, isn’t available in its entirety online but you’ll hear most of it on this promo clip for the EP of the same name (available on 10” vinyl through 1:12 Records). The band has since broken up but passed the baton on to new acts such as The Echo Ohs, Na Noise, and King Kaiju who have ensured the surf guitar sound stays alive in New Zealand into the future.
Bonus track - Surfside
The Denvermen (1963)
The Denvermen were an Australian band, but it’s tempting to feature them in the place of The Devils above, since their two most famous tunes – ‘Surfside’ and ‘My Little Rocker’s Turned Surfie’ – were written by Johnny Devlin. He also picked up on the surf-vocal trend with his own track, ‘Stomp The Tumbarumba’ (later covered by the Hoodoo Gurus). The other great thing is that there’s actually a music video for this track, which shows them wandering aimlessly along a beach with their guitars in hand, as if a few lost members of The Shadows had just washed ashore at Bondi still playing their instruments.