Vampyros Lesbos Sexadelic Dance Party
Cowabunga! The Surf Box
By Steve Knopper
I've been in a couple of bands. One actually performed--once, at a party--and I moved out of town the next day. Otherwise, we never went farther than calibrating our instruments in the same key (usually E, the easy one, at least for guitarists), then alternating solos until the drummer's arms got tired.
One guy would jam for a few bars, then another guy, then another guy. Exciting at first, but after a couple hours we always gave up because the inevitable next step would have been organization, arrangement, learning real songs. What fun is that?
Part of rock 'n' roll's appeal, over classical music, say, or jazz, is the myth that anybody can play it. Punk claimed that rock began with "do it yourself"; the business and egos came later. But the truth is, a band can go only so far with undisciplined, formless jamming. It's easy to make like Blues Traveler--choose three chords to play over and over, have every band member jam really fast for a while, then figure out how to end the song half an hour later. But Blues Traveler can get away with this only because they occasionally have lyrics to hold your interest when the music gets boring. It's much harder for instrumentalists. Some supremely talented guitarists--like Buddy Guy or Stevie Ray Vaughan--avoided complex organization, fully exploiting the rigid basics of the blues genre by developing a flashy style. Everybody else has to make arrangements, the musical equivalent of building an outline before writing an essay.
Good pop songwriters know all about this--they use traditional verse-chorus-verse structures to get their points across. But more than any singer-songwriter, the great instrumental pop musicians must rely on planning and structure because that's all they have. They can't hide sloppiness behind provocative lyrics or a good singer. In the M.G.'s classic "Green Onions," subtle guitarist Steve Cropper had to know exactly when organist Booker T. Jones was going to finish his short solo before starting his own. In Pavement's terrific 1994 instrumental "5-4=Unity," somebody had to plan when the big piano riff would stop and the dramatic spooky guitar would float in at the end of the bar. (You can hear it, too, when musicians fail to outline: when the Beatles loosened up on their spontaneous 1965 blues jam "12-Bar Original," released on "Anthology 2," they inevitably ran the song into the ground.) To work, these things need to be planned in advance.
Two pop genres understood this philosophy perfectly: movie scores, because they work with the narrow purpose of enhancing dramatic action, and surf instrumentals, which started as fun two-minute songs that captured the sounds of crashing waves. Two new collections--Vampyros Lesbos Sexadelic Dance Party, a compilation of songs from three low-budget horror films released in 1969 by Spanish director Jess Franco, and Cowabunga!, an 82-song box set of mostly instrumental surf music--ought to be required listening for every rambling Allman brother who hasn't learned it's the quality, not the quantity, of notes that counts.
Vampyros Lesbos sounds fresh and explosive today because weirdo composers Manfred Hubler and Siegfried Schwab put time and care into the arrangements. The album, re-released on CD earlier this year by Motel Records, contains 14 songs but no impressive soloist. (The liner notes credit "E-Bass" on bass, "Battle-Horn of Jericho" for trombone, and "Infra-Lur in P-soft Minor" on trumpet. Not exactly marquee names.) There are fuzzy and funky guitars, a sitar, an organ, a tinkly xylophone, and a flute. Somebody screams like a strangled monkey in the background of "The Lions and the Cucumber." But the music's also funky for many of the same reasons that James Brown's bands were funky: a bandleader said, "Stand there and play this melody when we tell you to." The opening song, "Droge CX 9," begins with a frolicking piano solo, leaps quickly into a catchy plucked guitar melody, then explodes into horns. One thing happens, then the next thing. Listening to the album is like hearing a story unfold--the sitar comes in on "The Lions and the Cucumber," establishes itself as a playful, friendly character, then waits to interact with the menacing horns or sexy flute. I've never seen the Vampyros Lesbos movie or the album's other two cornball horror dramas, but I can't imagine their characters carrying Franco's films as well as these instruments carry the sound track.
Brown's J.B.'s may have had a charismatic singer to hide behind, but listening to their 12-minute 1973 hit "Doing It to Death" reveals that Brown strengthened the group by being a strict bandleader. He never allowed musicians to get sloppy, publicly embarrassing them or docking their pay if they missed a note. The J.B.'s played long, stretched-out jams that derived their power from tight organization: bass and drums set the groove, then soloists step up, trying to make their point in as short a time as possible. It's impossible to forget the ten-second piano riff on "(Get Up) I Feel Like Being Like a Sex Machine." The sitar solo in "We Don't Care," on Vampyros Lesbos, is the same way.
Surf instrumentalists operated according to a simplified version of this philosophy. But for a bunch of tan-happy slackers, they were pretty sophisticated. Surf music may have started to die out the day the Beatles shifted rock's axis to England in 1964. But as the four-disc box set Cowabunga! The Surf Box 1960-1995 shows, surf songs still tell wonderful stories. The Chantays' 1962 single "Pipeline" uses staccato bass and guitar notes to illustrate in two minutes the confrontation between a surfer and a rolling wave. Dick Dale was the "king of surf guitar" because he captured the sounds of roaring waves with his fiery plucking; it's no coincidence that film director Quentin Tarantino picked Dale's 1962 hit "Miserlou," with its Spanish horns and "hup! hup!" vocals, to set the dramatic tone for Pulp Fiction.
Perhaps trying to live up to his "guitar hero" status, in concert Dale stretches "Miserlou" and his other great songs into extended jams. But by removing organization from the priority list, and with no lyrics to spice things up, his songs become repetitive and dull. Yet Dale, who just put out a pretty good new album, left a wide legacy. It's all over Cowabunga!: from the echoey plucking of guitarist Rich Fifield in the Astronauts' "Baja" to the more recent playful romps of Finland's Laika and the Cosmonauts and Saturn's Man...or Astroman?. When the Cosmonauts perform, they wear Hawaiian-style shirts with little planets all over them, and they lean over their instruments with precise determination, as if they're working on a cure for cancer. What comes out are spectacularly frivolous rhythms whose only purpose is to make you smile, dance, and maybe surf.