The first chapter from my next music book (the one I Kickstartered):
Nobody knows for sure who the Gamblers were — the passage of time has added to the legend, and sources conflict as to who did what, but let’s listen and try to hear who the players are at the start of our story.
It starts with the drums, of course.
It’s a primal, rolling sound, one that has led many to say it must have come from the man who said “let there be drums”.
But while the legends that surround the session have everyone who is anyone there, to witness the pre-birth of a craze, it seems that Sandy Nelson was not the drummer. No, that sound is the sound of Rod Schaffer, a drummer who will pass out of our story very quickly, but who has as good a claim as any to have started it all. But he’s playing in an imitation of the style of Nelson, who was the local boy made good.
Then the rhythm guitar enters, and from our lofty perspective more than fifty years in the future, we’re in familiar territory. This is surf music and, contra Hendrix, we’ve been hearing it again and again and again.
Except this is a year before surf music, before Dick Dale and His Del-Tones start playing music like this to surfers, gremmies and even the odd hodad, and before the sound of a reverbed Fender becomes synonymous with the waves.
This is, rather, the sound of Link Wray or Duane Eddy, as stripped down and reinvented by a gang of teenagers. Just hammer away at that single note as frantically as you can, dang-dang-dang-dang dang-dang-dang-dang. This is a young Elliot Ingber, who will go on to be a Mother before becoming Magic. Dang-dang-dang-dang dang-dang-dang-dang. Elliot has recorded this kind of thing before — the Gamblers used to be called the Moon Dogs, and he had recorded Moon Dog with them, but this is Moon Dawg…
Then enter the bass — just a low rumble here from Larry Taylor, no hint yet of the virtuoso who would play with everyone from the Monkees to Tom Waits, just holding the low end down, adding a bit of throb.
And then those staccato piano chords come in, and as they clang away we have to admit that here is where our stories start to conflict. Is this Howard Hirsch, the unknown keyboardist who played on the later Gamblers singles, or is it Bruce Johnston? Johnston was, after all, close friends with Sandy Nelson and Kim Fowley, both of whom are often credited here, but neither of whom had anything to do with it.
But despite that, my ears tell me it’s Johnston, and most of the sources I can find tend to agree. But maybe they, like me, are swayed by the incongruity of the man who wrote I Write The Songs hanging out with a bunch of reprobates like this, the kind of band whose B-side would be called LSD-25, in honour of a drug that the rest of rock music wouldn’t start noticing for another seven years.
But no, it’s Johnston. I’d recognise the sounds of the most clean-cut rock pianist this side of Neil Sedaka anywhere, doing his best Jerry Lee Lewis impression.
And if I had any doubts, they’d be swept away when those harmonies come in, with Johnston’s voice to the front. Just a simple three-chord “aah”, block harmonies, following the rest of the track.
And forty seconds in we finally have the lead guitar, from Derry Weaver. This is the birth of surf guitar right here. It’s not born fully-formed — it’s a thin, wiry sound, without the reverb and distortion that would define the genre — but the phrasing is all there. This is John the Baptist, paving the way for the Dick Dale that is to come. Derry Weaver was so lost to rock history that I have reference books — good ones — that say he never existed, but he was a real person, all right, a friend of Eddie Cochrane who Eddie had taught to play the blues.
And then the final element — producer Nik Venet, howling at the moon.
This High Fidelity World Pacific Record, number X815, was only a hit in LA, but it didn’t have to be a hit anywhere else. A year later, it was covered by a young garage band called the Beach Boys, who were produced by Venet (and who may have had some help on their cover from Weaver), whose version is ‘accidentally’ credited to Nik Venet rather than to Derry Weaver. And two years later, out in Cucamonga, in PAL Studios (the first independent recording studio on the West Coast), a cover version would be performed by the Hollywood Tornadoes. Their recording was engineered and produced by a young guitarist/producer/composer named Frank Zappa.
Everything this book is going to look at begins here, in this seemingly unremarkable two minutes and sixteen seconds of vinyl and its B-side. The players we have assembled here will be, if not our principals, then the supporting artistes throughout this story, appearing again and again in various guises.
The surf music fad was only a short-lived one, and we will not be devoting much space to it in this book, but it was as important to the LA scene as the skiffle craze in Britain had been a few years earlier. It was primitive, but exciting, music that anyone could make. And soon anyone was. We’ll be looking at some of those who were in the next essay.
Composers: Derry Weaver (A-side), Derry Weaver and Larry Taylor (B-side)
Line-up: Derry Weaver (guitar), Elliot Ingber (guitar), Larry Taylor (bass), Bruce Johnston (piano), Rod Schaffer (drums), Nik Venet (wolf noises)
Original release World Pacific single
Currently available on: The Birth Of Surf (A-side) and Let’s Go Surfin’: The Birth Of Surf (B-side) among many others — both tracks are in the public domain in the EU so appear on many such budget compilations.