Girls, guitars and good waves: for more than 50 years, those have remained the primary pleasures celebrated in surf music. On that score, at least, not much has changed.
Decoding exactly what “surf music” represents to listeners has become trickier, however, as the ocean-loving culture that birthed it has evolved and splintered. The Ventures or the Beach Boys? Dick Dale or Jack Johnson? Mellow, ukulele-strummed anthems of positivity or electric guitar shredding on alienated overdrive?
To casual listeners of mainstream pop, surf is the Beach Boys: “Surfin’ Safari,” “California Girls,” “Good Vibrations” and those timeless, brotherly harmonies. But to deeper aficionados of the genre, surf is almost entirely instrumental — a speedy, technically challenging form instantly identified by the wet, fully saturated twang and reverb of its electric guitars. For them, the quintessential surf band was the Ventures, inspiration for scores of teenagers in the 1960s to plug in their Mosrites and crank their amps. The universally acknowledged (and advertised) “king” of surf music was/is Dick Dale, whose heavy string-breaking style, over-the-top shredding and Middle Eastern folk melodies predated heavy metal by at least a decade.
The Beach Boys have made headlines in recent years with reunion tours, but on the SoCal club scene, surf isn’t about nostalgia. It’s getting revitalized by artists pushing boundaries with its instrumental roots, and it’s just as likely to attract punk lovers as Hawaiian shirt-wearing “Wipe Out” fans. Bands like San Gabriel Valley-based quartet the Volcanics marry garage band bravado to classic surf style and sonics. And audiences are responding.
The Volcanics’ retro attire — pressed trousers, V-neck cardigans, button-down shirts, skinny ties, side parts and shades — reflects a certain kind of wisecracking frat house mentality, but it belies the frenzied energy of their music. Rather than the R&B influence that shaped classic Ventures’ tunes like “Walkin’ With Pluto,” there’s a more aggressive punk energy driving songs like “The Baron” and “Superior.” Their recently released sophomore album, “The Lonely One” (Double Crown Records), also finds them reaching across the instrumental-vs.-vocals divide with a few vocal tracks. The harmony-layered “Keg Party” is more akin to Beach Boys-style pop in sound, if not in subject matter, as is the sing-along chorus of “It’s Alright.”
They return to the Barkley in South Pasadena this Friday. Grab a dancing partner — and your earplugs. Like Dick Dale before them, these guys like it loud.
The Volcanics return to the Barkley Restaurant & Bar, 1400 Huntington Drive, South Pasadena, 9 p.m. Friday; the Stompin’ Riff Raffs and DJ James are also on the bill. Free admission. Info: (626) 799-0758. thevolcanics.com, thebarkleyrestaurant.com