Surf Music Refashioned for a New Millennium
Combining trad and modern guitar
"One of the most exciting chapters in the history of instrumental popular music would have to be the American 'surf' music phenomenon."
Someday, when the grand narrative of rock history is revised and rewritten, instrumental rock will find its proper place in the pantheon of early styles. To be sure, instrumental guitar-oriented music has a long and venerable history in the annals of recordings beginning around 1921 with Nick Lucas's "Pickin' the Guitar," through the works of pop/jazz guitarist Eddie Lang (Salvatore Massaro) in the '20s and '30s, Chet Atkins, Duane Eddy, and Les Paul in the '50s, through the explosion (all but ignored in existing rock histories) of instrumental pop music in the '60s and beyond.
One of the most exciting chapters in the history of instrumental popular music would have to be the American "surf" music phenomenon. So named because of the association of many of its best-known practitioners with the surfing fad and California obsession of early '60's American popular culture, one of the hottest spots for so-called surf music was the landlocked state of New Mexico. From this nascent scene The Knights emerged in 1961. The Knights burst out of Albuquerque soon after the instrumental guitar rock rage reached that town. They found inspiration in the recordings of the Fireballs from Raton, New Mexico, who recorded as early as1959. Shortly thereafter those early exponents of the Seattle sound, the Ventures, achieved widespread success in the genre.
Of course, instrumental rock was a natural fit for thousands of garage bands cropping up across the US. It constituted a rejection of the sappy pop confections streaming out of the major label-coopted rock and roll industry. As well, instrumental rock put the thrilling, raucous sound of the still-new electric, solid-body guitar (usually of Fender or Mosrite make) front and center. This factor should not be overlooked. The electric guitar was one of the sexiest, most desirable creations to roll off of American assembly lines in the late '50s, tail finned cars notwithstanding. And The Knights were there, honing their craft with a two-guitar, bass, and drums lineup established for instrumental rock by the Ventures, but pioneered in general by Buddy Holly's Crickets.
The first incarnation of The Knights included Dick Stewart and Larry Longmire on guitars, Gary Butler on bass (though he was sometimes "relieved" by Gary Snow), and William "Corky" Anderson on drums. They scored a regional, instrumental hit in 1964 with "Precision," a 45 on the tiny Red Feather label that had the unusual feature of a quasi-classical piano accompaniment. The Knights thus established a definite presence in the Southwest, though their influence was not felt outside of that region at the time. With the total saturation of the American pop music scene by the Beatles beginning in early '64, The Knights saw fit to include a vocal component in their music. Further vocal sides on Delta Records failed to score as "Precision" had, but were nonetheless well received among fans of King Richard and the Knights, as the band was now named. There was a new lineup as well which included Dick Stewart on lead guitar and vocals; Jack Paden and Les Bigby on drums; John Milligan and later Dick Miller on rhythm and second lead guitars; Jerry "Toad" Hutchins on bass; Larry Reid on sax and lead vocals; and Mike Celenze on keyboards. Some of these early masters were re-released in 1996 under the Collectable imprimatur, and have found a new home in the hearts of collectors.
King Richard and the Knights disbanded in 1967. Leader Dick Stewart became something of a local record magnate, working with Lance Records (his own company) and Casanova Records, which Stewart started in January 1968 with Eric Sanchez to record and release Southwestern Mexican-American music. Over four years, the Casanova label racked up a number of regional hits.
Lance Records became a vehicle for the nascent Albuquerque psychedelic scene. As well, Stewart published a well-received surf-rock fanzine, The Lance. As a musician, Dick Stewart recorded sporadically for the Casanova label, most notably with "El Rancho Grande" in the early 70s, which moved over 50,000 units.
After a long dormant period, Stewart re-entered the rock and roll game in the mid-'80s in a series of bands with his sons, Jason and Ritch. This came to an end when the brothers relocated to Austin in the early '90s to establish music careers. Which brings us to the present, Jason and Ritch now back in the fold and a revitalized, Knights recording again. This is the first fruit of the renewed familial collaboration, juxtaposing Jason's post-metal guitar with Dick's traditional clean-toned surf sound. The results are anything but a throwback. The Knights have hit upon a brilliant solution to the problem of revitalizing a historical musical form, using a fusion of the old and the new to point a way to the future of surf instrumental rock.
A walk through the tracks: "In Progression": A baroque march and some fuzzed-out arpeggios from Jason begin this powerhouse opener. Dick takes over for the tune proper a few seconds in, with Jason's distorted backing. Following Dick's clean, mellow statement, Jason returns with a multi-tracked guitar choir and solo. There is a slight Latin tinge to the rhythm section backing of bassist, Ritch Stewart and drummer, Steve Hudgins. The opening section returns to bookend this song; "Ragtime Surf": An unusually subdued opening is followed by a harmonized minor-key riff from the father-son guitar team. The ragtime element can be heard in the surprisingly chromatic theme; "Torreon": Another high-energy romp, with the two electric guitars in tandem, one octave apart. The bridge section features some dense guitar harmonies. Jason's distorted guitar provides a distant counterpoint to the proceedings. The coda is quite symphonic and dramatic, with overdubbed cymbal flourishes from Hudgins and a deep driving bass by Ritch Stewart; "Yellow Jacket": This, the first of two covers on this collection reanimates the ubiquitous surf anthem with a back-and-forth father and son guitar duel; "Awakening": A beautiful, fingerstyle opening gives way to a jazzy, upbeat guitar melody. Stewart father and sons then establish a deadly accurate double-time backing that percolates under a restatement of the main theme. Yet another contrasting section follows and a final theme statement closes off proceedings; "Surfin' the Badlands": Probably the most traditional surf-music melody and formal structure of this set, "Surfin' the Badlands" displays the roots from which this contemporary version of The Knights springs. Jason Stewart contributes a soaring solo. Heads up for the ping-ponging stereo steel guitar overdubs played by Johnny Hogan; "Pipeline": The Chantays on steroids. Listen for Dick's mastery of vintage, surf-rock, tremolo-bar technique. Some rapid-fire string rubs (strangely reminiscent, to me, of hip-hop record scratching) in the middle section gives way to Jason Stewart's self-duetting doubled solo. A final twang-bar mash from Dick closes the show; "Shelbi with an 'I'": For my money, this is the single. Section after section of catchy melody with even a harmonically tense middle section to provide some contrast to the overall upbeat sunniness. Some very interesting clean-toned solos from Jason, complete with double-picking and Wes Montgomery style octaves. Dick's offer of deft pedal steel work provided by Johnny Hogan had me reaching for hyphenated descriptors for a new style - Country Surf? Western Instro Rock?; "Agua Loca" ("Crazy Water): Though Dick takes the melodic lead on this cut, it's Jason that sets the tone for this rocker. His heavy rhythm backing and metallic fills are the dominant force, and it's Jason that takes over for the solo, using pick harmonics and a variety of low riffs to create a thoroughly modern atmosphere; "Simple Wonders": The ethereal opening recalls some of Jimi Hendrix's more subdued work. But it's the Edge from U2 that informs the rhythmically echoing guitar, multi-tracked into a small orchestra of sparkling lines. The rhythm section is, in fact, absent for this beautiful coda to "In Progression." Only the sound of guitars remain – the center of surf rock, and the center of The Knights as they refashion surf music for a new millennium.
[Editor's Note: "In Progression" (Lance Records L2010) is scheduled for release toward the end of 2002. ]
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