It's a balmy, hazy afternoon in Southern California, and the ocean is beckoning. The year is 1960. On this day, the Ventures have a number-two hit called "Walk, Don't Run" in heavy rotation on AM radio, and surf music is just about as bitchin' as it gets. From a garage in El Segundo comes a steady stream of resonant reverb and danceable backbeat. Inside, two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer are wailing away, playing the latest Ventures B-side with methodical energy, never uttering a single lyric. Earlier, they went surfing together at dawn.
Basically, all these guys do is play, surf, cruise for chicks, write wicked surfing-inspired instrumentals and, if they have to, work. On Friday nights they escape the garage, clean themselves up with the aid of pomade, aftershave and matching suits, and head out to a club on the Pacific Coast Highway -- the Pitcher House -- for three relatively effortless, one-hour sets of surf tunes. Of course, this is only on those Friday nights when they're not on their way to the Manhattan Beach pier to surf.
Similar scenes are playing out all through the Los Angeles sprawl, in garage after garage, club after club, in places like Pasadena, Oxnard and Long Beach. Few of these bands are destined to enjoy the success of the Ventures, but that's fine with them: Stardom would only put a crimp in their surfing schedule.
The Beloved Invaders, with Mr. Tree and the Wingnuts, the Orangu-Tones
Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue
9 p.m. Saturday, March 3, $5, 303-830-6700
Meanwhile, across the country in Boston, little Bob Cannistraro, all of seven years old, is listening for the first time to a Ventures record -- a copy of "Walk, Don't Run" that his older sister brought home. He immediately wants to play guitar like the Ventures more than anything else in the world.
Fast-forward four years to 1964. Beatle- mania has crossed the Atlantic. The Ventures, knowing that they've been displaced, jet over to Japan to mine terrain that will later be exploited by Cheap Trick and Spinal Tap. The Japanese welcome them with open arms and, as a nod to the concurrent British Invasion in the United States, dub them the "beloved invaders." A year later, Japanese filmmakers produce a hopelessly cheesy clone of the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, called The Beloved Invaders, with the Ventures.
Fast-forward again to the late '70s. An adolescent Scott Johnson first attempts to surf the south swell at Laguna Beach. After that, he makes an annual habit of heading to SoCal.
Fast-forward one last time to the present. Bob "Motor" Cannistraro is closer to El Segundo than he was in 1960, but he's much farther from the ocean. He's on stage at Boulder's Redfish, sporting a Cheshire-cat grin, dressed in a sharp, powder-blue sport jacket with a black tie, and he's playing a mean lead guitar on a Ventures tune. Backing him are three guys in matching suits, guys who look exactly like the El Segundans at the Pitcher House in 1960. (Okay, so they're a little older than those guys.) Because this is Boulder, you've got the standard assortment of well-to-do types, sorority sisters and techno-hippies in the crowd, and very few of them have ever surfed Manhattan Beach. (Some of these people may never even leave Boulder.) This doesn't matter one iota -- the dance floor is packed.
Cannistraro's band is the Beloved Invaders, a Boulder-based surf act that sounds quite a bit like the Ventures -- or as their rhythm guitarist, Boulder native Eric Shreve, puts it, "the Ventures on steroids." Along with Shreve and Cannistraro, the aforementioned Scott Johnson is also on the Redfish stage, manning the bass. He's still in the habit of surfing Laguna Beach every year, trips he sandwiches between countless snowboarding and mountain-biking excursions. On the skins, Mark Weaver pounds out the backbeat. Like Cannistraro, Weaver grew up listening to surf -- in Wheat Ridge -- but was eventually swept away by the cultural tidal wave that was the British Invasion. As he launches into "Pipeline," the boogying crowd takes cues from the Tootsies, the Invaders' naturally sexy bookend go-go dancers.
Based on this gig, surf music doesn't seem to be out of style. Maybe it never was. Look at it this way: What other sport or leisure activity inspired an entire musical genre? Not bowling. Not basketball. Even TV commercials for today's extreme sports are underpinned by the speedy, snaky slink of surf. In recent years, the Denver region has seen numerous surf- influenced acts pop up on area stages, with Maraca 5-0, the Hellmen and the Orangu-Tones, among others, incorporating surf elements into their own diverse acts. For the Beloved Invaders and their fans, this stuff is just as hip as it was in 1960. "It's just good music," Cannistraro explains. "Good music is good music, and good music is timeless."
With this philosophy in mind, Cannistraro began planning the current, "hardcore" version of the Beloved Invaders in 1998. (There was also a short-lived incarnation that played around Denver and Boulder for six months in the mid-'90s.) "It was a lark at first," he says. "I said, 'This'll be fun for a yuk.'"
"Bob and I met at a salsa dance class," recalls Weaver. After Cannistraro learned that Weaver was a drummer, he says, "the next words out of his mouth were, 'You want to join a surf band?' He didn't know anything about the music that I played, how well I played, or anything else."
Cannistraro enlisted Johnson and Shreve with the same query emerging just moments after a proper introduction. But as ramshackle as his recruitment process sounds, Cannistraro's band plans have worked remarkably well. With their perfectly nuanced leads, flawless rhythms, vintage Fender guitars and amps, and on-target stage persona, the Beloved Invaders are the real deal.
While some critics dismiss surf revivalism as retro kitsch, the Invaders "play it pretty straight," says Weaver. "We don't ham it up at all. I think people respond to the music."
Adds Cannistraro, "The initial attraction for people is the novelty. But it's lasted."
"It's like taking a step back in time," says Johnson. "We've got the look, we've got the instruments. We're very authentic about everything." Marked by twin guitars, tons of reverb, adrenal melodies and nary a lyric, the Beloved Invaders don't stray very far outside the boundaries of the genre, lines that were drawn long ago.
"One of the things that I like to strive for -- in any band that I play in -- is to be loyal to the genre, be genre specific and not try to be all things to all people," Cannistraro explains. "I think it's good to be a genre-specific band, because you really hone your craft in that one area."
Another hallmark of surf music remains essentially unchanged in the Beloved Invaders' modus operandi: "There's a beat that's pretty white," says Cannistraro. ("Very white," interjects Johnson.) "This is music that was the identity of a lot of white, middle-class teenagers. It's not so far from worldbeat -- it's just white America."
The bandmembers see surf as a refreshing antidote to what normally dominates the Boulder scene. "We do play songs," Cannistraro notes. "All you hear in Boulder are these jam bands, and we do play songs. There's very little improvising."
About thirty of the fifty songs that the Invaders have committed to memory are Ventures tunes, and the band's also written three oceanic originals, but the set is not strictly surf. There are also spy songs ("Peter Gunn," "Secret Agent Man" and the James Bond theme) and space songs ("Sputnik," "Out of Limits" -- on which Cannistraro makes very good use of his vintage Dynachord tape-echo rig -- and "Journey to the Stars"), with a few Latin and spaghetti Western numbers thrown in for good measure.
All of these tunes have one thing in common: "We're all about happy songs," says Johnson. "Music can be so angry these days. People should lighten up and listen to some surf music for a change instead of all that angst-ridden music out there."
"We don't play a lot of the darker, heavier surf music," Cannistraro says. "We don't do a lot of Dick Dale. We don't do any Link Wray." It all comes back to his long-cemented predilections: "I like music that's a little more melodic and a little less garage-y."
The light tone keeps everything upbeat for a reason, adds Johnson: "It's all about having fun."
"We get people dancing like crazy," says Shreve. "We owe a lot of that to our go-go dancers. All it takes is for them to do one move...and people just dive in." Impeccably dressed for the role with glossy wigs and calf-high platform boots, the Tootsies -- aka Traci Cantu and Valerie Serrano -- happily serve as inspirational eye candy for the crowd.
"We don't have to do anything," Cantu says. "We have our rings, we have our outfits on, just have a couple of drinks and go with the music."
A veteran of blues and jazz bands, Johnson's initiation into surf music came with the Beloved Invaders, and it was "a rude awakening," he remembers. "I thought it was going to be easier than it was, and it wasn't."
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Johnson quickly realized that Cannistraro was a perfectionist. "He picked the bulk of the first forty songs," Johnson says. "He gave us tapes. He said, 'Come back and know these six songs next week,' real nonchalant-like. It was the first time I ever got chastised at rehearsal for being unprepared."
So while it hasn't been as easy as the Invaders make it look, the band has gelled in a very good way. The Invaders nabbed the opening slot for the upcoming Dick Dale show at the Bluebird in May and plan on recording a full-length disc at Boulder's Outmode Records for release later this year. And everybody in the band heaps compliments on the others' abilities and the band's overall chemistry. "If you like each other and you get along and it's a good vibe and everybody's happy, it makes up for so much," says Cannistraro. "It's more about human relationships than it is about musical virtuosity."
In the end, it's this combination of talent and chemistry that attracts many repeat customers. "The age group that we get is very cool," says Johnson, "from young kids to people who grew up listening to surf music. The older fans still enjoy getting very close to the band and listening the whole time. We all play loud and just blow them away because some of them are in their fifties and sixties, and they're like, 'I remember this.'"
However, younger fans are often entirely unaware that noise radiating from the garages circa 1960 in Southern California marked the genre's beginnings. "Some kid came up who didn't know anything about surf music and said, 'You kind of sound like ska and kind of sound like rock,'" deadpans Shreve. "Some other guy told us, 'You guys sound like Sublime.'"