Surf’s Up

The Ventures' "Walk Don't Run."

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Chet Atkins’ “Walk Don’t Run,” was recorded in 1957. It’s a groovy little number. A soft, jazzy drum beat rumbles along beneath a wide-ranging guitar melody backed nicely by a second guitar.

In 1960, a young group called The Ventures did a re-make of Chet’s song. It was the same song, but it wasn’t the same song at all. Musicians talk about creating a new sound or looking for that new sound. They often talk about that new sound in hushed tones, as if they’ve suddenly crossed over into the realm of the sacred. There’s lots of nodding and smiling. Knowing glances replace anything that could be put simply into language.

In 1960, a new sound came into being. There were others getting to the same place at the same time — Dick Dale, The Shadows, Link Ray. But “Walk Don’t Run” is a particular revelation because it’s a re-make. You can listen to the Chet Atkins version and then The Ventures version and hear it with your own ears. The Ventures aren’t covering Atkins’ song, they aren’t even really interpreting it. It is something more akin to alchemy. They are magically transforming one thing into another. That’s how a new sound gets created. All the background elements have to be there: the music technology, the cultural mood, the various influences ready to combine. And then it just happens — the sum leaps forward to be greater than its parts. Surf music is born.

What’s the difference between the two songs? It’s hard to say exactly. But The Ventures’ version is hollowed out and twangier. Bob Bogle is going nuts with his whammy bar. There’s a spaciness to the sound, the feeling that it is coming from farther away than the Chet Atkins version. It also sounds like it could go on forever, like it’s the soundtrack to something that never ends. Admittedly, though, these are not very precise thoughts.

There’s a great interview in Playboy magazine from 1978. Ron Rosenbaum is trying to get Bob Dylan to talk about his music, a notoriously difficult task. But then Rosenbaum asks Dylan about the sound of the streets.

Dylan: That ethereal twilight light, you know. It’s the sound of the street with the sunrays, the sun shining down at a particular time, on a particular type of building. A particular type of people walking on a particular type of street. It’s an outdoor sound that drifts even into open windows that you can hear. The sound of bells and distant railroad trains and arguments in apartments and the clinking of silverware and knives and forks and beating with leather straps. It’s all, it’s all there. …

Playboy: Late-afternoon light?

Dylan: No, usually it’s the crack of dawn. Music filters out to me in the crack of dawn.

Playboy: The “jingle jangle morning”?

Dylan: Right.

Dylan had the sound of the jingle-jangle morning. According to Dick Dale, the sound surf music was trying to get at was exactly that — the surf. Dale said in an interview, “I don’t claim to be a musician, I didn’t go to Julliard. I’m into just chopping, chopping at 60 gauge, 50 gauge strings. That’s the sound, the sound of the waves chopping.” Bogle himself never really liked the surf music designation. He considered The Ventures simply to be an instrumental group with a new, twangy sound.

But the surf music label always stuck. Maybe it was just the wide open nature of the sound. The way that the chopping of those guitars chopped right along with the waves in the California air, a California that had yet to create its own specific sound in the rock ‘n’ roll of the time. Bob Bogle died last week. He was one of those rare people who hears something just over the horizon and goes running after it. He knew there was something out there. When everyone else heard The Ventures do “Walk Don’t Run” they discovered something they didn’t even know they’d been looking for. A new sound. • 23 June 2009

 

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.

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