A World of Twang

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I know there ain’t no surf in Portobello, but I’m not sure if there were any Scottish surf bands as that genre enjoyed its heyday during the first half of the 1960s. Until last week, I hadn’t realised just how international the genre had become – and by surf I’m meaning the reverb heavy guitar instrumentals rather than Beach Boys and Jan and Dean vocal tracks.

There were Jokers from Belgium, Finland’s The Quiets and Thailand’s The Galaxies. Surf influenced acts even existed behind the Iron Curtain, like Sincron from Romania and East Germany’s Die Sputniks, although they are said to have broken up due to pressure exerted by the authorities operating in the GDR. ‘Do we really have to copy all the rubbish that comes from the West?’ Party State leader Walter Ulbricht moaned during one speech to his Communist cronies, fearful that any exposure to Western music might help spread decadent capitalist values – even if the music in question was instrumental.

It’s safe to say, though, that Japan hosted the biggest surf scene outside the USA. There, visits by The Ventures proved extraordinarily popular. They weren’t just big in Japan, they were a true phenomenon. According to Wikipedia, The Ventures had five of 1965’s top 10 singles in Japan and outsold The Beatles.

Arguably, the best of the local acts were The Launchers, who supported The Ventures on their 1965 tour of Japan. Featuring well known actor Yuzo Kayama on lead guitar, fans flocked to see them wherever they played and The Ventures themselves became fans, presenting Kayama with one of their distinctive white Mosrite guitars at the end of the tour. They later even covered a couple of Launchers favourites: Black Sand Beach and Yozora No Hoshi, the latter of which you can listen to here.

Terry Terauchi and His Blue Jeans also notched up hit after hit and possibly peaked with their 1964 album Korezo Surfing (This is Surfing). A movie was even devised in 1965 to cash in on what was known as the ‘Elecki’ craze and punters happily queued to see Ereki no Wakadaishō (which you might know as Campus A-Go-Go). By any accounts I’ve come across this was not a movie that ever aimed at matching the artistry of Akira Kurosawa or Yasujirō Ozu, but it did feature a guitar duel between Kayama and Terry Terauchi and that’s something l’d like to see it.

Then there were The King’s Road, Hiroshi Tsutsumi & His All Stars Wagon, The Adventures (see what they did there?), and even, according to Julian Cope, The Tokyo Ventures, who pumped out ‘Spirited morale-boosting elecki versions of traditional Japanese army songs.’ Maybe not a band I’ll be seeking out.

Japan’s love affair with surf lives on and a version of The Ventures still tour there regularly, while a plethora of tribute acts are popular too.

Based in city of Ōita on the island of Kyushu, prolific garage band The Routes recently released The Twang Machine, a collection of ten Kraftwerk classics reimagined as surf tracks. Is this gimmicky? Yes. Do these versions improve on the originals? Of course not. Do they sound fantastic on a summer’s day? You bet.

Here the guys crank up the reverb magnificently on a rip-roaring Trans-Europe Express:

For more on The Routes, here’s a link for Facebook, and here’s one for Bandcamp.

Rendezvous on Champs Elysées/Leave Paris in the morning on T.E.E.

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Kraftwerk: Trans-Europe Express

In anticipation of tonight’s Kraftwerk documentary on BBC Four, I’ve been leafing through Tim Barr’s book Kraftwerk: From Dusseldorf to the Future With Love and very good it is too although I disagree with his claim that the band had more in common with Stockhausen and Russian Constructivism than Chuck Berry and Andy Warhol. Well the Warhol bit anyway as he famously declared: ‘I want to be a machine.’

A quote that could have come from Ralf Hütter at any point in just about the last forty years.

The single Trans-Europe Express came out in Britain in April 1977, just as a trickle of punk and new wave records was about to become a deluge and the record failed to take off.

Not that I’m suggesting that Kraftwerk were being seen in the same light as the self–indulgent dinosaurs of the mid–seventies.

Yes, they came from affluent backgrounds, key members Hütter and Schneider both trained at the Düsseldorf Conservatory and the track they were best known for at this time, Autobahn, lasted over twenty minutes in its album version but it would have been absurd to believe any of these facts meant they could easily be aligned with the so-called ‘progressive’ groups of the time.

Kraftwerk really were progressive.

Trans Europe Express Original ad

Nor did they possess much in common with Punk, although when questioned years later about any similarities between his music and punk, Ralf Hütter did note that both favoured simplicity and shared a minimalist attitude.

Kraftwerk stood apart from just about everyone back then, even their German contemporaries like Can and Cluster. In fact, in 1977, a highly successful ad used to promote Bowie’s album Heroes: ‘There’s Old Wave. There’s New Wave. And there’s David Bowie…’ would have been equally appropriate for the German act – and of course Bowie and Iggy get name-checked on Trans-Europe Express and Bowie talked up Kraftwerk at just about every opportunity around this time.

Before the seventies were out the influence of Kraftwerk could be seen and heard everywhere in British music, think The Human League, OMD, Gary Numan and Simple Minds for starters – and also from Glasgow, Berlin Blondes and Teutonic Veneer (anybody old enough and into the obscure enough to remember those guys?)

Released five years after TEE, the track Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force nicked its snake charmer melody from the Kraftwerk song and combined it with a TR-808 beat that is copied from Numbers, an under-rated track from 1981’s Computer World, although Bambaataa himself also likes to credit Yellow Magic Orchestra as a crucial influence on Planet Rock too.

Here it is:

For more on Kraftwerk:

Official YouTube