The Great (Live) Albums is a bimonthly look at some of the best—or at least most interesting—live recordings in pop music history. How do these odd documents fit in with an artist’s overall discography? What do they teach us about the history of rock? Let’s find out!
Live in Japan ‘65, The Ventures (1995, EMI)
You know surf music, right? Not like the Beach Boys. More like the stuff you’d hear in the opening credits of Pulp Fiction that isn’t “Jungle Boogie.” Or like what you might hear playing under grainy 8mm footage of tubular surf dudes crushing monster waves somewhere off the coast of Maui in the early 1960s while their Annette Funichello lookalike beach bunny sweethearts sit watching on the sand from behind cat’s-eye sunglasses, sipping bottles of Coke. You know—surf music!
Surf music (of the instrumental variety) was an extremely specific phenomenon—a quick, quirky rock ‘n roll blip that helped fill the gap in youth culture in the years between peak Elvis and the emergence of The Beatles. For a few brief years, the aspirational, sun-bound sounds of groups like OC’s The Lively Ones, Glendora’s The Surfaris, Redland’s The Tornados, LA’s The Bel-Airs and a bunch of groups not even from Southern California (like Minneapolis’s The Trashmen and Buffalo, NY’s The Rebels) dominated American radio, unleashing a succession of short, upbeat instrumental singles characterized by strong melodies, tribal drums, and the all-important surf guitar tone—typically a fender single-coil guitar plugged into a tube amp and played with enough reverb that even My Morning Jacket would probably say, “Hmm, that’s a lot of reverb.”
But aside from early solo pioneers Link Wray and Dick Dale, inarguably the mightiest name in all surfdom was Tacoma, WA’s The Ventures. The Ventures were pretty big in the U.S. for a little while, and remain a beloved cult act. But weirdly they were way bigger in Japan for way longer—which explains why the shrieking audience recorded at Tokyo Kosei Hall on March 5, 1965 greets each squeak and squeal of the normcore Washingtonians’ custom Mosrite guitars like the wailing of a roundeyed conqueror-god.
Okay, maybe not. But the crowd on The Ventures’ Live in Japan ’65 is SUPER PSYCHED. The band feeds off the energy to deliver an amazingly tight, 27-song performance across two sets—a total of 78 minutes in all, including spoken introductions to nearly every song delivered by a fast-taking Japanese MC. It’s kitschy, sure. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a friggin’ blast to listen to.
Select tracks from Live in Japan were originally released on the Japan-only All About the Ventures in 1966, collected and re-released as the album we know today by EMI in 1995. The album features the classic Ventures lineup: lead guitarist Nokie Edwards, rhythm guitarist Bob Bogle, bassist Don Wilson, and drum dynamo Mel Taylor, the band’s true not-so-secret weapon.
The first thing that leaps out about Live in Japan is just how clean the recording sounds. Not only can you hear every instrument distinctly, you can practically hear every string. The band is incredibly tight and the songs—a well-curated collection of Ventures originals, non-Ventures surf favorites, and instrumental covers of then-current pop tunes—charge ahead with punk rock hyperactivity.
Highlights of the first set include The Pyramids’ surf classic “Penetration” and a moody take on “House of the Rising Sun.” Also: The Marketts’ sci-fi inflected “Out of Limits,” “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” and “Rap City” (The Ventures’ own interpretation of Brahams’ “Hungarian Dance No. 5.)
The set culminates in a superlative rendition of The Surfaris iconic 1963 double-kick showcase “Wipeout,” which Taylor crushes like one of Al Jourgensen’s 808 drum machines, unleashing a blast beat so steady and hard-hitting it’d make even the most seasoned death metal pounder throb green with envy. Had Taylor found his way into a less niche gig, I have no doubt he’d be regarded today by washed classic rock olds as one of the all-time drum greats, up there with John Bonham, Keith Moon, and the one-armed dude from Def Leppard.
Returning from (presumably) a brief sake break, the second set kicks off with a three-song medley of “Walk, Don’t Run,” “Lullaby of the Leaves,” and “Perfidia,” proving that while surf music may be limited in its sonic palette, it’s more than flexible enough to accommodate a relatively wide range of emotions. At its worst, surf can often be boiled down to the same half-dozen stock guitar tricks. But here at their peak, The Ventures are virtuosic—chugging along with crackerjack efficiency and smartly prioritizing melody over atmospherics.
The album crests with a nearly 10-minute rendition of the Duke Ellington standard “Caravan”—yet another extended solo drum showcase for Taylor, who goes all third-act Whiplash on The Land of the Rising Sun’s ass, pounding and tapping and banging away like an overcaffeinated Ganesh. It’s a great end to a great album, but also a little counterintuitive; you’d expect the definitive live document of instrumental surf music’s most defining band to end on a more guitar-forward note. But hey. Sometimes waves break in weird ways, you know?
Live in Japan ’65 is great surf music. And if you’re skeptical of the genre or don’t take it all that seriously as art, trust me: you’re missing out. Surf’s image maybe one of clean-cut white boys awkwardly hugging vintage Jazzmasters on album covers like they were teddy bears, but the music these non-threatening dudes created lo these 50-odd years ago is still way more punk and way more metal than nearly anything before or since. Kowabunga, dude.
-Matt Warren (@mpmwarren)