Quentin Tarantino’s decision to feature Dick Dale and his Del-Tones’ version of ‘Misirlou’ as one of the key themes in ‘Pulp Fiction’ helped re-introduce surf rock to a generation of British music fans who would have had only a fleeting knowledge of the genre via acts such as The Ventures, The Trashmen and The Surfaris. In John Reis’ native California, of course, surf rock is part of the lingua franca, a pan-generational art form long established as the soundtrack for proms, keg parties and beach BBQs. None of which really explains why Reis has chosen now to release his first collection of surf songs – sorry ‘Modern Surf Classics’ – but as any wave-rider will tell you, sometimes it’s best to just go with the flow.
In an industry over-populated by dilettantes and charlatans, Reis – aka Speedo aka The Swami aka Slasher – is that rarest of entities, a musician to believe in. A committed spinner of tall tales he might be, but on an artistic level Reis has never failed to deliver to the highest standards, whether his medium of expression is Rocket From The Crypt, Drive Like Jehu, Hot Snakes, Sultans, The Night Marchers or any other project to which his name is attached. Modern Surf Classics finds the punk rock lifer somewhat out of his comfort zone, but this collaboration with Minneapolis trio The Blind Shake is as heartfelt, pure and exhilarating a musical adventure as the big man has undertaken in years. And from the hectic, buzzing riff that introduces the punk-ish Sea Saw it’s instantly obvious that Reis is having a ball.
What we have here is 13 instrumental tracks, each with its own individual flavour, colour and sparkle, from the Bossa Nova beats underpinning Dune Rider to the shimmering, reverb-heavy chords that introduce the urgent Sets Of Fire, one of only two tracks tipping the three minute mark. Brown Room, premiered back in November as the album’s lead-off track, is a beautifully understated, atmospheric and languid soundtrack to sunset Margaritas, Dry Suit is a driving, snaking ‘60s spy fiction theme, Poseidon’s Tears is a kissing cousin of The Shadows’ classic Apache, and the splendidly titled Wet Greek relocates Aegean Sea bouzouki riffs to the Pacific Coast. Closest in tone perhaps to Reis’ work with Back Off Cupids, it’s all done with the playfulness that characterises his finest work, while retaining a respect and obvious affection for the form.
With fingers in so many pies – Rocket From The Crypt return to live action next weekend – it’s debatable how much free time John Reis will have to devote to this singular and rather special side project in 2015, but it’d be a shame if it got lost in the mix. In another musician’s hands Modern Surf Classics might come across as a novelty record, but with Reis at the helm it never feels that way. It’s a curio for sure but a welcome one, with genuine heart amid its zipping, biting guitar lines. Another strike then for the San Diegan Swami.
Want to hear more of Speedo’s myriad bands? Check out our essential tracks here.