?Even if you can’t claim yourself to be a fan on a proper level, chances are you dig surf rock, the instrumental strain of Southern California music culture that pioneered the use of the various effects provided to them by their Fender guitars and amplifiers while taking cues from Buck Owens, Chet Atkins and Ravi Shankar to create the soundtrack for surf and skate culture on the lower West Coast. And while there was a literal barrel full of surf bands to emerge from the scene in the early early 1960s, only one group stood like giants amongst the rest: The Ventures.
Noel Floyd “Nokie” Edwards, who died on Sunday at age 82 following complications from hip surgery, was the group’s fearless lead guitarist, a man whose unorthodox explorations of the inner workings of his gear helped separate The Ventures from their contemporaries on the scene. The band was also willing to translate everything from filmy scores to TV themes to Christmas carols, which led them to wide success as a novelty act of sorts.
But Nokie, one of the great Native American rock icons, never let the soul of the band get swept away in a sea of cheese. Instead The Ventures surfed its waves straight into the hearts of guitar scholars across the generations. Surf music continues to maintain a presence in the periphery of the American consciousness through reruns of the ’66 Batman series, its heavy use in Pulp Fiction and — perhaps most prominently — the incidental music featured on SpongeBob SquarePants. But it was the uncompromising inventiveness by which Nokie Edwards employed that still makes surf music such an inspirational touchstone for each new generation of rock bands, the latest of which includes such exciting young acts as La Luz, Dead Coast and The Buttertones barrel riding through the guitarist’s legacy of innovation and daring.
To honor the life of this Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Billboard has selected ten songs from his tenure with the beloved classic lineup of The Ventures alongside fellow guitarist Don Wilson, bassist Bob Bogle and drummer Mel Taylor to stand as a testament to Nokie and his tireless early work at the vanguard of rock composition.
The United Kingdom had its own instrumental rock scene going on down by their waters just as surf was taking off in America. And one of the most popular groups of the time was The Tornados, who hit pay dirt when the legendary composer Joe Meek hired them to flesh out his space-age pop homage to the communications satellite of the same name, which was shot into space on July 10, 1962. The Ventures’ version of the Meek instrumental was released seven months later as the title cut to the covers album The Ventures Play Telstar and The Lonely Bull, which saw the group trying to rev up popular instrumental schlager from the 50s and early early 60s. But it was their fiery version of “Telstar” that captured the imagination of the American youth, including one gentleman who stated on YouTube that as a kid “I had a transistor radio and it would make my bike go faster.”
“Walk Don’t Run ‘64”
Nokie had just joined The Ventures in 1960 as the bass player when the group recorded their signature hit version of the 1954 Johnny Smith composition the first time around. By ’64, however, Edwards had long since traded instruments with Bob Bogle, and the reverb charged update of “Walk” made The Ventures the first band in Billboard history to score two top 10 hits with the same song (a feat that would be achieved again by Queen with “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 1976 and 1992).
“The 2000 Pound Bee Parts 1 & 2”
Though they made music that repped SoCal surf culture, The Ventures originated in Tacoma, Washington, the same town that gave us The Sonics. But before their hometown homeboys would revolutionize guitar rock in 1965 with Here Come The Sonics, Nokie took the fuzz pedal for a test run in 1962 with this aptly named instrumental. If you are looking for the true ground zero for grunge, don’t look beyond the “Bee.”
Written by Edwards but made popular by The Lively Ones, one cannot hear “Surf Rider” these days without that image of Vince and Jules casually leaving the diner at the end of Pulp Fiction as the movie cuts to black. The Ventures’ version of the song, featured on the 1963 LP Surfin’, eschews the sax in favor of a more twang and scrappy, Teutonic riffing to create a more sinister take on the tune.
Allegedly Keith Moon had cited The Ventures in Space as his favorite album. And by the way the band continued to test the boundaries of their guitars and amps on this strange and spooky collection that capitalized on JFK’s promise to go to the moon. Their rendition of composer Lou Forbes’ “The Bat” is arguably the most telling track in regards to the group’s sense of sonic adventure, as Don Wilson mimics police sirens on this guitar while Nokie peels off a riff that arguably gave birth to The Who’s direction after they ditched the name the High Numbers while planting a seed for groups like The Cramps and Pussy Galore to evolve from to boot.
A well-tuned ear can definitely pick up the German influence in the rhythms of surf music. As a band who saw no genre they couldn’t translate into their language of cool, with classical music being no exception. And one can find no clearer connection to surf’s Deutschland roots than “Rap City” from Walk Don’t Run Vol. 2, which is based on Hungarian Dance No. 5 composed by Johannes Brahms and translated through an orchestra of reverb.
“Steel Guitar Rag”
Before he joined the Ventures, Nokie Edwards had briefly played with Buck Owens when the Bakersfield legend briefly relocated to Tacoma to run the local country radio station up there. He also spent some time performing with Lefty Frizell in 1984 after he left The Ventures for the second time following the 1973 reunion of the classic lineup. It was Nokie who brought out the Western in the band’s surf sound, and you can most certainly hear the strength in those roots on this seminal instrumental that was a hit for Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys in 1936, one of the many highlights from the 1963 LP The Ventures Play The Country Classics.
The Ventures’ rendition of the 1936 Duke Ellington jazz standard first appeared on the band’s 1960 debut Walk Don’t Run. But their best version of the song would turn up in 1965 on their ferocious Live in Japan LP, where they stretch the tune out to nearly 10 minutes. The majority of it, mind you, is Taylor’s epic drum solo, but its book-ended by some of the most visceral guitar playing on a Ventures recording, as Edwards and Wilson tear at their guitars in ways that would be perfected a few years later through the likes of The MC5 and Led Zeppelin.
Nokie rejoined The Ventures in 1973, and upon his return the band released The Jim Croce Songbook in April of the following year. Despite its psychedelic cover art, much like its counterpart Play The Carpenters that followed in July of ’74, the album was an overall snooze, muddled with unimaginative, phoned-in reworks of such Croce hits as “Operator” and “Time in a Bottle.” But deep at the end of Side B, the band takes on “Speedball Trucker” off the singer’s fourth LP Life and Times, which was released not even three months prior to Croce’s untimely death in September of ’73. For their rendition of the twisted trucker anthem, the group cross-referenced its rhythm pattern with Edwards’ own “Surf Rider,” colored the melody with sitar and barrelhouse piano and transformed it into a fitting homage to the sonic elasticity of a great American pop artist gone far too soon.
In 1980, the classic Ventures lineup of Nokie-Bogle-Mel-Bob released the album Chameleon as a Japanese import. What makes this album so interesting is how well they just seemed to fit in with the sound of the times, no doubt appeased by the presence of such Ventures acolytes as The Go-Go’s, the Dead Kennedys and the B-52’s, all of whom were ascending the punk and new wave ranks with their own offshoots of the surf rock sound. But that notion makes it even more intriguing just how comfortably they sidled up to the Two-Tone Ska movement of the time with this Specials-saluting album highlight.