The Revels, Church Key.
The Gamblers, Moon Dawg.
Johnny and the Hurricanes, Beatnik Fly.
The Ramrods, (Ghost) Riders In the Sky.
The Ramrods, Zig Zag.
The Fireballs, Bulldog.
The Ventures, Walk Don't Run.
Down with lead singers! Down with their cults of personality, their second lives as dream dressing and t-shirt logos, their shameless wish to be a mirror for our crudest, most desperate desires, down with their brand names.
Rock & roll long ago was conquered by the lead singers, with lead guitarists as their aides-de-camp. Yet between the eclipse of Elvis and the rise of the Beatles, there was the great interregnum--the protectorate of the instrumental rock & roll band. An era when lyrics hardly mattered, or barely existed--when a hit song only required a slurred catch phrase, a saxophone riff, a fat beat, a guitar hook.
"These bands just wanted to rock, and they played for audiences that just wanted to drink and dance. So why not dispense with the singer altogether?" Greg Shaw.
Instrumental bands were generally amateurs in a time of heightened professionalism in pop music, and they were almost entirely regional--each medium-sized city had its own handful of champions. The bands filled the gap between the waning raw rockabilly style and the ornate pop music being crafted in New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles; they played before raucous club audiences every night, which kept them honest and attuned to what made people dance and what drove them wild.
Let's begin with the Revels, who, to clear up a common mistake, were not the same band that recorded "Dead Man's Stroll" in 1959.
They came together in California, at San Luis Obispo High in 1957: guitarists Gil Serna (who later became an actor) Dan Darnold and Brian England, saxophonist Norman Knowles, Sam Eddy (piano), and Jim Macrae (drums). They were first known as Gil Serna and the Rockets, but as the band's primary inspiration was drinking and partying, they were soon re-christened The Revels. Their first single, released in October 1959, was "Six Pack," allegedly written in honor of Darnold's ability to drink a beer in four seconds.
The follow-up, "Church Key," is their masterpiece--a Duane Eddy-inspired guitar riff, a girl laughing (Barbara Adkins, who weirdly was credited on the label), and the sound of a "church key" cracking open a beer can. Consider it a haiku of postwar American teenage life.
The Revels lost many of their original members after "Church Key," though the group stayed together for several more years, recording another great drinking song, "Intoxica," and even recording a concept LP called The Go Sound of the Slots, a suite of songs about slot car racing.
"Church Key" was released in November 1960 as Impact 1-IM c/w "Vesuvius"; on Intoxica!
The Gamblers' "Moon Dawg" is the sound of classic surf music being born, fully-fledged: the drum rolls and rumbling bass; the soaring, wordless backing vocals; barks and howls; the spiky guitars, the churning piano--the sense of propulsion and space.
They were a short-lived group: Derry Weaver (lead guitar), Elliot Ingber (rhythm guitar--he later worked with Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart), Larry Taylor (b), Rod Schaffer (d) and Bruce Johnston (piano), who later became a designated hitter of sorts for the Beach Boys, and who wrote Barry Manilow's "I Write the Songs."
"Moon Dawg" was their only single, released as World Pacific 815 (bizarrely, World Pacific was a jazz label; even more bizarrely, the b-side was called "LSD-25"); on Bustin' Surfboards.
Like disco performers two decades later, the instrumental bands were omnivorous and shameless, using any piece of music as a starting point. So you had Johnny and the Hurricanes doing a rock & roll version of "Blue Tail Fly," or the Ramrods taking on Vaughan Monroe's "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky."
Johnny and the Hurricanes were from Toledo. Formed in 1958, they were led by saxophonist John Pocisk, who was known as "Johnny Paris." Unlike other instrumental bands, the Hurricanes began simply as a backing band, first for a failed rockabilly singer. They went to Detroit in the hopes of finding studio work with some vocalists, and wound up being signed on their own by two managers, Harry Balk and Irving Michanik. Balk and Michanik were cigar-chewing promoters out of central casting, who took 20% off the group's earnings, in addition to nabbing all the publishing royalties and ripping the band off in other elaborate ways.
Still, the Hurricanes had a number of hot singles--the reverb-smeared "Crossfire"; a driving remake of "Red River Valley" called "Red River Rock" dominated by organist Paul Tesluk; a riff off the typical Army bugle call ("Reveille Rock") and a remake of "When the Saints Come Marching In" ("Revival"). Shaw: "Johnny and the Hurricanes were like some missing link between the great jazz combos of the Thirties and the Rolling Stones."
When the hits began to dry up, Johnny Paris moved to Hamburg with a new version of the band, and headlined at the Star Club, with a scruffy band called the Beatles as his opener.
"Beatnik Fly" was released in January 1960 as Warwick 520 c/w "Sandstorm"; on The Very Best.
The Ramrods, from Connecticut, were a pair of siblings, drummer Claire Lane (born Litke) and her brother, Richard, on sax. Their cousins, Vincent Bell Lee and Eugene Moore, played guitar.
They had a short but brilliant life--their first record for a New York independent label, Amy, remade "Ghost Riders," Monroe's camp Western classic, into an early psychedelic Western, complete with whistles, moans and cattle calls. The b-side "Zig Zag" was sludgy and dense, music for an empty strip club in a suitcase town.
Released in December 1960 as Amy 813; on Rock Instrumental Classics Vol. 2.
The Fireballs, from New Mexico, allegedly got their name after a vicious live performance of "Great Balls of Fire" in a high school talent contest. They were signed by Norman Petty in 1959, arriving just as Petty's main talent, Buddy Holly, was moving to New York and severing his ties. (After Holly's death, the Fireballs were recruited to overdub backing tracks on Holly's acoustic "apartment tapes".)
After a string of instrumental hits, including the twisting "Bulldog," the Fireballs found a lead singer, Jimmy Gilmer, and wound up having a second life with "Sugar Shack," one of the most dire (but popular) hits of the '60s, along with "Bottle of Wine."
"Bulldog" was released at the tail end of 1959 as Top Rank 2026 c/w "Nearly Sunrise"; on The Original Norman Petty Masters.
Finally, Seattle's Ventures, amateur scientists whose solid-body guitars had utterly precise intonation even when the guitarists were wailing on the whammy bar; it was a sound notable for its absence of swing; as guitarist Bob Bogle has said, the Ventures did not play R&B. They did inspire everyone from George Harrison to Joe Walsh.
"Walk Don't Run," their biggest and best single, was released in July 1960 as Dolton 25 c/w "The McCoy"; on Walk Don't Run.
Top: Jane Goodall arrives at Lake Tanganyika, June 1960.