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New Zealand Music Features


Since it first arrived in the late-50s, the surf guitar sound has continued to re-emerge in each decade. Gareth Shute takes a short look back at the history of the style in New Zealand.
King Loser surf guitar band from New Zealand

In June, Na Noise were announced as the winners of the Holiday Records competition to have a single put out for free on vinyl. This makes sense, since the twangy, vibrato-heavy riffs of guitarist Yolanda Fagan seem to draw directly from those early years of rock’n’roll when 7” singles were king (and the sound is right across their recent LP, Waiting For You). 

The style is even more obvious in her other group, the Echo Ohs, though in this case it's guitarist Guy Forks applying vibrato to his notes with a whammy bar and cranking the reverb on his amp, while Yolanda plays bass and sings (her voice sounding as echo-y as the guitar). Guy says the band found their sound through listening to a lot of old surf music and spaghetti western soundtracks:

“It wasn’t really a conscious decision to incorporate it - it just snuck in there. One of our favourites was Margaya by the Fender Four - a bit raw and distorted, not too clean with fast and heavy picking - we liked the idea of instrumentals with the guitar being in the front cutting through the mix.”

Guy Forks and Yolanda Fagan in their first band, Bozo (Photo: Gareth Shute)

This led the Echo Ohs to do a number of instrumental songs (or ones with minimal vocals) including Line Check, Black Like Your Heart, and The Crawl. This ties them to a legacy of instrumental rock that has influenced local musicians since the fifties. 

Legendary instrumental track Rumble by Link Wray and His Ray Men came out in 1958 and gained its power from the distorted notes of the main riff, which had been achieved by stabbing holes into the speaker of the amp. Down in New Zealand, young guitarist Bob Paris was paying attention. He released his own version of Rumble in 1959 and also covered another early classic - Rebel Rouser by Duane Eddy. The same troublemaker spirit infused drag racing at the time, which led Paris to pen his own number Dragstrip.

Then and now: The Bob Paris Combo self-titled 12” EP (1959) is a classic of instrumental rock (which now sells for NZ$150+ online); Echo Ohs’ 12” EP Wild Weeds (2020).
Then and now: The Bob Paris Combo self-titled 12” EP (1959) is a classic of instrumental rock (which now sells for NZ$150+ online); Echo Ohs’ 12” EP Wild Weeds (2020).

In that era, bands played for a couple of hours so having instrumentals in your set made sense; they allowed the singers to take the odd break, rather than lose their voice. The popularity of English group The Shadows also had a big influence on bands in New Zealand and soon all the top bands had their own instrumentals - whether it was Ray Columbus and The Invaders, Max Merritt and The Meteors, or Johnny Devlin and The Devils, whose original line-up featured Paris.  

The label ‘surf guitar’ came in the sixties with the arrival of Dick Dale, who gave his tracks names like Pipeline and Surfing Drums (inspiring others like the aforementioned Fender Four). Surf music had already been around since The Beach Boys, but Dale brought a new raw edge - adding fast double-picking to his tracks, often lifting his fingers on-and-off the frets to increase the speed of the notes and doing long swoops down the neck. Soon other elements were thrown into the mix - the drummers pounded heavily on the toms or doing quick double hits on the snare, while the vibrato drone of an organ was sometimes thrown into the mix too.

You can hear Dale’s influence on Soft Surfie by Max Merritt and The Meteors which was released in 1963, a year after Dale’s signature track MisirlouMerritt passed away in September last year so it’s good time to acknowledge his work went far beyond just Slipping AwayMeanwhile, Johnny Devlin had moved to Australia and took up the style through writing instrumentals for Australian group, The Denvermen

However, New Zealand instrumental rock became considerably more laidback over the decade that followed. The most well-known solo guitarists were Gray Bartlett and Peter Posa, who lent more towards the style of The Shadows and lounge music; though Bartlett had a fine track named Surf Rider. Posa was stunningly popular at the time and his song White Rabbit reached the Top 20 across Australasia. What’s more, Posa’s reputation survived long enough that a compilation of his music hit No.1 on the New Zealand album charts in 2012.

By the end of the 60s, surf guitar was somewhat passé and Jimi Hendrix threatened in 3rd Stone From The Sun that he’d destroy the human race so “you’ll never hear surf music again.” Down in New Zealand, psychedelic act The Music Convention was more interested in paying homage to the style and so created their own warped version on their track Belly Board Beat

Nonetheless it did seem by the seventies that surf guitar was more likely to become a retro curiosity than a serious influence on modern music. Surprisingly the group to bring it back were also the outfit that put Flying Nun on the map, The Clean. You can hear their reverb-heavy guitar on tracks like Fish, and on their outtakes album Odditties 2 there’s even a track called Surf Music (while drummer Hamish Kilgour later wrote a song called Duane Eddy for his own band).

Guitarist David Kilgour says this wasn’t so unusual if you knew the band member’s history:

“Being surfers and music maniacs before picking up instruments of course we were very aware of surf music, mainly thanks to the Beach Boys and the rest. Shit - Link Wray is surf music, let alone Dick Dale etc … We were 60s/50s freaks so of course it all gets in somehow. I loved twangy reverb guitar and you hear that from Elvis, The Velvets, The Shadows, ‘Wipe out’! It seems like The Shadows influenced everybody at the time. You wouldn't have fender amps the way they are without Dick Dale, his history is pretty amazing though I only looked into it in recent years really … ‘At The Bottom’ always sounded like surf music to me and The Clean took its name from a character Mr Clean in a 60s surf movie called The Sweet Ride.”

David Kilgour from The Clean, New Zealand
David Kilgour

An even clearer attempt to reignite the surf guitar style came through fellow Flying Nun act, King Loser, in the 1990s. Guitarist Chris Heazlewood played his double-picked riffs through layers of distortion and occasional feedback, re-capturing the raw spirit of the early rock instrumentals. King Loser arrived just prior to the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction, which placed Dick Dale’s Misirlou front-and-centre so the band were able to ride the increased interest in the surf guitar style (even while feeling the annoyance of adopting the sound long before the masses picked up on it through the film). 

Chris Heazlewood playing in King Loser at Others Way 2016 (Photo: Gareth Shute)
Chris Heazlewood playing in King Loser at Others Way 2016 (Photo: Gareth Shute).

After this, the new acts kept coming - whether it was The Hollow Grinders from Hamilton (started in 1997), Greg Malcolm's Surfing USSR from Christchurch (started in 1999), or The Mysterious Tapeman from Palmerston North (started in 2003). In fact, The Tapeman himself - Dylan Herkes - started his own record label, Stink Magnetic, which had many acts in the surf instrumental style such as The Chandeliers, The Damned Evangelist and Boss Christ. This group of artists even gained international attention when Stink Magnetic put out a compilation in collaboration with cult Swiss label, Voodoo Rhythm Records

Even this past decade has seen surf guitar acts continuing to emerge out of the woodwork. While most New Zealanders might know Karl Steven as the lead singer of Supergroove, he also fronted The Drab Doo-Riffs from 2007-2014. The band’s guitarist, Lucy Stewart, often incorporated Dick Dale-esque double picking, which was highlighted most clearly on their instrumental Aquatic Ape Theory. More recently, Auckland act King Kaiju have been mining from similar territory, while mixing it with elements of garage psych and exotica to create their own potent blend. 

This brings us back full circle to the Echo Ohs and Na Noise, who’ve twisted the surf guitar sound in new directions. When she started Na Noise with her friend Hariet Ellis, they decided to work initially with just a drum machine to add a new element into the mix:

“The first major influence for the band was the first Alan Vega solo record which is sparse rock ’n’ roll, lots of The Velvets in there too and 60’s female pop groups like The Ronettes … I learned guitar on the streets or really I’m self taught - I soak up everything around me. Guy is my biggest influence. How much we talk about guitar tone/sounds is almost gross. What we do in the Echo Ohs is totally in the mix ... I like to make playlists of low key music that’s a bit spooky or buzzy. Lots of the guitar sounds will be “surfy” sounding. ‘Boo’ by Charlie Megira will be on there with ‘If It by Drinks, ‘The Moon of Manakooraby The Ventures, Mr Power by The Pleasure Seekers, and of course ‘La Maldicion Del Lobo’ by The Damned Evangelist. So Na Noise is just me making music I want to listen to. It’s all that stuff - and everything else.”

The influence of surf guitar and instrumental rock on both Na Noise and the Echo Ohs shows its peculiar tenacity as a style. When asked why the twangy, reverberated guitar sound has last so long, Guy is straight to the point:

“It just sounds good. It seems to adapt and crawl out of the water every now and then and inflict itself on the unwary!”


For more, including detail on bands such as The Music Convention and The Hollow Grinders, check out Top 10 NZ Surf Guitar Tracks on Audioculture

King Loser surf guitar band from New Zealand
Main photo and above photo, King Loser in Auckland

1 comment

  • I love surf music, i fortunate to see king loser in 94-95 at Hamilton Uni, very cool, very good musicians, i was in awe of them. Surf crossed over to skatepunk thru the band JFA (Jodie Fosters Army) in the 80s, check out their songs ‘ABA’, Beach Blanket Bong Out and cover of ‘Walk don’t run’, among others.

    Nick Thomas on

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