Off the Beaten Track: Ziggy Played Surf Guitar

David Bowie’s guitar-god persona hangs ten once again, fingers on his Fender, as instrumental surf bands of the world perform his songs.
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Ziggy Played Surf Guitar

Break out the reverb, the tremolo, echolettes, and the whammy bar dips. “Wipeout” on the “Pipeline” to the Link Wray power chord and the Duane Eddy twang. And while you can cue stars like usual suspects Dick Dale and the Ventures, there’s also a surf guitar starman in an unusual suspect, David Bowie’s guitar-god persona from his 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Though his “snow white tan” may not survive a day on the beach, Ziggy’s “screwed up eyes and screwed down hairdo” still work their magic, and may even befit contemporary surf music’s more onshore variations in its astronautic, lounge, and kitschy variations. He’d no doubt be in good company with more recent practitioners of the form, too, such as Alabama’s Man or Astroman, foggy San Francisco’s Mermen, Nashville’s Los Straitjackets, the the Heartbreakers-hearkening Blue Stingrays.

In any case, Ziggy hangs ten once again, fingers on his Fender, in 2011’s Ziggy Played Surf Guitar, an anthology whereon “The Surf Instrumental Bands of the World Perform the Music of David Bowie.” And British label Cordelia Records isn’t just playing fast and loose with that international designation, either. In addition to artists indigenous to the California coastline, and those of more far-flung environs within the continental U.S. – The Red Planets hail from North Carolina, while even more land-locked locales are home to Phoenix’ Swamp Coolers and Reno’s Mighty Surf Lords – other groups are more transoceanic in origin. (You’d be forgiven if you thought this applies to the Lost Boys of Penzance, from San Diego county, and Los Angeles’ Glasgow Tiki Shakers.) The Thurston Lava Tube, for example, is centered in the U.K., Surfadelica from Brazil, and Germany can boast three surf music greats of the day or the recent past: the Muffinmates, the Razorblades, and the Incredible Mr. Smith.

Not all of Ziggy Played Surf Guitar’s tracks are from Rise and Fall. Some of the groups are as chameleonic as the Thin White Duke himself, and go beyond the bounds of Bowie’s world of androgynous aliens. But of the five Rise and Fall tracks – out of over 20 — “Moonage Daydream” by the Tomorrowmen (“Surf Instrumentals Since 3001,” announce their Facebook page) is a notable representation of the more space-age end of the surf rock gamut, evoking a more guitar-heavy “Telstar,” the 1962 hit by the British group Tornados, or something off of The Ventures in Space from the same year.

Meanwhile, the Vara-tones, in "Starman," meld a classic Dick Dale surf-guitar sound to a seductive “Pipeline”-style sense of expectation. And the Pterodactyls’ sonically stellar “Surfer Jet City” (a titular twist on “Suffrgette City”), “explodes into space” as a fast-paced and edgy biker-movie take not out of keeping with Davie Allan and the Arrow’s fuzztone-frayed 1966 hit “Blue’s Theme” (from the movie The Wild Angels). Wham-bam thank-you-ma’am, indeed!

As far as Ziggy Played Surf Guitar’s other entries, highlights include the reverb-heavy “Lady Grinning Soul” by Los Fantasticos, which starts out with some south-of-the-border brass and features some flamenco guitar touches here and there, going on to suggest something from a gritty and stylized Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriquez film. And while Pollo Del Mar’s vibrant version of “Panic in Detroit” features some musicians who can “play the guitar just like ringing a bell,” its “The Jean Genie” by Monkey Versus Robot that’s the most distinctive and eccentric cut of them all. Taking its psychedelic-tinged assault a little astray, the lead guitarist interplays with a TV commercial voiceover for Levi’s Jeans, “the world’s toughest pair of pants.“

That axeman “took it all too far, but boy could he play guitar.”