Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Raybeats: Now, not Then

Marty's '71 Pontiac LeMans convertible was, it turns out, the perfect vehicle in which to experience a revival. We were two late-teens tooling around suburban Washington D.C. and the District, empty Schaefer cans rolling around in the back seat, rock and roll on the tape deck, wary of roaring through puddles that would shoot jets of rainwater up through the patched-together floorboards. Among the many, many bands we listened to as we cruised to bars and shows and back was the Raybeats, a neo-surf instrumental group from New York that originated in that city's No Wave scene. I don't remember how we got hooked to them—it was probably through Weasel, our favorite DJ at WHFS—and I recall seeing them only once, a delirious, sweaty blast of a show at the (old) 9:30 Club. We drank and danced all night.

What strikes me now is how fresh and new the Raybeats sounded and felt. They were, of course, "neo"—but that word meant little to me at the time. The Raybeats were innovating the surf sound for the Post-Punk era, yet though were revivalists, too. They played inside of, pushed against the walls of, a box that didn't matter to me: I didn't care so much for what tradition they were mining as for how they presented something alive to me, something that made contact with what came before but only because the wire from then to now was alive and humming. When I picture us driving around town in a car that was already nostalgic for the past, listening passionately to cover versions of songs that were already a couple decades old, I see two kids poised between teenagedom and adulthood, grooving to rock and roll that lifted us above eras and styles, plugging us in to something timeless, the greatest and most valuable commodity of all. (I'm not embarrassed to write that, at their best, the early Spongetones did this for me too.)

The Raybeats ca. 1983
It turns out that the Raybeats album that we loved—1983's "It's Only A Movie!"—would be the band's last. The album was recorded in drummer Don Christensen’s loft during the summer of 1983. Guitarist and sax player Pat Irwin commented on a peculiar aspect of the album: “[Most of the] material on the record was totally influenced by the introduction of the drum machine,” Irwin recalled. “The drum machine was everywhere, and like most of us at that time, we kind of fell under its spell. . . . My memory of the drum machine is not a happy one. It was a sound that seemed to be everywhere and we just kind of went with it.” The digital drum sound is heard well on "Sad Little Caper," and it's one of the qualities of the album that I loved, a kind of bridging of the past with the present, smirk, or ironically-raised eyebrow, included.

The word "revival" was first used in the Seventeenth century in the sense of "the bringing of an old play back to the stage." (The next century saw the word employed in the religious sense by Cotton Mather.) Yet there was nothing old about the Raybeats, though there sure should have been. About the Beatles' 2000 compilation 1, critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote: "If you give this to any six or seven year old, they'll be a pop fan, even fanatic, for life. And that's reason enough for it to exist." It all has to do with listening context—a kid hearing "Please Please Me" or "Penny Lane" for the first time, as his parents did in the last century. To two great buddies rolling through D.C. in the Marion Berry Coke Era in a beat-up, primer-coated convertible with a cranky top and great speakers, what the Raybeats were reviving might as well have been introduced the week before. Who cared? Songs like "Soul Beat/Intoxica" and "Banzai Pipeline" got into us, shook us up, drained us, and worked their way out. If we felt like it—wringing the sweat from our shirts after a show—we labeled it. But mostly we just turned it up again.

Photo of the Raybeats via The Tone Zone.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice post.

I went whole hog for the early 80's surf revival. Found a Fender Jaguar in the classified ads, ordered surf comps and books from Bomp, snagged every Ventures record etc.

And, after reading about the Raybeats, picked up "Guitar Beat" which quickly became a favorite, a perfect blend of present and (what I was discovering) past.

bob in peoria