Interview by John Wisniewski
John WisniewskI: When did you begin playing music John?
John Blair: In the early 1960s when I was in high school. My first band was a surf band in 1963, The Intruders.
John WisniewskI: What were some of the band’s you played in?
John Blair: After The Intruders, I was in a folk-rock group called Columbia Bicycle for a year or two. Then, I finished college and entered the work force, so nothing until around 1975 when I joined Ray Campi & His Rockabilly Rebels. We recorded a couple of albums for Rolling Rock Records. Then, I formed Jon & The Nightriders in 1979. That was the result of me wanting to make a surf instrumental record and finding three guys willing to help me achieve that goal. We did, but then continued on to play live shows, tour Europe several times, and record a few more records and CDs into the 2000s.
John WisniewskI: Tell us about your book about the history of surf music. What research went into this project?
John Blair: Quite a bit of research, actually, based on many years of collecting records. The 1st edition of “The Illustrated Discography of Surf Music, 1961-1965” came out in 1978. It was a discography, not so much a history book. I felt that surf music had been overlooked amid all the discographies that had been done for jazz, country music, or artists such as Elvis or Frank Sinatra. The genre was important to the history of recorded music in this country, but was often overlooked in books and magazine articles about pop music history. I wanted to help document that short, but important, part of music history by listing the recordings (both singles and albums) that helped define the genre at the time.
The book is now in its 4th edition because the research never stops and I keep uncovering new information and finding vintage surf records from the 60s that I didn’t know about before. Because of that, there will likely be a 5th edition in the distant future (the long-range goal is to end up with a surf music discography that is quite nearly 100% complete. It never will be, but the goal is to get as close as possible). Besides my record collection, I’ve used other things such as back issues of Billboard and Cashbox magazine to search for stories about the recordings and artists. With the advent of the internet, searching for information became a little easier.
A couple of years ago, I was asked by an American publisher to write a book about the history of Southern California surf music, specifically. While I already knew the history for the most part, I visited several local historical societies in the area to find background information such as old newspaper articles. That book is still in print and available on Amazon.
John WisniewskI: Do you still play live, john?
John Blair: Yes, although not nearly as much as I did back in the 80s and 90s.
John WisniewskI: What do you love about the surf guitar sound?
John Blair: I can’t really add to what so many others have tried to describe about why this sound is so inviting and compelling. It’s simple in theory, but challenging in practice. Real surf music is instrumental, so it’s all guitar-based. The lead singer in a surf band is the lead guitar. Then, there’s the reverb effect. There’s just something about the sound that results when spring reverb is added to an electric guitar and combined with pounding drums, a solid bass line, and a second guitar…maybe sometimes a sax as well. Defining exactly what that “something” is can be difficult; it’s more of what you feel emotionally rather than an attempt to quantify it empirically. Without the reverb and drumming style, though, the same instrumental would not sound quite as interesting or attractive.
One thing that hasn’t changed with this music when it’s played in the typical style through clean-sounding amps and the use of that required reverb effect: the appeal that crosses age boundaries. Kids and grown-ups alike find this music enjoyable and happy. THAT is one thing I’ve always appreciated about surf music, its ability to make people happy without the use of words or lyrics.
John WisniewskI: Is surf music still popular these days?
John Blair: Yes, it is. It’s very “underground,” appealing to a small but very dedicated audience. Its popularity is spread mainly by word-of-mouth, although the internet certainly helps a great deal these days. Whereas, surf music in the 1960’s (before the British Invasion in ’64) was concentrated in the U.S., and to a smaller degree, in Australia and England, today the music’s popularity has spread to the entire world. There are surf bands from places you would not expect to hear it such as Russia, Slovenia, Japan, or Israel.
There are now websites dedicated to spreading the word about surf music and forums where like-minded folks can share information or ask questions. There are annual day-long (sometimes weekend-long) surf music festivals in several locations around the world and internet streaming radio stations that play surf music 24/7. So, the scene is much bigger now than it ever has been.
John Blair’s Official Website