“I guess they call them ‘biker instrumentals’ because when I hit one of those really nasty low notes, it sounds just like a Harley starting up,” surf-rock pioneer Davie Allan explains, when asked about the overdriven guitar pyrotechnics for which he’s famous.
Make that not famous, actually.
Dick Dale is well-known as a surf-guitar king. Ditto for Link Wray. The third member of that unholy trinity, however, may have escaped your notice. But if you’ve ever seen a ’60s-era biker movie (especially one produced by Roger Corman), you’ve heard the revved-up sounds of Davie Allan & the Arrows — a distinctive buzz that’s more the sound of electricity being melodically channeled over pounding drums and shimmering organ than specific notes (it’s also known as “fuzz guitar”).
While surf purists revere Allan as one of the most unique and exciting guitar players of the last three decades, garden-variety music lovers are more likely to query “Davie who?“
Allan’s obscurity is due in large part to the fact that most of his music has appeared solely on movie soundtracks. But now he’s on the road with a stripped-down version of his old band, playing his first tour of the East Coast in more than 30 years. (In fact, Allan points out, “I’ve only ever really done two tours before this one.”)
That lack of live experience apparently hasn’t hindered the band’s sound one iota, though. L.A. Weekly named Davie Allan & the Arrows “Best Instrumental Band of 1999” in their annual Music Awards Poll — on the strength of only three recent West Coast gigs. “Talking about pop culture, baby? Allan [is] an architect, a natural-fact rock ‘n’ roll artist. Allan’s ax rocks, stalks and talks with heat, assurance and … a maturity that transforms the oft-shallow rock-instro into epic-scale slabs of … expression. Dazzling,” writes that publication’s J. Whiteside, in an attempt to get words around the mind-boggling variety of sounds Allan wrenches from his six-string.
The band’s current tour was launched in promotion of two recent records and in anticipation of an upcoming release: Fuzz Fest, originally recorded in 1994, was reissued this year on Total Energy Records and has been routinely lauded as Allan’s best work; Loud Loose and Savage (Dionysus 1998) features a compilation of ’80s recordings previously released on other records. And the much-anticipated The Arrowdynamic Sounds of Davie Allan & the Arrows will be released on both CD and vinyl next month.
At Allan and company’s upcoming Stella Blue show, they’ll be joined by a new generation of noisemakers, the Knoxville Girls — who, incidentally, are neither from Knoxville, nor are they girls.
“I can’t wait to [hear] the Knoxville Girls,” enthuses Allan.
Who can blame him? If credentials were cash, the Knoxville Girls would be richer than Donald Trump. A list of this five-man group’s former bands reads like the honor roll of punk-drenched rock: Sonic Youth, The Cramps, Pussy Galore, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the Honeymoon Killers, Boss Hog, the Gun Club and the Chrome Cranks. Now these reprobates have set their sights on a hybrid brand of country music — and the possibilities are beautifully frightening. A three-pronged guitar attack composed of Jerry Teel (who also does vocals), Kid “Congo” Powers and Jack Martin, plus drums by Bob Bert and organ by Barry London collides into a sound that could be described as Highway 61-era Bob Dylan meets White Light, White Heat-era Velvet Underground. The Knoxville Girls plan to release their first album on In the Red Records in the near future.
The dynamic pairing of Allan and the Knoxville Girls came about because Bert was originally slated to serve as drummer for the Arrows on this tour. Meanwhile, he Knoxville Girls came together and Allan agreed to bring them along for the ride (long-time Arrows drummer David Winogard will replace Bert).
Allan earned his low-profile legend grinding out soundtrack after soundtrack for not only biker flicks, but bikini films, teenage-rage films and cheesy espionage films during the second half of the 1960s. Movies like Wild Angels, Born Losers, The Glory Stompers, Devil’s Angels and Wild in the Streets all bear the uniquely nasty blare and awe-inspiring drive of the Arrows. The most successful of these was Wild Angels. The film’s high-octane cast included Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra, and its theme song (“Blue’s Theme”) became Davie Allan & the Arrows’ biggest hit.
Allan’s soundtracks were released on a vast array of haphazardly distributed California labels, and dozens of releases carrying his work don’t even bear his name. “Tower Records and their subsidiary labels really wanted you to think they had a big roster, I guess,” Allan relates. “So they’d put out a record and it’d have credits going to bands with names like Sidewalk Sounds or Jerry and the Portraits — but that’d be us, just recording under another name. I recorded so much stuff in the ’60s, I don’t think you could ever begin to find it all. I’ll never get that discography straight.”
Young and in love with the studio (and the sound of his guitar), though, Allan didn’t really care what name he was playing under, so long as he got a chance to play.
“There [were] four years in the ’60s when I don’t think I left the recording studio once,” he remembers. “I think I was in there everyday. And they’d say, ‘OK, well, we want you to score this movie,’ so we’d just do it. I was kept in the dark most of the time. I didn’t always know what the movie was about. They’d tell me if it was a biker movie, but other than that we had no idea. … Sometimes we’d know how long a number was supposed to be, but lots of times we wouldn’t. I guess they did lots of edits. It was pretty Mickey Mouse.”
Less “Disney-ian” and more Dionysian are the records he released under his own name, free and unencumbered by even the minimal restrictions of B-filmmaking. These include Apache ’65, Blue’s Theme and, best of all, Cycle-Delic Sounds of Davie Allan and the Arrows — arguably a contender for greatest rock ‘n’ roll instrumental LP of all time and an testament to the number of tones that can be wrenched from a guitar (at one point, Allan turns his fuzz and “wah-wah” pedals all the way up and simultaneously screams through the pick-ups).
Fans looking forward to seeing the distinctive double-necked Mosrite guitar that Allan used in his heyday will go away disappointed. “I sold it in 1971, I think,” he says. “I hate like hell I did it now, because it’s worth a lot of money. But it was just so heavy. It was killing my back. But it would be fun to bring out at the end of a show occasionally.”
Far from resting on their laurels, Allan and the Arrows will not merely be recycling tunes from the ’60s on this tour. “We’ll play a few things from the ’60s,” he relates, “[like] ‘Glory Stompers’ and the Born Losers theme … but for the most part, I’ve kind of gotten away from the ‘biker’ sound’. [I play] more of just a B-movie sound now, I guess.”
Such distinctions are arbitrary, though. Allan’s sound today is, if anything, more aggressive, clamorous and plain old loud than it was 30 years ago, as anyone who’s heard his recent recordings can testify. To-wit: “Open Throttle” (from Fuzz Fest) must be heard to be believed, with its grungy, nasty buzz that, nonetheless, never flails into disordered chaos. “The idea on that song was to make the noise factor just as loud as my notes,” Allan explains. “So we just set up mikes in the room and turned everything all the way up. I tell you, the amp and the fuzz were just screaming. And I really like the way it came out. … [We’re talking about] making an entire album like that when we get back from the tour.”