Having played a pivotal role in the development of instrumental surf music in the early ’60s with his band, the Belairs (best-remembered for the Johnson-penned classic “Mr. Moto”), and having presaged any notion of a “surf revival” with a 1980 album called Pray For Surf (a solo effort released under the group name The Packards – some 14 years before Pulp Fiction would blast Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” onto movie screens), Paul Johnson has become somewhat of a guru to the surf revival cult centered around bands such as the Mermen, Los Straitjackets, and Laika & the Cosmonauts. He has self-released recordings of his own various groups, old and new, and written some of the genre’s most interesting, evocative tunes, all the while proving he’s not about to let his own accomplishments leave him in the dust.
The all-instrumental Liquid Blues, in fact, finds the mid-50s guitarist at the peak of his powers. Blasting off with “Andele,” a melodic/rhythmic surf classic on a par with the aforementioned “Moto,” he ricochets effortlessly into country pickin’ (“Java Jump”), hot-blooded tango (“Desert Madness”), and finger-poppin’ jive (“Uptown Strut,” which would sound at home in, say, a “Top Cat” cartoon). He even steps forward for some heavy blues (“Albion Blues”) that wouldn’t sound out of place alongside a Vaughan or Clapton. This is eclectic guitar music of the highest order, so don’t let the surf tag turn you off.
One of P.J.’s earmarks is a majestic quality into which he infuses compositions such as “Tsunami” and “Ring of Truth.” But while “Wipe Out” this is clearly not, Johnson, more so than any other artist, has succeeded in bringing surf music into the present without sacrificing its past. His most ambitious work here is the extnded title track, in which he stitches together a stream-of-consciousness tour de force, seguing from one genre and groove to another via a lead line, a bridge, an interlude, without ever giving the listener whiplash or setting off one’s “gratuitous” alarm.
Ironically, the CD’s only non-originals are two of its highlights: a terrific instro adaptation of John Phillips’ “California Dreamin'” and Don Nuzzo’s eery, category-defying “Greenroom.”
In addition to Liquid Blues, Johnson has just reissued 1980’s Pray For Surf (on CD for the first time) as a two-fer with a never-released album by the band he then formed, the Packards’ Beach City Bop – possibly the best one-two punch in all of surfdom. Also available is Surf Battle at Redondo Beach, a program of bands that gathered to pay tribute to the late surf drummer Don Murray; it offers a nice overview of some of the current instrumental bands on the scene. Go to pjmoto.com and order ‘em all.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.