Delphonic Sounds Today!
When the first rock and roll records began to hit the streets in the 1950s, historical relevance took a backseat to more immediate concerns; namely money, sex, and free beer. The tradition continues to the present, but I’d imagine today’s bands having a better grasp of their prospects for posterity, given the near-obsessive deification of rock over the past 20 years. Between the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and VH1’s Behind the Music specials, baby boomer rock critics have hyped the sounds of their (perpetual) youth to the point that at 77, Bob Keane holds something of an exalted place among the studio wizards whose sonic eccentricities were as important to the rise of rock as, say, Senator Joseph McCarthy. His Del-Fi label was loopy and esoteric, his roster loaded with names that (in most cases) barely matter as individual acts. Yet he was able to craft a string of singles from the late ’50s to ’60s that stand up very well against other stuff from those times. Keane was among the few individuals in a genre that, even then, was beginning to emphasize formula over form.
Now, after three decades of silence, the Del-Fi machine is churning tunes again. Quentin Tarantino used songs by the Lively Ones and the Centurions (“Bullwinkle Pt. II” and “Surf Rider,” respectively, covered by Elliot Easton’s Tiki Gods and Los Straitjackets, respectively) for his Pulp Fiction soundtrack. The royalties enabled Keane to release new music, such as the CD at hand. Delphonic Sounds Today features some of today’s more, um, interesting bands covering various Del-Fi hits, semi-hits, and non-hits. Del-Fi’s most enduring recordings bookend the set. The Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law,” as interpreted by the Brian Jonestown Massacre, begins things with feedback and a sitar that either disappears or is hopelessly obscured by the rest of the instruments. It’s a good song, though far from the Dead Kennedy’s version. Fuller’s 1966 death precipitated the dissolution of Del-Fi, and his importance is apparent from listening to Delphonic Sounds Today ! The BFF hold the distinction of being covered more times than any other Del-Fi act on the compilation. “My Favorite Martian,” revised by Dave Allan & the Arrows, makes me weep for the ghost of Ray Walston. Nan Vernon’s take on “A New Shade of Blue” is, like, the song I’ve waited for all my life, minimalist drums and piano, a trumpet for color, and vocals that nod to country without appropriating country’s, um, countryness. Much too short.
“The Magic Touch,” as performed by the Negro Problem (but originally a Fuller track) redeems the classic disco beat with Heidi Rodewald’s backing vocals.
The only other person to be covered more than once is Richie Valens. The last song, Elliot Kendall’s version of “Donna,” is perhaps better than the original. Valens was the most enduring of Del-Fi’s artists, historically if not in the flesh, so it’s hard to make a definitive statement about Kendall’s “Donna” in the wake of such overwhelming sentiment. After all, Valens died in a plane crash, and that must count for something, frequent flier miles notwithstanding. (Bob Keane is played by Joey Pants in the film La Bamba .) Kendall employs strings, tympani, pedal steel, all rendered with considerable more fidelity than the original. But Valens’ “Come On Let’s Go” is definitely better in prototype form than the version by Russell Scott & His Red Hots.
In between are oddball renditions of oddball originals. The Wondermints’ version of Eden Ahbez’ “Full Moon (Tropical Blend)” includes an unblinking narrative of life on a desert isle, with the composer’s name as the chorus. The Jigsaw Seen play “Luci Baines,” written by Arthur Lee of Love, in a style described as “Big Star’s Third meets the Stones’ Let It Bleed .” The Tiki Tones’ “Slauson Shuffle” samples the Romancers’ version. Baby Lemonade do “All in the Run of a Day” very well, but Mike Randle’s “emotional lead vocals” pale (literally) in comparison to Barry White’s 1967 rendition for Del-Fi subsidiary Bronco. The Dekes Of Hazzard’s “The World’s Greatest Sinner” was written by Frank Zappa in 1963; he called it “a rancid period in my life.” And there are 11 other songs, performed by Man Or Astroman?, Single Bullet Theory, Neil Mooney, Whisky Biscuit, Cloud Eleven, and the Mello Cads. It is axiomatic that tribute albums rarely pack a punch sufficient to justify their purchase beyond completist circles, but Delphonic Sounds Today! is highly enjoyable listening, even if you’ve never heard the originals.
Del-Fi Records, 8271 Melrose Ave., Suite 103, Los Angeles, CA 90046; http://www.del-fi.com