Pittsburgh’s surf-rock disciples gather for one big blowout

By August 6, 2019 No Comments

By Justin Vellucci
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer


Any musician’s urge to worship at the altar of Dick Dale has to start somewhere.

For Kevin Koch, drummer for Los Vampiros Amarillos, the gateway to surf and garage rock was guitarist James Calvin Wilsey, who provided the crystalline six-string ambience for Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” in 1989.

For Dan Spagnolo, guitarist for The Spectres, it began a decade ago during his days as a radio-station disc jockey at Swarthmore College, where he gained access to “Nuggets,” “Pebbles” and “Back From The Grave” box-sets.

And what about the secret agents – stress on the “secret” – behind local surf rock band Vertigo Go?

“We like to keep an air of mystery as to exactly who and what we are,” said one band member, who spoke at an undisclosed location under the strictest conditions of anonymity. “We rarely talk on stage, only occasionally using a bullhorn to announce song titles.” 

All those surf-rock origin stories – and many more narratives – will come together on Cattivo’s stage in Lawrenceville Saturday, Aug. 10 for the musical shindig dubbed Beach Blanket Blowout, a night of surf and garage rock. Los Vampiros Amarillos (formerly The Me Toos), The Spectres and Vertigo Go will be joined by Pittsburgh riot-surf act Go Go Gidget. 

Koch, a U.S. Postal Service mail carrier by day, said he feels surf and garage rock are the purest distillation of the energy released during the rock n’ roll Big Bang of the 1950s.

“Before pop turned rock ‘n’ roll into a multi-million dollar industry, garage and surf was more guttural — much more exciting, an overall aesthetic based on a lifestyle rather than just standing there and posing cool,” said Koch, who lives in the Squirrel Hill/Greenfield area. 

“You don’t see garage and surf musicians hitting a chord on the guitar and holding one arm up in some cheesy rock star pose. They don’t cajole the audience to clap along to the beat. They simply get up and they play, and if they’re great then they’re rewarded with a following.”

Spagnolo buys into that ethos. 

His sister was a big Ramones fan and after inheriting his Dad’s turntable at age 16 he spun lots of classic ‘80s punk and hardcore like Minutemen, Minor Threat and Black Flag. Some of that punk D.I.Y. energy, paired with the trappings of more conventional rock ‘n’ roll, creeps into The Spectre’s bombastic, two-man delivery.

“I think we may embrace sloppiness or chaos more than others in our immediate vicinity, while still holding on to pop sensibilities,” he said. “There’s an ugliness or a scar to it that you can’t look away from. But it’s not some hyper-intellectual soundscape, either.It has that earworm element to it that keeps it accessible.” 

But what does the existence of surf-inspired or reverb-heavy bands like Vertigo Go and The Turbosonics mean to a wave-less place like Pittsburgh? Ben Vivio, who fills out Los Vampiros Amarillos’ rhythm section with Koch, said he, for one, is kind of unsure. But, despite the abundance of good punk and metal in the Steel City, he’s not counting out surf or garage rock just yet.

“I’m not sure exactly how or if we fit into the Pittsburgh music scene — that’s not a good or bad thing,” Vivio said. “That being said, we’re lucky to have some bands that have been close to us through the years – most of which are playing at the Beach Blanket Blowout Show.”

Beach Blanket Blowout. 8 p.m., Sat. Aug. 10. Cattivo, 146 44th St., Lawrenceville. $7

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