A History in Music
Five (Plus) Decades of Timeless Music
The music of The Ventures, as every fan knows, has a very distinctive sound -- one that is unmistakable in its simplicity and its universal appeal. But that sound has evolved over the more than 50-year history of The Ventures.
The 1950s: In 1959, The Ventures recorded two singles, which included the songs "Cookies and Coke" b/w "The Real McCoy," and "The Twomp" b/w "Heart on My Sleeve." These vocal songs featured the background music that heralded the beginnings of The Ventures' guitar-rich sound. But the singles, published on The Ventures' own Blue Horizon label, didn't sell.
The 1960s: The Ventures went back to the recording studio and came up with a rocking version of "Walk, Don't Run," a song written by jazz guitarist Johnny Smith and later recorded in a country style by Chet Atkins. The Ventures' version of "Walk Don't Run" was released in 1960 and soon became The Ventures' first hit single and the trademark song by which they are best known. It established forever the format, the style, and the sound that would define The Ventures -- driving guitars with a strong underlying drum beat. Other hit singles followed throughout the decade of the 1960s, including "Perfidia," "Lullaby of the Leaves," "Slaughter on 10th Avenue," "Diamond Head," "Walk, Don't Run '64," and "Hawaii Five-0." However, The Ventures' real success was in the album charts, where they placed a remarkable 37 albums during the period of 1960 to 1972. In fact, they rank 6th among all 1960s recording artists on the album charts, behind the likes of The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Ray Conniff, and Ray Charles.
By the mid-1960s, The Ventures had already made several concert tours to Japan and were beginning to grow in popularity in that country. Around that time, they started to record albums specifically for the Japanese market featuring Japanese "pop" songs like "Hokkaido Skies," "Kyoto Doll," and "Reflections in a Palace Lake." These Japanese "pop" tunes were soft ballads, as compared with the "rock" style songs popular in the U.S.
The 1970s: With the growing popularity of the softer ballads in Japan, in the early-1970s, The Ventures recorded a few albums with similar style music in the U.S. Among songs recorded during this period were instrumental versions of the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" and "Close to You," the Jerome Kern 1930s standard "The Way You Look Tonight," such Jim Croce folk rock ballads as "Time in a Bottle," and "pop" versions of Beethoven's "Sonata in C Minor" and "9th Symphony."
By the late-1970s, the "rock" music scene in the U.S. was starting to turn to "disco." Although The Ventures tried to follow that trend, with "disco" versions of Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" and an updated "Walk, Don't Run '77," The Ventures' "disco" style albums didn't sell very well. Slowly, the popularity of The Ventures in their home country declined as the rest of the U.S. embraced the repetitive "dance all night" beat of "disco."
On the other hand, the popularity of The Ventures continued to grow in Japan, and they almost completely gave up on the U.S. market and started recording albums exclusively for sale in Japan. One of their Japanese albums (which has a personal appeal to me because of my Hispanic background) was The Latin Album. This recording featured such Latin classics as "Andalucia," "Spanish Eyes," "Guantanamera," and "Cuando Caliente el Sol" -- beautiful ballads in any language, but not quite the driving rock and roll that had brought The Ventures commercial success in the U.S. during the 1960s.
The 1980s: During the 1980s, The Ventures' recording output declined considerably as they concentrated on touring the U.S. during a resurgence of popularity linked to the rise in the "punk rock" wave of music. In addition to a few Japanese-only albums -- some featuring a lively "ska" or "reggae" beat -- in 1980 they released a double album of their greatest hits, re-recorded and released on their own Tridex label. In 1983, they recorded a special album to commemorate NASA's 25th anniversary. The NASA 25th Anniversary album is the one album that is furthest -- musically -- from the trademark Ventures sound. It contains space and science fiction-related music -- like medleys from "Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind," "Star Trek," "2001," and "Star Wars" -- that feature a heavy "disco" influence very similar to that of Meco.
A notable late-1980s U.S. album, called Compact Ventures, brought somewhat of a return to "rock and roll" by The Ventures, with reggae-influenced versions of 1960s "rock and roll" classics like "Runaway," "Johnny Angel," "It's My Party," and "Save the Last Dance for Me." This album also featured two newer Ventures songs, "Showdown in Newport" and "Surfin' and Spyin'" (which reportedly was written for The Ventures by the Go-Go's). This was the first Ventures album to be issued in the compact disc (CD) format.
The 1990s: Throughout the 1980s and the early-1990s, The Ventures continued to record many albums strictly for the Japanese market. Those albums contained mainly soft ballads, including movie themes like "Chariots of Fire," "Never Ending Story," and "St. Elmo's Fire" and Japanese "pop" tunes like "Snows of Nagano," "Kimi Ga Irudakede," and "Namida No Kiss."
By the mid-1990s, perhaps helped by the soundtrack of the movie Pulp Fiction (which featured many surf rock tunes made popular by The Ventures), they began to enjoy a resurgence of popularity in the U.S. In 1995, GNP Crescendo released a CD containing all of The Ventures songs originally included in the 1963 album Surfing plus some more recent live tracks and newer surf-style recordings. Then in 1996, The Ventures returned full force to their "rock and roll" roots with the album Wild Again, which featured the driving guitars and pounding drums that are their trademark sound. Wild Again, originally released only in Japan, enjoyed a 1997 U.S. release on GNP Crescendo. It received widespread critical acclaim, and was followed up with Wild Again II (again released both in Japan and in the U.S.). Wild Again and Wild Again II are high-powered, adrenalin-inducing albums from beginning to end. Like fine wine, The Ventures seem to just get better and better with age.
The 2000s: Just before the turn of the century, in 1999 The Ventures added a new Japanese record label and celebrated with a slew of new releases. One stand-out was Walk Don't Run 2000, which featured a "ska" version of their classic track, "Walk Don't Run," and other tracks that continued the rocking trend started with the two Wild Again albums.
In 2000, they took a bold and extremely successful departure from their standard electric guitar sound by recording Acoustic Rock -- a fantastic collection of classic rock covers all played on acoustic guitars. Among the standouts on this album are rocking instrumental versions of "Brown Eyed Girl," "Tobacco Road," "American Pie," "Layla," and even the Latin rock hit "Living La Vida Loca." Also in 2000, The Ventures began a series of V-Gold albums that feature newly recorded versions of some of their classic hits from the 1960s. These new recordings, with modern recording technology, bring these classic tracks into the 21st Century.
Of course, The Ventures didn't given up on their mostly Japanese market, releasing in 2001 the album Play Southern All Stars - Tsunami -- a collection of pops songs made popular by the Japanese vocal group Southern All Stars. Many new Japanese recordings have followed through the first decade of the 21st Century, including collections of previously unrecorded American and Japanese songs. Among these collections were the CDs Your Hit Parade, J-Rock: Summer Wind, Rocky!, and Play Kayama Yuzo. This last title included some melodic tunes from popular Japanese actor and musician Kayama Yuzo.
The 2010s: In the early years of this decade, The Ventures have continued to seek new musical territory. 2010 saw the release of In My Life,which featured songs from The Beatles' songbook. Although The Ventures had recorded several Beatles songs during the 1960s, here they took on more Beatles hits, like "Norwegian Wood," "Paperback Writer," "Back in the USSR," and the Abbey Road medley of "Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End." The Ventures continued to serve the Japanese market with the 2013 album The Ventures Play Yuming, which features ballads made popular by the Japanese singer Yuming. The most recent offering by The Ventures (as I write this in January 2015) was 2014's Summer Sounds, a nice collection of classic surf-themed tunes by The Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, Dick Dale, and others.
With the tragic passing of drummer Mel Taylor in 1996 and founding member Bob Bogle in 2009, The Ventures have soldiered on with new members Leon Taylor and Bob Spalding, along with lead guitarist Gerry McGee plus Nokie Edwards occasionally appearing as a "Special Guest." But with rumors of the imminent retirement of founding member Don Wilson circulating on the internet, the musical journey of The Ventures may soon be at an end. When that does happen, we can all be grateful for the many decades of wonderful instrumental music that The Ventures have brought to their fans throughout the world. Long Live The Ventures!
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1996-2015 Arnold E.
van Beverhoudt, Jr.