Quite A Party! 24 Great Instrumental Bands Play the Fireballs (Ace Records, UK, 2005)
(Originally posted on Surf Guitar 101 on February 7, 2006)
Here we have a tribute album that's been a long time in the coming. The Fireballs were a New Mexico band that got their start in '58 (pre-Ventures) and ended up becoming a major influence on both the Ventures as well as the nascent surf genre (especially the Belairs and the South Bay sound) with their early instrumentals which went beyond Duane Eddy and relied much more on the Fender sound. They also introduced a heavy dose of Mexicana to their tunes, which clearly has also had a big influence on surf music. And their lead guitar player George Tomsco penned some of the classic instrumental tunes, such as Bulldog, Torquay and Quite a Party.
This is a fantastic tribute to the Fireballs' genius. It's quite unique due to the fact that it includes both vintage covers of the Fireballs tunes as well as modern tributes. Of the vintage tunes there are many fine ones from bands like the Ventures, the Belairs, the String-A-Longs, the Lively Ones (great cover of Rik-A-Tik), the Challengers, Wes Dakus & His Rebels and my two favorites: Vaquero by the Tornadoes (the surf band, not the Joe Meek band) and the still-unmatched Find Me A Golden Street by the Shadows from their 1961 debut album. The Fireballs covers by all these bands are all classics in their own right, and it's great to see them here, but the new contributions, of which there are about a dozen, are a bit more interesting. I think all the artists do a very good job on these, though some are better than others. Probably my very favorite on the whole CD is by our own couplets John Blair and Marty Tippens – they do an acoustic version of a rare (and somewhat unfortunately named) track Clink Clink Classic. But man, it's just beautiful! Their two acoustics mesh perfectly, and create a web of warm sound that's thick enough to swim in, I swear. Really great job, guys! (JB & Marty are currently building up their repertoire and may even record a whole acoustic album of songs by the Fireballs, which I think would be incredible. I hope it happens.) Close behind this one is another duet, consisting of two more super-talented chaps: Dave Wronski (damn, the guy's everywhere!) and Pete Curry (Los Straitjackets, the Halibuts, Jon & the Nightriders, etc., etc.), who do a beautiful instrumental take on the big Fireballs vocal hit Sugar Shack, with more than a passing nod to Motown, believe it or not. The Torquays (who clearly took their band name from a Fireballs tune) do a great job on a song Dumbo, previously released on one of their cool albums. Other new versions of note are 3 Balls of Fire (whose lead guitarist Mike Vernon produced this whole release, and who have lately often been employed as George Tomsco's backing band) who do a beautiful job on obscure Las Vegas Scene; Paul Johnson's Fireball is a delicate masterpiece with at least three interweaving guitar parts; the country/rockabilly guitarist Bill Kirchen plays a faithful and lively reading of Quite a Party, backed by 3 Balls of Fire; the Detonators do a chunky surf version of Bulldog; and there are many other great songs by Jerry MacNeish, the Knights, the Spartans, the Vibrants, etc.
There are only a couple of missteps on the entire CD: 1) The Electras' Torquay is atrocious and only has novelty value (this was Senator John Kerry's sixties band), and so becomes pretty grating on repeated listenings; 2) The Nortons' Chief Woopin' Koff sounds like they're about to fall asleep, very low energy – Mike Vernon should have used the Atlantics' rocking version of this classic Fireballs tune; 3) using the recent rerecording by the Spotnicks of their classic Moonshot (called Gunshot by the Fireballs) rather than the fantastic original track was a mistake. Other than these three problems, this is another great CD that I bet would be loved by many people on this list, whether they've been fans of the Fireballs for 45 years or have never heard them before. I can't think of a better introduction to them.