Jim Messina and His Jesters: "Dragsters"
(Originally posted on Surf Guitar 101, June 25, 2004)
The original Jesters LP was released sometime in '64 and was credited to "Jim Messina and his Jesters" (notice the copy of "Dick Dale and HIS Del-tones") and it was called The Dragsters. This is the LP that was reissued on CD on the semi-legit Euro label Surf in the '90s. It's great stuff, 14 songs, 11 of them written my Messina. The covers are: an uptempo version of the Breeze and I, and surf-guitar-led versions of fifties instro hits Honky Tonk and Raunchy. Messina's guitar work is truly exceptional, sounding like DD's flashier doppleganger, with a lot of nimble fingerwork full of fast hammer-ons and pull-offs, and not as much double-picking as you may expect. (I only recently started noticing how Dick-Dale-ish Messina's playing was. Listen to "The Thing" - it's a total rip-off of DD's "Surfing Drums" - which of course was a Bo Diddley rip-off itself! - and the licks he's playing are completely DD. Messina also uses the pickup position #4 (neck and middle pickups) a LOT, which is also something that DD pioneered in surf music.)
I HIGHLY recommend this CD. The highlights for me are "The Jester", which is as good as any surf song I think, "The Cossack", "High Voltage" (an apt title!), and "Yang Bu". If there is one criticism I would have of the material is that it's a bit light on melody, instead relying on groove, energy and improvisation. But it works most of the time. There's a really nice jazz and even blues influence throughout, especially evident on "Suspense Run" and "Hollywood Sound" (both very jazzy in rhythm and featuring some tasty surf-blues guitar playing, with the latter obviously influenced by Mel Torme's "I'm Comin' Home Baby"). And as Messina mentioned in his interview, almost every song has a bunch of engine revving and tires skidding noises overdubbed. A lot of songs also have the noises of the band shouting along with the music, as if they're really into it. I suspect these were overdubbed later, along with the car-related noises.
So far, so good. But here's where it gets interesting. This album was rereleased in '73, when NOBODY had any interest in surf music! Why? Probably cause Messina was becoming a well-known name, and somebody wanted to capitalize on it. Did Messina have any involvement? Who knows? I have this LP, and the packaging looks like it was from the sixties, with nothing giving it away as a seventies record or a reissue. The liner notes all speak in the present tense, and the photos are all from '64, though at least the front cover is different than the original one. Big deal, you say. Well, OK, yes, if that's all it was, who cares. But then let's take a look at the track listing: only twelve songs this time ("Strange Man" and "Suspense Run" were omitted). Again, big deal. But wait! Here's where it gets interesting! Take a listen, side by side with the original tracks, and you come to the shocking conclusion that these are DIFFERENT versions of the tracks! The only song that appears to be the same version on both albums is "Hollywood Sound". The others vary from very subtle differences ("Chihiuahua", for example - that one required very careful listening to tell they're different) to completely different arrangements ("The Breeze and I"). And "Tamale Wagon" is a completely different song on the '73 album! Most of the other songs are different in more subtle ways, different tempos (with the original album tending to feature faster versions), different licks, chord progression going up at some point rather than down, different endings. And there are no shouting or racing noises. So what the hell is going on here? Nobody seems to know.
I've discussed this with John Blair a few years ago and he never noticed the different versions of the songs - he thought it was just a straight-forward reissue with a different cover, and two songs left out (and of course with all the noises left out). But for any of you that care and have both releases, compare them back to back. They're clearly different, sometimes very obviously so. John suggested that maybe Messina rerecorded the tracks in the seventies. I really doubt that. I suspect that Messina couldn't give a crap about surf music by '73, and anyway, the sound quality and the recording is very authentic: it SOUNDS like a cheap early- to mid-sixties recording, for better or worse. I can't imagine they would have struggled to get such an authentic sound in '73. They probably would have wanted to "improve" it! So, I'm pretty much 100% sure that's not it.
My conclusion is that whoever rereleased the album got a hold of a bunch of master tapes which were not marked very clearly. These master tapes probably spanned several months or more of recording dates, thus featuring evolving arrangements of the songs. And the tapes had a whole bunch of different takes of the same songs. Rather than going back to the earlier album and trying to recreate it perfectly, they probably just tried to listen for the best performances and released those only. This is my best explanation of what happened.
God, it would be really nice if somebody took the effort to find those master tapes, and release all of the different songs, plus their alternative '73 versions, in a cleaned-up sound, cause it doesn't really sound very good. It took a while but it happened for Eddie & the Showman, maybe one day it'll happen for the Jesters, too. They DEFINITELY deserve it! This is among the best of sixties surf music.
(BTW, looking at the front cover of the album, where I could see Messina's white Strat in a great deal of detail, you can see that Messina left off the volume and tone knobs on his Strat - again, just like DD!! Man, this kid had a BAD case of hero-worship! Good for us, though, he created some awesome music as a result.)