“You can’t have put out as many records as we have in the past twenty years,” says Ventures drummer Mel Taylor matter-of-factly, “and not have influenced a lot of people.”
By all accounts the Ventures are the most popular instrumental group of all time, and some of their numerous records include the hits “Walk—Don’t Run,” “Perfidia,” “Diamond Head,” “Lullaby Of The Leaves,” and “Hawaii Five-0.”
The band celebrated their twentieth anniversary in 1980 by playing their first American date in ten years, with the lineup they’ve utilized for most of their two decades intact—Bob Bogle on bass, Nokie Edwards on lead guitar, Don Wilson on rhythm, and Mel Taylor on drums.
Taylor, now 42, was born in New York City and was drumming by the time he reached high school. But guitar was Mel’s first instrument, and he actually got his first professional work as a musician on a Tennessee radio show, singing and strumming country tunes.
Moving to California in the late ’50s, Taylor stayed with country music, but was now back on drums, playing a short stint with Little Jimmy Dickens before landing a steady job as the house drummer at the famous Palomino Club. It was there that he met Don Wilson and Bob Bogle of the Ventures, who at the time had the number two record in the nation with “Walk—Don’t Run.”
Howie Johnson, who was the Ventures’ drummer on their first three albums, had to leave the group when he was injured in an auto accident, so six months after their impromptu jam session at the Palomino, the band enlisted the backbeat of Mel Taylor.
Over the years, the Ventures racked up an unprecedented number of LP’s, sometimes recording four or five in a year, and were able to stand the test of time, no matter what the prevailing pop music trend. But in 1970 they ceased to tour America, concentrating instead on Europe and Asia, most notably Japan where they remain that country’s hottest act.
In the early ’70s Taylor took a leave of absence from the group to concentrate on the business end of things. By this time he had also recorded three albums as Mel Taylor & the Dynamics. He returned to active duty as a full-time Venture in 1978.
In 1980, L.A. disc-jockey Rodney Bingenheimer persuaded the Ventures to play an L.A. punk club, the now-defunct Starwood. Bingenheimer had been playing some of the Ventures’ classics on his new wave radio show to enthusiastic response.
One would expect that after twenty years, any band would be a bit over-the hill, but in their recent U.S. concert appearances the Ventures have shown that they and their music are as vital as ever, maybe even a little more so. Their nonstop hour-and-a-half set is like an onstage, in person History Of Instrumental Rock, with most of the standards being either original hits or reinterpretations from the Ventures’ vast catalog. “Apache,” “Driving Guitars,” “Walk—Don’t Run “64,” “Slaughter on 10th Avenue,” “Out Of Limits, ” and on and on until the final encore, “Caravan, ” where the guitars take a backseat and Mel Taylor gets to shine. Playing on the kit, around the kit, and away from the kit, Taylor ends the tour de force with his trademark “bass solo”—beating out syncopated rolls on an electric bass, held and fingered by Bob Bogle.
But even more impressive than the quartet’s string of hits or their playing abilities is how contemporary they sound. “We’re trying to show that we’re not a nostalgia band,” stresses Taylor. “We are current, with the stuff we’ve been doing, even though it’s twenty years old. Because it’s timeless. And some of the kids who are getting off on it weren’t even born when ‘Walk—Don’t Run’ was first a hit, so they’re not being nostalgic; they’re not reminiscing. Reminiscing about what?
“We played the 930 Club, a new wave place in Washington, D.C., and they had television cameras there, interviewing some of the kids outside the club. And they talked to this one guy who had to be no older than fifteen years old. He said, ‘I’ll tell you what I like about them: They’re straight rock and roll, and there ain’t no bullshit about ’em.’ And that’s about where it’s at. We don’t pretend to be what we’re not.”
DF: Have you heard any of the new instrumental groups, like the Raybeats and Jon & the Nightriders?
MT: Yeah, I have; in fact, I have some of their records. I think for the most part they’re in the pocket. Some of them are really authentic—not the real echoey stuff, but the things with a little bit of reverb on it. That, to me, is where it’s at. They’re trying to get into the roots, you know, which is hard to do. Either you’ve done it or you’re trying to do it.
DF: What about the new wave and punk bands?
MT: I caught the Ramones in Boulder. I kind of got off on some of the stuff they were doing. I liked the energy I saw coming off the stage. Of course, the new wave and punk thing is old already. They were doing that in England five years ago. I kind of liked some of it, because it seemed to be getting back to what rock and roll music is all about. Some of the records I’ve heard were just garbage, but there are other things that are real good. I liked the Specials. I showed up at a club they were playing in Japan in the summer of ’80. That was my first exposure to a new wave audience. They came right out of the woodwork, as soon as the band started playing. At first I thought it was kind of strange, but then I remembered what happened to. us in Santa Fe, New Mexico in the mid-’60s—same thing.
DF: When you made your American comeback at the Starwood in L.A., was it like that all over again?
MT: Absolutely. I didn’t know what was going to happen. The Plimsouls opened for us, and when I walked in I thought everyone was there to see them. I was just hoping we’d get half the reception that they got. When we got onstage, the place went crazy. It reminded me of playing in Japan in 1965—when we got to the airport there were 15,000 people waiting.
DF: When rock and roll first came in, in the mid-’50s, what was your reaction?
MT: My reaction to rock and roll was, “What is it?” Bill Haley, of course, was the first thing I really remember. I liked it; it was kind of uplifting to me.
DF: Before rock and roll were you into jazz?
MT: No, as a matter of fact I was into country music.
DF: The type of drumming you do now doesn’t seem even remotely related to what you hear most country drummers do.
MT: Well, the funny thing about it is, the guy that hired me and got me started in the California scene is the same guy we’re working for Saturday night, at the Palomino Club. I worked there as the house drummer, in ’61. That’s where I met the Ventures as a matter of fact. They just came in one night after a gig. They didn’t have their drummer with them, so they were asked to sit in. They said, “Well, we don’t have our drummer with us.” I said, “I know your hit” (laughs)—at that time it was just the one hit. So they came up and Don did two or three vocals and then they went into “Walk—Don’t Run.” And about six months later they called me, looking for a drummer.
DF: Who did you play with before the stint at the Palomino?
MT: I played with Tennessee Ernie Ford, which came quite by accident. I was working at a radio station in Bristol, Virginia, still playing guitar. One day I went into the studio and there was a bluegrass band there, the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys. And there was a snare drum and a bass drum set up, so I walked over, sat down, and started fooling around with this pair of brushes. So in walked the Clinch Mountain Boys, getting ready to go on the air, and they said, “Why don’t you stay there and play drums along with us?” And never before had there been a drummer with a bluegrass band. So I just went “boom-cha, boom-cha, boom-cha.” Next thing I knew the following band, a rockabilly group called Joe Franklin & the Mimosa Boys, asked me if I was looking for a job as a drummer. I said, “Sure, why not?” We did a lot of Little Richard and Fats Domino stuff. I did the Ed Sullivan Show with them in ’57 or ’58; that was my first TV show.
DF: Did you ever take lessons?
MT: No. I joined a drum and bugle corps in New York called the Fabian Mellodeers. I hadn’t had any lessons, but the conductor would put everybody around a table and teach us some of the rudiments. From there on out, I just sort of followed along and picked things up from other drummers. I based a lot of what I played on what I learned from Gene Krupa records.
DF: It does seem like you’re playing rock and roll with a little bit of a big band, swing approach.
MT: And country also.
DF: Where does that come in?
MT: The country element comes in from originally playing guitar as a country singer. That and the bluegrass and rockabilly is really where my approach, technique, or whatever you want to call it came from. It’s more than just rock and roll, or more than just swing, because rock and roll is really hard to define. I just do what I know how to do, and it’s a combination of all those things put together.
DF: How did the Ventures eventually ask you to join the group?
MT: They were looking for a drummer when they came to the Palomino and sat in. And people had come into the Palomino before and asked me to do sessions with them. Producers would ask me if I was interested in playing on demo sessions— knowing all the time they were going to make masters out of them. So I don’t know how many mediocre hits I’m on. I played on a lot of dates with Gary Paxton, a few with Kim Fowley. I know that’s my drums on “Monster Mash,” and I know I’m on “Alley Oop.” I also played on Herb Alpert’s original record of “The Lonely Bull.”
DF: As an instrumental group, the Ventures were able to bend just enough to fit in with whatever style was popular at the time. Was that difficult, or was it as easy as you made it look?
MT: The way we did that was, we would listen to the radio, and nobody would listen to the same station. Then we’d come back in a rehearsal before we’d make a record, each with different ideas from what we’d heard off these four radio stations. That’s how we got “Telstar.” But to answer your question, it was hard in some respects, but it wasn’t hard because we played so much together. Like these al bums we just did for Japan, they’ve really got some happening things—different accents—that we’d never done before. We did the album in two weeks, and that was pretty difficult for us. But as long as it was straight rock and roll, it was very easy for us to bend. We’d try to stay on top of the trend that was happening at the time and go a little bit beyond that.
DF: What was different for you as a drummer with surf music as opposed to the earlier Ventures sound of, say, “Walk—Don’t Run”?
MT: Well, when we recorded “Pipeline,” the drums were very subdued, way down, because that’s the way the surf sound was. It was more guitar; more rhythm. So I had to lay back and get that feel. I think it was more a feel type of thing than specific playing or technique.
DF: When you recorded the albums under your own name, did it still have sort of a Ventures sound?
MT: Where are you gonna go? You either do Herb Alpert or you do the Ventures, you know. What’s in between? I did Mel Taylor & the Dynamics album for Warner Bros., and we were looking for someplace to go between Herb Alpert and the Ventures. We couldn’t do Sandy Nelson, because there’s only one Sandy Nelson. It was hard.
DF: With all the changes and advances in drums in the past twenty years, do you find you can still get close to that early rock sound you helped start?
MT: Basically I can. I still play the same. I think the performing part of it is still the same. A lot of it has to do with what you do in the studio. For a while there they were trying to get a snare drum sound that was almost a tubby sound—which I did. I went for it and got it, but I didn’t like it. But it was the thing that was needed at that particular time. Like for disco, they wanted that real tubby, “splat” type of sound, rather than the high-pitched, tighter sound. I like the higher sound.
DF: How elaborate was the drum miking when you first began recording with the Ventures?
MT: We were recording on three-track. What I remember most about recording was when we did the Mashed Potatoe album, which was the first time I recorded anything where everything went direct except the drums. So I could play just as hard as I wanted to. It was at RCA Victor, and Al Schmitt was the engineer. They had, like, twenty-five mic’s on me; I couldn’t believe it. Up to then I had maybe five or six mic’s on the drums. I loved it. I could play just like I did onstage.
DF: Does the band usually record live in the studio?
MT: Yes. It depends on the material and how much time we’ve had to rehearse, but I like to do it as a unit.
DF: Do you ever read on sessions?
MT: I translate it into my own code. I can count bar lines, obviously, but I can’t read notes.
DF: Has your solo on “Caravan” changed much over the years?
MT: Yeah, but it’s still basically the same solo. I always play the same solo more or less, even if the song is different. In Japan we tried to do a different song for that part of the show—we did the Cozy Cole song, “Topsy, Part II”—but it didn’t go over as well; they still wanted to hear “Caravan.” But I still play some of the same licks I played on the early records. My solo depends on what reaction I get from the crowd. If I start getting a reaction right away, I’ll change and go to the next segment. If I don’t get a reaction I’ll work it for a certain amount of time and then go on because by then I know I’m not going to get any reaction.
DF: You guys play about a ninety minute set and usually come back for several encores, the finale usually being “Caravan.” How do you keep up the stamina night after night?
MT: I don’t know. I guess I get off doing it. You get to a certain point where the adrenalin’s pumping. It just keeps me going.
DF: When you play something like “Wipe Out,” you seem to be hitting it at full bore.
Are you still holding a little in reserve?
MT: Oh yeah. I could play harder. With the miking techniques the way they are now, you don’t have to kill yourself, but you do have to play. A lot of people think because they’re miked they don’t have to play, but there’s a certain sound you get when you lay into it, as opposed to just playing it. There’s no way you get the sound playing soft and amplifying it. You have to lay into it.
DF: What do you think about when you’re playing? What’s your main objective?
MT: My main objective is to turn the people on and get them going. I just lay into it and have a good time. I’m also always visible. I can’t stand drummers that are hidden. I think it’s a total waste of talent. As far as I’m concerned, that’s part of the act. It’d be just like putting a guitar player up there and not being able to see him. That’s one of the reasons I stick with 20″ bass drums, because then I don’t have to bring those tom-toms up in front of my face and slant them down. I don’t like to play slanted tom-toms. I’ve got to lay on it. A lot of drummers have their toms at a 45 ° angle, but you can’t lay into a tom-tom that way—at least I can’t.
DF: Do you slant the snare drum towards you or away from you?
MT: It’s slanted away from me a little bit. That’s because of the way I hold the stick, which is the traditional grip. I play openhanded almost, with the stick between the thumb and the meat of the hand, not the fingers. The guy who taught me when I was in the Fabian Melodeers told me that if I lost my fingers I could still play.
DF: Do you ever get tired of playing “Walk—Don’t Run” and “Perfidia” and ‘ “Caravan” night after night?
MT: Well, as long as the audience is there, I’m going to be there. It’s going to have the same feel for me as the first time I played those songs. I get off entertaining the people, and when they respond, it just keeps me going that much more.