Bringing a Healthy Dose of Twang to Santiago

Though classified as such, Los Twang! Marvels aren’t strictly an instrumental surf-rock outfit. Listening to their music on record, or live—they played their last show in Chile in early March at Centro Arte Alameda before heading back to Germany—you get the feeling that this Latin four-piece occupy a space somewhere away from the water, further inland. Their style is defined perhaps by what you can negate from it: it’s not just the driving melodies and slippery riffs of The Surfaris (just try listening to “Wipe Out” without feeling that monster wave threatening to crash down on you) or the genre’s grandmaster, Dick Dale. It’s not the harmonies and stories of innocent delinquency, typical of bands like Jan and Dean or early Beach Boys.

Image courtesy of Twang! Marvels
Image courtesy of Twang! Marvels

Instrumental and non-instrumental surf-rock of the 50s and 60s ranged from the fearless, primal, and (almost) naked rebel to the button-downed, wholesome, engine-revved cats. Yet Los Twang! is found at neither extreme. They dress in what could be termed period costume, their guitars moan and growl—often in the same song—and what comes out of it all is the feeling that they’re more inclined to sit back and watch, cocky enough, all that bravado from a distance. Like Brando in The Wild Ones, their bluesy psychedelic-Hawaiian-surf sound makes you think of what being bad must have really been like 60 years ago.

The Friday evening at Arte Alameda was, you could say, a night for this sort of retro-rebellion. Not just with the music, but with the clothing and attitudes (not quite as impressive as a week earlier, when Los Twang!’s opening act at El Clan featured a satin-gloved, miniature burlesque review). Black Chuck Taylors and long, tight ponytails, form-fitting spandex Capri pants and wife-beaters. Dark shades. A swagger. Only thing missing: switchblades and Marlboro Reds (damn law).

Photo courtesy of lastfm.es
Photo courtesy of lastfm.es

It’s interesting to see how it’s all stuck around for half a century. Why are these U.S. 50s and early 60s still celebrated, not only here but worldwide? Why do the pin-ups and greasers still fill a niche in the cultural ecosystem of the modern underground? I hesitate here to use the word “cool”, as it’s a term that’s ultimately too general and multivariate to use in any satisfyingly descriptive way. However, there is something undoubtedly “cool” about these subgenres: a smart, sexy, vulnerable confidence, personified in their goddess Betty Page, that I don’t have enough room here to break down. As Potter Stewart said, you know it when you see it.

Los Twang! Marvels are not just cool, of course. And neither are they necessarily all that original. If the only compliment I gave them was that they could do cool, I’d have to say the same thing about a lot of bands I don’t really care for. What any band—any artist—worth its salt possesses when it takes liberally from styles it did not itself pioneer, is a genuine understanding of what’s being taken. This surely can only come from a deep and abiding love of the thing. When it’s not there, not only is cool erased from the equation, but so is any dramatic coherency (see the confusing pop-sexuality of Katy Perry or the emo-punk of Good Charlotte)—and if we’re going to talk about the type of music that Los Twang! Marvels plays, this has to be included in the discussion. Their album iconography—shiny guitars and motorcycles and tough, buxom women—and their musical style allow an insight into a culture so far removed from modern times that it can only exist as a living encyclopedia entry, concise and delivered in small venues for small groups of people.

Photo courtesy of lastfm.es
Photo courtesy of lastfm.es

On this Friday, guitarist Marisol Yolanda kept the rhythm condensed and tight during the hour and a half performance, swaying seductively, looking genuinely surprised at the audience’s appreciation. The Argentine Alex Anthony Faide, whose guitar work is some of the best I’ve seen live in a long time, kept the Twang going at an impressive clip. We danced. And while the music could be repetitive at times, it eventually took over the image, however choreographed it may have been.

The music itself is, therefore, not nostalgic but immediate, and obviously infused with a real affection for its origin. A Chilean-Argentine four-piece residing in Berlin playing 50s style surf rock? Yet I see no problem here. Some of Los Twang!’s songs come with Los Datsuns-style Latin 60s psychedelia, others move very slightly toward straight three-chord punk; and besides, as the second half of the twentieth century showed, you don’t necessarily need the background attributed to a genre to be good at it.

After Friday night I know that I, along with many others, hope Los Twang! Marvels will find their way back across the water and wander into Santiago for a couple more engagements. When they do, they’ll find an affectionate audience.

If you want to check out some of the Twang’s stuff in audio, head to http://www.twang-marvels.de/.

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