You probably don’t know Brian Carman’s name today, if ever you did. But odds are good that you do know his most famous riff, that rapid-fire burst of sound that flew from Carman’s fingers and the strings of his guitar, turning the instrumental “Pipeline” into one of the most legendary hits of surf music and transforming the Chantays from five Santa Ana teenagers barely old enough to shave into the brightest stars of pop music for a brief period as 1963 arrived.
Carman, who was 69, died Sunday, said Bob Spickard, who co-wrote the “Pipeline” with Carman and continued to play with him in the Chantays off and on until a year or two ago.
“To me, he’s like my brother,” Spickard said on Tuesday, taking a break from the weekly jam session he plays in at the American Legion hall in Newport Beach. “It’s one of those situations where he had been in ill health for quite awhile. He battled with a lot, and basically his heart just gave out.”
Though his fame had faded quickly – the surf music scene was quickly overtaken by the British Invasion and the rise of other forms of rock ’n’ and roll – in that world, he and the Chantays and “Pipeline” always held a place of honor.
“We lost another good soul,” said Dick Dale, the 78-year-old surf guitar legend who already was famous for his fiery gigs at places such as Balboa Peninsula’s Rendezvous Ballroom and other venues around Orange County when the Chantays got together as students at Santa Ana High School in 1961.
“There were other surf instrumentals that were national hits between 1961 and 1964, of course,” said Domenic Priore, a writer and music historian, in a Facebook post on Carman’s passing. “But this and (the Surfaris’) 'Wipe Out' were good representatives of the wild side, and the tone side, of surf music.”
To Dean Torrence, of the rock duo Jan & Dan, "Pipeline" remains an icon of its time and place: “The Chantays were right in there with a pretty important record, and I think that’s pretty cool.”
Like many a band before them, the Chantays got together for the simplest of reasons, Spickard said.
“We were inspired by another local group called the Rhythm Rockers, who ended up backing up the Righteous Brothers” – who’d gone to Santa Ana High a few years earlier, he said. “We figured, ‘Hey, these guys were making money and getting all the girls, so maybe we ought to think about that.”
They’d met in the eighth grade when Carman moved from Lathrop to Willard middle school, Spickard said. By the time they started high school the two pals were hanging out after school, teaching each other how to play the guitar, and eventually recruiting three more friends – Bob Welch, Warren Waters and Rob Marshall – to form the Chantays.
Though some of them surfed, the Chantays thought of themselves as a rock ’n’and roll band more than a surf band at first. “Pipeline” started out as a song called “44 Magnum,” and after the guys saw the Jimmy Stewart Western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” they renamed it “Liberty’s Whip.”
“What evolved, Warren, our bass player and I went to a Bruce Brown (surfing) movie at Santa Ana High School, and they showed the Banzai Pipeline,” Spickard said. “And Warren and I looked at each other and said, ‘Hey, why don’t we call it ‘Pipeline’?”
They recorded it in the back of Wenzel’s Music Town in Downey, a record store with a small studio in the back. In the conversation that developed on Priore’s Facebook page on the thread about Carman, he and others reminisced about how owner Tom Wenzel kept the master tapes for recording sessions in the bathroom of the store, where you could enter on the pretext of needing to go and instead hold the holy relic of the “Pipeline” master in your hands for a minute or two.
After it broke out as a hit in early 1963, eventually reaching No. 4 on the Billboard charts in May, the Chantays found nationwide fame, earning them a spot on “The Lawrence Welk Show.” Spickard, who nervously introduces the band in a wonderfully innocent clip on YouTube, says he believes they were the only rock act ever booked by Welk, who sent them Christmas baskets for the next four or five years.
“That was quite a thing,” Spickard says of appearing on the Welk show. “I can remember some of the administrators at our high school were miffed at that because we had to take off a couple of days to go up and shoot that.”
At the time, none of them realized what a big deal “Pipeline” was or the legacy it would provide.
“We were young and naive and didn‘t realize what kind of an impact we were having,” Spickard says.
Dale, whose hits such as “Miserlou” helped define the surf guitar sound, is one of the many artists who have covered “Pipeline,” in his version playing with the late Stevie Ray Vaughan.
“We were going to do it with Eddie Van Halen,” says Dale, who spends most of his time on his ranch in the desert though he still has a boat docked in Newport Beach where he and his wife Lana spend a few days now and then. After Van Halen backed out – the song and their performances were to be featured in the 1987 movie “Back To The Beach” – Vaughan signed on instead, Dale says.
The timelessness of the song takes people back, Dale says of why “Pipeline” has endured: “People remember where they’ve been when they hear that song.”
Torrence, a longtime resident of Huntington Beach, with his partner the late Jan Berry, had already scored a handful of hits when “Pipeline” arrived. While he didn’t know Carman (though he is friends with Spickard) he appreciated the Chantays’ hit for the way it seemed to really capture the feel of surfing in the music.
“To me it had that kind of laid back quality that some of the other surf songs didn’t have,” Torrence said. “And it seemed to shift gears as it went along, which is kind of what the art of surfing would pretty well be. If you’re trying to structure a tune around the art of surfing, it’s just a guy on a surf board in the water, what the hell.
“It would be hard to do that, and this was one of the songs that really did capture surfing.”
Eventually, the arrival of the British Invasion in the form of the Beatles, and the huge changes in the pop landscape that floowed, caused the Chantays to fade, Spickard said. They all started families – Carman, who girls in school thoguht looked like Ricky Nelson, was the first to get married, the first to have a child, Spickard said – and with that came responsibilities and eventually day jobs.
Carman went to work for Rickenbacker, the longtime guitar and bass company based in Santa Ana, and later for Music Man, the company Leo Fender started after he sold his namesake firm. Still, the Chantays would play shows regularly over the years, with Carman, Spickard and drummer Welch the main original players in the group.
“The thing we enjoyed most was the camaraderie, the guys in the band,” Spickard said. “We played all over the country pretty much, and it’s memories now, but it’s good memories.
“My main philosophy right now is thinking about all the good times and the fact that nobody gets out alive.”