It’s a riff that’s eternally recognizable the moment you hear it. On the shores of surf rock culture, the tubular timing and effortless cool of the lead guitar on “Mr. Moto” is the spark that set off the wave back in 1961. From the fingers of guitarist Paul Johnson, who at the time was just a 15-year-old kid jamming in his garage in Palos Verdes, this sound personified teenage life in Southern California which saw a major paradigm shift in the wake of surfing’s commercial popularity. And for most kids living at the bleeding edge of culture–rock and roll, thunderous hot rods and wild parties, Johnson’s band the Bel-Airs and his OC counterpart Dick Dale were the needle drop to the soundtrack of a generation.
Decades later it’d be rediscovered by OC punk band Agent Orange who’s cover of “Mr. Moto” in the ‘80s revived the song’s popularity and again in the ‘90s when Sublime used it as the intro to their song “Seed.” Today, up and coming surf-inspired bands like the Buttertones and Spendtime Palace carry shards Johnson’s legacy in their DNA whether they realize it or not, and on any night of the week you can still hear someone with a guitar in their hands at a local venue or open mic plucking the opening notes to Johnson’s immortal song.
There’s an endless debate over who created surf rock first between the genre’s two pioneer acts. Though he might not care about that as much as most of the people he influenced, Johnson’s answer emphasizes his sweet, yet straightforward nature.
“Dale gets the credit for having the first record to hit the charts but our song “Mr. Moto” was the earliest recording. So we both have a claim,” he says during a recent phone conversation. But it was Johnson’s guitar style of “weaving guitars” along with Bel-Air bandmate Eddy Bertrand that made his mark on the music.
“Learning the guitar became a duo experience versus a solo thing. We learned to play by playing together, one guy would play the chords, the other would play the lead,” Johnson says. “This sound would become the basis for the Bel-Airs.”
The surf rock legend is in good spirits considering he’s spent the majority of the last several months feeling wiped out. Since earlier this summer, Johnson’s been battling Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). For several months, the lifelong musician’s ongoing care has been the responsibility of a local hospital where he underwent the first round of chemotherapy. A short while ago, he was moved to a convalescent hospital where he’s been cared for while he tries to regain his energy level enough to prepare him for the ongoing rounds of chemo and the subsequent bone marrow transplant.
In an effort to help raise funds to take care of his cost of living while he undergoes surgery and recovery, artists in and around the surf rock community are banding together to help Johnson get back on his feet. This Sunday at The Gaslamp in Long Beach, a roster of legendary acts inspired by Johnson is gathering for a benefit show to raise money to complete the goal of $20,000 for the guitarist’s living expenses. Currently living with his daughter in a Fountain Valley apartment, Johnson needs the basic necessities to help him and his daughter Anne who’s also created a GoFundMe campaign for her father.
Every dollar raised at the Gaslamp benefit show, including a raffle of rare surf culture memorabilia, which was donated by the bands, is going to Johnson. The show’s lineup, headlined by Slacktone, also includes Insect Surfers, George Tomsco of the Fireballs, Teisco Del Rey, Tiki Creeps, Hot Rod Trio, Par Avion, Mike Vernon and M Squad, along with appearances from David Marks of The Beach Boys, Elliot Easton of The Cars, and Davie Allan of The Arrows. Also on hand are original members of The Belairs, Chantays, Tornadoes and more.
Those who know Johnson as a legend in the surf community appreciate his undying effort to support the scene and are willing to happy to return the favor.
“Paul has been a strong supporter of the music all these years, he’s one of the very few musicians who were important in the early 60s who still goes to shows and supports musicians,” says benefit organizer John Blair. “His music has been extremely influential to so many people, guitar players in particular.”
It’s definitely true for players like David Arnson of The Insect Surfers who grew up idolizing and borrowing from Johnson’s style with the Bel-Airs.
“He really pioneered a style that used two guitars that weaved together,” Arnson says. “With the Bel-Airs they would both play lead and rhythm against each other. That’s one thing my band has taken from his style is the interweaving guitars. We switch lead and rhythm every verse.”
After the Bel-Airs split in the early ‘60s, Bertrand formed Eddie & the Showmen in 1964, while guitarist Johnson continued playing with Cat Mother & the All Night Newsboys in 1970. In 1990, he became a member of the “Jim Fuller version” of the Surfaris since 1990.
Despite being a bonafide legend, Johnson could always be seen frequenting local shows with up and coming bands whom he considered the disciples of the original surf rock scene he’d helped create.
“It didn’t matter what the gig was, Paul would walk right up to the front of the stage and just watch for a while, he’d slink over to the left or the right a bit but he would check out the whole band,” says drummer Dusty Watson of Slacktone as well as a current member of the Sonics. “He wouldn’t make any compromises, right to the front of the stage.”
As he struggles to make a comeback to the stage, it’s the hope of bands like Slacktone, The Insect Surfers and others that the people who’ve enjoyed Johnson’s music for so long will be able to come out and support him when he needs them the most.
“He could really use the help right now, he’s been a musician his whole life and to honor him and honor all musicians who find themselves in a musician life that, we need them to be recognized and supported,” Watson says.
For full lineup and info on the Paul John Benefit show Sunday, Dec. 9 at The Gaslamp in Long Beach, click here.