THE ASTRONAUTS

Baja

The Astronauts weren't from around here. They weren't from Houston, home of the space program's Mission Control Center either, or Cape Canaveral, Florida, where the rockets were launched. Nor could they be found in Roswell, New Mexico, where outer space creatures are spotted on a regular basis. This surf-and-drag band hailed from Boulder, Colorado, of all places! But regardless of any physical distance between the Rocky Mountains and NASA headquarters, it was the music they made that mattered...the Astronauts were hot. Besides, there was a perfectly logical reason for the name.

Bob Demmon had wanted to be in a band since he was a kid. He studied trumpet and piano and sang in a school choir. At one point his mother started a bank account for his college education...which he withdrew the same day and used to buy an electric guitar. With Boulder High School pal Jon "Stormy" Patterson, also a guitarist, he formed The Stormtroopers in the late '50s with another school chum, drummer Brad Leach. Two lead guitarists and a guy with a couple of sticks. I love the simplicity of it, but expansion was inevitable. Two more guitarists, Dick Sellars and Nebraska-born Rich Fifield, were added mid-1961, and Stormy took up bass. Leach got married (the classic career-killer), so he was replaced by the drum-obsessed Jim Gallagher. They were getting a little flak about the band's name (maybe the World Wars were still too fresh in people's minds in the early '60s) and decided it was time for a change.

At about the time the band was coming together in '59, NASA appointed its Mercury Seven, the original group of United States astronauts. Scott Carpenter of Boulder, Colorado was one of them, so the band had to accept that they would never be the most famous celebrities from their home town. Carpenter secured his claim to glory when he became the second American to orbit Earth in May 1962 (three months after John Glenn became the first). In awe and honor of their local hero, the group began calling themselves the Astronauts. The name made sense for a band from Boulder, at least in their own minds, regardless of whether the rest of the world made the connection.

Sellars joined the U.S. Navy in 1962 and guitarist Dennis Lindsey stepped in. Demmon, Patterson, Fifield, Gallagher and Lindsey were then set as the outfit that would make the majority of the band's recordings. They released a single, "Come on Baby," later in '62 on the New York-based Palladium label. Written by Stormy, it was a solid vocal rocker that didn't get much attention but led to a contract with RCA Victor after a scout for the label caught their act at Boulder club Tulagi "On the Hill" (or "The Tule" as it was known to nearby University of Colorado students). Their first single, released in the summer of 1963, was a tune written by Lee Hazlewood, "Baja" (pronounced Ba-ha is printed below the label's title for those unsure about how to say the name of the Mexican state due south of Imperial Beach), a soul-satisfyin' surf guitar masterwork if there ever was one. I've been told it was a number one hit in the Denver/Boulder area but didn't get played in too many other cities. Well, I know this much from growing up in Los Angeles: it was a smash there, top ten in July and August '63, all over the airwaves that summer and for quite some time afterward. On the national charts it made a one-week appearance in July and was gone, unfairly overlooked and/or underrated by programmers outside of Colorado and Southern Cal...and Japan, but I'll have more on that in a minute.

The Astronauts

Record buyers, ever more astute and music-oriented than the people who decide what gets played on the radio (I speak authoritatively on this, having been one myself and knowing literally hundreds of others), found the Astronauts despite lack of airplay. Debut album Surfin' With the Astronauts spent most of the latter half of '63 on the album charts and featured at least one curiosity, a track titled "Batman," predating the super hero's ascendance to TV superstardom (and Neal Hefti's landmark "Batman Theme") by some two and a half years. Three more longplays made respectable showings in 1964, one of them the title track of the third album, "Competition Coupe" ('...got more class than a Little Deuce Coupe!"), a vocal bit of hot rod braggadocio that made a near-chart "Bubbling Under" appearance in February. Astronauts Orbit Kampus was a "live" recording marking their territory at the Tulagi in the summer of 1964 and was the final Astronauts album to make the best-seller charts.

Exposure in several films kept the group rolling starting in early '64 with Surf Party starring Bobby Vinton and Jackie DeShannon, followed by Wild on the Beach the following year, then Wild Wild Winter and Out of Sight in '66. Appearances on a number of teen-targeted music shows including Hullabaloo and their own short-lived regional series, Count Down With the Astronauts, also kept them popping up in everyone's living rooms on a regular basis. With the success in Japan of The Ventures, RCA execs managed to book an opening spot for the Astronauts on a 1964 Ventures tour, and the band's music has been revered in the Land of the Rising Sun ever since. A total of nine albums came out between 1963 and '67; by that time a couple of lineup changes had been necessary even before Jim and Dennis were drafted. Remaining members Stormy and Rich called it quits in 1968 after a lone 45 under the name SunshineWard, then Fifield formed the short-lived rock band Hardwater. By the end of the decade it was all over. These days The Astronauts are firmly entrenched as one of the best surf bands of all time.

- Michael Jack Kirby





MORE COOL 45s

Surfin' with the Astronauts