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The Dragons: Diggin' in the Sand 

Ninja Tune records uncovers a psychedelic-pop album with a curiously circuitous back story

Wednesday, Nov 14 2007
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“I was drumming and basically trying to get laid. I was 22,” Malibu lifer Dennis Dragon explains over the phone during an interview that begins with the veteran engineer and percussionist providing a surf report. “We’re having an offshore wind event in Santa Barbara and expecting very large swells in the northwest, about 10 feet or more,” he explains, ignoring momentarily the reason for the phone call: the arrival of BFI, the debut effort by his band of brothers, the Dragons.

But maybe that stands to reason. The record was completed nearly four decades ago.

And it’s no surprise Dragon wants to talk about the beach; he is, after all, a dude who worked with the Beach Boys and launched the riotous Surf Punks. On land, he’s worked on recording sessions with, among others, Neil Young, the Byrds and Carole King, but his own music has stayed close to the waves. “I think surf music is generated by people who hang out at the beach,” he says. “I mean, I’m in the ocean every day. That’s just how it is.”

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What’s recently come to the surface is something old and nearly forgotten. After meticulously assembling the psychedelic pop of BFI in 1969 with engineer Donn Landee and Dennis’ brothers Doug and Daryl — the latter known also as “The Captain” from Captain and Tenille — he watched as it struggled to find a home at any conventional industry address, before dying of hypoxia in the dustbin of history. But then DJ Food, a talented mixologist for the titanic electronic-music label Ninja Tune, discovered the BFI track “Food for My Soul” while crate digging for songs bearing his own name.

“The food connection did seem apt,” DJ Food, also known as Strictly Kev, recalled in an e-mail. “More than that, I loved it; it is a positive, uplifting song.”

While hammering out the licensing details, Dragon sent DJ Food the entire BFI, which was lucky to be alive. “We only pressed about 500 of those things,” Dennis explains, “and one of the tunes was on an obscure surf-movie soundtrack. And Kev found it. I’m just amazed at the way it came down. And the way some people refused to believe it was recorded at that time. It’s like a sound collage.”

True enough, considering that Dragon and Donn Landee, another star engineer, who went on to knob twiddle for the Doobie Brothers and Van Halen, attended sound crew together at Santa Monica High School and spent the majority of the Dragons’ after-hours recording process wanking on everything from audio oscillators and tape loops to echo chambers and Morse code to build their collage. It’s a sound that has become remix fodder for not just DJ Food but many other electronic-music badasses, including DJ Shadow, whose stunning Diminishing Returns compilation offers some of the ’60s’ and ’70s’ most mind-blowing lost classics.

“I’m not into techno, house, dance or any of that stuff,” Dennis says, revealing his age, “mostly because it’s computer generated and takes little to no talent to make it. But at least people like Kev are open to something different, and that’s a great thing. They didn’t grow up with this music, so it’s fresh to them. It was a superobscure record.”

The rediscovery and reappraisal come as a surprise to the other brothers Dragon as well, including Doug, who ?wrote and performed most of the deceptively simple keyboard-based compositions — before they were given the tweaker treatment by Donn and Dennis.

“Oh God, man. I’ve been over here on the island of Maui for about 33 years, so I’ve been a bit out of touch,” Doug says by phone from his home, 2,000 feet up the side of the Haleakala crater. “It’s just a fluke thing, man, a food thing. Back at the time, we were trying to introduce sound consciousness in very simple music. I wanted to delve into that world and establish the connection between basic chords, major and minor modes, and ethereal lyrics.”

For his part, Daryl is equally intrigued, although he takes pains to point out that the Dragons were by no means strangers in the Los Angeles scene. “The Dragons were originally an instrumental group,” the onetime Captain explains via phone, “until Doug wrote tunes that had lyrics and vocals. So I kind of got out. Even before Doug, the Dragons were known as BFI — or Blue Forces Intelligence. Then it became the Dragons, featuring three brothers, which is interesting because my father also had two brothers. So they were the Dragons too. It goes way back.”

That temporal placement puts these Dragons on a collision course with the Doors, a similarly keyboard-based band that started kicking around Venice with ethereally conscientious tunes about the same time. It’s a musical serendipity that is not lost on Daryl, who’s got theories to spare.

“My theory,” he continues, “is that the Beatles came in and, all of a sudden, the music tree went British. If they and a few other bands hadn’t come through, I think the Dragons would’ve had a much better shot. And I’ve been reading reviews of BFI and some of them talk about the Doors, and Doug told me something very interesting about that: Ray Manzarek used to come to our gigs. Of course, I used to play left-hand keyboard bass, and Ray, although I never knew it at the time, was totally there, watching. So, to this day, I honestly don’t know if he ripped us off.”

Really?

“I honestly don’t! Actually, Jim Morrison took my girlfriend away.”

Really?

“I came to her door once and this guy about six-three answered and, whoops, I just left. I was living with her and I just left.”

The story ends well, of course. Daryl finds Toni Tenille, Dennis finds work with pillars of pop, and Doug finds himself on the slope of a Hawaiian volcano after splitting Malibu following the Dragons’ implosion. DJ Food then finds the Dragons, and the circle is complete. It’s an L.A. story.

“We were all hanging out in Malibu,” Dennis recalls. “We were beach people. It was a different time. Less stress, less cars, less people, especially on PCH. It was trippy, now that I think about it. Malibu was much more rural at the time. And there wasn’t a whole lot going on.”

But the new millennium’s postmodern velocity has caught up with the Dragons, at the hands of crate-digging DJs and sound collagists. Whatever works, dude. Whatever works.

THE DRAGONS | BFI | Ninja Tune

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