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Sunday, February 27, 2005
Back in the 60's, when the Beatles and Stones ruled the airwaves, and Dylan was just going electric, a new genre of music began to sweep suburbia.
It wasn't recognized as a genre until several years after the fact; in fact, the practitioners of this genre had no idea that they were part of it, or part of any genre at all.
And yet, in some respects, this is the most vital genre of them all.
Tonight, we examine garage rock.
Garage Rock is a nebulous term; essentially it includes a wide range of individual styles. It was a largely American phenomenon; local bands, many centered in the midwest, Texas, and California, who played a raw form of three-chord rock, accompanied by growling vocals, perhaps an organ. Most of these musicians were very young; high school age through their early twenties. They were primitives; most untutored and self-taught musicians their playing was loud, sloppy, simple, and energetic. They based their music on the contemporary music of the day; some sounded like ersatz Beatles, others favored the menace of the Stones, Yardbirds-style raveups, or the grit of the Kinks. Later garage rockers incorporated folk-rock and psychedelic elements into their stompers. Some specialized in covering obscure album tracks by their heroes, others wrote originals in a similar vein.
While some of these bands managed to chart a hit or two, among them the Count Five, the Seeds, the Standells, and the Electric Prunes, most never succeeded in having more than a couple of local area hits (radio in those days was a much more local affair). Most never got to record albums, most had vanished well before 1970.
Indeed, they were quite forgotten until 1972, when rock critic (and future Patti Smith guitarist) Lenny Kaye helped to compile an album of 1960's garage band singles. The album became a hit; most listeners were being exposed to these bands for the first time. In an era of metal and prog-rock, the simplicity of these three-chord workouts was an inspiration to the next generation of punk rockers, just beginning to pick up guitars.
What makes them important today? Aside from the fact that these bands have left behind a treasure trove of good hard punky music, they also have come to represent the do-it-yourself aspect of rock music that has saved the form from its most bombastic excesses. Perhaps rock is a mere 3-chord music form, but the possiblities in those three chords still have not been exhausted. Garage bands represent the rocker in all of us, whether you play guitar or not, it is a reminder that anybody who really wants to can play rock n roll. The proliferation of garage bands in the 60's was, in some respect, an affirmation of the 60's rock ideal; music by the people for the people.
Tonight's playlist will be randomly selected from all titles in my library with a "Garage Rock" genre tag, a pool of 189 songs. First ten tracks selected by randomplay are profiled, Jam Tags, 1-5 stars, follow.
1. The Brogues: I Ain't No Miracle Worker *****
We start off with a classic of the genre; this tight rocker was also done by the Chocolate Watchband, but the Brogues' version is superior. This song is driven by a distorted fuzz guitar over a British Invasion style instrumentation, with organ that recalls the Animals' Alan Price. The tough-guy vocal is one Gary Grubb (aka Gary Duncan) who, along with drummer Greg Elmore would find success with Quicksilver Messenger Service. I couldn't find any pictures of their records, they're so rare. A band pic will have to do.
2. 13th Floor Elevators: Levitation ****
Ragged, clanging rocker from this cult band from Texas. Roky Erikson comes across as a demented Mick Jagger, and the guitars have a noisy freight train sound to them. Tommy Hall's electric jug burbling in the background is an eerie touch, and the jam bit at the end, while as sloppy and echo-filled as any from the era, coheres pretty well.
3. The Chocolate Watchband: It's All Over Now, Baby Blue ****
One of Bob Dylan's most covered songs (it also appears on Easter Everywhere by 13th Floor Elevators). The Chocolate Watchband shared a manager with The Standells; both groups have a similar sound, although the Watchband were a little punkier. Vocalist David Aguilar is another Jagger protoge; the guitars are psychedelic and melodic. Not top-shelf, but pretty good. The album from which it was taken is a weird one. Aguilar was fired midway through, and a number of the tracks are sung by his replacement Don Bennett. The band also was fired midway through; two separate bands of session players appear on the album.
4. Love: You Set The Scene ****
Love was an L.A. band led by Arthur Lee (one of the few African-Americans in rock then or now), although this song is written and sung by guitarist Bryan Maclean. From the excellent Forever Changes album, one of the best semi-forgotten albums of the 60's. While Love had the garage band aesthetic on their first few releases, by this point they were ambitious psychedelic artists. Maclean's voice is nothing special, but he sings this well, and the production is full of brassy horn charts, strings, strummed acoustic guitars, and tricky shifts in tempo and rhythm. The Arthur Lee material is much better, but this one will satisfy fans, who probably would want the whole album.
5. The Electric Prunes: Kyrie Eleison **
This is from Mass In F Minor, is sung in Latin, and has some acid rock guitar and a heavy psychedelic vibe. The entire album, a concept album of sorts, was written by classical conductor David Axelrod. The band was unable to keep up with the demanding arrangements, and was uncerimoniously fired, with studio musicians replacing them. This entire album was a misbegotten idea; the original Electric Prunes were a good, punky band. This is self-important, and kind of dumb. Part of this track appears in the film, Easy Rider. Fans of bizarro 60's experiments might want to investigate; definately not for everyone.
6. The Seeds: Can't Seem To Make You Mine ****
The Seeds, from L.A. were quite possibly among the most primitive of the garage bands to score a hit. Sky Saxon had the Jagger moves down, although he possessed a weedier, higher register voice. The band's style was essentially to play the same riff over and over again, over Saxon's yelps and growls. In some respects, they could be compared to the Troggs, albeit with a much, well, seedier image. These days, unlike their peers, the Seeds get very little respect, which is probably unfair. While this tune, the second (flop) single release from their debut is no work for the ages, it also has a sound all its own, and is certainly worth it for the garage band collector.
7. We The People: Mirror Of Your Mind ***
Very obscure garage band from Orlando, Florida. We The People barely remembered at all, and if at all, it is for the raga-rock "In The Past" which was covered by Chocolate Watchband. This one is unlike it; it has a Yardbirds influence to it; with raving guitars, pungeant harp, mid-60's British Invasion style arrangement, and yet another singer who vaguely recalls Mick Jagger. Good wailing guitar near the end, but very murky production is a problem here, and while the execution is pretty good, there's nothing particularly standout here. Band member Tommy Talton is the only one who went further, appearing in the early 70's band, Cowboy.
8. Paul Revere and the Raiders: Him Or Me (What's It Gonna Be?) ***
Paul Revere and the Raiders (so named because the founder really was named Paul Revere) straddled a fine line between garage rock and bubblegum, and this cut straddles that very same line. The band had paid its dues; the first version was formed in 1959, although they didn't score a hit until 1966. This is a harmonic little rocker, somewhat reminiscent of the Monkees or the Grass Roots, but with a tougher rock base. Their image (they dressed in Revolutionary War era costumes) is pretty silly in retrospect (and was at the time), and their time in the spotlight was short, although they did rack up a few garagey hits in the mid 60's, and made the charts as late as 1971 with the silly number one "Indian Reservation".
9. The Standells: Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White *****
Not exactly a garage band, since these guys (including Russ Tamblyn's brother) were all hustlers on the L.A. scene for a few years before the band formed, and they benefited from much better production than the bands from the heartland. Best known for the #11 hit "Dirty Water", the band never really scored again, although they produced a string of good singles. This one is the instantly recognizable three chords we all know and love, no less, no more, with an excellent snotty vocal from Dick Dodd (who had been a Mousketeer). No garage rock collection is complete without this cut.
10. The Other Half: Mr. Pharmacist *****
This is a pure example of what the genre is all about. Heavy psychedelic stomper with fuzzed up echoed, sustained guitars, a middle section that rushes like a drug reaction, wailing harp, tough guy vocal delivering encoded lyrics that were quickly decoded, leading to the song being banned from the radio. Guitarist randy Holden went on to form seminal acid rock/proto-metal Blue Cheer shortly after this album's release.