The early sixties were the best and worst times for rock ‘n’ roll music. Teenagers had proven their power as record buyers, and music was moving in several new, exciting directions at once with Motown having its first taste of success, surf music making waves, and writer-producers like Leiber and Stoller reaching their peak. But where was that primal rock ‘n’ roll spirit? It had been tamed, co-opted; its exponents censured or pushed aside in favor of bland teenage idols.
Elvis came out of the Army a different man, ready for his Hollywood close-up and willing to churn out movie drivel like Cotton Candy Land; Chuck Berry spent a stint in jail for violating the Mann Act; Jerry Lee Lewis was shunned by record buyers for marrying his thirteen-year-old cousin; Little Richard had found religion and a depleted bank account singing gospel; and Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Eddie Cochran were now playing with the angels. The music hadn’t died; it was just turning corporate as big labels gained control of the market.
On the surface, things didn’t bode well. But while the world was shaking its ass to The Twist, other stirrings were going on across the Pacific Northwest, where bands like The Fabulous Wailers, The Sonics, and The Kingsmen were shaking some action. Of the three, The Wailers were the unsung fathers of the garage sound. This Tacoma, Washington band had been recording since 1959, when they had a national hit with the instrumental Tall Cool One. Through their singles, one can hear the transition from a sax-based fifties sound to the guitar and Vox organ rave-ups of the mid-sixties. Either way, they had the pulse of the teen audience, who demanded a good time in places such as the Parker Ballroom in Seattle and the Spanish Castle in Tacoma.
The term “garage rock” is a misnomer. The Wailers, for instance, were accomplished musicians who could play jazz-tinged instrumentals like Driftwood or turn on the heat for a hard-edged tune like Dirty Robber. This made an impact on budding musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, who understood that the aggression was a deliberate artistic choice. Bands like The Wailers and The Sonics owed allegiance to black R&B artists, and they shared a repertory of songs guaranteed to raise the roof, played loud and raw for an audience tired of the safe and familiar.
Louie Louie was one of those songs played by everyone. It was originally recorded by Richard Berry and The Pharaohs in 1957 as a tale of a Jamaican sailor missing his girl back home. The Wailers recorded the song in 1961 for their own label, Etiquette, giving main credit to singer Rockin’ Robin Roberts. The original featured doo-wop vocals that imitated a calypso beat, and The Wailers turned these notes into a staccato sax riff. The single became a sensation and a regional hit. Its shelf life was long gone by 1963, when two groups covered the song once again: The Kingsmen from Portland, Oregon, and Paul Revere and The Raiders from Boise, Idaho. The battle of the bands was won by The Kingsmen, whose tossed-up version became a national hit and opened the doors for like-minded freaks.
Though they followed The Wailers’ version closely, The Kingsmen added two new elements to the sound: the calypso riff was now played with a Pianet, and the vocals were unintelligible, so much so that they were investigated by the FBI, bent on pinning obscenity charges on them. The song was a clarion call for teenagers forming their own bands, showing that you could be as primitive as you wanted to be and wiggle your middle finger at polite society. It was punk rock before the term was coined.
A musical revolution was underway by the time The Beatles came to America. In 1964, The Sonics recorded The Witch for The Wailers’ Etiquette label, and bands like The Premieres (Farmer John) and The Trashmen (Surfin’ Bird) saw chart action. But the wonder year for garage rock was 1965, when ballroom heroes like The Seeds, Sam The Sham and The Pharaohs, and The Standells gained national prominence. Dick Clark made Paul Revere and The Raiders television regulars, their silly American Revolution uniforms a selling point. Despite their teen popularity, they stood loyal to their rowdy roots with hits like Hungry, Just Like Me, and Kicks.
UK groups like The Animals and The Dave Clark Five got better PR, but competition was friendly, with the general consensus that rock ‘n’ roll was alive and well. At record stores you could take your pick between Them’s Gloria or The Shadows of Knight’s cover, either way getting your money’s worth. The humblest of one-hit wonders could bring something new and exciting to the sound. Cross-pollination brought forth the use of fuzz-tone pedals, heard on songs like Talk Talk (The Music Machine) and Psychotic Reaction (Count Five). As haircuts grew longer, the music became trippier.
1966 was the last great year. There were riots on Sunset Strip, free-spirit girls in go-go boots, randy Russ Meyer flicks. Best of all, you could switch to any station and hear songs like Little Girl (Syndicate of Sound) and Hey Joe (The Leaves). But the public was fickle, and psychedelia became the thing in 1967. Suddenly, if your band had a snotty name like The Rats or The Barbarians, you were out like yesterday’s paper. Compounding the problem was the fact that small record labels were waning. Big labels and chin-stroking critics were partial to the new sounds coming from San Francisco. Some bands got lucky, like The Golliwogs, who saw a change in fortune when they threw away their uniforms and changed their name to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Others lost the brass ring, like The 13th Floor Elevators, who were poised for stardom when a series of drug busts forced their leader, Roky Erickson, to plead insanity to avoid a long jail sentence, ending up instead in a mental hospital.
By 1968 the spark had gone. Amps went unplugged as people finished college, joined the labor force, or got lost in the jungles of Vietnam. The music, however, refused to die.
We owe a great deal to Lenny Kaye for documenting and compiling this music on Nuggets (1972) at a time when it was ignored by mainstream critics. Far from a sentimental journey, the compilation went on to have a direct influence on punk, new wave, and alternative artists. We’ve now celebrated its 40th anniversary, a testament to the music’s endurance. In an age of samplers and drum machines, this stuff still sounds fresh because people back then didn’t put themselves in boxes. When young musicians use these ingredients, they still resonate, so don’t ever call it a revival—it’s just rock ‘n’ roll.28 January, 2013 - 08:56 — Angel Aguilar