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Book Review: Sonic Boom by Peter Blecha

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2009 has been a banner year for books about the Seattle music scene. First came Greg Prato’s exhaustive oral history of Grunge, Grunge Is Dead. And now long time Northwest archivist Peter Blecha has published Sonic Boom, the most in-depth study of the era that produced The Ventures, Kingsmen, and The Sonics, among countless others.

The first glorious era of Seattle Rock N' Roll runs from approximately 1957 to 1967. During those years an incredible number of events took place, which add up to one hell of a story.

The “Louie Louie” saga could be a book of it’s own. Blecha sorts out the various recordings of the song with admirable tenacity. One of the many amusing anecdotes related here is how the Kingsmen, whose version eventually won out over all the others, actually hated it and wanted to re-record the song. Their flinty manager turned them down, and the first take was released, mistakes and all.

There were some great instrumental bands in this time period as well. The Ventures, The Wailers, and The Viceroys all enjoyed strong local support, and even charted nationally. In this world, live music was experienced at the Rock N' Roll dances held in multiple ballrooms in the area.

One of the most legendary was the Spanish Castle, where a young Jimmy Hendrix would occasionally climb onstage. Before he had changed his name to Jimi, the young guitar slinger had to be educated somewhat on the rules of these gigs. No showboating.

Apparently he would solo throughout whatever song was being played, and wound up alienating the established bands. Hendrix recalled these days on his second album, 1967’s Axis Bold As Love, with the song “Spanish Castle Magic.” Ten years later as a psychedelic superstar he could afford to look back with rose colored glasses.

Ultimately it was psychedelia that ended this period, but not before one of the most outrageous bands of any era appeared, The Sonics. Songs like “The Witch,” “Psycho,” and “Strychnine” are just unbelievable, still. If you like the raw power of Iggy and The Stooges’ Funhouse, you have got to hear The Sonics.

Legendary AM disc jockey Pat O’Day held something of a monopoly during this time, which the nascent hippies rebelled against. The music of The Ventures and The Wailers was considered passe by ‘67, and the old dances were phased out, replaced by Seattle’s attempt at a Fillmore type scene with Eagles Auditorium in the downtown area.

And so began the steady and disheartening decline of local music, which went on for the next 20 years or so. Sure there were a few bright spots, Heart became huge in the 1970’s, and in 1983 Queensryche appeared out of nowhere to take over the metal world. But overall, it looked like Seattle would never again become the vibrant music town it once was.

Well, we all know how that turned out. Most of the members of the Grunge bands were not even born yet when the original scene died out. But through the magic of reissues and the like, were able to discover what made bands like The Sonics so amazing.

Blecha does not spend a whole lot of time on the Grunge days, which is fine. There has been so much discussion of that period, it really is not necessary here. His research into the early Rock N' Roll days of Seattle is riveting, and not just for a local like myself. The scene in the Northwest in those years was unique, and makes great reading for any music fan.

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