Garage Rock is the real rock, the rock without pretense (but often with aspirations). It goes beyond a musical genre to qualify as a cultural phenomenon, one that not only gave countless bands their one-shots on flimsy little labels in every corner of the U.S., but also one just as fervent in Canada, England, Scandinavia, Europe, Japan, and just about anywhere a few kids could get together with guitars and amps.
As musical genre, it refers primarily to what was essentially the “indie” music of the sixties; local combos recording on primitive equipment for small, local labels. Some of these bands wound up with a national hit; others had giant local hits, when radio airplay was still regional. Most never struck gold at all, seemingly bottomless vaults are crammed with just the stuff that never even got released.
In essence, it was rock’s great populist movement, fed largely from 60′s suburbia, where a lot of very typical and not-so-typical teens picked up guitars and started picking out hits of the day, especially those by The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Yardbirds. In suburbia you have garages; where else would a kid go to make noise? From the early days of the British Invasion through the end of the psychedelic age, it was a rare block that didn’t have some band or another on it, however informally.
This glut of bands resulted in a glut of little labels, often run by local deejays or impresarios, who would buy recordings often made in the most rudimentary of studios, or pay for a little studio time themselves.
Which resulted in a glut of 45′s, far too many for the market to absorb, with most destined for cut-out bins and meltdown.
By the 1970′s, many of these little labels had gone bankrupt, either pinning their hopes on local talent that never panned out, or finding distribution, promotion, quality control, and other aspects of the industry too difficult or expensive to maintain. Some lucky ones were bought out by larger companies, but their mid-60′s one hit wonder 45′s were lost to the mists of history in the fast-changing rock/pop world of the day.
Radio also had undergone transformation with the advent of FM. Music stations began migrating to the wider-frequency FM for its superior sound (in the earliest days, FM radio was a nowhereland of freewheelin’ freakazoids, the golden age, claim those who were there). As AM lost its monopoly, and with it much of its audience, it also spelled the doom for regional radio. Consolidation in the radio industry left stations in very different markets with the same precise playlists; regional charts were no longer compiled.
Which spelled doom for the local kids in the garage. By 1970, the days of fluke local hits were over; the odds against the typical garage band became so stacked they didn’t have any kind of realistic chance anymore. Scouting changed too; it became more dependant on live concert reception; in the 1960′s many garage bands didn’t get to do many professional gigs. Consumers changed as well; with FM and stereo, the album became the chief unit of exchange between artist and audience. Prolific issuing of 45′s ceased.
The heroes of this story might have gone on unnoticed and forgotten, had it not been for rock critic and future Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye. Kaye compiled, and wrote liner notes for the seminal 1972 garage rock compilation (the first of its kind), Nuggets, which remains one of the essential rock records of all time. Kaye had grown up listening to a lot of garage rock, and recognized it for what it usually was: a smorgasbord of fuzz guitar, leering Jagger-types, Byrdsy folk-punk, aggressive rave-ups, raga rock, Kinks-style power chords, crashing, bashing drums, bizarro experimentation, hippie harmonies, Animals-flavored blues, embryonic acid rock, blatant Dylan rips, drug songs, getting-the-girl songs, sunshine and balloons songs, mystical mumbo-jumbo, acute paranoia, heartwarming bathos, giddy naivete, and wilful malice.
It’s the pure stuff of rock ‘n’ roll; the real stuff.
Nuggets was a revelation and a sensation when it was released, touching off a garage rock anthropology effort that rivals blues and jazz for its thoroughness. Thousands of lost 45′s have been unearthed, hunted down, released from the vaults, and traded on tapes. Countless “garage band” anthologies have been released, each containing artists more obscure than the last, from the farthest reaches of the globe. Rhino has issued an excellent series, also called Nuggets that extrapolates Kaye’s idea much further. Once the Nuggets compilations are exhausted, the larger Pebbles series awaits, which makes the most obscure nobodies on Nuggets seem famous in comparison.
Plenty of it is adolescent-sounding amateurishness; most of these musicians were in their teens or very early twenties. Some of it is spine-tingling; little 2 or 3 minute jolts of adrenaline centered on a bouncy distorted riff, or a singer’s leering drawl. Much of it is solid rock ‘n’ roll; some of it is inspired. Some hold their own right up next to their exalted influences; a handful are arguably the greatest rock ‘n’ roll ever made.
Even pretending to be inclusive is hopeless here. But it’ll offer a taste.
Some important/influential garage rock artists/songs include:
1. The Seeds: Pushin’ Too Hard
Arguably the most “successful” of all the garage bands, the Seeds, from Los Angeles, benefited from the right label, GNP/Crescendo and the right location and time, Sunset Strip 1966-1967. As a result, they were allowed to make five albums; few garage bands ever even got to make one. Calling them a true “garage band” is a misnomer anyway, although they’re usually tagged as one. Leader Sky Saxon had been hustling around town for a couple of years trying to make things happen; the Seeds were formed when he answered an ad placed by organist Daryl Hooper, guitarist Jan Savage, and drummer Rick Andridge in 1965. Within a year, they had their GNP contact and were sharing venues with the Byrds, Love, and the Doors. Musically, they were utter primitives, with Saxon snarling seedy, druggy lyrics over Hooper’s dementedly repetitive organ and Savage’s sometimes-three, sometimes-two chords and Andridge’s Neanderthal bashing. That’s what made them great; “Pushin’ Too Hard” was their biggest hit, peaking at #36; “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine”, also from their debut, just missed the top-40 at #41. The band fell apart in a druggy haze in 1968, but Saxon and Hooper attempted to release singles as the Seeds until 1972.
2. The Kingsmen: Louie Louie
If one is looking for a starting point for garage rock, The Kingsmen’s 1963 hit “Louie Louie” marks a useful milestone, although the earliest garage bands stretch back into the late 50′s. “Louie Louie” peaked at #2 in 1963, practically the only “rock” song outside of the Beach Boys to hit big in that chilly year before the Beatles’ arrival. From the unusually fertile garage band spawning grounds, the Pacific Northwest (Portland, specifically), the Kingsmen’s recording is about as amateurish as you can get, from a blown vocal entering a verse too soon to barely enunciated lyrics that were rumored to be dirty (they aren’t), all somehow made more noticeable by a notably muddy small-studio production job. Lead singer/guitarist Jack Ely taught the band the rhythm to the Richard Berry original (also not dirty) incorrectly, which resulted in the lurching party fest their version is. Quasi-garage band Paul Revere & The Raiders tried to steal their thunder by recording their own version for the Northeast market, but it is the Kingsmen’s version that endures. Ely was gone by the time the band had their only other hit, “Jolly Green Giant” in 1965; the band essentially ceased to exist in 1966.
3. The Standells: Try It
Despite the claims of their big 1966 national hit, “Dirty Water”, Boston was not home to the Standells, a group of Hollywood hustlers who managed a cameo in an episode of The Munsters early into their career. The singer, Dick Dodd was an ex-Mouseketeer, Larry Tamblyn, on organ, was brother of actor Russ. Meeting Ed Cobb, a former member of the Four Preps who became their manager (and manager of labelmates and rivals Chocolate Watchband), changed them into punks, which is why they’ve always qualified as “garage rock”. “Dirty Water” (written by Cobb, leaving his clean-cut past behind) had an attitude, a snarl, and a bold fuzz guitar lead, which pretty much describes all of their subsequent work; “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White” was their second biggest hit, a cowbell-and-guitar driven rocker that peaked at #43. “Try It”, from 1967 was their most notorious; a super fuzzydelicized endorsement of drugs and sex, it was banned from the airwaves. In 1968, Dodd left the always-unstable lineup and although versions of the band survived into 1970, it never recorded again.
4. ? And The Mysterians: 96 Tears
? and the Mysterians were a band of mostly displaced Tex-Mex members, who grew up near Saginaw, MI, and formed the band in 1962. ? (Rudy Martinez, whose name was legally changed to “?”) was a freaky frontman for his day; brash, given to ridiculous pronouncements, claiming to be from Mars, never without his wraparound sunglasses, snarly and surly. His band displayed some of their Tex-Mex roots, but picked up a rootsy rock sound as well, which they spiced up with a rinky dink Vox organ (often mistaken for a Farfisa). “96 Tears”, from 1966, is instantly recognizable for its swirlying hockey-rink organ and ?’s mean Mick Jagger styled vocals. It was originally released on local Pa-Go-Go records and did so well in the Detroit-Flint regional market, it was picked up by the much larger Cameo-Parkway label from Philadelphia; it made it all the way to #1, garage rock’s biggest triumph. The follow-up singles, “I Need Somebody” and “Can’t Get Enough Of You baby” failed to repeat this success, and after some lineup changes and label changes the band broke up in 1969. Following their rediscovery, the band has reunited numerous times over the years, even releasing a couple of records in the 90′s.
5. The Sonics: Strychnine
If one really wanted to trace the origins of grunge, one could go back a lot farther than the obvious late 70′s punk and metal influences. Grunge may well have begun in 1965 when the Tacoma, WA-based Sonics released the fuzzy and noisy Here Are The Sonics. They mixed raunchy fuzzed r&b elements with Kinksian power chords; they were set apart from other similar bands by inclusion of a saxophone and piano, which added to the joyous cacophony. Singer/pianist/organist Gerry Roslie was a shouter; guitarist Andy Parypa specialized in biting, distorted semi-surf-influenced leads. “Strychnine” is the best of many good cuts from them, notable in its endorsement of taking poison for kicks. Never able to break beyond their region, where they were heroes, they broke up in 1966 after 3 albums; versions of the Sonics have reformed several times since their rediscovery, releasing a few more albums along the way.
6. Syndicate Of Sound: Little Girl
Syndicate of Sound, from San Jose, CA, was something of a garage rock “supergroup”, including members of The Pharoahs and Lenny Lee and the Knightmen. “Little Girl”, from 1966, was the second single they commited to wax, the only one for Hush records. Gaining airplay in the San Francisco Bay area, the band was signed by Bell Records from New York, who re-released it along with an accompanying album. An intensive tour coupled with two good TV appearances, one on American Bandstand, turned “Little Girl” into a #8 national hit. Opening with a chiming guitar from Larry Ray (who was pushed out of the band before they recorded their album in New York), it settles into a galloping rhythm colored by folk/rock guitar with psychedelic flourishes and Don Baskin’s growling, suggestive vocal. Syndicate Of Sound’s lone 1966 album, which sold weakly, is a solidly eclectic collection leaning towards fuzzed up r&b and psychedelicized folk rock. Versions of the band continued to release singles through 1970, but only “Rumors”, the follow-up to “Little Girl” charted, at #55.
7. We The People: In The Past
A reassemblage of members of Orlando, FL groups the Trademarks, the Offbeets, and the Nonchalants, We The People came up with one of the most shiny, glittery, precious raga-rock creations ever recorded, “In The Past”, from 1967. Boasting two good songwriters, Tommy Talton and Wayne Proctor, the band actually came up with a number of good singles, including “My Brother The Man”, “Mirror of Your Mind”, and “You Burn Me Up and Down”, all hard rockers. “In The Past” stands apart from the others with its baroque psychedelic guitars and nervous energy; it was also covered by The Chocolate Watchband in 1967. None of We The People’s singles charted nationally, although for awhile they seemed destined for national attention. Ultimately, Proctor, who wrote “In The Past”, left the group shortly after; Talton and the band soldiered on through 1968 but the project fizzled. Talton would ultimately turn up in the early 70′s Southern rock band, Cowboy.
8. Chocolate Watchband: Let’s Talk About Girls
In addition to The Standells, Ed Cobb also managed The Chocolate Watchband, another L.A. outfit with a mean streak who recorded for AVI Records. Chocolate Watchband’s “Let’s Talk About Girls” almost represents the road not taken by American rock; it’s an Americanized British-influenced hard r&b with an aggressive edge; the band dressed in Mod clothes. Clearly influenced by the Stones, The Pretty Things, and the Who (the last two were still “cult” bands in the U.S. at the time), their 1967 debut album No Way Out is particularly mean and sneering rock ‘n’ roll; “Let’s Talk About Girls” is an almost seamless mix of Pretty Things raunch&blues and Who guitar crunch. The band quickly fell apart in the wake of this local hit (it didn’t chart nationally), amid massive drug use and blown sessions. They were ultimately all fired during the sessions for their second album, The Inner Mystique, which featured two completely different versions of the band on sides A & B. A new lineup was convened yet again for a third album in 1969, before the name was retired.
9. 13th Floor Elevators: You’re Gonna Miss Me
It’s impossible to say who invented psychedelic music. Some point to the Byrds, some say the Yardbirds, others champion the Beatles. But the band that invented psychedelic music as pure lysergic freak-out, with no redeeming social value whatsoever, was the lengendary Texas outfit 13th Floor Elevators. While the British bands used psychedelia to convey whimsy, and the West Coast bands explored modalities, 13th Floor Elevators played demented hard-rock stompers, all wigged-out bigtime on psychedelic fuzz and feedback, released with joyous abandon by frontman/wildman/visionary/acid casualty Roky Erickson, who yelped torturously above the din. However, being Texan musicians, their music had some earthy grit and muscle too, it wasn’t pure excess, although it was nothing if not reckless. “You’re Gonna Miss Me”, from 1966, has Erikson’s tortured growl and some classic harmonies as well as a simplistic 3-chord riff that breaks into a surf riff followed by a timultuous crescendo. The band began to frequent San Francisco during the early Haight Ashbury era and landed some prime gigs, but Erikson’s drug problems would result in a stay at the state mental institution and the band fell apart in 1968. Roky Erikson has existed on the fringes of rock ever since, as ultimate cult 60′s burn-out relic; Sky Saxon is his only competition.
10. The Trashmen: Surfin’ Bird
“Surfin Bird” is one of rock’s most ridiculous songs on a number of levels, not the least of which was the band was from Minneapolis, well over 2,000 miles from the California coast. The song was the brainchild of drummer Steve Wahrer who came up with the idea of superimposing two different songs by the Rivingtons on top of each other; “The Bird’s The Word” and “Pa Pa Ooh Mow Mow”, playing the drum as lead instrument, adding wacky vocals and sound effects, and putting it out as a single to catch the surf craze. The resulting single, “Surfin’ Bird” reached #4 nationally in 1964, and powered their Surfin’ Bird album, which is all surf music, to #48, an excellent seller for a garage band. Unfortunately for them, “Surfin’ Bird” also got them typecast as a novelty act, and their subsequent singles received little attention. By 1967, they gave up. The Ramones did an inspired version of Surfin’ Bird on their 1977 album, Rocket To Russia.
11. The Count Five: Psychotic Reaction
Another band from fertile San Jose, CA, the Count Five were formed in 1965 by high school friends John “Mouse” Michalski and Roy Chaney. Both had specialized in surf music in their teens; with the Count Five, they attempted to meld a British Invasion sound to their surfer roots. It really only clicked big on one record, “Psychotic Reaction” which opens with one of the all time classic fuzz riffs, and features clanging, jangly guitars throughout; the song was written singer/guitarist Sean Byrne (born in Ireland), who supplies the bluesy vocal. Most memorable is the juggernaut of a crescendo of dueling guitars and percussion that erupts in the middle, which recalls the intensity of the Yardbirds. The song was turned down by several labels before Los Angeles-based Double Shot Records took a shot with it in 1966. The single peaked at #5 nationally; their hastily recorded album, containing nothing close to the single, managed #122. And that was it; the band never charted again, and eventually gave up in 1967 to finish college.
12. The Other Half: Mr. Pharmacist
The Other Half, from San Francisco, were a pile-driving hard rock garage band notable mostly for Randy Holden’s psychedelic power chords and feedback drenched leads. “Mr. Phamacist” is one of the punkiest garage rock classics, featuring a mean stomp and drug alluding lyrics. The band had some gigs during the dawn of the Haight Ashbury era, and recorded a good acid-rock album in 1968, The Other Half, but ultimately disbanded. Randy Holden would go on to greater heights of success with his next band, the acid-rock proto-metal legends Blue Cheer. Their album and single sold little outside of San Francisco, but the band received some late recognition in the early 80′s when The Fall recorded a cover version of “Mr. Pharmacist”.
13. The Brogues: I Ain’t No Miracle Worker
The Brogues are perhaps the most minor group of all time to merit a rock footnote on the basis of their records. A long-haired r&b quartet from Merced, CA, they formed in 1964 and quickly gained a devoted local following at their gigs; their first single, “Someday”, written by guitarist Eddie Rodrigues, was released on the tiny Twilight label; the single was good enough to be picked up by the larger California indie label Challenge, where it became a 1965 hit in Fresno, Bakersfield, and Stockton. The Brogues added a new member before recording their next single, “I Ain’t No Miracle Worker”, one Gary Grubb (aka Gary Cole, aka Gary Duncan), whose hipster/punk attitude and vaguely Eric Burdon-esque vocals gave the band a focal point. The song, plucked almost randomly from a slush pile of demos, is a mainline garage-punk classic, with an icily-biting distorted lead guitar, moderate-heavy organ, and Grubb’s roaring tension-and-release vocal. The Chocolate Watchband covered it later on The Inner Mystique in 1967 and gave it a similarly harrowing treatment. The single went nowhere, but the band continued to accumulate fans; unfortunately, things came to an abrupt end when Rodrigues and organist/bassist Rick Campbell were drafted into the army only 9 months after the band was launched; they never got to record an album. Grubb changed his name (back?) to Gary Duncan and along with Brogues’ drummer Greg Ellmore, went on to form Quicksilver Messenger Service.
14. The Music Machine: Talk Talk
The Music Machine was a Los Angeles psychedelic-punk band that specialized in minor-key guitar and Farfisa organ. “Talk Talk” is 1:56 of Rolling Stones style r&b swagger, with menacing lead singer Sean Bonniwell supplying a pissed-off litany of complaints and a swirling, edgy, bad-buzz psychedlia in the playing. The single peaked at #15 in 1967, and the album attained a respectable #76, but the band imploded. By the time they recorded their second album in 1968, Bonniwell’s Music Machine, only Sean Bonniwell remained from the debut. The second album displayed none of the inspired dark psychedelia, reminiscent of Love, that their first one did. Bonniwell, a talented musician, managed to release a single solo album in 1969, Close, credited to T.S. Bonniwell.
15. Barry & The Remains: Don’t Look Back
Barry & the Remains, from Boston, copped the gig of a garage band’s dreams when they opened for the Beatles during their final American tour in 1966. The band was signed to Epic, a major label, and had a professional sounding soul, r&b, and British Invasion flavored single with a gospel-blues break in the middle in “Don’t Look Back”; their sound was guitar-based but fleshed out with electric keyboards, Barry Tashian had a Jaggeresque style but wasn’t a clone, the overall effect was like a cross between The Zombies and The Yardbirds. Despite having one of the most confident and cleanest sounding garage rock records, the band inexplicably failed to chart, despite four singles of similar, professional quality and a fine 1966 album. Frustrated by their lack of success, the band split at the end of 1966. Drummer N.D. Smart would later work with Gram Parsons; Barry Tashian has led a low-key career as a Nashville-based singer/guitarist.
16. The Barbarians: Hey Little Bird
The Barbarians, from Massachusetts, were known for having longer hair than anyone in 1964 and having an in-your-face punky image; their best known singles, “Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl” and “What The New Breed Say” are championed by some aficianados as the very first punk singles ever; delivered with contempt over aggressive, simplistic fuzz guitar. They are also remembered for their drummer Moulty (left, on the album jacket), who had a hook for a hand. Moulty reflected on his lost hand in one of the oddest records in garagedom, “Moulty”, which features a soliloquy from Moulty on the ins and outs of life with one hand, while the band plays a classic garage band chorus before breaking into an uplifting, purely joyous chorus of “Dont Turn Away!”; on that recording the Barbarians are absent, replaced by The Hawks (later The Band). All three are garage band highlights, but the Barbarian’s toughest number may be their raw first single, “Hey Little Bird”, from 1964, which rocks like the Kinks, and features possibly the earliest fuzz guitar lead ever on record. The Barbarians broke up in 1966; two of them later turned up in the west-coast acid rock band, Black Pearl.
17. Fenwyck: Mindrocker
Fenwyck was largely the project of singer/guitarist Pat Robinson and a revolving cast of members. Robinson had gotten his start at the age of 15 backing Johnny Burnette; after spending a few years working on his own music, he landed a deal with Four Star Productions for whom he assembled Fenwyk. Musically Fenwyck’s best known song, “Mindrocker” is an airy Summer of Love piece of sunshine pop, sounding like the Association with a fuzz guitar. That might not sound like everyone’s cup of tea, but the song is winning in its studiocraft and naive optimism; its breezy melody and overall good vibe recalls the Mamas and Papas and Scott McKenzie as well. The single went nowhere, however, and Robinson moved on, forming Back Pocket, a country group, and finding success as a country songwriter and producer. “Mindrocker” isn’t exactly “garage rock”, since the studio played a large part in its sound. But it is usually included on garage rock anthologies, sharing with garage rock obscurity and as sense of time and place. It never charted.
18. The Leaves: Hey Joe
The Leaves, from Los Angeles, were one of the first L.A. folk/rock bands to form in the wake of the Byrds, and had a considerably edgier sound, closer to their spiritual cousins, Love. Like the Byrds and Love, they borrowed much from the British Invasion to flesh out their sound, the Beatles and Stones in particular. They also get credit for releasing the first rock version of “Hey Joe” in 1966, which the Byrds would cover almost simultaneously, and Jimi Hendrix would cover on his debut Are Your Experienced? the following year. “Hey Joe” in this incarnation is very different from the slower, bluesier Hendrix version; here, it’s all kinetic energy, with an abrasive and manic lead guitar and hollered punk vocals, with a psychedelic coda. It peaked nationally at #31; the Leaves’ debut album reached #127. A second album, All the Good That’s Happening, was released in 1967 but failed to find an audience; the band broke up shortly after.
19: Mouse And The Traps: A Public Execution
“A Public Execution” is either one of the baldest, most audacious Dylan rips in history, or one of the funniest satires ever. Ronnie Weiss’ nasal delivery and phrasing is a studiously accurate Dylan portrayal, and the song’s organ riffs and guitar licks are barely-disguised rewrites of the organ and guitar licks from “Like A Rolling Stone”. Formed in Tyler, TX in 1965, the non-charting “A Public Execution” remains their most well-known song, although they cut a number of solid non-Dylanesque garage rockers, including one under the name Positively 13 O’Clock. Notable for performing mainly originals and displaying a fairly good pop sense, they never did get to make a full album, although in 1982 an album was cobbled together from their singles and other odds and ends. The band broke up in 1969, still unknowns.
20. The Nightcrawlers: The Little Black Egg
Garage bands are usually flash-in-the-pans, coming up with a lucky single that thrusts them in the limelight for a couple of months before obscurity quickly returns. The Nightcrawlers’ experience with “Little Black Egg” was different; having one of the most peculiar chart histories of any garage band single, it was recorded and released in 1965 and took two years to break nationally, on its third issue, after spreading slowly from one regional market to the next. When it finally got its national exposure, it stalled, peaking at #85. The Nightcrawlers formed in Daytona Beach, FL in 1964 and were contemporaries with garage band favorites the Birdwatchers and We the People in Florida. Charlie Conlon was the band’s original leader and visionary; their sound was a folk-rock that was sweeter than the Leaves but tougher than the Beau Brummels. “The Little Black Egg” boasts strange, childlike lyrics about wanting to keep a little rotten egg that come across as either absurd or sociopathic, depending on how you listen. Conlon quit the group in 1966, before “The Little Black Egg” could complete its slow odyssey to the national chart. Versions of the Nightcrawlers existed through 1970, but never made an impact again.
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Feel free to nominate more (there are about 10,000 qualified candidates) for a future Part II.
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