Reverberations: Opening Up the Garage
Welcome to Reverberations, a weekly column on all things garage rock…
There was a time – between the British Invasion and the eventual manifestation of Television – when a bunch of guys who’d come up on the cutting power of surf noise and the Yardbirds’ filthy, oversexed blues took what they’d absorbed, mimicked and "borrowed," threw on a layer of fuzz and gave it a shot of pure, youthful speed.
It was the sound of Hell with the top popped, a melodic cacophony that alienated and allured, antagonized and flirted, and – depending on your age, state of mind and level of intoxication – was either the most awful thing you’d ever heard or one of those rapturous musical experiences that transformed your listening from there on out. What came to be known as "garage rock" was many things, but it was not, and is not, particularly easy to define.
The "garage" to which I refer was, or is essentially modeled after, music that was punk before that word had any real currency, and arrived early enough to miss the stylistic stigma left in the wake of the first-wave punk bands. It’s post Elvis rock ‘n’ roll in one of its more potent forms, less art than a sincere artifice and a more visceral, as opposed to calculated, expression. It sounds and looks grimy, because Rocking is a dirty business.
But why does garage rock deserve a weekly column? There’s simply too much out there – and too much on the way – for any one person to ever track down. To be a hungry fan/successful excavator of this music is to be part of a community, whether you like it or not. No matter how much time you spend trolling MySpace for new bands or digging through the seven inch singles section in an anti social fit, it’s never enough.
Every week, new records are released, old records are reissued, someone in London starts his fifth band or some 16-year-old in Somewhere, USA, hears some fuzzy riff that makes him want to steal a guitar. There’s a reason why you never hear someone designated "Garage Rock Expert": this music makes it very difficult for one to elevate oneself above the community, and that’s an awfully unique quality.
The history of garage is essentially a history of regional music, bands and hits that, by their connection to elusive sonic parameters, transcended their immediate environs. For every ? & the Mysterians, Count Five and Standells, there were innumerable worthwhile bands who never broke the Billboard 100: the Sonics, the Fabulous Wailers and the Chocolate Watch Band, to name a few.
Then there are the stories of the more successful bands, like the Seeds and Houston’s own 13th Floor Elevators, who charted once and faded from the popular radar long before approximating the sorts of returns reaped by Chesterfield Kings, Black Lips and Mooney Suzuki. The sound is not regional (and wasn’t back then either, more or less), but the attitude is, and who’s to say that your local garage outfit in Cincinnati circa September 1966 was less vital than the Swingin’ Medallions? The elusive Hit almost always means something, but in the golden era of garage, it meant something entirely different, and that’s if it meant anything at all.
So who/what gets coverage? Aside from pretty much anything that sounds like any of the aforementioned bands, here are the preliminary guidelines, subject to change every time I learn something new, or anytime I get tired of losing the same arguments in bars.
* Proto punk (or "post garage," as I like to think of it) happened between the glory days of garage and the dawn of capital p Punk and includes bands like the Stooges, MC5 and, to some extent, Buzzcocks.
* Exceptions are almost always dangerous, but sometimes necessary. For instance, the Aliens’ "Astronomy For Dogs" was delivered with a huge shot of garage panache, not to mention its being a panoramic psychedelic journey. In my mind, it’s the sound of the Beta Band doing their version of garage rock, so it would fit here.
* The filthy blues of outfits like Soledad Brothers, Soledad bro Johnny Walker’s Cut in the Hill Gang and Immortal Lee County Killers, which often runs into a territory not unlike unhinged proto punk.
* Required listening: the Nuggets box sets; Little Steven’s Underground Garage and Wicked Cool Records; Dirty Water Records; KTRU’s “Mutant Hardcore Flower Hour”
And there’s always Billy Childish and the Musicians of the British Empire. – Chris Henderson
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