Have guitar, will travel
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Compared to the “wild men” of rock ’n’ roll’s early years—Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent—Buddy Holly looked ordinary. With his horn-rimmed glasses and toothy grin, he looked like the classic nerd. But as it turned out, it worked to his advantage. For thousands of teenagers in America and later, Britain, here was a guy who was no different from them. What Holly could do, they figured that they could do as well.
Tellingly, Holly had a band with him—The Crickets—and the name itself is an indication of their influence on the Beatles. And when the Liverpool band hit American shores in 1964, they brought back the music that Americans seemed to have forgotten in the space of a few years since 1958; a fatal time for rock ’n’ roll, marked by Holly’s death, the fall from grace for Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley being drafted into the army.
Riding on the success of the Beatles, came other British bands: the Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, Manfred Mann, the Animals… These bands from across the ocean proved vital for the reemergence of raw rock ’n’ roll in America. Thousands of teenagers picked up guitars, learned a few chords and were ready to make noise.
Usually, these American groups get lumped under the “garage band” category, and they are the harbingers of the punk movement that would appear in the 1970s. These one-hit wonder garage bands cast a longer shadow than you would expect and even inspired the alt scene in the 1990s. In fact, their spirit still lives on in many of today’s bands.
One of the interesting aspects of the garage bands was the fact that it was largely a regional phenomenon. The popularity of bands often vanished as they crossed state lines. Regional popularity was not something unique to these bands. Even Elvis started out being a local star in some of the Southern states, especially Tennessee, his home. Unfortunately for these garage bands, they were unable to take the leap towards national—far less global—stardom.
What most of these garage bands lacked in sophistication and technical chops, they more than made up with their boundless enthusiasm and raw power. For most, the thrill of being a part of a band was inspiration enough. Not surprisingly, many groups modeled themselves on the Beatles—the Knickerbockers from Bergenfield, New Jersey had their only hit with Lies. It featured a flawless copy of a rasping John Lennon vocal and perfect backing harmonies. The teenagers from Twin Cities, Minnesota—The Castaways— had a national hit with Liar, Liar (Some may remember it being featured on the soundtrack of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels). There were also the stray Dylan copies, and Mouse & The Traps from the unlikely Tyler, Texas had a song called A Public Execution which was a rip-off of Dylan’s Positively 4th Street with organ lines copped from Like a Rolling Stone.
However, a greater influence on these bands was the Rolling Stones. Some like vocalist Dave Aguilar of Chocolate Watchband even copied Mick Jagger’s swagger and pouting lips. The Stones clones had a hard-edged sound that pointed towards punk. A common feature among these bands was their fascination with distortion and fuzz boxes. The fuzz tone became ubiquitous, not only in guitars, but organs as well, and the distinctive sound almost became shorthand for dubious activities, which spanned the gamut of heavy petting and rampant drug taking. Some highlights include Pushin’ Too Hard by The Seeds; Psychotic Reaction by Count Five and Oh Yeah by The Shadows of Knight, which featured a crude update of Bo Diddley’s I’m a Man riff.
However, by 1967, the spotlight had shifted away from punchy 3-minute rockers. The scene was ruled by “progressive” bands exploring the psychedelic experience via 10-minute solos and socially conscious lyrics inspired by the conflict in Vietnam. It would take the far-reaching Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968, a 2-LP compilation from 1972 which featured many of these forgotten bands, for the music to come storming back into the bedrooms of teenagers who were bored by the stifling rock scene. The music was hardly six or seven years old, but rock music was evolving at such speed that bands such as the Seeds and the Sonics seemed from a bygone age. Time is funny; the influence of the garage bands’ has only increased since then.
Hiss, Crackle and Pop is a weekly blog on American roots and pop music on vinyl.