Friday, 30 May 2014

Garage days revisited

The White Stripes fused blues and country music with something altogether louder, trashier and wilder to create their wonderful noise. Again, they were looking back in time.

Garage rock began to grow in the early 60s in North America, taking some influence from surf guitar bands and pioneering rock 'n' roller Link Wray, the daddy of the power chord. The sound of these early 'alternative' acts was very devil-may-care, amateurish and free. Shouted or screamed vocals, distorted guitars and loud, fast backbeats were the dominating characteristics, and it is little wonder why few of these bands ever crossed over into the mainstream. There were, however, one or two that did infiltrate the charts and the songs that did are regarded as classics today - the Kingmen's Louie Louie for instance has been covered more times than I care to mention. In fact, their version wasn't the original, but it's by far the most famous. Since then, everyone from Otis Redding and the Beach Boys to Motorhead and Black Flag have given it the once over.

Then there's the ridiculous Surfing Bird (much beloved of Peter Griffin), a massive hit for the Trashmen in 1963. It was effectively a mash-up of two similar songs by R&B band the Rivingtons, and has itself also been done to death by the likes of the Ramones, the Cramps and Silverchair.

But my favourite band of this early era is undoubtedly the Sonics. They were one of many that didn't have a chart hit, yet they became massively influential. Often cited as one of the biggest inspirations for punk and alternative rock, the Sonics released three albums before breaking up in 1968. Their debut, 'Here Are The Sonics!!!' from 1965 is an astonishing piece of work. Though many of the songs are covers of rock 'n' roll classics and contemporary hits, the way the Sonics approached them was unique at the time. Take Do You Love Me? for instance, originally a hit for the Contours in 1962 in the States, and a number one in the UK for the Tremelos the following year. The Sonics played it faster, harder and louder - the drums sound like machine gun fire in places, while singer Gerry Roslie screams like a banshee. No one played Do You Love Me? like the Sonics. What makes it even more remarkable is that the entire album was recorded to two track with just a single mic for the entire drumkit.

Their later records sounded more polished and produced - they described their third and final album 'Introducing The Sonics' as "the worst garbage" - but it is clear when listening to tracks like Maintaining My Cool that they continue to inspire new bands even today. If you're a fan of the Strypes, listen to this:

Us Brits got in on the act too, introducing audiences on this side of the Atlantic to this new uncouth, rabble-rousing sound.

Meanwhile, the godfather of punk, a certain Mr Iggy Pop was taking garage rock by the scruff of the neck and giving it a damn good beating, drawing blood and sweat by the pint as he did so. The Stooges, along with MC5, added an even heavier and increasingly raucous element to the proceedings, throwing outrageous live performances into the bargain as well. The term 'punk rock' was coined and garage rock made way for a music and fashion revolution, both in the States and the UK, with Iggy revered by both sets of audiences.

A garage rock revival during the 80s and 90s passed by without much notice outside of the underground, but what is evident is how the garage rock ethic continued to inspire bands to form and develop a sound. Even R.E.M. in their early days sounded not unlike the Sonics, as evidenced here (from one of the earliest known recordings of the band from 1980):

Once the White Stripes broke through in 2001, a plethora of up-and-coming garage bands seemed to follow, all boasting their own styles and attitudes, but all clearly influenced by those early movers and shakers in the 60s. The Von Bondies were mates of Jack White and supported the White Stripes on tour. Their debut album 'Lack Of Communication' was one of the best to come out of this new garage revival; the dynamic between the male and female members was the key to their sound. Their later two albums were better produced and more pop-oriented which is why, for me, the debut wins out every time. It's also a fave of Mrs Robster. They were a bloody good live act too.

l-r: The Von Bondies, The Kills, The Bellrays, The Hives and The Strypes
And so it continued: the Black Keys, the awesome Bellrays, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Detroit Cobras also burst from the US scene, but it extended globally. The Datsuns from New Zealand, the Hives from Sweden, and the London-based Anglo-American duo The Kills (the female half of whom would later form a band with a certain chap called White...) The Kills in particular would become a band who the wife and I continued to follow as they dabbled in different styles while remaining true to their DIY garage rock ethic.

We come full-circle. I mentioned at the top how one of those originators of garage rock, the Sonics, continue to inspire young bands of today like new Irish wonderkids (and I really do mean 'kids') the Strypes. Here's the proof, if any were needed, that rock 'n' roll will never die. It just comes around in cycles to thrill us all over again.

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