In 1967, at age 12, I persuaded my parents to get me an electric guitar for Christmas. I was one of apparently hundreds of thousands of young American boys who wanted to get together with a few like-minded friends and start a band.
I took lessons, learned a few chords, and saved up money to buy a small amplifier. I was now equipped to thrash my way through a few basic rock songs like “Gloria” and “Hey Joe” with my drummer friend Paul. Later, I got together with my buddy Steve on bass, Andy on lead guitar, and Tim on drums (Paul had moved). We called ourselves Phoenix.
Like so many other rudimentary bands across the country, we would practice in basements (if our parents could tolerate the noise) or in garages (where we were out of earshot). We tried mightily to get proficient enough to play in front of friends at school variety shows or YMCA dances or “Battle of the Bands” parties.
It was thrilling, even though we weren’t very good.
Some of these rough-edged groups practicing in garages nationwide were lucky enough to have connections, or be discovered, and somehow managed to cut a record that, against all odds, got played on the local AM rock and roll station. An even smaller segment watched dumbfounded as their record received regional and then national airplay. Probably less than one tenth of 1% achieved the holy grail: Their record made it into the Billboard Top Ten pop charts!
Rock historians now look back at the transitional period from roughly 1965 through 1968 as the era of “garage rock” — although it wasn’t called that at the time.
As Wikipedia defines it, garage rock “often sounded amateurish, naive or intentionally raw… The lyrics and the delivery were frequently more aggressive than the polished acts of the time, often with nasal, growled or shouted vocals punctuated by shrieks and screams… Instrumentation was characterized by basic chord structures played on keyboards and electric guitars, often deliberately distorted through a fuzzbox.”
Keep in mind, rock music was only 10-12 years old, still finding its way, redefining itself after its initial birth (1955-1959) and subsequent pillaging/whitewashing by corporate record labels (1959-1963). Then the Beatles and other “British Invasion” bands arrived, re-interpreted American blues songs and artists, and gave American kids a schooling in the roots music they’d forgotten or never learned.
And suddenly, everybody wanted to be in a band. In the Pacific Northwest, in Texas, in the Midwest, in New Jersey, in southern California, groups huddled in garages and worked on covers of their favorite songs, or maybe they tried writing their own stuff. Most were hopeless, but some had something intangible that clicked.
Rock historian Gary Stewart summed it up this way: “Although most of these kids wanted to be The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Kinks, The Animals… few had anywhere near the talent to deliver the goods. But what they had was passion, informed by a heavy dose of unmitigated gall, and naivete, and attitude to spare.”
If I rattled off the names of some of these bands, you might recognize a few: The Barbarians, The Choir, Count Five, The Leaves, The Swinging’ Medallions, The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Syndicate of Sound, The Electric Prunes.
Or maybe a couple song titles will ring a bell: “Pushin’ Too Hard,” “96 Tears,” “Oh Yeah,” “Nobody But Me,” “Night Time,” “Little Bit o’ Soul,” “Farmer John,” “Beg, Borrow and Steal.”
Or possibly you won’t know the band, the title or even the song itself because it barely made a dent and was soon forgotten (“Let’s Talk About Girls” by The Chocolate Watchband).
But thanks to Lenny Kaye (who went on to become the guitarist in The Patti Smith Group), and Jac Holzman (founder of Elektra Records), an incredible collection of garage rock gems exists: “Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968,” first released in 1972, is a loving, 27-song compilation that provides an excellent overview of the period. Critics have praised it as one of the best retrospectives in rock history.
There were supposed to be additional volumes, but those never surfaced…until 1998, when “Nuggets” was re-released as a 4-CD package, expanding the song list to more than 100 tracks, which should be a real treasure trove to any devotee of roots rock.
As Kaye put it in the liner notes, “These records’ lasting impact comes not in spite of their creators’ limitations, but because of them. What defines the garage-rock era more than anything else is not knowing any better, and even more important, not caring. The new package consists of 118 tracks which, when combined, took less time to record and mix than one CD would now.”
Garage rock was attitude over aptitude — snotty and arrogant, fueled by fuzz and frustration, with usually stupid lyrics, but just enough skill to produce catchy riffs or choruses, and the desire to pull it off convincingly.
The records were innovative, especially in the way they were recorded: quickly, almost carelessly, with maybe one or two microphones, lots of echo, miscellaneous studio noise and, of course, all in one take, maybe two. There was diversity, too; some of these tracks showed R&B elements of Memphis and Motown, some offered three-part Beach-Boys harmonies, others presaged the acid rock of Hendrix and Cream.
In ’72, Kaye referred to this music as “punk,” first used by critics in 1965 to describe brash, petulant bands like ? and the Mysterians. But by 1976, the punk rock movement in London, New York and Los Angeles had hijacked that term for themselves, so instead, historians started using the terms “garage rock” and “garage bands” to describe the 1965-1968 period. And actually, ’70s punk rockers, ’80s New Wave artists and ’90s grunge bands have often mentioned ’60s garage rock music — specific songs and bands, and in general — as being deeply influential.
So here are 20 garage rock classics, hand-picked by Hack’s Back Pages, most of which appear on “Nuggets.” If they made the Top 40 charts, I’ve include their peak position in parentheses. If you came of age in the ’60s or ’70s, some of these are bound to stir a memory or two.
“Wild Thing,” The Troggs — Grungy and basic, this song is a shining example of the genre, and one of the only British contributions. One of only two or three to reach the top spot. (#1)
“Pushin’ Too Hard,” The Seeds — Led by the great Sky Saxon (born Richie Marsh), this L.A. band is a favorite of critics and fans of psychedelic-era music, thanks to a half-dozen regional singles (“Mr. Farmer,” “A Thousand Shadows”) and a couple of milestone albums.
“It’s Cold Outside,” The Choir — In December 1966 (when it was cold outside, appropriately), The Cleveland-based group enjoyed this one regional hit (#1 in the Midwest, bumping The Beatles out of the top spot, but only #68 nationally). Several band members went on to form the ’70s pop group The Raspberries.
“Lies,” The Knickerbockers — This is a spot-on Beatles middle-period knockoff with a brash edge to it, certainly rougher and more in-your-face than any Fab Four recording. You can hear both Lennon and McCartney mimicked by the group’s two singers. (#20)
“Dirty Water,” The Standells — A personal favorite (and one of my go-to karaoke choices), this infectious track about Boston actually comes from an L.A.-based band. It’s still played today during Red Sox games. (#11)
“You’re Gonna Miss Me,” The Thirteenth Floor Elevators — One of the first bands to emerge nationally from the musically rich Austin, Texas, area, this prototype psychedelic group caught on in Houston and Dallas in 1966 before winning coveted warm-up assignments at The Fillmore for California bands like Moby Grape and Quicksilver Messenger Service.
“The Little Black Egg,” The Nightcrawlers — Described by one critic as a “rather bizarre nursery rhyme,” this tune did well in Florida and the Midwest but stiffed nationally. Still, many garage bands added it to their required repertoire.
“Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?” The Barbarians — This California band got its lucky break appearing on the widely praised “The T.A.M.I. Show” concert film in Santa Monica in 1964 alongside The Rolling Stones and James Brown, largely on the strength of this single, even though it stalled at #55.
“Liar, Liar,” The Castaways — As you can see from the photo at left, these Minnesotans were still in high school (maybe middle school?) when they cut this irresistible track. They would never be heard from again. (#12)
“Psychotic Reaction,” Count Five — In a psychology class at San Jose City College in 1965, aspiring musician Sean Byrne decided “Psychotic Reaction” would be a great name for a song, and with the help of his friends in the fledgling band Count Five, he came up with the track that is widely considered the first acid rock single, modeled after early Yardbirds material. (#5)
“Little Girl,” Syndicate of Sound — Another band out of San Jose was this group who won a “Battle of the Bands” competition and won a recording contract, which resulted in this Top Ten single. They toured behind Paul Revere & The Raiders and The Young Rascals, but their moment in the sun faded quickly. (#8)
“Let’s Talk About Girls,” The Chocolate Watchband — This Bay Area group went through numerous personnel changes and were recruited by Fillmore promoter Bill Graham to hitch their wagon to The Grateful Dead’s rising fame, but they instead moved to L.A., where they recorded a couple albums and singles that went nowhere, although this psychedelic track was wildly popular in California in 1967.
“She’s About a Mover,” Sir Douglas Quintet — The Vox Continental organ riff that dominates this track took it into the national Top 20 for this Texas-based band, who deftly merged R&B, Tex-Mex and British blues styles. They relocated to San Francisco, released four LPs and a half-dozen singles, and stayed active on the club circuit throughout the ’70s. (#13)
“So What!!” The Lyrics — This angry, harmonica-led garage rocker from a San Diego band ranted about the school’s rich girl and all her trappings: Well, I guess there ain’t too much you haven’t got, well, all I can say to you about that is ‘So what??’…”
“Nobody But Me,” The Human Beinz — From Youngstown, Ohio, came this foursome who took an obscure Isley Brothers song from 1962, updated it for the garage-rock era, and had their only Top Ten hit. It holds the record for most repetitions of a word in there lyrics (“No” is said 31 times in succession). The track appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill: Vol 1” (2004) and Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” (2006). (#8)
“I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night,” The Electric Prunes — Ooh, drugs, man. This was the definitive Top 40 version of an LSD trip, complete with undulating guitar parts and cosmic lyrics. The best example of the psychedelic arm in the “Nuggets” collection, and a big seller as well. (#11)
“Little Bit o’ Soul,” The Music Explosion — Emerging from the small town of Mansfield, Ohio, this one-shot group exceeded their wildest expectations with their slurred vocals and cheesy Farfisa organ to flirt with the top of the charts in early 1967. (#2)
“Night Time,” The Strangeloves — A trio of New York-based songwriters who had written such hits as “My Boyfriend’s Back” in the early ’60s came up with the material and recorded anonymously as The Strangeloves, scoring a Top Ten hit in 1964 called ” I Want Candy.” They sent other musicians on tour in their place, and scored more hit singles like “Night Time” in 1965 before giving up the gig and becoming celebrated producers in the ’70s and ’80s. (#30)
“Oh Yeah,” The Shadows of Knight — The great Van Morrison, with his band Them, wrote and recorded the classic “Gloria,” but it was the more lightweight version by Chicago-based The Shadows of Knight that most American listeners bought, sending it to #10 (and to #1 in several major markets). Its follow-up, the riotous “Oh Yeah,” was far less successful but still loads of fun. (#39)
“96 Tears,” ? and the Mysterians — Speaking of Farfisa organ, this track is the undisputed king of that instrument on the charts. I’m not even sure there’s guitar on this track, the organ dominates so completely, along with the half-talked vocal by a guy who, even now, goes by the name Question Mark. “96 Tears” held the #1 spot in the US in October 1966.
If the definition of garage rock is expanded to include any band that ever rehearsed or recorded in a garage, that might include about 80% of all rock bands. It’s certainly valid to point out that, for musicians who form a band with dreams of becoming famous, making a start in someone’s garage has a proud and noble history — and a future, for that matter.
Dave Grohl, guitarist of The Foo Fighters and former drummer for Nirvana, encourages kids to think positive and pursue their dream, even if it starts in a garage.
“Young musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old drum set,” he says, “and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in, and they’ll suck, too. And then they’ll start playing, and start getting better, and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives, and then all of a sudden they’ll be on the radio. Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some shitty old instruments, and they got together and started playing some noisy-ass shit, and they became the biggest band in the world.”
Grohl adds, “There’s a band somewhere in a garage right now writing songs that will do the same thing “Nevermind” did for Nirvana 25 years ago. We don’t know who or where, but it will f–king happen again. All it takes is for that storm to break.”