Three Chords, Fifty Years

Fifty years ago this week the Kingsmen, a band from Portland, Oregon, recorded “Louie Louie,” which should get a commemorative postage stamp if anyone mailed anything any more (actually, especially because they don’t). In many ways, that recording both launched and came to typify the genre of music roughly known as garage punk.  This genre was in full swing by 1966, faded from the scene by 1968, but refused to die.  Successive generations of bands since the mid-80s have been reviving, retooling, and regurgitating songs like “Louie Louie” and inventing scruffy originals in their image, like so many golden calves forged amidst much drinking and dancing.  These bands persist like Forever stamps in an era of Facebook and Twitter, affixed with a kiss to a tangible, noisy, and heartfelt musical past.

Like many other garage punk hit-makers,  the Kingsmen repurposed “Louie Louie,” in this case from a calypso song by Richard Berry, who recorded it in 1957 (as Richard Berry and the Pharaohs) and made virtually no money from it until the 1980s. Berry’s original is a great song, but almost unrecognizable today owing to what later bands did with it.  The Kingsmen’s version boiled the song down to its bare essentials, because that’s all the band had the money or skill to do; and even so, their recording was positively tame compared to what The Sonics, just up the road in Tacoma, did with it in 1965—not to mention Pittsburgh’s The Swamp Rats, whose 1967 version might have been chargeable with gross musical harm in a different decade or under a different rule of law. It’s no accident that the two other versions of “Louie Louie” (out of more than a thousand that have been recorded) that I own, by Paul Revere and the Raiders and by Little Bill with the Adventurers, are also from the Northwest, since (a) that’s where I’m from and (b) that’s where Berry’s original recording was a hit.  

Other classics soon joined “Louie Louie” in the garage-punk canon, both borrowed (“Hey Joe,” origins murky, but recorded by numerous bands starting in 1965; “Have Love, Will Travel,” also by Richard Berry, and garagified by the Sonics) and new (“Pushin’ to Hard” by the Seeds, “Psycho” by the Sonics, “I Can Only Give You Everything” by Them). Few genres have been as wedded to a canon—in large part, I think, because so many garage bands learned rock and roll in their practice rooms, on stage, and in recording studios, by seeing how far they could bend, twist, and shout the sweat out of the six or seven combinations of three chords that these pioneers pressed onto plastic. And since they didn’t know what they were doing, they chose really easy songs to cover.  They recorded their songs on the cheap as well: The Kingsmen’s recording of “Louie Louie” cost them all of $50.

There are some examples of garage punk from 1963, and a few more from 1964-65; but based on the songs I’ve come to know, 1966 was the year when it all came together.  I haven’t seen any theories about this, but my guess is that 1966 was so important because that was the year most of the major-label rock and roll icons stretched themselves farther than they had done before: LPs like “Revolver” and “Pet Sounds,” and singles like “Eight Miles High,” “Mellow Yellow,” “Paint It Black,” “I Am A Rock,” and “Substitute” were all game-changers for the bands that created them, and for hundreds of bands that formed that year. 1966 was the year the Beatles, Beach Boys, Byrds, and Stones took chances, and taking chances was what garage punk was all about—within the significant constraint of three chords, little money, and whatever substantial musical limitations they might have faced. But to focus on their shortcomings misses the point.  Forming a band in Portland or Pittsburgh, and pressing a single that only your friends might like, was the big chance they all took, and the world is a better place for it.

Similar styles of music also flourished in Britain (fewer cars meant fewer garages, so it was called “freakbeat” there): some of my favorites from that side of the Atlantic include The Sorrows, the Music Machine, and The Mickey Finn—whose 1965 ode to agnosticism, “Ain’t Necessarily So,” is equal parts Biblical criticism and cheeky rhyming dictionary. And, for that matter, garage punk flourished anywhere else in the world that ever heard (of) the blues, the Beatles, or Bob Dylan. The incredible bands Q65 and Cuby and the Blizzards both hailed from the Netherlands (where the scene was called Nederbeat), and made R&B sound the same way the Count Bishops and Motorhead would do a decade later. In Japan, The Mops will forever reign supreme in my book: their “I’m Just a Mops” is crazy-stupid, they covered both “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” on their first and only LP, and, on their song “San Francisco Nights,” they encouraged listeners to save their money to buy an airplane ticket to California.  And on and on: The La De Das (New Zealand), The Easybeats (Australia) and The Mascots (Sweden) also converged in the international garage in 1966.

Most garage punk bands in the sixties, though, were American.  Crucially, however, they were not just from New York and Los Angeles.  A garage rock road map might take you from Boston (the Remains), to New Jersey (The Myddle Class), through Cleveland (The Outsiders) and Chicago (The Cryan’ Shames and the Shadows of Knight) to Minneapolis (The Litter), to Portland (see above), then down the coast to northern California (The Beau Brummels and The Other Half from San Francisco; The Chocolate Watchband, and The Count Five from San Jose)—with a detour through New Mexico (The Chob) and Texas (Mouse and the Traps, Zakary Thaks).  Even the best Los Angeles band, The Seeds, formed after the legendary Sky Saxon found his way there from Utah.  And these are just some of the canon-worthy bands; each and every state in between featured dozens of garage bands, many of which recorded at least a single or two on a local label.  The one thing you wouldn’t find, very often at all, was a garage band with women in the line-up; this would wait until the 1980s, and even then, an old boy network remained the norm in that scene.

After 1966, most bands that stayed together beyond their first couple of singles did one of two things: they learned how to play their instruments and became a white blues band, or they took a lot of drugs and became a psychedelic band. Some of the first batch, mainly from Europe, produced some pretty amazing  representatives of that genre, including The Blues Project and Cuby and the Blizzard.  The psychedelic track yielded some sublime moments and some ridiculous ones, often on the same album: witness the UK band Tomorrow, or just about anything by the Blossom Toes.  Quite a few garage band alumni became famous, especially in Britain: Jimmy Page went from The Mickey Finn (where he played a supporting role to the brilliant Mickey Waller) to Led Zeppelin, via The Yardbirds; Ritchie Blackmore went from The Sessions to Deep Purple, Ted Nugent graduated from the Amboy Dukes, Van Morrison left Them to become Him, The Herd launched Peter Frampton, and The Move turned into ELO.  

Best of all, from my historian’s perspective, the sixties-era garage scene is one of the best and most lovingly documented music genres in existence.  Documentation began in earnest in 1972, when the rock critic Lenny Kaye (who later played guitar for the Patti Smith Group) teamed up with Elektra Records to issue a double LP he called Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era.  Thanks to Kaye’s liner notes and impeccable selection, Nuggets established the garage-punk canon, which within a decade would inspire new bands to start their own garage rock scenes.  Other compilations followed: Pebbles went through eleven volumes between 1978 and 2007, scrubbing the ground left unpicked by Nuggets, and the Moxie label out of LA issued ten volumes of Boulders between 1980 and 1984.  These were just the tip of the iceberg: nearly every local sixties garage scene has at least one compilation devoted to it.  The rush to unearth local garage-punk graveyards sometimes took an amusing turn, as when the Vancouver band One Way Street found themselves on a Louisiana compilation! (see video below for the full scoop).  Finally, with the dawning of the internet, garage punk found ample living quarters in the blogosphere. My favorites include Garage Hangover, Dan’s Garage, and Flower Bomb Songs.

Next post: The 80s’ garage punk revival

Video: One Way Street’s Amateur History Tour (“They were from Vancouver, not Louisiana as originally thought”).


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