R.O.C.K. in the USA


The history of pop music goes marching by in 18-month segments, generations that last two years, epochs that barely fill half a decade of teenage time, in other words. So it is that this collection manages a double refraction of the past: the era of its contents and the era of its conception. The latter survives in its packaging. When Lenny Kaye put together the first version of the garage-band anthology Nuggets, in 1972, its most recent tracks were only four years old. After Woodstock, Altamont, Tommy, and sundry other ephemeral disasters, though, 1968 might as well have been the days of crinolines and mustache wax. In 1972, mediocrity ruled. That accounts for the plug-ugly jacket art—unforgivably quadruplicated here—leaden 1970s psychedelia in the Yellow Submarine greeting-card vein. Then there’s the subtitle. Anybody under 35 can be forgiven for wondering just when the second psychedelic era might have occurred.

Psychedelia, anyway, is only one detail among many in this typically overstuffed box set. Imagine it all on buff stock with Garamond type and footnotes and cross-references and you’ll get the idea. It’s an ethnographic collection, assembling basic documents for the study of creative expression among white adolescent and postadolescent males in the American suburbs during the key years 1963–68. That time and place saw one of those boomlets, like doowop, of mass simultaneous illumination, mushrooming cottage-industry production, and anybody-can-be-a-star inconsequentiality. Great records, re cords that will never die, were made by people who went right back to being busboys, and the era itself sank back into the sea like Atlantis.

The phenomenon escaped notice while it was happening because at the time many of these bands could pass for parasites feeding on the major British ruminants. The stuff was marginal chart litter without a manifest, a few lucky hits and a lot of also-rans. But while it’s true the set contains its share of quasi-Beatles and pseudo-Stones, as well as dozens of debtors to the Yardbirds, the whole package gives off an unexpectedly coherent sense of purpose, with an originality that is more collective than individual. Lotus eaters like the Thirteenth Floor Elevators and frat boys like the Swingin’ Medallions, who might then have spat at each other, turn out to have more in common than not.

Where did it all come from? Possibly the Pacific Northwest in the early ’60s, home of the Kingsmen and the Ventures. The former (whose “Louie Louie” is semiredundantly included) galvanized 10,000 bands who assumed they could play as well as that; the latter (not included) moved another 10,000 who aspired to their chops. By the time the Beatles ate the world, their biggest contribution to the scene was a redistribution of envy. In the mid ’60s combos and singing groups (as they were then called) decorated the premises at pool parties, store openings, local political rallies, Founder’s Day festivities, drive-in theaters, farmers’ markets, tree plantings, statue unveilings. Five guys with turtleneck dickies, bangs combed down so they took a turn at the eye brows, garrison belts, elastic-sided boots, Vox amps, Mosrite guitars, Farfisa organs, tambourines, practiced sneers. It was folk music, really. You can assume that every single band in America at the time covered “Hey, Joe” and “C.C. Rider” and “Gloria” and “Twist and Shout” and “House of the Rising Sun.” And then they wrote variations on those themes, and then covered each other’s variations.

Before the advent of the Sex Pistols you could always find the genre at record fairs filed under “Punk Rock,” and that was accurate in several senses. Every time I hear the voice of Sky Saxon, of the Seeds, for example, I feel like I’m 11 and about to get beat up, so closely do his adenoids resemble those of Johnny K. and Jimmy H. from down the block. Then, too, the original Nuggets (included here as the first of the four CDs) is the one indisputable founding document of the second punk era. Probably every band that played CBGB and Max’s between 1975 and 1978 covered at least one cut, and they all improvised on different tangents of the phenomenon. The Standells and the Chocolate Watch Band and the Leaves were the self-taught workingmen, and the Ramones and the Voidoids and the Heartbreakers their decadent wastrel offspring.

At 118 tracks, the set is like 10 pounds of Tootsie Rolls: to be consumed at a measured pace—although it probably won’t be, and stomach up set will result. You won’t like every number; nobody could. On the psychedelia front alone, there’s zit-cream metaphysics (the Electric Prunes, who went on to record every ex-Catholic’s transitional fave, their Mass in F Minor), brain-pan alley (the Elevators; as Tom Verlaine once remarked when announcing a cover of “Fire Engine”: “The guy was from Texas, so he thought ‘the empty place’ was ‘DMT place'”—that’s DMT the extra-strength hallucinogen), Napoleon XIV babble (Kim Fowley), Stan Freberg parody (the Magic Mushrooms), slick studio contrivance (the Strawberry Alarm Clock), slick contrivance with outsized guitar heroics (the Amboy Dukes), insufferable la-la twaddle (Fenwyck), and bobbing for meatballs (the Bees).

While the folkies in the college towns read newspapers and argued policy, these garage laborers were exercised about more basic subjects, such as hypocrisy, untruth, unfairness, unhipness. “I’m up to here in lies,” complains the Music Machine’s Sean Bonniwell. “I guess I’m down to size.” His social life’s a dud, his name is really mud, and all around him is nothing but talk talk—but he doesn’t whine about it, he snarls, and it wouldn’t really matter anyway if it weren’t for a great stop-and-go arrangement centering on the bass. So the lyrics are pretty much all inchoate flailing—big deal. It’s telling that “Shape of Things To Come,” by Max Frost and the Troopers, which was concocted for the teen-uprising epic Wild in the Streets, sounds no more artificial than anything else here. The words are not the content.

There’s also plenty of juvenile-delinquent posturing, effectively recalling the days when the chief approbatory adjectives were “tough,” “swift,” and “hoody.” You can hear the snarl on roughly one out of three cuts. The you’re-gonna-die laugh on the Syndicate of Sound’s “Little Girl,” for example, is more sociopathic than anything Jagger ever managed (numerous are the hapless females apostrophized as “Girl” in these songs). Those bangs prevented you from seeing their eyes; the members of the Music Machine each wore one black glove. Even so, it’s hard to escape the thought that few of these boys were quite as bad as they made out. There’s an undertone that suggests even the Blues Magoos had dogs named Spot and cats named Fluffy and accepted care packages from their Moms. To day, of course, they all have second mortgages of their own, all except for the few who genuinely had too much to dream and washed up on a beach in Baja. Only a handful had careers that extended beyond the period, and that includes two geniuses: Arthur Lee (one of two black musicians here; the other, John Echols, was also in Love) and Captain Beefheart (heard here on “Diddy Wah Diddy,” his first record, and already he does a creditable turn as Howlin’ Wolf at the Cabaret Voltaire).

But the geniuses seem slightly out of place. This is genuine corn-fed Americana, a parade of winking obscurities, like studio portraits found at the flea market. What happened to the Castaways, whose falsetto- and Farfisa-driven “Liar, Liar” is the eeriest number in the box, and whose photograph reveals them to have been classic chess-club geeks? What happened to the Hombres, whose “Let It All Hang Out” is some kind of red neck rap, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” crossed with the Statler Brothers’ “Counting Flowers on the Wall” (it was, in fact, reborn as Beck’s “Beercan”)? Or the Nightcrawlers, whose “Little Black Egg” is to psychedelia roughly what Paul Klee was to Surrealism? Or the Daily Flash, or the Mystery Trend, or the Zakary Thaks? Today, they might have their pimples magnified 500X on a billboard on the Sunset Strip for a week, or else they might not be able to get a record contract at all. Anyway, kiddies, these are your ancestors, who suffered through innumerable sock hops at American Legion halls so you can be the little Antichrists you are today.