Haunted by The Sonics
60s garage rock is my preferred late night listening, offering a pleasurable chill deeper than that provided by the usual combination of challenged fidelity and ennobling obscurity that I find in other vintage recordings. It truly seems like something was haunting the garages of suburban America during the mid-60s, as if white teenagers, unable to pull off the perceived sexual menace of the black bluesmen they sought to emulate, instead turned to more accessible models, such as those found in B Movies and horror comics. As examples, there was the night stalking, vampiric image of groups like the Count Five and the Shadows of Knight, the Standells’ smirking shout-out to the Boston Strangler in “Dirty Water”, and David Aguilar growling like a ghoulish master of ceremonies over the hellish abyss of reverb and indecipherable backing vocals that was The Chocolate Watchband’s “Let’s Talk About Girls”. And then, of course, there was The Sonics’ “Psycho”, a proto-shock rocker that was also one of the most unaffectedly savage punk singles of its, or any, era.
I don’t know if it’s the cold climate, but club audiences in the Pacific Northwest seem to traditionally prefer their music hard and loud, perhaps all the better for working up a sweat. That was certainly the case during the early to mid 60s, when The Wailers, a hard driving outfit from Tacoma, ruled the scene. Boasting an aggressive five-piece sound and a repertoire of thunderous R&B rave-ups, the band, after a brief flirtation with the national charts, had settled into being a regional phenomenon by 1964, releasing records on their own Etiquette label. It was via Etiquette, and the A&R instincts of Wailers bassist Buck Ormsby, that kindred spirits and fellow Tacoma residents The Sonics would get their first break, signing with the label that same year.
The typical Sonics arrangement saw the guitars of Andy and Larry Parypa, the saxophone of Rob Lind, the drums of Bob Bennett, and the organ of Gerry Roslie all blasting away as a unified sonic front, with vocalist Roslie often punctuating the din with a bloodcurdling shriek that inhabits a territory somewhere between Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and a frightened werewolf. Adding further edge to this onslaught were Roslie’s macabre lyrical preoccupations, which, in “Strychnine”, had him hollering that “Some like water/Some like wine/But I like the taste of straight strychnine”. Suffice it to say that, of all the bands that have been referred to as being “punk before there was punk”, The Sonics were definitely among the most worthy of the title.
It’s easy to write off the Sonics’ primitivism as the usual combination of lack of proficiency and hormonal enthusiasm. But delving into their history and discography quickly reveals just how conscious it was. The band is known to have had something of a fetish for volume, removing studio insulation, abusing their amplifiers, and driving recording levels to unheard of peaks in order to get the rawest, loudest sound possible. Their 1966 cover of “Louie Louie”, certainly one of many from the era, is the only one I’ve heard that actually alters the song’s famous chord progression in order to make it sound more nasty, at the same time utilizing a grinding electronic distortion on the guitar that was still radical for its time.
By far the best studio record of The Sonics’ sound can be found on the band’s first two albums, Here are the Sonics and Boom, both of which were issued on CD by Norton during the late 90s and are still not all that hard to find (an import disc of the first album was also released more recently by Big Beat). Here are the Sonics kicks off with the ugly caveman riffage of “The Witch”, a band original that sees Roslie shouting an emphatic warning about a new girl in town who happens to be a literal witch. From there we go into the familiar mix of pile driving covers and offbeat originals that were the bands stock in trade, rousing takes on Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” and The Contours’ “Do You Love Me” among them. And then, with the start of side two, we have the classic “Psycho”, a three chord engine of hysteria that features an anguished yelp and machinegun snare riff where lesser songs would have a hook.
1966’s Boom is highlighted by the aforementioned “Louie Louie”, as well as a truly roof raising version of Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike”. Elsewhere the band seems on shakier ground, particularly in the case of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”, which sounds like a stab at British invasion style pop, and a half-remembered sounding cover of the ballad “Since I Fell For You”. Compensating for these is one of the most chilling of Roslie’s fevered horror show visions, “He’s Waitin’”, in which the betrayals of the singer’s jilting lover are so great that Satan himself appears at the door to drag her kicking and screaming into the underworld. (“You think you are happy/I got news for you/Well, Satan found out/Little girl, you’re through.”)
Despite later re-recording a watered down version of their debut for national consumption, The Sonics nonetheless remained too untamed for the charts. Still, they’ve sustained a cult following large enough to support reunion tours up to this very day, with the band being name checked as an influence by everyone from Nirvana to The White Stripes. Chances are they will remain a presence as long as there are people with ears to hear and the curiosity to discover them. Their trailblazing sound — a potent combination of sex, fear and decibels — is simply too powerful to ever fade into the ether.