ROBERT HILBURN : THE RETURN OF GARAGE ROCK
Garage Band. Few terms in rock are as marvelously polarizing. For outsiders, the image of a garage band is one of noise pollution. They picture a group of scroungy musicians, playing the same tunes over and over at a volume that all but sets the neighborhood dogs to howling. For many rock purists, however, there’s something disarming about young musicians getting together and trying to piece together their rock ‘n’ roll dreams.
One of the charms about this period in a band’s life is that everyone is so thrilled at being in a group that no one is worried about the demands of rock ‘n’ roll art. Unfortunately, much of that charm is soon lost.
As the musicians become more accomplished, they generally begin conforming to the rules of the pop game. In most cases, that leads them to become more concerned with making music that’ll put them on the charts than with music that simply excites them.
Some bands, however, take pride in clinging to the primitive garage-band tradition pioneered in the ‘60s by such groups as the Standells, the Seeds and Electric Prunes. “Nuggets,” a series of four albums on Rhino Records, chronicles many of those ‘60s contributions.
Just relased by ROIR Records, the LP (available in cassette only) is the result of a yearlong competition by Goldmine magazine to find the best material from contemporary garage bands. Nineteen groups are represented on the tape--six of them from Southern California--and at least a dozen of the selections are worthy of attention. Some of these groups have their own albums out, while others are virtually unknown even in their hometowns.
The passion that fuels young musicians with enough confidence or obsessiveness to put together a band is usually strong enough to yield at least one interesting idea. Unfortunately, few of the groups identified with the garage movement in the ‘60s were able to come up with enough of those ideas to sustain a career. That’s why they are still known as garage bands.
Almost every group starts out as a garage group. If the Beatles hadn’t progressed beyond the Hamburg days of “Long Tall Sally” or if Van Morrison hadn’t established a solo career after hits like “Gloria” with Them, they might be part of the garage band legacy. Indeed, there are echoes of both the early Beatles and Morrison (and the Stones) throughout “Garage Sale.”
The new album’s opening track, the Mosquitos’ “Darn Well,” is an intriguing mix of the rebellion and innocence that run through much of the garage-band genre. The New York quintet’s entry is a song about romantic frustration that balances vitriolic lyrics with a cooing, Beatles-esque “oooh.” Like most of the tunes on the album, “Darn Well” will never be studied at a songwriting seminar. The goal with these records is simply quick, honest emotion--not songwriting sophistication.
The approaches on “Garage Sale” range from the growly, Them-like drive of the Vipers’ “Who Dat?” (from New York) and the dark, psychedelic asides of the Trip’s “Never Too Late for Linda” (from San Francisco) to the mocking, Lennon-edged bite of the Boys From Nowhere’s “Beg” (from Columbus, Ohio) and the punk-accented humor of the Addition’s “Obnoxious Girls” (from Minneapolis).
One of my favorites is “Girls in the World,” by an L.A. band called the Things. It is filled with the same kind of guitar-sparking pop-rock purity reflected in Tom Petty’s early discs. The Things is one of three Southern California bands on “Garage Sale” that have albums on Voxx Records. The other two: Pandoras and Graveyard V. The remaining Southern California bands on the collection: Unclaimed, Tell-Tale Hearts and the Fourgiven.
The album project grew out of a discussion last year between ROIR owner Neil Cooper and Jeff Tamarkin, then editor of Goldmine, a magazine that caters to record collectors, especially ‘50s and ‘60s rock fans.
“There has been a resurgence of the garage-band tradition for several years, but it really expanded in the last couple of years,” said Tamarkin. “The idea of this album was to document the scene before it gets co-opted by the major labels.”
ROIR agreed to finance the project, while Goldmine sponsored the search for bands. Announcements were printed in the magazine and posters were sent to 650 record shops around the country. Tamarkin was executive producer.
“Though we asked for garage bands playing in a ‘60s style, not everyone took that literally,” Tamarkin said, by phone from New York. “We got some reggae, funk, even heavy-metal records--about 250 tapes in all. We got tapes from all over the country, but most of them were from the two coasts.”
And did he really listen to all 250 tapes?
Replied Tamarkin, “Oh, sure . . . at least five seconds worth.”
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