Here Are The Sonics | The Sonics (March 1965)
Garage Rock – 28:48
“We were just a band.”
It is easy to put too much pressure on the arts – and the artists behind them – to be something more than they are. We expect our musicians, writers, actors, painters, to place deep meaning behind their work. We want them to be tortured souls who are pouring out their inner demons as they explore the frailty of the human condition; to reflect back at us some unexpected insight of our souls. Each picture or book, every film or album, is scrutinised as we try to work out the hidden depths of a piece of work. In doing so, we can do a disservice to those who created it. Because sometimes it is possible to make a work of art simply to entertain. After all, as a wise man almost certainly never said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
The Sonics fall very much into this category. At least in the original incantation, the band were the epitome of proto-punk; a bunch of teenagers who picked up their instruments and did their best to create a sound with the little they had to hand (the drumming on this album – their first of three in the 1960s – used a single microphone aimed at the drums to pick up the beat). Sadly, this aesthetic soon disappeared as the original members all went their separate ways in the late 1960s; like an early version of the Sugababes, by 1980 no original members remained. To add insult to injury, the new band were using string and horns to add to the sound. But in those first few years, The Sonics were a garage band long before anybody had thought of the genre.
Of course, being pioneers isn’t easy, even if you are keeping things basic. With nobody else to turn to for inspiration, you have to make it all up yourself. Which makes the self-titled first album by The Sonics such a surprise; there is both coherence and tightness to the sound that they produce here. Things begin with The Witch – an opening that screams the group’s style. Drummer Bob Bennett brings a force to the beat, smashing down on the drums (Nirvana front man and Grunge legend Kurt Cobain was full of praise for his style, telling an interviewer that “…it sounds like he’s hitting harder than anyone I’ve ever known”). The hitting doesn’t let up throughout the album, sounding like Bennett is trying to break through the skin of his kit. But it works well; alongside the insistent screech of Larry Parypa’s guitar and the gravelly shout of singer Gerry Roslie, The Witch sounds as if it is more than a decade early in arriving on the music scene. It would easily sit on any punk album of the late 1970s.
Many of the tracks on the albums are cover versions; The Sonics bring their own style to turn them into garage rock masterpieces. The speed at which they run through each song is perfect, never allowing any song to outstay their welcome. There is an energy to each number – as evidenced on their versions of Do You Love Me and Roll Over Beethoven – which cry out for a live performance. The whole album could easily have been recorded as live, and it certainly works well that way. True, the cover of Chuck Berry’s number doesn’t have the joie de vivre that The Beatles version has, packing a little too much anger, but it still works.
Perhaps this is what makes The Sonics sound like they are a band out of time; there is an anger underlying all their songs, not unlike the British punk movement which emerged in the 1970s. It is more noticeable on the covers; songs written by the band, like Boss Hoss – a wonderful ode to a car – or Psycho, have no other versions to compare them to. Psycho is a fabulous song whose sound reflects the desperation of the character in the song, turned psycho by his love for a woman. Before that, both Dirty Robber and Have Love Will Travel are both superb renditions of little known songs. Money once again seems to have perhaps too much anger behind it to be completely successful, but still works well. Night Time is the Right Time seems a little out of place, slowing things down unexpectedly (the backing vocals, while in keeping with the essence of the band, are truly terrible). The final self-penned song on the album, Strychnine, is another great number, which makes you wonder why so few of the tracks on the album are covers. Things come to a close with the group powering through Good Golly Miss Molly; a fun ending even if it doesn’t quite match the genius of Little Richard (although it’s hard to do much when somebody has already made a song their own).
The Sonics are a forgotten band; too heavy for their time, they disappeared after just a couple of years and three albums (the third of which even the band disowned). Louder and more raucous than many of their contemporaries, it’s little wonder that it wasn’t until the early 1990s that bands began to cite their influence (everyone from The Fall to Eagles of Death Metal have paid tribute to their sound). It is a deep shame, as this is a fantastic album that races past but leaves a lasting impression. Not to everyone’s taste – but if you like your music loud and simple, you’d be hard pressed to find a better album.
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Next time: Bringing It All Back Home by Bob Dylan