Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: Garage rock.
Garage rock 101
This month, The Sonics will release This Is The Sonics—the legendary garage-rock band’s first studio album of entirely new material in nearly 50 years. That’s one hell of a hiatus. At the same time, it makes a weird sort of sense. Garage rock may have originated as a strictly teenage phenomenon in the ’60s, but since then it’s refused to die, instead becoming one of the most timeless genres of music in existence. Trapped in a perpetual state of primitive, hormonal fury, garage rock has aged as well as whiskey or rhythm and blues itself, the source of the music’s power.
The Sonics know this well; in 1965, the Tacoma group’s debut album Here Are The Sonics!!! set the pace for the golden age of garage rock. Amid raw-boned covers of R&B songs penned by Rufus Thomas and Berry Gordy (early Stax and Motown have been staple sources of inspiration for garage rock, then and now) are originals like “Psycho” and “Strychnine” that lived up to the exaggerated stereotype most respectable adults had of rock ’n’ roll at the time: crazed, cacophonous, and downright feral.
The Sonics weren’t the only ones making the blistering soundtrack to suburban boredom and teenage delinquency in the ’60s. In Boston, The Standells brought garage rock to the masses with their gritty 1966 hit “Dirty Water,” which leaned heavily on the snarl and fuzz of British Invasion bands like The Kinks and The Rolling Stones (a movement that relied on American R&B as much as garage rock did). “Dirty Water” appears on The Standells’ debut album of the same name in 1966, which includes a raucous version of The Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown” as well as plenty of other propulsive tracks that—like ’60s garage rock as a whole—laid the groundwork for punk in the ’70s. Another ’60s group that ’70s punks wound up embracing: The Seeds. Led by the eerie, Buddy Holly-on-LSD yelp of Sky Saxon, the organ-driven California outfit worked the nascent psychedelic sound into its droning outbursts of heartbreak and adolescent rage on its self-titled, 1966 debut album.
The bands in garage rock’s original wave, represented by The Sonics, weren’t psychedelic in the least. The drug revolution began to infiltrate the yet-to-be-named movement in the mid-to-late-’60s. In Texas, the visionary songwriter Roky Erickson led his band The 13th Floor Elevators to trippy new heights, quickly leaving the earthy thump of garage rock altogether. And The Count Five’s searing hit single, 1966’s “Psychotic Reaction,” helped popularize (if not outright exploit) the more lurid stereotype of psychedelic savagery. Other bands, from the keyboard-pounding Question Mark & The Mysterians to the, well, keyboard-pounding The Music Machine, saw varying degrees of success, but the rise of a more sophisticated, mature rock sound in the late ’60s killed the inept, youthful glee of garage rock almost overnight.
Garage rock may have become passé by the ’70s, but it wasn’t entirely forgotten. Boston, the home of The Standells, saw the creation of groups like DMZ and Jonathan Richman And The Modern Lovers who, to their own extents, carried the torch for blown-out, primordial rock ’n’ roll. The Flamin’ Groovies did the same in San Francisco, although with more of a knack for Beatles-esque songwriting. Garage rock finally became codified—posthumously, or so it seemed to many at the time—in 1972 with the release of the compilation Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968. Not only did the double album pull together many of the great ’60s garage rock bands, Nuggets (and its sequels in the series) helped define and solidify the genre for generations to come. Many other series of like-minded garage rock compilations would follow, from Pebbles to Boulders and beyond, but Nuggets remains the gold standard.
Punk rock exploded in the mid-’70s, and many of its main practitioners, from the Ramones to The Damned to The Clash, paid open homage to ’60s garage rock. But none of the original punk groups embraced garage rock like The Cramps. Active in New York at the peak of the CBGB scene in the late ’70s, The Cramps—led by the late, flamboyantly transgressive Lux Interior—drew with zeal from the vast pool of ’60s garage rock, even covering The Sonics on their debut album, 1980’s Songs The Lord Taught Us. The band was also steeped in rockabilly, and that mix of twang, punk, and fuzz got tagged with the term psychobilly—although The Cramps were always a garage-rock band at heart, pure and simple. Drummer Miriam Linna was only in The Cramps for a short while, but her most famous band, The A-Bones, staked their own claim on rudimentary, punk-fueled, riotous garage rock.
Not all garage rock outfits in the ’80s were as wild. Along with two of the big trends that decade—’60s nostalgia and an overall veneer of slickness—a slew of garage rock revivalists took a somewhat less raw approach to the style. Chesterfield Kings, Plasticland, and The Fuzztones are some of the many outfits who added a neater, at times janglier set of sounds to the garage-rock toolbox. They also helped resurrect a subversively psychedelic image at a time when Nancy Reagan was telling America to just say no.
Of the legion of garage rock bands spawned throughout the ’80s, the Cynics were the most timeless. Hailing from Pittsburgh, the group played with a psychedelic edge, no doubt about it. But instead of being hazy and dreamy, they infused that druggy swirl with bad attitudes, leathery riffs, caveman-worthy wails, and at times even a touch of shaggy, early ’70s glam, perfectly synthesizing everything garage rock had seen and done over the three decades of its existence without losing an ounce of its throwback essence.
The ’90s are known for many things, but the decade is also one of the greatest eras for garage rock. Just as grunge was starting to blow up, scrappy, lo-fi groups like The Gories, Thee Headcoats, The Mummies, and Supercharger were breathing foul-smelling life back into garage rock’s zombified remains. Billy Childish, the prolific leader of the British band Thee Headcoats, had been cranking out retroactive, misanthropic rock since the late ’70s, but Thee Headcoats’ albums like 1990’s Beach Bums Must Die showed just how much sweaty vitality Childish could pour into the form. The same year, the Detroit trio known as The Gories released their second album, I Know You Fine, But How You Do Doin’, a masterpiece that locked onto garage rock’s R&B roots and sloppy fierceness. Throughout the rest of the decade, fellow lo-fi enthusiasts abounded, including The Space Shits (the latter being the band that birthed The King Khan & BBQ Show) and Rip Offs.
In Memphis, Greg Oblivian led his group the Oblivians to release a steaming stew of gutbucket rock in the shape of 1995’s Soul Food, one of the high points of ’90s garage rock. Following in his footsteps, a young Memphis upstart who went by the name Jay Reatard made waves with Teenage Hate, his 1998 debut with his group The Reatards. The album is simultaneously a drunken celebration and a vicious kick in the teeth, but one that’s studded with pop hooks. Reatard went on to become one of the best songwriters of his generation before dying in 2010 at the age of 29, one of the many tragic casualties of the garage-rock scene since its inception.
Garage rock in the ’90s had more up its sleeve than the raggedy hiss of lo-fi. The decade hosted a slew of garage punk bands, those who mixed the Neanderthal stomp of garage rock with fatter guitars, faster beats, and a hot-rod-sized chip on their shoulders. Everyone from New Bomb Turks—whose gas-guzzling 1993 album !!Destroy-Oh-Boy!! defines ’90s garage rock—to The Devil Dogs, Mono Men, Makers, The Fall-Outs, Nine Pound Hammer, Didjits, and Gas Huffer found their own unique ways to update, if not mutate, the garage-rock tradition for a the incoming class of willfully low-brow malcontents.
As with previous decades, the ’90s petered out, garage-rock-wise, during its final years. No one could have predicted how hard the genre would come roaring back in the 21st century. Mick Collins of The Gories formed a new band, The Dirtbombs, that installed an extra layer of glorious grime—not to mention deep soulfulness—to garage rock’s spit-shined chassis. Fellow Detroiters and disciples of The Gories, Jack and Meg White, launched their guitar-and-drums duo The White Stripes to platinum-selling acclaim with 2001’s White Blood Cells, a stark yet accomplished set of roughhewn gems that did for garage rock what Nirvana did for grunge 10 years earlier. (The Strokes are routinely lumped in with The White Stripes, but they shouldn’t be. Calling The Strokes a garage rock band is like calling Duran Duran a punk band. Nothing against either The Strokes or Duran Duran, but still.)
With the floodgate open, hordes of mainstream garage rock bands swamped the world, from The Hives to Black Lips to The Black Keys (garage rock’s current reigning champion). In the shadow of that superstardom, the garage rock underground still flourished—the most potent and prolific example being Thee Oh Sees, whose 2009 album Help aided in reclaiming garage rock’s damaged, shit-stained majesty. Garage rock, as its name implies, began as an egalitarian expression of fuck-it-all, DIY noisemaking and bloodletting. And as ubiquitous and bloated as it’s become, its filthy underbelly is always lurking just out of sight.
1. The Sonics, Here Are The Sonics!!! (1965)
Crude, blown-out, and uglified to the point of incomprehensibility, Here Are The Sonics!!! takes party-time R&B and flushes it straight to hell, making early Rolling Stones sound as edgy as an early doctor’s appointment.
2. The Standells, Dirty Water (1966)
One of the first garage rock albums with commercial aspirations—some of which paid off—Dirty Water is relatively polished, although its tuneful appeal helped briefly popularize the genre during its ’60s golden age.
3. The Seeds, The Seeds (1966)
Garage rock fell down the pyschedelic rabbit hole in the late ’60s, and The Seeds proves that a bunch of drug-addled young reprobates pounding on their instruments could sound eerie and ethereal.
4. The Cramps, Songs The Lord Taught Us (1980)
Siphoning from rockabilly and punk as much as garage rock, Songs The Lord Taught Us helped revive a cultish obsession in bygone music with its campy yet sinister interpretation of twangy Americana.
5. Thee Headcoats, Beach Bums Must Die (1990)
One of Billy Childish’s many prolific outfits produced Beach Bums Must Die, a masterpiece of knucklehead riff-splitting that might as well have been recorded through a tin can—to its eternal benefit.
6. The Gories, I Know You Fine, But How You Doin’ (1990)
I Know You Fine, But How You Doin’ is the finest garage-revival album ever made, a record so sloppy, catchy, bluesy, unhinged, and joyously deranged that it belongs in a padded room more than a garage.
7. The Oblivians, Soul Food (1995)
Simple to the point of willful stupidity, Soul Food introduced a new, mutant strain of Southern-fried garage rock to the scene, a shrieking, lo-fi mess of psychosexual freak-outs and heat-stroke guitars.
8. The Reatards, Teenage Hate (1998)
The late Jay Reatard’s opening salvo boldly tapped into the same snake’s nest of noise that The Oblivians did before them, supplemented by Reatard’s wounded-animal desperation and barfed-up catharsis.
9. The White Stripes, White Blood Cells (2001)
There was no way of predicting the ridiculous success of White Blood Cells, but in hindsight, the broad appeal of its melodic punch, traditionalist fervor, and winking mystique is hardly surprising.
10. Thee Oh Sees, Help (2009)
John Dwyer’s demented brainchild delivered a walloping dose of renascent garage rock in the form of Help, a record drowned in queasy reverb, B-movie sci-fi sound effects, and some stellar songwriting that does justice to the genre’s past, present, and future.