A Brief Journey Through the History of Garage Rock

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The recent Dallas installment of the Sailor Jerry’s Presents concert series saw one of our favorite bands taking to the road: San Francisco garage combo Thee Oh Sees, who are touring the US in support of their new album, Carrion Crawler. Apart from being a pretty great rock band in their own right, Thee Oh Sees are also the de facto standard bearers for a new generation of garage-rock bands. As such, they’re heirs to a sound with a rich history, and one that’s definitely worth investigating — so step into the garage with us and crowd around the turntable as we spin ten discs that are key touchstones in the long story of the genre, then check out more upcoming events from Sailor Jerry’s Presents.

Thee Oh Sees — Carrion Crawler (2011)

San Francisco’s finest garage combo is almost intimidatingly hard-working and prolific — Thee Oh Sees tour constantly, and when they’re not touring, they’re making records. Carrion Crawler is their second release of 2011, and it’s a ripper. This current tour sees them taking to the road with excellent Australian combo Total Control, whose guitarist and producer Mikey Young is also in garage-rock darlings Eddy Current Suppression Ring (the band behind one of the most lauded garage records of recent years, 2008’s Primary Colours).

The Dirtbombs — Ultraglide in Black (2001)

Garage rock has undergone several revivals over the years, and the most recent one centered around the genre’s spiritual home of Detroit in the early 2000s. It encompassed at least one band that would go on to become very famous indeed — the White Stripes — but we’re particularly partial to the work of the Dirtbombs, who’ve been flying the garage flag since the early ’90s (before founding this band, guitarist Mic Collins was with seminal Detroit garage punks the Gories). Ultraglide in Black dropped just as the world was really starting to take notice of the renascent Detroit scene, and its collection of punked-up R&B cover versions remains a highlight of the era.

Mudhoney — “Touch Me I’m Sick” (1988)

Grunge and garage shared more than a general lo-fi, DIY ideology — while some grunge bands (like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains) made music that was heavily metal-influenced, others took their cues from a more pop-influenced sensibility. “Touch Me I’m Sick” is a fine example — strip away the distortion and the gloriously anarchic nature of the production, and what you’ve got is a killer two-and-a-half minute pop song that’s just as catchy as “Louie Louie.”

Thee Milkshakes — Thee Knights of Trashe (1985)

If you ever wondered where the whole spelling “the” as “thee” garage rock trend came from, then look no further — grammar sticklers can lay the blame at the door of Mr. Billy Childish. He’s perhaps best known as the founder of the Stuckists and/or the man who managed to go out with Tracey Emin for four whole years, but his bands Thee Milkshakes, Thee Mighty Caesars, and Thee Headcoats made a slew of great records during the 1980s, and were pivotal to the genre’s renaissance across the Atlantic. We’re particularly partial to this one, which also appends an extra “e” to “trashe” for a special Olde English touche.

The Fuzztones — “Bad News Travels Fast” (1984)

If punk was the offspring of garage, it wasn’t long after the punk wave had broken and receded that bands started to look to the genre’s antecedents for new inspiration. (Indeed, there’s an interesting parallel to be drawn with the late 1990s/early 2000s garage revival coming in the wake of grunge, which, as we’ve noted, owed a lot to garage.) As Antoni Gaudí once wrote, “Originality consists in returning to the origin,” and that’s exactly what the first wave of 1980s garage revivalists did. NYC band the Fuzztones’ first single sounded like it could have walked straight off the classic Nuggets compilation (of which, more shortly), and paved the way for a long career — they’ve been going strong for 30 years.

The Clash — “Garageland” (1977)

Ever since the earliest days of the genre, garage has reveled in its outsider status. This song was written in response to a sardonic review from the NME‘s Charles Shaar Murray, who no doubt came to regret calling Strummer and co. “the kind of garage band who should be returned to the garage immediately.” In any case, the Clash accepted Murray’s label gleefully, and made it a badge of pride — “We’re a garage band,” proclaimed Strummer proudly, “We come from Garageland” — before noting that they didn’t really care greatly for the opinion of well-heeled journalists: “They think they’re so clever / They think they’re so right / But the truth is only known by guttersnipes.”

The Stooges — The Stooges (1969)

The term “punk” didn’t exist when the Stooges first started churning out their mixture of pseudo-tribal beats and buzz-sawing guitar riffs in, yes, a garage. Their sound owed as much to garage rock as it did to anything else, particularly the fuzzed-out, psychedelic end of the garage spectrum. Listening back to the band’s debut record over 40 years later, it’s interesting to see how its manifold influences were still in the process of coming together — songs like “Real Cool Time” and “Little Doll” are straight-out (albeit heavy and wah-drenched) garage rock, while the ten-minute stoner epic “We Will Fall” and the ominous, brooding “Ann” are anything but. The various elements of the band’s sound would coalesce thrillingly on 1970’s 24-carat classic Funhouse, but The Stooges remains an exhilarating ride in its own right.

Nuggets era (1965-1968)

Punk’s affinity for the original garage rockers wasn’t confined to the bands whose sound made explicit reference to the genre, either. The fantastic Nuggets compilation preserved the work of a load of original 1960s garage bands, and it was lovingly curated by none other than Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye. Nuggets was released in 1972, and its liner notes (written by Kaye) contain one of the earliest uses of the term “punk rock.” It contains tracks from 27 different groups, all dating from 1965-1968 — some names might be familiar (like the Electric Prunes and the 13th Floor Elevators), but most of these bands’ work would most likely otherwise have been forgotten were it not for Nuggets and the copycat compilations it inspired (including Pebbles and Back From the Grave, both of which are also highly worth checking out.)

The Monks — Black Monk Time (1966)

It’s one of those strange quirks of fate that perhaps the most lauded and mythologized US garage group of the 1960s wasn’t based in the US at all — they were a bunch of GIs stationed in Germany. The Monks ended up staying on in Europe after discharge to pursue their musical endeavors, and the result was a sound that took its cues from Merseybeat, but was dirtier, nastier and more aggressive. In other words, it was pretty much exactly the garage sound that evolved on the other side of the Atlantic, but away from the meddling hands of US record companies, the boys were free to take their sound and image to extremes — which they did, dressing in monks’ outfits and wearing nooses around their necks. Fun fact: lead singer Gary Burger is now the mayor of Turtle River, Minnesota (population: 77).

The Kingsmen — “Louie Louie” (1963)

This classic was first recorded by doo-wop singer Richard Berry, who wrote the song in 1957 as a calypso-influenced ballad. It gained notoriety, however, after Portland, Oregon band the Kingsmen re-recorded it as a garage-rock stomper — mainly because the FBI apparently heard something they didn’t like in the new version and tried (unsuccessfully) to prosecute the Kingsmen for obscenity. As a result, the song sold like crazy — it peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard singles chart, making it arguably the first successful garage-rock single. It subsequently became something of a genre standard, performed at the time by contemporaries like the Sonics and the Troggs, and since by everyone from Motörhead and Black Flag to Iggy Pop (whose version most definitely was obscene). Apparently, it’s now the second-most recorded song of all time — none of which was much consolation to Berry, who signed away his rights to “Louie Louie” in 1959 for $750 in order to pay for his wedding.