The out of control regional fuzz bomb explosion that lasted months but has been revered for decades.
The actual time that THE SONICS were at the height of their game can be measured in months and on a largely regional basis. How did this quintet from the Pacific Northwest of America become revered for decades, be named as inspirational by a never ending list of rock luminaries ever since, and become one of the most eagerly awaited reunion gigs that London has seen in years? The simple answer is the same as for most other rock legends who exploded onto the music scene and then disappeared as soon as they had arrived but left a few minutes of timeless genius. They were innovative, they came up with something new, something dangerous and something so inspirational though largely overlooked at the time, not only by their contemporaries but the band themselves.
The Sonics story starts in Tacoma, Washington around 1963 named after the sonic booms overheard in that area of aircraft manufacture, by the time they were signed to local indie label Etiquette in 1964 The Sonics were Jerry Roslie on vocals, Larry Parypa on lead guitar, Andy Parypa on bass, Rob Lind on sax and Bob Bennett on drums –described so eloquently as the ‘Skin Driver’ on the original sleeve notes for their debut album ‘Here are the Sonics’. Before embarking on a long player The Sonics came up with one of their defining moments at the very first attempt. ‘The Witch’ backed with a cover of Little Richard’s ‘Keep A Knockin’ was recorded and released as a 45rpm single in November 1964 (Etiquette 11). Despite early resistance from radio stations, some who refused point blank to play the disc and others who only did after a self-imposed curfew, the record became the best selling in the history of North West rock.
The band were quickly in the studio again where they recorded their second slab of genius that was to ensure their immortality in the history of rock – ‘Psycho’ replaced ‘Keep a Knockin’ on the second pressing of ‘The Witch’ and soon became a bit local hit in its own right eventually being released as single as an A side backed with ‘Keep A Knockin’’ All the while The Sonics were touring hard and gaining a huge reputation as a live band. This wide experience as a killer live act but little as recording artists was the main reason behind their distinctive raw distorted sound that made them stand head and shoulders above the rest at that time. Of course their questionable at the time choice of lyrics, chaotic arrangements and Jerry Roslie’s vicious vocal delivery already provided a base for what was to follow. The finishing touch to the legend that is their debut album was the band’s desire to recreate their live sound. The result was the primitive recording equipment used in the studio hired to record in (maybe only two tracks and just one mic to pick up the entire drum sound) was pushed to their limits by already ‘modified’ amps turned up to distortion level. The exasperated studio engineers had little choice but to let the guys lay down what was no doubt viewed by all present at the time, band excluded, as a fuzzed drenched cacophony of noise, but what a noise it was. The resulting album was a mixture of covers and self-penned numbers. While the latter included the manic singles as the now classics ‘Strychnine’ and ‘Boss Hoss’ contained the dark, almost taboo lyrics that made the band so dangerous they managed to bring out the dark side in their choice of covers. Listening to their cover of Rufus Thomas’s ‘Walking The Dog’ it’s hard not to imagine the worse when the heroine ‘broke the needle but she couldn’t sew’ while the sinister and wild theme prevails throughout the resulting ‘Here Are The Sonics’
The album ensured the band were busier than ever in the remainder of 1965 with their live work building up a bigger than ever reputation as well as enabling the guys to live out their dream and reason for forming a band, of ‘drinking lots of beer and scoring plenty of chicks’ and that they did, in style.
In February 1966 The Sonics were back wrecking the studio to record their follow-up album ‘Boom’, this session produced arguably an even wilder, rawer sound than their debut. Partly due to the legendary tearing down of the egg boxes that were doubling up as acoustic tiles (told you the studio was low-tech) to get a liver sound. The material one the album was once again a mixture of covers done in their own inimitable style including a brutal version of ‘Louie Louie’ and dark originals ‘Cinderella’, ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ and ‘He’s Waiting’ Boom wasn’t a hit in terms of national chart success but did ensure that The Sonics were increasingly busy live and in demand as an opening band for the likes of The Beach Boys, The Kinks and Jan and Dean along with plenty of other luminaries throughout 1966.
1966 was the beginning of the end for the Sonics, they left Etiquette and with it their freedom of studio annihilation and expression, highlighted when they signed to Jerden Records who had been responsible for the Kingsmen’s sanitised hit version of ‘Louie Louie’ back in 1963. The Sonics were packed off into a car and sent to Hollywood’s Gold Star Studio to record their third album, the trouble was that the five guys in that car had grown apart, as Andy Parypa remembered in 1994:
“It was all written in the car on the way down, I mean if you can call it written. I mean that was the end of the Sonics. We were going through emotions at that time and people’s hearts were not in it, people’s minds were not in it. We weren’t thin with each other and I don’t, we really wanted to even to be, I personally didn’t even wanted to be in the same car with the rest of them, you know and I’m sure that the others felt the same and it was reflected in the way that Roslie approached the whole project. It was a complete zero, I’m embarrassed that it’s out on tape or on wax or whatever or I would be embarrassed if it mattered”.
The ironic thing was Jerden entitled the album ‘Introducing The Sonics’ but in reality it was far too late to introduce them, they had been and gone. The Sonics that had recorded ‘The Witch’ no longer existed, at least in mentality and enthusiasm, to a man describing ‘Introducing The Sonics’ as ‘complete garbage’ Unsurprisingly the album met with limited success, the band began to disintegrate before finally folding in 1967.
That would normally have been the end except that the power of those few inspirational shambolic sessions were captured for ever, albeit on a handful of mics and two tracks, on wax and have been revered as classic landmarks in the history of Rock n Roll. Described by some as the first real punk recordings a full decade before the genre is widely regarded as being born. Whatever your opinion, there is no questioning that in those short years The Sonics managed to transfer the full ball-busting excitement of a band who were doing it for kicks, bucking the trends, and letting rip with the full exuberant unhinged abandon that sets the never to be forgotten although short-lived as a unit from the also-rans, three minutes of genius and spontaneity (several times in their case) that will live forever as long as there are people that appreciate Rock N Roll.
Reforming briefly in 1972, The Sonics reunited again for a festival in Brooklyn, New York last year. Now it’s the turn of the UK to experience their poweful songs live for the first time, playing London’s Kentish Town Forum on 21st and 23rd March. Vive Le Punk can’t wait!
THE SONICS PLAY AT SPEEDFEST 6 IN EINDHOVEN, THE NETHERLANDS ON SAT. 10th DEC. 2012 (alongside the likes of Danko Jones, Peter Pan Speedrock, Dwarves, The Reverend Horton Heat, Discharge and more).
FOR MORE INFO GO TO SPEEDFEST.NL