Thursday, October 18, 2007

'Garage' bands span the decades

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Little Steven Van Zandt


During the mid 60s, the garage wasn't just where you parked your car, it was where your rock band got together to practice.

In the period immediately after the Beatles struck in America, countless teenage boys grabbed guitars and drum kits to create a tough musical response to the latest British Invasion.

Working on the theory that every band had a hit single flowing through their testosterone fueled systems, these groups created music with a raw honesty missing from today's fare.

Proponents had names like the Electric Prunes, Vagrants, 13th Floor Elevators, Seeds, Barbarians, Remains and Chocolate Watch Band. They hailed from every part of the country, springing up in metropolitan centers and rural areas alike.

These bands labored in the shadows of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals, Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits and their counterparts. The stateside groups weren't intimidated, especially because those foreigners had the audacity to rework American rhythm and blues riffs and present the results as something new.

Some of the freshly organized bands may have imitated the British groups, but soon these upstarts began to emerge from the garage with exciting new sounds.

Thousands of bands became good enough to earn a paycheck at high school dances, frat parties or Battle of the Bands contests. Many even cut singles for various independent record labels which started around the country during the post World War II period. A few even managed to score national hits.

Although most AM radio stations were locally owned, it was still difficult for many of these acts to get their singles on the air waves. That's because for a song to be played on the radio, it had to be a hit. And, for it to be a hit, it had to be on radio.

It was difficult to break into this system unless you were already a "name" group, backed by one of the major record labels. When radio stations were presented a crudely-recorded 45 consisting of two or three minutes of raw guitar and primitive organ fills combined with angst-ridden vocals, they usually chose the slick major label "hit" instead.

Ishpeming native Kris Erik Stevens, former DJ at Chicago's powerful WLS, tried to explain the conundrum to me. "Big time radio stations either make records into a hit by airplay or play existing hits that other stations are airing around the country. It is usually researched before it goes on the air. Jocks do not get to play whatever they want."

In Michigan, the Detroit area spawned a vibrant garage band scene. The Woolies had a hit with "Who Do You Love," The Rationals registered with "I Need You," the Unrelated Segments got some mileage out of "Story of My Life" and the Underdogs scored with "Love's Gone Bad." The Woolies, who re-located to East Lansing, saw their garage version of Bo Diddley's song reach No. 95 on the national singles chart.

Despite the burst of activity, many of the bands started in the wake of the Beatles broke up after a few years, some losing members to the draft. The music evolved with the introduction of drugs into American culture, ushering in the psychedelic era.

As music was changing, rock critic and future Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye was casting a backward glance. Recognizing the phenomenon which disappeared so quickly, he compiled an imaginative collection of little-known mid-60s singles called "Nuggets."

Released in 1972, I bought the two-LP set, which collected 27 of the best of what were called "punk" songs at the time, because I was familiar with some of the band names. It wasn't until years later that those brief blasts of joyous noise became known as garage music.

Now, I listen to those obscure gems from the past as often as I spin The Beatles or my favorite blues titles. In fact, so many music fans are hungry for the songs which escaped popularity decades ago, that record labels have issued dozens of garage band compilations, including a series called "Pebbles" and another dubbed "Back From the Grave."

Even today, garage music refuses to die. Many current bands, such as Detroit's massively popular White Stripes, the Hives, the Vines and the Strokes, continue to be inspired by the musical fury of the era.

The genre also has a serious friend in Little Steven Van Zandt. Since 2002, Van Zandt has hosted "Little Steven's Underground Garage," a syndicated program heard on over 200 U. S. radio stations. You might also recognize Van Zandt as Silvo Dante, mob consigliere on HBO's ''Sopranos."

Of course, Van Zandt also plays guitar and mandolin in Bruce Springteen's E Street Band. That group might not qualify as a garage band, but we'll let it slide.

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