There probably has never been a greater example of rock’n’roll revisionism than the current respect accorded to the Sonics. Cult heroes may come and go, but the Sonics’ ascension to become the quintessential garage rock band of all time is truly remarkable. Unlike, say, the Stooges or the Velvet Underground, there was really no awareness of the Sonics, outside of their native Pacific Northwest, until the late 1980s. Slowly but surely, the bands distinctive brand of noise has percolated up through generations of rock fans to almost enter the mainstream. For instance, in the past few years, the Sonics’ paint-peeling take on Richard Berry’s ‘Have Love Will Travel’ has been a regular fixture of television ads the world over.
There’s a simple reason why the Sonics strike such a chord. Theirs is likely the sharpest definition of garage rock that has ever existed. The rough-hewn quintet from blue-collar Tacoma, Washington drew from the implicit rawness of the 50s heroes like Little Richard and Jerry Lee, revved it up with post-British Invasion attitude, threw in the Northwest’s own unique translation of R&B energy, and in the process arrived at a sound that is the very essence of what rock should be: rock’n’roll boiled down to its very nub.
The core of the Sonics were the Parypa brothers, Larry on guitar and Andy on bass, who founded the group in the late 1950s. Like every other neophyte rock’n’roll combo in the Northwest, they looked up to local bigwigs the Wailers for inspiration. The embryonic group mutated through different personnel until singer and keyboardist Jerry Roslie entered the fray in late 1963, bringing along his school pals Rob Lind on sax and Bob Bennett on drums. Within months of this new line-up coming together, a drastic change occurred. Together as a band, the Sonics amped up their sound to a cruder, rougher style, in an almost subconscious attempt to distil the furious energy that beat at the heart of the rock’n’roll and R&B they so enjoyed.
Headquartered at teen hotspot The Red Carpet in the Tacoma suburb of Lakewood, where the Sonics regularly jammed the joint, it wasn’t long before Buck Ormsby of the Wailers grabbed the quintet for the Wailers’ own Etiquette label. A first attempt to harness their fury in the recording studio left the group non-plussed, but when ‘The Witch’ was released in November 1964, it quickly began to get heavy airplay, capturing the imagination of teens around Puget Sound and beyond. No-one had heard rock quite that visceral on the radio in recent memory.
The follow-up, ‘Psycho’, was recorded in the spring at Kearney Barton’s famed Seattle facility, and was another Roslie-penned hamburger-throated opus. It became as big a hit with audiences and radio around the Northwest as ‘The Witch’, and both tunes rocked the airwaves well into the summer of 1965. The Sonics’ fiery template was firmly established by these first two singles, along with the fabulous sequels ‘Boss Hoss’ and ‘Shot Down’, and the entire contents of the album “Here Are The Sonics” - surely one of the most uncompromising debuts in rock history. Rather than pad out the record with the expected hits of the day, the band filled the grooves with choice interpretations of rock’n’roll and R&B classics, all laden with their patented trademarks – searing, abrasive guitar tones, guttural vocals and pounding, unrelenting drums. And Roslie displayed a very real knack for writing – and screaming - ear-catching originals such as the classic ‘Strychnine’.
Throughout most of 1965, the Sonics wreaked havoc on audiences the length and breadth of the Northwest and beyond, and simultaneously upped the ante of the entire region’s music scene. Most remarkably, the bands dynamism even effected a change upon their mentors the Wailers, whose post-Sonics recordings very clearly bore signs of their former apprentices’ influence. October of 1965 saw the release of a fourth Etiquette single, perhaps the most ferocious to date: ‘Cinderella’/ ‘Louie Louie’ was a double-whammy of epic proportions. It was accompanied by the Sonics’ second album, “Boom”, recorded at the lo-fi Wiley/Griffith studio in Tacoma but nevertheless continuing in the same full-blooded vein as previous releases.
Word had seeped out to other parts of the country about this wild young combo, and Sonics releases were getting a lot of interest from radio stations in markets as far away as Pittsburgh and Florida. This led the group to question Etiquette’s efficiency, and miscommunication between band and label ultimately meant that the Sonics decided to part ways with Ormsby in the spring of 1966. Waiting in the wings was Jerry Dennon, whose well-distributed Jerden imprint had most of the Northwest’s talent under contract. Dennon romanced the band with the possibility of national success.
At first, the Sonics’ Jerden singles acted as a natural progression from their no-holds-barred Etiquette sides, and the initial single, ‘You’ve Got Your Head On Backwards’, a Brit-styled pounder sung by Lind, was a strong seller in the autumn of 1966. At Dennon’s behest, the group traveled to Gold Star in Los Angeles for the sessions that would become their third and final album, “Introducing.” In retrospect, the sides the group cut there are certainly far better than is generally acknowledged, and including screamers such as ‘High Time’ and ‘Like No Other Man’. But the Sonics never really recaptured in Hollywood the pure unadulterated magic that their Etiquette sessions had in abundance, something reflected by the diminishing sales of their later Jerden releases.
From there on, it seemed all downhill. The combo continued for another year, making their first and only trip back east, but the military was at the door, and once they had finished with their education, various band members began to drop out in 1967 or, like Roslie, just quit unexpectedly. The single ‘Lost Love’ was their last rocking effort but in truth, there didn’t seem to be a place for Sonics-style dementia in the face of flower power. In a cruel twist of fate, a faceless Holiday Inn lounge act inherited the band’s good name, and watered it down well into the next decade.
However, the legend of Tacoma’s once-raging rock machine began to gather moss after collectors outside the Northwest happened across the amazing Etiquette records, and began theorising in magazines such as Creem in the mid-1970s as to what kind of band could have created such a noise. Shortly afterwards, a renewed energy resurfaced in rock’n’roll that correlated exactly with the emotions that the Sonics had espoused a decade before: punk rock. The resourceful Ormsby had hung onto the band’s vintage masters, and began to reissue them in an attempt to keep the band’s memory alive. He eventually struck a deal with Big Beat for a comprehensive anthology of the Sonics’ Etiquette material, which was released in 1993 as “Psycho-Sonic”.
Fast forward to the late 2000s. “Psycho-Sonic”, now remastered after the discovery of ear-blasting first-generation tapes, is one of the best-selling items in the entire Ace Records catalogue, in the process turning a couple of generations onto the band’s savage sound. The best of the Sonics’ Jerden sides, including unissued material, is included on the exhaustive Big Beat series “Northwest Battle Of The Bands”. And in an unprecedented and exciting turn of events, the Sonics have recently reformed around the core of Jerry, Larry and Rob to dish out some long-overdue authentic Sonics rock’n’roll, delighting fans around the world in the process. Make sure you don’t miss them – but grab a hold of “Psycho Sonic” first, to properly understand what all the fuss is about.