Here’s a brain-teaser for you: How do you talk about a musical genre when you can’t even decide what it’s called? The subject of today’s focus in the “Then & Now” series has exactly this problem, but whatever you call it—garage rock, ‘60s punk, freakbeat, or proto-punk—it’s a genre all its own. If it never made much of a commercial splash, it kick-started or otherwise inspired a great deal of the music we cherish today, and a healthy revival scene ensures that it ain’t going away anytime soon.
To keep things simple, for the purposes of this discussion we’re going stick with plain old “garage rock” to describe this style of music. First rearing its head in the mid-1960s, it sprang in large part from a transcontinental game of “Operator,” in which countless young American musicians rehearsing in their parents’ suburban garages—hence the name—took inspiration from British Invasion bands, themselves inspired by the obscure American R&B and blues artists who were largely ignored by white American audiences.
Confused? You shouldn’t be. Perhaps more than any of the other genres we’ve examined in this series, garage rock is raw, primal and dead simple, even more so than the punk explosion it inspired. Coming to life in an era in which rock and roll was splintering into ever-more-artful sub-genres such as prog and folk-rock, garage rock took a fierce back-to-basics approach to music making. Even more than its sonic signatures—snotty vocals exploring themes of alienation and discontent, bratty-sounding guitars played through unabashedly aggressive-sounding fuzztone pedals—garage rock would herald a DIY ethic that still powers countless young musicians today.
Monster From the Surf
Garage rock may have arisen from landlocked basements, rec rooms, and garages, but in some regards, it owes its allegiance to the sea. Surf rock—a largely instrumental, guitar-driven genre that enjoyed a wild burst of popularity from roughly 1962 to 1964—was the first important subgenre of rock to emerge in the 1960s. Though the complex harmonies of vocal-led groups like the Beach Boys were out of reach for most teenaged wannabes, the fast picking and crashing reverb of instrumental surf easily lent itself to imitation and inspiration. This notion—that young musicians could make music, form scenes and eventually release their own records—would become deeply embedded in garage rock’s DNA.
At roughly the same time, a few teenaged groups in the Pacific Northwest were beginning to make waves of their own. Taking equal inspiration from black R&B crossover artists such as Little Richard and Richard Berry as from local instrumental groups like the Ventures, some of these bands would forge a very distinctive style of their own. After scoring a regional hit with “Tall Cool One” in 1959 (and then again in 1964!) Tacoma’s own Fabulous Wailers more or less drew the blueprint for garage rock: A raucous blend of rock & roll, rhythm & blues and surf played through overdriven amplifiers. Though they’d never again hit it that big, their sound would influence not only a young Jimi Hendrix but an even younger Seattle band called the Sonics.
If the Wailers put a fierce spin on rock and R&B, the Sonics seemed to incinerate songs as much as perform them. Led by the twin assault of Larry Parypa’s blown-up guitar riffs and keyboardist/vocalist Gerry Roslie’s raw and unearthly sounding screams, songs like “He’s Waiting” set a high bar that in some regards has never been matched.
The British Are Coming!
Surf rock and the distorted sounds coming from the Pacific Northwest were genuinely homegrown products, but in an era in which radio was still a very regional phenomenon, their reach was limited, at least in the United States. But further from home, a rabid fanbase was anxious to hear the sounds many Americans didn’t. In addition to largely African-American styles like rhythm & blues, aggressive rock such as that peddled by Link Wray—whose 1958 instrumental “Rumble” was a major inspiration for everyone from Jimmy Page to Iggy Pop—found adoring fans in Europe, particularly in the UK.
It wasn’t long before all sorts of English artists were busy delivering cover versions of obscure American songs. And once the British Invasion gathered steam, following the Beatles’ epochal performance on The Ed Sullivan Show on the evening of February 9, 1964, a new generation of young Americans heard these songs—many of which had been written in their figurative back yards—for the very first time.
Soon enough, the entire country seemed to have gone mad for British pop. But other, less friendly sounds were filtering in as well. In addition to their more slavish R&B covers, The Yardbirds inspired millions of budding rockers with their hard-driving and sonically adventurous sound. And Them, led by the young Van Morrison, delivered perhaps the greatest single statement of the entire garage rock genre: “Gloria,” as primal and hypnotic a song of young lust as could be imagined.
It wouldn’t be long before American bands began to infiltrate the radio waves with this new, raw and aggressive-sounding brand of rock & roll. The Standells’ “Dirty Water” made it to #11 on the Billboard singles chart in June of 1966. Later that year, ? and the Mysterians’ skeletal “96 Tears” would go to #1. And LA’s Music Machine would chart with “Talk Talk,” one of the most original songs of the entire genre. Though the band would find little commercial success in their lifetime, they would later be recognized as pioneers of the genre. Their minimal approach and brooding presentation would influence the Ramones a decade later, though you wouldn’t know it from this rather inept promotional clip.
But just as soon as garage rock had emerged, it more or less disappeared from the airwaves as the public’s taste turned elsewhere, to acid rock, blues rock and beyond. Garage rock—still a genre without a name—headed back to the garage.
Into the ‘70s: Underground Rumblings
If the short, sharp sounds of garage rock had fallen from their brief favor, they hadn’t completely disappeared. In Detroit, a city better known as the home of Motown Records, a band of teenaged misfits had been plugging away since 1964. With a sound borrowing equally from tough R&B a la Them and free jazz a la Sun Ra, by 1968 the MC5 had built a sizable local following, largely on the strength of their energetic performances.
Fierce though the MC5’s stage presence was, it would fall to their “baby brother” band to bring garage rock—or at least something that sounded much like it—into the next decade. Much as Tacoma’s Wailers begat the Sonics, it would be the Stooges, Iggy Pop’s first band of note, who would imbue rock & roll with a primal aggression never heard before (and rarely since). Like the MC5, the Stooges would succeed more in scaring off audiences than winning their hearts. But they’d be an essential link between the short-lived first flowering of raw, overdriven garage rock and the punk explosion still several years in the future.
But they wouldn’t do it alone. Around the time the Stooges were succumbing to their, shall we say, personal excesses, a crucial document of the initial garage rock explosion would ensure both its longevity and its continuing relevance. In 1972, future Patti Smith Band guitarist Lenny Kaye was a music writer and record store clerk. Approached by Elektra Records with the idea of putting together a compilation album of obscure rock tunes from the previous decade, Kaye instead steered the focus squarely towards garage rock.
The resulting 2-disc set, Nuggets, is widely considered one of the best albums of its kind, and would largely define the garage rock genre. What’s more, the liner notes—also by Kaye—contained one of the first uses of the phrase “punk rock,” a hint to the importance of garage rock in punk’s essential DNA. One of the most original and enduring of the bands to emerge from ‘70s punk, the Cramps, would make this plain with a string of excellent singles and albums stretching into the following decade.
Into the ‘80s and Beyond
Garage rock would never burst into the mainstream in quite the same way it had in the 1960s, but it never faded completely. In the 1980s, underground bands such as the Chesterfield Kings, Fuzztones and Cynics would bring a rootsy and purist approach to small (but rabid) audiences all over the United States and Europe.
The genre would have another moment in the sun, as a small subset of the post-punk revival of the early aughts. Bands such as the Hives, the White Stripes, and their ilk found surprising success with their rough-edged takes on primal rock and roll. What’s more, the artists who inspired them—the Wailers and Sonics, MC5 and Stooges, and far too many one-hit wonders and teenage dreamers to name—are more popular today than they ever were in the 1960s. If the last 50 years are any indication, the desire for simple, raw, and direct music played with snarling guitars and a snotty attitude won’t isn’t going away anytime soon.