Revved up on garage rock

Pub date January 28, 2009
SectionMusicSectionSonic Reducer


SONIC REDUCER Grease monkeys gotta scratch their coconuts and wonder: why have the words garage rock become so dirty? Especially when a garage-rock explosion of sorts seems to be going off all around us.

Few want to be tagged as such — though their affection for three chords; adoration of the square-one pleasures of guitar, bass, and drums; and love of a classic pop hook are out there for all to see. Does retro spell lame-o in a year beset with cultural, economic, and political change?

Not if you recall the last late-’90s/early-’00s garage rock resurgence, which arrived on the heels of a boom in tech-sector/dot-com creativity and coincided with a burgeoning home-recording underground — a rough, eerie corollary of the ’60s-era moment when British Invasion bands sparked a zillion garage-rock combos. No coincidence, I believe, that as digital home recording and online musical dissemination made it possible for every guy’s and girl’s band to reach a wide audience, so too did a world open up for vinyl and analog lovers of the most hidden and once-unheard-of musical niches, who were suddenly able to find newbie listeners.

So perhaps change, of the most DIY variety, is the very reason why so many bands in the Bay Area — and out past our waters where Wavves, Vivian Girls, and Jay Reatard ripple — are tapping into the garage-rock vein that oldsters like Legendary Stardust Cowboy (who bunks down in the South Bay) would recognize as similar to their own. Do you have an affinity for the early blues-based rock ‘n’ roll that can be traced from Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins to the Rolling Stones and the Kinks to their alternately upbeat and haunted progeny the Troggs, the Seeds, the 13th Floor Elevators, and San Jose’s Chocolate Watchband, then onto ’80s revivalists like the Lyres, the Scientists, the Cynics, and the Fuzztones, and further on to late-’90s wavers like the White Stripes, the Dirtbombs, the Detroit Cobras, and the Von Bondies?

Noisy, psychy, punky, gay, straight, sweet or grating — however you twist it, the current nu–garage rock explosion in the Bay is nowhere near as easy to tag, bag, and classify. How do you reconcile the ear-burning blast of Mayyors with the sweetly contrarian kicks of the Nodzzz’s "I Don’t Wanna (Smoke Marijuana)"? The latter’s parentheses are crucial here because theirs is a cry against easy conformity, really, rather than drugs ("I don’t wanna smoke marijuana… I just wanna get high / On another drug!"). Subverting the white-straight-boy paradigm also seems to be part of the plan for outfits like Hunx and His Punx, and the LaTeenOs.

Eric Friedl — owner of esteemed Memphis garage rock label-shop Goner Records and ex-member of the Oblivions — has noticed the rock ‘n’ roll energy surge coming off of SF: Sic Alps and the Oh Sees played 2008’s Gonerfest, and Goner releases by Ty Segall and Nobunny are on the horizon. "For whatever reason we like the bands coming out of there," Friedl says of the Bay. "In the ’90s there seemed like a lot was going on, and then it kind of died out, but yeah, I think it goes in cycles. People got tired of the garage-rock bands in the late ’90s, and it took ’em another five or six years to get back to straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll."

Geoffrey Ellis, who puts out the zine Sadkids and documented Bay Area bands’ excursions out to Gonerfest, agrees. "It seems like in the last few years [garage rock] has hit its stride where it hadn’t existed for a while and was pretty relegated to undergroundish types of scenes," says the graphic designer whose garage rock images will be exhibited as part of "Rock Show," a group photo exhibit. "But now it’s just taken off everywhere."

Still, for all the new activity and faces, one of the pleasures of garage rock remains the breaking out of musty ole vinyl and listening to the San Jose–born Count Five’s "Psychotic Reaction," the Standell’s "Try It," and the Human Beinz’s "Nobody But Me" — and wondering where my Music Machine LP is. The last so-called garage-rock revival gave you the impression that the bands weren’t so much listening to the, er, originals as much as each other — many of those groups’ general raw sound seemed to be the main reason why they were dubbed garage rock, apart from some true believers and record collectors in Detroit. Garage rock was a somewhat commercial brand last time around. But this current surge seems content to ride tides far from marketable shores, melding garage rock’s ruff ‘n’ tough joys with surf riffs, hardcore aggression, proto-metal heavitude, or psychedelic exploration.

These bands seem closer to the scenario that Don Waller wittily sketched out in the liner notes to a Nuggets ’80s reissue: "The typical punkadelic band came from some suburban Anywheresville and consisted of one kid who’d grown up copying Chet Atkins licks on his uncle’s hollow-body, another who’d had 10 years of classical piano lessons, a hyperactive woodshop dropout on drums, a lead singer with a range of three and a half notes, and a bass player brought in for his ability to attract girls."

The garage may be gone, if altogether nonexistent, for many in the densely populated Bay Area. But considering that even the purportedly first garage-rock combo, Tacoma, Wash.’s fresh-faced Wailers (who made a big impression on the Kingsmen with their own "Louie Louie"), wryly made a big deal of recording in a "proper environment … namely a recording studio," in the liner notes of Out of Our Tree (Etiquette, 1966), the hands-on wherewithal of today’s bands isn’t so far from that of yesteryear’s ensembles.

"Pushin’ Too Hard"? For a while there "everyone was too self-conscious," opines Carlos Bermudez of Photobooth and Snakeflower 2, "but now there are a lot of bands that are doing well and playing sloppy again — all the garage stuff that people seemed to have grown out of. Schlocky fun party music is starting to happen again."


Through April 7; reception Sun/1, 6 p.m.

Rite Spot Café

2099 Folsom, SF



The former plunges fists-first into ’00s-y sing-along fun and an ’80s synth-sensitivity vibe; the latter duo into grrrly lo-fi. With Railcars. Thurs/29, 9 p.m., $5. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF.


Where’s the dance party? It’s wherever the pair’s primal pop is hopping. Their new Grand (Fader) sneaks up on you with its larger-than-life lowdown. With Hawnay Troof. Mon/2, 8 p.m., $10. Café du Nord, 2170 Market, SF.