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Homemade Ecstasy

The glory that was the Garage Band Era

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"What have you got against Sixties rock, you moron?" Those were the first words of a recent e-mail from a reader who came across a column on the Internet in which I had poked fun at the "All Sixties Music Was Great" myth. It may not sound like much of a critique, but this devoted rockaholic and longtime rock history writer and teacher can't let it go unanswered. All I can say is, "Man, did that guy ever get the wrong impression."

The truth is, there were a lot of lousy songs released in the 1960s -- crimes against music like "Young Girl" by the Union Gap or anything by Gary Lewis & the Playboys -- but, in the end, those atrocities were so overwhelmed by the decade's tidal wave of creativity, they hardly even count. Anyone who came of age in the mid-to-late '60s, as in "baby boomers," knows what I'm talking about.

The excitement of having been in the middle of that era's musical explosion was brought home again for me the other day when I happened on a youtube.com video of the Gentrys singing their one and only hit, "Keep On Dancing," on the TV show Shindig (www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHGt_683jyU). The band, looking like the kids they were, played a simple tune propelled by good harmonies and a couple of great hooks that wouldn't let go, while the era's mandatory go-go dancers hitch-hiked and monkeyed all over the stage. For me, the two-minute clip brought back to life one of the most thrilling phases in rock history, of which the Gentrys were a small part -- the nearly forgotten garage band movement.

It started when British-Invasion bands transformed white rock 'n' roll in 1964, writing many of their own songs and playing their own instruments. Millions of American teenagers went nuts, and, in one of our popular culture's pivotal moments, tens of thousands of jacked-up kids decided they could form a rock group, too. They bought instruments, got together with friends, and started practicing in the family garage, thus the term "garage band." All over the country, young bands banged out their own homemade mix of Beatles pop, harder-edged Stones, and later, the experimental twang and clatter of the Yardbirds.

They found breeding grounds in high school talent shows, dances and frat parties, but they came into their own at the hundreds of mid-'60s "Battle of the Bands" competitions. Record companies usually sponsored the battles, and for a couple of years they were giving away record contracts like candy to the winners, taking advantage of rock 'n' roll's sudden exponential growth. Most of the bands got one-shot deals, a chance to record one single. If it flew, great; if not, it was on to the next contest.

Many of the bands were one-hit wonders, but with so many record deals being handed out, the charts were loaded with one-hit wonders. In 1965 alone, garage bands accounted for 196 songs that appeared in the Top 20.

The Gentrys were typical. A 6-piece group from Memphis, average age 17, they won that city's Battle of the Bands, recorded their best song, "Keep On Dancing," for a small label, got noticed, and were picked up by MGM, which pushed the song hard. They wound up with a wildly popular, No. 4 hit, showed up on TV a couple of times, and that was it. Their next two songs flopped and the group disappeared.

Yes, there was a certain amount of blatant exploitation -- actually, a lot of blatant exploitation -- by the record companies in the garage band era, but what's most valued by rock historians today is groups' sheer enthusiasm, flair, and joy. Like I said, there were literally thousands of them. A list of the better ones would have to include the immortal 13th Floor Elevators ("You're Gonna Miss Me"), the Bobby Fuller Four ("I Fought The Law"), Count 5 ("Psychotic Reaction"), the Standells ("Dirty Water"), the Knickerbockers ("Lies"), the Music Machine ("Talk Talk"), Blues Magoos ("We Ain't Got Nothing Yet"), and the Leaves ("Hey Joe"). Some garage bands even transformed themselves into mainstream successes, most notably the Young Rascals (now in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame), Paul Revere & the Raiders and the Turtles.

A linear account of rock history says the mid-'60s garage bands were little more than a transition between the British Invasion and the psychedelic era. But in the long run, they were a lot more than that. Their sound and their Do-It-Yourself ethic became an inspiration for many rockers who followed them, in particular Bruce Springsteen, the early NYC punk scene's Ramones and Patti Smith, and many of the 1980s' "left of the dial" indie bands like the Replacements, REM and the Pretenders. In fact, wherever indie bands bang out their own music even today, they owe a lot, whether they know it or not, to garage bands like the Gentrys. Thanks to the likes of youtube.com and others, we can still catch a glimpse of the grit and homemade glory of the garage band movement -- some of the most vital, and unjustly neglected rock music of that critical decade.

To contact John Grooms, e-mail him at john.grooms@creativeloafing.com.

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