Live from a rusted-out garage – the (un)holy triptych of the 68-70 underground
The Lenny Kaye-assembled compilation Nuggets is a great way to get a glimpse of this effervescent and overlooked explosion, from a more singles-orientated perspective, and it is an essential purchase for all lovers of garage-rock (as this nebulous sub-genre is perhaps best described – just), but there were also a handful of albums released in the immediate post-Surrealistic Pillow period (i.e. 1966 to early ’67) that also merit mention, none more so than the debut album by The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground & Nico, which came out in March 1967 and was promptly ignored. Much had been made of the band’s association with Pop-Art guru Andy Warhol and the mad, multimedia shows they put on. And let me just say this now, whilst I haven’t included The Velvet Underground & Nico in my titular triptych, it is nonetheless the most important album I will mention in this feature. The birth of art-rock, and a wondrous, terrifying and mind-blowing musical snapshot of the seedy underbelly of New York City, The Velvet Underground & Nico is quite possibly the most influential rock album of all time. That it sold so poorly only underlines its status as the underground album par excellence.
And yet… Maybe it stands too far apart and ahead of all competition, being almost impossible to categorise in its scope and vision. It also feels intrinsically linked to Warhol’s vision, and his desire to respond to what was coming out of California at the time. Not so much a garage-rock (loft-rock, maybe?) album but a dirty, sophisticated, New York version of Monterey Pop psychedelia (its closest cousin maybe the deceptively sunny psych masterpiece by Los Angeles quintet Love, Forever Changes, released the same year). The Velvets would take their vision into even more noncommercial and extreme directions, meaning The Velvet Underground & Nico is more an amuse-bouche of the underground rock genre (after all, it was intended to be a big deal, and only shit promotion from MGM, coupled with Warhol’s increasing disinterest, that caused it to sink), even though it set the scene.
Sitting awkwardly alongside such a magnum opus were the much less ambitious trio of The Seeds, The Deviants and The 13th Floor Elevators.
The Seeds were one of L.A.’s typically ramshackle acts (somehow, the San Francisco bands always seemed more starry-eyed, musically competent and politically-charged, whilst their L.A. cousins seemed more angst-ridden, mean and rough), propelled by lopsided organ and fuzzy guitar riffs. Above all, they had the sneery-voiced Sky Saxon as their leader, someone who could out-weird the likes of Jim Morrison and Arthur Lee. Saxon’s paranoid lyrics and high-pitched snarl reached their apex on A Web of Sound, released nearly six months before The Velvet Underground & Nico in October 1966. It’s a nasty, druggy album that was always doomed to fail, but which in many ways points to where rock would go ten years later with The Sex Pistols and The Clash: short, snappy rock tracks with nasty vocals and warped lyrics (meanwhile the artwork announces The Cramps). Even more immediately prescient was the side-long opus “Up In Her Room”, a gorgeously incompetent garage version of the endless jam epics that would characterise much of where psych-rock would go in the next two years. See? Even in 1966, garage-rock was ahead of the curve.
Even better were Texan band The 13th-Floor Elevators, a barmy, drug-fueled outfit who supposedly coined the term “psychedelic” (at least in rock terms) via the title of their debut album, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th-Floor Elevators. Where The Seeds were so unkempt, and Sky Saxon so unnerving, that they were never going to trouble the charts, the inability of The 13th-Floor Elevators to crack the top 10 is a bit more of a mystery, were it not for the drugs at least. In Rocky Erikson, they had a singer who could match Mick Jagger for vocal ability and personality, and their songs were just the right blend of belligerent rock and hook-laden psych, with “Fire Engine”, “Roller Coaster” and the absolute masterpiece “You’re Gonna Miss Me” being nearly peerless. Of course, I’ve answered my own question, as Erickson’s legal troubles and the general vibe of menace and excess that surrounded the band would ultimately be their undoing. However, more than The Seeds, and almost as much as The Velvet Underground, The 13th Floor Elevators have become a bona fide cult band, their murky sound and sinister, warped riffs inspiring a generation of rock bands, including those that immediately followed their first flash in the pan.
The Deviants, meanwhile, hailed from England, which had remained remarkably un-edgy in its psychedelic explorations, especially once Hendrix returned to his homeland. English psych bands often had a pastoral vibe that has rarely aged well (except those that went all the way, such as Fairport Convention and Comus), but The Deviants, part of a Ladbroke Grove/Notting Hill scene that would produce future members of Hawkwind, The Edgar Broughton Band and The Pink Fairies, were an altogether more abrasive proposition, with darker lyrics and harsh blues licks that made Cream look positively twee. Addled by excessive drug-consumption and general incompetence, The Deviants would never make many waves, but their debut album, Ptoof! was released in 1967, long before the freak-rock of Hawkwind would become a proper money-spinner, putting these guys right up there with the aforementioned bands as proper pioneers of the underground sound. “I’m Coming Home”, in particular, is a demented, blues-inflected slab of nasty stalker rock, whilst “Nothing Man” predicts the darker, sci-fi-influenced direction psychedelia would end up embarking upon, at least in some circles.
These three uneven, often musically basic records would have a lasting influence on punk and grunge, but ultimately seem like glorious (and gloriously weird) failures, hamstrung by drug excess and a lack of proper musical talent. But then again, that is part and parcel of what defines garage-rock, and by extension the sixties/seventies underground in its entirety: the low budgets make getting something truly transcendent that much harder to attain, with attitude being far more important than chops and virtuosity.
Back in America, one San Francisco act was stepping out of the trippy, flower power vibe of its peers and making up for its lack of musical nous ladle-fulls of attitude and volume: Blue Cheer. Forget Cream, Blue Cheer are the perfect power trio, and they practically invented hard rock on their January 1968 debut Vincebus Eruptum. Vincebus Eruptum is definitive proof, should you need it, that being able to flick out a Jimmy Page-esque solo for twenty minutes whilst simultaneously referencing Robert Johnson, Son House, Chuck Berry and Bach means fucking jack shit compared to being able to scream like a possessed devil and punish your six-string at full, ear-shattering volume. This Blue Cheer, especially their demented axe-man Leigh Stephens, twigged with bells on, and Vincebus Eruptum contains some of the most extreme and heavy metal you will ever come across, with old classics like “Summertime Blues” and “Parchman Farm” (retitled “Parchment Farm”, for some reason) given overload treatment, whilst “Doctor Please” must be one of the most overtly drug-influenced monstrosities released in the sixties. It’s a decidedly over-the-top and belligerent album, and all the better for it. You can be sure Iggy Pop and Mark Farmer were listening. And in my opinion, Vincebus Eruptum kicks the first 3, even 4, Led Zeppelin albums into the dirt. In fact, only Black Sabbath were doing stuff this heavy in the late sixties. And Blue Cheer got there before them all!
In the UK, the aforementioned Edgar Broughton Band delivered something similarly fucked-up and nasty and loud in the form of their 1969 debut Wasa Wasa, that took the Sabbathian doom-folk-blues vibe and added a dollop of acid-drenched fuzz and Broughton’s Howlin’ Wolf vocals for good measure. Wasa Wasa possibly has too many delusions of grandeur and hippy notions to really equal the underground vibe of Vincebus Eruptum, but it is just wicked and fucked-up enough to warrant mention here, and like the concurrent records by Hawkwind and Man, show the better side of the UK scene in the post-Beatles, pre-Bowie void years. It’s certainly more interesting than what Led Zeppelin (I’m not picking on them, I swear!) and Pink Floyd were doing at the time!
Volume and darkness seemed to be the going trend in the rock underground by this point. The idealism of the Airplane and the Dead, and the commercial triteness of Pink Floyd and the Beatles had become stifling, especially in the wake of Manson and Altamont, and those bands on the periphery of the “scene” were duly responding with bile and fury. Even some of the mainstream was going that way, with the Sabbath acting as a grim shadow to Led Zep and Deep Purple’s more fey strands of metal, whilst sinister and sophisticated King Crimson emerged as the most exciting band of the nascent progressive rock scene. And let’s not forget the dark turn the Rolling Stones’ music took in the wake of Brian Jones’ untimely passing. Hippiedom was in its death throes, commercialism was rearing its ugly head, but the underground was somehow making itself heard, and its vibe was permeating everything.
The MC5, a Detroit-based quintet of ex-hippies, pretty much distilled these divergent strands of rock music in 1968 on their live debut Kick Out The Jams. In many ways, it represents the apex of the hippy movement, in that, unlike the mostly passive Woodstock-ites, The MC5 were properly militant, directed with a fierce hand by John Sinclair, founder of the White Panther movement, and with songs expounding communist and revolutionary views and promoting a generally all-or-nothing ideal of social change. In these cynical times, it all seems a bit silly, but luckily the 5 backed such political ramblings with some fucking amazing hardcore rock’n’roll, with the twin guitar attack of Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith and Wayne Kramer ripping into your ear drums, equally influenced by the punishing crunch of Blue Cheer and, more subtly, the blazing free jazz of Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler. Meanwhile, Rob Tyner was a vocalist extraordinaire, exhorting the crowd at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom with the energy and charisma of a religious preacher. There are times when listening to Kick Out The Jams that you actually feel rock’n’roll could change the world. Of course, the MC5 would burn out spectacularly, and the dream of a hippy revolution out of Detroit died, but again, the scream of those guitars did not go unheard.
One thing about Kick Out the Jams (and indeed the heavy blues of Blue Cheer and The Edgar Broughton Band or the basic formula of The Seeds), is that the structures and styles of the music are at heart nothing more than a modernisation, at maximum volume, of those of the r’n’r pioneers such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Eddie Cochran. Once again, this predicted the trend of a few years later, when the UK’s proto-punks and pub rockers like Dr Feelgood updated old-school r’n’b to the general acclaim of the press and public. But, of course, this trend for such overt nostalgia (as that of Dr Feelgood) was predicted in an even more overt way by yet another celebrated garage-rock outfit, San Francisco’s Flamin’ Groovies. Their masterpiece was 1971’s Teenage Head, a veritable proto-punk classic, but they set down a marker even earlier with 1970’s Flamingo. A former jug band, the Groovies were rocked by seeing the MC5, as well as their psyched-out West Coast brethren, and responded by upping their amp volume exponentially. But at their core, they were ecstatic fans of Lewis, Cochran, Muddy Waters and Little Richard, and their main appeal is that they could rock out in true turn-of-the-decade fashion, with menacing Manson vocals and lyrics, but also had the jerky energy and camp of early rock’n’roll. Sadly, it never caught on, and whilst the Groovies would manage to go one step further with their follow-up, they would remain an influential footnote in the history of garage rock, and little more. Although, for the record, they left behind one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded: “Whiskey Woman”, which manages to out-Stones the Stones.
So what of my triptych? For whilst all of the above are excellent, ground-breaking albums, three masterpieces for me sum up what it means to be a proper, unfettered underground (or independent, or garage – you choose) band.
Of course, I could not let The Velvet Underground slip by with such a complimentary but only cursory mention of their first, superlative, album. For, as I have said in the past, The VU are the greatest, most important rock band that ever walked this timid earth, the only band to truly capture, in all its depraved glory, what it means to fucking rock, not just with a guitar but as a way of life. If their debut established that a rock band could also be smart and artistic, then once they had dispensed with the beautiful but intrusive presence of Nico (who would go on to create wonderful albums on her own, I must say, before Nico fans get on my back; I just think the best Velvets moments mostly happened after the German chanteuse had left), they truly flew, albeit in the face of what it meant to be a popular pop-rock band.
The result was White Light/White Heat, which erupted into the world in January 1968, the same month as Vincebus Eruptum. Talk about a double conflagration! Both The Velvets and Blue Cheer played at deafening volume, but where Leigh Stephens and co went for the bludgeoning effect, Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker took the distortion, fuzz and clatter of their hard rock, and married it to probing, intellectual, humorous and sardonic lyrics, mostly written by Reed at his best. Meanwhile, the Tucker/Morrison rhythm section pound out relentlessly steady beats whilst sudden, piercing guitar lines, or shimmers of electrified viola arc out of the murk like rockets, joining the dots between Reed’s doo-wop/pop-rock roots and the avant-garde minimalism of Cale. Every track on the album is a wonder, from the awkward grooves of the title track and “Here She Comes Now”, to the manic, off the wall noise mess of “I Heard Her Call My Name”. Meanwhile, “The Gift” is an hilarious spoken word horror story delivered in hysterically deadpan fashion by Cale. But if any track defines and encapsulates the spirit of fucked-up, heroin-drenched New York punk-rock, it’s “Sister Ray”, possibly the best rock song ever recorded. As Reed mangles his guitar in a way that could make your hair go grey, for 17 blissful minutes, Cale punches out a daft series of moronic riffs on organ whilst Tucker pounds away on a single drum like she’s trying to tear apart the San Andreas fault and bury Californian rock for good. No band was doing rock like The Velvet Underground in 1968, and it’s fair to say quite a few people were listening, even if MGM, and the public at large, were not.
Luckily, Mo Tucker’s drums, as powerful as they were (and there have been few better drummers in the history of rock music), didn’t sink California into the sea, for if they had, we would have been deprived of the majestic garage-country of Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Such has been the Canadian’s celebrity (Artist of the Decade in the seventies, according to Village Voice), and the unparalleled success of his mellow 1972 country-folk album Harvest, that it’s easy to forget that, after the demise of his sixties band Buffalo Springfield, Young was a bit of an unknown quantity, much in the shadow of his Springfield acolyte Stephen Stills and with only a failed debut solo album to his name.
His meeting with L.A. garage rock quintet The Rockets was a moment of rock serendipity that has rarely been equaled. The rhythm section of The Rockets was made up of Danny Whitten on rhythm guitar, Billy Talbot on bass, and Ralph Molina on drums, and they combined unbelievable funkiness with unbelievable levels of incompetence, in a way that only Neil Young could love, and led to one of the greatest albums of the Canadian’s career: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969). The magic of Crazy Horse was that they allowed Young, a disturbed, fragile and angry folk-rocker, a platform in which to make his sound loud, without putting the kind of pressure on him that the Springfield did. Talbot and Molina were minimalist, but built rock-solid bases for two of Young’s most elegiac pieces: “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”. On these lengthy masterpieces, the drums and bass become a blank canvas for his guitar and voice. And what a guitar! What a voice! At one time, Young’s voice was considered so dismal that he wasn’t allowed to sing on his own tracks for the Springfield. Yet his sensitive, fragile warble elevates “Down By The River” or “Running Dry” to elegiac heights, the vulnerability adding to the doom-like vibe of the tracks, as if they were sung by a kid stuck in a closet whilst untold demons roam the corridors outside. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere brought soul into garage rock, adding an emotional depth that transcends the raw power and sturm und drang that characterises most of the above-mentioned music. Neil Young, especially with Crazy Horse, will break your heart. As for the guitar, well I have heard enough guitar solos to elevate a million souls to heaven, but no-one can beat Neil Young in his pomp, and he has rarely bettered “Cowgirl in the Sand”, as delivered to an unsuspecting world in 1969 on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Fuck Clapton, Page and Gilmour – no-one beats Neil Young when Crazy Horse let him fly.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere brought the hippy Topanga Canyon vibe into somewhere darker, more abstract, jazzier and grungier. Indeed, the look Young sports on the album cover would become the style of Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder and other grunge icons nearly 30 years later. Less than a year after this album, Young would embark on a lucrative, but frustrating, path, as he joined the ego-fest of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, exposing his wondrously underground sounds to a wide -and appreciative- audience, and perhaps already showing how the “indy” rock world could be easily and tackily absorbed into the mainstream. Luckily, Young would be too slippery to obey market concerns, as his controversial mid-seventies output would emphatically prove.
Neil Young, when associated with Crazy Horse, took hippiedom out of flower power into the rusted garage, and made the Woodstock vibe loud. The Stooges took loud music out of hippiedom. They were less intellectual than The Velvet Underground, but songs like “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog”, from their debut, self-titled, album, demonstrated a similar interest in depraved and violent sex. But any subtlety, as encapsulated by Lou Reed’s lyrics or John Cale’s avant-garde leanings, was lost with The Stooges as a miasma of guitar noise and punishing rhythm engulfed any of singer Iggy Pop’s potential pretensions in a deluge of exquisite noise. The Asheton brothers, Ron and Scott, on guitar and drums respectively, were long-hired rednecks, with a vicious undercurrent that helped make The Stooges so violent and punishing that, no matter how their second album, Fun House (1970) strayed from the mainstream, it couldn’t help but get noticed. It’s that good.
Much of The Stooges appeal will always be down to front-man James Osterberg, aka Iggy Pop, who, for all his bonkers stage antics (self-harming, nudity, swearing at the audience…) was very much the thinking man of the band, the lyricist, jazz-lover and friend of Bowie and Reed. But never underestimate Scott Asheton’s ability to hold a beat like a heavy metal metronome, whilst Ron’s scything, ever-soloing guitar (he had that remarkable talent of being both lead guitarist and rhythm) is like a coiled snake, scooting around Pop’s voice as he moans, roars, sneers and yelps. The Stooges defined a rock dynamic that moved away from the twin-guitar-with-vocals approach of the sixties bands, and back to pioneers like James Brown and Little Richard, where the voice and guitar don’t so much duet as duel. On “Dirt”, the pinnacle of Fun House, The Stooges lay aside their high-octane, full-throttle attack in favour of a dirty blues groove, whilst Ron Asheton’s guitar, with its peppering, never-ending solo, comes across like John Coltrane‘s sax. Yes, it’s that gorgeous. Iggy’s lyrics of self-harming and self-loathing are just the icing on the cake. “Dirt” proves that The Stooges could be subtle and smart, whilst the rest of Fun House saw them flexing muscles and battering the senses in all their garage-punk-metal glory. The Stooges were well ahead of their time, a true punk outfit, but with the personality of a post-punk band. They managed to predict both The Sex Pistols and PiL. Need I say more?
If anything, my (un)holy triptych perfectly demonstrate just how intangible “garage”, “indy” or “underground” rock can be. Lou Reed, Neil Young and Iggy Pop are all now mega stars, who have eased, perhaps reluctantly, into elder statesman territory. Such is life. The Stooges, Crazy Horse and The Velvets are now often the first bands on the lips of the latest band to be signed to Universal or Sony. The underground is now so vast as to be incomprehensible, whilst our old idols only make sense in reverse. Again, such is life. Or at least music. And with the endless horizons come new artifacts from decades long past: true underground and lost gems, such as Alexander Spence‘s Oar or Tangerine Dream‘s incredible debut, Electronic Meditation. Both came out in the period I’ve been describing in this feature, and in so many ways they go beyond even the heady heights of my triptych. But the trio I have ultimately chosen bridge the gap between noncommercial music and the mainstream, tearing angrily at the fabric of popular trends to take things, whether they knew it or not, to new levels. It would happen again with PiL, Joy Division, The Cure and Television, amongst others. The underground won’t leave the mainstream alone, and for that we should be eternally grateful, even if it makes no sense.
My ’66-’70 Garage Playlist:
1. The Seeds: “No Escape” (from The Seeds)
2. The Seeds: “Up In Her Room” (from A Web of Sound)
3. 13th Floor Elevators: “You’re Gonna Miss Me” (from The Psychedelic Sounds Of…)
4. 13th Floor Elevators: “Roller Coaster” (from The Psychedelic Sounds Of…)
5. The Electric Prunes: “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night) (from Nuggets)
6. The Velvet Underground: “Venus In Furs” (from The Velvet Underground & Nico)
7. The Velvet Underground: “Heroin” (from The Velvet Underground & Nico)
8. The Deviants: “I’m Coming Home” (from Ptoof!)
9. Blue Cheer: “Doctor Please” (from Vincebus Eruptum)
10. Blue Cheer: “Parchment Farm” (from Vincebus Eruptum)
11. The Edgar Broughton Band: “Death of an Electric Citizen” (from Wasa Wasa)
12. MC5: “Kick Out The Jams” (from Kick Out The Jams)
13. MC5: “I Want You Right Now” (from Kick Out The Jams)
14. Flamin’ Groovies: “Heading For The Texas Border” (from Flamingo)
15. The Velvet Underground: “The Gift” (from White Light/White Heat)
16. The Velvet Underground: “I Heard Her Call My Name” (from White Light/White Heat)
17. The Velvet Underground: “Sister Ray” (from White Light/White Heat)
18. Neil Young and Crazy Horse: “Cinnamon Girl” (from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere)
19. Neil Young and Crazy Horse: “Down By The River” (from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere)
20. Neil Young and Crazy Horse: “Cowgirl In the Sand” (from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere)
21. The Stooges: “Dirt” (from Fun House)
22. The Stooges: “1970” (from Fun House)
23. The Stooges: “Fun House” (from Fun House)
24. Tangerine Dream: “Journey Through A Burning Brain” (from Electronic Meditation)
25. Alexander Spence: “Grey/Afro” (from Oar)