Distilled Perfection: Nostalgia and the garage rock revival

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It turns a blind eye to parts of the past we would rather forget, and allows the happy bits to filter through, creating a false, cozy memory. Looking back has a cycle, a time frame, a half life. Like an object sitting on the shelf, always in plain sight, unnoticed, until one day some light hits it just right, and you see it.

For me, music nostalgia usually runs through a ten to twenty year cycle. The first cycle I can think of happened in 1969, just ten years from the birth of rock n’ roll, with the group, Sha Na Na, forming and performing at Woodstock. Reviving a more carefree time, music from a time when the country was not feeling divided or betrayed.

A second example of nostalgia came around 1972 with the release of the anthology record album called “Nuggets,” a collection of garage rock songs originally released in a bygone era, 1965-1966. The anthology was compiled by Lenny Kaye, who a few years later would become a bit more famous as a guitarist in the Patti Smith Group.

The “Nuggets” collection celebrated more just music, it celebrated an attitude, a raw teenage belief in rock n’ roll. Something that was slipping away in the early seventies, as rock n’ roll became big business, with concerts heading into arenas, and supergroups like Led Zeppelin & Pink Floyd opening up a future for album oriented rock radio.

By the early 1980’s a lot of what passed for rock n’ roll might have been unrecognizable to those teenage miscreants who recorded the songs featured on the “Nuggets” record. But for a number of young people, the record would be a touchstone and a reminder of what rock n’ roll could, and should be. Many of them formed bands, and later became part of a garage rock revival.

There were many such bands that popped up all over the United States, not all of them springing forth from garages necessarily. Not all of them exactly the same either, as they were all looking back, with a nostalgic filter, and distilling perfection from the “Nuggets” era, grasping upon certain aspects of a sound and lifestyle.

A few of my favorite garage rock revival bands:

The Chesterfield Kings, from Rochester New York was a band formed and headed up by record collector Greg Prevost. Their sound had a renowned Rolling Stones aspect. They were one of the first of the garage rock revival bands, and their first two LP’s “Here are the Chesterfield Kings” & “Stop” are filled with garage punk snarl and were an influence for other garage rock revival bands such as The Fuzztones, The Cynics, The Unclaimed, to name a few.

Plan 9, from Rhode Island, named after the 1950’s Sci-fi film, “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” was lead by Eric Stumpo. This band adopted a more psychedelic aspect of the garage rock era. Favoring extended guitar solos, foregoing silly or comedic aspects of the psychedelic era, such as music hall influenced songs like “Winchester Cathedral.” The song was so pervasively popular that bands like The Electric Prunes wrote jams like “Toonerville Trolley,” an obvious “Winchester Cathedral” influence on one of their albums.

The band, Plan 9 often consisted of three or more guitarists bending strings and wailing away along with organ accompaniment on a nice mix of covers and original compositions. They were both lyrically and musically psychedelic. Check out for instance their song “I Like Girls” from their album “Dealing With the Dead.”

The Miracle Workers, hometown heroes coming from right here in Portland, Oregon, displayed an aggressive hard-edge garage rock sound, reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest’s, The Sonics, or Texas garage-psych band, The 13th Floor Elevators. Their album “Inside Out,” released by Voxx records in 1985 serves as one if the finest examples of albums by the garage rock revival bands.

Gravedigger V, from San Diego, California adopted a grungy grit-fuzz garage rock sound. The lead singer’s vocals perfectly encapsulating garage punk snarl, while the band behind scorched their recordings with heavy reverb guitar and a caveman-ish rhythm on the drums. Their debut album, “All Black & Hairy” was a cartoonish picture of corpses or zombies dancing in a graveyard, and mixed original songs with covers of little-known songs such as “Do Like Me” by The Uncalled For & “Night Of the Phantom” by Larry & The Bluenotes.

Not to be overlooked, The Lyres, from Boston, Massachusetts. Lead by Jeff “Monoman” Connolly, The Lyres were (and still are) considered one of the greatest and well-known bands of the garage rock revival. A decidedly organ-heavy band whose other well-known sonic aspect was tremolo guitar. Despite being one of the most authentic sounding garage rock bands among the revivalists, they were also responsible for some of the best original songs of the era, such as “Help You Ann”, “Don’t Give It Up Now” & “Not Looking Back.”

I had the pleasure of seeing The Lyres perform at a small bar in San Luis Obispo when they were on tour supporting their second record, “Lyres, Lyres.” I arrived at the bar before the band, and watched them lumber inside, carrying their own equipment, obviously road-weary and stiff from the van. But as soon as the drummer hit the first crack on the drum, they exploded on stage and unleashed one of the best live performances I have ever seen.

These are just a few examples of bands from the 80’s garage rock revival, a few of my favorites. There are dozens of other bands from the across the United States and from other countries that participated in dredging up this sound, living in nostalgia, and distilling a new perfection from musical memory.

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