Saturday, January 14, 2006

The story behind Nuggets -- the classic 1972 compilation that basically defined the phrase "garage rock" -- goes something like this: sometime in the early 1970s, Elektra Records president Jac Holzman came up with the idea of going through the vast horde of records made in the late 1960s by bands that largely flew under the radar, and putting the best of it on a single disc.

The actual dirty work of sifting through tons of dross to get a few glimmerss of gold was left to Lenny Kaye: rock critic, founding member of MC5, future husband of Patti Smith, and a world-class rock archivist. The result -- expanded in 1998 to a box set, aptly titled Nuggets, 1965-1968: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedic Era -- was punk before anyone heard of it. Here were misfits, wanna-bes, and shoulda-beens; good, great and trashy bands whose one moment of glory had been quick and fleeting (if it ever arrived at all), and who generally found it impossible to survive in a world dominated by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and all the other giants of 1960s rock.

Some, like the Knickerbockers, the Standells, the Strangeloves, or the Swingin' Medallions were your basic one-hit wonders; some, like the Kingsmen and Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, were one-classic wonders. Others, like The Amboy Dukes and the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, were better than good. A few -- like Love, Sir Douglas Quintet, the Pretty Things, the Chocolate Watch Band, or Captain Beefheart -- wouldn't be recognized for their uniqueness until years later. There were heavily hyped bands like The Nazz, whose main interest now is that it was Todd Rundgren's first band. The same goes for a duo called Lyme and Cybele, half of which was a young singer-songwriter named Warren Zevon. The bulk -- with names like The Other Half, the Third Bardo, The Zakary Thaks, Clefs of Lavender Hill, and The Lollipop Shoppe -- were simply destined for the cut-out bins.

Collectively, they had a lot more in common besides marginal fame: a basic rock rhythm that leaned heavily on fuzzbox guitar, a Farfisa organ, a primitive but thrashing backbeat, and lyrics smothered in Summer of Love pot smoke. They were fired by the same do-it-yourself spirit, indomitable retard aesthetic, and trashy yet spontaneous that would give birth to the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. They didn't last as long (either in fact or in memory) but they were good fort least two and a half minutes of raw, beautiful, funny, corny or downright insane inspiration.

You can hear it from the very first cut, with the angry wasp reverb that opens The Electric Prunes classic "I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night." There's the Barbarians' supremely earnest "Moulty," in which drummer Bob Moulton recalls how he blew his hand off but found the strength to go on. Some wear their influences on their puffy sleeves: like The Amboy Dukes, whose version of "Baby Please Don't Go" is just as blistering as the version popularized by Van Morrison and Them. There's the more-Beatles-than-the-Beatles "Lies" by the Knickerbockers, and the I-can't-believe-it's-not-Dylan "Public Execution" by Mouse and the Traps. Some wear their defiant silliness on their sleeve, like "Spazz," the Elastik Band's marvelous paean to being a moron, or The Sonics "Strychnine," a romper-bomper-party-stomper classic about the joys of drinking poison. ("Make you tough, it'll make you shout, it'll even knock you out.") Gonn's "Blackout of Gretely" -- which begins with the immortal line "The universe is permeated with the odor of kerosene!" -- is one of the most sonic apocalyptic visions ever committed to vinyl. The Bees' "Voices Green and Purple" has something to do with synesthesia, and it just has to be heard to be seen.

Then there's my favorite, the Nightcrawlers' "Little Black Egg," about a guy who finds a little black egg with little white specks and won't show it to anyone -- a song that first seems wonderfully dumb and then, the next forty or so times you hear it, just wonderful: a folky little burst of cracked beauty whose appeal simply defies explanation.

With its subsequent Nuggets kindred to be discussed later -- which is, basically, why I'm discussing this one now -- the set is a constant and amazing source of solace and inspiration.

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