Quick--hum a few bars of the Electric Prunes' "I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night." If you could, you're one hell of a hummer, since no humdrum pair of lips could reproduce the backward-spiraling buzz of its guitar riff, or the dazed, staggering melody sneered out by lead Prune Jim Lowe. But more to the point, if the song came to mind at all, you've got the Nuggets compilation to thank.
If you can't tell an Electric Prune from a Chocolate Watchband, fear not, because Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-68 is back in print, and in Rhino's 4-CD reissue this first-ever garage-rock compilation now comprises more than a hundred tracks. Originally released on Elektra in 1972, Nuggets was, in its first version, a double album of mid-'60s American garage-rock gems compiled by rock critic and future Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye. It kicked in with the Electric Prunes, came down with the Magic Mushrooms, and dove deep into a gene pool of Beatles, Stones, and Kinks mutations, including such monsters as Boston's Standells ("Dirty Water") and Houston's Thirteenth Floor Elevators ("You're Gonna Miss Me").
In its day, the Nuggets compilation was an unheard-of aberration. Not only did it give the historical treatment to pop songs only about half a decade old (and you thought the '80s revival felt premature!), but the songs in question were minor hits or flat-out obscurities. Even at their cleanest, they sounded rude, raw, splintery, and downright alien compared to the smoothly sanded and bland radio hits by early-'70s hitmakers like Bread or Neil Diamond.
Though Nuggets sold only modestly (Kaye estimates cumulative sales at around 10,000), it delivered one of the first and rudest kicks in the rear to a bloated and complacent rock biz. Legend has it that it helped inspire upstarts like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols to more or less self-consciously invent punk. (Indeed, the liner notes contain one of the earliest documented uses of the term "punk-rock.") Of course, other forces fed the punk revolution (such as the Stooges, the Velvets, the recession, and what the Buzzcocks referred to as "boredom-ba-dum ba-dum"). However, Nuggets gets the lion's share of the credit for first recognizing a genre that, in the wake of the appropriation of the term "punk," became known instead as "garage" rock.
What Kaye didn't know at the time was that he'd unearthed a huge pile of rock 'n' rubble: Music buffs soon began to discover thousands of one-off singles and albums of garage dementia. When Elektra failed to release the promised second volume of Nuggets, mostly due to permission problems, Greg Shaw, editor of the garage-rock zine BOMP!, launched his own fine follow-up series called Pebbles (now totaling more than 30 volumes), which was in turn followed by a slew of compilations of varying sound quality, musical worth, and/or legality. Today there are so many that there's a book-length guide titled The Children of Nuggets. And ever since the Paisley Revival of the early '80s, enough retro-garage acts have surfaced to keep vendors of those sad-looking Beatles boots in business for years to come.
For those who have any interest in this music (with or without the accessories) but haven't the time, energy, or money to chase down all these '60s garage comps--a pursuit nearly as exhausting as attempting to collect the original records--Rhino's new Nuggets box is a rare treat. Not to be confused with the label's inferior early-'90s Nuggets series, this four-CD collection includes the long-out-of-print original compilation as Volume 1, then appends three more CDs of young, loud, and snotty material that shares the irreverent spirit of the original. The sound quality is impressive, the liner notes are exhaustive, and the track selections reap the benefits of previous garage historians. The box set draws heavily from an old list of 50 songs Kaye had prepared as contenders for the follow-up volume--including such indisputable classics as "Spazz" by the Elastik Band and "Action Woman" by Minneapolis's own Litter. Sure, one could quibble with certain choices--why "Double Yellow Line" and not "Masculine Intuition" as a second Music Machine offering (the first, of course, being "Talk Talk")? And why cloister the legend of the Monks (another local outfit) with one enigmatic cut, "Complications"?
But anyone who would indulge these kinds of arguments probably owns the Music Machine and Monks reissues already. If anything, the content errs a bit on the side of commercialism. Which follows the Rhino aesthetic--remember, they're the label that brought you the Have A Nice Day series of Top-40 bubblegum comps from the 1970s. Some of the new Nuggets' more blatant frat-rock entries--Sam the Sham's "Wooly Bully," the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie"--have made it onto other Rhino comps, perhaps thanks to what they refer to in industry-speak as "licensing synergies." But when seen through the convex lens of 30 years, those oldies radio staples jibe well with the original Nuggets vision of great, gritty radio throwaways.
"Wooly Bully" was actually an original Kaye pick. And "Louie Louie," lest we forget, deserves inclusion as the veritable cultural Rorschach blot of its era, inciting a round of Cold War hysteria about the new sexual licentiousness of youth and its frank expression in filthy rock lyrics. The FBI began an obscenity investigation they eventually dropped only after spending thousands of taxpayer dollars in a futile effort to make out what the heck vocalist Jack Ely was saying beneath all his drooling and muttering. (One of the great things about the Nuggets box is that you can learn neat stuff like the name of the lead singer in the Kingsmen.)
But what does it mean to fashion a new reissue compilation out of an old reissue compilation? What does it mean in 1998 to see veteran garage revivalists the Fleshtones still pounding out the old Third Bardo chestnut "I'm Five Years Ahead of My Time," as they did at the Nuggets box party recently held at downtown New York City's Continental Club? You won't need a roadmap to follow the ironies: They're the same old ones that come our way like a wrong turn every time a revolution gets stale.
Greg Shaw once told the zine Big Noise, "the first time around this stuff was so intense and disturbing that it was a threat to the status quo in a lot of ways." He then shrugged, "Once something passes beyond its creative phase into a preservation phase, it becomes something different, like a lifeless artifact or a museum piece, and it's no threat to anybody." Aw, come on, Greg. Even if some of the freshness and force of this music has diminished with the passage of time, a few scraps of perversion/subversion must cling to the sounds. No matter how many sixth-generation Paisley Underground bands have duly churned out tired Blues Magoos covers, the guitar solo on the original version of "(We Ain't Got) Nothin' Yet" still brandishes the Gorgon-like transformative power of sheer ugliness. (More fun with historical irony: At the opening snarled salvo of any Nuggets number, this reviewer's boyfriend, an electronica aficionado, claps his hands over his ears and groans, "Turn that noise off!")
"Garage music is almost like the first rung on the rock 'n' roll ladder; it continues to be replicated whenever rock needs a restart," Kaye mused during a recent phone conversation. "What people seized on in the original Nuggets--what caused it to live on for 25 years, which is a remarkable thing for an oldies album--is the spirit behind these bands. Not so much the way they sounded, or that 1965 to 1968 was a more golden era than, say, 1975 to '78, or '85 to '88, or even '95 to '98. I'm a believer that the music of the present has as many nuggets in it as any time. But I think what people liked about these ['60s] bands is their earnestness, their desire, their intent and longing to be a part of rock 'n' roll, their reveling in it and enjoyment of it. To me, that's the starting point for having bands, or for wanting to get up on that stage for the first time and see who the heck you are."
But will kids still keep playing rock 'n' roll? "That's a good question. It's been around for 50 years now....Musics do die," Kaye concedes. And there's something deadening about a definitive anthology--acknowledging the historical importance and aesthetic greatness of a person, band, or movement seals its sarcophagus with a musty slam. What the Sun box is to rockabilly, or the Stax box to soul, the Nuggets box is to garage rock.
Yet while it's often better to save a good thing for posterity than lose it forever, The Box Set Law of Thermodynamics dictates that for everything gained, there's something lost. These impeccably pressed songs wail like caged animals, preserved from extinction, perhaps, but only in a context in which everything evolution designed them to do is totally pointless.
But there was always something contradictory about garage rock anyway: a nonconformist message delivered on the spiffiest of modern appliances. Take a song like "Primitive" by the Groupies (one of the high points on disc 3). As the singer growls "Primitive--that's how I live," a swampy, reverb-dripping riff shamelessly copped from Muddy Waters dips you up to the neck in primordial soup. It's convincingly Neanderthal. When the power goes out, all our batteries die, and we're left with the hulks of plastic and metal that used to be our CD players and turntables, guitars and amps, we can bang on them all we like, it'll be plenty primitive, but it won't sound anything like "Primitive."
Thankfully, until that day, there's time to soak up some crazy, antiquated amplification. Kaye observes, "You can't know where this music will wind up, but if it's out there, sooner or later somebody's going to come along and use it to help create the future." He adds, "I'm into the future." And the future looks brighter for being a future in which, as Kaye says, "people will still be able to know who the Electric Prunes are--aside from a funny name." A gifted few will even be able to hum along. CP
Thursday, October 15 at 8:00 p.m. CST, Talk City (www.talkcity.com) will host an online Nuggets chat with Dick Dodd of The Standells, Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere & The Raiders, and Kim Fowley.
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