DISTORTION PEDALS, VINYL RECORDS & THE STATE OF GARAGE: The Knights Of Fuzz (The Garage Chronicles Pt. 1 – A Blurt Book Excerpt)

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Ed. note: The Knights of Fuzz project began in 1991 as the “Echoes In Time” book, which doubled in size by 1995 when re-titled “The Knights of Fuzz.” Author Timothy Gassen added audio and video for the 2001 CD-rom edition, and then produced a video DVD version in 2006. Now the book returns as a 500-page paperback opus, detailing the global garage and psychedelic music revival since 1980. Here is an edited excerpt from the introduction to the 2014 book’s update section, and we are proud to present it as the initial installment in what we hope to be a recurring series at BLURT “The Garage Chronicles.”

BY TIMOTHY GASSEN

The very definition of what constitutes “garage” and “psychedelic” music has evolved since the 1995 edition of “The Knights of Fuzz” saw publication. New sub-genres of the sound have laid claim to the moniker garage, while trippy sounds far-removed from their 1960s grandfathers’ label themselves psychedelic. I enjoy many of the bands in the “somewhat-related-to-garage” category, but this book remains focused on those who take the 1960s definition of garage and psych (pop) to heart.

And a curious battle it is for today’s young bands that see 1985 as a distance in the far past much as the 1980s revivalists saw 1965. The fact that new 1960s-styled bands keep appearing – now with musicians born in the 1980s and later – baffles many observers. Luca Re, vocalist with Italy’s long-running garage kings The Sick Rose, explained to me, “The 1960s sound now has become a musical standard, like folk music. It is a form that can continue as its own, like classical music, in its own way.”

And I think Luca is correct – even as kids re-define garage to be heard as “lo-fi” or “psycho-billy” or “shoegazer trance,” the original 1960s-style will also somehow survive.

But how new garage and psych bands approach their sound is much different in 2014 than, say, in 1984. Freddy Fortune, of the essential Fortune & Maltese band, told me, “Back in the 1980s and 1990s most if not all of the obscure garage bands from the ‘60s were so mysterious, you really had to search out fanzines or actually track down the bands yourself if you wanted to know more. So it was almost some kind of new frontier of a forgotten time.

“Today, all one has to do for research is use the internet and many of those mysteries unravel in front of your eyes immediately,” he continued. “I also think that, because another 20 years has passed by, that new bands that really ‘get it’ and try to do that authentic sound are getting to be fewer and fewer. It’s also harder to find songs to cover that nobody has heard. In the 1980s you could get away with playing the Sonics – now it would be an utter cliché to do that.”

Nick Salomon, the force behind the long-running U.K. hard psych Bevis Frond, agrees. “In the 1980s the garage bands had probably been directly influenced by the classic ‘60s bands, while now it’s a couple of degrees of separation. I’m guessing The Chesterfield Kings (and others) actually bought records by The Electric Prunes or The Standells and saw them on TV while it was actually happening. Now, you’d be checking them out online as a kind of historical artifact. (Today) it’s less to do with the feel of the times, and more to do with the look and an approximation of the sound.”

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So garage bands are still forming, but in what form their released music will survive is also up in the air. The neo-garage movement began when vinyl records were still king, then by the early 1900s even indie labels could release affordable CDs – and in the 2000s the CD gave way to Internet digital downloads as a dominant format. Then, completely un-expectantly, vinyl records began a slow and steady revival of their own.

This acceptance of vinyl record releases in the second decade of the 2000s is especially advantageous for current garage-psych bands, since that is the way many fans believe this music is meant to be heard. Garage fans already understand the tactile enjoyment of holding an actual physical release, with a cool cover graphic, and an actual disc to play.

Digital files on a portable device are fine for listening on an airplane, but can you imagine the stunted impact that The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” album would have had in 1967 (or if released now) without its colorful gatefold sleeve and carefully arranged two-sided song line-up? A list of file names on a computer hard drive can never duplicate the immersion into a band’s style and sound like an actual vinyl record and its sleeve. As Get Hip Records honcho (and Cynics guitarist) Gregg Kostelich told me, “Downloading bores me to tears.”

So the irony is delicious – as the digital media world engulfs us globally, garage fans can find even more new vinyl releases to share and spread their gospel. And remember that vinyl can survive the decades. The U.S. Library of Congress still accepts the vinyl record as the only long-term archive medium for music. No one knows the long-range survivability of digital files or CDs, but the good old vinyl record can last for hundreds of years.

But while the vinyl record remains the ultimate goal for garage fans, the digital download is still the current king in the commercial music industry – with serious ramifications for the garage scene.

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We’ve certainly witnessed a profound change in how most listeners consume music with the acceptance of the Internet as the global default communication medium – a form that was just getting a foothold when my original 1995 book was published. The positive ability to instantly hear and see a band from anywhere in the world is certainly welcome, but it also has severe ramifications on how fans are found and cultivated. It is difficult for kids today to comprehend that 1980s neo-garage lovers, like me, had to find a street address somewhere and write an actual paper letter to a band in Sweden or beyond, ask a few questions, and then hope that in a month’s time perhaps they would answer. By definition fans who took this time and effort over years were dedicated – “True Believers” – as I will call them throughout this book.

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Today a kid can zip through a whole nation’s musical scene in a day, chew on some of it and spit it out – and move on to more new free meat in a different genre. A person’s attachment to a band, as a “fan,” is today very tenuous. “Yes, the internet has made everything easy to find or hear, but that hasn’t generally led to bigger audiences, more sales, or more knowledgeable fans,” Bart Mendoza of Manual Scan and The Shambles told me. “When everything is available all the time, nothing is special.”

And “free” is also a vital term, since now people who call themselves “fans” can steal a band’s entire discography – years of hard work and investment – with a few keyboard clicks and a few minutes of download time. While this kind of electronic bootlegging and stealing affects major label profit margins, it is absolutely devastating to the indie record market – and especially threatening in smaller sub-scenes such as garage-psych.

Prominent garage labels have told me that their sales of actual physical releases – vinyl and CDs mainly – have dropped dramatically since the ease of illegal Internet downloading has become the norm. Within a day of an indie label releasing a vinyl record or CD for sale its entire contents are invariably online and shared illegally through underground Web pages and networks. This simply means that garage labels and bands are making less and less profit and therefore are releasing fewer and fewer records. What once were a profitable 1,000 sales for a band’s new album can now be 200 sales or less.

Illegal downloading, simply, is crippling – and could kill – a fragile, small scene such as garage-psych.

Perhaps the most disturbing trend is that “fans” who upload and download bootlegged music – especially those under 30 years of age – do not even admit or understand they are thieves. They equate the technological ability to share digital files as the right to take other people’s intellectual property. These are not music fans. They are simply thieves.

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How a record label does its public business also has shifted since 1995, in great part because of the Internet and digital download world. Never an easy business to maintain in any era, independent record labels have struggled to survive – especially in the garage-psych genre. Many of the 1980s and ‘90s main U.S. garage labels (such as Get Hip, Bomp!, Dionysus, and Estrus) diversified their range of styles, distancing themselves from the perception of being merely a “garage revival” label. Many other labels simply stopped operation.

Other long-time garage-related labels soldiered on, amazingly releasing a slew of new material to its niche market. Important labels such as Detour, Dirty Water, and Twist (all in the UK), Screaming Apple, and Soundflat (in Germany) all survived the new century, all the way to this 2014 writing. A few new labels, such as Portugal’s fine Groovie Records, Greece’s Action, Lost in Tyme, and Sound Effect, and the USA’s 13 O’Clock Records also joined the economically-tough record-releasing fray. (There are many other relevant record labels, as noted throughout this book.)

The use by bands of Internet “crowd-funding” sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo also has revealed the overly self-interested nature of some garage record labels. The mere idea that fans could directly fund a band’s release – with no record label as the middle man – is an ultimate threat to an indie label. After all, if a band can appeal directly to their fans and then make their own record, why is an actual record label even necessary? The answer: in many ways, today, record labels are not necessary. This has resulted in some label owners voicing privately to me (and publicly) their wish that bands fail when using crowd-funding campaigns, and voicing their disdain for bands that attempt (and succeed) when using that method to release music.

This attitude of “there’s only room for me to succeed” – so common in all levels of the business world – makes the global garage music scene shrink. Cooperation and goodwill between bands, fans, and record labels, in comparison, can grow and spread an underground sound such as garage-psych. That spirit was much more in evidence (in my view at least) in the original 1980-1995 garage revival era.

“There was also a dedication that doesn’t happen today, and there was a sense of unity between all the different little scenes,” longtime garage-scene musician Bart Mendoza told me. “In the old days it was, and for many of us remains, a way of life.”

I still consider The Chesterfield Kings the most significant band of the neo-garage era, and vocalist Greg Prevost told me, “I remember playing the Peppermint Lounge around 1981 to 1984 in particular – and it was like this family – everyone was friends, guys and gals with the ‘look’ or not, just people turned onto this sound, including guys from other bands, guys from the coolest record stores – it was actually a great vibe.

“It was great while it lasted – but that feeling and camaraderie is not present these days,” he continued. “There is still the movement and the spark among guys who are in bands, but the universal following is sort of lost.”

And make no mistake – the financial feasibility of operating a ‘60s-styled garage band has changed since the 1980s, and not for the better. “In the 1980s and early ‘90s most of the people in my bands did music for a living,” Bruce Joyner of the seminal early 1980s The Unknowns told me. “There was a circuit to play in each large town or city. I fed myself and paid the rent. Today that is not the case – musicians usually work full time jobs or live at home with their parents. Paying jobs, playing clubs locally or state-to-state, are rare. More musicians do it as a hobby on the garage band level, not as a paying thing.”

And while commercial bands which feature some element of the garage-psych sound are not the focus of this book, their influence can’t be ignored. The White Stripes’ early 2000s success is among the most financially lucrative in indie rock music history, and while they don’t fit the1966 definition of “garage,” they certainly exposed similarly raw sounds to millions of unknowing kids. Unfortunately, this also meant that other, lesser-inspired bands adopted the affectation of some similar “garage” elements in a careerist stab at financial gain – and those bands won’t be found in this book.

Some notable commercial groups that do merit praise include The Raveonettes, with many fine releases – dig their superb 2014 cover of the Doors’ “The End” as one example. Both The Hives and The Vines have also deposited blistering garage-fueled major label records, too. Yes, we could start to discuss Oasis and other mega-acts somewhat associated with the garage-psych “sound,” but again, they are not the focus of this book, which is centered on what is most certainly best when still in the underground.

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In these difficult financial times some of the most important garage-psych bands from the original 1980s revival era somehow continued to tour and make records. As of this 2014 writing, genre greats such as The Fleshtones, Fuzztones, and Cynics are still going strong, and The Chesterfield Kings only recently called it quits after three decades of mastering the garage world. (This makes my own 25-year Marshmallow Overcoat garage band journey seem brief!) [Ed. note: go HERE to read our review of the Overcoat’s recent 2LP anthology The Very Best Of.]

And there were some notable reunion shows, too. In December 2013 the “Paisley Underground” concerts in L.A. and San Francisco featured The Bangles, Three O’Clock, Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade – the same impressive lineup that graced a landmark 1982 show at the Music Machine club in Los Angeles.

Guitarist Matt Piucci, of The Rain Parade, told me, “It seems like even more fun now – and I do feel we have a legacy of which we can be proud, and this can only come with time. Now that we are thirty plus years past our inception, history really does include us as an influential and important band. We have a lot of respect from our peers and from younger bands.” Not stuck in the past, though, Piucci adds, “It’s great to have this thing, Rain Parade, that we can celebrate, and to have that thing engender interest from really cool musicians so that new, other things can flow from it.”

A series of popular garage music festivals also continue to take place annually, most successfully in Europe each Spring and Summer. The tribes shall gather and the fuzz shall be shared!

And there are still notable 1980s garagers still making some of the most vibrant sounds today. Swedish garage maven Jens Lindberg played in seminal 1980s bands such as The Crimson Shadows and Highspeed V – and continues the tradition today in The Majarajas. He told me, “In the 1980s I was like a child learning to walk – everything was new, you ‘discovered’ new songs every day, and it was like entering a big treasure chamber and you just found bigger, greater things the more you dwelled in that cave. In other words, we were innocent.

“Nowadays I feel like a connoisseur – I’ve heard so much so I can pick and choose what I want to create from a 60 year historic span of rock-n-roll,” he said.

And with that span of time we also lost some of the neo-garage era’s most dedicated musicians. Paula Pierce of The Pandoras left us in 1991 and Wendy Wyld of The Mad Violets passed in 1996 – and we should not forget Lux Interior of the still wildly influential Cramps, gone in 2009.

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In 2004 the garage scene was dealt one of its most devastating blows: Greg Shaw died of heart failure. The legendary record collector and music historian brought us Bomp! Records in 1974 and later Voxx Records, which specialized in the neo-garage revival. His good taste in underground rock is well known: DEVO, The Romantics, The Shoes, Plimsouls and Flamin’ Groovies were all championed by him, and later he opened doors for The Miracle Workers, Pandoras and many other garage revivalists, too.

It should be emphasized that Greg Shaw’s “Pebbles” compilation album series (and the later “Highs In The Mid-Sixties” series) was instrumental in the garage revival. Without these collections of original 1966-styled garage sounds, many bands (like mine) wouldn’t have had a roadmap to create their own garage sound.

Losing other personal friends such as Alan Wright (of The 14th Wray and others) in 2004, Greg Johnson (of The Worst, and The Fiends) in 2009, and Mark Smith (Creatures of the Golden Dawn) in 2011 emphasized to me that soon all that will be left of our garage scene will be the records we’ve made.

So it is with that adult understanding, far away from the first blush of fervor and dedication I felt to underground rock as a teenager, that we begin the updates to the original 1995 “Knights of Fuzz” book.

And with goodwill to all garage bands everywhere…

Tim G

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Below, watch a short documentary from the KOF DVD. Timothy Gassen lives in Tucson, AZ, and along with the BLURT editor knows where most of the bodies are buried. (Hint: in the desert, just west of the city, under a very large bed of caliche clay.) He also knows the difference between reverb and tremolo, which is more than most of you can claim, eh? Complete book information on the Knights of Fuzz is at www.tinyurl.com/lnlyvva and you can also check out the KoF Facebook page at www.facebook.com/groups/knightsoffuzz/

 

The Knights Of Fuzz DVD introduction from Timothy Gassen on Vimeo.

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