NOT JUST ANOTHER BAND FROM EAST L.A. Thee Midniters

Commercially
marginalized in their time, the ‘60s garage/soul ravers finally get their due.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

You can hear their influence in the likes of King
Khan & the Shrines and Reigning Sound, not to mention such rock legends as
Los Lobos and the Plimsouls. From vintage R&B and psychedelic soul to
raveup garage and multi-culti Latino rock: Thee Midniters, a little ol’ band
from East L.A., had it all down and then some,
and though they never really broke nationally, to crate diggers and ‘60s
aficionados they remain legendary and among the toppermost. Thanks to the smartly-packaged
four-CD boxed set Complete: Songs of
Love, Rhythm & Psychedelia!
(Micro Werks) the group’s recorded legacy
now gets a shot at a larger appraisal beyond the admiration of collectors.

 

Who were Thee Midniters? As outlined in archivist Richie
Unterberger’s incisive liner notes (Unterberger previously did an in-depth
profile of the band in his 2000 book Urban
Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators and Eccentric Visionaries
of ‘60s Rock
), the Chicano band formed in East Los Angeles while most of
the members were still in high school, playing the covers of the day at the
usual teen dance parties, eventually graduating to the recording studio where
they cut their first album, 1965’s Whittier
Blvd.
, which contained a pair of regional hits, the title track – “a warped
mutation of the Rolling Stones’ ‘2120 South Michigan Avenue’,” is how
Unterberger describes it – and a rousing cover of “Land Of A Thousand Dances.”
Armed with the killer instinct and soulful lead vocals of Willie Garcia (a/k/a Little
Willie G
, who’d go on to work with Los Lobos, Ry Cooder, Los Straitjackets and
others) and possessing an uncanny ability to both channel and transcend their
influences, Thee Midniters served up a heady stew, one that was primarily rock
and soul-based but occasionally spiced up with touches of their
Mexican-American musical heritage (although to this day the surviving musicians
will insist that they were not playing
Latin rock per se; they just happened to be Latinos who
rocked).

 

Observes Lobos’ Louie Perez in Unterberger’s liners, “Thee
Midniters didn’t stay in one predictable place. They were willing to push the
envelope of what was expected by a band that was from East
Los Angeles… [They] were the best band around at the time. They
became our Beatles; all the stuff that was going on in Beatlemania, we
translated into Midniter mania. It gave young kids who would eventually become
musicians like myself inspiration to pursue a career in music.”

 

It’s not hard to hear why, based on the four complete LPs
and assorted B-sides and rarities represented on Complete. The first album primarily comprises cover tunes,
standouts ranging from the swaggering R&B of Marvin Gaye’s “Stubborn Kind
Of Fellow” and street-corner group the Concords’ smooth “Come Back Baby” to the
aforementioned “1000 Dances” and signs-of-the-times rockers “Slow Down,”
“Money” and “Johnny B. Goode”; anyone who grew up on this material can picture
him- or herself crowding down front at the local high school hop, freed for an
hour or two from parental constraints and cutting loose while going through the
rituals of teenage courtship. The bonus material (seven songs) yields its own
trove of gold, including a swinging “Heat Wave” and a two-part live version of
“1000 Dances.”

 

1966’s Thee Midniters
Bring You Love Special Delivery
, though, is where things start to heat up.
Still dominating the setlist are covers, notably smoking takes of “Do You Love
Me,” “Good Lovin'” and “Gloria” (the latter has a punkish vocal snarl and
angular guitar attack that very nearly tops the Van Morrison/Them original)
plus the obligatory soul outings (“When A Man Loves A Woman” passes the
audition) and at least one stab at pure schmaltz (“Strangers In The Night,”
which no doubt was strategically deployed at those dance hops to melt the hearts
and part the thighs of sweet young things). But with torrid originals like
“Love Special Delivery” (penned by Garcia and bassist Jimmy Espinoza, it’s on
fire with surging horns, a Who-worthy rhythm section and searing lead guitar;
I’m betting King Khan has heard this a time or two) and funky, loony R&B
raver “I Found A Peanut,” you get a clear sense of how rapidly the band was
evolving. There’s also an astounding band-penned instrumental among the four
bonus cuts titled “Thee Midnite Feeling,” which with its cinematic/psychedelic
funk vibe demands to be covered in the modern era by the Budos Band or the
Dap-Kings.

 

Sure enough, with the stage duly set, on 1967’s Unlimited the band comes out firing masterfully
with all guns. Opening track “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” may be
remembered by most as a Solomon Burke tune subsequently covered by the Rolling
Stones, but here it’s a throbbing, churning, hormone-drenched garage anthem
worthy of any Nuggets or Pebbles collection that totally
demolishes the Stones’ version. And this time around the LP primarily consists of
originals; no slight to “Devil With A Blue Dress”/”Good Golly Miss Molly” (an overwrought
take of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” is best ignored), but with such gems as
brown-eyed soul weeper “Making Ends Meet,” the jaunty, swinging “Cheatin’ Woman,”
Yardbirds/Sonics pastiche “Welcome Home Darling” and horn-powered, Latin rock instrumental
“Chile Con Soul,” it’s a real head-scratcher to think that Thee Midniters never
really notched any significant national chart action. A whopping eight bonus
tracks round out the disc, notably the rambunctious, speed-rapping (in Spanish)
mariachi rocker “The Big Ranch (El Rancho Grande)”; the Mexican folk-flavored
“The Ballad of Cesar Chavez” (two versions, one in English and one in Spanish);
and a track that Unterberger rightly pegs as “one of the greatest
R&B-grounded garage rockers ever waxed,” the positively riotous – but unerringly
groove-driven – “Jump, Jive, and Harmonize.”

 

Hell, that song alone is worth the price of admission to this box.

 

Thee Midniters’ swan song came in 1969 with Giants, a kind of odds-and-sods affair
released in the aftermath of Garcia’s departure from the group. By this point
the inability to make much headway beyond their SoCal base of operations was
taking its toll; Thee Midniters recorded for a pair of regional operations, the
Chattahoochee and Whittier labels, that suffered from limited distribution, and
for some reason the group’s management passed on a chance to ink a deal with
RCA. Still, Giants has its share of
wonderful moments. Some material is reprised from earlier releases, including “Whittier Boulevard”
and a live “Land
of A Thousand Dances.” A
five-minute instrumental cover of “Walk On By” is revelatory, its part-spiky/part-lush
horn charts lending a twinned edgy/sensual feel that, had the tune been
released a year or so later, would have been perfect for the soundtrack of a
Blaxploitation flick. And original “Breakfast On The Grass,” though somewhat
anomalous for the band, is a classic slice of psychedelic pop that might have
found a home on Top 40 radio; peace, love and flower power, anyone? A final
single, included here among the three bonus tracks, was recorded by the band in
’69, a defiant yet buoyant Latin rocker titled “Chicano Power” that ranks
alongside Santana and War. Speaking of which, also included is the previously
unreleased “Baila Cinderella,” a Spanish language Hubert Laws cover that, with
its lead guitar and Latin percussion, makes for a satisfying Santana
doppelganger.

 

Each original album is presented as a tri-fold digipak
featuring reproductions of the original sleeve art plus images of rare 45s and
track annotations for the non-LP material. The four digis along with
Unterberger’s liner notes are housed in a handsome 5″ x 6″ x 1 ½” box, making
it an artifact that no self-respecting fan of Thee Midniters’ oeuvre will want
to pass up – it’s not for the iTunes crowd, although individual tracks are
clearly worth cherrypicking next time the urge to make a garage-tilting mixtape
strikes. The collection was compiled from “best available” vinyl sources,
meaning that in places you will indeed hear surface noise and minor pops and
ticks, but don’t let that deter ya: think of it as your personal gateway to an
authentically recreated experience.

 

Star rating note: If
pressed to assign a starred rating, out of 10 I’d be forced to give the
caveat-minded “8.” Let me say that on purely musical and archival terms, this
deserves a “9” and possibly even the full “10” monty; it’s that invaluable. And
the packaging, as suggested above, is pure collector catnip. Unfortunately the
compilers opted to include, in lieu of a booklet, a 16-panel, 9″ x 19″ fold-out
poster that features credits and liners on one side and a photo montage on the
other – and the photos on that are
criminally obscured by large red lettering that reads “Thee Complete
Midniters.” Budgetary concession or otherwise, it was a bad call, hence the
“8”: having to unfold the contraption whenever you want to check the liners and
then fold it all back together in order to place it back in the box is a bit
annoying, and over time those liners will additionally wind up with a series of
text-obscuring wear lines, which will be even more annoying.

 

Casual consumers might call this much ado about nothing, but
Complete: Songs of Love, Rhythm &
Psychedelia!
ain’t aimed at casual consumers. My guess is that anyone who’s
read this far is already frothing at the mouth – or at least experiencing a
mild case of Pavlovian drip. So with the above caveat duly noted, l will still
advise, and wholeheartedly, to run,
don’t walk, to your nearest record emporium, and purchase on sight. Those
already in the know will cheer, and newcomers will find a whole new universe
opening up to them. Señoras
y señores, start your low riders…

 

 

 

 

 

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