Thee Midniters – Complete: Songs of Love, Rhythm & Psychedelia!

January 01, 1970

(Micro Werks)

 

www.ccmusic.com

 

You can hear their influence in
the contemporary 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…

 

Standout Tracks: “Jump, Jive, and Harmonize,” “Whittier Boulevard,” “Love Special
Delivery,” “Walk On By,” “Chicano Power” FRED MILLS

 

 

 

Ed Note: Micro Werks does not appear to have an official website, just
a Facebook page, located here:

 

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Micro-Werks/111358362034

 

The URL at the top of this review will take you to Collector’s Choice
Music where you can order the fine archival products offered by Micro Werks.

 

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