Sonic Boom! The History of Northwest Rock, from “Louie Louie” to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

(Backbeat)

 

www.halleonard.com

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

Regional histories or overviews always have one strike
against them in that they are, in fact, regional:
what may seem an indispensable chronicle to the locals whose area is being
profiled runs the risk of being just a laundry list of obscure names, places
and events to outsiders. And from a compelling-read standpoint, the problem is
sometimes compounded no matter who’s doing the chronicling; a longtime
scenester who has the requisite intimate access may lack the journalistic chops
to convincingly frame the big picture, instead getting bogged down with
minutiae, while even the most well-meaning carpetbagger can overlook the
telling, colorful details that help bring a region’s story alive.

 

Such is not the case with author Peter Blecha’s study of the
Pacific Northwest. Blecha, a historian and
former Experience Music Project curator who was once called “the Indiana Jones
of rock ‘n’ roll” by Seattle’s The Rocket,
manages to strike a winning balance between the opposite poles just outlined
through a mixture of scrupulous research (seemingly every still-living early DJ
and small label owner that ever operated out of Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, etc.
during the ‘50s and ‘60s was interviewed, for example) and genuine passion for
his subject – for Blecha, The Wailers’ seminal instrumental “Tall Cool One,”
cut in a downtown Seattle studio in August of ’58, was every bit as musically
riveting – and, in its own context, influential – as “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
was three decades-plus later.

 

 

 

 

Blecha does spend a good bit more time focusing on the early
years, which consume two-thirds of this 300-page volume (the late ‘80s to the
present are covered in just 25 pages). But in doing so – and by not
unnecessarily recounting every well-worn grunge tale we’ve already heard – he
builds a strong case for the Northwest being far more than just the region that
bequeathed Nirvana, Mudhoney and Pearl Jam.

 

From lively descriptions of the black-owned cabarets that
operated in Seattle during segregation and spawned talent like Ray Charles;
through the ‘60s explosion of teenage R&B, pop and garage combos such as
the Ventures, the Sonics, the Kingsmen and Paul Revere & the Raiders
(there’s a priceless chapter outlining the mad race to see which of those
latter two bands’ version of “Louie Louie” could be muscled into the national
charts first); and onward to the relatively fallow ‘70s (one key exception:
Heart) as the nascent stirrings of the metal, punk and hip-hop scenes were
gradually felt: Blecha’s central point is that regardless of whatever successes
or failures any particular era enjoyed, there were always forces in place –
some of them, such as ordinances severely restricting what teenagers were
allowed to do in public, seemingly counterintuitive except with the benefit of
hindsight – to keep moving the region’s rich, and indelible, musical legacy
forward.

 

Really, can anyone even conceive of rock ‘n’ roll existing
in the form it does today if the Kingsmen hadn’t gone into an aging three-track
radio jingle production studio, in April of ’63, to cut, as Blecha puts it so
delightfully, “probably the sloppiest two-minute and forty-two seconds of rock
‘n’ roll every captured on magnetic tape – and thus a stone classic”?

 

 

Incidentally, that vaunted NW sound not only is still heard
echoing in the music of today’s generation of rockers, it also endures in pure
form: At the 2009 South By Southwest festival in Austin, the Sonics took
the stage at Emo’s and proceeded to burn down the whole fuggin’ house. The
sight of these older – notice I didn’t say “old” – cats blasting through
classic after classic (Gerry Roslie in particular unleashing his patented blood
curdling screech) as a sardine-packed room of fans young enough to be the band
members’ grandchildren looked on, pumped fists in air, and sang their lyrics
right back at them, will be one of my most enduring SXSW memories ever. FRED
MILLS

 

 

[Pictured: (above) The
Sonics circa 1967; (below) from FBI files, a 1964 letter sent from a concerned
parent to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy complaining about “Louie Louie”
]

 

 

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