THE SONICS: MAINTAINING MY COOL
CD Liner-notes by Peter Blecha, © Copyright 1990
BRACE YOURSELF MY FRIEND. What you hold in your hands is no less than a digitally remastered reissue of savage ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll as created by one of the few truly legendary bands of any era – The Sonics. “Legendary”? A recording act with nary an international smash hit to their credit? A combo that is missing from nearly all of the standard rock reference tomes? A band that had performed almost strictly to small audiences in the backwaters of the Pacific Northwest? Yup: Legendary with a capital L.
Interest in the band persists decades after their demise because the Sonics’ pioneering punky musical approach predated and quite conceivably influenced later 3-chord wonders including: the Standells, Kinks, Music Machine, Seeds, Blues Magoos, Stooges, et al. Although never blessed with the commercial successes of some of these snot-nosed punks, the Sonics were undeniably a musical force with lasting impact.
Indeed, the Sonics’ particularly crude musical genius has in recent years been recognized by various authorities ranging from the editors at the Time Life Books/Records outfit (which, albeit decades-after-the-fact, included a Sonics tune on one of their “Sixties sounds” compilations), to the Sex Pistols (who offered verbal kudos to their forebears). Rockers as stylistically divergent as Boss Springsteen and the Cramps have been known to perform in concert various songs associated with the Sonics. And it wasn’t too long ago that an entire tribute album was issued featuring a passel of current bands each pounding out their versions of classic Sonics gems. In addition, the Sonics’ raucous tunes have appeared in the soundtrack to German art flicks, on countless garage/punk compilation albums, and have been bootlegged for sale by piratical record companies worldwide.
Enter Maintaining My Cool. This compact disc package includes both the Sonics’ two regional radio hits from ’65 – “The Witch” and “Psycho” – couple with thirteen of the preferred tunes culled from the original band’s final recording sessions in 1966. But, more about that later…
The Sonics’ saga traces back to their hometown of Tacoma, Washington. A town forever in the shadow of Mt. Rainier and its first rock ‘n’ roll band, the Wailers. Like other teenagers, the Sonics’ band-members – Larry Parypa (guitar), Andy Parypa (bass), Bob Bennett (drums), Rob Lind (sax), & Gerry Roslie (keys/vocals) – exposure to big-beat music was largely limited to weekend sock-hops.
Of course, back in those days the kids danced to Top-40 singles as spun by local disc jockeys – or, if on occasion there was a live act it would necessarily be some sort of polite jazz sextet or a union-approved stage band. There were, after all, no rock combos on the local scene yet.
None, that is, until one young Dixieland band slowly but inexorably mutated into a rock ‘n’ roll ensemble called the Wailers. Then in ’59 the Wailers surprised everybody by scoring a couple of international hits with groundbreaking instrumental-rock numbers like “Tall Cool One.”
Following in the wake of the Wailers’ left-field success, Tacoma saw the emergence of a number of early combos including: Little Bill & the Blue Notes, the Convertors, Sharps, Princetons, and the Ventures. Along with a few Seattle-based groups these acts were among the first generation of local rockers who would forge the new “northwest Sound” out of elements and influences as disparate as the musics of: Little Richard, Richard Berry, and Bill Doggett.
By 1960 the Wailers had rebelled against their New York-based label, and then acting all codes of conventional industry wisdom, the teenaged musicians went ahead and formed their own company, Etiquette Records. Their first release in 1961 was a 45 that instantly defined the region’s new style of rockin’: “Louie Louie.”
This occurred at a time when the Pacific Northwest’s teen-scene was really just string to pick up steam. The teen-dance circuit itself began to evolve around the activities of a few enterprising radio DJ’s-turned-promoters. And as the regional scene expanded it became clear who was the reigning kingpin: Pat O’Day the top on-air man and Program Director at the area’s AM giant, Seattle’s KJR. By this time KJR had a growing reputation for breaking new hits (nationally) and for supporting various local 45s with airplay.
By 1962-’63 combos were emerging from garages on every street it seemed. A few of the newest Tacoma groups included the Sultans, Solitudes, Searchers, and our boys, the Sonics. After a couple years bangin’ out as close a facsimile of the Wailers’ sound as they could collectively muster, the Sonics came up with a couple original tunes that they felt were ready for vinyl. And so they were soon auditioning for the guys over at Etiquette Records.
Floored by the aural onslaught and the band’s originals, the label signed the band on the spot. Though the young players had about zero finesse – and as individual musicians they weren’t even close to being anywhere near the same league as any of the area’s premier combos – the jarring musical assault of the Sonics was undeniable. The drumming of “Boom Boom” Bennett had the violent impact of a freshly greased gattling gun; the grinding guitars of the Parypa brothers work you over worse than a professional wrestling tag-team; and the bloody-murder screaming that Roslie proffered as singing was – and quite possibly may remain – unmatched in the biz. Then, of course, there was the unprecedentedly rude lyrical stance of their songs. While the Sonics’ worldview encompassed the “evil chicks” in their primo putdown song, “The Witch,” or severely disturbed mental states in “Psycho,” that was clearly not subject matter or music that would be very soothing to many ears.
Thus, commercial radio stations were understandably reluctant to stick their necks out by programming the band’s debut 45. After numerous long weeks of refusing to air the thing, KJR gave in to public demand in late-1964 and “The Witch” got its chance. I will personally never forget how “The Witch” seemed to just roar out of the radio having been unmercifully wedged-in between contemporary hits like Herman’s Hermits’ “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter” and Bobby Vinton’s “Mr. Lonely.” By week’s end the single was selling thousands of units a week all across Washington State. By summer, the Sonics were suddenly positioned as the top dance draw in the area.
For a moment things looked very promising: “The Witch” broke out of the Northwest and became a charting hit in radio markets including Orlando, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. Then great fortune struck when the 45’s flipside, “Psycho,” began to garner airplay on numerous brave stations. The damn record was a double-sided hit – a rare occurrence in the fickle pop music world. Locally. The general feeling at the time was that the Sonics were destined for the big-time. Throughout this period, however, various people involved somehow managed to blow opportunities to cut a deal by signing the Sonics up to any one of number of major labels (including RCA, Columbia, and London Records) who had shown interest.
It was no surprise then when in 1966 the Sonics frustratedly jumped ship at Etiquette and signed with Jerden Records, a happening Seattle-based label that had enjoyed a good run of national hits. Jerden – a moniker derived as a contraction of the name of founder/operator, Jerry Dennon – had in fact been on a serious commercial roll since 1963. In the final months of that year Dennon had pushed his 45 by a Portland band called the Kingsmen into a chart-topping smash: “Louie Louie.” From there, Dennon produced a long string of the Kingsmen’s subsequent Top-40 hits as well as a few by Portland’s next up-&-comers, Don and the Goodtimes.
One they too were on his talent roster, Dennon booked studio time for the Sonics with Seattle engineer, Kearney Barton – the man who’d recorded most all of the earliest Northwest hit-makers including the Fleetwoods, Frantics, Gallahads, and Bonnie Guitar. Dennon also brought the Sonics down to the fabled Gold Star studios – the home of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” hit-machine – in Los Angeles to have a chance at recording with ace engineer, Larry Levine.
The Sonics sure seemed to have momentum goin’ now: Jerden issued an LP titled Introducing The Sonics that was distributed by a major (ABC Records). In addition, the band flew off to make a TV appearance on Cleveland’s popular nationally syndicated Upbeat teen-dance show. Then the Sonics’ first Jerden 45, “You’ve Got Your Head On Backwards,” began to get airplay in a few radio markets – but with little help from ABC it ultimately stalled out.
Meanwhile various pressures began to take their toll on the band. Between concerns about college, the draft, and general boredom with the DJ’s weekly dance circuits, the Sonics began to crumble. In fact, shortly after the sessions represented on this CD, the band’s personnel began shifting and with the loss of key founding members and the addition of new blood to their ranks, the Sonics’ sound was diluted to the tragic point that the once-proud band finally devolved into a merely serviceable blue-eyed soul lounge act that while retaining the old name, was but a mere shadow of its former self.
Thus today only our youthful memories of witnessing the Sonics cuttin’ loose at the roller skating rink, or the community center rec hall, or an armory teen-dance remains. Oh, and the records.
The songs that the Sonics selected to record for Jerden included a smattering of roots material (Little Richard’s “Bama Lama Bama Loo,” Little Willie John’s “Leave My Kitten Alone,” Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man” and “Diddy Wah Diddy”) as ell as a few stooped pop covers (Tommy James’ “Hanky Panky” and the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “On The Road Again”). But amid those ditties there also exist a hard-core of scorchin’ original boomers like “You’ve Got Your Head On Backwards,” “High Time,” “Dirty Old Man,” and “Like No Other Man” that even these many years hence offer up ample evidence in support of the notion that the Sonics were, in reality, every bit as wild and demented s e kids hoped way back at the roller rink. Long Live the Sonics!
[NOTE: This is a lightly edited version of an essay that was originally published as liner-notes to Jerden Record’s Maintaining My Cool CD.]