THIS SECOND VOLUME of Jerden Record’s History of Northwest Rock CD series is an exploration of the secondary phase of that distinct regional strain of music widely known as the original “Northwest Sound.” To backtrack: On the History of Northwest Rock Vol. 1 (JRCD 7002) of this series we recalled how between about 1958 and 1963 a teen subculture had emerged with a its own sound that was essentially an aggressive jazz-tinged offshoot of ‘50’s West Coast Rhythm & Blues traditions. This largely instrumental music form often highlighted sophisticated horn sections, squalling sax solos, driving electric guitar leads, and the mighty oomph of the ubiquitous Hammond b-3 organ.
Now, this disc tracks the development of the “Original Northwest Sound” into its next significant phase by following the musicians in their stylistic trek “Back to the Garage.” This was an era when many of the scene’s earlier musical subtleties were willfully abandoned resulting in a savage wild-ass school of rockin’ that has been credited with representing the very beginnings of what later came to be known as proto-punk Garage Rock.
Our story picks up around 1962, a point in time when Pacific Northwest kids were enjoying a truly vibrant teenscene that was fueled by Battles of the Bands events, pushed along by pied-piper Top-40 DJs, documented by new mom & pop record labels, and anchored around weekly dances. By this time the previously low-key high school sock-hops had expanded into a regular dance circuit that included old union halls, legendary ballrooms like Parkers, the Evergreen, and the Spanish Castle, as well as roller rinks, roadhouses, armories and, eventually, full-fledged Teen Fairs.
It was late-’62, just about the time that the World’s Fair wound down, when Seattle record promoter, Jerry Dennon, returned from a couple years in Los Angeles and began preparing to reactivate his dormant Jerden label. Funds were still tight so he kicked things off by issuing a couple 45s produced from a few old masters that were still lying around from Jerden’s first attempt back in 1960. Dennon had just begun to ponder just how and where he would discover a talent that had the potential to push his label into the big-time when around April of ‘63 he was contacted by Ken Chase, a Portland DJ who owned a teenclub, The Chase. The pitch was that Chase was managing a band called the Kingsmen, that the band had a readymade audience at the club, and that Chase could guarantee radio airplay for the band. All they needed was a record. Would Dennon consider releasing a 45 on his label? Sure, that was a no-brainer. Thus, within a week or so Chase had his band ensconced in Portland’s Northwestern recording studio cutting their rendition of a song that the region’s top act, Tacoma’s Wailers, had scored a huge local hit with back in 1961 – and a song that has remained the region’s signature tune ever since – “Louie Louie”.
And, well, the rest is history: As it happened, another Portland-based combo, Paul Revere & the Raiders, along with their DJ/manager, also decided to record a version of that very same song, in that very same studio, that very same week. The ensuing Battle of the Louies has become a fabled event that eventually resulted in both bands getting signed to contracts by big-time labels and launching successful careers. The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” – a song whose wonderfully sloppy nature was instantly understood by the international teenage underground to be of the highest virtue – was (falsely) identified as having pornographic lyrics – causing it to face media scrutiny, governmental bannings, FBI and FCC investigations, and the like. A natural born promoter, Dennon poured gas on this fire by publicly offering a $1000 reward for proof of the offending lyrics – a gambit that brought even more press coverage. All of these factors, of course, ultimately led to “Louie Louie” selling an estimated 12 million copies over the years. Furthermore, to some rock historians the tune has come to signify the very beginnings of the Garage Rock Era.
Jerden, meanwhile, had scored the initial hit it needed to establish itself in the industry’s eyes as another (after Dolton Records’ amazing success in 1959-’60) savvy Seattle-based label. Over the next few years Dennon expanded his efforts, launching two additional labels (Panorama and Piccadilly Records) and dramatically increased his activity in general: In ‘63 he issued about 25 records total, in ’64 that grew to about 40 records, and by ’65 he produced over 60 records. Thus decades before the time when Northwest rock would be known as Grunge and the world associated that sound with Seattle’s Sub Pop label, Dennon had carved out a wide reputation as the king of rock records in the region.
So: The stage is set, the crowd is stompin’ and shoutin’, the steam is risin’, and the bands are ready to rumble once again…. Well, so what are we waitin’ for? Let’s get to the tunes!!!
By 1963 Northwest teenagers had become so loyal to their own scene’s distinct musical soundtrack that we really didn’t have much time for imported pop sounds. That mindset explains why California’s Beachboys’ wimpy Surfer Rock was mercilessly booed at their debut appearance in Seattle in ’62. And too, why in May of ’63 when the Beatles’ sappy “From Me to You” debuted on Seattle’s giant KJR radio, the odd sounding British tune simply didn’t catch on and was promptly dropped from the playlist after one week.
What us Northwest kids did want to hear was very simple: “Louie Louie.” This was a clear marketplace demand that the Wailers, the Kingsmen, the Raiders, Don & the Goodtimes and about a dozen other local bands who recorded versions were happy to supply. Even a gender-modified variation like the Raymarks’ version, “Louise Louise,” was welcomed.
For that matter, even well into the decade occasional stabs back at the earlier instrumental rock tradition (like Don & Goodtimes’ “Turn On” – which was a remake of the Counts’ huge regional radio hit “Turn On Song”) were appreciated. Another few examples that illustrate the very tail end of that classic early R&B-infused period are the Counts’ “Trick Bag”, the Bandits’ “Little Sally Walker,” and George Washington & Cherrybombs’ remake of the Raiders’ naughty early stage favorite, “Crisco Party.”
The local teenscene was going strong however by 1964 inexorable changes were unfolding in pop: the Southern California Surf Rock craze’s popularity had continued to increase, ultimately leading to the mass marketing of surf-related tunes about hot rods, skateboards, stingray bikes, Honda scooters, etc… And, of course, in February the Beatles landed at Kennedy Airport and the relentless British Invasion of the American pop charts commenced in full. In no time it suddenly seemed that bands everywhere were adopting new surfer or Anglo identities to cash in on these pop trends. Washington’s coastal towns of Aberdeen/Hoquiam produced the Beachcombers who shared the bill with Beach Boys at a local dance. This disc reprises their classic “The Wheeley” as well as offering their previously unreleased garage pounder “Farmer John”. Meanwhile the Jesters recorded “Alki Point,” a boss tune named for the beachfront cruising strip in West Seattle.
But even as the established Northwest rock esthetic was being diluted by these new outside influences the teenscene prepared to retaliate with a secret weapon or two. In 1964 lots of locals – especially other bands – began taking note of a combo from Tacoma called the Sonics. Indeed, it was hard not to notice the band given that they’d developed an highly aggressive sound that was simply unprecedented in rock ‘n’ roll. The sum of their snarling vocals, demented lyrics, scorching guitar, and whiplash drumming was a key precursor to punk rock – long before anyone knew what to call it. In the wake of the Sonics’ emergence, everyone from the Raiders to the Wailers to the Kingsmen began toughening up their sound. For that matter British groups who heard the Sonics opening for their tours in Seattle became big fans including the Kinks and the Who. This 1966 recording of the fuzz-guitar basher “High Time” was from one of the Sonics’ final sessions.
With the Sonics serving as the primary guiding light the Garage Rock Era was now fully under way and Northwest bands were producing the tuffest rock music in the land. By this point Oregon was proving to be a serious hotbed of proto-punk energy: Portland’s Don & the Goodtimes struck again with their put-down hit “Little Sally Tease,” Eugene’s Heirs gave fair warning with “You Better Slow Down,” Salem’s Live Five snorted “Hunose,” and Portland’s Mr. Lucky & Gamblers wailed “(Stop) Take A Look At Me” – a plea honored when big-time Dot Records took notice and licensed it for wider distribution. Meanwhile Bremerton, Washington’s Raymarks kept the faith with “I Believed,” Tacoma’s Galaxies kicked out “Along Comes The Man,” and Seattle’s Dimensions and Tom Thumb & the Casuals offered up, respectively, “Knock You Flat,” and “I Should Know,”
Meanwhile another Jerden 45 – James Henry & Olympics’ cover version of an obscure tune (“My Girl Sloopy”) by an obscure LA-based R&B group (The Vibrations) – had an interesting fate. Marketed locally around April 1965, the Seattle band’s 45 was completely overshadowed when a couple months later the (Chicago-based) McCoys’ rendition (retitled: “Hang On Sloopy”) roared to #1 national hit status and, like the song it is reminiscent of – “Louie Louie” – it too has been a Garage band staple ever since.
One of many bands that remodeled themselves in the wake of the British craze was the Fabulous Continentals, er, the Bards. Though Dennon eventually cut a number of sizeable regional hits with this Moses Lake-based combo, he initially had difficulty getting their career going. At the time Dennon had scored enough hits that he was able to cut licensing deals with various major labels, however the Hollywood-based Capitol Records simply balked at his proposal that they issue the Bards’ new recording – a rocked up take on Edward Leer’s classic olde poem, “The Owl & The Pussycat.” Problem was, the tune wasn’t cut out of a deep sense of literary appreciation, or to note their fondness for fuzzy house pets, but was rather obviously a chance for the naughty boys to titillate their fans with the line “...oh what a beautiful pussy you are.” Dennon pushed though and a deal of sorts was finally struck: Capitol would press up a small number of test 45s with anonymous white labels. Then if Dennon could secure airplay for the Bards on the basis of his clout and the strength the song – in other words: without using the prestige of Capitol’s logo on the label – they would then perhaps reconsider and market it themselves. True to form, Dennon pulled it off; regional airplay was strong enough that Capitol ended up issuing the 45 – with a picture sleeve no less.
Meanwhile, KJR DJ Pat O’Day’s Teen Fairs were doing well and adding to the growing sense of a seriously vibrant regional scene. In 1966 the fair incorporated the First Annual Teenage Fair Band Championships and all kinds of new bands performed – some with a greater degree of originality than others as later noted by the UW Daily: "There are a lot of local bands in the Seattle area that few people have heard of. In most cases it is no loss. But in some cases it is. Case in point: The Famous Plums. Early this summer, an amateur band contest was held at the Seattle Teenage Fair. Ninety per cent of the bands in the competition fell into two categories: poor imitations of Paul Revere and the Raiders, complete with their steps, routines and song list; or poor imitations of the Rolling Stones, complete with 16-year old Jagger-style vocalists and a blinding conglomeration of checked, striped and houndstooth pants. …Anyway, somewhere between the 23rd version of ‘Satisfaction’ and a few versions of ‘Kicks,’ a most curious collection of musicians formed on the stage….” Ah yes, Jack Horner & the Plums: This was a band who eschewed the usual band uniforms, synchronized dance steps, and canonized set lists shared by many of their peer combos, and thusly were noted as one of the first local bands that was a bit freaky – a harbinger of hippie things to come. As one of the event’s top finalists the Plums’ solid take on Bo Diddley’s classic, “Who Do You Love,” was included on one of Dennon’s resultant Battle of The Bands compilation LPs.
Though the spirit of Garage-Rock that was forged during the mid-60s was one that would re-energize the rock world more than once in ensuing decades, by about 1966 its initial influence on pop music was giving way. After the Brits conquered the world and the Surfers influence ebbed, the folk/protest singers and psychedelic bands soon found the spotlight.
One local band that bridged these eras was Bellingham’s Thee Unusuals. After cutting the very hep “I’m Walkin’ Babe” for Dennon the combo soon dropped all associations with the Northwest’s indigenous “Louie Louie” culture and transmogrified into a full-blown hippie band. Achieving levels of weirdness that most other bands could only aspire to – one bandmember performed wearing a boa constrictor years before Alice Cooper was even a twinkle in Satan’s eye – they soon were recording for a Chicago-based label, Mainstream Records, the same firm that would soon sign a young Frisco band, (Janis Joplin &) Big Brother & the Holding Company. Interestingly, after Joplin’s death, Big Brother forged on after recruiting one of the Unusuals’ singers, Kathy McDonald.
So, the Garage Rock Era – a joyfully primativistic period when Northwest Rock redefined itself and won a fanbase around the world – drew to an inevitable close. Now the Summer of Love awaited America’s youth. In the third volume of Jerden’s History of Northwest Rock (JRCD 7008) we will take a journey back to the dawn of that revolutionary era. Though a good number of Northwest musicians felt the siren song calling from Haight-Ashbury and headed off – some finding positions in such notable bands as Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, and Quicksilver Messenger Service – many others stayed local and created great new music here in the Northwest. The History of Northwest Rock Volume 3 will showcase many of the finest and funkiest recordings of Seattle’s peace-nik jug bands, mushroom-addled psychedelic rockers, and Flower Power freaks. 'Till then…
[NOTE: This is a lightly edited version of an essay that was originally published as liner-notes for Jerden Records' THE HISTORY of NW ROCK VOL. II CD]