THE SONICS WERE THE UNHOLY PRACTIONERS of punk rock long before anyone knew what to call it. But that's not to say that certain parents in the Pacific Northwest didn't try to come up with a few choice words for the band and their primitive and brutally raucous sound.
Originally cut in 1964 and '65 the recordings offered here represent nothing less than some of the very rawest and most savage rock music yet achieved by mankind.
The Sonics aggressive aural attack was due in equal measure to the perfectly chaotic lead guitar spasms of Larry Parypa, the murderous screams that serve as vocal lines as patented by Gerry Roslie, the frenzied propulsion generated by Rob Lynn (sax) and Andy Parypa (bass) and the absolutely atomic tub thumping of Bob "Boom Boom" Bennett. These five bad-boys were strictly lewd, rude and crude.
Not only did the Sonics come up with killer riffs on a regular basis but their song's lyrical content relentlessly explored the full range of topics from satanic threats ("He's Waitin’"), to evil chicks ("The Witch"), to the joys of overdosing on toxic substances ("Strychnine") to disturbing mental states ("Psycho"). And all this in the name of fun.
The Sonics helped fuel a vibrant teen dance scene that also included other such notable Northwest combos as the Frantics, the Kingsmen, Paul Revere & the Raiders, the Ventures, Don & the Goodtimes, the Viceroys, the Counts, the Dynamics, and of course the one band that overshadowed virtually all of them - the Fabulous Wailers.
Inspired by the Wailers' success, the Sonics formed in 1963 on the north side of Tacoma, Washington, in the heart of Boeing country. "We got our name from the sonic boom made by the jets," Andy once recalled. "It seemed natural."
The young band's first gigs were the usual, teen sock-hops and skating rink parties, and on occasion threw their own dances before finding work at places such as Evergreen Ballroom, Pearl's in Bremerton and of course the Spanish Castle Ballroom on old Highway 99
Although they maintained the standard 5-piece lineup (sax, keys, guitar, bass, drums) and they did share with many other local bands a common core of the Northwest standards in their repertoire, the Sonics simply transcended any possible limitations erupting with a tough and unprecedented new sound. It took a good year for the Sonics reputation to take hold, but then came the day when the Wailers' bassist, Buck Ormsby, out scouting for talent for their label happened to cross paths with our boys. "They were practicing in Bob Bennett's basement," Ormsby recalled in 1985. "I was looking for something that was different, something that would rock my socks off. I went down and saw them, and I found it. I liked the guitar because it sounded dirty, and I liked Gerry because he was such a screamer."
As producer, and co-producer with Kent Morrill, Ormsby's greatest challenge was to capture on tape, by whatever means necessary, the raw power and sinister essence of ths unique quintet. And he didn't give a damn what it took to accomplish this. In this quest they must have irked the poor studio staff to no end. The band members began by tearing down half the egg cartons that lined the ceiling and walls in one studio, "to get a liver sound." They then proceeded to push every piece of the studio's ancient gear well past reasonable limits. By redlining the deck's VU meters and overloading every tube in every old amp in the place the Sonics found their sound. "We had a hell of a time with the engineers," says Ormsby. "They just weren't used to the full energy stuff. You have to remember that the state of the recording industry in 1964 was something less than crude. We kept saying we wanted to do this or that and they kept saying you can't do that. We didn't care if it bled - I wanted to hear sweat dripping on the tape."
Hey, it bled. It sweated. And it was the most gloriously primitive din you were ever lucky enuff to hear on your transistor radio.
That first single, The Witch, charted within weeks on a few brave but minor local radio stations, but not on KJR the region's dominant Top-40 giant. Led by DJ Pat O'Day the station was clearly ignoring the single. Kids kept requesting "The Witch", so Pat started playing it on KJR and the place went nuts". Charting on KJR's fabulous 50 gave it a real boost and before long "The Witch" was breaking out in scattered radio markets including Orlando, Pittsburg, upstate New York, and San Francisco. "The Witch" became the all time best selling local rock single in Northwest history. Andy once revealed, "O'Day later told me that eventually the song had reached #1 in sales, but the station policy said it was too far-out to chart at #1." The station only played it after kids got out of school because of the station management's fears of alienating the housewives that comprised KJR's daytime audience.
1965 was a wild year for the Sonics. These were the glory days for Northwest Rock in general and for the Sonics in particular. By 1966 the band had opened shows for many top acts including the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, Jay & the Americans, Ray Stevens, Herman's Hermits, the Righteous Brothers, the Kinks, and the Lovin' Spoonful
In '66 the Sonics signed with Seattle's Jerden label which released a handful of uneven recordings that received national distribution through ABC Records, but regrettably they just never did score that one big international smash hit. But then, their’s was a specialty market, a finite potential audience, perhaps an acquired taste.
The Sonics remained a top draw at local dances right into 1967 when they broke their last sound barrier and folded. The Sonics will forever be revered for their solid proto-punk contributions to the sixties. They rocked like bastards and one imagines to this day that their name alone might send high school principals and small town police chiefs running for cover.
Three chords, two tracks, and one hell of a band: THE SONICS!
[NOTE: This essay was also published as liner-notes to the Sonics' 1993 British CD Psycho-Sonic (Big Beat CDWIKD 115) & again in 1997 with a re-issue CD]
Text copyright © 1990, Peter Blecha