The First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968 [Box Set]
The British Empire And Beyond [Box Set]
In 1972, rock and roll was limping towards its nadir. The radical ambitions that fed much of the best work of the late ’60’s had run their course, and years of pretentious navel-gazing had dimmed the music’s goofy charm and exuberance. Critic Lenny Kaye tried to stage an intervention by collecting 27 pieces of American garage band arcana into a double LP called Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era (1965-1968). It was a startling reminder of just how much fun rock and roll could be when it was stripped down to a snappy beat, a hummable melody and the brash exuberance of kids still learning to play their instruments. It remains one of the best rock records ever assembled: at once swaggering and naive, beer soaked and drug-impaired, charmingly inept but always explosive, it was of the crucial steps towards the great table-clearing of punk rock a few years later.
Though Nuggets went out of print immediately (and was nearly impossible to find for 25 years), it had an enormous impact. Beyond inspiring thousands of people to buy a cheap guitar and head for the garage, it spawned a collector’s market for the genre. There are now hundreds of garage compilations available, and every band that ever pressed 50 copies of their catchiest Beatles steal to sell after their weekly pizza parlor gig has seen their scratchy little classic unearthed and re-released on some enterprising record collector’s semi-legal basement label. All this music is worth hearing, and some of it is astonishing: if 50 years of rock and roll has produced a more completely unhinged, feral-cat-in-heat performance than the Sanshers’ "Gonna Git That Man," I certainly haven’t heard it.
These records capture a perfect pop moment. Beginning with high school bands caught up in Beatlemania, they show what happened as these groups tried to keep up with the tidal waves of innovation (by the Beatles, the Byrds, the Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds) that were upending pop music almost weekly. Frat party bands bought fuzzboxes and dropped ersatz ragas into their guitar solos, all the while remembering that their main job was to keep the crowd dancing.
Rock and roll was a local commodity then, with "battle of the bands" contests and thriving dance scenes helping define regional variations on the standard three chord caterwaul. Seattle bands were the wildest: the Sonics‘ "Strychnine" and "Psycho" are the missing link between Little Richard and the Sex Pistols. Chicano bands from East L.A. like Thee Midniters and the Premiers mixed old school doo wop into their rave ups. And Texas psychedelic bands like the 13th Floor Elevators took to L.S.D. with a ferocious evangelism that would give Timothy Leary pause.
In 1999, Rhino Records released a gorgeously packaged and annotated 4 CD boxed version of Nuggets. The first CD finally returned Kaye’s original version to print while the other three cherry-picked the best material from thirty years of collector archaeology. It’s the garage rock version of Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music: not the complete story of the music, but the most compelling argument for its continued importance and vitality imaginable. And like Smith’s collection, this is a record designed for listening, not studying. It never lets completism or academic stuffiness get in the way of the sheer visceral thrill of the music.
And now Rhino has topped itself with a sequel. Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts From The British Empire And Beyond covers the same era from the other side of the Atlantic. This music is far more self-conscious, with little of the naive primitivism of the American garage bands. Most of these groups started as art school mods, stealing their moves and their sound directly from The Who, before drifting into psychedelic whimsy. The great charm of the set is partly due to the restrictions imposed by a scene still driven at that point by hit singles. Concept albums and endless blues jams were on the horizon, but at this stage the idea was to cram a three minute song with so much noise, excitement and novelty that you’d never forget it once you got off the dance floor.
Though there are a few minor hits by second-tier bands like the Easybeats and the Small Faces scattered throughout the four CD’s, as well as early performances by the likes of Van Morrison, David Bowie and Marc Bolan, most of the songs and performers here are obscure. (And truly international – some of the best, and weirdest, material comes from Scandinavia, Peru and Japan.)
The box opens with a sequence of songs that give a sense of the project’s scope. Creation’s "Making Time" leads off, sounding like the great lost Who single – it’s all choppy power chords and wheezing feedback, snarling vocals and a whiplash back beat. "Father’s Name Was Dad" by Fire mixes a chiming, Byrdsy lead guitar riff and layers of vocal harmonies in with the noise. The Move follow with "I Can Hear the Grass Grow," a song poised perfectly between two eras with its weirdly catchy fusion of four part harmony, Duane Eddy reverb guitar, proto-metal bass riffs and musings about "magnetic waves of sound." The Eyes mix The Who with the Yardbirds, while the Easybeats offer up what sounds like the wildest ’65 Beatles single you somehow managed to never hear. And with "My White Bicycle," Tomorrow leaps into full-blown acid territory, the propulsive beat layered with backwards guitar, loopy percussion and menacing, whispered background vocals. You can almost smell the patchouli oil in the recording studio.
With only a handful of recognizable songs – and better yet, only a handful of bad songs – the Nuggets collections perform the invaluable service of allowing listeners to rediscover one of the most exciting eras in pop music minus the deadening impact of 35 years of classic rock radio oversaturation. Considered together, the two boxes are ten hours of extraordinary music. They’re the best musical investment you could make this year, short of buying a drum set and a case of beer and inviting some friends over to play "I Can Only Give You Everything."