A Mighty Wind

Garage Punks Discover New Wave and Kick Out the Cans

"Most people have not understood when we explained that no one has ever played music like us before," wrote Peter Stampfel in the liner notes to the first Holy Modal Rounders LP (1964). The Rounders were playing a lot of old-timey-sounding material in the style of the rural 1920s, and Stampfel's point was that, even if he was hearing the young old-timey fiddlers of the '20s as goofballs, experimentalists, and visionaries like himself, he and his mid-'60s ilk had a different vision, and a larger world in which to experiment, a different neighborhood to break out of. So the music was something different.

Lots of bands nowadays are doing similar reach-backs—some to the garage-rock past, or to glam or punk or postpunk or artpunk or new wave. (To name just a few worth hearing that aren't dealt with here: Tie Reds, A-Frames, Black Lips, Kills, Electric Six, Les Baton Rouge, Spits, Stuck Ups, Exploding Hearts, Midnight Thunder Express, Briefs, Semiautomatic, Mensen, Red Planet, Chargers Street Gang, Epoxies, Paybacks, Hot Hot Heat, Cobra Verde, Cookies Downtown.) As for what the music is, we don't know yet. Our now is different from the various back-thens.

Back in the '60s, a year or so after that first Holy Modal Rounders record, and just down the road apiece, kids in the wake of the Stones, Yardbirds, and Dylan were creating their own adventure. To put it crudely, these kids, who only after the fact would be called "garage rockers" or "punk rockers," belonged to a transitional social group that just doesn't exist anymore: hoods partly breaking out of their hoodiness into potentially thinking of themselves as artists and aligning themselves with renegade drama-club and student-council kids who themselves were breaking out of their own club into potential delinquency. But the breakout wasn't a complete breakout—which meant, actually, that things were wide open, that the no-longer-quite-hoods could bring the rest of the hoods with them (or could fall back in); ditto for the drama-club artsies. However, once the freaks established themselves circa '68 as the officially out-there group, the other groups retreated, and the cool kids of '66 ended up all over the '70s map.

Clone Defects: half primate, half cockroach
photo: Courtesy Screaming Peach
Clone Defects: half primate, half cockroach


The Deadly Snakes
Ode to Joy
In the Red

FM Knives
Useless & Modern
Broken Rekids
Smartguy Records

Clone Defects
Shapes of Venus
In the Red

The Fever
Pink on Pink

The Caesars
39 Minutes of Bliss
(in an Otherwise Meaningless World)

But before the freaks coalesced and FM progressive rock solidified as a format, the hoody garage punks and the artsy-fartsy proto-progressives were the same people, and it wasn't even clear from the radio that post-Brill-biz popsters like Neil Diamond and Mann & Weill weren't in with them. Another way of putting this (or maybe it's a different point) is that there were no actual garage-punk bands: There were bands that would do songs in the styles of the time, some of which (we decided later) were garage-punk songs. "Wild Thing" and "Love Is All Around" were by the same band, and "Hey Joe" and "Get Together" by the same songwriter, but only "Wild Thing" and "Hey Joe" were punk in retrospect. The garage-band kids were snobs who worshiped the Stones and Yardbirds and sneered at the Beatles (except for the ones who didn't). It was only in late-'60s retrospect that music based on the Yardbirds and early Stones was considered not sufficiently progressive, hence too Top 40ish, and then it was only in an even later retrospect by snobby anti-snobs that the garage bands were rehabilitated as nonsnobs and anti-progressive primitives.

I surmise, though, that fans of the new garage rock and neopunk are (1) a small number for whom "punk rock" is still it and everything else a retreat (though most of these would be sticking with hardcore and not going to garage punk), (2) a small number who just love the old sounds and wish Now sounded like Then, and (3) the vast amorphous rest of us who've been socialized into music fanaticism and get our info from the alt press and who therefore may possibly like emo and Timbaland and the two-step other garage as well. But so far, I don't get a sense that we're either riding a wave or creating a new one.

Toronto's Deadly Snakes start their new garage-rock album Ode to Joy in a raving rush, like the Yardbirds snatching Dylan's body and using it for their own purposes. What the Snakes get from Dylan is the belief that you can give any song form the Little Richard damn-the-toreadors full-bull-ahead treatment, from gospel shout to '50s teen ballad. They also go for Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" strategy of whapping the words down hard on the beat; the only drawback (other than the obvious one that their musical stampede uses twice the energy to produce less of the actual propulsion of a 50 Cent or a Justin Timberlake, though the D. Snake movement is still impressive enough in comparison to previous garage-rock revivalists and even in comparison to Dylan) is that beyond the basic tongue-whapping they're missing Dylan's emotional anguish and fire. So it's a strong wind, not a hot one. Still, the pure physicality of the breeze is a blast.

Sacramento's FM Knives go deliberately for an Undertones-Buzzcocks 1979 pop-punk sound, with frantically deadpan Pete Shelleyish vocals (an aural analogue to Buster Keaton). And—by Yimminy!—like the Buzzcocks they have good melodies. They've got a song about the man from O.S.I., though I have no clue what O.S.I. is. Perhaps they don't either but just think it'll sound cool to say that the guy is from an official-seeming agency, and then—his being an agent—they can give him attributes. The main attribute seems to be alienation. This tuneful music is fronted by a singer with the wicked detachment of a Ray Davies or a Pete Shelley, someone who conveys a joy that he himself turns his back on (and thus partakes of the joy of turning his back on joy). The lyrics could use more of Shelley's romance-going-wrong specificity, and FM Knives have yet to master the Ray Davies '60s trick of sitting down and over a couple of years writing 50 or so of the most beautiful melodies ever, but that the Knives rate mention in the same sentence as Davies and Shelley is tribute enough. Their new Estrogen EP is even better than their album Useless & Modern, and the best song on it, "Cassavetes vs. the Moneygoround," is the one that breaks free of the Buzzcocks-Kinks template, that settles down into slow-driving rock.

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