Friday, April 29, 2016

A brief history of Nuggets

Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman's compilation, Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968, with liner notes by Lenny Kaye, anthologized an era of rock history that, by 1972, already seemed to have taken place ages ago. The four years of releases from 1965 to '68 were well on the other side of the shattering events that turned the high '60's hippie dream into a messy and unsettling downer: the Manson Family killings, the disastrous Altamont Free Concert, the always intensifying but perpetually stalled war in Viet Nam, and the deaths of Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison, to name a few. Whatever "psychedelia" had become by 1972 -- when the West Coast psych groups had settled in as country or jam bands, Pink Floyd and other progressive bands upped the ante on studio concept albums, and glam and art rock were on the horizon -- it was different enough to situate the 27 "artyfacts" on Nuggets in "the first psychedelic era." But it's not like "psychedelic" was ever a clear and transparent signifier; for if anything, the tracks on Nuggets retrieve an alternative psych that not at all synonymous with "hippie" culture.

Despite the pop-art pop of its cover art, the original Nuggets documents a time that wasn't as sunshiny and groovy as the summer of love had implied. When they are psychedelic, these songs are psychedelic in a punk way; not a paisley clouded sunrise but a dark and dangerous night of the unhinged soul, tinged by the constant threat that you'd taken things too far this time. Fuzzed out guitars, pulsing Farfisa organ, the chugging train of rhythm guitar, bass and drums, and big, open reverberation on voices -- all these become characteristic pieces of the "nuggets" sound. So does the sonic association of freak-out guitar solos and other heavily-processed instrumental voices with extreme psychological experiences. But most of the original Nuggets are down to earth, the stuff of adolescence, snotty white post-R&B rants against love, girls, social conformity, and mental health. These were the elements that led Kaye to label this a kind of "punk music," and certainly the lo-fi production, the sometimes amateurish skills of players, the edginess, the darkness as well as the asinine snarl, and the emphasis on the "single" -- all but 3 of the 27 cuts on the original Nuggets clock in at less than 3 min. -- come back with the '76 punk scene, when such sonic signatures were at the core of punk's rejection of the bloated pigs of progressive rock and their polished concept albums as well as the coke-fueled country rock that so many of the Sixties' biggest artists had devolved into. Even the relative anonymity of the first-era Nuggets bands could be seen as a virtue that shielded them from the fate of over-exposure that had claimed so many of the '60s greats.

The Chocolate Watchband
The Seeds

The off-the-radar aspect of the original Nuggets bands might suggest an early kind of indy music, but most of the groups that Holzman and Kaye document rather indicate a regionalized sensibility. Picked up by local record labels and radio stations that thought they might have a reasonable chance of a hit with the new adolescent market gave countless bands their first taste of recording out of the garage and in a studio. The preponderance of LA and other SoCal-based bands in the scene -- The Electric Prunes, The Standells, The Seeds, Count Five, The Leaves, The Strawberry Alarm Clock, and The Chocolate Watchband -- indicates a solid music industry infrastructure in the area, but bands are also represented from Chicago (Shadows of Knight), Detroit (The Amboy Dukes), Austin (13th Floor Elevators), Philly (The Magic Mushrooms), and Boston (The Remains). Most of these groups would not make more than a couple of significant albums, if that, and what we hear on the four-sides of the first Nuggets album are often the "one-hits" (several in the Top Ten) of their respective wonders. But wonders they are. Alongside frantic pastiches of the Byrds, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, we hear elements of frat-rock, surf, blues, soul, folk rock, and freakbeat.

The cover of the 1976 Sire reissue of Nuggets looks
more like a Steve Miller record than punk.

The relative diversity of sounds taken up on the original Nuggets is vastly expanded in the 4-disc box set that Rhino Records released in 1998. But Nuggets never went away. Sire Records reissued the first two LPs in 1976, just in time for the punk explosion, when new listeners would hear the collection in the context of The Stooges, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, New York Dolls, The Ramones, and others; though judging by the dramatic change in cover art, it's not surprising that the unaware may have expected a set of jammy acid rock, not the stinging garage punk that's on the record. In 1978, the Pebbles series launched, mining ever more obscure gems from the same three years at the end of the '60s, which it labels "the First Punk Era." Pebbles eventually unnumbered 28 volumes over a 10 year period, eventually extending from the States and UK-centric sensibilities of the comps to include volumes on the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and Switzerland. There were also the 20-volume Rubble series, begun in 1984, and 10 volumes of Back from the Grave, also starting in 1984.

The album that started it all for me, bought brand new
in 1984 at the Record Exchange in Austin, TX.

This banner year also saw the return of Nuggets outright, with Rhino Records taking the original compilation and expanding the concept over 14 volumes that included sub-themes such as "The Hits," "Punk" (in three volumes), "Pop" (in four volumes), "Acid Rock," "San Francisco," and "The Northwest."

While British and other European continental collections of music along the same Nuggets bandwidth had appeared earlier, Rhino Records again made a substantial collection in a 4-disc box set of international Nuggets in 2001's Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts from the British Empire and Beyond 1964-1969.

It was 1984 when I first discovered this otherwise lost generation of music from an era that I loved. Some of my earliest listening experiences were hearing my sisters' pop records by The Beatles, The Lovin' Spoonful, Herman's Hermits, Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Kinks, The Hollies, and of course The Monkees, whose "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone" is still one of the greatest garage rock songs of all time. I always held onto these pop groups, no matter how much I learned to love heavier music, dug deeper into the catalogues of other '60s bands, or took the dive into prog. And even while loving these groups from the '60s, it was also listening to new wave, punk, post-punk, and most importantly, the Paisley Underground and neo-psychedelic rock of the early '80s, which meant that Nuggets would not only fit right into this sonic vocabulary that I was building but also filled in historical as well as stylistic blanks for me.

Zoroaster "Bruno" Clarke, of Sha Na Na,
at Crystal Palace, London, 1974

More importantly, Nuggets fueled my desire to understand where songs came from, how music goes forward by going back, how something recorded almost 20 years earlier can sound like it came out today, or vice versa. Around this same time that I found my first few Nuggets albums, the greatest rock'n'roll prof ever, Bruno Clarke, in my first undergrad "critical literary theory" class, turned me onto an idea of Eliot's. In "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Eliot claims that the various eras of poets are in fact channeling the same essential literature, which keeps looking for new poets of each generation, through which the Poem can be expressed and renewed, not because of one person's talent, which arises from hard work and not inner-genius or inheritance, but because of a great and impersonal fusion of history and the current moment, of the individual and the collective. This process insures that certain aspects of a new poem can be measured and understood by what came before; but it also insures novelty and renewal and relevance to the moment.

Songs work the same way. They carry on by means of off-the-cuff copies and unintentional pastiches, blatant rip-offs and inspirational repossessions, as well as through unexpected syntheses and splicings and sudden discoveries and detours into local flavors and regional scenes that hit us with a sense that something new is going on. The song doesn't so much remain the same; rather, it keeps going back to the garage for re-tooling and tune-up.

"Biggest Hits: A Nuggets Collection" is the first of two prefaces to a series of contemporary psychedelic and garage mixes, "Godchildren of Nuggets," which will be annotated here at Pharmakopolis for your enjoyment. These 22 cuts, most 50 years old now, take us through timeless themes of teen angst, of chemically fueled journeys of mind and soul, of basement and garage satori. They speak to experiences that stretch the limits of language and music, turning to fuzzy squalls of feedback and distortion to express those electric peaks of the psychonautical experience that goes beyond words and mind. At other times, the lyrics cut through all the shit and hit the truth of youth with a power undiluted by big record labels and radio censors. Without a marmalade sky or kaleidoscope eyes in sight, acid trips have rarely been so honestly portrayed as in the precarious, dark, and unsettling lyrics of the 13th Floor Elevators' "Reverberation (Doubt): "Well, you finally find / your helpless mind / is trapped inside your skin. / You want to leave / but you believe / you won't get back again." Or as mundane as the Pretty Thing's stomping "L.S.D.," for that matter. Straight and hipster society alike are equally hard to fit into, as we hear in "My Flash On You" (one of the earliest anti-heroin songs recorded), "Pushin' Too Hard," "Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl," "Summertime Blues," and "Vacuum Cleaner" -- and again and again, in "Psychotic Reaction," "Psycho," "I'll Make You Sorry," "I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)," and "Public Execution," we find that "love" is the thing that always pushes us farthest over the edge. Never has a "love-in" seemed more menacing than the one conjured up by the snarling vocals of David Aguilar in The Chocolate Watchband. Most of these songs are diatribes directed at "you," which may mean a girlfriend or a parent or a teacher or a boss or a congressman or a scenester, but might as well be YOU.

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