Living in cold and snowy Syracuse, New York, in the mid-‘70s may have been the best thing to cultivate the musical tastes of Eliot Kagan and Jack Lipton. Had they been somewhere hipper, they ran the risk of being exposed to synthesizer-soaked prog opuses (opi?) and glammy boys in eyeliner. As it was—fortunately for fans of cult-level garage—Lipton and Kagan were hunkered down in upstate NY with some old soul records and a love of ‘60s garage. As legend has it, there was little else to do in Syracuse, so the two formed the “basement rock” band the Penetrators and set out to conquer the city’s rock scene and have some fun in the process.
Short as it may be, that’s the entire story of the Penetrators, and it shines through in the best possible way on the music found on Basement Anthology: 1976-84. The Penetrators never tried their hand at national, or even regional, stardom (though in 1982 they submitted a video of their tune “Shopping Bag” to MTV, which rejected it—and that’s saying something, since MTV played anything in their wildcat days), nor toured anywhere outside of the Syracuse bar circuit. But the recordings on Basement Anthology are so infectious, so fun, and made by guys who cleared loved the music they were making, that the disc can’t help but be a winner.
Conventional wisdom holds that the best garage rock is kinda crappy: recorded on old, beat up equipment, full of guitar performances that threaten to collapse like a house of cards, but never do, and an overall tossed-off vibe. The Penetrators meet all those criteria, and their songs are all the better for it. The earliest tunes on the disc, the ‘60s teen pop homage “Gotta Have Her” and a cover of the Animals’ “It’s My Life”, were recorded in August 1976 at Cheese Studios in Syracuse… a location better known as Kagan’s parents’ basement. The songs sound like shit and they’re absolutely perfect.
Time and again, the band pieces together a song with some scotch tape, popsicle sticks and a rickety guitar lick and every time the tune is a garage classic. Opener “Teenage Lifestyle”, as the hilarious liner notes penned by Swami Records honcho Swami John, claim, is a “declaration of confusion and irreverence” and could’ve been written by the Dictators’ Andy Shernoff (“I wanna stay out / At least til 11:00p!”). “Shopping Bag” should’ve been a hit, with a catchy chorus and a guitar hook that’ll wedge in your brain (boy, MTV really blew that one), and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Face” and “Stop Action” suggest (as the liner notes put it) “the Rolling Stones on Cheetos and beer instead of heroin and blowjobs.” If that means something to you, you should go find Basement Anthology immediately.
And as for the soul influence mentioned earlier, check the cover of Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music” and the original tune “The Scandalizer”, both recorded live in 1980 with band buddy Curtis Seals on vox. Garage-soul bands like the Dirtbombs and the Detroit Cobras can thank the Penetrators for blazing that genre’s trail.
Maybe it’s just as well the Penetrators never got big. Their music, catchy and accessible as it is, was never meant for mass consumption—something special would’ve been lost if Kagan and Eliot were forced to leave the basement. Fortunately, garage fans have been blessed to receive Basement Anthology, proof that rock is in its purest form when it’s loose-limbed and DIY.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article