Sonic Boom by Peter Belcha

[18 June 2009]

By Christel Loar

PopMatters Associate Music Editor

"OK, let's give it to 'em right now!"

Not to be confused with the recent similarly titled tome on the impact of Led Zeppelin, Sonic Boom: The History of Northwest Rock, from “Louie Louie” to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” traces the origins and chronicles the progression, proliferation and perseverance of another sort of heavy music. Author and historian, as well as founder of the Northwest Music Archives historical preservation project, Peter Blecha, so thoroughly details the early years of what came to be known as the Northwest Sound that you feel as though you were actually there (even if you weren’t born until 20 years later!).

As the subtitle suggests, the homegrown northwest music scene may actually have begun with a song imported from California. Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie” made its way north along the old Siskiyou Trail as part of blues tours in the ‘50s. Along with elements of delta blues and rockabilly that made the trek on other early touring circuits, remnants of various country and fold traditions fused with that particular song’s simplicity to develop into the unmistakable sound of the Great Northwest. “Louie Louie” struck a chord, pardon the pun, with every kid in King Country and spread down from the Puget Sound to Portland, and points beyond.

First recorded and released locally in 1961 by The Wailers (from Tacoma) with Rockin’ Robin Roberts on vocals, “Louie Louie” was a point of reference and a rite of passage for northwest bands and fans alike. Portland’s The Kingsmen’s 1963 recording is, of course, the most infamous version—what with instigating a full FBI investigation into its “unintelligible” lyrics—but almost every combo to ever take the bandstand at a teen dance in Washington and Oregon in the late ‘50s and ‘60s played it, sometimes several times a night, to satisfy audiences.

Paul Revere and the Raiders (also based in Portland at the time, originally from Idaho) recorded “Louie Louie” in the same studio as The Kingsmen, at about the same time, but unfortunately, didn’t get the record company push necessary to make that the definitive version. Blecha’s detailed descriptions and in-depth interviews with many of the people involved, including musicians, promoters, studio engineers, etc. make this episode of rock and roll history incredibly engrossing.

But that’s true of all the other episodes he relates in Sonic Boom Speaking of episodes, Paul Revere and the Raiders later became regular performers on Dick Clark’s mid-60s television show, Where the Action Is. Now you know. And that’s just one of the fascinating facts found here.

Blecha speaks to DJs, record company owners, club managers, tour and teen dance promoters, artists, A& R reps and just about everyone in between to create the most complete picture of the distinctive elements and diverse participants in the singular sound of Northwest rock. And it’s not just the garage rock progenitors hailed in this book; you’ll find everyone from Heart and Robert Cray to Quarterflash and Queensryche covered here.  Blecha’s painstaking dissection of the region’s musical DNA includes everything from the Sub Pop Singles Club and Sir Mixalot’s collaboration with Metal Church on a cover of “Iron Man” to The Melvins and others combining punk and metal into the heavy, power-chord sludge-rock that influenced Nirvana and gave birth to the so-called Seattle “Grunge Rock” scene. 

Peter Blecha’s examination of the endurance and ongoing evolution of the Northwest’s unique sound lends substantial weight to the big fish—long established legends like Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, as well as newer names like Death Cab for Cutie and Fleet Foxes—but it also pays respect to the lesser known little guys who contributed to 60-plus years of local rock, and as such, Sonic Boom: The History of Northwest Rock, from “Louie Louie” to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” does a commendable service to the musical history and the sonic identity of the area and its artists.

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