In an interview last summer Sonics’ singer Jerry Roslie had mentioned that the Sonics went into shows trying to blow people’s heads off. Decapitate they didn’t; but they did put on a good show. The ’60s garage piece the Sonics shared regional glory with the Drastics, the Dynamics, the Regents, the Frantics, the Ventures, and Paul Revere & the Raiders (the latter two being the only regional acts to get national fame). They emerged at a time when hundreds of bands and fans were love struck with the British invasion, to which their gruff style and dark lyrics bear almost no resemblance whatsoever. While others were purring about hand holding and puppy love, they screeched and hollered about Satan, witches, psychos, and drinking strychnine. They are one of those bands like the Velvet Underground who never gained national attention on the release of their original albums but who have gained legendary status ever since they split up in the ’70s, and are beloved by denizens of underground rock scenes the world over.
There must be some satisfaction then in hearing themselves called the first punk group (because of their simple chord progressions played hard and fast), which both the White Stripes and the Eagles of Death Metal have claimed as a major influence, and later legends such as the Fall and the Cramps have covered. Yet ask the average Nirvana fan about them and you’ll probably get a blank stare, even though Kurt Cobain found them pioneering and inspiring. Ditto for fans of Eagles of Death Metal.
Indeed, I had only heard of them in the late ’90s when I was djing at a college station in the Chicago area (despite my appreciation of the bands that covered them), but it was not until I moved to Europe five years ago that I started hearing their music regularly at rock bars in Paris and framed on the walls of record shops in Norway. Like Edgar Allen Poe, the Sonics may be more appreciated in France (and elsewhere) than in their homeland. It didn’t surprise me then that a concert at Paris’s Le Trabendo was sold out.
Judging by the flutter on local rock forums, there was perhaps as much anxiety as childlike anticipation about the arrival of these garage rock near septuagenarians, who had played only a handful of concerts since they more or less disappeared from music about 25 years ago. The Sonics had a brand. They mixed the “Louie Louie” frat rock with saxophones and dark lyrics, at speeds and noise levels that were record breaking for their day. My god, what a pity it would be if they waddled out on stage, deformed their raunchy underground garage anthems into campfire songs, and were safe asleep in the hotel by midnight! Actually, there were elements of this nightmare present in the show, but by the end it didn’t really matter.
Original members Roslie, Larry Praia, and Rob Lind were joined by Freddie Dennis and Ricky Lynn Johnson (ex-the Wailers) who replaced Andy Parypa on bass and Bob Bennett on drums, respectively. The lineup change proved surprising in terms of who compensated for whose aging deficits. Original drummer Bob Bennett’s legendary energy was absent in replacement Ricky Lynn Johnson, who though sober was thoroughly competent. Lead singer Roslie had a heart transplant just over five years ago, and has been taking injections for his voice. Much to the audience’s trepidation, Dennis took over vocals on several songs after Roslie appeared to be having trouble in the opening two. Surprisingly, it was Dennis who assumed the throne of the white Little Richard, shredding ferociously through such barnburners as “You Keep a Knockin’ But You Can’t Come In” and “Strychnine”.
There were sporadic doubts for some members of the audience. These guys do indeed look old and quite out of shape (the antithesis of rock slogans like “Live Fast, Die Young”) next to contemporary teen faves. In addition, on some songs the keyboard was not loud enough, and on others it was the drums. Yet overall, through tracks like “Cinderella”,”Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”, “Boss Hoss”, “Dirty Robber”, “Have Love Will Travel”, “The Hustler”, and “Psycho”, they provided a glimpse of what these proto-punk titans brought to the salad days of Northwest rock and roll. If they didn’t blow our heads off, they still managed to mesmerize through the majority of the set. Their versions of “Have Love Will Travel” and “Louie, Louie,” among others, are still rawer, and punkier than their originals and those of their underground acolytes (no matter how close Black Flag came). Ferocious animals may move more slowly the more they age; but they are rarely docile.