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Bullshit Detectors! The Garage Is an Outside Place, and a Place for Outsiders

Zach Campbell and Oscar Allen of the Rooftop Viligantes

As the commune was to hippies, so the garage has been to garage bands and to their proto-punk, punk, and post-punk successors: an enclave where marginalized youth can fantasize or realize their visions of independent alternative art and lifestyles.

The garage has long been both a literal and metaphorical site of rock imaginings. A rough, dirty space outside of—or on the outside of—the house habitat, the garage environment has traditionally served as a place of sanctuary for males, as well as for their noisy mechanical games and endeavors. No place for peacocks and fashionistas, garage inhabitants dress down to the basics—jeans and T-shirts—and their behavior and attitudes correlate accordingly. Critic Michael Hicks speaks of the garage as “a psychological space as much as much as a physical one”, and this psychogeographical perspective applies to the type of rock bands that have historically inhabited—both symbolically and literally—the world of the garage. (Hicks, Michael. Sixties Rock: Garage, Psychedelic, and Other Satisfactions. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999, p.25)

The garage is not only an outside place but also a place for outsiders. Far from the slick recording rooms and plush studios of mainstream rock, garages reflect the minimal budgets and raw dreams of rock aspirants. Here, the kids can find haven from the rules and restraints of their parents, using their instruments to let off the steam of daily frustrations. Here, too, kids of all ages can turn their backs on the world of establishment rock and pop, embracing with pride their real or imagined roles as outcasts and alienated rebels. The primitive sounds they emit are self-designated as “authentic”, while any signs of polish, precision, or pretension (their markers of establishment rock) are summarily dismissed as “bullshit”.

These “bullshit detectors” have certain historic precedents within the arts, as Hicks has noted. He cites the Beats and Existentialists of the '50s as aesthetic forerunners of the garage bands that would emerge by the dawn of the next decade. These avant-garde antagonists were ideologically independent in nature and away from the numbers as a matter of principle. Self-conscious and self-righteous, they sought and celebrated the primal and unaffected facets of humankind, rejecting the stultifying phoniness of materialism and bourgeois affectations. For them, speed, sweat, and reckless abandon were lifestyle indicators as well as artistic ones, harnessed as ways to approach the nirvana of authentic primitivism.

Like the Beats and Existentialists, garage band members (perhaps paradoxically) perceive themselves as both individualists and as communal constituents, the latter privileged as an in-crowd affair so that the apparition or integrity of the former is maintained. United in their general disdain for all music un-garage, like-minded garagers gravitate to and coalesce around “bands”, surrogate families for the similarly alienated. As the commune was to hippies, so the garage has been to garage bands and to their proto-punk, punk, and post-punk successors: an enclave where marginalized youth can fantasize or realize their visions of independent alternative art and lifestyles.

Like the Existentialists and Beats, too, garage bands have always imagined themselves—explicitly or implicitly—through a rose-colored lens of social class. Less a concern of real social background and more one of image and identity, garage bands align themselves with the outcast and downtrodden, or at least with the working class. The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds, two acts central to defining the aesthetics and style features of garage rock in the early-to-mid-'60s, provided templates for such social class imag(in)ing. The Stones, as Hicks observes, “adapted a rural black assertion of personal dissatisfaction into an urban white assertion of cultural repulsion” (p.27), while The Yardbirds took their name from the argot of the Beats, who used it to describe the hobos that hung around in train yards. In both cases, underclass cultures are romanticized, ironically, for their supposed “free” lifestyles.

Two more recent contemplations of the garage phenomenon also reflect the genre’s class implications. Both The Clash’s “Garageland” and Weezer’s “In the Garage” celebrate being “back in the garage”, though they do so through different social class presumptions. For The Clash, garage bands are working class warriors railing against the rock establishment. “Someone just asked me if the band would wear suits”, singer Joe Strummer bitterly announces. “There’s people ringing up making offers for my life, but I just wanna stay in the garage all night”, he adds, conveniently ignoring the fact that his band had just inked a major deal with corporate giants CBS Records. The social lines are drawn for The Clash: you are either with the “truth”-telling “guttersnipes”, or with “the rich”.

Conversely, and perhaps reflective of the less class-rigid society in the US, Weezer paint a picture of garage rock as a middle class suburban ritual in “In the Garage”. Here, the garage is a haven, a retreat where kids can write “stupid songs” with “stupid words”, where “no one cares” what you get up to, and where you can fantasize about your rock idols. Despite their different ruminations on the character of garage rock, both The Clash and Weezer envision the garage as a private refuge where you can do your own thing your own way, beyond the interfering “bullshit” of either corporate society or parents.

Garage rock’s inherent antagonism to mainstream mores dates back to its inception and infancy, indeed, to a time before the designation “garage rock” ever existed. When Link Wray released “Rumble” in 1958, juvenile delinquency was a much-publicized concern in both the US and the UK. To the ears of many young listeners, this song seemed to embody this social malady from the inside out. While its title was certainly evocative, responses did not hinge upon any lyrics—as it was an instrumental—but upon the very sound itself. Wray’s raw, fuzzed-out guitar appeared to capture the primal tension of a brawl, while its insistent riff kicked and punched into the (sub)consciousnesses of its audience. Thus was born the foundational bare-bones sound, style, and attitude of garage rock.

Soon, other acts would develop upon Wray’s blueprint. Bands from such far-flung regions as the Pacific North-West, Texas, and Michigan took the pre-existing surf and pop sounds, then re-routed them with a lo-fi production that defied the slick product of early-'60s rock ‘n’ roll. Across the Atlantic, Dave Davies of The Kinks picked up on Wray’s distorted guitar sound and mutilated his amp—as Wray had done—in order to replicate it. “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night”, both released in 1964, established the garage sound for a broader rock audience, as did the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, released contemporaneously. By the time Keith Richards had laid down that song’s menacing riff, a more practical Fuzzbox effects pedal had become available for users, and use it they did, as the fuzz-toned guitar became the ubiquitous sound of the R&B school of the British invasion. So, while The Beatles were inspiring future garage bands with their “anyone-can-do-it” early pop hits, The Kinks, Stones, Animals, and Yardbirds were codifying the tones and riffs of this identifiable new genre.

By 1966, as the British invasion bands softened musically and surged commercially, the garage sound swung back States-side, where a new breed of young upstarts sought to “keep it real” by countering the slick harmonies, orchestral adornments, melodic complexities, and romanticist musings of the Fab Four et al with squawking vocals, three-note riffs, back-to-basics hooks, and sexually-charged puns and wordplay. “Psychotic Reaction” by The Count Five, “96 Tears” by ? and the Mysterians, “Dirty Water” by The Standells, and “Talk Talk” by The Music Machine were all released in 1966, making it a banner year for garage rock. Perhaps because most of these songs amounted to little more than regional hits, or perhaps because the genre had exhausted its own limited repertoire of sonic options, but thereafter “classic” garage rock dissipated and went into decline, replaced by the new adventurism of psychedelia and the new proficiency of progressive rock.

A long-time sanctuary for garage types, the state of Michigan defiantly disregarded all memos announcing the death of garage rock. There, The Amboy Dukes, The Stooges, and the MC5—amongst others—maintained the primitive sounds and combative nature at the genre’s core. Kindred spirits survived in New York, too, where musician-fans like Lenny Kaye helped salvage some like-spirited bands that had faded into obscurity. Alongside Jac Holzman, he put together Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968 in 1971, a collection of 27 songs from the golden age of garage rock. Though yet to be tagged as “garage rock”, Kaye’s sleeve-notes did invoke the term “punk rock”, foreshadowing the genre that would soon carry garage aesthetics into the next rock epoch.

Punk and garage mated and morphed around various sub-genres in the late-'70s, sending the form in myriad musical directions. Closest to the original sound was the pub rock scene of South-East England, where bands like the 101ers (Joe Strummer’s pre-Clash band), Kilburn & the High Roads (Ian Dury’s original band), and Dr. Feelgood retained the R&B fundamentals, while adding new intensity and speed to their sounds and performances. Garage’s proud amateurism and unrefined simplicity were maintained by the thousands of punk and new wave bands that followed, though the principal riff roots became increasingly “whitened” as R&B elements were gradually excised. In bands like The Ramones and the Sex Pistols, while garage attitudes were alive and kicking, its musical/sonic legacy was largely absent. Instead, particularly in the UK, bands adjusted their bullshit detectors to socio-political lyrical concerns that had only been hinted at in the individualistic and bitter invectives of the old school.

While the '80s saw a nostalgic revival of original garage in bands like The Fuzztones and The Lyres, it also introduced more innovative practitioners. The Gories, Thee Headcoats, and The Oblivians breathed new life into old sounds, while post-punk mavericks like The Fall and The Jesus and Mary Chain expanded the garage tent with sounds both derivative and new. Today, these bands are amongst the most influential on young garage upstarts.

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