by James Fleming
The garage is a sanctuary. A safe haven where a girl/guy can plug in, tune up (optional), turn up and fucking tear into it.
The sixties are of course hailed as the golden age of the garage band. Look no farther than Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets or a Lester Bangs article and the virtues of The Leaves and ? and The Mysterians will be virtually jackhammered into you.
But, the seventies had their own landslide of able garage bands. Except this time they called it punk.
The Clash even titled a song Garageland and elected it to the hallowed position of debut album closing track. Admittedly, it’s the only blemish on an otherwise classic record. But still, to hear Strummer declare “we’re a garage band,” and sound so unashamedly proud of the fact will catch anyone’s attention. For better or for worse…
For that’s what the art of garage is all about; not giving a shit. Not giving a shit and having the brass neck to just go for it. You think Louie Louie would still sound so good fifty years later if the Kingsmen gave a flying fuck? Or would Surfin’ Bird still come across like everyone’s mentally-ill first cousin if the Trashmen cared that they merely ripped two songs in half and stitched them together like a surf-crazed Frankenstein? Not a snowball’s chance in Havana.
And the eighties, so often maligned, birthed some truly brilliant garage bands; The Gun Club, The Cramps, Spacemen 3… They may not have sold many records, but they’ve had a bigger impact on the course of music than Mötley Crüe.
And sure, all grunge ever was when it was at its best was garage rock taken to almost fundamentalist extremes. Mudhoney stand slouched and proud as a testament to that.
And in the late 90s/early 00s, we got a new breed of garage-spawned, rock n’ roll-bred groups: The White Stripes, The Strokes, The Hives, to name but a few.
Now, most of those groups weren’t worth their weight in the records they sold by the shitload. But, you listen to the first White Stripes record and it’s clear that before The Strokes hit pay dirt with Is This It? and labels and critics suddenly leapt at the chance, as they always do, to make quick cash and seem “hip-an’-happenin’”, that some of these bands were as raw yet refined as, drumroll please, the now-appreciated Stooges.
And there’s a plethora of great garage bands coming out of the genre’s native USA. The likes of Ty Segall are making internationally acclaimed careers and even the Black Lips had a fair stab at the tabloid headlines that have plagued rock n’ roll since its inception back in the 50s, the decade that has influenced so many of today’s young upstarts.
But, there’s a dark side to garage rock.
As you would imagine, when the Strokes struck gold, the ripoff artists literally oozed out of the cracks in the mine like some lethal natural gas. They popped up all across our blue-green globe, had one hit single each and then faded into obscurity. Remember Are You Gonna Be My Girl? Yeah, that’s right, you’re humming it now. Can you even name the band that wrote it?
Jet, that was their name. A one-hit-wonder to end them all. Stick a ‘Lust For Life,’ back beat (the band claim it’s a Motown ripoff, the effect is the same either way) behind some vague, sexual lyrics and lo a top 3 hit is born!
And we lapped it up. Alice Cooper, one of the patriarchs of seventies’ garage rock (check Love It To Death and Killer), claimed it was a great song. Only to state in a later interview that Jet and their ilk had about five hit songs between them.
But, the point was made: the public have a taste for the odd blast of four chord rock n’ roll. And something new, though not fresh, was born.
The Black Keys hit it really big first with their Brothers album, specifically with singles such as Tighten Up. The follow up though, would send them beyond even the stratosphere.
El Camino boasted three hit singles. The sort of songs you know to hear, but don’t know the titles.
And they’re solid songs; Gold on The Ceiling, Lonely Boy, Little Black Submarines. Good tracks. The album as a whole suffered from the same lack that most Black Keys albums suffer from, they neither speed up, nor slow down. But it was far from bad.
Except, around about the time those singles became ubiquitous, a few records trickled out almost unnoticed. But they made a distinct impression on at least one listener/writer…
Hanni El Khatib’s Will The Guns Come Out? is also, not a bad record per sé. But, it sounds, for all intents and purposes, almost EXACTLY like The Black Keys.
And, if you switch on any TV channel, you’ll hear during the commercial breaks, especially on sports gear ads, songs that all sound eerily similar…
A kick-ass beat sells sneakers apparently. Who woulda thunk it? Someone did, and believe it or not, having a song “as featured on the Nike commercial” is a selling point.
So, they’ve cloned the garage-rock sound to sell shoes. We’re not even safe in our own homes these days! You got a guitar? You’re a marketing tool!
But, the really terrifying thing, like scare-ya-shitless sort of stuff, is that people like this muck.
And that’s the main issue with The Soft White Sixties’ EP The Ocean Way. It sounds like it was written to sell sweat-shop shoes.
If you like your rock with just a hint of danger about it, just enough to make you feel cool and alternative, you’ll love it. Which is to say; it’s fine.
The songs are good, solid enough. But, it doesn’t have the thrill of rock. It’s got Robert Plant-esque vocals, reverb-drenched guitar stabs on Follow Me, just enough distortion so that you notice it, a steady back beat. It’s 2010s garage rock by the numbers.
You see, where all those elements are of course present in garage, the vocals would really WAIL, that reverb would be; A) absent, or B) all over the place, and the beat would stand the hairs up on the back of your neck and let you know that shit’s goin’ down in yo’ town.
It’s all just a bit too safe. There’s more passion in this review/rant for God’s sake. What sort of world do we live in where the critic is more passionate than the artists?
The Soft White Sixties claim that they holed themselves up together in a one bedroom house in Nashville for a week to perfect the songs on this EP. And that could very well be the problem; too much perfection. Rock n’ roll is at its best in an unprocessed yet coherent state. Like Keith Richards…
And hence, this rant. They have perfected imperfection. It’s safe danger, if such a thing can be said to exist. I’m not ranting for self-destruction, for life-threatening danger. I’m asking for catharsis. A cutting loose of all the bullshit and lashing out for just an hour or even half that.
We live in a world torn between two dangerous powers of suppression: the far right, and the far left. Too much of either will get us killed, and we’ll make some shitty records in the process.
The far right mindset will result in a straight-backed, uniformed, marching beat. The far-left will birth bands, to paraphrase Tim Minchin, so open-minded that their brains have fallen out. But still just as uniformed.
And records like this are the result of that suppression. The good stuff can’t get out there. And so, we’re stuck with the tidal wave of mediocrity that passes for rock n’ roll in the 21st century. Muzak everywhere.
I’d say The Ocean Way is just a little too conservative. It ticks all the boxes of rock n’ roll, but it’s far from the “murkier” sound The Soft White Sixties were aiming for. It’s not dark with a hint of light, like Bukowski or Bangs. It’s light with a dash of dark, as if some blackened comet streaked across it for the briefest second.
The human factor has been ironed out then airbrushed in. But don’t blame Protools or autotune. Someone somewhere still has to push those buttons. This is a human creation.
Yet, it’s far from a human expression. Except for a human expression of desire for more cash, groupies etc. It’s a deliberate reach for ten minutes in the stratosphere, and it falls flat.
To go back to the garage, what it’s really all about is a statement of individuality. And there’s no individuality here, no vitality. Just another pissed-off critic typing away about another record. Move along folks, nothing to see here.