Vol. 3, Issue #3 February 8th - February 21st, 2008

Tiger Bear From Hell at NONzine.com

By: Wilhelm Murg

Changing History: The Alternative Past of Rock'n'Roll

I came of age during the punk period and, with few exceptions, I often had failing conversations with people who were a generation older than me about the history of rock’n’roll. I would ask about bands I might have overlooked and I kept getting the same list over and over: The Beatles, The Who, The Stones, Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane -- i.e. the usual suspects. One of the key turning points I first noticed was over the band Love. I’ve written about them before, but just to get everyone up to speed, Love was a garage/psychedelic band from the late 1960s out of Los Angeles. While they put out a number of albums, they will always be remembered for their classic Forever Changes. It failed to find an audience at the time of its release, but finally qualified for a gold record 25 years later.

I first discovered the album in the early 1980s after reading The Rolling Stone Record Guide and various other books about rock music. The critics considered it a masterpiece and, in my view, there is probably no other album that takes me back to those glorious days of purple haze and Freon, even though I was only a child when they were happening. The leader of Love, Arthur Lee, was convinced he was going to die, so the album, despite its poetic paisley beauty, was rather nihilistic at its core. Goth lords The Damned even covered the opening track “Alone Again Or” in the 1980s.

I soon discovered that no one who was around in the 1960s had ever heard of the album, nor the band, yet there was a cult surrounding it, particularly over at Rhino Records back in the days when the label was being ran out of co-owners Richard Foo and Harold Bronson’s record store of the same name. The Rhino Brothers (as they called themselves) started by putting out novelty records, but found it more lucrative to re-release compilation albums of music from the past, starting with The Turtles and Love. Rhino’s compilations were state-of-the-art affairs; they remastered their releases from the original master tapes and often harmonized the artists’ catalogues by putting out compilations that would feature songs from different labels from the artists’ careers; both practices were unheard of at the time. They set a standard which is now adhered to by anyone serious about releasing “best of” compilations. In 1986 Rhino became the reissue arm of Capitol records; in 1998, they became the reissue label of Atlantic Records and finally in the late 1990s they took on WEA, which eventually bought them out and turned the label into the ultimate golden oldies label in the world.

During that period of working with the major companies, Rhino had an unprecedented amount of power to bring their favorite music to the forefront of the collectors’ world, and they took the ball and ran with it. Some of the music they showcased was forgotten, like the teenage angst of Gene Pitney or the jangling surf guitar of Dick Dale, but some of it was simply esoteric, like The Bonzo Dog Band, the exotica of Martin Denny or Ken Nordine’s “Word Jazz.” Perhaps the most profound moment was when they decided to expand Lenny Kaye’s classic double LP Nuggets compilation into a 12 record set.

While Kaye is best known as Patti Smith’s co-writer and guitarist, and he released albums under his own name and worked with Jim Carroll as a critic, he will always be remembered for Nuggets. Mainstream rock music had an obvious and recognizable path through mainstream history, Nuggets highlighted the three-chord/one-hit wonder band that came out on regional and independent labels; The Chocolate Watchband, Count Five, Blues Magoos, et al. What Kaye really ended up with was a huge chunk of the skeleton of the immediate ancestor to punk rock in the collection, and even more profoundly, the real bands that defined psychedelic music, as opposed to the folk line of The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, like The Electric Prunes, The Seeds and 13th Floor Elevator.

By having just three people in the right place at the right time, this whole underground history of rock music was brought to the forefront of rock, and is now seen as an essential collection in understanding the art form. The Rhino Brothers expanded the concept to 12 albums, including things that were skipped over for time considerations or just because they were on a mainstream label, like The Monkees or Status Quo. Since then, they have even released a British box set, a “Sons of Nuggets” of punk and post-punkers who kept the flame alive, and even a forth box that goes deeper into the San Francisco scene. The whole concept of putting together collections of obscure garage rock is a genre unto itself now, with series like “Pebbles,” “Back From The Grave” and “Las Vegas Grind,” to name a few.

Now that the dust has settled over the 1960s, I’m starting to understand the problem with recent history: the majority of people who were hippies didn’t really know the majority of this music which, though it was not as popular as Jimi Hendrix or The Animals, certainly made a sound in the forest where it fell.

I have personally given up on the collections and simply started buying “best of” collections by each individual band, or the occasional reasonably priced original vinyl when it shows up, and there’s no end in sight; each one is more fascinating than the last.

I’ve come to realize this is one of the great legacies of my generation, and it’s also in keeping with the punk attitude; we’re not just preserving our ancestors’ paths, we’re doing it at the expense of the mainstream. The mainstream has taken a backseat as a collector’s item simply because so many copies were made that they’re not rare, yet a first pressing of The Standells, or The Monks are going for very high prices, and more people know about them simply because they are so highly priced. I recently noticed a still sealed copy of “Forever Changes” flew off the shelf at my local record store for $70! You can’t even unwrap the damn thing and enjoy it! But this is America, a little voice in the back of my head says; if we can’t impress ‘em with an aesthetic argument, we’ll dazzle them with dollar $igns.

Rock’n’roll will always evolve regardless of the backdoor circumstances. God bless the USA!

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