For a while back in the mid-Sixties, it seemed like every city in the United States had one: a group of four or five guys so enamored of the reworkings of American rock and R&B by the British Invasion's front line that they had to take a stab at it themselves. Honing their three-chord craft in garages, at teen dances, and in amateur contests, these groups either found their own voices somewhere in the molten, blues-baked stomp of the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and the Animals, or they simply bashed out crude covers or thinly veiled originals built on the chassis of "Louie Louie" and "You Really Got Me." An astonishing number of these bands put out singles, on their own with money borrowed from their parents or through local, sometimes national, independent labels. Some landed regional hits with their abrasive, often ramshackle waxed attempts to create their own Beatlemania, and a few actually hit the Billboard Top 100. By the late Sixties, though, even the national hits had been forgotten by the radio-fueled masses and rock and roll hipsters who were flirting with the concepts of psychedelia and the conceits of art rock.
Then in 1972 some of these one-shots and regional hits resurfaced as Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968, a double album issued by Elektra (the onetime home of the Stooges and the MC5) and emblazoned with acid-inspired cover art that implied something far more wretched than its 27 tracks delivered. Assembled by New York City rock writer and guitarist Lenny Kaye and based on an idea by Elektra's then- president Jac Holzman, Nuggets created a kind of alternative rock and roll universe, one that gave voice to the first generation of rock and roll bands influenced not by the blues and R&B icons of the Thirties through the Fifties, but by the variations by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, et al. -- that is, the first bands influenced exclusively by rock and roll. Fittingly, the music was tough, wiry, driven with barely harnessed energy that usually outweighed anything close to technical ability, to the point that it's hard to imagine anyone thinking a hit could come of chunks of music so ragged, loose, and chaotic. But in a rock and roll universe created around the talisman of the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie," anything seemed possible.
Although most of the songs it featured were hits of some kind, Nuggets wasn't so much a collection of oldies as a posthumous shout from the darkest part of rock and roll's netherworld; not every great song had found its way into the consciousness of the mainstream. Heard together -- with the savage intensity of the Chocolate Watchband's "Let's Talk About Girls" giving way to the fuzz-guitar psychedelia of the Electric Prunes' "I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)"; the horny raunch of the Shadows of Knight's "Oh Yeah" drooling into the Amboy Dukes' nascent heavy-metal recasting of "Baby Please Don't Go" -- these lost jewels shined as brightly as the country, blues, and gospel 78s gathered on the equally monumental Anthology of American Folk Music and were about as influential on the artists who heard them.
The original Nuggets collection didn't exactly tear up the charts; it slipped quietly out of print not long after its release, as did its 1976 reissue on Sire. Now more than twenty years later, Rhino has assembled the four-disc Nuggets, a staggering representation of the massive body of work produced by myriad garage-rockers from the Sixties. In addition to debuting the original albums on CD, the set adds 91 songs to the package, including most of the songs Lenny Kaye had slated for the never-materialized second volume in the series, as well as work from a slew of groups absent from that first lauded volume (among them the Sonics, the Litter, the Monks, and the Wailers). Though many fine songs from the era aren't included -- it would take at least ten discs to do the genre justice -- Rhino's compendium inarguably represents the quintessence of this nearly forgotten mass of nearly forgotten 45s and buried album cuts.
Kaye, of course, could not be happier. "It tells the rest of the story," says the long-time Patti Smith Group guitarist of the new box set during a phone interview from his New York City apartment. "There are larger hits here, and there are greater obscurities. There's certainly a fuller telling of the story begun on Nuggets. There are a couple of extra cuts by bands that needed more definition. I'm holding the box right now and, to me, I'm looking at a series of albums that might've happened had the original Nuggets continued."
The new collection acknowledges the battalion of groups and records that stomped into the consciousness of garage-rock fanatics thanks to a series of albums inspired by the original Nuggets. Especially the multivolume sets, most notably Pebbles, Back from the Grave, and Highs in the Mid-Sixties. The additional discs (not to be confused with the shoddy compilations Rhino issued in the mid-Eighties under the same title) flesh out Kaye's original compilation and attest to the prodigious number of great records made in the United States during the supposed takeover by the swell of English groups that supposedly salvaged the heart, soul, and fire of American rock and roll. Though even the best of the records from these groups were smeared with the influence of the Stones, the Animals, and the Kinks, many were as good as, and sometimes better than, the stuff cranked out by the bowl-cut Brits who followed in their wake.
Some of them were weirder (the Hombres' nonsensical "Let It All Hang Out," the Elastic Band's frantic "Spazz"), some of them rocked with unfathomable intensity (the Sonics' aptly named "Psycho," the Groupies' self-explanatory "Primitive"), others masterfully defined frustrations both libidinous (the Chocolate Watchband's slavering "Sweet Young Thing") and psychological (the Music Machine's "Talk Talk," the Standells' "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White"). And drugs were everywhere, from the Electric Prunes' "I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)" to the Magic Mushrooms' "It's-A-Happening," the songs that bookended the original Nuggets longplayers.
Although most of these groups disappeared as quickly as they had arrived, a few managed to avoid obscurity: After the Golliwogs knocked out the brilliant Byrdsian stomper "Fight Fire" in 1966, they changed their name and became Creedence Clearwater Revival. Todd Rundgren had already proven his mastery of both the studio and the guitar on the Nazz's "Open My Eyes"; hotshot producer Richard Gottehrer never did anything in his later work that eclipsed the marvelous "I Want Candy" and "Night Time" singles by his group the Strangeloves. Before he founded Mountain under the name Leslie West, Leslie Weinstein was splattering fuzz-ball guitar on mid-Sixties cuts by the Vagrants; and the 1966 debut by Captain Beefheart, a raunched-up version of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy," proves the former Don Van Vliet had already figured out how to work the blues into his own screwy vision. Others -- including the 13th Floor Elevators' Roky Erickson and the Seeds' Sky Saxon -- became cult figures after their mid-Seventies rediscoveries by the second wave of punk rockers and experimental noisemakers.
Similarly, the original Nuggets accidentally birthed a rock and roll aesthetic that has been embraced by a legion of underground groups from the postpunk Eighties to the indie rockers of today. There would've been no Mono Men, Woggles, or Chesterfield Kings, no Fleshtones, Mummies or Oblivians, no Back from the Grave, Pebbles, and Ugly Things, had Lenny Kaye not followed up on Jac Holzman's request to pull together some of the outcast relics of rock and roll's not-so-distant past. Kaye's mind boggles.
"I didn't really have a concept down," he explains. "I was kind of instinctually feeling my way around in the dark. I didn't really think about it that much, otherwise I would've probably screwed it up in some way. It was just a reaction, I guess, to the trends of the time, which was kind of an overseriousness to the music and the whole idea of rock. It's like I was channeling a certain element in these records that I didn't even fully understand at the time. It's really quite amazing to me that an oldies anthology -- which is essentially what Nuggets is -- is even remotely remembered a quarter-century later.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.