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Back when I was first digging into "garage rock" and discovering that punk music was NOT what the mainstream was referring to with that term, I happened across a band called the Sonics. At the time I was just starting to listen to bands like the Stooges, the New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols, tracing the rock and roll lineage back from modern rock bands like the Strokes and the Hives. The Sonics seemed to have the same energy, raunch, grit and swagger even though they predated all of those bands by a few years and the modern ones by 40 or so. After listening to their music for a while now, I see this band as part of the early proto punk scene. If the roots of punk lie in the Stooges, the MC5 and the New York Dolls (and all the other proto punk bands of that era), then the Sonics are like the roots of the roots of punk.
Many of the proto punk bands I had at least heard in passing every so often in rock and roll materials and so names like the Stooges, the Velvet Underground, they were always around. Not the case with the Sonics though as they seem to be more or less unknown outside of collector circles. I had never even heard of the Sonics before stumbling upon their music online, (it was during the heyday of downloading), so let me give you a little bit of information in case you're new to them as well.
The Sonics came out of Tacoma WA. In the early to mid 60s, 1964-66, releasing only two real albums. There were other releases as well I believe, but they tended to be compilations as far as I know. Although they were making music around the same time as the Beatles were doing A Hard Days Night, the Sonics are decidedly rougher, rawer, even more so than the Rolling Stones. Take the energy of Little Richard, combine it with the rough edged, blues grit of the Yardbirds, add a bit of Bo Diddley, some 60s R&B and youth culture, and you end up with the Sonics, some of the raunchiest rock and roll of all time and what would become punk rock in the late 70s and 80s.
I'm slightly more partial to the first Sonics album, although it could be because it was the first I heard, and the only one I actually own to listen to regularly. The energy rock of songs like "Dirty Rubber", "Witch", and "Strychnine" makes them sound so pushed, emphasized by lead singer Gerry Roslie's soulfully screeching vocals and the band's relentless rhythmic rock and roll grit. This is early rock and roll as wild as it can be.
Although the originals are compelling, it's their covers from this first album that most point to the punk movement in my mind. Take their version of "Money", or Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethovan", both songs also performed by the Beatles. Where the Beatles versions are rock and roll, neither have the same energy as the Sonics versions, which are gritty and fuzzy, screeching even at times. Both band's takes on these songs (and the originals) are great, but also a good contrast between the more pop friendly rock and roll of Beatles, and the raunchy, wild, goodness of the Sonics. It's a similar story with the Sonics take on Little Richard's "Keep a' Knockin'". One of my favorite all time favorite rock and roll songs because of it's rapid paced energy, the Sonics take it closer to it's obvious conclusion and turn the energy and speed till it's on the edge of out of control, ready to blow apart at any moment. Although all of these covers definitely stay within the early rock and roll format, there is just something about them... they're rough and raw, they're pushed and wild, they're more about energy and letting loose than about fancy musicianship (although there are some great sax and guitar licks throughout) or polished recordings. However you want to describe it, it is definitely a style and sound that I associate with modern garage rock, and the punk and proto punk movements.
Then of course there is the amusing "Don't Believe in Christmas". This rock and roll anti Christmas song sounds just so punk to me. With lyrics with just a hint of sneer and snot they capture a bit of the early punk spirit.
Overall, I really like the Sonics with their unique brand of early, raunchy, rough rock and roll. I think a lot of people will really dig this band as well, especially if you're into some of the other bands I've written about for the Soul of Rock 'n' Roll. Both the Soledad Brothers and the Detroit Cobras owe a little something (of maybe a lot) to the Sonics as do a lot of other modern garage rock bands like the Hives and the Strokes. Also if you're like me, it's easy to hear their influence in the early music from the Clash, the Sex Pistol and other punk and proto punk bands so people who like those bands will probably dig the Sonics as well. If you're into early rock and roll artists like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Diddley, or even the early Rolling Stones or Yardbirds, I think you'll like the Sonics too.
Whether you end up being a Sonics fan like me or not, I think it's important to remember this band not only as an influence to those who followed or even as a link between early rock and roll and punk. Instead I think we should appreciate the Sonics simply because their music is great rock and roll the way it is meant to be: wild, rough, raunchy and high energy. Although there may be thousands of rock variations now, genres and sub genres galore, the Sonics are a band to remind us where everything started and where it would end up going.
Here's to the roots of the roots of punk rock: The Sonics
You can pick up the first Sonics album directly from Amazon here: Here Are the Sonics