Nuggets gets boxed
By Douglas Wolk
OCTOBER 26, 1998: Originally released back in 1972, Lenny Kaye's Nuggets compilation became a kind of shibboleth of the mid-'70s rock underground (from the Ramones to the Patti Smith Group), and it's arguably responsible for the continued existence of garage rock (the Lyres, the Oblivians). The two-LP collection created a genre after the fact, drawing the boundaries around what Kaye called "original artyfacts from the first psychedelic era, 1965-1968." It was a perfect 27-track set of raw, sloppy, terse tunes by drugged-up one-hit wonders who burst out of nowhere in the '60s, played their song, and then disappeared again.
Some of those boys -- girls mostly appear here as cruel but contemptible objects of desire, almost never in the bands themselves -- parlayed their early hits into some kind of career (like Todd Rundgren, whose early group Nazz is represented by the deliciously trippy "Open My Eyes"). Some turned into cult figures (like the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, whose much-covered "You're Gonna Miss Me" is only the tip of their little ice cube). Some left a permanent mark with one great song (the astonishingly weird-looking Castaways are synonymous with "Liar, Liar" in pop history, but that's better than not being in pop history at all). And a lot are barely footnotes to footnotes. Remember the Barbarians? They were the Boston band who did "Moulty"? You must know it -- it went up to #90 on the pop charts in 1966. The one that's the monologue by their hook-handed drummer about how music saved his life, backed up by a barely competent "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" ripoff that's rumored to have actually been played by the Band? Jog your memory?
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Nuggets is that, despite an entire cottage industry of like-minded collections that emerged in the '80s, the original document has managed to avoid a CD reissue until now, mostly because of licensing problems. But Rhino Records is legendary for being able to deal with those. Its new Nuggets box includes the entire original double album on one CD, plus three more discs of material that's at least as good. Even the tracks that aren't so great in the conventional sense -- the extra-inept or poorly realized fumblings by kids who hadn't yet figured out their strengths -- are fascinating. The Golliwogs' decent "Fight Fire" suggests the incipient hook genius of the band who would evolve into Creedence Clearwater Revival; the Other Half's not-quite-there "Mr. Pharmacist" ended up getting a ferocious cover by the Fall. Even Kim Fowley's horrid psych-fake "The Trip" is an instructive example of how thin the line was between continuity of tradition and the ripping off of any number of '60s songs about dropping acid. Then there are the standards: "Talk Talk," "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White," "Double Shot of My Baby's Love," "Can't Seem To Make You Mine," "I Want Candy," "She's About a Mover," and on and on. There's doubtless a significant omission or two from the Nuggets box, but given the embarrassment of riches here, who cares?
The informative new liner notes are by Greg Shaw, the man behind Voxx Records and its long-running Pebbles series of slightly more underground garage reissues -- for decades the closest thing available to the additional Nuggets Kaye's release promised. The Pebbles discs, originally LPs of dubious legality, are now turning up on CD, and AIP has released two double CDs of Essential Pebbles, each including one disc selected from Pebbles and another of songs "previously unreissued in any form" -- some so obscure that the compilers don't know who the artists were.
There's a bit of overlap between Pebbles and Nuggets, but there are distinct differences between their respective aesthetics. Where Nuggets is mostly interested in pop hooks, Pebbles places more value on obscurity and ferocity. (And "'65-'68" is too broad a range for its compilers -- the sleeves advertise "Ultimate '66 Garage Classics.") Pebbles can be explosive -- Lost Agency's "One Girl Man," which is about not being one, works mostly because the band members keep sledgehammering away at their instruments in unison. Pebbles can also be a little pointless (Kama Del Sutra's "She Taught Me Love" is nowhere near as salacious, or as catchy, as it needs to be), and it's probably not necessary to have this many covers and rewrites of "I'm a Man."
Still, the second-rate stuff gives a sense of the landscape the first-rate stuff sprang out of. Together Nuggets and Pebbles suggest how unbelievably huge the garage/psych/punk movement was in those few years. Imagine compiling a set of 110 memorable hip-hop songs from the last four years, with maybe six artist repetitions; then imagine coming up with another 400 rappers from 1996, each with a decent single to his name, and you'll get a sense of how far and how deep garage's tendrils extended. Besides, the "first psychedelic era" was the last great flowering of the local or regional hit. Most of these songs were released on tiny labels that had neither the money nor the clout to get national attention; instead, bands would tour a state or two for months, gradually trying to expand the scope of their one great song, hoping it would spread fast enough to catch on before they broke up but slowly enough for the label to press enough copies to meet demand. Sometimes they'd crack the bottom of the Billboard charts and sometimes they wouldn't, and that could make all the difference as to whether they'd make another single.
In retrospect, much of what Nuggets has to offer seems derivative. But that's the point. The first wave of garage rock was copped from the British Invasion, dumbed down, Americanized, and then dumbed down some more -- even when it ripped off American R&B, that came via England. The classic early garage records were the simplest and crudest ones -- the ones that convinced thousands of college kids with names like Stormy Rice (of East Lansing's Woolies) that they had as good a chance at the brass ring as anyone else. This, of course, was when the brass ring looked worth grabbing. Gradually, the idea spread that looks, talent, and technical competence didn't mean nearly as much as a song that could leap out at you -- and everyone thought he had that song, and if you didn't, you just covered "Hey Joe." It wasn't an aesthetic movement, it was a meme.
To celebrate the re-release of Nuggets, NYC's Continental hosted a show back on September 24 where pretty much every punk and garage band in the city essayed a song or two from the new set. Most of the groups who played -- Perforated Head, Stab City, the Carvels, the Fanatics, Clowns for Progress -- are in the habit of ripping off these songs every time they plug in their instruments, and even for those who don't, it's not hard to figure out which order the two and a half chords go in. What was missing, though, was the sense that dumb little rock songs can be not just simple fun but also the most meaningful thing in the world -- something a teenager can devote his life and his hopes to. That sense of desperate desire for something bigger is all over Nuggets, and it's what makes this release great.
"No Friend of Mine"
"When You Stop Loving Me"
"I'm Waiting for the Man"
"Where Eagles Dare"
"I Hate You"
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