There’s irony in the fact that garage rock is generally regarded as rock and roll in its most primitive form. Fact is, some of rock’s greatest bands – from The Ramones to Sonic Youth to R.E.M. to Green Day – can trace their styles to this mostly singles-oriented genre of music. Garage rock still is flourishing today, of course, but its true flowering occurred in the ’60s. Below are 10 bands who were pioneers during that glorious garage rock heyday.
The Count Five
With their 1966 hit, “Psychotic Reaction,” The Count Five assured themselves a prime spot in garage rock history. Hailing from San Jose, California, and still in their teens when “Psychotic Reaction” assailed the charts, the band essentially sabotaged their burgeoning career when they opted to seek college degrees instead of further pursuing music. Legendary critic Lester Bangs immortalized the group in a famously glowing profile.
Forerunners of both punk and power pop, Flamin’ Groovies crafted their garage rock aesthetic by fitting ’50s-style rock and roll with Brit-style melodies. In contrast to their San Francisco-based peers, the Groovies didn’t shy away from greasy blues, powered mostly by the dual whammy of guitarist Cyril Jordan and flamboyant singer Roy A. Loney. The band’s 1971 album, Teenage Head, continues to be hailed as a cult classic.
13th Floor Elevators
Hailing from Austin, Texas, and centered largely on guitarist-singer Roky Erickson, the 13th Floor Elevators fused garage rock and psychedelia to form something new under the sun. Founded in 1965, and predating the San Francisco flower-power explosion, the Elevators were later acknowledged by fellow Texan Billy Gibbons as one of his prime inspirations. Unfortunately, physical and emotional problems brought on by substance abuse derailed the band’s grand ambitions, but not before they released a smattering of brilliant and influential albums.
Combining the trashy swagger of the early Rolling Stones with a penchant for psychedelia, The Seeds scored two hits in the mid-’60s with “Pushin’ Too Hard” and “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine.” The band’s unadorned, slop rock niche yielded two classic albums – The Seeds and A Web of Sound – but with their third disc, 1967’s Future, the group embarked on an ill-fated attempt to make a concept album along the lines of Sgt. Pepper. Following the death of original Seeds singer Sky Saxon in 2009, members of The Smashing Pumpkins, Love and The Electric Prunes staged a tribute concert in his honor.
Iggy Pop, The Ramones and R.E.M. are among the many artists who’ve cited The Troggs as a primary influence. One could argue that the British band’s proto-punk cover of Chip Taylor’s “Wild Thing” is the crown jewel of garage rock, and in fact The Troggs scored two additional hits with the flower-power ballad, “Love is All Around,” and the riff-driven “With a Girl Like You.” Jimi Hendrix, of course, loved the band.
In the late ’60s, along with fellow Detroit natives The Stooges, MC5 forged a garage rock template upon which future punk rockers and thrash rockers would build. Thanks largely to the one-two punch of guitarist Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith, the band backed up their rebellious stance with music that seared with energy and volume. Kramer and Smith’s interlocking guitars influenced nearly every dual-lead guitar band that came in MC5’s wake.
The Electric Prunes
The Electric Prunes’ 1966 single, “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night),” established a permanent place for the band as garage rock pioneers. Working at Leon Russell’s studio in Los Angeles, under the tutelage of Rolling Stones engineer Dave Hassinger, the band went on to release a flurry of near-misses, including a splendid song titled “Kyrie Eleison” that was featured on the soundtrack for Easy Rider. After a 30-year absence, a re-tooled version of the band emerged in 1999.
If “Wild Thing” is garage rock’s crown jewel, then The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” rates only a slight notch below. Released in late 1963, the song was, at that time, an oasis of slop rock authenticity on singles charts that were laden with the likes of Bobby Vinton and The Singing Nun. The song has since been covered by hundreds of artists, most notably by The Stooges, whose second album, Fun House, was produced by original Kingsmen keyboardist Don Galluci.
Released in 1969 and 1970, respectively, and powered by the swaggering charisma of Iggy Pop and the six-string ferocity of guitarist Ron Asheton, The Stooges’ first two albums are exemplars of anyone-can-do-it, garage rock abandon. Adding guitarist James Williamson to the mix (Asheton switched to bass), the band then produced a punk-metal masterpiece with 1973’s Raw Power, all the while continuing to adhere to their deliberately primitive spirit. In a word, The Stooges brought a sense of danger to garage rock.
The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground may have been the first band to frame serious literary sensibilities in garage rock settings. Bringing to life the seedier side of his beloved New York, and singing about the city’s colorful misfit characters, Lou Reed brought a novelist’s eye to his songwriting craft. Of course, none of that would have mattered if the Velvets’ music – by turns willfully discordant and nakedly beautiful – had not been imbued with brilliance on par with Reed’s lyrical talents.