Back when The Sonics started working on legendary underground anthems like "The Witch" and "Strychnine," being in a garage band meant one thing, and one thing only: You spent most, if not all, of your time playing in somebody's garage. And that somebody was usually your drummer's parents.
It was from there that The Sonics — who recently teamed up with White Stripes producer Jim Diamond for their first album of all-new material since the '60s — emerged with the sound that placed them in the upper echelon of a genre none of them knew existed. Among garage-rock aficionados, the Tacoma, Washington band's name is now spoken with the same hushed reverence reserved for the likes of Roky Erickson's 13th Floor Elevators and Sky Saxon's The Seeds.
But being too far ahead of your time has its drawbacks. By the time Lenny Kaye began releasing garage-rock compilations and critic Lester Bangs went searching for the forgotten originators of punk-rock, The Sonics had already called it a day.
"By then I was trying not to get killed flying off aircraft carriers," recalls Sonics sax and harmonica player Rob Lind, who'd left the band to enlist as a Navy carrier pilot in Vietnam. "In the beginning, we were very focused on Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard — we practically did the Little Richard songbook. And then after we put 'The Witch' out, we'd play dances around the Northwest every Friday and Saturday night. We had to do three sets, which would be something like 60 songs. And so in addition to our stuff, we'd be playing The Stones' 'Get Off of My Cloud' and 'Slow Down' by the Beatles and 'You Really Got Me' by The Kinks."
While the British Invaders were being blamed for the decline of Western civilization, The Sonics were making the world safe for even more primitive instincts, poking holes in their speakers to make the guitars sound more distorted, howling like Little Richard on hallucinogens, and coming up with lyrics like "Wine is red / Poison is blue / Strychnine is good / For what's ailin' you."
Lind says "Strychnine" is now the biggest crowd-pleaser on The Sonics' current tour, although it was the band's 1964 debut single, "The Witch," that first got them out of the garage and onto the airwaves. That was also the band's first taste of what the big-time must have looked like to working-class kids in a self-consciously second-class city.
"Tacoma and Seattle were like Liverpool and London," says Lind. "Tacoma is a blue-collar port city — our dads were all blue-collar guys — and Seattle was this big, beautiful metropolitan city. So the bands down in Tacoma were a little more hard-edged. Seattle had this jazz scene and all these fantastic musicians — you know, man for man, they were better than we were. But they'd swing it more. And we didn't want to swing it. We wanted to knock it down."
But when it came time to cut their first record, The Sonics were convinced they'd blown it. "We were 17 and we'd never been into a studio before," says Lind of the Seattle sojourn. "So we went up to the big city where the skyscrapers were, got in the elevator, walked in the recording studio, and we all just kind of choked."
The band managed to knock out a cover of Little Richard's "Keep on Knockin'" without incident, but then things got weird.
"When it came time for 'The Witch,' we were real nervous, so we played it three times faster than it was designed to be played. It became what it is now. And we went home after the recording session and laid on the floor and listened to that studio master over and over. We just lay there and went, 'Oh God, listen to that. We totally screwed this up, we wasted our money, it's awful.'"
Still, "The Witch" became a huge regional hit, although Lind says it failed to unseat Petula Clark's "Downtown" from the No. 1 slot.
"The program director at KJR, which was the big Seattle station at the time, said in interviews that he really didn't like the song, because it was about Satan and evil and so forth. But it's not. It's about evil women."
And while all that may seem tame now, The Sonics' music never has: Not on this year's unexpectedly powerful comeback album, This Is the Sonics, which prompted Pitchfork to declare that "The Sonics are alive and viciously well." Nor during their live shows, which have been earning rave reviews ever since the band first got back together for Brooklyn's neo-hipster Cavestomp festival back in 2007.
Lind still recalls how strange it was to actually hear himself and his bandmates onstage for the first time.
"We walked up for the sound check and said, 'What are these boxes?' Those are MONITORS. 'Well, what do they DO?'"
The band earned two encores that night, complete with standing ovations, and became fast friends with neo-garage acts like Barrence Whitfield and The Hives.
"We didn't screw up, we didn't blow songs," says Lind of The Sonics' successful stumble into the 21st century. "We weren't pathetic."