“Only three chords to play and they don’t even play ‘em.”
–All Music Guide review of The Sonics version of “Louie Louie”
When you read something like that, something that describes one of the most-famous, and recognizable songs of all time, you are immediately thankful that a place like YouTube exists. You don’t have to sit and wonder what any song sounds like for long. And in the case of The Sonics rendition of “Louie Louie”, it only takes a few seconds to have their “sledgehammer inside-out version” of the song smashing through your ears and obliterating any reason to listen to the Kingsmen’s popular take on the classic ever again.
You may have never heard of The Sonics. And that is a damn shame if you haven’t because it can be argued that they single-handedly invented garage and punk rock.
The Sonics were a Tacoma band from the mid-1960s that by all accounts were insane musicians, ferocious performers and had a cult-like, yet major influence on everyone from The Stooges to Nirvana to The White Stripes. They were one of those bands that took on all comers with all the subtlety of a machine gun used to open a can of cranberry sauce. If there is a channel for the Devil on Earth, it is in the caterwauling throat-wrecking vocals of keyboardist Gerry Roslie. Guitarist Larry Parypa blasts chords and solos with such ferocity that it’s a miracle he has any fingers at all. And Rob Lind plays sax the only way it should be played: loud and obnoxiously. For a kid growing up near Tacoma, The Sonics were one of those legends that you heard about from time to time, yet never saw. They were the Bigfoot of area bands.
It took a while, but I finally got around to getting the CDs of their first two albums “Here Are The Sonics” and “Boom” and there is not a weak link on either record. Songs like “Psycho” and “He’s Waitin’” are pure adrenaline chased with barbed wire and, since this is a Tacoma band after all, cheap beer, too. But nothing sets a statement of purpose like the introduction to “Strychnine”…
Some folks like water
Some folks like wine
But I like the taste
Of straight Strychnine…
Their reputation only grew after their version of “Have Love, Will Travel” was used in recent years in car commercials for both Land Rover and BMW. Like many bands, they would occasionally get back together and play, but, since these guys are all at least in their sixties, I never gave much thought to the possibility I would ever get to see them live.
That was until about three weeks ago.
I was doing the most mundane of family things a guy with kids can do: I was driving my wife and daughters to go grocery shopping at that most-yuppie of grocery stores, Whole Foods. We were a couple of blocks from the store here in Oakland when I saw a poster on a telephone pole that caused me to do a double-take. I thought I was imagining the image, until I saw it on the next pole and nearly gave all of us whiplashes as I cranked the wheel to the right and nearly put the car on the curb.
It was what I thought it was: A poster of the cover of The Sonics “Boom” record, promoting two upcoming shows by the band, one in Oakland and another the next night in San Francisco.
I didn’t know what the hell my wife wanted at the grocery store, but I knew right then what I was doing on Friday, Nov. 1, and that was seeing The Sonics at Oakland’s New Parish club.
Now, I have a wife and two small daughters, ages 3 and 4. My wife and I rarely get out by ourselves, and about the only time I get to do anything on my own is when I ride the BART train to and from work every day. My days of going out late and drinking my face off at rock shows are long in the past. But if there was ever a night to turn back the clock and rock out in a small club with about 300 of my close personal friends, it would be at a Sonics show. My wife understood…After all, a babysitter costs $15 to $20 an hour in these parts…So it made sense for her to stay at home and for me to fulfill this dream on my own. Plus, The Sonics wouldn’t be taking the stage until at least 11, meaning I could help get the girls fed and into bed before venturing out into the nighttime world.
There were five other bands on the bill, but I could have cared less about any of them. I arrived at the club around 10 and immediately ordered a Big Daddy IPA. I may not drink as much as I used to, but I have graduated to better-quality beers over the years. And I knew that the quality of beer had to match that of the music I was about to see.
Finally, around 11:45, the wait was over. The Sonics took the stage. Bassist Freddie Dennis took the lead vocals on “Cinderella” and the band obliterated the Paul Anka—Paul Anka!—penned tune. When Larry Parypa played the opening riff to “Have Love, Will Travel”, the crowd nearly exploded. New songs were sprinkled in with just as much ferocity as classics such as “Boss Hoss” and “The Witch”. The Sonics played like they had something to prove, and we wanted to prove how much they meant to us.
I’d say most of the crowd wasn’t born until at least 20 years past The Sonics original heyday. By nearly all rights, they probably shouldn’t have known who The Sonics were, especially if they didn’t grow up near Tacoma. But somehow, everyone there had somehow found The Sonics music along the way, and they were now all together in this small club in Oakland, California. I have been to shows from everyone from Mudhoney to Iron Maiden and have never seen a mosh pit so frenzied as that when Roslie tore into “Psycho” late in the show. It was a fury of wild adulation.
I have to admit that I had almost not gone to see The Sonics. I hemmed and hawed for a bit about whether I wanted to stay out that late, knowing that my daughters would probably be waking me up before sunrise. But I decided that I would regret for the rest of my life not seeing The Sonics more than I would regret waking up with ringing ears, on little sleep and with my kids haranguing me to turn “Phineas and Ferb” on Netflix. The Sonics were worth every note of noise and every minute of lost sleep.
May they soon return.