Tuesday, September 25, 2007

VARIOUS ARTISTS, Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968
Spin, 1998

Whatever way you define the essence of rock'n'roll--sex or dance or drugs, rage to live or rage against the machine--the common denominator shared by all these body/mind states is intensity. Rock'n'roll doesn't have to be fast or loud, but it's gotta have that feeling of incandescent immersion in the here-and-now.

Perhaps there's never been rock music so consumed by a tense present as mid-Sixties garage punk--that shambolic movement of white American teen bands who bastardised the already crude caricature of black rhythm-and-blues perpetrated by Brit Invaders such as The Kinks and The Yardbirds. The result was a comically exaggerated hypermachismo whose barely concealed subtext was virginity blues. Hence the volcano-of-pent-up-sperm that is "Action Woman" by The Litter, whose singer threatens to trade in his current girl for a more compliant model who'll provide "satisfaction" (that highly-charged buzzword of the mid-Sixties). But although its motor is usually sex and/or sexism, the greatest music of the "punkadelic" era achieves a kind of abstract urgency; "content" spontaneously combusts in an energy-flash of lust without object or objective.

Rhino's four-CD Nuggets dramatically expands on the original 1972 anthology. Lenny Kaye's feat of creative archivalism simultaneously altered the contours of the rock canon (deposing the Beatles/Cream aristocracy in favor of the disregarded one-hit wonders of the pre-Sgt Pepper's era: Count Five, The Seeds, Thirteenth Floor Elevators, The Standells, Shadows of Knight) and shaped rock's no-future (Nuggets was a primary resource for proto-punkers such as Pere Ubu and Television). Kaye's original double elpee takes up the first
silver disc; the other three scoop up a legion of regional smashes and one-miss blunders.

Although there's a well-produced surfeit of bubblegum-psych and frat-party bop, and not nearly enough of the inspired lo-fi ineptitude you'll find on obscurantist garage comps like Pebbles and Mindrockers, this new Nuggets contains way too many gems to list here: the ear-dazzling flare of Nazz's "Open My Eyes", the lysergic oneupmanship of The Third Bardo's "I'm Five Years Ahead of My Time," the paranoid delirium tremens of The Music Machine's "Talk Talk," the louche swagger of Chocolate Watchband's saliva-drooling Stones pastiche "Sweet Young Thing." My absolute all-time fave spurt of G-punk , though, is We The People's "You Burn Me Up And Down", which you can also find on Sundazed's superb anthology of the band's output, Mirror Of Our Minds. A sensual inferno of turbid fuzztone and jagged riffs, "Burn Me Up" is a hormonally-crazed paean that shifts from the
eros-tormented gasp "baby, you're learnin'" to the era's ultimate
compliment: "you satisfier!"

But this is history, right? Well, no, actually. In "Burn Me Up," I
hear not just the ancestry for My Bloody Valentine's kissed-out "Slow" but the secret spiritual source for The Prodigy's "Firestarter", Big Beat monstertunes such as Fatboy's "Everybody Loves A Filter", and a thousand hardcore rave anthems . Punk to funk, garage bands to computer-in-the-bedroom junglists , you can trace a continuum of teenagers hopped up on stimulants (or fervently pretending to be)
and literally electrified by the latest noise-toys (wah-wah pedals
in '66, samplers in '92). If Nuggets is "educational", it's 'cos it's
an endlessly renewable refresher course in how to live like you're on fire. The guys responsible may now all be bank managers or professors of astronomy (like the singer in Chocolate Watchband!) but right here, right now, they're aliver than you or I will ever be.


VARIOUS ARTISTS, Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts From the British Empire & Beyond
Uncut, 2001

Lenny Kaye's 1972 anthology Nuggets was a rock archivist's masterstroke, a feat of canon rewriting that deposed the post-Sgt Pepper's aristocracy and elevated the forgotten garage punks of the mid-Sixties, from The Seeds to Chocolate Watchband. Rhino's 1998 four-CD update of Nuggets dramatically expanded the original double LP. Now this latest instalment extends the Nuggets premise beyond the USA to encompass the one-hit-wonders and never-wozzers of mid-Sixties Britain: that all-too-brief golden age of amphetamine-cranked R&B and mod-on-LSD that's roughly bookended by "My Generation" and Cream's Disraeli Gears. Just the names of these long-lost groups--Dantalion's Chariot, Wimple Winch, Rupert's People, The Idle Race--induces a contact high, before you even play the discs.

Back then, singles made their point and left. This short'n'sweet succinctness allows the compilers to cram 109--that's one hundred and nine--tracks into four discs. Here's just a handful of gems. Tintern Abbey's "Vacuum Cleaner", with the saintly-sounding David MacTavish singing a proto-Spacemen 3 love-as-drug/drug-as-God lyric ("fix me up with your sweet dose/now I'm feeling like a ghost"), splashy cymbals, and a billowing solo of controlled feedback. Them's "I Can Only Give You Everything": Van in I'm-A-Man mode, awesomely surly and swaggering. The Sorrows's "Take A Heart": a Brit-Diddley locked groove of tumbling tribal toms and spaced-out-for-intensified-effect guitar-riffs. The Eyes's "When The Night Falls" takes that drastic use of silence and suspense even further: powerchords like Damocles Swords, caveman tub-thumping, tongues-of-flame harmonica, and an insolent you-done-me-wrong/go-my-own-way vocal. Fire's "Father's Name Was Dad," a classic misunderstood teen anthem: society gets the blame and the kid surveys Squaresville from a lofty vantage, cries "I laugh at it all!"

One group stands out as a "why?-why?!?-were-they-never-MASSIVE?" mystery. Not The Creation, and not The Action--both had terrific songs but were a little characterless. No, I'm talking about John's Children's. Their two offerings here are astoundingly deranged, the monstrously engorged fuzzbass like staring into a furnace, the drums flailing and scything like Keith Moon at his most smashed-blocked. "Desdemona" features the then shocking chorus "lift up your skirt and fly", daft lines about Toulouse-Lautrec painting "some chick in the rude" plus the stutter-bleat of a young Bolan on backing vox. "A Midnight Summer's Scene" captures mod sulphate-mania on the cusp of mutating into flower power acid-bliss: it's a febrile fantasy of Dionysian mayhem in an after-dark park, maenad hippy-chicks with faces "disfigured by love", strewing "petals and flowers," prancing the rites of Pan.

John's Children's merger of cissy and psychotic highlights the major difference between American garage punk and British "freakbeat" (as reissue label Bam Caruso dubbed it for their illustrious Rubble compilation series). The Limey stuff is way fey compared with the Yanks. You can hear a proto-glam androgyny, a "soft boy" continuum that takes in Barrett and Bolan, obviously, but also the queeny-dandy aristocrat persona of Robert Plant. At the same time, because these bands were schooled in R&B and played live constantly, the music has a rhythmic urgency and aggressive thrust that gradually faded over subsequent decades from the psychedelic tradition (think of Spiritualized's drum-phobic ethereality). This, though, was music for dancing as much as wigging out.

Nuggets II isn't solid gold. There's a slight surfeit of boppy shindig-type rave-ups and sub-Yardbirds blues that just ain't bastardized enough. Personally I crave more tunes with truly over-the-top guitar effects, aberrant bass-heavy mixes, phased cymbals, drastic stereo separation, and other psych-era cliches. The "British Empire" part of the subtitle allows in Australia's The Easybeats (godstars for the duration of "Friday On My Mind") while the "Beyond" pulls in groovy Latin American acid-rockers Os Mutantes. But to be honest, a lot of the Commonwealth-and-beyond stuff just ain't that hot. And inevitably one could compile another 2-CDs out of heinous ommissions. Forget the quibbles, though, this box is a treasure chest of vintage dementia.


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