The first time Jerry Roslie opened his mouth to sing was in the early Sixties, at a band practice with high school friends in Tacoma, Washington. They were playing “Louie Louie.” “I started singing, and all the guys turned around, fiddling with their amplifiers,” Roslie recalls, laughing. “That was my audition — and I sucked.”
That voice — a meaty, lunatic blast of hoodlum-R&B bravado, punctuated with bloodcurdling howls — would be Roslie’s ticket to legend with his next band, Tacoma garage-rock pioneers the Sonics. Their 1964-’66 run of fuzz-loaded mayhem — Northwest-radio hits and toga-party faves such as “The Witch,” “Psycho” and “Boss Hoss” — didn’t sell outside the region. But the records’ cult reputation flourished, influencing the noise to come: punk, grunge and alternative rock. “One of my favorite sounds is when someone screams so hard the microphone actually breaks up,” says Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl. “Jerry Roslie — that was his sound.”
Roslie, now 70 and a grandfather, still has that voice. He tears the air in songs like “Bad Betty” and “I Got Your Number,” on This Is the Sonics, the group’s first studio album in 49 years, made by the original front line of Roslie, guitarist Larry Parypa, 68, and tenor saxophonist Rob Lind, 71, with bassist Freddie Dennis and drummer Dusty Watson. And on the Sonics’ current tour, Roslie, Parypa and Lind revisit their original teenage vengeance in “He’s Waitin’ ” and “Strychnine” as if they haven’t aged an hour since their ’66 LP, Boom.
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“We never left in terms of energy,” Parypa says of the Sonics, who broke up in 1967 and reunited in 2007. “Jerry, Rob and I seldom played in the intervening years. We hadn’t gotten good as musicians. We could take off where we left off.”
“What was on the records — that’s how we played live,” says Lind. The music was “always go, go, go.” The Sonics’ iconic cover of Richard Berry’s “Have Love Will Travel” was cut in one take. They wrote “Psycho” the night before a session, adding layers of nasty to the beat and the changes of the Premiers’ 1964 hit “Farmer John.”
Founded in 1961 by Parypa and his bassist brother, Andy, the Sonics were part of a singular Northwest ferment with the Kingsmen, the Fabulous Wailers, and Paul Revere and the Raiders, packing teen dances with Fifties-R&B fundamentals and proto-punk ferocity. The Sonics — with drummer Bob Bennett — were rougher than the rest. “We used to call beer our polish,” Roslie says. “We’d drink beer to become polished.” But that naive force wasn’t enough as rock turned psychedelic. The Sonics’ last 45, in 1967, was a Frank Zappa cover. “It was a pretty little song,” Lind notes. “[But] it wasn’t us.”
Roslie quit first, selling used cars, entering what he calls “my hippie period” and eventually running his own paving business. He also survived a heart transplant in 2002. Parypa went into the Air Force (“I risked my life in accounting,” he cracks) and later worked in marketing. Lind was a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War, then got a master’s degree in film, making commercials and training movies. The three didn’t pay much attention to the Sonics’ mushrooming influence until a New York promoter persuaded them to reunite for shows in 2007.
“It feels real unusual,” Roslie admits of the Sonics’ return to record after so long. “But we didn’t refine anything. We wanted to be who we really are.”
Grohl puts it like this: “You know how David Bowie called his album The Next Day?” For the Sonics, Grohl says, “This really is the next day.”