In November 2007, the legendary Northwest Sixties garage-rock band the Sonics played their first concerts in more than 30 years – and first New York gigs ever – during the Cavestomp festival at the Brooklyn club Warsaw. I wasn’t there. I had to get on a plane to London to interview Led Zeppelin, ahead of their own reunion show in London that December. Nevertheless, the first thing Zeppelin singer Robert Plant asked me, when I walked into his management office for our interview was, “How were the Sonics?”
“Wow,” the Sonics’ vocalist-keyboard player Jerry Roslie said the other day, during a phone chat a few days ahead of the Sonics’ return to New York, on April 8th at Irving Plaza. “I didn’t think they ever heard of us.”
Finally, the morning after Irving Plaza and eight years after missing Cavestomp, I can tell Plant: The Sonics are – 48 years after they broke up – improbably, indisputably boss. Featuring three, key original members with a combined age of 210 – Roslie, guitarist Larry Parypa and tenor saxophonist Rob Lind – and touting their first, new studio album since 1967, This Is the Sonics (Revox), the band packed 20 fuzz-lined rockets into little over an hour, including every now-treasured chunk of brawling attitude from their ’64-’66 streak of Seattle-Tacoma, Washington dance-floor monsters: “The Witch,” “Psycho,” “He’s Waitin’,” “Cinderella,” “Boss Hoss” and the super-hard-ass drinker’s anthem, “Strychnine.” The Sonics, with bassist-singer Freddie Dennis and drummer Dusty Watson, also went deep, retrieving the ’65 B-side “Shot Down” and their ’66 Yardbirds-style raveup “You’ve Got Your Head on Backwards” – the latter sung by Lind with a wayward pitch redeemed by his hearty Keith Relf attack on harp.
Still A’ Knockin’
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The group walked on in black suits and ties, like a gang of retired accountants looking for trouble. For the most part, they sounded exactly like the suburban-hoodlum mods caught in the iconic who-you-lookin-at cover photos of 1965’s Here Are the Sonics and ’66’s Boom (both originally issued by Etiquette, now in essential-reissue form from Norton Records). Dennis shared lead-singing duties with Roslie, belting “Dirty Robber” – a song by Northwest elders the Wailers, owned by the Sonics on that ’65 LP – and some of the new material, like “Sugaree” and a cover of Ray Charles’ ’66 hit “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” with an impressive, volcanic double of Roslie’s famous pitted howl. The suggestion was that Roslie, 70, needs a little extra breathing room these days between meltdowns.
But Roslie delivered in shredded spades. His “Waaaah!”‘s in “Boss Hoss” were raw, high and long, and Roslie sang “He’s Waitin'” – a song about the devil, vengeance and bad girlfriends – like he was still awaiting final judgement. Dennis, who was in a lineup of the Kingsmen, took the mic for Little Richard’s “Keep A’Knockin’,” but Roslie, in the mid-Sixties, was the white guy who let Richard’s torrid flamboyance loose in American garage rock, mined with a darkness that even the Rolling Stones hadn’t found yet. Roslie may be a granddad now, but he sold the putdown in “I Got Your Number (666),” from the new LP, with reassuring authority.
Boom and Chaos
Parypa played a sunburst Les Paul guitar all night, surely a better guitar than he had 50 years ago, judging by his ravaged tone on those records. But he never strayed from that abused-Chuck Berry slash, even during his extended break in “Strychnine.” And Lind was a tall, bellowing reminder that the saxophone was, at rock & roll’s birth, an essential armament. He paralleled Parypa’s chord progressions like a second, baritone guitar, creating a natural, distinctive distortion that no pedal board can beat. And when Lind stepped forward to solo, his ascending slides and shrieks suggested a bull elephant storming into the room with real bad news.
The night’s car crash was, surprisingly, the Northwest standard “Louie Louie.” Somehow, the Sonics went in via more than one key, pressing ahead in a chaos actually enhanced by the fact that, back on Boom, they had reconfigured Richard Berry’s original R&B-stairstep chord progression to a more sinister grind. The effect at Irving Plaza; like “The Witch” coming apart at the seams.
But that was quickly followed by a furious “Cinderella” and, in the encore, the sight of a full house, much of it half a century younger than the band, toasting the Sonics in the chorus of “Strychnine.” Roslie, Parypa and Lind are no doubt making better money now with their mayhem than they ever did in the Sixties, when they were packing teen dances at a dollar a head and those records weren’t getting much further than the Oregon border. But this night – the new songs, battle-hymn oldies and adoring reception – added up to something bigger: a second chance. The boom is back.