The Sonics go boom again
If most garage rockers from the ‘60s sound pretty much identical, you’d never mistake the Sonics for anyone except the Sonics. The Tacoma, Washington outfit distinguished itself immediately with 1964 hit “The Witch”, starting with the record's sickly, Dementia 13 organ riff, moaning sax, pounding backbeat, and Jerry Roslie’s soulman-on-fire vocals, not to mention the kind of production quality that suggests it was captured in a dungeon with a single broken microphone.
Between that and subsequent regional hits like “Have Love, Will Travel” and the magnificent “Strychnine”—all of them just as hard-hitting—the Sonics launched one rampaging, never-to-be-forgotten assault on good taste after another, setting the tone for Pacific Northwest rock for decades to come (just ask Mudhoney). All thanks to a quick and dirty recording session arranged for the local Etiquette label back at the dawn of time.
“It was just a bunch of punk kids, for the first time in a studio of any kind, doing the first song that I ever wrote,” vocalist-keyboardist Roslie remembers, calling the Straight from his home in Tacoma. “We had no idea what we were gonna be in for, ‘cause we were really shocked when we heard it played back. We thought, ‘Boy, oh jeez, I dunno if people are gonna go for this.’ ‘Cause it was so raw and raggedy and talking about witches, and psychos, and strychnine, and devils, and crazy stuff.”
Local radio stations didn’t go for “The Witch”— “They said our crowd would not respond to something this wild,” says Roslie—but it went shooting up the charts anyway, with the sticky tenacity of a bad fart. The only thing that was wilder was the single’s b-side, “Psycho”. It’s never surfaced, but somewhere out there is video footage of the band from the Cleveland-based TV show Upbeat. “We got done with the recording and the director guy says, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, do you have to be so barbaric?’” the singer recalls, cracking up.
Two albums followed, Here Are the Sonics!!! and Boom—both essential. A third, not-so-vital full-length called Introducing the Sonics was released in 1966 after the band relocated to LA, but by then the jig was up—for the time being.
“I thought we were flat done in ’67, and that was okay,” says Roslie. “I was the first one to quit, and I just thought, ‘Well, I’ll just get into other things, like start an asphalt paving business.' Gawd. That’s a whole lot harder than playing a piano. I just about killed myself.”
There were weird variations on the Sonics that persisted all the way to the ‘80s, some of them without a single original member. In 2007, Roslie rejoined guitarist Larry Parypa and sax man Rob Lind (along with Ricky Lynn Johnson on drums, and Don Wilhelm handling bass) for the Cavestomp garage rock festival in New York. Since then, the reconstituted Sonics have visited Europe, Australia, and Japan—pretty remarkable for a band that didn’t get much further than Idaho, back in the day.
“I’m still in a fog,” says the singer, now approaching his 70th year. “It’s just weird. They’re all young and here we are 45 years later or something, and they treat us more like we’re teenagers, too.” Footage of the 21st century Sonics is easy enough to find on YouTube, and the first thing that hits you is how powerfully Roslie is still belting those freaky originals of his. As a man who otherwise describes himself as shy, what in the hell possesses him once he hits the stage? Little Richard, Elvis, and Jerry Lee Lewis, for starters, he says.
“Those three were some of the main influences for me ‘cause I liked the way they just went all out, don’t leave nothin’ on the table, just go nuts. That appealed to me." It looks and sounds like nothing’s changed. “I get up there and I think, ‘Well, this is great, I get paid to scream my ass off,’” Roslie muses, with a chuckle. “Normally they’d put me in a home for the silly, or something. They’d put me in jail. ‘The guy’s crazy!’”
The Sonics come to the Rickshaw Theatre on Friday (September 20) with guests the Vicious Cycles and My Goodness.