A Compilation of 60s Teenaged Garage-Punk Rage Is the Best Album of the Year
Why sounds from a half-century ago keep coming back and forcing us to listen.
The days of record collecting before the internet were days when you knew what you knew and you had what you had. Music spread from dealer to dealer by way of tapes—or it didn't, in the case of collectors who considered themselves to be the most exalted gatekeepers and holders of occult knowledge and therefore had less fun and communicated with fewer people.
That's the way it was in the fall of 1982, when I started buying 60s punk/garage compilations as a 17-year-old in Sweden. My friends and I raided Ginza, the biggest of the Swedish cut-out mail order houses, for cheapo copies of compilations like Nuggets and the Pebbles series along with albums by the Seeds, the Sonics, the Chocolate Watch Band, and the Standells. My friends, who were older than me, provided context for the albums (So you think you are a punk kid? You know nothing! ) and motivated us to form a band playing Count Five, Seeds, and Kim Fowley covers.
Then, in 1984, the first two volumes of the Back from the Grave comp series showed up in the local import record store, and they were so much better than anything we'd heard we were baffled by them. It was like the first time you hear the Pagans or Pharoah Sanders or the Wipers. Me and my snotty little pals hadn't heard of any of the records or bands on those compilations, and were blown away by this constant stream of what could only be described as sacred sounds from the USA. Even to this day, most rock and punk bands I've heard can't match the intensity of a BFTG track.
Every Back from the Grave record begins with its jacket art, and it always tells the same sort of story: A bunch of zombie punks are reanimated to rid the world of the squares and douchebags that have turned it into an ugly place to live. It's a revenge fantasy, the cartoonish destruction of the last few decades of American music and culture by the spirits of the past, and it's hard not to take the side of the axe-wielding zombie punkers.
Nowadays, in an era when everything that has ever been sung, spoken, ukuleled, painted, collaged, or crafted has been recycled, recontextualized, cool-branded, and downloaded, I often feel that the old world wants some sort of vengeance on the new. The mass market is full of the reverberations of bits and pieces of the culture of the past that come to the present watered-down, commodified, regurgitated. The Urban Outfitters version, the shmuckification of the counterculture one retro T-shirt at a time. The garage punk zombie teens on the Back from the Grave LP jackets know all this, and they are pissed off. Tim Warren, the man who has been compiling these genius assemblages of primitive American shit music for the last 30 years, is pissed off too.
Back from the Grave Volume 1 came out in the fall of 1983. Tim and his label Crypt Records have been pyromaniacs of garage punk enthusiasm ever since, preaching a primitive mid-60s punk rock gospel around the globe, inspiring people to form bands, collect records, get laid, and get drunk, all in a manner that runs counter to the normal, hermeneutical traditions of record collecting. This month, Tim is releasing Back from the Grave volumes nine and ten after a 17-year gap since volume eight. After that last one Tim used to say that he didn't think there were enough killer records out there for another volume. Well, he was wrong: The two latest comps are some of the best collections of 60s garage punk I've ever heard.
BFTG releases are like an amazing collage, a great gumbo, or your girlfriends' sexiest outfit. Or, for that matter, the best mixtape you ever made.
Now, I've listened to plenty of garage comps in my day. There are some great ones, but BFTG is its own thing, like how the Cramps are their own thing. When Tim puts the obscure tracks together in a sequence the sum is much greater than the parts: Each consecutive crazed rock 'n' roll record hits the garage-punk sweet spot of our collective frontal lobe more precisely. BFTG releases are like an amazing collage, a great gumbo, or your girlfriends' sexiest outfit. Or, for that matter, the best mixtape you ever made.
Some compilation albums work, and some don't, and it seems very difficult to discern which components direct the work in one direction or another. I've been spilling a constant stream of BFTG comps on the turntable for most of my adult life, and you just can't fuck with them. They're like Picasso's Guernica or a perfect sausage and peppers hero. They are art that is primeval and perfect. Compare them to Jackson Pollock—it's in the pour. If you or I poured paint it would look like some asshole poured some paint. But when Pollock poured paint it became amazing and beautiful. The pour of Back from the Grave volumes nine and ten is mind-boggling.
So, where do the tunes come from? It's an old story: In the wake of the frenzy of Beatlemania and the British Invasion circa 1964, tens of thousands of American teenagers formed bands, some of them rooted in previous teenage frenzies like hot rod music or surf music or frat rock. (A parallel history could no doubt be written on how the arrival of the Beatles prevented " Surfin' Bird" by the Trashmen from being a number-one record in the USA, but that's punk conspiracy theory turf.) It was an act of cultural imitation that goes three layers deep: A black blues guy had his jams imitated by foppy Brits in Carnaby Street clothes who were then in turn imitated by white American teenagers draped in Woolworths clobber (imitating the Carnaby Street fashion, natch).
This resulted in musical alchemy. American mid-60s teenage garage punk has a primeval gut-wrench rev that blasts through your speakers, proving once and for all that rock 'n' roll is a poignant art form blacksmithed in the USA. There is some sort of oddly spiritual connection linking the visceral sound blasts directly to black rock 'n' roll, blues, and R&B, even as the teen bands imitating the Rolling Stones or the Pretty Things or the Dave Clark Five have no direct knowledge of the artists imitated by said foppy Brits.
Some argue that the first time the word punk as a musical term saw the light of day was in Dave Marsh's 1971 article in Creem magazine. Well, the term was in frequent use in the late 1960s, as a slew of collectors and rock fanzine writers were eagerly hoarding the crude, primitive, and genius 45s left by the legions of American teen bands in the wake of the British Invasion. This style was called punk rock: rock made by teen punks.
The launch of the Back from the Grave series was the final stage of a three-step rocket: In 1972, the illustrious rock thinker/rock feeler Lenny Kaye convinced Elektra Records to let him compile and issue a double LP compilation of American mid 60s one-hit and no-hit wonders. The comp was called Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, and its cultural importance is only now starting to be understood. Lenny was one of the first people to realize that truly progressive (no, not in the hippie sense) rock 'n' roll gnosis occurred on the margins, and would reverberate for decades to come. Nuggets was not a commercial success, but like the Velvet Underground, like the Stooges, like the Ramones, a cultural landscape shifted in its wake, as the chain reaction resulting from the ownership and blissful enjoyment of this cultural artifact came to resonate and ripple in a myriad of ways. Mere months after the release of Nuggets, bands from around the globe had formed explicitly to explore this landscape, fumbling in the wilderness for primitive American rock 'n' roll sounds to scratch an omnipresent itch. In Australia, the Saints; in France, the Dogs; in the USA, the Droogs.
The significance of Nuggets has to be understood in the context of the past, because digital mass communication has fucked up our notions of obscurity and how information is disseminated. Back then, even the biggest singles didn't stay in the shops for long, albums, except huge hits, went off shelves rather quickly, and the taste-maker know-it-all record shop hadn't reared its Levi's 505–draped ass. For Lenny Kaye to convince Elektra top banana Jac Holzman that it was a good idea to gather a number of relatively obscure, mostly non-hit records and repackage them within a context is a mind-boggling achievement. According to a pre-punk zine interview with Kaye, there were numerous tracks that they wanted to include but couldn't because it wasn't clear who owned the rights, but what ended up being Nuggets is still awe-inspiring.
Nuggets begat the late and great Greg Shaw's compilation series Pebbles, a series which wasn't particularly worried about clearing rights. Shaw, who I'd argue is the Johnny Appleseed of American punk, had published rock 'n' roll fanzines since the mid 1960s. His Mojo Navigator appeared in the middle of the San Francisco rock scene in 1966. By 1969 it had evolved into a retro-rock connoisseur bible, exploring the lore and history of primitive American musics ranging from rockabilly to garage punk, alongside lengthy and insightful excursions into marginal British Invasion sounds. Bomp became a record label, a professional rock zine, and a distribution outlet for the sounds that came to be called punk rock. From 1978 on, Shaw compiled and released the Pebbles garage punk anthology series.
The release of Pebbles was timed perfectly with the boost in interest in all things 60s, a snacky side dish to the post-punk skinny tie power-pop entree of 1979/1980. Punk-era ears had gotten people used to raunch, and the avalanches of indie 45s had advanced the momentum of obscurity-seeking. The musical language of 60s garage punk wasn't as familiar then as it is now, either. To most, the 60s was pop and choruses and ringing Rickenbackers; there wasn't a distinction between the cutesy stuff and gruntiest and most primitive. This is certainly reflected in the Pebbles comps, as is Greg Shaw's personal taste, with its baffling adoration of melody sitting in counterpoint to garage punk raunch. Following Pebbles, numerous other garage-punk/garage-psych compilations started mushrooming by the early 1980s.
These were mostly rudimentary in execution. Information about the bands was limited, most of them were psychedelia-themed, and many of the early 60s comps would mix in lighter Strawberry Alarm Clock-type bands with the teen punks. Cue Tim:
I started putting together cassettes of cool non-reissued 60s punk 45s and one day said, "Fuck it! Put out a record!" I wanted to piss on all the lame-o comps that mixed together psych noodling with garage and proto-bubblegum and I wanted to concentrate on the primal teen-band gronk. My pal Mort Todd put together the cover art from my pathetic scrawling "rough art," and then I'm about to put it out and I needed a label name and I saw my Tales from the Crypt comics and said "OK!" I'd been wanting to do a 60s punk comp for a while, not that I had the greatest of collections as I'd only just started finding original 45s two years prior thanks to Billy Miller hipping me to Vic Figlar's auction lists and Goldmine magazine, but cos I'd been buying just about EVERY 60s garage punk comp LP and been disappointed with the bulk of them. You'd have two or three great tracks and 13 crap ones plus a horrendous "Groovy 60s" sleeve. No attitude, no anger, no snot—and attitude, anger and snot is PRECISELY what 60s punk is all about—so BOOM: HIRE MORT!! So I scawled together this ruff sketch of a graveyard scene with the gravestone and the zombie 60s punk kid shoveling dirt atop a bunch of CRAP albums and handed it to Mort and he expanded upon it with the zombie guy and gal crawling out of the ground, the bats, etc.!
I moved to New York City at 17, right out of high school, and immediately got started in producing comics and video. I got together with a few new friends, including Dan Clowes and Rick Altergott, and started publishing comics. Our first release was Psycho Comics #1. We had a launch party at the legendary Club 57 at St. Mark's Place and I got Tim, who had recently moved to NYC, to DJ. I drew a poster to promote the party featuring zombies dancing around a bonfire of burning Psycho Comics, and that certainly inspired Tim for the Back from the Grave album covers. For the first few covers he would give me a rough sketch with doodles of all kinds of hateful things happening to hippies by the garage punk zombies. I'd work from the sketches and amp them up a bit. I can only think of one time he had me change something on the cover and that was Grave 4. I had a hippie chick skateboarding in front of the Batmobile, about to get hit. Tim had me change it to a roller skater, which did make more sense as skateboarding was cool while the kind of people who roller-boogied were more worthy of ridicule.
"Attitude, anger and snot is PRECISELY what 60s punk is all about" –Tim Warren
It's been 33 years since the first Back from the Grave, and five decades since these sounds were first etched on wax, but they still sound fresh, the lyrical wounds still raw. For collectors and compilers, it seems like there will always be gold in them thar hills of the 60s punk scene, always new bands and songs to discover and digest.
There's something comforting about BFTG's enduring power. The teenagers who made that music had tapped into something great, and my teenaged self recognized that ineffable thing two decades later. Its power endures, while the pop cultural dreck produced in the following decades is chugging steadily toward oblivion. The 60s zombie punks on the comp covers will never die, and they'll go on decapitating and burying their imitators and descendants for a long, long time.
Order Back from the Grave albums here.