Space and Place: 1960s Garage Rock from the Pacific Northwest

Posted on February 10, 2013


In relation to this theme, space and place can be understood as;

‘the urban and rural spaces in which music is experienced, produced and consumed (…) [and] the recognition that musical processes take place within a particular space and place, where these processes are shaped both by specific musical practices and by the pressures and dynamics of political and economic circumstances’.

For the purpose of this article, space is therefore symbolised by the garage while place refers to the Pacific Northwestern region of America.

The term ‘Garage Rock’ has been applied retroactively to describe the raw sound and diverse musical styles of a seemingly endless procession of bands that rose to prominence in the 1960s and is derived from the specific psychological space in which many Garage bands produced their music. Some critics, such as Eric James Abbey, believe the development of the Garage rock sound owes much to the influence of the ‘British Invasion’ bands who achieved commercial success during the mid-60s.

• The Beatles
• The Rolling Stones
• The Who
• The Kinks
• The Yardbirds
• The Pretty Things
• The Small Faces
• The Troggs
• The Animals
• The Zombies

While the success of British artists undoubtedly had a significant impact upon the American popular music which was to follow, Charlie Gillett argues that the innovative Garage bands from the Pacific Northwest had been in existence for several years before the British invasion

• The Wailers
• The Sonics
• The Kingsmen
• Paul Revere and the Raiders
• The Regents
• The Trashmen
• The El Caminos
• The Bootmen
• The Counts
• The Raiders

These early Garage bands, Gillett writes, ‘evolved a repertoire of old rhythm and blues and rock and rolls songs (…) mixed with more recent rhythm and blues hits’, and also performed original material. This traditional approach to live performance is just as evident today; from local covers bands and tribute acts on the live circuit, to commercially driven and morally dubious talent shows such as Pop Idol and The X Factor. It is an approach which attracts the audience through the reproduction of popular songs by established artists and then introduces the captive audience to the performer’s original material. Contemporary talents shows have simply removed that element of originality in order to further exploit popular music’s back catalogue.

The bands from the Pacific Northwest developed a musical style which is arguably free from the influence of the British Invasion and therefore raises questions over the roots of the Garage rock sound.

• Blues
• Country
• Jazz
• Rhythm and Blues
• Rock and Roll
• Rockabilly
• Surf

• Bill Haley and His Comets
• Buddy Holly and the Crickets
• Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps
• Eddie Cochrane
• Jerry Lee Lewis
• Elvis Presley

By the 1950s many leading artists and groups had performed in the region, but it was an unknown black artist from Los Angeles who would have a singularly profound effect upon the development of what became known as the Northwest sound. The audience which had gathered at the Eagles Auditorium on September 21st 1957 for a concert by two popular Southern Blues musicians, Little Junior Parker and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, were first entertained by the bill’s unfamiliar opening act, Richard Berry. It proved to be a defining moment for Northwestern rock music as Peter Blecha recalls;

‘(…) [W]hen he [Berry] mounted the stage and counted off his new single, “Louie, Louie”, the crowd went wild on the teeming wooden dance floor. This odd tune was no blues, but rather, a pioneering example of West Coast Rock ‘n’ Roll – and one that would prove to have an enduring impact across the region. It is possible that a few of that dance’s attendees might already have been aware of the magical power of “Louie, Louie” – but only if they happened to be loyal listeners of Cool Breezes, a weekly radio show on Tacoma’s KTAC (…). Still, hearing a tune on the airwaves is one thing – feeling the same song pounded out by a live band is quite another – and when Berry kicked into “Louie, Louie” (…) the local musicians eyeing the band marveled over the tune’s minimal two-and-a-half-chord structure and hypnotic pulse’.

By transposing parts of Berry’s vocal arrangement into a chord progression for the guitar or keyboard over a straight 4/4 beat, rather than the eighth note shuffle of Rock and Roll or Rhythm and Blues, it is easy to see how aspiring musicians forged a distinctive unrefined sound; a sound which evidently precedes the guitar style of Ray Davies of The Kinks. The popularity of ‘Louie, Louie’ saw it added to region’s radio playlists, jukeboxes in almost every bar and diner and record stores struggled to keep up with public demand. It became an integral part of any self-respecting Garage band’s arsenal and as Blecha notes;
‘[O]nce embedded, this improbable tune would quickly take root regionally, flower into the Northwest’s own signature Rock ‘n’ Roll song – and ultimately develop into a rich and complex legend of its own’.

Besides sharing Berry’s song, which was covered by The Wailers, The Sonics, The Kingsmen and Paul Revere and the Raiders, the early Garage rock bands also shared a common goal which Abbey defines as;

‘[A] means of withdrawal from their current arrangement in life as middle-class suburban youth “trapped” in a neighborhood that was stifling to their individuality’.

From this perspective, Abbey describes the pressures identified by Whiteley, Bennett and Hawkins, which influence the production, experience and consumption of music as artists sought to find new forms of musical expression through which self-identity could be redefined. As such, the suburbs became a place from which to escape and the route to escapism lay in music and the psychological isolation of the garage; a space where youthful individualism could be released from cultural constraints.

As a symbolic space for creating ‘real’ or authentic music, the garage has been mythologised by artists and bands throughout popular music’s evolution.

• Frank Zappa – Joe’s Garage

‘We could jam in Joe’s Garage
His mama was screamin’,
We was playin’ the same old song
In the afternoon ‘n sometimes we would
Play it all night long’

• Metallica – The $5.98 E.P. – Garage Days Revisited
True to Garage rock’s traditions, the E.P. consists entirely of cover versions.

• Weezer – In The Garage

As these musical references demonstrate, escapism, isolation and individuality play a central role in the creation of music, yet the geographical isolation of the Pacific Northwest was also significant in the emergence of Garage rock.

‘Basically, it was geography. In those days people still thought the Northwest had covered wagons and Indians. So if something was popular in the Northwest they didn’t look at it the same as if it were number one in New York or Hollywood. It was mainly isolation. But that isolation was the reason why we could come up with such an original sound’. Kent Morrill – The Wailers

• The suburban environment which acts as a catalyst for the creation of new forms of musical expression.
• The garage or rehearsal space in which music is conceived and produced.
• The taverns, dancehalls and other venues in which the audience experiences music on a personal and emotional level and through which meaning is assigned.
• The recording studio in which music is processed for wider consumption.
• The record company and media through which music is distributed for commercial exploitation.

In conclusion, the complex relationship between space (the garage) and place (the Pacific Northwest) reveals how the production, experience and consumption of music is shaped by the different processes Whiteley, Bennett and Hawkins describe, leading to the reformation of the cultural identity through which youth seeks to define itself. While the arguments put forward by Abbey and Gillett illustrate how the reciprocal influence of American and British popular music leads to contradiction. The self-promotion of the Northwest’s early underground music scene through independent record labels, and a belief fostered by the British Invasion that anybody could succeed through music regardless of ability, are evidence of the DIY ethos that has led some critics to define Garage Rock as the roots of Punk music. Yet the explosion, both in Garage Rock’s popularity, and the number of new Garage bands driven by a desire for success in the wake of the British Invasion, also questions the authenticity of the music they make. Consequently, generic fragmentation occurs as authentic new modes of musical and creative expression are pursued as an alternative to music which is perceived to have become counterfeit as a result of commercial exploitation.

Abbey, Eric James, Garage Rock and its Roots, (Jefferson, London: McFarland Publishing, 2006).