As a child of the 70s I wasn’t around for the British Invasion, the Summer of Love, Woodstock or any of that hippie stuff in the 60s. My exposure to early rock and roll was through my dad’s oldies compilations. Most of it was doo wop and girl groups, all fine music but it never really did much for me. But a few songs were different, more raw and energetic, bringing to mind a small, sweaty club where teens got together to dance and get away from the squares. I’m talking about Wooly Bully by Sam the Sham & The Pharoahs. Louie Louie by the Kingsmen. Psychotic Reaction by The Count Five. Fuzzed out guitars, wailing harmonicas, blaring Farfisa organs, it all sounded so raw and wild. Little did I know, this was the more civilized incarnation of 60’s garage rock.
The explosion of rock music in the 60s inspired countless teenagers across the country to get together and play music in their dad’s garage. They made simple, raw, three chord rock inspired by the Stones, the Kinks, even the Beatles. Most of them lacked chops but made up for it with raw power, aggression and enthusiasm. All of this was unknown to me, hinted at by the likes of The Kingsmen the way a single dinosaur bone hints at an entire colony of Tyrannosaurs, buried by the past. It wasn’t until 1983 that a record collecting garage rock fan named Tim Warren put together a compliation titled Back From The Grave that this music started to be heard by a wider audience.
I think I heard my first Back From The Grave compo in about 1993. Mind blown. Every song was a raw, powerful, snarling slice of garage proto-punk. Yes, punk rock was a thing long before the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. What else would you call music made by teen punks who could barely play three chords in time? Unlike 70’s punk, this stuff wasn’t political. Lyrics covered the usual teen obsessions: sex, love, booze, cars, monsters, surf, spies. Released on a few hundred 45s, maybe getting a little local airplay if they were lucky, this stuff languished in obscurity until Warren put out that first volume. More followed, with a long hiatus through the new milennium until restarting (better than ever) a few years ago.
For a fan of this kind of music, every song is great. Here are a few of my favorites:
Jailbait by the Travel Agency. I love the driving beat on this one, the “ahh ah ah ahh” chorus, the hard to understand lyrics about, well, jailbait. An all time classic that should have been a hit:
Crusher, by The Novas. A tribute to professional wrestling, where the titular Crusher recites some of his favorite moves and calls the listener a turkey neck. Covered years later by The Cramps.
No Reason To Complain by The Alarm Clocks. Not to be confused with the Strawberry Alarm Clock. Another stomper with a great bass riff that maybe owes a little to The Animals’ It’s My Life but is even better.
Even today, more than 30 years after the first Back From The Grave release these tunes are still influencing rockers. Look around, you may be lucky enough to have a local band that still plays this kind of music in your town. But what if you can’t find one? Where can you go to see an entire scene built around this music? Would you believe Tokyo, Japan?
I’m still trying to uncover more details but several years ago a Back From The Grave fan named Daddy-O Nov started organizing shows at small clubs in Tokyo, where the music and cool fashions inspired a new generation to buy guitars and go nuts. As with the original 60s garage punks, the musicianship is all over the map but the enthusiasm and attitude are off the charts. Check it:
The Stompin’ Riff Raffs. High energy rockabilly guitar combined with 60s go-go fashions, themed costumes and a friggin’ theremin, if you can believe that. This is some serious drunken craziness.
A little tamer is That’s A No No, three cute gals on guitars and a guy on drums. Their version of The Clapping Song rocks all over The Belle Stars.
If that’s too tame for you, how about the studded leather, Iron Cross necklaces and bobby hats(?) of Theee Bat. They make The Sonics and The Monks look like Pat Boone.
The Japanese Back From The Grave scene is documented in Garage Rockin’ Craze, a film by Mario Cuzic, a Canadian living in Japan. I haven’t seen it available on DVD or streaming yet but you can read more about it here, and check out the trailer. I’m keeping an eye out for this one.
You can buy all the Back From The Grave records on Amazon, highly recommended. If you want to check out more of the Japanese garage scene, YouTube is probably your best bet. Just click on one of these videos and check out the recommended videos, there’s a ton of this stuff.