The electric guitar crackled into existence with the experiments of George Beauchamp, Paul Barth and Adolph Rickenbacker around 1931. Technological innovations have usually heralded new approaches in composition and performance, so it’s tempting to see the early ‘30s as a subtle turning point in which the organic, age-old sounds of acoustic music began to transform into the unnatural and explosive tones which became rock and other modern genres. But is that how it went?
No doubt the early 20th century reconfigured what could constitute music in terms of timbre and sound-source. Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo had written his influential manifesto The Art of Noises in 1913, calling for an embrace of machine sounds in musical orchestration. Synthesizers were already in production, with alien-sounding devices like the theremin emerging in the ‘20s. But the early electric guitars were mostly used to boost the instrument’s volume in a big band context, and the original synths were used as science-fair novelties, or to replace solo instruments in conservative genres like classical music (with some notable avant-garde exceptions). To my mind, the freakish idiosyncrasies of these musical inventions didn’t fully realize themselves as popular music styles until the ‘50s. By then, synths had proto-techno pioneers like Kid Baltan & Tom Dissevelt, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and more pushing the electronic sound in new directions (not least the direction of suburban lounge rooms). The electric guitar had mavericks such as Howlin’ Wolf, Pat Hare, Chuck Berry and Sister Rosetta Tharpe whose increasingly frenzied songs and playing styles developed alongside deliberate distortion of the guitar signal. Link Wray was toying with vacuum tubes and poking holes in speaker cones with pencils to get a dirtier, fuzzier sound.
And soon enough, in 1960, The Sonics formed, bringing electric guitar freak-out to a fever pitch. The name reads as a mission statement: they weren’t chasing any particular musical nuance, but rather the raw impact of sound itself. Their first single (‘The Witch’ in 1964) still sounds like a train hurtling towards you, threatening to fall apart - with its primal vocals, sandpaper guitar and spluttering drums. When it flips into an insane double-time tempo one minute in, it’s easy to hear why people often peg The Sonics as key progenitors of punk.
Who’d have guessed that such an immediate and incendiary band would still be touring in 2016? But the tunes have aged remarkably well. The Sonics’ recordings were a revelation for me in high school, and seeing that they were coming to Perth for the first time, I had to get along.
I meet D___ and F___ in the warm dining room that adjoins the Rosemount and 459 Bar. We listen to some of the mellow jazz billowing out of the latter, sipping dark ale before heading into the Rosie band room to the hectic sounds of THEE LOOSE HOUNDS. The band wears their garage punk influences on their well-tailored sleeves; the “Thee” is a kind of genre-signifier meme which probably emerged to differentiate garage bands with similar names, as with Sonics-era group Thee Midnighters. Later on you get Thee Headcoats, Thee Mighty Caesars, Thee Oh Sees etc. This band even has a song called ‘Painkillers’ which you’ve gotta suppose is at least a partial homage to the Perth duo. Anyway, as much as they belong to a tradition, Thee Loose Hounds also sound fresh and volatile: blurted vocals and squealing guitar thrashing about over weedy organ tones and spirited drums. The neurotic spasms of a song like ‘Diggin’ will appeal as much to fans of Eddy Current or Royal Headache as early Horrors: it hits you at a pre-intellectual level, like a spank, and balances aural nostalgia carefully against modern punk flavours and the trio’s specific palette (notably lacking in bass, but not to their detriment).
“All the way from Tacoma, Washington” says a man in black, “please welcome THE SONICS.”
The hitherto reserved crowd erupts in a high-pitched scream, and five more men in black walk on stage. They get in position behind a bass, saxophone, guitar, keyboard and drums respectively, and without any nonsense launch into the power-chord driven 1966 track ‘Cinderella.’ Like most Sonics songs, the lyrics are simple, bordering on banal: “She's got-a pretty long hair, And she's five-foot-two / When she ran away, I found her glass shoe.” But the delivery is so fierce that every phrase sounds genuinely desperate - and you’re happily sucked into the narrator’s jive party dilemma.
The set rolls along with this persistent party energy, the crowd responding in tow with plenty of twists and shouts. There’s only the occasional spoken interjection - usually from founding member and saxophonist Rob Lind, who offers rally cries and contagious goofy smiles. He mentions his excitement at finally making a Perth visit, and seems to really mean it. This positivity suffuses the whole experience, an wide-eyed celebration of reckless rock in its rawest form.
A surge of excitement arrives for the band’s iconic version of Richard Berry’s ‘Have Love Will Travel,’ and classics like ‘Boss Hoss,’ mixed in with equally good tunes off 2015’s This Is The Sonics - their first original LP in 49 years. There’s the blistering boogie of ‘Bad Betty,’ written by the band’s original keyboardist and vocalist Jerry Roslie, delivered by touring member Jake Cavaliere with perhaps more excitement than any other tune of the night. On other songs, vocal duties are passed over to touring bassist Freddie Dennis, formerly of The Kingsmen - his molten screech is a brilliant addition, and fits perfectly with their established howling sound. Fellow new tune ‘Be a Woman’ gets pride of place near the end of the set - having been written in Australia, for The Sonics, by the Hoodoo Gurus. It’s tailed by fan favourite ‘Psycho,’ with its unforgettable hook, excellent drum fills and emphatic backbeat delivered by former Link Wray drummer Dusty Watson. The crowd has now truly forgotten it’s Tuesday night and is straight-up cutting loose. The Sonics slink off stage but are soon back - of course - with their other biggest goth/protopunk hits, ‘Strychnine’ and ‘The Witch.’
I’m frequently skeptical of “reunion tours,” particularly with scant original members, which capitalise on the glories of bygone decades. But who can blame this group of guys who happened to age - but lost none of their uncommon gusto - for playing rock and roll? The Sonics sound as tight as they did in their supposed heyday, and to avoid becoming a “jukebox band,” they say, they wrote a new album. Lo and behold - it’s as good as much of the garage-rock contemporaries that have built upon The Sonics’ sound in the interim. Why stop now?