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Sonics, The: Tacoma's '60s Garage-Rock Teen Titans

HistoryLink.org Essay 8844 : Printer-Friendly Format

The improbable "career" arc of Tacoma's Sonics is that of a teen combo who pounded their way to the top ranks of Northwest rock bands by 1965 -- and then crumbled in the psychedelic musical aftermath of 1967's Summer of Love. Like countless other American garage-bands of the era, the Sonics might have faded into total obscurity. They had, however, managed to forge a particularly brutal style that went on to earn them legendary status as pioneers of the entire subsequent punk rock movement. 

The Sonics' saga is also one of a raw band who went from playing modest roller-rinks, to headlining the area's major halls like the Spanish Castle Ballroom, to opening for major touring acts at the Seattle Coliseum. But even with a caustic sound that limited their ability to garner widespread radio airplay -- and thus, they failed to ever score a national hit -- the Sonics would ultimately be hailed for having heralded the subsequent emergence of punk rock in the 1970s. Indeed, their unique contributions were never forgotten, and in the decades hence the Sonics' post-mortem fan-base grew into a global phenomenon that demanded -- and was finally rewarded with -- a triumphant international reunion concert tour between 2007 and 2008.  

The Savage Young Sonics 

Tacoma was the home of a spirited teen-dance scene in the late-1950s -- one which produced three major bands: the Wailers, Little Bill and the Bluenotes, and the Ventures, whose respective rock 'n' roll singles ("Tall Cool One," "I Love An Angel," and "Walk -- Don't Run") each became international hits. All of this activity was thrilling for area teens like Clover Park High student, Andy Parypa, who first saw the Wailers perform at the Tacoma News Tribune's paperboy banquet. In 1960 the Wailers made their next big move by recording "Louie Louie" -- which became a No. 1 regional smash hit when released as the debut 45 for the band's very own record company, Etiquette Records.  

It was also in 1960 that Andy's younger twin brothers, Larry (guitar) and Jerry (sax), began jamming on "Louie Louie" in their south-side home with a couple junior high pals on weekends. Before long Andy joined in on electric bass, and then Tony Mabin replaced Jerry on sax. [Note: Four decades later, in 2001, some home recordings of this crew were issued as The Savage Young Sonics compact disc.] 

Sonic Booms 

Asked to perform at a schoolmate's birthday party, the guys suddenly found themselves in need of a name that could be printed on the invitation card. Around that same point in time there had been a rash of sonic booms over their neighborhood which was near the U.S. Air Force's McChord Field. And since that frighteningly loud noise had been annoying everyone, their choice was simple. Loud, scary, and annoying: The Sonics would be a perfect band name. 

In addition to "Louie Louie," "Tall Cool One," and "Walk -- Don't Run," the band's earliest set-list included lots of instrumental tunes including Bill Doggett's classic, "Honky Tonk" -- which was loved by teens attending their early gigs at venues like Lakewood's St. Mary's Parish Hall (10630 Gravelly Lake Drive) and the Tacoma Community Hall. The band's lineup shifted a bit, but by late-1963 it had settled down to the Parypas, two alumni from the Searchers -- Bob Bennett (drums) and Rob Lind (sax) -- and Gerry Roslie (electric piano) from the Imperials.  

Teen Time 

At one point the band cut a four-song demo tape (including the Wailers' "Wailers' House Party" and Doggett's "Hold On") in the Parypa's parents' living room in an effort to get better gigs -- a tape that would ultimately be released as the House Party EP in 1999. By 1964 the Sonics were beginning to play larger venues including the Tacoma Armory (715 South 11th Street), the Tacoma Sports Arena (South Tacoma Way and 38th Street), Olympia's Skateland (2725 12th Avenue NE), and various Tacoma teen clubs like the Gaslight (910 Pacific Avenue) and the Red Carpet (5212 South Tacoma Way).

In time they worked their way up to bigger shows at the Crescent, Evergreen, Perl's, and Spanish Castle ballrooms. In the summer of 1964 they performed a few dances at the Red Carpet and Sports Arena that were broadcast live on KTNT's Teen Time radio show (and issued as the Busy Body!!! Live In Tacoma 1964 CD in 2007). 

Everybody Do The Witch 

The Sonics had begun writing a few of their own songs and in 1964 Andy approached the Wailers' bassist, Buck Ormsby, to ask if Etiquette might consider signing them to a deal. From the moment Ormsby descended into Bennett's basement and heard the band's ferocious original, "The Witch," he was sold.  

This song had been written with the intention of being Roslie's Halloween season contribution to the faddish pop world of dance trends (e.g. the Frug, The Jerk, The Swim) -- but it really amounted to far more than just that. Kicking off with Bennett's startling gatling-gun snare-drum blast, the tune bulldozed ahead with an astoundingly simple, yet addictive, interlocking 3-chord guitar/sax/bass riff, and snarling putdown lyrics about some icky girl who'll "make you itch ... 'cause she's the witch,"  which were periodically punctuated by Roslie's patented blood-curdling screams. 

"The Witch" was not polite pop like the Beatles' "Love Me Do," the Beach Boy's "I Get Around," or other such commercially viable tunes in 1964 -- but it was powerful enough to cause Ormsby to have the boys sign on the dotted line.  

Proper Etiquette 

In July 1964 Ormsby booked some time with engineer Lyle Thompson, the proprietor of one of Seattle's pioneering recording studios, Commercial Productions (1426 5th  Avenue). A facility that had mainly cut cheerful pop radio jingles and lite jazz sessions, Commercial was a less-than-ideal spot to try and capture the Sonics' edgy din. Thompson's methodical old-school ways were thoroughly sabotaged by Bennett's atomic tub-thumping, Larry's distorted guitar, Andy's rumbling bass, Lind's squalling saxophone, and Roslie's demonic vocalizing. 

After hours and hours of testy tussling with Thompson in an effort to get him to quit trying to refine their sound and ignore the red-lining VU meters on his console, two tunes -- "The Witch" and Little Richard's "Keep A Knockin'" -- were completed. Issued by Etiquette in October, the 45 initially met a wall of resistance by the radio industry. In fact, area DJs and radio program directors at the regional giants KJR and KOL collectively figured that the label and band were nuts for thinking that anyone would air such unusually harsh and aggressive songs whose barbaric intensity truly was not compatible with Top-40 radio aesthetics. 

Reluctant Radio  

It was in late October that Seattle's tiny KTW gave "The Witch" a little airtime -- and the response was amazing, with amped-up teens phoning in support and retail sales of the 45 skyrocketing overnight. KOL soon relented and began airing the song. KJR, however, continued to refrain. Program Director Pat O'Day insisted that Ormsby bring him physical proof -- printed play-charts from other stations -- before he would even try the song on his station. O'Day's reluctance did have some merit. He was concerned that "The Witch" would offend KJR's main daytime listener demographic: housewives. 

But Sonics fans didn't let up their pressure on the station. One week after the band played a Homecoming dance at Tacoma's Curtis High School, KJR's Dick Curtis hosted a sockhop there and some rabid Sonics' fans actually brought along their own Sonics 45s and leaned on the DJ to spin the tune. Repeatedly. Then, having witnessed the wild response to the song, Curtis mentioned it to his boss and on Halloween night, 1964, "The Witch" got its first airing on KJR. But it would take two more months before O'Day would allow it to be added to the station's play-list -- and even then, only under certain unpublicized conditions. 

It was Christmas Day, 1964, when "The Witch" debuted at the No. 26 slot on KJR's Fab-50 -- a ranking that would normally allow a song to be in frequent rotation at all hours of the day. But KJR mandated that the raucous tune couldn't be aired until after three o'clock when the kids were out of school, and their mothers were presumably too busy to be focused on the family radio. Additionally, even though the 45 quickly sold about 29,000 copies in the Sea-Tac market -- a sales level that normally would have seen a song rocket to the top of KJR's Fab-50 -- KJR allegedly manipulated their weekly Fab-50 charts so as to limit the hit to a peak position of No. 2. Station management apparently felt that it was necessary to deny "The Witch" its rightful spot atop the chart at No. 1 because that would traditionally allow it to be played anytime of the day or night. 

Psychotic Reaction 

As 1965 dawned, Etiquette realized that due to such high retail sales they suddenly owed a sizable royalty payment to the owners of the Sonics' 45's flipside tune, "Keep A Knockin'." That financial pain caused them to take the band into the studio again for a rush session to cut another original composition as a new substitute B-side for the disc.  

This time, Ormsby took them into Seattle's Audio Recording Inc (170 Denny Way) where they began working with sound engineer, Kearney Barton, who recalled that "They came in on a Sunday afternoon -- and 45 minutes later, we had 'Psycho' down. And that was their second hit!" Another grinding original with Roslie's demented lyrics about teenage dating frustrations, "Psycho" took off on regional radio, giving the Sonics that rare bonus: a twin-sided hit single. While the band was becoming a top dance draw across the region, their influence was spreading via airplay in scattered markets from Vancouver B.C., to Vallejo, San Jose, Pittsburg, Orlando, and Cleveland. 

Here Are The Sonics 

Returning to Audio Recording months later, the Sonics cut a handful of additional tunes that would comprise their debut Etiquette album, Here Are The Sonics. Among them were a scorching version of "Have Love, Will Travel" (that other great 3-chorder by "Louie Louie" author, Richard Berry), "Boss Hoss" (an explosive tune about Andy's new Ford Mustang), and "Strychnine" (a sinister song that extolled imbibing poison). Issued in 1965, the album – and a rockin' 45-only track, "The Hustler" -- became instant local classics. 

By late 1965 the Sonics discs were doing so well that Etiquette figured it was already time to begin work on a follow-up LP. This time, they settled into a nearby studio: Tacoma's tiny country/western-oriented Wiley/Griffith Studio where the band found themselves working with some good ol' boy engineers who also didn't quite understand what the Sonics' aural requirements were -- and who must have been chagrined to see the punks tearing down their egg-carton "sound proofing" from the room's walls in a desperate attempt to create a more edgy ambiance.  

The Sonics Boom 

In time the band emerged with a dozen killer tunes -- including the blistering garage-punk classics, "Louie, Louie," "Cinderella," "He's Waitin'," and "Shot Down" -- issued in February 1966 as the Sonics Boom LP. Even though the LP produced no further hits (aside from "Shot Down" which briefly maxed out at No. 15 on area radio charts), the Sonics' pioneering snot-nosed lyrical stance and intense musical crunch was having an impact.

Recordings by nearly every other established Northwest band -- including the Wailers, the Kingsmen, Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Viceroys, and Don and the Goodtimes -- started showing a distinct surge in grungy energy. The Goodtimes even covered "The Witch" on their debut LP in 1965. And Northwest bands weren't the only ones to take note: the Who's Pete Townshend allegedly gushed about the Sonics to Barbara Walters while being interviewed on NBC-TV's Today Show in 1966, and that same year San Jose's hit band, the Syndicate of Sound, released a cover version of "The Witch," while Pennsylvania's Swamp Rats cut "Psycho." 

Teen Fairs and Lost Opportunities

As the British Invasion erupted and American teens suddenly shifted their attentions to foreign bands like the Beatles and Rolling Stones, the Sonics battled to maintain their foothold. In the mid-1960s Pat O'Day began producing events called Teen Fairs (and later: Teen Spectaculars) where the Sonics wound up sharing the bills at the Seattle Coliseum with stars including the Liverpool 5, Herman's Hermits, the Kinks, the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Jay and the Americans, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, the Shangri-Las, Mamas and Papas, and the Byrds. 

Hopes that the Sonics might still break out of the Northwest with a nationwide hit were stoked when the band was flown to Cleveland, Ohio, to make a syndicated national television appearance on Don Webster's Upbeat teen-dance show. Another chance came when San Francisco's dominant hit-making DJ, Tom Donahue, offered to support the band -- on the condition that Etiquette fly them down to headline a big concert at the Cow Palace. The label, however, declined to pony up travel expenses and the moment passed. But the biggest squandered opportunities were likely the times that agents from both Columbia Records and RCA made phone-calls to express an interest in the Sonics, but Etiquette (which had already signed a half-dozen area bands) wasn't interested in licensing away their hottest band. 

Anyway the Wind Blows           

Frustrated with Etiquette, the Sonics jumped ship in 1966 and signed a deal with the Kingsmen's producer, Jerry Dennon, and his Seattle-based Jerden Records. Dennon booked the boys into one of the West Coast's top recording facilities, Los Angeles' fabled Gold Star Studios.

Good intentions aside, the Sonics emerged with a sub-par album, Jerden's unfocused, Introducing the Sonics. Although it did include a few goodies -- like "You've Got Your Head On Backwards" and "High Time" -- the LP's many weaker tunes indicated that the once mighty Sonics' better days had come and gone. Appropriately, then, the band's final December 1967, single (a psychedelic wah-wah smothered Frank Zappa cover) bore a title which was perfectly descriptive of the band's lost sense of direction: "Anyway the Wind Blows." 

Shot Down 

The Sonics were limping and various pressures -- including the threat of the Vietnam War's military draft -- caused several of them to return to college in an attempt to escape service. Bennett split first in order to join a popular area band, Merrilee Rush and the Turnabouts. Meanwhile, Roslie got married, distracted, moody, and he upped and quit one night, abandoning his gear on the spot. Lind ended up as a fighter pilot in Vietnam, Larry split in February 1968, and Andy struggled ahead by adding new players including the singer, Jim Brady.  

The glory days were past, however, and Andy ended up selling the band's name (and their van) to Brady and company -- a regrettable move that saw the once-proud Sonics moniker getting dragged through the region's easy-listening liquor lounges for the next decade or so in which "Jim Brady and the Sonics" performed decidedly milquetoast music.  

Here Ain't The Sonics 

By the 1970s the original members of the Sonics had dispersed and mostly found new lines of work:  Andy became an arts instructor at Seattle's Wilson Middle School (and later taught English at Cleveland High), Larry hired on at an insurance firm, Lind became a commercial pilot, Roslie lay low working in the asphalt industry. But, like Bennett -- who drummed for years with the popular club act, Barney Armstrong's Machine -- most of the guys also kept one foot in the musical world. Andy worked the emerging tavern dance scene with Jr. Cadillac and, from 1973 to 1976, with Sweet Talkin' Jones -- then, around 1979, he and brother Larry both helped form Freddie and the Screamers. The enigmatic Roslie did surface occasionally with Tacoma's oldies group, the Great Pretenders, while Andy eventually joined on with the revitalized Kingsmen and Larry did club dates with Charlie and the Tunas. 

In the band's absence, the legend of the Sonics only grew stronger. The undiminished raw power of the Sonics' recordings gained stature over time and whole new audiences -- all across America and in England and Europe -- began discovering their delightfully raucous rock 'n' roll sounds.

In 1972 Los Angeles's the Droogs had recorded a cover of "He's Waitin'" which Creem magazine hyped as "the first American independent punk rock single," and in 1973 the Sonics' recordings (out-of-print since about 1968) were first reissued as BuckShot Records' Explosives LP. In 1975 Dennon reissued "The Witch" as a single, and in 1977 shrewdly repackaged the band's decade-old Introducing ... album as Original Northwest Punk LP -- and soon thereafter, New York bands like the Cramps and Vipers, and Boston's DMZ were covering various Sonics classics. Thusly did the Sonics' trademarked ratty proto-punk guitar riffs, maniacal shrieking, thunderous drumbeats, and controversial lyrical themes eventually get recognized as harbingers of an aesthetic which would become known as "punk rock." 

The Original Northwest Punks 

In 1983 the band's "Boss Hoss" was featured in the soundtrack to the West German indie film, Hangin' Out! [Gib Gas - Ich will Spaß!], and by mid-decade Etiquette was revived to market a string of Sonics (and Wailers) LPs to a new generation of fans. The year 1987 saw the first Sonics LPs issued on compact disc, and by 1988 the band's albums were being reissued in Europe. All of that simmering activity brought a flood of offers for the Sonics to reunite for big bucks from England, Germany, and France. Word was, most members were intrigued but they just couldn't get Roslie to agree to join in and thus it looked as if the Sonics would likely never appear on stage together again.  

Along the way, historians began to connect-the-dots and offer up belated praise for the long defunct Sonics and their key role in establishing the roots of punk. Dave Marsh wrote that “In style and attitude, punk’s 'Louie' lineage couldn’t have been clearer. The path from the Wailers, the Kingsmen, and the Sonics to the MC5 and the Stooges to the New York Dolls and the Patti Smith Group (all of whom executed various live versions of 'Louie') to the Ramones, the Clash, and the Sex Pistols ... is a beeline.”  

British author Vernon Joynson added that the Sonics "exuded a surly demeanour and created one of the rawest, toughest garage sounds." He also noted that both the Kinks and the Sex Pistols "have acknowledged The Sonics’ influence on their own music.”  

Have Fans, Will Travel 

As the years passed the Sonics' fan-base kept snowballing: numerous bands far and wide -- from Seattle's promising Power Pop band, the Moberlys, to England's The Fall, to San Diego's Mojo Nixon -- began covering the band's entire canon. In 1990 Seattle's Popllama Records released their Here Ain't The Sonics tribute album which featured Northwest bands, the Monomen, Screaming Trees, Young Fresh Fellows, Kings of Rock, and Girl Trouble. One particularly ingenious British salute came in 1998 when the Sonics' "The Hustler" was sampled on Snowpony's techno disc, The Slow-Motion World of Snowpony. Then in 2000 the Strychnines -- an all-Sonics tribute band (comprised of members of Grunge Era icons, Mudhoney, and players from Girl Trouble and the Young Fresh Fellows) -- began playing gigs and eventually cut a scorching CD under the name: the New Original Sonic Sound. The tipping point finally came in 2004 when the Land Rover company licensed the Sonics' "Have Love Will Travel" for use in a television commercial. Suddenly everyone could clearly hear the power and "commercial potential" of the band's vintage sounds.  

Clamoring for a reunion commenced once again -- and this time the idea finally hit home for the reclusive Roslie. Having survived a couple of serious health crises, he suddenly realized that it was now-or-never for a reunion. By the time that discussions commenced within the band in 2007, Andy's own health issues precluded his participation, as did Bennett's rustiness as a player -- and so two fine new players were recruited: Don Wilhelm (bass) and Ricky Lynn Johnson (drums). 

Beginning with high-profile headlining gigs at New York's Cavestomp Festival on November 2 and 4, 2007, the reconstituted band went on to perform in London, Spain, Belgium, Norway -- and finally back home in Seattle for a triumphant show at the suitably grand Paramount Theater on dark and bewitching Halloween night in 2008.  

Sources:
Peter Blecha conversations, interviews, and emails with Andy Parypa and Larry Parypa (1981-November 13, 2008), Buck Ormsby (1983), Lyle Thompson (April 11, 1989), Kearney Barton (July 31, 2008), and Pat O'Day (1980s),  recordings in possession of Peter Blecha; Mark Shipper, LP review, "The Sonics," Explosives, Phonograph Record Magazine, June 1973, p. 26; "Sonics Blasted Record Charts," Globe-News, April 30, 1978, p. 4; "Sonics-Invaders Merger," Two-Headed Dog magazine, September, 1980, pp. 3, 8; Bruce Smith, "Sonics Still Sell," Northwest Disc-Coveries magazine, March  1981, p. 3, 16; D. Joseph Carducci, Rock and the Pop Narcotic (Chicago: Redoubt Press, 1990), 182; Peter Blecha, CD liner notes, The Sonics Maintaining My Cool, Jerden Records (JRCD 7001), 1991; Peter Blecha, CD liner notes, The Sonics Here Are The Ultimate Sonics, Etiquette Records (ET CD 024027), 1991; Dave Marsh, Louie Louie: The History and Mythology of the World's Most Famous Rock 'n' Roll Song... (New York: Hyperion, 1993), 71,165; Peter Blecha, CD liner notes, The Sonics Psycho-Sonics, Big Beat Records (CDWIKD 115), 1993; Vernon Joynson, Fuzz, Acid and Flowers (Telford, England: Borderline Productions, 1993), 6;  Cub Koda, "Biography: The Sonics," All Music Guide website accessed on November 10, 2008 (http://music.yahoo.com/ar-298156-bio--The-Sonics); Larry Parypa, CD liner notes, The Sonics The Savage Young Sonics, Norton Records  (CNW 909), 2001; Peter Blecha, LP/CD liner notes, The Sonics Busy Body!!! Live In Tacoma 1964, Norton Records (CNW 913), 2007, and author's archives.


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Sonics House Party EP, Norton Records (EP-077), 1999



Etiquette Records (No. 11), The Sonics, January, 1965
Courtesy Peter Blecha


Sonics Busybody... CD, Norton Records (NW 913), 2007



Sonics Boom LP, 1966, Etiquette Records (ETALB 027)
Photo of band by Jini Dellaccio


Sonics Explosives LP, 1972, BuckShot Records (BSR 001)
Courtesy Peter Blecha


Etiquette Records promotional sticker, 1991
Photo by Jini Dellaccio


Sonics Original Northwest Punk LP, First American Records (7715), 1977



Sonics Live / Fanz Only EP, Etiquette Records (ETLP 1185), 1986
Photo of band by Jini Dellaccio


Sonics poster for October 31, 2008, concert, Seattle
Poster design by Jerry Clayworth, Courtesy The Sonics


 
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