Book Review:
Sonic Boom: The History of Northwest Rock, from "Louie Louie" to "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

  • By Margaret Riddle
  • Posted 7/02/2009
  • Essay 9073
By Peter Blecha
Backbeat Books, 2009
Paperback, 304 pages
Photographs, Record Labels, Posters, News Items, Discography, and index
ISBN 978-0-87930-946-6

To write a book this good you have to really know your subject and love it! Peter Blecha does, as a fan, a musician, and a collector of Northwest rock who has shared his discoveries through articles for numerous magazines including The Rocket, The Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly, Vintage Guitar, several previous books, liner notes, and as Senior Curator in the developing years of the  Experience Music Project.  For two decades Blecha has collected memorabilia and stories of the musicians, club owners, record company founders, promoters, radio station DJs and fans who helped form the music.

The importance of the Northwest’s early rock scene has largely been ignored by music historians. It was an Encyclopedia Britannica entry about Northwest rock -- "not much happened of note musically in Seattle until Nirvana formed in 1987" -- that challenged Blecha to get to work, pull out those interviews and begin writing.   The result is a breakthrough book which engagingly tells the story of Northwest rock from its R & B roots to the post-grunge era -- 50 years of solid Pacific Northwest music history.  Blecha expertly weaves quotes into his text, bringing the Northwest rock scene to life through the stories of those who created it. The book is so packed with information you may find yourself taking notes. 

Rock and roll’s birth has been widely chronicled as emerging from R & B and country music roots. It was happening across the nation. It was certainly happening in the Pacific Northwest who welcomed and nurtured (except for a snobbish press) many blues and jazz performers including  Ray Charles Robinson -- Ray Charles.  And in the 1950s, Tacoma’s Lower Broadway and Seattle’s Jackson Street taverns and clubs were playing a combination of blues, jazz, doo-wop, and country music. Country music performers Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, and Buck Owens owe much to the Pacific Northwest in furthering their careers.

Something exciting was happening.  On September 21, 1957, a crowd gathered at the old Eagles Auditorium on Union Street in Seattle to hear the featured performers, Junior Parker and Bobby “Blue Bland.  Opening act was a little-known black singer named Richard Berry who brought down the house with his new single, “Louie Louie,”  Danceable as a cha-cha, it was a new rock sound.  The song would soon mutate into the famous versions and rock on. 

Sonic Boom spends most of its pages covering the 1950s and 1960s, which is needed since that period  has largely been glossed over or ignored in the few previous books on Northwest rock. Certainly it has never been told this well and the combination of solid information and Blecha’s superb writing skills make this an important book. 

Artists and topics covered include the growth of record production in Seattle, rock promoters, Bonnie Guitar, The Fleetwoods, the Fabulous Wailers, Ventures, Sonics, Kingsmen, Frantics, Chan Romero, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Little Bill and the Bluenotes, the Dynamics, Don and the Good Times, Jimi Hendrix, Mudhoney,  Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, The Mob (Queensryche), Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and dozens of others that came and vanished but were an important part of the regional scene.   Blecha deals with what the Northwest rock sound is and in what way it was influential.  He devotes a whole chapter to the 1968 Sky River Rock festival and writes movingly about the impact of Kurt Cobain’s death on the local music scene.  And since the author was a musician in post-punk Seattle in the 1980s, he writes with authority on that era.      

Sonic Boom is illustrated with black and white images -- many rare -- and has an excellent index and discography.  The only thing missing is the music itself.  Sonic Boom urges us to pull out our old albums or CDs and listen again.  If you have neither, you can still buy it -- new or used -- and some can be downloaded.  A sampling can be heard on   Read Sonic Boom first just for fun.  Then put it in a prominent place on your bookshelf for future reference.  It’s a keeper.

By Margaret Riddle, July 2, 2009

Submitted: 7/02/2009

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