Not that many years ago, most rock fans seemed willfully ignorant of the grass roots rock 'n' roll that American bands turned out in the last half of the '60s. Despite the fact that this was the music heard live at the local high school dance, teen club or bar, it was dwarfed by the British Invasion. Even the first edition of "The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll" excluded '60s American proto-punk from serious historical consideration.
Four years before that Rolling Stone history, Elektra Records had released a two-album set compiled by rock musician and historian Lenny Kaye called "Nuggets: Original Artifacts from the First Psychedelic Era: 1965-1968." Kaye's 1972 collection of singles codified the vitality and creativity of America's regional rock bands during this period, and helped spark a growing appreciation and collecting mania for this music. Rhino Records has now paid tribute to Kaye's ground-breaking set with a new four-volume series -- also titled "Nuggets."
Listeners need go no further than "Volume One: The Hits" (Rhino RNLP 025) to discover how wild and wonderful America's response to the British Invasion was. Inspired by the image and sound of the British bands, American groups refitted their own traditions to create a range of hybrids -- folk rock, acid rock, bubble gum and punk rock.
"Volume One: The Hits" rescues from the grungy cracks of rock history 14 singles so undeniably exciting that each was a national hit despite limited promotion. The songs range from the Barbarians' inane satire of long hair, "Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl," to "Summertime Blues," Blue Cheer's thunderous exercise in big chords that anticipated heavy metal. There are a couple of punk angst classics, the Seeds' "Pushin' Too Hard" and the Standells' "Dirty Water," whose nasty arrogance one-upped the Stones. Best of all, there is the raga-mad experimentalism of the Electric Prunes' "I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night," what may be the ultimate pop homage to Sigmund Freud.
While "Volume One" introduces the whole range of music weirdness evolving in the last half of the '60s,"Volume Two: Punk" (RNLP 026) focuses on that simplest and angriest of American rock styles known as punk. Punk was nothing more than the sound of suburban misfits before they discovered musical skills, drugs or studio gimmicks. There are a host of punk legends here like the Standells and Music Machine, each using three chords' worth of fuzz-tone guitar and whining organ to fuel antisocial but exhilarating musical tirades.
Although the 14 songs here share classic status among devotees, only a few were hits. In addition to the Shadow of Knight's frat standard "Gloria," there is the Seeds' "Can't Seem to Make You Mine," a near parody of Mick Jagger at his adenoidal worst. But the Sonics' "Strychnine" deserves special acclaim as a generational rabble-rouser, especially when leather-throated lead singer Gerry Rosalie croaks: "Some folks like water/ Some folks like wine/ I like the taste of straight strychnine."
The last two albums in the series, "Volume Three: Pop" (RNLP 027) and "Volume Four: Pop, Part Two" (RNLP 028), present American bands who took a more consciously commercial approach to record-making. Pursuing the melodic appeal of the Beatles, groups like the Merry-go-Round, the Cyrkle and the Cryan' Shames created lightweight rock songs embellished by stylistic flourishes ranging from classical to psychedelic.
Some of the more interesting singles here were produced by groups explicitly copying the early Beatles' high-energy Merseybeat sound. The Knickerbockers' "Lies" is justifiably called the greatest Beatles song not by the Beatles, and Washington's own Chartbusters' "She's the One" sounds as if it were swiped right off "Meet the Beatles."
Best of all is Bobby Fuller's "Let Her Dance," a sweeping synthesis of Buddy Holly and the Beatles that suggests that Fuller might have been a major rock innovator if he hadn't died in 1966.