A point I like to make endlessly around here – and I’m far from the first to do so – is that rock ‘n’ roll didn’t cease to exist in the few years between its first explosion in the ‘50s and its second – the British Invasion – in the early ‘60s. Sure, the national charts were overrun by teen schlock and limpid treatments of rock ‘n’ roll, but rock ‘n’roll was retrenching in the hinterlands in that time, becoming a regional phenomenon again, a live form for teenagers in towns and suburbs and college campuses.
These are not earth-shattering observations. But think of this week’s selections as a sort of a slightly later – the mid-1960s, in this case – extension of liminal rock ‘n’ roll, somewhat curious holdovers that afford a sense of where rock ‘n’ roll might have stood in America in the mid-‘60s if the British Invasion hadn’t happened.
The live repertoire would have been textbook teen dance. Precipitated out of a set of R&B-based numbers like the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout,” the Olympics’ “Hully Gully,” the Marathons’ “Peanut Butter,” the Five Du-Tones’ “Shake a Tail Feather”, Chuck Berry’s “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” and the Clovers’ “Love Potion #9,” it would have also included dozens of dancefloor-ready Twist-style cash-ins, along with a few instrumental rockers like “Tequila” and “Rebel Rouser.” Its combo format would have evolved out of what had become the de facto standard by the late ‘50s and early ‘60s: Electric lead and rhythm guitars, bass, drums and combo organ or saxophone, or both.
Collectors and music fans sometimes refer to this peculiar early-to-mid-‘60s incarnation as “frat rock.” The term isn’t bad, actually. It was uptempo, libidinous, fun music. It was a fundamentally functional development, too, with no overreaching artistic aspirations beyond entertaining crowds at armory halls, local clubs and high school and fraternity dances. (Records were often produced to sound the part, in fact, with crowd noises, live-sounding call-and-response routines and a general air of recorded-in-one-take spontaneity.)
The Southern fraternity circuit was a particular hotspot – the Swingin’ Medallions and the Gentrys had hits with “Double Shot of My Baby’s Love” and “Keep on Dancing.” It should be no surprise that the Pacific Northwest’s rock ‘n’ roll scene was fertile territory, too – the Wailers’ “Tall Cool One” was a popular early example; the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” was even bigger, and perhaps the high-water mark. But charting examples were everywhere in the early and mid-‘60s. The Dartells’ “Hot Pastrami”, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs’ “Wooly Bully,” the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” and the McCoys’ “Hang On Sloopy” were all catchy riffs, boozy atmosphere, and sing-along insouciance. Sloppiness wasn’t just a natural part of the music, it was a virtue to be embraced. Lyrics, when not indecipherable (“Louie Louie”) or strictly nonsensical (“Surfin’ Bird”), rarely diverged from either romantic odes of the most basic pop variety, or a sort of novelty wit.
This week’s selections are but three representative, if intense, examples. These are fundamentally the work of what anyone would term garage bands. But they’re different from the ’65-’67 explosion of local teenaged rock ‘n’ roll. Crucially, there is barely a whiff of influence from the British Invasion. In retrospect, one is right to treat this as a form unto itself, a distinct, dead-end branch of popular music’s evolutionary tree, a unique species that co-existed for a few years alongside what became – after the Beatles, et al – modern rock music. Sort of the Neanderthal to rock’s Homo Sapiens.
1. The Heart Attacks, Babba Diddy Baby (Remus 5000 ZTSP 98625)
From coastal Virginia comes this completely unhinged 1965 thumper.
The Heart Attacks were widely known in their time as the Beachnuts, a Virginia Beach group who formed in 1962 as a surf-type combo, and who would play off-and-on until the end of the decade.
This would be their debut record, the Beachnuts at the time including Bill Walls (lead guitar), Carl Stevens (lead vocals, organ), Harold Henry (bass), Mike Johnson (guitar) and Tom Strew (drums and vocals). “Babby Diddy Baby” is also notable for the involvement of one Frank Guida, who recorded and produced the song in 1965. Guida is one of the colorful characters who made rock ‘n’ roll such an idiosyncratic and ultimately regional phenomenon in the ‘50s and ‘60s. A record store owner and studio operator in Norfolk, Virginia, it is his record labels – LeGrand and SPQR, specifically – for which Guida is remembered above all. Guida recorded and produced a lot of Tidewater-area talent – including Gary U.S. Bonds, Jimmy Soul and Tommy Facenda – managing some national hits with them in the early ‘60s (“New Orleans” and “Quarter to Three” for Bonds, “If You Wanna Be Happy” for Soul).
With his stable of local session musicians and distinct productions sensibilities, Guida’s was a very consistent sound. A pioneer of the live “party” sound, there is a light Caribbean tinge to much of Guida’s handiwork as well, a result of time spent stationed in the West Indies during World War Two.
Guida’s hand is all over this 45 – there’s the“party” feel, again, with Walls’s unorthodox guitar work vaguely redolent of a steel drum (in reality, the strings being played at the bridge of the guitar). Still, though, nothing else in Guida’s discography would hint at the careening, breakneck intensity of “Babba Diddy Baby.” Retitled “Babba Diddy Baby” (from the original “Stop a Minute Baby”), and credited to the Heart Attacks, it would have made for a pretty transcendent experience at the local kegger.
Despite local popularity, the Beach Nuts themselves would release just one more 45 – 1968’s “What’s Gone Wrong,” interesting but much heavier fare – before calling it quits at the end of the decade.
2. The Street Cleaners, That’s Cool, That’s Trash (Amy 916)
Released in late 1964, “That’s Cool, That’s Trash” is actually the work of the team of P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri, two talented songwriters, musicians and producers, heard here at the outset of interesting trajectories in the Los Angeles pop machine.
Philip Sloan formed a partnership with Steve Barri in Los Angeles in 1963. Sloan, all of nineteen years old at the time, and Barri, a year or two older, were both aspiring singers and songwriters as well as New York City transplants. By the time they began collaborating at the Screen Gems music publishing company, they’d separately logged several years recording, performing and publishing and placing songs – none with great success – on the periphery of the music industry.
PF Sloan (right) and Steve Barri (left) in the studio, circa 1965.
Their new partnership bore fruit. Their early effort “Kick That Little Foot Sally Ann” was a hit for Round Robin, as were “I Found a Girl” for Jan & Dean and “Summer Means Fun” for Bruce & Terry.
Sloan and Barri continued to co-write songs and amass credits as supporting musicians and vocalists, managing, too, to make some recordings of their own (often with the benefit of Los Angeles session musicians). The best known of these projects was the Jan & Dean-esque Fantastic Baggys, though many other obscure efforts (largely surf and hot rod-related) were recorded.
Amid this confusion of mid-‘60s projects, songwriting credits and session work came the Street Cleaner’s “That’s Cool, That’s Trash,” a concise celebration of everything that went into the form: girls, parties, records, dancing, modes of transport, a general spirit of drinking age joie de vivre. Released by the New York City-based Bell Records in 1964, it is Sloan heard on the lead vocal here, his wonderfully biting guitar reminding me a bit of some early Lou Reed licks. (The Kingsmen would also cover “That’s Cool, That’s Trash.”)
Sloan and Barri would be aboard when Lou Adler launched Los Angeles-based Dunhill Records in late 1964, contributing significantly to the label’s early success. Sloan played guitar on the first few Mamas and the Papas LPs, and had two terrific but neglected folk-rock LPs to his own name (1965’s Songs of Our Times and 1966’s Twelve More Times), while Sloan and Barri together would record another surf cash-in album as the Rincon Surfside Band, the very first Dunhill album release.
But the duo’s source of success continued to remain their great songs – their feverish work ethic didn’t hurt, either – with major hits penned for Dunhill artists Barry McGuire (“Eve of Destruction”) and the Grass Roots (the first Grass Roots albums was Sloan and Barri) as well as “Secret Agent Man” for Johnny Rivers, “A Must to Avoid” for Herman’s Hermits, “Take Me For What I’m Worth” for the Searchers, and “You Baby” for the Turtles, among many, many others.
Sloan returned to New York City in the late ‘60s – his efforts as a singer-songwriter decreasingly successful. Barri remained in the Los Angeles music industry, enjoying a long career behind-the-scenes in production as well as among the ranks of industry executive management.
3. The Invictas, The Hump (Sahara 45-SH-107 A)
Rochester’s Invictas were a good if fairly representative band from the era, an outfit who personified the raucous and energetic R&B and party rock ‘n’ roll of the early and mid-‘60s.
The band coalesced in the early ‘60s at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Consisting of Herb Gross (lead vocals, rhythm guitar), Dave Hickey (drums), Mark Blumenfeld (lead guitar) and Jim Koehler (bass), the quartet got their start playing area fraternity houses, which lead, in turn, to their residency at Tiny’s Bengal Inn, a Summerville college hangout.
The group’s first 45, 1964 ‘s “Stuff” (backed with a cover of “I’m Alright”) received only moderate attention, but “The Hump,” recorded and released 1965 on Steve Brodie’s Buffalo-based Sahara label, would garner significant radio airplay, its vaguely raunchy entreaty greatly increasing the group’s regional notoriety. A big seller, especially in western New York, better dates and plum opening slots would ensue for the Invictas, with two similar 45s – “The Hook” (backed with “Do It”) and “The Detroit Move” (backed with “Shake a Tailfeather”) – released in quick succession.
The Invictas in action, with incredible home-built guitars. Image courtesy of the Invictas' website.
The Invictas’ brand of entertainment largely favored the more expedient 45 format, but the group recorded a full-length studio album, a fairly rare proposition in those days. Invictas A Go-Go (also released in 1965) was practically a primer on ’60s dance-party-rock, with raw covers of “Hang On Sloopy,” “Shake A Tail Feather,” “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Satisfaction” and “Farmer John,” along with a few originals (including “The Hump,” notably, as well as “Do It,” their punkiest number).
But “The Hump” will remain the Invictas’ greatest achievement. Based on a dance that originated during their time as house band at Tiny’s Bengal Inn, its unorthodox key changes, Gross’s shredding vocals and the song’s all-around go-for-broke mania will forever distinguish “The Hump” from hundreds of other ‘60s dance anthems.
The Invictas have reunited in recent years, playing gigs and making new recordings. You can read more about the Invictas’ history at their website.