Overhauling the British Invasion (part two)

(Ed. note: This is part two of a post about wild British Invasion covers by ‘60s American garage bands. – Little Danny)

1964. Why did it take the British Invasion to re-ignite rock ‘n’ roll – a musical form that’d percolated out of our own national consciousness barely ten years prior?

I think part of the reason is that we, as Americans, persist in our boredom with what has already been established within our own culture. We habitually prefer our own vernacular culture packaged anew and handed back to us from external sources.

Coming from the Beatles and their brethren, rock ‘n’ roll, as an external product, was sleek and stylized. But it wasn’t simply that the English groups sensed some new potential in ‘50s American rock ‘n’ roll where American remained only blithely ignorant to it. After all, there were any number of American teen combos and surf groups that sustained the exuberance of early rock ‘n’ roll into the early ‘60s (well before the Beatles’ stateside arrival). Regionally and nationally popular American groups like the Kingsmen, the Joey Dee & the Starliters, the Sonics, the Astronauts, Johnny & the Hurricanes, the Wailers, Challengers, Paul Revere & the Raiders and the Trashmen were effectively modernizing rock ‘n’ roll, much as their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic were doing.

But the British had long hair, bigger amplifiers, dark matching suits and, of course, accents. It was nothing so calculated, but if we’re talking classic corporate marketing strategy here, the British succeeded in re-branding rock ‘n’ roll where American groups couldn’t. And young Americans went crazy for it in 1964.

It’s easy to look at the British Invasion and consequently think the worse of the American imagination. Sure, the British had to reinvent rock ‘n’ roll for us before we’d take it seriously again.

Think about backyard wrestling and the Watts Towers, though. Think about early hip-hip DJing and homegrown YouTube spoofs. As long as there’s mass-produced culture, there’ll always be certain American individuals and communities who, knowingly or not, transform it into something more creative and more interesting. You can hear a similar process at work in this week’s selections. The ‘60s garage band phenomenon may have largely been America’s localized response to the British Invasion, but whether the Ambertones, the Mopp Tops and the Jagged Edge were, for all their cover versions, trying to summon a British affect is of little consequence. They’d still come out sounding as indelibly American as ever.

1. The Mopp Tops, The Kids Are All Right (Fantastic)
The garage bands of the sixties included plenty of young combos whose existence was measured in months rather than years. That was time enough to play the high school talent show, pool their money and issue one 45 in tiny quantity before college or the Vietnam draft ended the whole equation.

Other groups, like the Mopp Tops, would last a bit longer. The Mopp Tops were a popular rock ‘n’ roll combo, the kind with local fan clubs and local radio airplay, the kind that might open for the Yardbirds or Paul Revere & the Raiders when they headlined the local amphitheater.

The Mopp Tops’ was not an atypical history. Early in their career, numbers like “Flipper” found the Mopp Tops playing the kind of souped-up rock ‘n’ roll that prevailed at suburban high school auditoriums and campus bashes before the advent of the British Invasion. Five years later, the Mopp Tops would wind up stoned out of their minds for their final 45, “Our Lives,” a post-Woodstock, acid-rock testament to crushing volume. And, in between, the Mopp Top’s trajectory would include a few 45s of the classic teen garage band variety, like this version of the Who’s “The Kids Are Alright” (hear an excerpt here).

What most distinguishes the Mopp Tops is that they were an integrated group from Honolulu, Hawaii. Here they imbue the “The Kids Are Alright” with the requisite amount of rasping fuzztone guitar and adenoidal teenage angst, evidence that all was not just luaus and long tropical farewells in our 50th state.

At the time of this recording (circa 1966), the Mopp Tops included Michael Payton (drummer) and Jessie Morgan (rhythm guitar and vocals), two of the group’s main songwriters. I’m unable to identify other Mopp Tops, alas.

2. The Jagged Edge, Midnight to Six Man (Twirl)
Like many other American garage bands, the Jagged Edge gravitated to the hipper and more aggressive British groups of the mid-‘60s, their tastes in cover versions favoring the Rolling Stones, Kinks or Small Faces over the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers or Dave Clark Five.

“Midnight to Six” is a mod anthem originally by the Pretty Things, a tough London R&B; group who took the Rolling Stones’ punky aesthetic to wildly ungroomed extremes in the mid-‘60s. This version of the Pretty Things’ paean to nocturnal hipsterdom is actually pretty faithful (hear excerpt of the original here and watch vintage footage here). Which is ironic, as any attempts at nightlife for the Jagged Edge probably meant creeping down the hallway after their parents had gone to bed.

This was one of a number of American ‘60s bands named the Jagged Edge. Nothing seems to be known about this particular permutation, though it can be reasonably inferred that their “Midnight to Six” was recorded in 1966, that zenith year of the garage band experience.

3. Ambertones, I Can Only Give You Everything (Rayjack)
The Ambertones were one of a number of popular local rock ‘n’ roll bands from Los Angeles’s Hispanic East Side in the sixties.

Groups like the Ambertones, Thee Midniters, Cannibal & the Headhunters, the Premiers, the Romancers and the Sunday Funnies were extremely versatile, striving to outdo each other with their showmanship and sets of impeccably matched suits. Even if their visibility was somewhat circumscribed by their community, the vibrancy of East Los Angeles’s music scene in the ‘60s meant that the Ambertones might regularly play before crowds in the thousands. Live, these groups’ repertoires were calculated to excite, and were dominated by arrangements of the latest R&B; dances, novelty instrumentals, and vocal group and Latin pop hits. There was also, of course, room for the occasional raw rave-up like “I Can Only Give You Everything,” too. Whatever it took to stir audiences into a frenzy.

This is the Ambertones’ version of the 1966 Them anthem. (Hear an excerpt here. Them was Van Morrison’s first group.) If you had a fuzzbox you were ready; thanks to its brilliant simplicity, “I Can Only Give You Everything” worked its way into many a ‘60s garage band’s repertoire. And, thanks to its instantly identifiable riff, “I Can Only Give You Everything” – even more than the similar “Louie Louie” or “Wild Thing” – managed simultaneously to capture adolescence’s euphoric swagger and its breathtaking stupidity.

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10 Responses to Overhauling the British Invasion (part two)

  1. Anonymous says:

    Monday’s are the best! Thanks a bunch!

  2. Thomas says:

    Elegantly stated, as always. On the tech tip, do you know if I need quicktime pro to download and save the tracks you post? Oh, and the Victory Grill was crazy ridiculous fun!

  3. Rob says:

    good to have you back, Danny

  4. JeffW says:

    Great songs this week, LD.

  5. Davd In CO says:

    Great Songs. “Only Give You Everything” of course leads us right into post modern, pastichey Beck with the Devil’s Haircut. Everything old is new again and then dressed up in hipster irony.

    As always, best blog on the Web–DC

  6. peabo says:

    excellent post, thank you

  7. xmnr0x23 says:

    Rayjack records? It looks like another Starla Kay Rindoni venture, or am I wrong? Skyla records, Ray star records and maybe Rayjack too? It does look very similar to the layout of the Ray Star 45s. Do you have more info maybe? Thanks.

  8. Jesse Morgan says:

    Just read the Notes from Little Danny about the Mopptops, “you got it all wrong Dude!”

    JESSE MORGAN

  9. Hey there Jesse — email me at djlittledanny@gmail.com if you have any corrections or additions for the Mopptops’ story. I’d love to set the record straight.
    best,
    D.

    • jan says:

      The Mopp Tops I know from high school in Hawai`i did not include either of the guys you name. The Mopp Tops in the late sixties were four Filipino young men, most of whom went on to professional careers in music.

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