I came of age musically in the second half of the 1980s, perhaps the all-time nadir of American popular culture. It was the high point of glammed-up, spandex-encased hair metal a la Poison and Bon Jovi, and overproduced saccharine pop a la Rick Astley and Whitney Houston. (At the time Bill Hicks pretty well summed up the crapitude of what was on the radio.) I found safe refuge in two vastly different genres: hip-hop (which I called "rap" back then) and sixties guitar pop.
I was reminded of this love on the road to Pittsburgh last weekend, when my iPod cued up "Heart Full of Soul" by The Yardbirds. This has led me down a rabbit-hole of sorts, blowing the dust off of discs that I haven't listened to in a long time. Most folks know the Yardbirds only as the launching pad for Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. (Little known fact: Led Zeppelin were originally called "The New Yardbirds.") While I love a lot of the subsequent stuff that this trio of guitar wizards produced, I appreciate the Yardbirds for adhering to the principles of compact songs and a strong beat. (I love the mighty Zep, but I do not want to hear a twenty minute drum solo by anyone, not even John Bonham.) "Heart Full of Soul," with its fast breaks and galloping spaghetti western theme vibe manages to bring it all on home in just two and a half minutes. I like them best, though, for their British Invasion takes on American blues. Instead of merely ripping off or weakly imitating the original blues standards, they make them something unique and different. The epochal "I'm a Man" and the absolutely propulsive "I Ain't Done Wrong" are my favorites in this regard. The former's reworking of the stellar Bo Diddley grinder into a stomping anthem followed by a feedback assisted express train was pretty much xeroxed by The Count Five on another gem of the era, "Psychotic Reaction."
The mid-sixties were just chock full of bands churning out killer tunes with three chords and a lot of moxie. Some of these groups, like the Kinks, progressed beyond the caveman riffs and thumping beats to rock operas and long careers. Others, like the Troggs, burned hot and bright with a handful of classic singles before being pushed aside by the rise of classic rock in the late sixties. Many rock and roll bands have described young lust, but none nailed it with the properly leering face and bulging crotch of Reg Presley and the Troggs. Fer cryin' out loud, they had a song called "I Can't Control Myself"! The fact that they delivered these dirty ditties in matching striped uniforms -like a gang of badass carnival barkers- made it that much more perverse.
Back on these shores suburban garages and urban neighborhoods spawned legions of young bands who may not have had long careers or great albums, but were able to put together one or even a half dozen three minute masterpieces. The Seeds had a special kind of menace on classics like "Can't Seem to Make You Mine" and "Pushin' Too Hard," a freaky song that Alice Cooper wishes he could have written. They had plenty of competition in the garage band world at the time from the likes of Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Blues Magoos, The Standells, and The Electric Prunes. They are footnotes to musical history, but a lot more interesting than plenty of what's in the canon and what gets played on oldies radio stations.
Back in the late eighties when I was starting to dig sixties music, there were two groups I loved best: the Beatles and the Monkees. In fact, it was the Monkees who were my gateway into sixties rock and roll after MTV started airing reruns of the TV show, which I watched religiously. I didn't know at the time that the Monkees were a made-for-TV attempt to cash in on the Fab Four's runaway success. It didn't matter then, and it doesn't matter now, cuz The Monkees have a lot of great songs to their credit. Hell, it doesn't matter that they didn't play their instruments on their first two albums because they had great studio musicians laying down the tracks and top songwriters penning the tunes. Case in point: the best Byrds folk-rock riff of all time is actually on "Last Train to Clarksville." Once they got more creative control they produced some far-out awesomeness, like "Randy Scouse Git" and "The Porpoise Song." It's easy to put down the Monkees, but they deserve a spot with their '66-'67 peers.
If I had any musical talent, I'd start a tribute band called The Substitutes (in reference to the Who song) to play covers of this music while being clad with sharp toed boots, tight black jeans, a houndstooth jacket, skinny tie, and dark sunglasses. I still can dream, can't I?