Garage Rock: America’s Primal Growl

by Amy Gold

Garage band music is a genre that originated in the U.S. and Canada in the 1960s, had a brief period of popularity and then faded out, only to rear its head again in several notable revivals as the musical form continued to morph and shape itself with the times. The most recent revival was in the early 2000s, speaking to the enduring appeal of this raw style.

The term “garage rock” was coined as a nod to the primarily middle class musicians who gave birth to the genre, usually playing on basic electric instruments in the family garage. It is best defined by its lack of formality and simple but strong chord progressions. It’s a gutsy, gritty, driving sound that usually expressed some form of teen rebellion against the rules of that white bread middle class existence.

The garage sound sprang up across the U.S. and each regional area put its own particular stamp on the music, with California and Texas providing the most enthusiastic breeding grounds. Washington state and Oregon would stand out from the pack as well, with the most clearly defined regional sound that would later give rise to the grunge movement.

At its zenith in the early-mid 1960s, some of the best garage songs managed to make their way onto the Billboard charts. These included the Wailers’ groundbreaking “Tall Cool One” (1959, 1964), the Kingsmen’s classic and enigmatic “Louie, Louie” (1963), the Seeds' snarling "Pushin' Too Hard" (1967), the 13th Floor Elevators’ more psychedelic and scorching “You’re Gonna Miss Me” (1966), and ? (Question Mark) and the Mysterians’ chart topping “96 Tears” (1966). By this time, there were literally thousands of garage bands across America and Canada, most of them toiling in obscurity, but some were able to make a name for themselves, at least regionally. These acts ranged from such local sensations as the Sonics and Birdwatchers to more nationally prominent bands such as Tommy James and the Shondells who topped the charts with “Hanky Panky” (1966), a song that became a garage standard.

As the young musicians who made up the garage bands started to grow up and faced the draft with the dawn of the Vietnam War, the garage movement began to die out. There was a revival in the mid to late 1970s as the garage sound began to combine with the punk movement. Among the last groups to successfully carry the garage sound forward was Iggy Pop and the Stooges, who are considered the last “real” garage band.

As garage rock gave way to punk, other groups got in on the act, most notably the Ramones. The genre refused to die, however, and it rose up again in the 1980s with a bunch of bands emulating the classic style of 1960s garage bands. Among these were the Fuzztones and the Lyres. Still others delved further into the punk sound, giving birth to the sub genre known as “garage punk.”

Garage band music proved so enduring that it came back again more recently. The early 2000s saw the advent of bands like the White Stripes, Kings of Leon and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. These bands were finally able to get the garage sound the regular airplay that had eluded it up until now, adding commercial success to its already well established underground appeal.

The popularity of garage rock is hard to deny and probably lies with its basic, down to earth appeal. It is all about expressing yourself, as loudly as possible, in whatever form you see fit. That is why garage rock is so relatable, because it doesn’t rely on musical convention; it comes from the heart and speaks directly to the angst-ridden teenager in all of us.