The Sonics, the ur-garage rock band from Tacoma, WA, whose muscular early-to-mid 1960's sound helped forge a well-trodden path for legions of subsequent hard rockers, punks and grunge kids, this week released This is the Sonics (RE:Vox). It is the band's first proper album since 1966's Boom and in the ensuing 49-years between albums, it turns out, just about everything in the music business has changed.
"It's a different universe," says the Sonics' Rob Lind, 71,as if he and his band were preserved in amber for half a century before suddenly breaking free and finding everything vastly altered. "Vastly is even an understatement -- everything has changed," he says. From labels, touring, synchs and press to "newer inventions" like stage monitors, moshpits, and the existence of digital, today's music industry would have been unimagineable in the mid-1960s to the then teenaged quartet. And it's still somewhat befuddling to the septuagenarian original Sonics in Lind, Larry Parypa and Jerry Roaslie (rounded out today by newer members, Freddie Dennis of The Kingsmen,The Liverpool Five and drummer Dusty Watson who played with Dick Dal and Agent Orange). Lind broke down for Billboard the differences in the music biz between then and now.
RECORD LABELS & RECORDING: "I don't remember getting any money from them"
Then: The Sonics recorded their debut single "The Witch" in 1964 for Etiquette Records which also released their two LPs, 1965's Here Are the Sonics and 1966's Boom. "I don't actually remember getting any money from them," Lind says, "but we're getting more money from them now then we did then." In 1966, the band signed to Jerden Records, a Northwest label which was distributed through ABC-Paramount for their ill-fated third album Introducing The Sonics. "It's a recording the band would "like to forget," says Lind. Recording at Hollywood's Gold Star Studios, where Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Buffalo Springfield and the Beau Brummels were recording, was not a good fit for a garage rock band unused to multi-track recording -- or even writing and practicing songs in advance. The band says, in less-than-charitable terms, that until recently they never saw a dime from Jerden.
Now: The Sonics formed their own label, Re:VOX USA, for "This is the Sonics," which came out Tuesday (March 31). It's being handled through Virtual Label, a Brooklyn-based label services company. "We'll see how it does -- we need to give it a little bit of time, " says Lind. The band worked with producer Jim Diamond (White Stripes, Dirtbombs, The Fleshtones) and, for the first time, actually wrote and rehearsed songs before hitting the studio.
TOURING: "We used to play for beer and hamburgers"
Then: Touring was the band's primary source of revenue. "We used to play four sets a night for all the beer and hamburgers we could eat, while trying not to get beat up by cowboys," Lind says, referencing tight spots The Sonics got into when playing the more rural Spokane, WA (and which prompted Lind and Parypa to take Karate classes). After playing high school dances and community centers, the five-piece began to earn $500 at places like the Red Carpet, a local teenage nightclub. Their fees rose to $800 as they released singles like "The Witch" and "Psycho", which got played on local radio stations by KJR's Pat O'Day. The biggest payouts, "three or four thousand dollars," came from shows at the Tacoma Armory, where they got a cut of the door. The band had to lug a backline (amps and drum kit) and P.A. with them.
Now: Since the band reunited for the 2007 iteration of Brooklyn's underground garage rock fest Cavestomp, they've mounted major global tours annually, hitting the road for four-to-five weeks at a time to far-flung locales like New Zealand, continental Europe, Japan, Mexico and Brazil. "We have a tour manger that goes with us who, every night before we go to bed, slides the next day's schedule under our hotel room doors." There's now ten of them on the road, including a tour manager, a sound engineer and a merch person. While the paydays are at least in the four or five figure range, the band has made as much as $40-$50,000 headlining festivals. Backlines and P.A. are now available at most venues.
AUDIENCES: From dances, dresses and button-ups to shows, t-shirts and moshpits
Then: We were playing teen dances, there weren't really shows in those days," says Lind. "They danced whatever dance was in. It was guys trying to meet girls and all that kind of stuff. Girls would wearing dresses, guys were wearing slacks and a button-up shirts or sweaters."
Now: Moshpits and stage dives, unheard of the in '60s, now regularly break out at their incendiary shows. "Three weeks ago, we played Sao Paulo, Brazil -- that was one of the craziest, most fantastic crowds that we played for. They were like lemmings, crawling up on the side of the stage, these big burly security guys grabbing them and throwing them back. Freddie took two steps back as some drunk guy crashed onto the front of the stage and was immediately tackled by the security guys. Paris is also real famous for that."
ROYALTIES/SYNCS: "Have Love, Will Travel" Has Traveled
Then: "I don't think we got much," says Lind about royalties. "Jerry probably got writer's royalties. We were only selling records regionally and weren't selling worldwide or nationally like we are now."
Now: "Now, for the first two albums and our singles, we get quarterly checks that are around five grand a piece," Lind says. "Just one song can net six or seven thousand dollars quarterly if it's used in a commercial." The band's rocking version of "Have Love, Will Travel" has been used in Land Rover, BMG and Modello beer commercials, Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown and films. "That was a one-take special at three in the morning in a cheap recording studio."
CHARTS/SALES: Bubbling Under
Then: None of The Sonics' songs ever charted. According to Nielsen-Soundscan Here Are the Sonics sold some 25,000 copies since 1999, when it was released on Norton Records while Boom has sold nearly 15,000 copies. "The closest we came to charting," says Lind, "is we had a record called 'Don't Be Afraid of the Dark,' and it was on the Bubbling Under and actually appeared in Billboard!" Also, "The Witch" and "Psycho" were Pacific Northwest regional hits.
Now: Interestingly, the band's most recent recording, a single called "Black Betty", found its way onto the Mexico Ingles Airplay chart at No. 41 on April 4, peaking at 37 on March 14. When asked about it, Lind cites a phenomenal show recently in Mexico City in which the five-piece were met with a "sea of people with Sonics' albums and Sharpees" when they left the venue.
THE BIG SHOWS: "At 18 I got to drink beer with the Righteous Brothers"
Then: The band played the Seattle Coliseum a number of times and opened for international acts that included The Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, The Righteous Brothers, The Kinks, The Mamas and the Papas and The Shangri-Las. "We used to call it 'send out the clowns to check out the sound,'" says Lind. "We probably opened for The Beach Boys around ten times." The band was paid nominally, but got great exposure.
Now: "Levi's sponsored our trip to Sao Paolo, Brazil" Lind says, noting that global brand sponsorships and the South American touring market barely existed in 1965. The band, which primarily played in Washington, Oregon and Idaho did have one international destination: "We played Canada," Lind says.
TRANSPORTATION: A Buick Seagull
Then: The band used their own cars in the early years, but once they began making more they all bought new cars. "Larry bought a Buick Skylark we all used to call the Seagull." In the mid-sixties the band purchased a Ford Econoline, painted "The Sonics -- Etiquette Recording Artists" on both sides and hired two roadies to drive and haul the backline and their clothes.
Now: "We fly, get picked up and taken to our hote and the tour's all set up in advance. We get a tour booked for the month that tells us where we are day-to-day and when the airplane flights are. We did two tours last summer: the first we did in a tour bus because it involved lot of driving; the second was all airports, so every day we'd have to get up and pack and get taken to airport and get hassled at security."
UNIFORMS: Cisco Kid & Nehru Jackets
Then: "The band had several different stage outfits. We had a black kind of suit with Mexican scroll work on the lapels we called that the Cisco Kid outfit. We got really impressed with the Beatles and their Nehru jackets so we did that. And we went to Vancouver and had a custom designer make these outfits for us, and we were all kind of sorry we did: We used to call them our clown suits. They were bright orange and had frilly shirts and short bolero jackets. We wore them for the big shows."
Now: The band now dresses in sharp black button-up shirts and pants and leather jackets.
The Sonics from the cover shot of their 1966 album "Boom."
ACCOMMODATIONS: Filp you for the roll-away
Then: "We'd go to motels and all sleep in the same room. We'd get the biggest room we could find and get roll aways and flip coins or argue over who'd have to be on the roll-away. We must have paid $15 or $20 bucks per person in the mid-sixties."
Now: "Since 2007 it's always been our own hotel rooms."
THE SONICS HARD ROCKING SOUND: "We didn't mess around with 'Norwegian Wood'"
Then: "Our dads were all blue collar guys down in Tacoma. It's a port city, so we started out wanting to rock and roll," Lind says, explaining how the band got its ferocious sound. "Like Jerry would say, 'We wanted to kick ass!' We immediately cut our teeth on Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis songs that lent themselves to rock and roll. When The Beatles made the scene, we did 'Drive my Car,' 'Dizzy Miss Lizzy,' but we didn't mess around with 'Norwegian Wood' or anything like that."
Now: "For the new album, we wanted to play Sonics music. Whether we wrote it or someone else wrote it, we wanted it to rock."