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THE WAILERS vs. THE SONICS: Grudge Match In Garageville, 1966!!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2014 by TheManicBlogger

 Frank Gutch, Jr. relives his youth and a remarkable musical experience. Interestingly, he lived to tell us about it in a way that only Frank could. 


Note:  I have rewritten this a couple of times.  The original was posted by back in 2004, a site which disappeared shortly afterward.  I recently discovered a copy of the original article stashed in some old boxes.  This was my first attempt at telling the story of a magical night at the Albany, Oregon National Guard Armory on a weekend night with what would become two bands of legendary status…..

sonics3Picture yourself in pegged Levis and a short-sleeved white shirt with tab collar, perfect with the short thin black clip-on black tie you just picked up at the Robert’s Men Clothing Store on Main Street in Sweet Home, Oregon.  You pull your best pair of low-top Converse All-Stars (black, of course) out of the box you keep stashed under the bed and string the laces just right before putting them on.  Then it’s into the bathroom for a palm full of Butch Wax (a little extra for that great smell) and a mere ten minutes later (it takes time to get it just right), you’re ready to hit Dad up for the keys to the car.  Maybe you have a date, maybe not, but for once it doesn’t matter.  Tonight, it’s The Sonics vs. The Wailers at the Albany Guard Armory!

You grab the three dollars you saved from your allowances over the past month, stash the cash in your front pocket and ricochet down the stairs, screaming for the alpha dog to toss you the keys.  Time is of the essence here, you see.  Kids are coming from all over.  Have to get there early.

The Big Kahuna fork-balls the keys in your direction with a mumble about safety and keep it in your pants or something, but you don’t hear.  You’re already out the door and in the car, frantically punching the radio dial to KGAL, 920 on that AM dial, though it could just as easily be KFLY or KRKT, the other heavyweights.  Three high-flyin’ rockin’ stations vying for your musical attention.  I mean, they’re BEGGING you to listen!

wailerstreeThe music fades in slowly as the tubes warm up, you slam that puppy into gear and SHAZAM!  You’re on that magic carpet ride to Garageville, known as the Guard Armory.  A square brick/stone building two towns over on the edge of downtown Albany, it houses the facilities for an arm of the Oregon National Guard but in the teen world is a musical mecca.  Some of the biggest rock acts in the Pac Northwest have played there.  Don & The Goodtimes, The Bards, Paul Bearer & The Hearsemen!  And tonight, The Sonics and The Wailers!  It doesn’t get better than this!

As you look for a place to park, you notice groups of teens heading in the direction of the armory, mostly guys but a few girls, too.  It is, after all, a dance.  Five blocks distant, you maneuver the family tank into a too-small spot next to the curb.  It’s tight but it fits and that’s all that matters.  More kids saunter by and you jump from the car and head quickly in the same direction, anxious, The Witch and Out of Our Tree competing for mental music dominance.

You’re slightly out of breath but not sweating as you reach the door.  As you reach into your pocket for the three bucks, your heart stops.  The Money!  But you realize your mistake and check the other pocket and there it is.  Heart beating, you are beckoned through the door and into a vast echoing man-made cavern.  You stand, amazed, and wonder how many kids they could pack in there until you’re bumped out of your stupor by some jerks you don’t recognize.  It’s okay because they have vaulted you in the direction of the risers, a stage of sorts, and right there before you, in most of their glory (the rest still being extracted from the back of a crummy) are the instruments, according to some, of social carnage.  Many times you have laughed at comments heard on the streets or printed in the papers and you laugh once again, because rock and roll crawls under the psychic skin of traditionalists and causes a prickly rash on the order of spiritual blood blisters, and to a red-blooded teenager, rock and roll is worth it for that alone.

The equipment is awe-inspiring:  Two full sets of drums, numerous guitars, amps aplenty.  Two keyboards, but one sticks out— a new Sunn model, almost space-age in design and, wow, ready to be plugged into a beautiful new Sunn amp connected to two cabinets of what has to be either four 12-inch or two 15-inch speakers.  The larger of the two drum sets has a variety of boxes behind it, most notably one holding a full dozen pairs of Ludwig 2B drum sticks, thick as foot-long hot dogs and ready for battle.  This is going to be, you are now convinced, a night to remember.

You move to a side wall and watch the kids mill about, connecting and disconnecting at will, attached and repelled and sometimes repulsed, but always moving.  A tension takes form and like steam in a hot shower slowly soaks teen consciousness into submission and the activity dwindles.  Then, a thwack of a drum and a plunk of a guitar silences the crowd, for battle is about to be joined.  In a group, kids shuffle ever so slightly toward the stage without even realizing.  It is the worker scene in Metropolis all over again, wax robots drawn to the flame.  Then…  the holocaust!

thesonicsccoverThe Sonics open with an instrumental you don’t recognize and a handful of kids float to the center of the dance floor and the dancing begins.  A roadie floats across the stage, a housefly lighting on whatever needs to be adjusted— a cymbal stand here, a mike cord there.  The song seems interminable because what you really came to hear is The Witch and Psycho and the handful of other crunching tributes to insanity for which the band is known.  They move to a somewhat lame version of Have Love Will Travel, a Northwest teen dance standard, and disappointment takes root.  These guys…  they don’t sound like they do on  radio.  Where’s the power?  And you want to jump up on stage and plug their instruments into the much larger bank of amps evidently reserved for The Wailers, but you don’t.  You stand rooted to the spot chosen for the night, toward the right side of the stage and in front of the guitarist’s amp.  By the fourth song, you wonder if maybe there hasn’t been sonics4some big mistake and these guys aren’t really The Sonics when WHAM!  They break into Psycho and the crowd cheers.  Gerry Roslie, the singer, is in good form, but not great.  The voice is stilted and a little wanting, but as the song progresses, he livens to the task.  “Baby…,” he screams, “you’re drivin’ me crazy,” and the more he sings it the better it gets until it is just right.  When it comes to “Psycho,” the crowd shouts in unison and the race is on.


sonics2It is Roslie’s time and he knows it.  Maniac that he is at times, he feeds off of teen spirit and they, in turn, feed off him until the place really begins to rock!  Cinderella follows Strychnine follows Boss Hoss in a hurricane of Sonics hits until the band tops everything off with what the crowd has been waiting for— the band’s signature song, The Witch.


Then, all too soon, just when the blood is starting to flow, it’s over.  Kids on the dance floor stop, mid-jerk and, like the wily coyote in the roadrunner cartoons, fall off the cliff.  Sweaty and breathing hard, they flood the concession stand and the overhead lights come on and you go back to watching.


It’s quite the mixture here, as it is at all teen dances.  Girls in ratted hair and wearing camel-hair sweaters (a classic ’60s guy joke) and guys in skin tight pegged pants.  Long hair has yet to make the scene this far north and most guys have short cuts of some kind— crewcuts or flat tops or the classic mixture, flat top with fenders.  The older guys have longer hair, mostly greased back a la Gene Vincent.  Tons of Brylcreem on those guys’ heads.  Looking around, you wish that Dad would let you grow yours out but you know that ain’t gonna happen.  Still, dinosaur that he is, he let you have the car and that counts more than anything at this point and time.


The Sonics‘ meager equipment is being swept aside and in no time, The Wailers‘ amps and guitars are lined up and plugged in.  Drums are shuffled into position, mikes are adjusted to the tune of “test, test” and finger thumps, and when everything is right, the stage becomes desert, nothing left but the hum of the amps and low lighting.  Once again, the tension builds though a small number of the kids have left, having come for The Sonics and The Sonics alone.  Even at that, the place is crowded and you have to wind your way back through the crowd to reclaim your place in front of the stage.


A couple of musician buddies stop by and give you the lowdown on the sound, which was evidently muddled toward the back.  Too bad, you think, glad that you stayed put because they sounded great from your vantage point.  After they warmed up, that is.


wailers1The lights go down and you notice the drummer snaking his way through cords and equipment to the drum stool, thumping the bass drum and adjusting the snare and cymbals.  Then the DJ grabs a mike and makes a heady introduction, something about all the way from Tacoma (which does seem like a different country, it is so far away), The Fab-you-luss Wayyyy-lers and they, like The Sonics, launch into an instrumental, but this one you recognize— Tall Cool One, a national hit from a few years before.  Another warm-up, you think, and you are right because right after, without missing a beat, it is surf city, some tune straight out of The Ventures‘ songbook.  All the while, their roadie is fluttering about the stage, moving mikes and adjusting cords (duct tape in hand) and talking with Kent Morrill, the keyboard man, until everything is finally to Morrill’s liking, it seems, because at that point the roadie disappears behind the amps only to be seen when needed.


wailerseverywhereNext up is Louie Louie, a song owned by the Pac Northwest, then some rocker you don’t recognize, and a slow song which finishes the set.  You stand there thinking what the hell when you see the drummer replacing and tuning a drum head (those 2Bs must be hell on drum heads) and you realize that this is an unscheduled break for equipment repair.  After tuning the drum, he stands against the lone National Guard vehicle in the lighted cave and wraps knuckles, swollen and bleeding, in multiple layers of masking tape.  Sweat and/or blood evidently makes it difficult for the tape to stick, judging by the number of times he has to wipe his knuckles on his pants until he gets it to take.  A nod to the other guys, lined up and waiting by the huge sliding door behind the stage, and they hit the stage again.  This time, it is different.  Bama Lama Bama Loo sounds as if it is made for Kent Morrill and he steps into it like a biker on acid.  Hair cut short on the left and long on the right, he rocks body front-to-back and side-to-side, the sweat-drenched long hair on the one side slapping so hard that you could almost hear it above the chaotic din.  Things start to heat up.  Kids jump and twist and cavort their bodies into virtual pretzels in a frenzy to keep up, but The Wailers, always wailers1964one manic step ahead, just get louder and harder.  Frenzy, in fact, once a tepid Ventures sound-alike, is now a wall of sound monster.  With a laugh, Morrill and crew rip into what sounds like a Little Richard medley, but you can’t be sure… so many songs sound like a demented Little Richard tonight.  Then, without giving the kids a chance to breathe, Morrill hits the keys, singing about some guy who stole his girl and he’s pissed at that sonofabitchin’ Dirty Robber and that Sunn keyboard dances across the stage toward the front until the roadie vaults from behind the stage to catch it before it topples into the crowd, a sea of teen angst.  I mean, these guys are nothing like their records, you think, until the opening crunch of their new single, Out of Our Tree, pulverizes eardrums.  This is what you expected from The Sonics, you realize, and all of a sudden you have new and immense respect for those old, stodgy Wailers.  Morrill is screaming, a la Roslie, “we gotta be… dun dunh… out of our tree… dun dunh… out of our tree…” and Dave Roland‘s shredded drumsticks are flying in all directions.  Even the usually semi-comatose Buck Ormsby is dancing wildly alongside sax player/vocalist Ron Gardner, joining the chorus which includes guitarist Neal Anderson as well.  It goes on and on until it finally runs out of gas on its own accord, each Wailer falling out as exhaustion takes hold.  Roland knocks over the drum stool, almost falling off the back of the stage.  Anderson unplugs his guitar and tosses the plug onto the stage as his amp gzorks in protest and then falls into its defective transformer act, noise loud but dinted in your already ringing ears.  Ormsby and Morrill bump each other off the stage and it’s over, but no one seems to care.


The kids, pumped up just a moment before, slide toward the door to heed the call of the Tom Tom or Hastee Freeze, two favorite teen hangouts.  You would go too, but that three bucks was the last three dollar bill in your bank and you have to put gas in the car, so you walk out to the car and a slow drive home.  Cars honk as they pass while you’re waiting for a chance to pull out— not at you, but at the world— and before you know it you’re on the road home.  You don’t even turn on the radio.  Your ears are ringing so loud that you couldn’t hear it anyway and you’ve had enough rock and roll for the night anyway.


When you get home, you lay the keys on the kitchen table and head upstairs.  Pulling off the tie, you unbutton the shirt, soaked with sweat, take it off and throw it on the floor.  Removing the T-shirt is harder, the fabric hanging on as if in desperation, but it finally loosens its grip so you can mop yourself down with a towel before flopping onto the bed.  Your head hurts, your throat is dry and you are drained.


As you fade into dreamland, you realize that you now know the names of each member of The Wailers.  That’s good, too, because the alpha dog has always said that you should learn something new each day.  Maybe you’ll tell him tomorrow morning at breakfast.  Then again, it will be Sunday.  Maybe he’ll let you sleep in.

Note:  Maybe it didn’t happen exactly that way, but it happened.  I know.  I was there.

fg44Frank Gutch, Jr. is an international man of mystery, searching high and low for Indie music most of us would otherwise never hear. Check out more of Frank’s writing at rockandreprise



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