Half a Century On, The Sonics Still Go Boom
You may think the Seattle rock ‘n’ roll scene reached its apex in the early ’90s with the emergence of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the Screaming Trees and Mudhoney. Certainly, that was an epic sound heard around the world, comparable on the Richter Scale used to measure the severity of earthquakes to the eruption of Washington’s Mount St. Helen’s volcano in 1980.
But if it’s gargantuan forces of nature from America’s Pacific Northwest you’re talking about, there may have never been anything comparable to the emergence of the Sonics, more than 50 years ago, a blistering rock ‘n’ roll band from Tacoma whose mega-watt output could have kept the electrical turbines of that metropolis and its Seattle neighbors supplied with juice until hell froze over.
Larry Parypa, who founded the Sonics as a junior high school student in 1960, reveals that the birth pangs of his band were anything but earthshaking. “It was just my guitar and a snare drum played by a friend named Mitch Jaber,” he says. “All he could do was play ‘boom-chick/rata-tat-tat’ until his dad bought him a high-hat cymbal for Christmas. We played pretty simple stuff in the early days: Duane Eddy and Ventures songs.”
Mitch Jaber’s dad, says Parypa, came up with the band’s name. “Some people think our name came from the aircraft industry (the Boeing factory is located between Seattle and Tacoma), but it was so long ago I can’t even remember if that’s true,” Parypa laughs.
He recalls vividly, however, being awe-struck the day his uncle Ray dropped by the house with an electric guitar, not long before the Parypa family moved from Tennessee to Washington. “I couldn’t believe it,” says Parypa. “Jeez, it was beautiful!”
With the Parypas relocated to Tacoma, the Sonics were soon fleshed-out to include a stand-up bass player and Parypa’s mom on rhythm guitar. The quartet piled into the family car to play their first live engagement, some friend’s birthday party, in 1960.
“We played for several years with another drummer,” says Parypa. “Then we got a sax player and some singers – a girl named Marilyn Lodge and a guy named Ray Michaelson – who would come on during particular parts of our performance. But we were still basically an instrumental band.”
Parypa had a brief encounter in 1963 with one of Tacoma’s hot young guitar-slingers, Jerry Miller, who would go on to fame and modest fortune with San Francisco psych-rock legends Moby Grape. “He was three or four years older than me, and he lived next door to Rob Lind (about to become the Sonics’ tenor saxman) in north Tacoma. He came all the way down to south Tacoma where I lived, and I went down into the basement to try to play with him. It was really intimidating, he was so much more advanced than I was.”
With Larry’s older brother Andy now on board as bass guitarist, the Sonics began to upgrade their personnel. “Andy went to see a local band called the Searchers, whose guitar player was Jerry Miller, and who played the same stuff we did,” says Parypa. More to the point, the Searchers boasted sax player Rob Lind, drummer Bob Bennett and keyboardist Gerry Roslie. “Gerry wasn’t really singing much back then,” says Larry. “Andy went down there in 1964 to see if he could hire one or two of them.” He decided to take all three. “Once we got those three guys it instantly took a turn,” says Parypa.
Since the Sonics were now making a bigger live splash in Tacoma, they attracted the attention of Buck Ormsby of hometown heroes the Wailers, who had hit nationally in 1959 (and again in 1964) with a spellbinding, pre-surf instrumental called “Tall Cool One.” Ormsby was looking to record local talent for his Etiquette label in a pop music world whose doors had been blown off their hinges by the British Invasion of 1964.
“I went out to Bob Bennett’s basement where they were rehearsing, and they were doing all covers,” says Ormsby. “I asked them if they had any original songs, and they told me they had maybe one. It was called ‘The Witch’ and the lyrics were like one of those dance-craze records – like ‘do the mashed potatoes’ or ‘do the funky chicken.’ I told Gerry, ‘I wish you would change the lyrics because I really like the music. Then I’ll come back and see you again.’ By the time Ormsby returned, “The Witch” had been transformed from a simple dance tune into something abrasive enough to cause a brushfire in a cemetery. “They had it all worked out, “says Ormsby. “I said, ‘That’s it! Let’s go!'”
Between Ormsby’s first and second visits, the Sonics turned themselves into a band whose sound indelibly burned into the brain. You heard Sonics songs long after the music had stopped. Whether it was by some Faustian band agreement, or fear of being left at the starting gate, Parypa suddenly discovered how to make the guitar sound like he’d always envisioned. It was the amp-melting strains of Link Wray that had haunted Parypa’s dreams since he’d first heard “Rumble” as a young kid.
“That distortion made everything sound bigger,” says Parypa. “I loved the brittle tone that Link Wray had. It wasn’t like he was using a Fender Jazzmaster. He had this cheesy little amplifier. Man, it was cool!”
Just like Dave Davies of the Kinks had used a razor blade to slit his amp’s speakers in those pre-fuzzbox days of DIY distortion, Larry found a novel way to make his guitar sound messier. It was all in the pick, he says. “I’d get a screwdriver and put grooves in it, so when it would go across the strings I’d get these weird harmonics. It sounded really nasty.” Once Parypa found the paint-peeling guitar sound of his dreams he became an advocate of “power distortion: turning the amp up to 10” and would go on to blow up many amplifier speakers. “Fortunately we could get ’em re-coned by a guy down in Bremerton – real fast, over the weekend, and real cheap.”
The rest of the band, too, had to pick up their game. “We were getting on Bob to not just play the drums but beat the living hell out of them, especially the bass drum because they didn’t mic bass drums back then. I still have never heard anybody play a bass drum like that. He would break pedals he beat ’em so hard.” And Rob Lind, too, began to blow his horn in a bone-rattling way that was even raunchier than the tenor sax breaks from old Fats Domino records.
The most magical transformation, of course, came from Gerry Roslie, who turned from an occasional (and reluctant) vocalist into the bastard offspring of Little Richard. It was the heart-stopping shriek of someone who’s accidentally pulled the hair-dryer into the bathtub along with them on Saturday night. “It just started happening,” says Parypa of Roslie’s unearthly howl. “He didn’t even know he could do that, himself. In one of his prior groups they were running out of material one night, so somebody asked him to sing, and he said, ‘I don’t sing.’ But he did and everybody kinda liked it.”
By the time the Sonics went into Seattles’s 5th Avenue Commercial Studios in the summer of ’64 to cut “The Witch,” their first Etiquette single, Roslie was ready for his close-up. “We were so loud we scared the hell out of those guys at Commercial Studios. They didn’t believe it,” recalls Ormsby.
The Parypa brothers first heard the Sonics’ debut single played on local boss-rock station KJR while driving around in their car. It was, claims Larry, an underwhelming experience. “I didn’t like it at all. I dunno, it didn’t sound the way it should have sounded. I was sorta embarrassed by it. It didn’t seem to have the drive it had back in the basement when we rehearsed it. I felt the energy was lacking.” It’s an odd dismissal of a classic that most would agree is a cornerstone of the original garage-rock movement.
Nevertheless, the Greater Northwest public adored the record, fueling its rise to the number two spot on the local charts, just below “Downtown” by Petula Clark. “They wouldn’t play ‘The Witch’ during the ‘housewives’ time slot,” chuckles Larry, still irked by Petula’s road-boulder that stopped their debut disc just short of the summit. And, Larry insists, the song’s lyrics were not cooked-up so kids in their cars could fill in the blanks with ad libs like: “She’s gonna make you itch/’Cause she’s a bitch!” (Much like the Knack’s big hit would later engender the pubescent, back-seat response: “My Sharona/She’ll give you a bona!”)
Ormsby would soon find another place to record the Sonics, Audio Studio on Denny Way in Seattle, just a stone’s throw from the Space Needle. It’s the room where the band would cut its heart-stopping first LP in 1965, Here Are The Sonics!!! Audio Studio was run by Kearney Barton, an engineer more receptive to the raucous new teenage sounds. “It was just a little studio but it worked perfect for what we were doing,” says Ormsby. “Kearney was an engineer with perfect mics, and I told him this was gonna be a little louder than you’re probably used to. We’re gonna have to hook it up a little differently. Some people think we hung one mic in the room but that’s not true. Everything was precisely set up to get that sound. We even had the sax player stationed in the bathroom.”
“Kearney was really good. He let you do anything you wanted,” adds Parypa. “If you wanted distortion, he wasn’t back there moaning and pulling his hair out. He just went with it.”
Although the floodgates of great originals weren’t exactly thrown wide open, Gerry Roslie and Larry Parypa could still come up with a great tune when the chips were down. “They didn’t have a whole lotta songs,” says Ormsby, “but they created ’em when I asked them: ‘Psycho,’ ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Boss Hoss,’ ‘He’s Waitin’ and ‘Strychnine.’ Perfect stuff! When I asked them to do ‘Louie Louie’ they said, ‘No, no, no! We don’t want to do ‘Louie Louie!’ So I told them they had to add their own slant to it, give it the Sonics’ personality.”
Anyone shocked by the diabolical material of Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath years later, wasn’t listening closely when the Sonics cut ‘He’s Waitin,'” all about a guy toting a pitchfork with horns on his head waiting around the corner with your name at the top of his list. Or to “Strychnine,” the lethal drug glorified by the eternal Sonics couplet: “Some folks like water, some folks like wine/But I like the taste of straight strychnine!” There was no warning in fine print included with the song, urging kids to not try this in the privacy of their own homes.
“How Gerry came up with ingesting strychnine as a recreational drug … I mean nobody in Seattle was doing that!” says Parypa, whose task it was to give the band’s material a unified sound. “Gerry would come in with an idea or some lyrics, and it would be him and I, hashing things out as to how the song would turn out. I know it sounds stupid, but my job was to ‘Sonic-ize’ the song.” Parypa finally even agreed to put their spin on Kingsmen/Paul Revere & the Raiders/Richard Berry chestnut “Louie Louie,” which they played with substitute chord changes. “I’d take a song and kinda rough up the corners on it,” says Parypa. “We started doing minor progressions, which made our material sound really sinister.” Even the Beach Boys-style, surf ‘n’ drag Sonics original, “Boss Hoss,” got “Sonic-ized.”
When it was time to cut the second Sonics single, “Psycho,” the band seemed to thrive on the pressure of a looming deadline. “We were playing this place called The Red Carpet in Tacoma,” recalls Parypa. “We had a recording session the next morning, and we didn’t have anything ready. Everybody in the band had input. It was ‘Let’s do this, let’s do that.’ Gerry kept changing the lyrics, like he always did, and we got it done.”
The second album, Boom, was cut in 1966 at Wiley Griffith’s studio in Tacoma. “It was a real funky place in an old store with egg cartons nailed all over the walls,” says Ormsby. “First thing I did was ask if we could take the egg cartons down for a liver sound, and the guy said, ‘Yeah, if you put ’em back up when you leave.'” Parypa recalls that “the atmosphere was different at Wiley Griffith’s. Gerry and I were in need of songs again, so we went outside to come up with our version of ‘Louie Louie.’ I started drop-tuning to make it sound really raspy. I did that on ‘Cinderella,’ too. It made for a lot dirtier sound.”
Parypa recalls the Sonics playing the fabled Spanish Castle, located halfway between Tacoma and Seattle, and being approached by a guitarist who wanted to sit in. The boys quickly told the young Jimi Hendrix that it just wasn’t going to happen. “Of course, that was before he was really Jimi Hendrix,” Parypa groans.
Though the Sonics opened large arena shows in both Seattle and Portland for a head-spinning array of talent that included the Beach Boys, the Righteous Brothers, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Kinks, Jay & the Americans and Herman’s Hermits, their touring schedule was limited to a quick foray to Cleveland, followed by three shows with Freddie Cannon in Pittsburgh.
A 1967 recording session at Los Angeles’ storied Gold Star Studios had mixed results, says Parypa. “We didn’t have anything prepared ahead of time, and some of the stuff we cut there wasn’t properly ‘Sonic-ized.'” The pop music wheel was again in full spin with psychedelia now the happening sound, and the Sonics felt like fish out of water. “We tried to do a little of that jamming,” says Parypa, “but it just wasn’t us.”
“It was over. The Vietnam War draft was hanging over everybody’s head,” says Parypa. “We were all in college. I wish we hadn’t, but the band actually tried to become more legitimate. We’d always had this suspicion that we were illegitimate. We saw some people playing with horns, and we tried to do that, too, to get into the mainstream. Then we’d get up there and start screaming about strychnine. I mean, what was the point?”
And that was pretty much it for the Sonics, the greatest of the Pacific Northwest bands, left with what they felt were unfulfilled dreams. When Jon Weiss, founder of New York garage-rock festival Cavestomp, called with an offer for the Sonics to reform in 2007, the band accepted, and original members Gerry Roslie, Larry Parypa and Rob Lind, with bassist Dan Wilhelm and drummer Ricky Lynn Johnson filling in the gaps, played to rave reviews at the reconstituted Cavestomp in Brooklyn.
The Sonics, as you must realize by now, are back at it again, as loud and dangerous as ever, according to press accounts of recent live shows. The band still boasts original members Gerry Roslie on keyboards and lead vocals, Larry Parypa on lead guitar and vocals and Rob Lind on tenor sax and vocals, with new recruits Freddie Dennis on bass and Dusty Watson on drums. And their new album, This Is The Sonics (Artist) has received raving and drooling notices from anyone who matters.
Fifty years ago, standup comedians pondered what the hell the Rolling Stones would be doing when they turned 70. Well, the jury may still be out on Jagger, Richards & Co., but nobody’s complaining about the Sonics getting back into harness. A louder and more intense bunch of senior citizens you’d be hard-pressed to find. Believe me, the Sonics have still got it. And you’d expect nothing less from the band that former Nomads frontman Niklas Vahlberg once referred to as “the missing link between Little Richard and the MC5.”
Photo by Merri Sutton.