As variations on the rock 'n' roll theme rise and fall, one simple framework remains constant: the classic electric band lineup (guitar, bass, drums) delivering tight, no-frills songs with indelible melodies and energy to burn. It's variously called “garage,” “punk,” “power pop,” “mod,” or “trash.” Some people also dub it retro, but there's a definite timelessness to this stuff.
Virtually every band begins in some sort of garage; a few choose to stay there. The fledgling Beatles were playing garage rock in Hamburg while prototypes like the Sonics and Paul Revere and the Raiders were playing it in the Pacific Northwest. Fifteen years later, the Ramones, Joe Jackson, and the Buzzcocks raided the garage anew. Fifteen years after that — even as your kid brother's favorite Epitaph band storms the charts with this classic sound — a slew of lesser-known garage acts can claim a nationwide support system and the devoted backing of specialty record labels, such as Washington state's Estrus and New York City's Norton.
In a Bay Area that has always supported a healthy subculture of garage bands, two groups are leading the current two-minute charge. Formed in L.A. in 1988, the Groovie Ghoulies are just now coming into their own, simultaneously embraced by the punk and vintage crowds. The Oakland-based Hi-Fives are enjoying their own success, as Welcome to My Mind on Berkeley's Lookout! label has sold a very respectable 6,000 copies thus far.
The Ghoulies play a hybrid of their two favorite bands, fusing the pop reverence of the Ramones with the “Creature Double Feature” camp of the Cramps. On the self-produced Born in the Basement, their latest CD, this trio of full-grown children from Sacramento offer eight seasonal originals (“Pumpkinhead,” “The Beast With Five Hands”) alongside hopped-up covers of the Partridge Family, the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Love, and Bob Dylan (twice). On Welcome to My Mind, kindred souls the Hi-Fives race through 15 tunes in barely 30 minutes, including a dozen sugar-rush originals, a pair of Billy Childish covers (Britain's answer to Mudhoney, maybe), and the surf classic “Mr. Moto.”
For these musicians, relentless energy often goes much farther than instrumental virtuosity or experimental innovation. Which is not to say the Ghoulies and the Hi-Fives can't play: Unlike many garage bands, both groups have outlasted their early clumsiness without graduating to a different sound.
“I love the energy almost more so than the skill,” says Hi-Fives frontman John Denery. He traces this attitude directly to the legions of '60s groups who actually formed in garages, members teaching themselves to play their instruments by slashing through covers of the radio hits of the day.
“Never was music supposed to be more stupid, more retarded, more dumb,” Denery laughs. His own songwriting collaborations with lead guitarist Chris Imlay revel in goofy turns of phrase that often sound like a European teen hacking away at English as a second language. A typical butchery reads, “Me and my feathered friends eating out of a bulk food bin we're gone”; Hi-Fives song titles include bizarre non sequiturs like “You'll Screw the Pooch” and “I Go Feral in Just 3 Days” (the latter inspired, Denery says, by a classroom lesson on loosed farm hogs).
In contrast, the Ghoulies' lyrics are no mystery to anyone who's watched an episode or two of Scooby Doo. The Ghoulies take the terror out of horror by making everyday life a cartoon; indeed, they're named for a short-lived Saturday morning TV show of the '70s. To prove they're serious about fun, the Ghoulies give away prizes during their shows, a gimmick that quickly became an audience favorite. The dashboard of the Ghoulies' van is lined with cereal-box figurines and little rubber bats that stick on the end of pencils; a foot-high statue of Cornelius from The Planet of the Apes watches over the group's travels like a simian Virgin Mary.
“We love toys,” says drummer Wendy, munching from a bag of french fries. Aren't all these gewgaws an expensive hobby? “We've got day jobs,” she laughs. “When other people are buying cocaine and speed, we're just getting toys,” says bassist/vocalist Kepi, the longest-standing Ghoulie, husband to guitarist Roach. “If you spend $30 a night on heroin, that's six action figures. You pick your drug of choice. Ours is toys.”
“Psychobabble is Kepi's middle name,” Wendy jokes.
While the group's dedication to showmanship is admirable, it runs a distant second to their commitment to pop songcraft. “When we first started playing,” Kepi says, “we were flinging baby dolls and wearing thrift store women's clothing and makeup and pumpkins and blood and all that stuff. We put on a show. But the songs are better than ever and the energy is better than ever, and that's what really matters.”
“I take the Ramones a lot more seriously than a lot of people do,” he continues. “They're one of the reasons I started this band.” Other inspirations include “all the old-school '60s bands, the New York Dolls, and the Sex Pistols,” Kepi says. “Simplicity, energy, emotion — those things are true through all music genres. Those bands last, 'cause they're not doing some whacked-out 'In-a-gadda-da-vida' jam thing. I just try to write a good song, 'cause if you have good songs, the band will last.”
On Born in the Basement, the tune “Back to the Garage” expresses Kepi's basic theory: “Go back to the garage and plug my guitar in,” he keens adenoidally, “and play all those great songs again/ We've heard 'em all a million times/ Engraved inside my feeble mind.” But the band's tastes run farther afield than might be assumed. The album's title track switches back and forth between standard punk double-time and a chunkier, Ragged Glory-style guitar sound, echoing their surprising affinity for such classic-hits figureheads as Neil Young and the Stones.
“I don't want to be a slave to the genre,” Kepi says. “The last time we played an all-ages show, all these little kids were yelling for [Dylan's] 'Hell Time.' If they go research Bob Dylan, that would be amazing.”
In their hometown, the Ghoulies occasionally play acoustic gigs. “We call it our 'jingle-jangle' set,” Roach says. Much less likely to go the unplugged route are the Hi-Fives, with their vintage gear and matching sharkskin ensembles (“We wear suits because we care about our audience,” Denery says).
Formerly the Ne'er-Do-Wells, the reconstituted Hi-Fives (Denery, Imlay, bassist Jess Hilyard, and newish drummer Evan Mendel) have no intention of leaving the punky Lookout! label. In the works is a second full-length record, to begin recording in January, and an interim split single with Canada's Smugglers.
“Growing up, I always bought Lookout! records,” Denery says. He admits that his band's sound is somewhat atypical for the label: “I like being in a band that doesn't sound like a Lookout! band.”
“I don't want to be classified as a retro act,” Denery continues. “We want to be a band that obviously steals from the '60s but is a punk band of today.”
“The Hi-Fives are the best mod power-pop band I've ever heard, bar none,” says David Dubiner, a founding member of the Bay Area's “Secret Society” of scooter aficionados. He first caught the band at a recent gig at Bimbo's, opening for red-hot space-age surf band Man or Astro-Man?. Dubiner suggests that the Hi-Fives have come around at just the right time, on the heels of the breakup of the East Bay's Loved Ones, who were “total scooter boys.” The Secret Society has asked its new favorites to headline the club's annual event, to be held at Bimbo's in early January.
For their high-profile Man or Astro-Man? gig, the Hi-Fives had an inside track: The former president of the Ne'er-Do-Wells' fan club now holds the same position for the Man or Astro-Man? fan club. The garage scene is not only incestuous, it's also supportive and extraordinarily enthusiastic. “A good assessment of garage,” Denery says, “is that it's rock 'n' roll at the fun stage.”
San Francisco's Radio X record label recently released two singles by the Donnas, a group surely at the fun stage: They're 16-year-old girls with a grand total of two live shows under their belts. The group opened for the Mono Men at the Kilowatt a few weeks ago as a last-minute add-on after Estrus' Dave Crider “called to ask if they could play,” says Radio X's Darin Raffaelli, “it being a school night and all.”
Compounding the confusion over pop/punk/trash nametags, Raffaelli calls the Ramones-like Donnas an “oldies” group. In addition to the Donnas, Radio X offers hard-to-find recordings by former local scenemakers the Brentwoods; Crider's Estrus distributes the Brentwoods material, as well as platters by local garage classics past and present like the Mummies, the Phantom Surfers, and the Trash Women.
Three of the groups discussed here are nominees for this year's SF Weekly WAMMIES awards, all in different categories: The Groovie Ghoulies are listed as “Punk,” the Hi-Fives “Rock/Pop,” and the Trash Women “Beyond/Retro/Cabaret.”
“We never say, 'Oh, we're a punk band, or a garage band,' ” the Ghoulies' Roach says. “We usually say we're a mix. I always just say we're loud, fast, and fun.”
“I don't care what people call us,” Kepi decides, “if they're in the ballpark. Punk rock, garage rock — whatever.”
“It's garage-y punk,” Wendy suggests.
“Garunk,” laughs Kepi. Garunk it is.
The Groovie Ghoulies headline a free Halloween garage rock show Tues, Oct. 31, at the Kilowatt in S.F.; call 861-2595.