Monday, April 18, 2011

The Wailers vs. The Sonics--- Battle of the Bands!

I had the headline locked in and was gearing up to write this when the news that Kent Morrill of The Fabulous Wailers had left this mortal coil.  Normally, I am not one to glorify artists beyond what they deserve and I hope this doesn't sound like one of those 'boy, he was swell' after-the-fact pieces, but it will be hard for me to hold back the enthusiasm.  You see, I saw Kent perform one night at the Albany Guard Armory, The Wailers double-billed with The Sonics.

Today, one might think that the armory would have been overflowing with overly exuberant teens ready to kill for a seat, but you have to understand that when anyone played the armory circuit they were playing dances and not concerts.  You also have to understand that The Sonics were not then the Rock Gods that they have since become.  They had records, sure, and received a lot of airplay on numerous stations in the Willamette Valley and that did translate into teen admiration, but stars were who you saw on TV or played the Portland Coliseum and not the bands who carted equipment up and down I-5 to satisfy the results of hormones that floated like pollen on a warm Spring day.  Pacific Northwest musicians like Morrill and Gerry Roslie and Jimmy Hanna and even Mark Lindsay spent a portion of their time packing and unpacking vans and hearses and pickups in order to hock their musical wares and sell a few records.

Yeah, I saw Kent Morrill.  Man, I saw The Wailers!  When I close my eyes, I can see them still, spread out across a stage three platforms wide and drumming the crowd into a fury--- okay, more like providing music for teen gyrations.  See what I mean?  I get carried away.  But it is hard not to when you're sixteen or seventeen and you fall in love with every girl you see and have as background music some of the best rock to ever come out of the Pac NW.  Practically impossible.  Man, I had the car too!  That's right.  Dad let me drive the car two towns over  (a good 30 miles!) and handed me a twenty to boot.  In my world, it didn't get any better than that.

The Armory-----

I drove past the armory just the other day and it's still there, right where I left it.  Unlike many of the other armory buildings which were little more than glorified quonset huts, the Albany armory is a two-story building which could have been a bank building in earlier times, if it had had more windows anyway. Constructed of stone and brick, it seemed huge back in the day.  As I passed in my car, I was surprised to see this square gray structure which may have had a dance floor to accommodate 300 comfortably, 500 if you packed them in like sardines.  The entrance is offset toward the southeast side of the building with two steps leading from the sidewalk to the ticket window.  The door, directly to the left is average size.

As a teen, though, it looked formidable and the guy who took tickets could have been a bad guy from a James Bond movie.  The line was short--- it was a good hour before the music--- and it was still light outside.  I bought my ticket and whoever it was who went with me that night bought theirs as well.  A few steps and a torn ticket later, we were inside.

The stage was there, lit mainly from behind though there was a semblance of overhead lighting.  The chrome on the various guitars and amps were star shells from a distance and the drum set anchored them all.  Kids were already beginning to break into groups and a line formed at the snack bar, tables set up along the back wall.  Needless to say, I wasn't there for the girls, though I certainly enjoyed looking because there were girls from schools outside of my domain and  that was always intoxicating.  I was there for the music.  And judging from the equipment, there was going to be some music, for sure.

Pegged pants, crewcuts, ratted hair and short skirts (some even above the k nee!) were the fashion of the day.  One hundred, maybe two hundred teens gathered in groups of two, three or four, chattering away like one does in such settings.  I guess.  I was too enamored of the amps and guitars to pay much attention.

The Sonics-----

Paul Revere & the Raiders had gone national, The Wailers struggled to have hits (though Out of Our Tree had done very well for them, thank you).  Don & the Goodtimes were turning into a Raiders farm club (Jim Valley and Charlie Coe  were two Goodtimes to make the jump), The Live Five (not to be confused with The Liverpool Five) could not get to the next level in spite of an outstanding pair of regional hits (Yes You're Mine and Hunose) and The Viceroys were on the cusp of heading to the Bay Area for rejuvenation.  The Sonics drove through the hole created by the chaos and built on the amazing radio success of The Witch and Psycho to become the new regional favorite.

When they took the stage, the kids were scattered, many hanging around the snack bar visiting with friends and acquaintances.  The thump of drum and honk of guitar, typical tune-up noises, had them looking stageward and slowly they moved that direction.  Before they could gather, the race was on.  A few plunks and bangs were all The Sonics needed before filling the armory with a powerful, muddied sound.  No mikes on the drums, no mikes anywhere except onstage in front of Roslie.  You didn't make music with a PA system.  You made it with amps and power.  The PA just upped the ante.

I can't remember the order of songs.  There were a couple of instrumentals and a lot of what are now considered classic Sonics tracks:  The Witch, Psycho, Strychnine, Boss Hoss.  It didn't matter.  What mattered was the booming sound and the pounding rhythm.  When these guys played, it was hard not to move.  They blasted through a 45 minute set, maybe, giving the kids little chance to change dance partners between songs.  Pegged pants strained and ratted hair bobbed and weaved and legs stomped.  It was a glorious sight--- hormones on speed dial.  Standing directly in front of the stage toward the right side was just short of painful, the sound loud and brash and at times alternating staccato and whatever the opposite of that is.  The four University speakers on the two PA stands could barely handle Roslie's shrieks and screams and when they tore into Boss Hoss and Strychnine, I remember a chill down my spine.  I expected this--- at least this--- and the whole scene scribbled itself onto my psyche in indelible ink.

All too soon it was over, like the aftermath of an explosion.  Two roadies hit the stage--- the one for The Sonics scrambling to get mike stands and equipment off the stage, the one for The Wailers shifting the instruments and amps from the back of the stage where they had been stacked to the front.  A half hour passed, maybe more.  Then the moment arrived.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Wailers...

I have no idea who introduced them.  Maybe a disc jockey or maybe Ed Dougherty himself, the king of Willamette Valley showcases.  Under the guise of EJD Enterprises, Dougherty had been bringing bands to the teen masses since the advent of the armory circuit.  He worked out of Salem where he was rumored to be a high school teacher,  but we didn't care.  All we cared about were the bands he brought.  Now that I think about it, Dougherty may not have been involved with this at all, but it seems unlikely.  He owned the Willamette Valley when it came to concerts.  But I do seem to remember Etiquette having its own production and booking wing around this time.  Don't quote me.

But I digress.  The point is, The Wailers were introduced in fine fashion and, man, I was floored!  I had just seen one of the better bands I'd ever seen tear the roof off of the place.  Five seconds in, I was seeing a band to raze city blocks!  Hard to tell what the difference was.  The experience.  The confidence.  The years of sharing stages.  Whatever it was, it was definitely on a different level.  You could hear it.  You could see it.  More than that, you could feel it!  And the kids responded.

As the evening progressed, some quit dancing to watch the band, some danced harder--- they all sweated more.  Set list?  Hell, they blew through so many songs so fast, I could barely remember after the dance let alone 40+ years later.  There was a hellacious rendering of Dirty Robber that fried my brain, and the obligatory Tall Cool One.  Of course, Louie Louie (The Wailers' version was the first I'd ever heard, even before The Raiders' and Kingsmen's--- On the single, Rockin' Robin Roberts putting his classic voice over what was one of the sparsest versions ever recorded).

The songs ran together as the night progressed until, finally, they ripped into Out of Our Tree and everyone hit the dance floor.  I even danced, though I never took my eyes off the stage. I mean, The Wailers were wild!   Dave Roland was a monster on the drums, pounding and hammering and almost slashing his way through the song (After the set, I saw Roland backstage leaning against a National Guard truck taping his blistered and swollen knuckles with masking tape, attempting to stop the bleeding).  The rest of the guys were all over the place, stomping and dancing and squeezing as much music as they could out of their voices and instruments.

But Morrill!  Kent Morrill stole the show!  He played a huge Sunn organ with this strange leg system which looked like car exhaust pipes woven together, and he hammered it mercilessly.  Bouncing from side to side in time with the beat, the longer hair on his right side alternately flared out from his head before slapping back and he was smiling and even laughing at times.  He kept the roadie busy just keeping the keyboard on the stage, his incessant pounding causing it to skitter forward with every chord until it was ready to slide into the dancing mass.  More than once, the roadie got there just in time, grabbing it and pushing it back onto the stage, Morrill not missing a beat.

The Aftermath.....

I stayed for awhile after the dance.  I wanted to watch them bag the equipment and load up for the long drive to their next gig.  To say it was anticlimactic is understatement.  My ears rang from the now quelled music, the only sounds muffled because of it (I could barely hear people speak).  I watched the various Wailers pack up their gear, talking little and moving quickly.  They were obviously sweaty and tired and not looking forward to the long ride ahead.  They talked with people who approached them, but they had tunnel vision.  They wanted to go home.  The gig was over.

I looked back at Dave Roland as I turned to exit.  He was peeling the shreds of masking tape off of his now swollen knuckles, tossing the bloody pieces onto the floor.  I noticed he was having trouble making the tape stick when he retaped because of the blood.  His hands looked like he had been in a bare-knuckle fist fight with someone whose head was rough granite.  It was painful to watch.  I decided not to.

I wish I could be sure that that was what actually happened that night.  I can't be sure.  Too many dead brain cells and re-imagined scenes, maybe.  Then again, that's how I remember it.  Man, I dig The Sonics and always have.  They put sounds on record no one else did.  They were great.  But that night, The Wailers were kings!  If Morrill were alive today, I would tell him that.  You guys were kings.....

An aside:  While I have no idea who took the picture of The Wailers used in this piece, I do know that the Sonics photo was taken by Jini Dellaccio, who took pictures of many of the Pac NW bands of that time.  If anyone knows who took the others, please let me know and I will adjust the credits accordingly.

1 comment:

  1. This is the one of the best recounting of a concert of any kind that I've ever read. Alas, Frank, I met you 15 or so years too late to be there. But thanks for turning me on to both bands so many years ago. Permanent bookmark, this one.