How the Still-Touring Sonics Gave Rock and Roll Its Edge Fifty Years Ago

Set to perform at the Summit Music Hall on Thursday, June 18, the Sonics are, outside of Dick Dale, the oldest, most influential rock band still touring today. All garage rock as we know it stems from what the Sonics, who hail from Tacoma, were doing when they formed as a band in 1960. Favoring a passionate attitude and confrontational energy over technique was at the core of the Sonics' music and was a clear influence on punk. When artists as disparate as Nirvana, Bruce Springsteen, the Cramps, L7, Mojo Nixon and the Fall, to name just a handful, cite the Sonics as an inspiration, it's safe to say that this group — which got started when its members were just teenagers in a remote corner of the United States — has had a major impact on almost all of the raw rock music that has come along since.

The band's earliest single was the 1964 garage-rock classic “The Witch.” Issued by Etiquette Records, the label run by members of the Wailers (a popular local band that predated the Sonics but went on to imitate the group's style), “The Witch” was backed with “Keep a Knockin'” – a Little Richard single. Quite an auspicious recorded start for a band that didn't seem to have much of a following outside of the Northwest. But the Sonics' tunefully raw songwriting had an immediate impact on music from its home region, as well as on the development of garage rock and punk, well after the band's initial breakup, in 1969.

The early Sonics were part of a subculture of music that was mostly musical — but also visual, as the Etiquette Records releases had a distinctive look, thanks in no small part to photographer Jini Dellaccio, whose photos would go on to grace many classic garage-rock albums. Dellaccio would later be known for her iconic photographs of other musicians, as well. Though she passed away on July 3, 2014, the Sonics remember her fondly.

“She lived in a small area called Port Orchard,” recalls founding guitarist Larry Parypa. “I remember going to her house, where we did most of the shoots. She approached the photos in a different way [than most photographers]. She still talked about it in her nineties. We met her at KEXP maybe five years ago or so, and she still had her camera. Probably the most iconic photos were those she took for our Boom album, where we're silhouetted." 

When talking about the creation of the band's signature sound, Parypa is characteristically humble and cites the lack of technical talent that forced the Sonics to play differently from many of their regional peers in acts like the Ventures, the Kingsmen and Paul Revere & the Raiders. He points out that in the early '60s, no one miked instruments for shows, and the drummer had to play loudly to keep up with the other instruments, with the vocalist basically doing the same.

“I ended up distorting my guitar by turning everything on ten to get that power and distortion, because you didn't have distortion boxes then,” says Parypa. “For whatever reason, the progression we used wasn't the typical 1-4-5 major progression. We started playing 1-3-4 minor progressions instead, and it made things sound spookier. Then Gerry [Roslie] would write songs about strychnine and things when other people weren't thinking along those lines. So, yes, we were quite different from other groups. We had no idea after we broke up that there was any interest in that band anywhere.”

Yet after the Sonics broke up, they became legends in the Northwest and beyond, and their music directly informed the garage-rock revival of the '80s as well as later revivals in the '90s and 2000s. Something about their ragged yet tuneful songwriting and performance style has consistently struck a chord with musicians, even if they don't know the lineage of that sound.

The Sonics had one-off reunions In 1972 and 1980, but in 2007, John Weiss — after years of calling Parypa at home inquiring about the possibility of the Sonics playing the Cavestomp! festival in New York City — finally got Parypa and company to commit to entertaining the thought of a performance after nearly three decades off. Parypa told Weiss that the band would get together and see how things went. The Sonics played the festival and have been back together ever since. And in 2015, the Sonics put out their first album in 35 years, This Is the Sonics, which the group is touring to support.

“What really shocked us was the people in the audience,” comments Parypa about the recent live shows. “We thought maybe silver haired people. But most of the audience [has been] in their twenties. I didn't even know the lyrics, but they [do]. Back [in the '60s], it was the same, but now there's the historical element because the band has a place in rock history. Some of the guys in band are 71 years old. What happens when they're 80? That would be such a novelty!”

If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.