If one asked a Seattle sports fan their opinions of the Sonics, their reply could be, “Yes. Jack Sikma, Dennis Johnson…Those Sonics were the champs! Now, nobody remembers them.”
But ask this same Sonics question to a patron at the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle, and the answer could be, “That Tacoma band should’ve been huge! Now, nobody remembers them.”
But even though the group, which took their name from the scores of jet engines roaring at the Boeing factory in Seattle, had a sound that wound up not being built for the masses, their massive, raucous sound was at least appreciated by Kurt Cobain who noted: “The Sonics recorded very cheaply on a two-track and they just used one microphone over the drums, and they got the most amazing drum sound I’ve ever heard. To this day, it’s still my favorite drum sound.”
Indeed, countless groups have tried to copy their distorted, sound but never quite have. These include the White Stripes who cite them as their main influence. The Black Keys tried but only sound like a Sonics’ tribute band with their take on the group’s “Have Love Will Travel.”
Yes, the Sonics’ sludgy wall of sound was near impossible to reproduce; it was as unhinged as the noise that roared out of lead singer Gerry Roslie. His was a vocal that sounded as if a mad rock scientist had combined Iggy Pop’s snarl and Little Richard’s scream to form one of the more distinctive voices in rock.
Their aural onslaught of The Sonics caught the attention of Jordan Albertson who turned his passion into an eight-year obsession to finally make a 2018 documentary called, Boom! A Film About the Sonics. The flick didn’t get off of the ground until Jordan happened to meet Pearl Jam’s guitarist, Mike McCready, in a Montana restaurant. Jordan recalled that Mike called Heart’s Nancy Wilson right on the spot and got high-profile names in the documentary which attracted enough money to get it funded.
If only the Sonics had made some funds back in the day, the original band wouldn’t have dissolved after three albums. But they were certainly a name in the Northwest for a brief spell in the mid-’60s. Their awesome song, “The Witch” became a local hit. Bassist Andy Papyra noted: “We just played a homecoming dance and Pat O’Day (the region’s biggest DJ) came in the next week to do one of his sock hops and give a few records away. A bunch of kids kept requesting ‘The Witch’ so I guess he finally played it and the place went nuts. The next day, Pat started playing (the record on the air). The single then became the all-time best-selling local rock single in Northwest history. O’Day later told me that the song had reached number one in sales, but the station policy said it was too far out to chart at number one. The station only played it after kids got out of school.”
Buzz around the band was building and in 1966, they opened for big-named groups including the Beach Boys, The Kinks, Mamas and Papas, and The Byrds. A bigger label beckoned that promised them nationwide exposure so they signed with Jerden Records which had a distribution deal with ABC-Paramount Records. In 1967, the group was sent to Los Angeles to record their third album, Introducing the Sonics. Unfortunately, they were paired with producer/engineer, Larry Levine, who had worked with hotshot producer Phil Spector. Phil’s perfectionist recording ways rubbed off on Larry and rubbed the band the wrong way. Roslie recalls: “We went down to L.A. to record and it started to become clear that the way we played, which is just loud and very direct, wasn’t what the engineer wanted. So he said to our guitarist, ‘Oh you don’t have to play like that.’ He was referring to all the feedback we liked to use and the dark tones we had. So he said that they would add what they wanted back in the booth, post-recording. So that was frustrating because he wasn’t trying to get our sound; he was trying to get what he wanted. We went in there, these crazy kids from the Seattle area, and all of a sudden they were trying to mold us into something we weren’t.”
And not many liked the flawed, finished product, which ultimately ended the band.
Guitarist Larry Parypa went into the insurance world, his brother Andy became a teacher, and sax player Rob Lind went on to become an airline pilot. Director Jordan Albertson added: “Rob had an amazing story where he had Bruce Springsteen on the plane and Bruce said ‘Rob Lind? From the Sonics?!” Bruce did an okay cover of the Sonics’ take on Richard Berry’s (writer of “Louie, Louie”) “Have Love Will Travel.”
No word if Lind asked Bruce before their flight, “Have love? We’ll travel.”
Photo: The Sonics (Getty)