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Garage Rock A Simple Pleasure For Communication Studies’ Prof

Published: January 17, 2012

Communication Studies’ Ann Johnson took an academic look at the revival of garage rock last year and liked what she saw, eventually authoring an article in the Journal of Popular Music and Society.

When the full-time member of the university since 2003 isn’t researching rhetorical criticism and cultural studies by taking her CSULB classes on argumentation and debate to view the International Criminal Court in The Hague, she enjoys the simple pleasures of garage rock, which she defines as a raw form of rock and roll that was first popular in the United States and Canada from about 1963-67. The term “garage rock” comes from the perception that many such performers were young, amateurish and often rehearsed in a family garage.

Johnson is a particular fan of Long Beach garage bands with special attention to the 1960s local group, The Starfires. Their modest local hits titled “Linda” and “I Never Loved Her” can be heard on YouTube.

“Both songs capture the essence of the garage sound,” said Johnson. “The performers are young men singing about their lack of luck with girls. The emotions range from ‘I love you’ to ‘I can’t stand you.’ The garage sound comes from the recording studios and vintage instruments.”

Johnson believes it is garage rock’s accessibility that explains its survival. “Other bands played keyboard organs they bought from the Sears catalogue because its shrill sound was so highly sought after. The kind of music these bands made had appeal even though it is not the most complex music in the world. It’s good music. It is music anybody can play and anybody can enjoy. You don’t have to be a professional musician to play these songs,” she laughed. “You can play them quite well as an amateur. The sound of the genre lends itself well to sloppy amateurs.”

The music industry was different then and access to the recording studio was more open, she explained. A local record label could generate a regional hit on the local radio station. Years later, dedicated fans collected old 45s from garage sales and street markets. “A true collector would find a song only printed 50 times from a band in Riverside,” Johnson said. “These collectors later compiled what they thought were the best and began to circulate them in the 1980s and ’90s.”

Johnson first became involved with garage rock research simply because she liked what she heard. “Then I discovered a scholarly interest in the general popular culture,” she said. “I published a paper about garage rock in general, then I concentrated on the contributions to garage rock preservation by Steve Van Zandt.”

Van Zandt is best known as a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band in which he plays guitar and mandolin, and as an actor in the television drama “The Sopranos” (1999-2007), in which he played the character Silvio Dante. Since 2002, Van Zandt has hosted Little Steven’s Underground Garage, a weekly syndicated radio show that celebrates garage rock. The show is heard on more than 200 U.S. radio stations and in some international markets. On Oct. 20, the program recorded its 500th show in front of a sold-out crowd at the Hard Rock Cafe in New York’s Times Square.

Through his cultural clout, Van Zandt was able to introduce garage rock to the 21st century. “Now, new bands continue to play these old songs,” she said. “His record label, Wicked Cool Records, helps small bands get out their records which he promotes on his syndicated radio broadcast. He’s definitely done a lot to keep this particular sound alive.” Johnson also points to the San Diego-based rock promoter Mike Stax, operator of the website Ugly Things, a music magazine established in 1983 that covers mainly 1960s garage rock. The title Ugly Things is a pun that refers to the band the Pretty Things.

The garage band revival is so successful, she points out, that Apple offers Garage Band, a multitrack computer recording application that contains a complete collection of audio tools for recording veterans and novices alike. Users can record audio pieces, play with software instruments, create parts using Apple Loops, add effects, mix music and play it back with iTunes.

“It’s getting easier and easier to make home recordings,” she said. “It’s very accessible and it’s fun to do. It is fun forming the band and it is fun for the 10 friends of the band. With three or four bands together, you can draw a crowd. It may not be the most significant musical event since Woodstock but it is fun for everyone involved. You don’t have to have the music industry involved.”

There are nuances to garage rock that only reveal themselves after 30 or 40 hearings. “There are many regional influences in garage band music that are revealed by research,” said Johnson. “You can begin to hear the regional sounds. Southern California had its own garage rock sound. There even was an Inland Empire sound. The San Francisco sound was different from that and the Pacific Northwest sound was different from that. Detroit had its own series of garage bands. The more I research garage bands, the better I can distinguish their sounds.”

Johnson earned her B.S. from the University of Utah, her M.A. from the University of New Mexico and her Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 2000.

The continued existence of garage bands is a testimony to the changing nature of the popular music industry.

“Both the original and contemporary garage bands operate outside the music industry,” she said. “They don’t look for big radio play. Few garage bands achieve that. Most of these musicians define themselves in opposition to the music industry. The bands that go the industry route often don’t make that much money. But when I go to shows featuring three garage bands, I have been able to buy their records after the performance. I give $10 to the guy who made the record.”

There’s still plenty of future to garage rock. “The future of rock is in the past,” she said. “There are so many garage songs current audiences don’t know about. What about the lesser hits of big groups like The Beatles? That is what Van Zandt is doing. He finds old songs and makes them new to modern audiences. That is good because now we have new bands and new sounds but they arrive with a long history. Garage bands can revive that history. We are in a postmodern age of taste and culture. There is rarely one dominant musical genre any more. I hope garage bands can continue to contribute to the many genres out there already. There always will be a thread of rock out there. The future of rock is in the past.”