Friday, March 16, 2007

The Vertebrats

"The Vertebrats had written the quintessential garage rock anthem. The way they had made a contemporary-sounding garage-rock song was what made that song stand out and inspire us to try our version of it… 'Left in the Dark' is a time-honored, minimalist piece of what garage rock was all about."
Jay Farrar, Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt

The Vertebrats "Left In The Dark"

After punk’s blistering 70s incarnation had cooled, the revolution that had claimed 1976 to be year zero turned out, with the advent of new wave, to be largely the catalyst for looking back rather than ahead. On both sides of the Atlantic, bands with electric guitars were looking to the 60s and, realising that they had been cheated, knew that the Who were far better than the Pistols.

The greatest, most enduring, legacy of punk’s brief, raucous reign was to achieve the Marxist dream of handing the means of production over to the proletariat by demonstrating how easy it was to start an independent record label, and establishing the distribution network to facilitate the dissemination of records.

In America, 60s pop nut Greg Shaw – who’s credited by some with coining the phrase “punk rock” in Creem while writing about garage music – was involved in the reissue of the legendary Nuggets album in 1976. While it was evident to Shaw and others that the nascent punk explosion had been greatly influenced by 60s punk, for reasons of clarity he then called 60s punk ‘garage’.

“In 1979,” Shaw wrote, “I… started a new imprint, Voxx. This label, it was announced, would offer a home to bands working in a purist '60s garage/punk/psych tradition, with low-budget recording and packaging, no advertising or hype-roots music, of a kind not yet very well known, appealing to a chosen few; anyone that didn't already know about it, we didn't want their business! It felt good.

“A lot of this was rhetoric, but my desire to exit the commercial rat race certainly wasn't. What a pleasure it was to tell pestering managers that "we're only signing neo-psychedelic garage punk" and watch them try to convince me their Huey Lewis clone could fit that mold. Eventually, they left us alone.

“At first it was a struggle to find bands to put on Voxx, but a contest to find new talent in the genre…resulted in the first of four Battle of the Garages comps. The label thrived, and became our primary outlet throughout the '80s.”

“Left In The Dark” was on that first Battle of the Garages compilation. There was a ballot sheet with each album inviting purchasers to vote for their favourite song on the album: “As you listen to this album, rate each group on a scale from 1-9 in the categories of "Beat," "Melody," "Lyrics" and overall "Trippiness", using the handy scorecard provided, then compute the total. The group with the highest score is your ‘winner’.”

Whoever I bought my copy of the compilation from hadn’t voted; the clear winners in my mind are The Vertebrats (but, of course, a lesser song by The Chesterfield Kings won). Shaw himself wrote in 1980 of The Vertebrats that, "This is the most exciting demo tape I've heard in a long time."

As well as versions by Uncle Tupelo and The Replacements, Courtney Love has recently recorded a version. Go here to read the full bio and buy the A Thousand Day Dream compilation. You might already have the double 7” that Parasol put out in 92 and will know from that, then, this is a band worth checking out.
The most telling review of the album, as such, comes from guitarist Ken Draznik:

"It's an OK song, but I don't think it's nearly the best song I've written."

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