The Roots of Indie: ‘Nuggets,’ Volume 1
'Nuggets,' or more accurately, 'Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968,' is essential listening for anyone interested in independent music.
Before we get into this collection of tasty garage cuts, we need to talk about its curator, Lenny Kaye. By 1972, the 26-year-old guitarist had been playing in bands for nearly a decade. He'd even worked with what would become his most famous partner, Patti Smith, backing her at a one-off poetry reading. That legendary working relationship would catch fire a couple of years later -- but that's another story.
Kaye wasn't just a guitarist. He'd been writing since his teens, and by his mid-twenties he was regularly publishing in all of the big music magazines of the time: Rolling Stone, Creem, Crawdaddy, Hit Parader. He even had a side gig as the music editor for Cavalier, a skin magazine that regularly published the likes of Robert Crumb and Stephen King.
So when Kaye pitched Elektra's Jack Holzman on the idea of a compilation of relatively obscure cuts, he wasn't just some guy off the street. As for Holzman, he had a great eye and ear of his own. This is the guy who signed the Doors and the Stooges, after all.
I've always thought of 'Nuggets' as an oldies compilation, but when Kaye and Holzman put the two-record set together, all of the cuts were less than a decade old. Some hadn't even hit preschool age yet. Calling the tracks on 'Nuggets' oldies upon its release in 1972 is a bit like me saying, "Hey, remember Alabama Shakes?"
But music was evolving fast throughout the '60s. Rock and roll was just a teenager -- formats and conventions were far from calcified, so anything was still possible. That's the way during the early years of any new innovation. Think of those images of early airplanes with eight wings: exotic, impractical beasts that bear only a passing resemblance to the boring, efficient, lookalike planes of today.
That's what 'Nuggets' captured -- weird, brilliant inventions of garage tinkerers who were working from their own blueprints. For example, Kaye recognized the genius of Roky Erickson decades before he was embraced by the hip masses:
'You're Gonna Miss Me' is a cult classic, but it was never a true hit. The same can't be said for another influential cut on the 'Nuggets' compilation: the Standells' 'Dirty Water.' The track barely missed the Top 10 when it was originally released in 1966, but there's no denying its garage rock groove. With its swagger, simple structure, and raunchy vibe, 'Dirty Water' is one of the earliest songs cited as an influence on punk rock.
One of my favorite cuts on 'Nuggets' is 'Pushin' Too Hard' by the Seeds. This is another Top 40 track from 1966, and it is the eight-winged prototype of a Third Man record. Look past the dated keyboard solo and you'll find an insistent riff, an angst-filled lyric, and some prototype fuzzy guitar. And check out the haircut on lead singer Sky Saxon. Gabba gabba hey!
The Count Five's 'Psychotic Reaction' has aged much better. You could slip this cut into any alt-indie playlist without question. There's a reason this one hit No. 5 when it came out -- it rocks:
On and on. The original 'Nuggets' contains 28 cuts, and none of them suck. Allegedly the record made its way around early '70s London and had a big influence on punk's first wave, who then turned around and influenced later generations.
Kaye planned a second volume in the series, but it never happened. In the late '90s, Rhino re-released the collection as part of a CD box set with a hundred or so additional tracks. The box set is out of print now, but it's readily available (but not cheap) on the auction sites. A 180-gram vinyl reprint is available, too.
'Nuggets' became sort of a cottage industry. Rhino has added several volumes to the collection over the years, and countless imitators have come along, too. Rolling Stone listed the album in its all-time Top 500 a few years ago.
Why has a compilation album enjoyed such longevity? The notion that we'll be talking about 'Now That's What I Call Music 126' in 40 years seem absurd, so what's so special about 'Nuggets'?
These songs are the weird, eight-winged airplanes defying logic and taking flight.
To paraphrase Bill Clinton -- it's the songs, stupid. Those 28 tracks convey the energy, enthusiasm, and danger of young bands playing for the sheer joy of it; weird, eight-winged airplanes defying logic and taking flight.
If that isn't the spirit of independent music, I don't know what is.