By Ira Robbins
The other night, I watched with enormous pleasure as a cavalcade of singers (world-famous and otherwise, although virtually all have appeared in some form in Trouser Press) pay enthusiastic and largely faithful homage to roughly half of the songs collected by Lenny Kaye on Nuggets, the double-album Elektra released in 1972. (The New York edition of the album’s Golden Jubilee Anniversary concert, July 28th and 29th, actually included roughly 30 songs, but dipped into the expanded CD box Rhino issued in 1998 and the fiftieth anniversary edition of Nuggets that came out this year.) Patti Smith, Bob Mould, Peter Buck, Juliana Hatfield, Marshall Crenshaw, Ivan Julian, Steve Wynn, Richard Lloyd, Vicki Peterson, Tammy Faye Starlite, Joe McGinty and Mary Lee Kortes were among the performers; members of the band — Lenny, guitarist (and sax) James Mastro, drummer Dennis Diken, keyboard (and jug) player Glenn Burtnick, bassist Tony Shanahan (Kaye’s PSB bandmate) and guitarist Jack Petruzzelli — all took star turns at the mic as well.
Highlights for me: Ivan Julian ripping it up on “Pushin’ Too Hard” (Seeds) and “Talk Talk” (Music Machine) late in the long show, Tom Clark (with autoharp) singing the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic” with infectious joy, Steve Wynn’s guitar-strangling renditions of the Moving Sidewalks’ “99th Floor” and the Thirteenth Floor Elevators’ “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” Edward Rogers’ deftly handling the key change in the Choir’s “It’s Cold Outside” and the Knickerbockers’ “Lies,” as sung and played by Vicki Peterson with assistance from John Cowsill. I might have liked the songs to be played a hair faster, but that’s asking a lot of musicians my age (and older).
Nuggets, over time, has come to be regarded as one of the most essential, influential non-soundtrack compilations of the last century, on a par with Harry Smith’s folk music collection (which has probably sold a fraction as many copies). One element that sets it apart, given the era in which it was assembled, is the fact that it didn’t set out to be a greatest hits of anyone or anything. And while the billing as “Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968” suggests that it surveys a particular type of music, that’s not really the case. What Kaye did, which may ultimately be the set’s significance, was to identify, illustrate and present an aesthetic, one that listeners could grasp intuitively. This was rock history by example, and it conveyed that crucial concept to those who studied it. As a smart and knowledgeable rock critic, Lenny knew what songs and bands belonged together, using some ineffable characteristics — the bands, songs, lyrics, attitude, music — for guidance. That sense of style defined his mission, even as the range of his picks stretched well beyond any simple boundaries or description. (The whimsical operative logic, which Lenny clings to a half-century later, is “It’s a nugget if you dug it.”)
Nuggets resonated with fans, record collectors, critics, fanzine editors — people like Greg Shaw, Alan Betrock and me — and shaped an ethos that was carried forward in countless compilations by Rhino and many other labels in the U.S. and UK. It can also be argued that Nuggets helped future generations do the taxonomic work on genres to come. Punk, for instance, is as diverse a form and concept as Nuggets, but fans reliably know it when they hear, see or smell it.
The core of Nuggets is garage rock — raw, snarly songs about angst and girls played with more energy than skill — and its psychedelic offshoot made by musicians who did a lot of drugs. But the original collection also included pop that wouldn’t be out of place on a playlist with the Beatles (“Lies”), Mamas and the Papas (“My World Fell Down” by Sagittarius) or the Association (“Sugar and Spice” by the Cryan Shames). There’s also the bubblegummy “Run, Run, Run” (the Third Rail), a soul ballad (“An Invitation to Cry” by the Magicians), a cover of “Respect” by Leslie West’s Vagrants and whatever you want to call Nazz’s “Open My Eyes.”
Garage rock may not have the same reputation for excellent songwriting as, say, power pop, but these tunes have endured for five decades without losing much of their appeal. Like Greil Marcus’s “old, weird America,” most of these numbers hold up as rough-hewn examples of brutalist genius. (Okay, “Farmer John” is a terrible song, but still.)
It’s bracing to consider that these tracks, all of them clearly from an era far removed from the one into which Nuggets emerged — 1972’s biggest hits included “American Pie,” “A Horse With No Name” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” — were no more than seven years old at the time, some only four. (And as Kaye actually began working on the set in 1970, some barely two!) That’s a long leap from the garage classics like “Dirty Water,” “Psychotic Reaction” and “Farmer John” that are on Nuggets. (No need to point out that the Beatles traveled from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “I Am the Walrus” in four years: a single artist’s swift progress is a lot more understandable than an entire genre’s adjustment.)
This article ran in Trouser Press Collectors’ Magazine at the end of 1980.
THE ULTIMATE RECORD COLLECTOR
By John Leland
“The one-shot success story is the story of rock ‘n’ roll. I hope it’s not my story, but there’s something pure about it: the one great spurt into the unknown, that great zipless fuck.”
Lenny Kaye — guitarist, critic, father of the neo-psychedelia movement, erstwhile would-be rock superstar Link Cromwell — is above all a rock ‘n’ roll fan. Nuggets is his tribute to what he considers to be the very heart of rock: garage bands banging out the hottest chords they know and catching a glimpse of exquisite limelight just long enough to make them feel like stars.
“Pure, blind thrill. That’s what I like about the groups on Nuggets. Some of them are so pretentious. Some really think that they’re stars, and they swagger. And they’re great, I love that. To me, it’s always exciting to see the enthusiasm and innocent inspiration people bring to their first bands, the first garage combinations.”
And with the enthusiasm of someone who once kicked out the jams with his own early bands, Lenny captured this innocence on the 27 not-so-smash hits that make up Nuggets. “What Nuggets basically deals with is the belief in rock ‘n’ roll, the belief that you can be a rock ‘n’ roller if you desire it enough, that it can illuminate your life however deeply you want it to. I don’t know what rock ‘n’ roll represented to me in those days except for some kind of abstract hope.”
Such an inspirational project, however, came of much humbler origins. It sprouted from a classic combination: a newly acquired tape deck and dozens of albums that were unlistenable save for one dynamite track apiece. Lenny’s hip-critic sensibility and a little help from Lillian Roxon put him in a position to take charge of the embryonic project and make it cook.
“In the summer of 1970, I was selected to be on the Esquire Heavy Hundred list of the most influential people in rock ‘n’ roll. I wasn’t so influential at the time, but I was selected as the rock critic representative. I was mostly a freelancer, but the kind of groups I covered in those days were the hip groups: the Velvets, the Stooges, the MC5. There weren’t a lot of people writing about rock ‘n’ roll then to start with, and I was in the spearhead of rock criticism.”
He attributes his selection to Roxon whispering in the judges’ ears. She shared Kaye’s enthusiasm about rock and its illuminating moments of glory. “When I first came into the rock world as a green writer, she took me under her wing. I hadn’t been on the scene for more than a month when she wrote a story for her Australian newspaper about the writers who were the stars-how when Danny Goldberg walks into the Fillmore East, girls swoon, and when Lenny Kaye, who looks like a member of Big Brother and the Holding Company, goes there, hearts are set aflutter.
“She had this idea that people really were stars, and she flattered and courted me in that sense. She was a very special person. And one of my regrets has always been that she never lived to see me become a rock ‘n’ roll star. I think that would have made her happy.’
Thanks to Roxon, Lenny became a creature in demand in the industry. “Jac Holzman, who was president of Elektra at the time, saw the Hundred and offered me a job in the A&R department, looking into new groups. I didn’t want to work fulltime because I wanted to keep working at Village Oldies and keep writing. I didn’t want to consign myself to the record company syndrome.”
Holzman came up with the Nuggets concept. “One of the things Jac talked about was an album called Nuggets. His idea, born of the fact that he had just acquired a cassette machine and was using it to clean out his record collection, was to take all those albums that had one good track and put all those one good tracks on an anthology.” Holzman had his own personal choices for the album — Circus Maximus, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Serpent Power – but he was willing to give Lenny freedom to pan through his own mind and record collection in search of the perfect Nuggets.
“He gave the project to me and I drew up a list in the winter of 1970 of what I thought would be applicable to such an album. What I put on were some of my favorite songs from the ‘60s that I would wind up playing at Village Oldies — and a lot of those one-shot garage bands.”
These were always the bands Lenny dug: scrappy bands pounding out rock ‘n’ roll at its most elemental. “I’ve always been intrigued by local bands because some of them become national bands, big stars. But on a purely local level exists the beauty of rock ‘n’ roll, the feeling that playing it is a release for the soul, regardless of what happens with it. All these bands hooked into the exhilaration of playing, and they believed in rock’n’roll.”
He had an affinity for this scene because he was part of it. His own record, “Crazy Like a Fox,” recorded under the glamorous stage name Link Cromwell, did not catapult him to rock superstardom as hoped. It died in a dazzling moment of glory after audaciously assaulting the prestigious Top 1000. “I’d been in bands during the Nuggets era, was listening to the radio, was relating to these records as they came off the radio, and incorporated them into the repertoire of whatever band I happened to be playing in.
“I heard most of these in my car. In the summer of ’66, I drove from New York to Chicago to a college newspaper convention at Champagne-Urbana. So I just drove across the American night and listened to the radio and heard all these great songs which I, as a band member, could identify with and make a part of whatever musical awareness I was building up.”
Nuggets is dedicated in part to “the car radios in a very certain metallic blue ’59 Impala and ’63 convertible Super Sport,” and plays like a travelogue of local American rock in the mid-’60s, like an On the Road of popular music. The Shadows of Knight were tearing up the Chicago airwaves when Lenny cruised through, and the Castaways were shaking down Minneapolis, and he caught them on the radio.
“When I went to California in ’67, as everybody and his mother did, I always heard local stuff. I remember hearing the Michael and the Messengers cut (“Just Like Romeo and Juliet”’) in Gary, Indiana and going into the record shop and buying it.” It was a long time before he heard it again. “I didn’t have a record player in the car, so I put it on the back [seat] shelf and found out in San Francisco it had melted into various shapes. And then I had to go look for a totally obscure local record.
“I also remember driving along and hearing the Magic Mushrooms track [“It’s-A-Happening”) on my car radio from the Buffalo station WKBW, just riding along Sunday night — it was the only rock station we could get Sunday nights — and hearing it and saying, “Wow, great song,’ and looking for it.”
For a while, he considered making the regional nature of the material explicit in the programming. “One of the ideas I had was to do a city-by-city anthology: ‘The Boston Sound, 1966′; ‘L.A.,’ with the Byrds and all those bands. And I’d try tell the story of what each city-scene was like. (See Kaye’s proposed L.A. and U.K. lists, appended.) I wanted to call the album Rockin’ and Reelin’ USA; I thought that was a more catchy title than Nuggets. Jac Holzman was right on that, I have to admit.”
Once the list was compiled, the next step was to track down the rights to the songs. Elektra assigned Michael Ochs, to whom Lenny gives a lot of credit, to do the legwork. In the interim, Lenny suffered a falling out of sorts with Elektra: “They weren’t signing any of the bands that I thought were worthwhile, and they were ho ton groups that I was very lukewarm upon. I tried to get them to go for a third Stooges album, but they weren’t into it.”
“Regardless of whether we were on the wrong track, the Nuggets album stayed alive. When I left the company they had the list and supposedly were going after the rights. But when I didn’t hear anything for another year, I wrote off the project.”
But Ochs continued to chase down whatever rights he could, catch as catch can. The obscurity of some of the records caused problems. “Most of these songs were put out on smallish labels, or their rights had passed through several people. One guy wanted to trade the rights to his song for some free studio time, plus have Elektra listen to a new demo. It was like one hand washing the other.
“’Talk Talk’ by the Music Machine was scheduled to be on there, but the owners of that, Original Sound, put out their own oldies albums, and they wanted to trade Elektra for one of the Doors tracks. Which I was all for, but…. Still, they persevered. Finally, in the spring of ’72, Elektra contacted me and said, ‘Well, we have all these songs here, what should we do with them? We have the rights to this song, that song’.” Once the rights had been negotiated, the decisions yet to be made were the fun ones: whether to scoop up the hit single or go for the hipper album cut.
“The Barbarians are an example of choosing the cool cut over the hit cut because ‘Moulty’ didn’t make much of a stir, but ‘Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl’ did. I like it, especially when I see The T.A.M.I. Show with Moulty himself drumming away, clawed hand and all. Blues Magoos (“Tobacco Road”) is another example where I passed up the hit single and went for the track that was my favorite. There’s a point where the song shifts and they change keys. I remember the first time I heard it. I thought the top of my head was going to come off.”
One by one, the songs found their way onto the disc. Some had to be recorded off pressings because the masters were buried. “Oh Yeah” had to be sent back because the master sent to Lenny was without vocals. “We asked for the wrong Nazz selection. We originally asked for ‘Hello It’s Me,’ which I didn’t want. I wanted ‘Open My Eyes.’ If we had ‘Hello It’s Me’ we probably could have placed a sticker on Nuggets that said ‘contains the hit single’ a couple of years later. But I wanted the faster song.”
Despite his not choosing the big hits, he never met with any record company pressure. “They didn’t say anything because at each step of the way I was ahead of them. I handed in such liner notes that they couldn’t say anything against it. There was no one in the company who could out-hit me on the liner notes because I had them covered. Also, they seemed to want to make it a classy package. I think the (Elektra) cover’s beautiful, and that’s the second one they did for it
“I think they were favorably impressed. Every time I brought in a new piece of the package — the liner notes, the programming, the selections — I think they dug it because it was one step hipper than they themselves would have made it. And Elektra was always a company that prided itself on being hip. I don’t think I could have done it at a more traditional company. But they were a company that enjoyed being in the vanguard. They weren’t having that much overt success, but they were living on a tradition. If an Elektra record came out, you could be sure it was cool. In the late ’60s I’d buy every Elektra record that came out, because chances were good that it would be something more substantial than you would get out of any other company.”
As the programming and liner notes started coming together, the pieces fell right into place. What started out as a hazy idea of consolidating some one-good-track albums developed into a coherent package chronicling an otherwise unheralded era. And it all developed before Lenny was quite aware of it.
“At the time it really didn’t seem so ancient. I didn’t have a lot of historical perspective on it. It just happened to be a bunch of songs put out by the kind of white rock ‘n’ roll band that was prevalent in the mid-’60s. They weren’t quite progressive, because that was already in the modern period, and yet they weren’t oldies by any stretch of the imagination. Some of these songs, like the Nazz, came out in 1969; they were only two or three years old. But at that time, an era had finished.
“Only in retrospect did I see how well the album fit together. The album itself runs from East to West; side three is mostly cover versions. I didn’t see a lot of the stuff at the time. I was so close to the time in which the songs came out, so close to the project itself, that only through hindsight have I been able to see how on top of it I was. It took care of itself. Nuggets was one of those rare works where everything came out right, in just the right order.”
Lenny admits that if he had the opportunity to do it again, he would choose the Amboy Dukes’ “Journey to the Center of Your Mind” over “Baby Please Don’t Go.” “But at the time I was a major ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ fan.” Nonetheless, he is completely satisfied with the package and proud of it.
“In some ways, I think the Nuggets story is my story. My Link Cromwell was in a sense my nugget. It came out in the right year, 1966, has 12-string guitars on it, protest lyrics, and sounds like them all. And because of that record, I started listening to the radio, started identifying with all these bands.
“I’ve never made a penny from Nuggets since it came out, but things like that can’t be measured monetarily. To me the most surprising thing is that no matter where I go in this world, someone will come up to me and ask when the next Nuggets is coming out. Every copy was sold to someone who really dug it and got into it, as opposed to the casual record sales that comprise most million-sellers.”
What about a sequel? “At this point in time I’d say there will never be another Nuggets. All the trials and tribulations of Nuggets II are connected with the success of Nuggets I, and with the fact that they did everything right on the first edition and could never get it together for the second.”
After Nuggets came out and met with high critical acclaim and (predicted) low commercial success, Elektra immediately picked up the option for a second edition. Again, Lenny drew up a list of songs, comprised mostly of tunes excluded from the first volume. But this time, Elektra didn’t do the legwork of tracking down the rights. Michael Ochs was gone, and his replacement “didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.” Sire picked up the record but proved no more effective. Problems arose because even though many of the Nuggets II songs were hits, many were out-and-out obscurities.
“A lot of songs that I overlooked for first album because they were too hit-oriented suddenly didn’t seem so popular anymore. The first Nuggets dealt with the middle ground of that music, records that weren’t total hits or total flops. They all landed between the 20s and 60s in the Top 100. The second Nuggets was records set up to tell the rest of the story. It would have the larger hits: ‘Do You Believe in Magic,’ ‘Time Won’t Let Me,’ ‘Walk the Away Renee,’ and totally obscure gimlets such as ‘Spazz’ by the Elastik Band, ‘Black or White’ by the North Atlantic Invasion Force.
“I See the Light,’ ‘Talk Talk,’ ’96 Tears and ‘Open Up Your Door’ are the real core of this record. Without them, I couldn’t have a record.” And without them, he didn’t. Allen Klein of ABKco asked $2500 for the rights to ’96 Tears,’ 10 times what the Nuggets folks were paying. “We lost ‘I See the Light’ just by tracing it through several owners who finally told us we couldn’t have it.”
“I went through every conceivable way to put out a second Nuggets. At one point I was going to go on the radio, play the records from Nuggets II, have someone tape it off the radio and put out a bootleg.”
The Nuggets II records will be missed, as will the liner notes. Many anecdotes are already buried forever. “As I get further from the Nuggets project, I forget a lot of the salient information in favor of how to play a diminished chord. The days when I used to sit behind the desk at Village Oldies and rattle off personnel, date and probable B-side are not as close as they once were.” But Lenny still retains an interesting fact or two about some of the bands.
“The Monocles’ ‘Spider and the Fly’ is a cover version of a song recorded in the late ’50s by Bobby Christian and the Allen Sisters. It’s a take-off on that fly movie with Vincent Price. It’s mine and Andy Paley’s favorite record of all time. We cut our own tribute under the name of the Wicked in 1979, and I currently do it myself.” The Myddle Class: “The Velvet Underground played their first gig at the Summit (NJ) High School gymnasium opening up for the Myddle Class.” And the Choir — one of Greg Shaw’s favorite records — is Eric Carmen in an early Cleveland incarnation.
“’Double Shot of My Baby’s Love’ by the Swingin’ Medallions always exemplified fraternity-rock. Maybe ‘drunken singalong’ is more to the point. Frats were one of the places you could play. It was good money and those guys were definitely into partying. I remember guys who used to go around with a great group called Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts that used to play the college circuit. They were a bunch of eight or ten black guys who used to come out in transparent raincoats and sing dirty songs.”
Lenny knows this scene. “My early bands played mostly colleges, mixers and fraternity parties, which is why I can relate to that. You’d sing ‘What’d I Say’ for twenty minutes and then (pseudo-macho voice), ‘Eh, see that girl from Trenton State, that’s where they teach you to masturbate/What’d I say’.”
Although Kaye would welcome the opportunity to put out his proposed Nuggets II, he says the release of the bootleg Pebbles series relieves him of this Nuggets obligation. “In a sense, I’m glad that Pebbles is out, because it removes a spiritual burden I have to do a second Nuggets. But I couldn’t do an illegal package like that because I’m personally too visible. I’d get busted.”
“I’m in favor of spreading the music. As long as nobody’s going to make any money off it anyway, why not? Why have the stuff buried? Most of these records were pressed in editions of less than 1,000, except for the hits. So, unless you have lot of money to spend, you’re not going to hear it. If no one can track down the rights or negotiate deals, I’m in favor of seeing this stuff on record, so that collectors don’t have to pay through the nose and music stays alive.”
So he’s not going to do another psychedelic Nuggets. Other projects, the however, are still a-ruminating in that mind of his. “I was thinking we could have surf albums, an album devoted to girl groups, an album devoted to any musical genre. I even considered a Novelty Nuggets. Ever hear ‘The Out Crowd’? Last year I wanted to do an album devoted to early ’50s jump saxophone playing like Freddie Mitchell and all those crazy saxophones pointed to the ceiling, blowing on their backs. I just happened to find a cache of really great saxophone instrumentals. One year I was thinking about doing a ’70s Nuggets, like ’76-’78. It’s time for it. I would have put the Brats’ ‘First Rock Star on the Moon’ on it.”