THE SONICS only recorded two albums of note—1965's Here Are the Sonics and Boom, which came out the following year—but they've gotten a lot of mileage out of them. And of course they have. That debut LP still sounds primal and angry almost half a century later. In 1965, America was in the throes of the British Invasion, and bands were popping up like mildew in garages all across the country. But none of them matched the intensity and darkness of that little band from Tacoma, Washington.
"When we got together, it became much more aggressive—bombastic, as they say," explains Sonics vocalist/keyboardist Jerry Roslie by phone from his home in Tacoma. "It came from inside. Rock 'n' roll—it's the only place you can scream like that without going to jail."
The Sonics released their first single "The Witch" in November 1964—a full year before the Seeds and the 13th Floor Elevators had done anything, three years before the Brits gave us the Deviants, and almost five years before the Stooges and the MC5 lit up Detroit. The single began making the rounds in Tacoma, mostly at high school dances, before legendary DJs Dick Curtis and Pat O'Day at Seattle's KJR got a hold of it, and helped make "The Witch" one of the biggest-selling singles in Pacific Northwest history.
But it didn't receive the same attention nationally—likely because it didn't hype the latest dance craze, and it wasn't about holding hands in the park—and Here Are The Sonics never charted. Scorchers like "Psycho" and "Strychnine" at the time must have sounded like they came from another planet. On these classics, the Sonics' guitars, and especially Bob Bennett's drums, absolutely pummel; Roslie's soulful screech could probably still put the fear of god in a Southern Baptist. Even their covers of Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" and the Contours' "Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance)" transformed soul singles into proto-punk beasts. "We didn't play many love songs," Roslie says. "I just sang about what came natural. My attitude was, 'We're not pretty.'"
The Sonics, like many bands of the Nuggets ilk, didn't last long, and the members would eventually retreat to normal day jobs. Years later, Roslie—now with his own roofing business in Tacoma—was barely aware of the Sonics' influence on bands like the Dead Boys and the Cramps and, of course, that whole grunge thing.
The members didn't consider playing music again until 2007, when they were begged to play the Cavestomp! festival in New York. The Sonics initially declined, but later agreed to give it a go. "We were rough as a corncob, but there were signs of life," says Roslie.
Since then the Sonics have rather quietly toured Europe and the States, although they haven't played Portland in some time. In fact, Roslie only remembers playing a handful of shows here. One of those was a big one, with the Sonics opening for the Beach Boys at the Memorial Coliseum, in which Roslie famously convinced the audience that they were a British band by speaking in a not-so-convincing accent.
Over the past few years the Sonics have drawn people back in—the band is probably more popular now than they were in 1965. "I still think it's a miracle that this band from Tacoma that played garages is still popular," says Roslie. "We were just these kids. [Now] I just forget how old we are, because no one else seems to care."