The Sonics are Tacoma's enigmatic garage-rock heroes. They infamously disappeared for four decades, influencing big shots like the Hives and the Black Keys in their absence, not to mention an army of lesser known garage bands that emulate their raw sound in beer-soaked taverns around the globe.
Our local legends roared back to life at New York's Cavestomp Festival in 2007; and during subsequent tour stops around these parts – in Tacoma, Seattle and Olympia - they've shown they're still a force to be reckoned with.
I wasn't about to miss last Friday's show in Portland where a rowdy, enthusiastic crowd soaked up “The Witch,” “Cinderella” and "Have Love Will Travel," among the face-melting jams they kicked out at the Hawthorne Theatre. Heck, it could be another two years before they're back onstage in the South Sound. And here's some of what I saw and learned down in the PDX.
How the Sonics joined the British Invasion (sort of)
The Sonics honed their chops locally at Tacoma Armory and the Red Carpet Inn, a defunct rock hot spot that used to be on South Tacoma Way. But singer/keyboard player Jerry Roslie recalled their first big show being in Portland, an opening slot for the Beach Boys at Memorial Coliseum.
But, thanks to Roslie, no one who attended that show likely remembers them as being from just up the road. “We pulled a trick on them,” he said. “They kept yelling, 'Where are you from?' I got a bug up my keyster and I said” - in a prim British accent - “'On behalf of the band and meself I'd like to thank you for coming out tonight.' And they go, 'Aaaaaaaaahhhhhh!! They're from England!' They just went nuts.”
The new kid on drums
Northwest rock vet Ricky Lynn Johnson is out on drums. Los Angeles-based drummer Dusty Watson – a guy who's played with Dick Dale, Lita Ford and the Queers, among others – made his Sonics debut earlier this month at Seattle's Showbox at the Market.
Watson said he first met the Sonics in Italy two years ago when he was out with surf-rock band, Slacktone. They kept in touch, and he was asked to join the band late last year.
Backstage in Portland, Watson expressed admiration for Bob Bennett, the band's iconic drummer from the '60s. Bennett lives in Hawaii and has only appeared at one of the post-comeback shows, at Seattle's Paramount Theatre on Halloween 2008.
“I always just loved the way Bob attacked a snare drum,” Watson said. “What an honor to be asked to hook up with these guys and play with them. It's crazy. I'm really excited about it. I'm really having a good time.”
Johnson had been the Sonics' drummer since 2007. Band manager Buck Ormsby was diplomatic about his departure. “The guys just want to make a change,” he said, “and just get something that had a little different feeling to it.”
Sonics documentary in the works
Local filmmakers Randy Sparks and Justin Peterson have had video crews shooting all of the Sonics' Northwest performances since '08. Little of that footage has surfaced (view one clip here.) But a lot of the concert footage could wind up in a documentary that Ormsby said has started production in Los Angeles and Seattle.
“They're gonna use some of the footage we already shot, and they're interviewing a bunch of people that are fans of the Sonics – other musicians,” he said. “It's about time. They should be known all over – their history, where they came from and who they are.”
Some interview footage has already appeared in Sparks' “Tacoma's Rock N' Roll Legends,” a short documentary he said may be aired by Click! later this year.
Sparks is also looking for rare 1960s footage of the Sonics, the Ventures, the Wailers and other Northwest garage bands to include in a longer version of the film. Anyone with leads can contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.