Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968


Hardly a week goes by when this paper isn’t recommending a “performance” by one of the recent crop of name DJs that tour and release their own albums. Disc jockeys have always had a place in the music scene, as far back as the big-band era, but only in the wake of hip-hop and house music have they come to be regarded as a creative force. Primarily they still just play records, but what they choose to play and the atmosphere a certain combination of choices creates can be just as singularly expressive and even influential as what musicians, songwriters, and producers do.

Critic and guitarist Lenny Kaye may never have billed himself as a DJ, but when he compiled the original Nuggets two-record set in 1972, in a sense he was spinning for posterity a set that would go down as one of the most influential “mixes” ever. It inspired hundreds of like-minded anthologies, countless cover versions of the songs, and two generations of bands, from the Fleshtones, the Lyres, and the Cramps on down to the Chesterfield Kings, and the Makers.

The new Rhino box set Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968 packages the first-ever CD issue of the original Nuggets with three more discs that serve as its long-promised sequels. Together they draw a darn-near complete map of the origins of what Kaye, in the original liner notes, called “punk rock.” At the time the term had nothing to do with mohawks or safety pins or even Patti Smith (for whom Kaye would later play guitar); it was merely a phrase being tossed around by writers like Lester Bangs and Greg Shaw to describe the boys next door who tried their best to be the Beatles or the Kinks and failed beautifully.

At the time Elektra Records had already put out the MC5’s debut and the first two Stooges albums, all of which would eventually be considered seminal punk. Their success gave label founder and chief Jac Holzman the idea for a historical rock collection featuring some of the underdogs of 60s American rock, and he recruited Kaye to assemble it. Curiously, nothing on the set would come from Elektra’s own vaults (which held one of the most incendiary tracks on the new Rhino set, Love’s “7 and 7 Is,” produced in 1966 by Holzman himself). Instead Kaye raided his personal collection of 45s. Quite possibly he was the only person on earth familiar with all 27 recordings, and yet all but five of them had actually flashed on the Billboard Hot 100 or Bubbling Under singles charts.

The bands varied tremendously, from tough, Stones-ish punk (Standells, Shadows of Knight, Chocolate Watch Band) to straight-ahead pop (Knicker-bockers, Remains, Magicians, Cryan Shames, Mojo Men) to folk-rock (Mouse, Leaves) to blue-eyed soul (Vagrants, Michael & the Messengers) to midwestern surf (Castaways) to Yardbirds-ish rave-up (Count Five) to Latino “Louie Louie” (Premiers). Ostensibly they all worked within the classic three-chord format, but in fact the Seeds’ awesome “Pushin’ Too Hard” glides by on just two chords and the Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)” contains something like nine. On “Open My Eyes,” the Nazz (featuring a very young Todd Rundgren) opens with a reference to the Who’s simplistic “I Can’t Explain” but goes on to execute a sophisticated instrumental bridge with mathematical precision.

A good example of the lovably offbeat sensibility of Nuggets is “Moulty,” by the Barbarians. The Cape Cod combo’s big tune was the protest punker “Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl” (included on the new box), but for the original set Kaye chose the outcome of a veritable supersession, with backing vocals by the classic doo-wop group the Elegants and–so the rumor goes–instrumental help from the Hawks, aka the Band. If it’s true, they were virtually wasted on a trite inspirational talking record: the Barbarians’ drummer, Moulty, who’d lost one of his hands in an accident, here tells his story, the moral of which is “don’t give up on your dreams.” According to the box-set liner notes Moulty was so upset by its release that he broke copies of the single over the label owner’s head.

At the close of each of the two original records Kaye placed his most flipped-out entries. “It’s-a-Happening,” by the Magic Mushrooms, features Gregorian-esque chanting and some unbelievably goofy apocalyptic poetry. And then there’s the mighty 13th Floor Elevators, with Tommy Hall’s insane electric jug and Roky Erickson’s blood-curdling screams punctuating “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” For a gloriously intense two and a half minutes, Howlin’ Wolf had nothing on these five young men from Texas.

Later to distinguish himself as a producer (primarily for Suzanne Vega), Kaye saw fit to include singles he dug but knew were actually the work of producers working with studio musicians. The Strangeloves, for instance, were nominally Australian sheep farmers–named Miles, Niles, and Giles Strange–who’d struck it rich with a new breed and were now free to pursue rock ‘n’ roll. In reality they were Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein, and Richard Gottehrer, the songwriting team responsible for the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back” and the McCoys’ “Hang on Sloopy.” They were about as DIY as Garbage, and a purist might object to their being mixed in with “real” bands. But Kaye had his own agenda, which was to reprise records that had genuinely moved him as a listener.

For all its brilliance, the original Nuggets also contained a few duds. The Amboy Dukes’ “Baby Please Don’t Go” can’t hold a candle to the version covered by Them (which paired a bratty Van Morrison with hired gun Jimmy Page). Likewise with the Blues Magoos’ “Tobacco Road,” which lacks the protometal clang (Page again) of the Nashville Teens’ treatment. The Rhino box corrects these minor errors with the inclusion of the biggest hits the Dukes and the Magoos achieved–“Journey to the Center of the Mind,” one of the few cuts presented here in stereo, and “(We Ain’t Got) Nothin’ Yet,” respectively.

Another relative disappointment in Kaye’s original lineup was the Blues Project’s “No Time Like the Right Time,” which features one of New York’s original underground progressive outfits uncomfortably trying to sound commercial. Kaye wanted to show off organist Al Kooper’s pop songwriting smarts, which shine best in “This Diamond Ring,” a number one hit for Gary Lewis & the Playboys. But Lewis, son of comedian Jerry, was an extremely popular teen idol with a squeaky-clean image that would disqualify him for the purposes of Nuggets.

Kaye, who’s credited as co-producer for the superbly packaged and annotated Rhino box, still makes fine distinctions between what does and doesn’t count as a nugget. A monster sunshiny hit like the Turtles’ “Happy Together,” from 1967, easily crossed over to easy listening, and got covered by people like Andy Williams and Vikki Carr. You couldn’t go anywhere in the late 60s without hearing it–not a nugget. But the box does offer a grittier side of the Turtles with the brooding Warren Zevon-penned “Outside Chance,” along with a far weirder tune (the “E” Types’ “Put the Clock Back on the Wall”) from the team that wrote “Happy Together,” Alan Gordon and Gary Bonner, who were members of the original Nuggets band the Magicians.

Ironically, in the pre-AOR period that Nuggets covers, most of these “punks” were looking for a hit, so it’s hard to say how accurately any of their tries represented them artistically. But as Kaye wrote in the original notes: “If nothing else they exemplified the berserk pleasure that comes with being on-stage outrageous, the relentless middle-finger drive and determination offered only by rock and roll at its finest.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers; publicity stills of Strangeloves and Barbarians.