Here (Again) Are the Sonics

When the Greatest Rock Band Ever goes back into the studio after forty years, the raw, eardrum-splitting sound is, astoundingly . . . the same.

Illustration by Akiko Kato

On a quiet Sunday in the first months of 2008, I walked into a Seattle recording studio and heard a live guitar solo that I thought I’d never live to hear. Though forty years old, the riff sounded so fresh it was hard to recall that for several decades music critics had argued — perhaps none more adamantly than I — that it represented the prehistoric birth of grunge. The Rosetta Stone of Northwest garage rock, the song I was hearing had been passed back and forth on import albums, tapes and CD burns by the cognoscenti. But rarely, if ever, was it heard on the radio.

The song was “The Witch” and the band was the Sonics and if you’ve never heard of them you’ve missed the world’s greatest rock band. The group formed in Tacoma in 1960 with a couple members still in Wilson High but broke up by 1967. Their historic impact was further diminished by two misfortunes: They sold their name (and PA system) to a show band that dragged the moniker through cocktail lounges for another twenty years. Plus, the year the band called it quits, an NBA franchise picked the name. Consequently, even the question “Have you heard of the Sonics?” came with a paragraph of explanation, a fate that also befell the Fabulous Wailers — Tacoma’s other great band — who had no idea Bob Marley would foul up Internet searches decades later.

Whatever confusion their name caused, however, the Sonics’ place in rock history has been solid. The real band only put out two classic garage albums, but their songs have been covered by Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, the Fall, Mudhoney, the Nomads and countless others.

Though the original albums were regional successes, it wasn’t until 2004 that the Sonics earned the kind of national attention they deserved back in the sixties. That break came when Land Rover decided to use “Have Love, Will Travel” in commercials. The ad agency originally suggested a modern band re-record the song, since so few people had heard the Sonics version. “We weren’t going to have any of that,” says Buck Ormsby, who has long managed the Sonics’ interests. “Anyway, no one could make it sound better than the Sonics.” The commercial went with the original track and it brought the Sonics’ raw garage rock sound to countless new listeners.

The renewed interest helped reignite the band and this past fall, in what some Internet posters called a “miracle,” the Sonics reunited for two shows in New York at the Cavestomp Festival. Those November concerts represented the first Sonics gigs since a 1972 one-off reunion show. The wait was worth it: The concerts drew packed houses and rave press notices. One reviewer wrote the band “was just as earth-shaking, bone-rattling and eardrum-splitting as they were” in their day. “It was like the second coming,” observed Neal Skok, who helped put on the reunion. “The crowd was just crazy — it was Beatlemania all over again.”

The Beatles, by the way, were also fans of the Sonics, along with the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana. Kurt Cobain once told an interviewer that the Sonics’ early recordings were his “favorite drum sound” of all time. And for those who thought the Led Zeppelin reunion was the biggest musical event of 2007, consider that when one journalist went to speak with Robert Plant after their London concert, all Plant wanted to talk about was how upset he was that he’d missed the Sonics reunion show.

“It was like the second coming,” observed Neal Skok, who helped put on the Sonics' reunion. “The crowd was just crazy — it was Beatlemania all over again.”

I was born too late to have seen the Sonics in their day and, like Robert Plant, I missed their reunion show because of a prior commitment. So walking into the studio and hearing the live solo from “The Witch” for the first time felt like a watershed. No journalist had ever before been invited to a Sonics recording session; their last studio session was back in 1966, when I was in second grade.

I walked in as Larry Parypa, the Sonics’ lead guitar, was warming up, laying down riffs. The session was booked to clean up a few tapes from a DVD and live CD of the New York shows. In the studio was famed Seattle engineer Stuart Hallerman, Sonics manager Buck Ormsby and record producer Skok. There was no entourage, no hangers-on. Other than a grey-haired fellow in Levi’s and a sweater, I was the only fly on the wall.

Parypa was playing loud; the Sonics did everything loud. When he stopped the grey-haired fellow came over to me and put out a hand: “I’m Jerry Roslie. Nice to meet you,” he said. He was friendly and open and as we chatted throughout the day, surprisingly modest and humble.

To call Jerry Roslie a rock ’n’ roll legend is the kind of understatement one rarely finds in rock criticism. As the lead singer and keyboard player for the Sonics, his trademark scream on “The Witch” and “Psycho” helped give the band its badass reputation. With a sneering attitude and a low-fi sensibility, he was “punk” before that word had yet been applied to rock ’n’ roll.

Roslie is also one of the most reclusive musicians, which is why the recent reunion of the band is so extraordinary. After the Sonics broke up in the late sixties, Roslie played in another bar band briefly, but by the early seventies he became a phantom. Not only did he retreat from the spotlight, even his fellow Sonics didn’t stay in touch with him. Even as interest in the band revived again in the eighties, he never spoke with any journalists or made any public appearances. He became the Howard Hughes of punk rock.

Jerry Roslie became the Howard Hughes of punk rock.

I found this out firsthand when I wrote a retrospective on the Sonics for The Rocket in 1985. I managed to track down the four other original members of the  band (in addition to Larry Parypa: Andy Parypa, bass;  Rob Lind, saxophone; and Bob Bennett, drums) and interview them all. But no one in the group was willing to give out Roslie’s number. Or they claimed not to have it. Roslie was described by all as a Colonel Kurtz–type character (from Apocalypse Now), holed away and missing.

After my story ran, I did get evidence that Roslie actually existed: he wrote me a letter thanking me for covering the band. There was no return address, which wasn’t much of a surprise. I stuck it on my wall in the Rocket office, alongside many other pieces of rare music memorabilia, including platinum albums and autographs of superstars. To any musician who ever toured the Rocket office, though, it was always the letter from Roslie that was most unexpected.

During a break in the Sonics recording session, Hallerman confirms the esteem Roslie and the band are held in. He talks about touring with Soundgarden. “Chris Cornell would always be listening to music on the tour bus and say that something sounded ‘Sonic,’” he recalls. “I was never sure what he meant. One day I asked him and he told me that he used the term to mean that the music met the standard set by the Sonics. It was as good as the Sonics.”

Back in the studio, it’s Roslie’s turn to add organ to “The Witch.” Parypa looks on and offers encouragement. “Make it bad,” he says, “real bad.” The two men have not been in the studio together for four decades but their camaraderie is strong. Roslie nails the take on the second try, once he gets his vintage Magnatone amp to work correctly. “That’s the secret to our sound,” Roslie jokes.

The other secret seems to be that Roslie and Parypa are playing in different tunings. When Parypa goes back into the booth to cut more guitar, Roslie observes, “I think he’s playing in D-minor and I’m playing in D-major.” One of Death Cab for Cutie’s guitar techs has stopped by to lend the Sonics some vintage equipment; he stands in awe watching Parypa play guitar. “Wow,” the twenty something guitar tech says. “I never realized that the Seattle sound came from Drop-d tuning.”

Roslie and Parypa are both amazed that Hallerman is cutting the session on a hard-drive digital recorder and that any mistake can be corrected. When an additional snare drum beat is required, Hallerman pulls it from a databank and seamlessly adds it to the song. “That’s what you should have marketed, Jerry,” Parypa jokes, “a music bank of your screams.” For a sixty-two-year-old man, Roslie still screams like a youngster but admits that he has more trouble hitting the high notes. “I’m so old,” Roslie laughs, “that when I did my first record, they used a wire recorder.”

He’s exaggerating, but it’s worth noting that the Sonics’ last session was done in two-track, before multi track recording had been invented. Both Parypa and Roslie are perfectionists and they argue that only now are they able to capture the sound they wanted to get down four decades ago.

I ask Roslie if he felt any vindication getting that attention after all these years. “I don’t know,” he says, sounding uncomfortable being in the spotlight. “They treated me like I was some kind of star.” Skok says, “They think you’re a god, Jerry.” “I wish,” Roslie quips. Following the second show the Sonics signed so many autographs the sun began to rise before they left the auditorium.

The New York reunion shows are already legendary on the Internet, and the band seems truly excited to be playing together again after such a long hiatus. Two of the original Sonics can’t tour now; Larry’s brother, Andy, has carpal tunnel and Bob Bennett is in Hawaii, so he’s unable to rehearse. The band has added Ricky Lynn Johnson on drums and Don Wilhelm on bass, both veterans of the Northwest scene. Original sax player Rob Lind is still rehearsing and touring with the band even though he lives in North Carolina, where he is a private pilot. Lind has flown many superstar musicians including Bruce Springsteen, who spent his entire trip asking Lind about the Sonics.

The Sonics are planning European dates for this summer and a Northwest show in the fall when the album and DVD are released. At sixty-one, Parypa looks spry, but there are questions about Roslie’s ability to handle long tours: the singer had a heart transplant just five years ago. Some of his friends say that the transplant played a role in the reunion by making him think about mortality.

In the studio, during a break, Parypa, who works as an insurance adjuster, says he might run up to Dick’s for a burger. Roslie, walking around with a new heart, ignores the idea. “I’m not eating that,” he says.

They decide instead to skip food and to go back to work, making their first day in the studio in forty years a lengthy one. When both original Sonics enter the sound room with Ormsby to reset their amps to cut “Strychnine,” Neal Skok states the obvious: “Do you realize you are watching history in the making?”
Skok gets much of the credit for the Sonics reunion: he and a partner fronted money to the band for the New York show and for cutting the DVD and new CD. At fifty-four years old, Skok was too young to see the band in their prime; he and Ormsby tried for years to get the band to reunite. “They needed to do this,” he says, “because it was an unfinished story.”

Parypa and Roslie start cranking on “Strychnine” and it gets so loud in the studio no one can talk. The two Sonics are playing with their eyes closed, showing the kind of raw power that made their early recordings so renowned.

When the song is over, the two men pause and there’s a smile on Roslie’s face that looks more like that of a teenager than of a senior citizen. “I always thought we sounded better live than on our albums,” he says, “but now I think we’ve got it.” •

Sonics Images, from top: JO Photo; ACE Records UK; ACE Records UK; Courtesy Neal Skok Archive