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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

"Garage Rock": Let's All Stop Abusing the Term

Posted By on Wed, Apr 4, 2012 at 4:00 AM

An actual garage rock record.
  • An actual garage rock record.

Will everyone please stop misusing the term "garage rock"?

The phrase -- which once referred to maladjusted social deviants conjuring the feral essence of rock 'n' roll -- is now used by fans and critics alike to indicate any group of vintage retail employees recording mild pop music on a low-tech tape machine. When did perky summertime positivity and stoned kitten admiration replace damaged screeds that obliterated VU meters and explored the fringe of rock's primal potential? And who let this happen?

Granted, pop has its own insidious appeal. Syrupy hooks with no frills can satiate a certain desire in almost any human's psyche. We do not mean to disparage pop groups in any sense. It's the classification of pop bands as garage bands -- and the increasing encroachment of pop and psychedelic tropes upon traditionally savage music -- that we object to.

There is a tendency to dismiss rigid genre categorization as the pastime of pretentious windbag critics, but the thorough discussion of music necessitates naming niche genres. The musical lexicon did not develop because of self-important writers. Terminology begins in the rehearsal space, as musicians strive to realize the songs they've conceptualized, or with listeners in casual conversation, who use their own descriptors. These are then gathered (and sometimes coined) by critics to establish the characteristics of genres. Genre terminology is crucial for constructive discussion of music, and it helps fans identify with a sound. But in today's pop milieu, when we're told that a group plays "garage rock," we are honestly not sure if they are influenced by the Sonics or the Jesus and Mary Chain.

There are certain musical qualities that lead to bands being pegged as "garage rock." But a look back at garage rock's development illustrates that these aspects are only part of the aesthetic, and they can be present on the surface without tapping into the essence of the style. The basic nature of garage is a jarring, urgent variety of rock 'n roll that conveys aberrant social neuroses with a feral delivery and basic instrumentation, all in the minimal length of a rock song.

Poor recording quality is the first characteristic that inclines critics to tag a group as garage, but any variety of rock can be recorded on vintage tape machines. Minimal production is another aspect of what can be called the garage aesthetic, but even in the 1960s, there was an obvious difference between the Trashmen and the Hollies, despite their comparable recording quality. A somewhat deranged, outsider nervousness permeates true garage rock from any decade, and sets it firmly apart from pop that might share a superficial characteristic like recording quality.

Likewise, when a new group is overwrought with disorienting effects, they are quickly declared "garage" by the press and casual listeners. But we shouldn't categorize a band solely by its use of reverb-heavy vocals or its abuse of a fuzzbox. Psychedelic music has traditionally employed the same effects as garage, but even in the 1980's -- when both psychedelic and garage rock enjoyed a resurgence -- their difference was clear. Groups like Echo and the Bunnymen or the Dream Syndicate were psychedelic, in that they used such effects to create lush, pastoral tracks. Meanwhile, the work of Billy Childish or The Lyres was strictly garage, since they used those effects to cultivate urgent, savage, and simplistic rock 'n' roll.

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Sam Lefebvre

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