sonics at manningIan Amos photo

The Sonics in Sydney? What you got out of this gig depended on what you wanted.

If you longed for a show by the “classic” Sonics lineup of “Boom” and “Here Are The Sonics” albums you were always going to be fresh outta luck. That band hasn’t existed since 1967 or ’68. If, however, you wanted a great rock and roll gig with spirited and often inspired renditions of the band’s back catalogue, you almost certainly walked away with a big fat smile on your dial.

In most minds, The Sonics were the surprise packet of the first DIg It Up! travelling revue in Australia a few years ago. Sunnyboys might have been sentimental favourites, The Fleshtones the dynamic attention-getters and Hoodoo Gurus the much-loved headliners, but The Sonics tore the house apart with a raw and righteous set that belied their superannuant appearance.

Let’s make it plain: The Sonics unwittingly made the template for garage punk in the ‘60s and did their reputation justice in Australia.

The Sonics
+ The Crusaders + The Pink Fits
The Manning Bar, Sydney
30 September, 2016
Ian Amos photos

Now, it’s a fair bet that the vast majority of people who saw The Sonics on that tour didn’t have a clue who was in the band. That’s how non-obsessives roll. Three of the “classic” members were on that tour and they’ve been the band’s backbone since The Sonics reformed for Cavestomp and various European festivals in 2007.

At this point, it’s worth sizing up the Sonics family tree. The original line-up materialised in the relative backwoods of the USA’s Pacific North-West in 1960 and didn’t become the “classic” band for five years. They were the Papyra brothers (Larry on guitar and Andy on bass) with the rest of the guys signing on as hired hands. The best-known “voice” of The Sonics, keyboardist Gerry Roslie, didn’t sing a note for them until FOUR YEARS after they’d formed. Of course The Sonics had re-births aplenty in the ‘70s and at one stage there was a band were doing the rounds under their name with NO original members.

(Incidentally, the Papyra brothers’ mum played bass for the band in its earliest stages. The shit you learn when you’re having a drink at The I-94 Bar…)

Fast-forward to 2015 and The Sonics released a new album, “This Is The Sonics”, that sounded every bit as rocking and fresh as anything they’d previously recorded and they then embarked on a rapturously-received American tour. Comeback complete.

A few months ago the Australian tour was announced with the news that Gary Roslie and Larry Parypa were unable to travel for health reasons and saxophonist Rob Lind would be the only core member making the trip. Keyboardist Jake Cavaliere (The Lords of Altamont) and guitarist Evan Foster (Boss Martians) were announced as touring members. If their band names don’t mean anything to you then you need to go to the right record stores and give up your JB Hi-fi addiction.

Rock and roll as most of us know it is at a watershed. As time flies by, the once occasional argument about what constitutes a “real” line-up of a band has become perennial. The Old Guard keeps falling or hanging up its microphones. Does a band become “non-genuine” when a singer/guitarist/foundation member quits or expires? One answer is: “Horses for courses”.

The answer could sometimes be “I’m fucked if I know”. It really depends what act we’re talking about. More often than not, it’s about the front person. A Stooges without Iggy, for example, is unthinkable. Sure, they could have continued after Scott Asheton had passed but it would have properly been labelled “Iggy Pop and James Williamson”.

Authenticity is relative. If one more Stone rolls away, it just won’t be the Stones. It’s Mick and Keef up front but Charlie is the beating heart. The Who barely get away with being The Two. DTK-MC5 were the MC3 and never pretended to be the full equation. As a tribute to their own back catalogue, they were better than good (and often great) depending on who was doing the vocalising. (I mean, Evan? Really?) Closer to home, if one more Radio disappears it truly will be time for the Birdman to drop off its perch.

The point is that there were doubters before The Sonics returned to these shores and more than a few likely attendees saying they’d stay home. Ex-Lipstick Killer and legendary advocate for ‘60s punk, Mark Taylor, even referred to them online as “The Sonic”. Ouch!

So before Robert Brokenmouth does a word count on this article (763 so far) and claims a ghost-writing credit or back-pay by the line (both of those and four bucks will get you a Gloria Jeans coffee), let’s talk about the gig. There’s something approaching a healthy crowd building inside the Manning Bar as opening act The Pink Fits plugs in.

I hadn’t seen these guys in years (in no small part due to the fact that they’d put themselves on the back burner, except for occasional re-appearances) but they still have all the savagery and venom for which they’re renowned. Wollongong is the disowned cousin of Sydney, although only an hour to its south. The Steel City has a proud history of rock and roll bands and The Pink Fits are one of its best, if nowhere as well known as the others.

pink fits manning

Explosive drum patterns, barbed wire fuzz guitars and stand-and-deliver vocals that are sometimes MIA or secondary to the songs outweigh a lack of flash or stage moves. The songs are snarlingly great, the delivery near perfect. You don’t need to know what covers they threw in because their own material is good enough to overshadow that stuff. The Pink Fits should be to Sydney and the Gong what Eddy Current Supression Ring were to Melbourne. See them before they get bored and vanish again.

The Crusaders have a special place in Sydney’s garage band heart. They were all the rage when there was a viable live scene in this town and when it had a substantial appetite for fuzz, coupled with fun.

That was the ‘90s. Georgraphical moves, a member’s (successful) battle with cancer, other bands, families and day jobs have conspired to make re-appearances since then few and far between and tonight finds them in fine fettle.

The knight tunics have been shed in favour of matching logo T-shirts and the eye masks don’t last long as The Crusaders rip through a surprisingly together set of familiar favourites like “Addicted To Fuzz”, “Wave To The Grave” and “I Dig Your Holes.” The off-handed humour and crowd baiting are still intact.

crusaders masked

They’re not as wild as they used to be or as drunk (the headliner’s choice of Budweiser on the rider might have had something to do with that) but still deliver fuzz and fun in bucketloads.

So to The Sonics. Tonight’s the penultimate show of the tour and there’s a good crowd in by the time they take up their positions behind the massive black curtains.

The first thing to say is that the dynamics of the band we saw in Australia a few years ago are understandably very different. Bassist Freddie Dennis does most of the singing with Roslie absent, and most of the attention focuses on him and Rob Lind who is at centre stage. Freddie is a dead-ringer for late comedian Buddy Hackett but is blessed with a killer blues shouter’s voice.

Dusty Watson (Dick Dale, Agent Orange, Davie Allan, Supersuckers, Boss Martians) has occupied the kit since 2009 and is a force of nature. There’s flash in the way he wields those sticks but there’s also immaculate feel and he powers The Sonics like a supercharged rock and roll band.

Rob Lind does most of the talking and the lanky ex-Vietnam War pilot divebombs into cabaret with his singalong urgings and patter (did he - gasp - really plug the merch stand?) but it’s endearing in an old-school American rock and roll way. And of course his sax playing is formidable as it is fundamental to the sound, and his harp blowing adds colour.

Evan Foster and Jake Cavaliere get their feature spots and the former occasionally over-plays, but that’s balanced by his tone being bang on the money. Cavaliere adds the right touches in all the right places. He might miss fronting his own band I’d bet playing with The Sonics fulfils a dream of a lifetime.

Of course we get all the “hits”. “Psycho” is simply great, “He’s Waiting” drives harder than the original - which was as bossy as they come. How can you not win with songs like “Cinderella” and “Strychnine”? "Sugaree" and "Be A Woman" (given to the band by Dave Faulkner) from the recent album stand with anything they've done.

The crowd laps it up. Grey and receding heads of hair bob in unison. The throng on the dance floor surges with only the occasional pop of an AC joint or ankle. Everyone is here for the right reason and this is one bona fide, no shit rock and roll show. The spirit lives on. If you didn’t have a good time you have only yourself to blame.