Punk rock antecedents the Sonics are part of a proud history of Seattle music. The breadth of popular regional rock goes back to the heady days of the 1960s. Fittingly, the music of the Pacific Northwest is built out of contradictions and alternative labels that the market would resist until it would become fixtures of their formats, too. The story of our music starts with jazz and blues and moves directly into active party rock between the late-’50s and mid-’60s. That’s where we find the Sonics, so-named for the loud sonic booms heard overhead by our similarly booming airline culture, yet not associated with the basketballing Seattle SuperSonics that arrived in the band’s immediate aftermath. The Sonics are a foundational band not given their due till nearly half a century after their touring run, despite always being on the mind of local musical artists.
The band, formed by brothers, and a revolving door of cohorts, eventually locked in a few supporting members by combining with another band. Everything coalesced, as they explored new sonic ambitions, with early shades of alternative garage rock and punk. Defined by a driving rhythm section with heavy-as-hell drumming, the songs of the Sonics hit with the same thudding brutality as the airplane engines booming overhead any hour of the day. The music takes the locality of Tacoma and puts it into song like musicians would, throughout the following decades, do for Seattle and all of its surrounding areas.
The problem with documenting the material is that there is such a short run that happened so long ago. It happened so long ago and was so often just outside the market, there is little in the way of primary documentation of it happening. Not a lot of live footage or recordings. In the place of substantial primary materials, the images director Jordan Albertsen makes most central in the documentary are old documents of Seattle and Tacoma. It’s not really inspiring stuff. It’s just a sense of place to set the stage for where the music happens.
There is, of course, the saving grace of some really propulsive, exciting music. The music of the Sonics still sounds radical and kicks ass. It’s press and grating stuff, invigorating the old rhythm and blues standards into confrontational anthems of late-teenage aggressive, an early channeling of the rock star spirit, in a time where the rock stars were lovey-dovey and either wrote about love or the beach or both. This radical reinterpretation of what rock could do reached the breaking English bands, of the first wave of British Invasions, left a marked influence on their growing rebellion and defined a new market value for just banging on and blowing in and strumming your instruments hard enough to create a meaningful affectation.
The documentary gets just enough talking heads to reinforce the meaning of the Sonics’ influence. Sure, we all want to hear about how the band influenced Jimi Hendrix, Heart, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, thus inarguably making the music front and center in the Seattle Sound. Sure, we want to hear from the surviving legends of those particular bands and get their insight into the musical history of South Seattle. It’s not deep stuff but it is foundational and important in getting a larger picture of how the specific sound of one of music’s richest cultural epicenters found that shaped that sound to begin with.
Listen to the Sonics 1965 masterpiece “The Witch,” and realize everything that would happen in music was already in place. It may come five or ten or twenty years later, but music would now sound like this in perpetuity. This music accomplishes the most important Seattle tradition of all, pulling from the three-chord structures and rocking vibes of early Black music and honoring it in divine musical collaboration. Take the band’s early covers of “Louie Louie” (technically a cover of The Fabulous Wailers covering The Kingsmen, it’s all circular) and Little Richard’s “Keep A Knockin'” and you can begin to locate and centralize where the vibes are from. Take those ideas and bang the hell out of a drum set and have everyone else keep up.