Although Hendrix is often thought of as a premiere proponent of the Arbiter Fuzz Face, Leigh Stephens, who achieved notoriety for his band Blue Cheer’s raging 1968 rendition of “Summertime Blues,” was also a big fan.
Photo courtesy of Starman1984.
Along with Vox, Marshall amps broke into the U.S. market in the mid 1960s, and suddenly volume was the name of the game. Blue Cheer’s Leigh Stephens was an early convert to the 100-watt Marshall stack—the perfect outlet for his Strat or Gibson SG, which he usually played through an Arbiter Fuzz Face. The band’s ’67 demo of “Summertime Blues” is a stunning example of how, with just a little power and distortion, a garage band could morph into blues-rock with a psychedelic edge.
“I always liked John Cipollina’s amplifier setup, with the trumpet horns on the top, and a Standel and a Twin,” says Kaye, referring to the lead guitar slinger from the Quicksilver Messenger Service, who became an unsung hero to many fans of the late-’60s San Francisco scene. “But that’s a very high-end sound, and of course everything changed with the Marshall and Hiwatt invasion from England. Blue Cheer were probably the underbelly of garage rock as it developed that heavier sound through the end of the ’60s.”
Jordan picks up the thread, recalling his first encounter with the heavier version of the garage-rock scene in Detroit. “We’d seen the fuckin’ MC5, and Fred [“Sonic” Smith] and Wayne [Kramer] both had Marshall stacks. That really blew our minds.” In fact, the Flamin’ Groovies started sharing bills with the MC5 and the Stooges—both known for their hard-rocking protest anthems (later lumped under the rubric of “proto-punk”)—in early 1970, when the Detroit scene was in full throat. “After that, I knew I had to get a Marshall,” Jordan says. “I used one when we cut Teenage Head about a year later, and the rest of the guys had the Vox Super Beatle amps. Those were real cool, too, because they had that power.”
Expanding Minds, One City at a Time
After the technical leaps made in amplification in the mid ’60s—not to mention the oncoming wave of new and improved effects boxes, including the Echoplex EP-2, the Maestro FZ-1A, and the Vox wah—it made sense that the next frontier for the garage sound would be the musician’s imagination. But those weren’t the only pieces of the puzzle. Just as important were the growing support networks—the scenes—that had popped up in cities all over America.
Another key gear development in the burgeoning garage movement was the release of Vox’s wah pedal.
Photo courtesy of Guitar Center Vintage Collection
Austin, Texas, certainly had one, and bands based in the nearby cities of Houston and San Antonio fed into it. In the mid ’60s, Red Crayola (out of Houston), Bubble Puppy (San Antonio), the Golden Dawn, and the Babycakes were all part of a burgeoning psychedelic scene that united like-minded musicians of all stripes. And oscillating at the center of it were the 13th Floor Elevators.
Led by the wild-eyed, charismatic singer-guitarist Roky Erickson, with lead guitarist Stacy Sutherland by his side, the Elevators defined a sound—duly repped by the way-gone “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” included on the Nuggets set—that was overtly derived from the band’s mind-altering experiments with hallucinogenics. In the liner notes to their 1966 debut, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, co-founder Tommy Hall wrote about chemically altered states and “the essence of the quest,” putting fans on notice that the Elevators weren’t just firmly committed to musical experimentation—they were living it.
The Elevators toured the West Coast in October ’66, and right away they had a profound effect on the San Francisco scene. “The bands of the Bay Area were still growing up on a folk-based thing, so when the Elevators showed up, things changed real quick,” observes ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons in the 2006 Roky Erickson documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me. (During his teenaged stint fronting his own psych band the Moving Sidewalks, Gibbons played a white ’63 Fender Jazzmaster, a garage staple.) “Every musician had so much respect for this crazy thing that they were coming up with. They took it into a new realm, branching out with some of the wildest arrangements.”
Trip-a-delic 6-string masters Roky Erickson and Stacy Sutherland of the 13th Floor Elevators both favored Gibson ES-330s like the one shown here. Photo courtesy of Rock N Roll Vintage.
The kaleidoscopic range of Erickson and Sutherland, who plugged their Gibson ES-330s into Fender amps that were usually outfitted with the essential “Tube Reverb” or “Reverb Tank,” lingers to this day. Besides influencing Texas players like Butthole Surfers’ Paul Leary and the Black Angels’ Christian Bland, the Elevators directly inspired the founding of the annual Levitation festival (formerly the Austin Psych Fest), which has been drawing crowds since 2008.
Meanwhile, in New York City, an entirely different but no less explosive movement was coalescing around the thriving countercultural art scene—one that intersected with the experimental music of composers like Tony Conrad and La Monte Young, and created a super-heated atmosphere that was primed for the Velvet Underground.
Thanks to the support of Andy Warhol’s Factory studio, Lou Reed and the Velvets had a platform to launch their brooding, street-hardened, and decidedly garage-flavored brand of art rock. For Reed, it was a natural progression. He was an avowed fan of the Sonics’ 1965 debut, Here Are The Sonics!!!, and had even written an accidental garage hit in ’64 called “The Ostrich” for an ad-hoc band he assembled under the name the Primitives. (Among the players brought together in the project was Welsh musician John Cale, who would go on to become another founding member of the Velvets.) The song featured a droning guitar with all six strings tuned to the same note—a technique that would later be used in VU.