The Third Bardo’s 1967 song “Five Years Ahead of My Time,” a musical gem by the psychedelic garage band from New York is the eponym for this book, as the many garage bands of the 1960s laid the foundations for American Rock music.
The word “garage” in this context actually describes their foremost place of existence, as those inexperienced and non-professional teenage bands would usually practice in a garage at home. Their line up would not be put together by a record company or a manager.
The label “garage,” subsequently, would describe a certain harsh, untamed, powerful and fuzz guitar-driven white pre-rock sound, very typical of the early and mid-1960s. Even though some of the groups went professional afterwards, the raw and spontaneous sound remained.
Five Years Ahead of My Time the book is also a hymn, or rather, a never-ending praise of the one instrument that powered garage music like nothing else: the electric guitar, mass-produced and easily available. As copying the song originals was sometimes very difficult, those aspiring musicians found other ways, shortcuts in a way, to substitute, finger style picking, or classic guitar training with feedback, fuzz boxes, high volumes and a new minimalist approach to music. With good and mostly affordably guitar amps, forming a band and penning down some simple harmonies, accompanied by just very few chords, was never so easy.
It is important to understand how much modern rock music owes to those pioneers, as they paved the way for most American rock bands that followed, as this was not just a local development. Various estimates state between 4,000 and 5,700 American bands that recorded at least one 45.
“Non-recording groups greatly outnumbered those that recorded, so if we assume that four or five non-recording groups existed for every on that released a record, the number of garage bands that existed in the mid-1960s could range from about 16,000 to 29,000 or even more,” assumes Bovey. “Whatever the actual number, it would be safe to say that the world has never seen an artistic movement as large as 1960s garage rock, and that never before have so many people been active in a subculture devoted to making and enjoying music.”
What came to be known as American garage rock (in later years, as the bands then would probably have labeled themselves pop band or beat group) started already in the late 1950s, when fading Rock’n’Roll fame left a vacuum. This gap first was occupied by smooth (family approved) crooners and sweet and easy carefree pop tunes without any new inventions in sound or speed. Then American TV shows (such as Dick Clark’s American Bandstand) presented live music and dancing and thus reached millions, mostly teenagers.
Being a member of a band suddenly was cool and interesting for many (mostly male) youngsters. One reason for that, as Bovey points out, was that teenage boys experienced that girls of the same age were much impressed by not just the Shadows or the Beatles, but by any male musician. When in the early 60s surf music came up, instrumentals were the first major genre that countless teen guitar bands started out in. Lacking vocal qualities or songwriting talent, covering other instrumental bands was much easier and with a 10 song repertoire such bands would easily play at local high school parties and private gatherings.
The mid-sixties then saw many different styles that evolved from thousands of bands. It would often be a blend of preexisting styles. “…[W]hat we hear in garage pop of this kind [such as Lavender Hour’s “I’ve Gotta Way with Girls”] is the combination of opposing elements, with harmonized pop-style vocals being set against forceful, aggressive instrumental parts.” Other styles such as Dylanesque folk rock, British style R&B or psychedelic directions in music were also pursued, but always holding on to the somewhat harder and rougher approach.
Bovey’s title is truly absorbing: easy accessible, well-informed and convincing, as he lists hundreds of bands, their lineups and several hundred songs to support his expertise chronologically.
Even though there have been many short pieces on US garage bands, and even on regional styles in countless music fanzines, and sometimes a longer chapter in a book, these texts usually concentrate on just few aspects.
Instead, here we find the entire development from humble beginnings of white teen instrumental bands to the peak of the harsh sound of the late 1960s and its reaction to the British Invasion that let explode the number of US garage bands who then added vocals and pop elements. Always relating the process to the historical evolution of rock music and billboard success (or the chart entries of non-garage bands).
Particularly the “sixties punk” bands left a strong impression; there “… most songs tend to be based on British-style R&B because it already had the toughness that American youths were looking for, but garage rockers exaggerated the harshness of British R&B to create a cruder, snottier and more abrasive sound.”
Garage rock, its aftermath in the 1970s (with The Cramps and The New York Dolls) and several small later revivals are brilliantly covered here, also acknowledging the enormous work that countless fans and collectors put into the publishing of fanzines, local histories and CD- and vinyl samplers that made many rare songs accessible for a large audience for the first time. (Without the Nuggets or the Pebbles LPs, to name only two popular reissue series, many bands of the 70s and 80s probably never would have gotten together in the first place).
Bovey also briefly covers the rise of 1960s garage bands all over the world, particularly in Europe and South America. Some recent bands like The White Stripes, The Hives and similar (“backtracker”) groups are – in short – introduced in the last chapter.
The whole music style was just very short-lived, however. “Consequently, the golden age of garage rock was pretty much over by the Summer of Love in 1967, meaning that this vast outpouring of creativity lasted for only three years. During this time, many thousands of young people took part in making music that continues to delight listeners today with its power and charm.”
Recommended work for anybody interested in the history of rock music, guitar bands from the sixties and the (mostly forgotten or underrated) forerunners of 1970s punk rock.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2020
Seth Bovey. Five Years Ahead of My Time: Garage Rock from the 1950s to the Present. Reaktion Books (Reverb Series), 2019, 222 p.