An Introduction to Upper Midwest Garage Rock

An Introduction To Garage Rock Summer The American Garage Rock Road Trip

From last week’s tour through the Mountain States, we now head to the Upper Midwest (minus Michigan, which we’ll cover in an upcoming feature). This week, we’ll be visiting the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Dakotas, uncovering another thirty mostly-forgotten garage rock classics from some of the regions finest groups and record labels.

Like the rest of the nation, the Upper Midwest had a thriving garage scene throughout the second half of the sixties. Centered around the population centers of Minneapolis-St. Paul and Milwaukee – which drew in bands from small towns and rural areas from across the region – upper midwestern garage rock carried the same hallmarks of the cultural crossroads that were true of the Lower Midwest, drawing influence from the scenes that surrounded it from coast-to-coast. As such, there’s no singular sound that defined the region, but a familiarity that will resonate regardless.

Likewise, there were no labels that dominated the region, such as Jerden in the Pacific Northwest or Dunwich in other midwestern locales. Filling the void were a series of smaller imprints, such as Sauk City, Wisconsin’s Cuca Record Corporation, Minneapolis’ Scotty, and Milwaukee’s Dynamic Sound. Major labels tended to gravitate toward the nearby scenes of Chicago and Detroit, and when local upper midwestern imprints like Minneapolis’ Soma Record Co. attempted to parlay regional hits into national chartbusters, they often ran into logistical challenges.

Consequently, only a few of the songs in this feature were actual hits. The vast majority of them struggled to attain even regional airplay, and – as has been the case for many of these pieces – the songs presented here were often sides from singles that proved to be one-offs for their creators. What this installment lacks in success stories is made up for in the form of frustrating close calls and intriguing “what if?” scenarios. Nevertheless, hooks, dynamic performances, and homespun charm can be found in abundance throughout these thirty tracks.

As for the playlists, Spotify does a bit better here than it did in our last few installments. Twenty-two of these songs can be found there. As always, the YouTube playlist below captures all thirty tracks from this feature. Enjoy!


The Gestures

“Run, Run, Run”

single A-side (1964)

A regional hit and modest national success for Mankato, Minnesota’s The Gestures, “Run, Run, Run” is one of the signature recordings of the post-British Invasion garage scene. A blistering tempo provides the track with a surf-y edge, while the group harmonies and solid instrumental performances helped usher it into the realm of the mainstream.

The Castaways

“Liar, Liar”

single A-side (1965)

Another single that made a solid dent on the national charts – and from the same Minneapolis label that had released “Run, Run, Run” – “Liar Liar” provides several indelible hooks to reel in listeners. Matching its titular falsetto vocal part with a call-and-response riff – not to mention some catchy-as-hell organ work – helped The Castaways make it to number twelve on the Billboard charts following its summer 1965 release.

The Novas

“The Crusher”

single A-side (1964)

While it could become really grating upon repetition, there’s something undeniably charming about this admittedly bone-headed single from The Novas. However, the novelty nature of “The Crusher” didn’t exactly set the Minneapolis group on a path for career longevity; I suppose the average listener probably isn’t too into being called a “turkey neck” over and over.

The Boss Tweads

“Goin’ Away”

single A-side (1966)

While their name references the ringleader of the notorious Tammany Hall political machine, The Boss Tweads stick to typical garage rock themes on the A-side to their lone single. “Goin’ Away” matches its prominent organ part with an engaging build/recede structure, and makes for an impressive first showing from the Clarkfield, Minnesota group.

The Continental Co-Ets

“I Don’t Love You No More”

single A-side (1966)

Another Minnesota group with just one single to their name, Fulda’s The Continental Co-Ets were one of the rare all-female bands on the midwestern garage rock landscape. While they weren’t in quite the same league as groups like The Luv’d Ones or The Pleasure Seekers, they strike a solid balance between garage grit and pop hooks on “I Don’t Love You Know More.”

The Torres

“Play Your Games”

single A-side (1966)

While they are among the least populated American states, one could argue that both North and South Dakota punched above their weight class on the sixties garage rock scene. Each state has two entries on this list – and a handful of close calls – but this 1966 A-side from Huron, South Dakota’s The Torres arguably stands as the best of the bunch. “Play Your Games” matches its jangly guitars with charming vocal harmonies and solid instrumental performances, making for one of the strongest midwestern garage singles.

Al’s Untouchables

“Come on Baby”

single A-side (1966)

Hailing from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Al’s Untouchables would relocate to Los Angeles in 1966 in hopes of securing their big break. While stardom proved elusive for the group – who renamed themselves The Orphans upon arriving in California – their last single for the Iowa-based Hunt Records is a slashing garage rager.

The Benders

“Can’t Tame Me

single A-side (1966)

According to the liner notes for the eighth volume of the Back From the Grave series – where this stirring A-side makes an early appearance – The Benders actually operated a nightclub in the basement bowling alley of a hotel in their hometown of Menomonie, Wisconsin. Listening to this track, one can imagine the wildness of the shows that the group may have put on there, as “Can’t Tame Me” thrashes with the best proto-punk of the mid-sixties.

T.C. Atlantic

“Faces”

single A-side (1966)

Though it might sound like we’ve jumped the gun on the psychedelic portion of our program, this outstanding 1966 A-side from T.C. Atlantic is actually placed in rough chronological order. What that means is that this largely-unknown Minnesota (St. Paul Park) group were well ahead of the curve, as “Faces” is unquestionably one of the finest examples of early psychedelia.

‘Twas Brillig

“Dirty Old Man”

single A-side (1966)

Staying in the realm of early psych – the “Jabberwocky”-referencing band name should be a dead giveaway – “Dirty Old Man” is a fascinating recording from Ely, Minnesota’s ‘Twas Brillig. Released by two different labels – albeit with different B-sides – the song failed to gain much national attention, but “Dirty Old Man” would prove remarkably prescient in time.

The Tikis

“We’re on the Move”

single A-side (1966)

Formed on the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin, The Tikis were just one of several identically-named sixties era garage bands. While they would only record one single before heading their separate ways, “We’re on the Move” is a winner, with its blazing pace pairing well with its jangly guitars and ramshackle charms.

The Embermen Five

“Baby I’m Fogettin’ You”

single B-side (1967)

The first of our two representatives from North Dakota – both of which hailed from the town of Minot – The Embermen Five were far more prolific than most of the groups on this list, releasing eight songs between 1966-1968. Arguably the best of them, “Baby I’m Forgettin’ You” features dynamic performances from each member of the quintet, in particular drummer/vocalist Herb Parker Jr.

The Invasion

“Do You Like What You See”

single A-side (1967)

Perhaps inspired by the media-coined term for the wave of British bands to hit American shores after The Beatles arrived in 1964, countless American rock groups named themselves “The Invasion” during the mid-sixties. One of the most notable is this Milwaukee area band, who turned in this melodic proto-punk stomper as the A-side to their fourth, and final, single.

Kama-Del-Sutra

“She Taught Me Love”

single A-side (1967)

The proto-punk sound had reached at least as far north as Duluth, Minnesota by 1967, where this local band cut the blazing A-side to their only single. “She Taught Me Love” balances its biting musicality with lyrics that – at least on a surface level – seem to push against some of the more misogynistic tendencies of the American garage rock movement.

The Litter

“Action Woman”

single A-side (1967)

Undoubtedly one of the most lasting and successful bands on this feature, The Litter formed in Minneapolis in 1966, and would release three full-length LPs before the end of the decade. While they would eventually find their way to both a major label and a hard rock sound, their debut single – released on the local Scotty imprint – is a classic example of the midwestern garage style, with its surging verses giving way to a triumphantly cathartic chorus.

The Fabulous Depressions

“Can’t Tell You”

single A-side (1967)

Despite its small town status, the southern Minnesota town of New Ulm is steeped in a tradition of music. Home to the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame and a glockenspiel bell tower, the self-proclaimed “Polka Capital of the Nation” produced a handful of solid garage bands as well. Among them, The Fabulous Depressions stood out on the local scene. Their lone A-side, “Can’t Tell You” grooves to a sharp rhythm guitar performance and just a splash of punk attitude.

The Cannons

“Day to Day”

single A-side (1967)

Affiliated with the Cuca Record Corporation – a worthwhile obsession of the great Numero Group – the small Night Owl label released a handful of excellent garage pop tracks between 1966-1971. Among the best was this charming 1967 A-side from Madison, Wisconsin’s The Cannons. “Day to Day” pairs group harmonies with ultra-catchy guitar work, and it provided a welcome introduction to Numero’s digital-only Spare Parts: The Night Owl Label.

The Caliphs

“Today, Tomorrow”

single A-side (1967)

Another Cuca affiliate, the Sara imprint operated its own studio in Sauk City, Wisconsin, and recorded several of the area’s prominent garage groups. Among its treasures is this 1967 track from Columbus, Wisconsin’s The Caliphs. “Today, Tomorrow” thrives on its minor-key intensity, and a powerful performance from vocalist Betty Murray.

The Calico Wall

“I’m a Living Sickness”

unreleased (recorded 1967)

Best known for their 1967 A-side “Flight Reaction” – which appeared on the excellent third volume of the Pebbles series – Minneapolis’ The Calico Wall were among the most intriguing groups on the midwestern garage scene. Arguably even better than their “hit” is the haunting “I’m a Living Sickness” – an ominous track that may have actually been the intended B-side, but that didn’t appear until a 1984 reissue of “Flight Reaction.”

The Zoo

“Sometimes”

single B-side (1967)

As the largest city in the region covered in this feature, Milwaukee unsurprisingly produced its share of excellent garage bands. While they only released one single, The Zoo made an impressive showing on the scene – particularly on this moody B-side. “Sometimes” lingers in its melancholic atmosphere – which is defined by a buzzing organ lead – but it never topples over into the banality that sinks countless lesser songs.

The Next Five

“Talk to Me Girl”

single B-side (1967)

While its arrangement is practically stately compared to the preceding tracks on this list, there’s still an undeniably homespun appeal to this excellent B-side from Brookfield, Wisconsin’s The Next Five. “Talk to Me Girl” might not fit the typical garage rock template, but I’ll defer to the authority that is the Pebbles series, where this track served as the opener to its tenth volume.

The Stillroven

“Cast Thy Burden Upon the Stone”

single B-side (1967)

The Stillroven released five singles – and ten total tracks – between 1966-1968, but it’s this B-side that stands at the head of the pack for the Robbinsdale, Minnesota group. Matching a garage-y base with psychedelic accoutrements – including a sitar and smashing glass sound effects – “Cast Thy Burden Upon the Stone” would lend its name to a 1996 anthology of the band’s entire recorded output.

The Shag

“Stop and Listen”

single A-side (1967)

Despite their affiliation with Capitol Records – who released their second, and final, single – Milwaukee’s The Shag were not destined for long-term success. Nevertheless, “Stop and Listen” is a cracking – if arguably a little “professional” – mix of garage and psychedelia. It has rightfully become a compilation mainstay in the decades since its 1967 release.

The Sandmen

“You and I”

single A-side (1967)

Another worthy Cuca/Night Owl production, “You and I” is a charming one-and-done from Slinger, Wisconsin’s The Sandmen. The track’s catchy 12-string riff, solid group harmonies, and sentimental lyrics undoubtedly place “You and I” on the sweeter end of the garage rock spectrum, but its breezy, folky nature give it an undeniable appeal.

The Trenchmen

“Chains on My Heart”

single A-side (1967)

Our second-and-final entry from North Dakota, “Chains on My Heart” was an excellent one-off from Minot’s The Trenchmen. While it stands at a concise two-and-a-half minutes, the track packs a lot into its run-time: swirling keyboards, active bass, group harmonies, and most notably, an impressively shape-shifting instrumental break that emphasizes the production’s more psychedelic elements.

Gonn

“Blackout of Gretely”

single A-side (1966)

Gonn’s debut A-side was already a compilation mainstay before it appeared on the expanded 1998 edition of Nuggets, but that inclusion only cemented its reputation as a certified garage classic. The Keokuk, Iowa group would release just two singles during their time together, but “Blackout of Gretely” made them minor legends with its deft mix of garage fuzz, nascent psychedelia, and proto-punk attitude.

Syndicate

“Next 21st of May”

single A-side (1968)

Yet another Wisconsin band with just a lone single to their name, Oshkosh’s Syndicate – who had released an earlier single as The Cobblers – hit garage rock gold with this 1968 A-side. “Next 21st of May” is draped in a relatively tame production – which likely dulled its potential for commercial impact – but it’s impressive from both a compositional and performance perspective.

The Journeymen

“Realities in Life”

single B-side (1968)

Hailing from Green Bay, Wisconsin, The Journeymen cut a lone single for Tee Pee Records in 1968. Headed by yet another garage cover of “You’re a Better Man Than I,” the group made an even stronger impression with its self-penned B-side. The buzzing guitar hook is the first thing to capture the listener’s attention, but it’s cleverly offset by the jangly verses and stomping punctuations of the song’s bridge sections.

The Chateaux

“Mr. Reference Man”

single A-side (1968)

Backed by an extended cut of the same recording, the lone A-side from Vermillion, South Dakota’s The Chateaux threads the needle between garage and psych rock. Characterized by heavily-effected vocals and guitars, “Mr. Reference Man” separates itself from the clean, folkier sounds that defined a majority of garage recordings from the Dakotas.

Kiriae Crucible

“The Salem Witch Trial”

single B-side (1968)

We end this feature with another Madison band, and another release from the Night Owl label. Kiriae Crucible were not the first garage group to tackle the Salem Witch Trials in song – we covered The Fabulous Frauliens’ 1967 track “Practice of Evil” in our New England feature – but the ominous arrangement serves as an effective backdrop for another examination of one of America’s most notorious historical oddities.

Author

  • Matt Ryan founded Strange Currencies Music in January 2020, and remains the site's editor-in-chief. The creator of the "A Century of Song" project and co-host of the "Strange Currencies Podcast," Matt enjoys a wide variety of genres, but has a particular affinity for 60s pop, 90s indie rock, and post-bop jazz. He is an avid collector of vinyl, and a multi-instrumentalist who has played/recorded with several different bands and projects.

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