An Introduction to Upper South Garage Rock

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

From Pennsylvania, we next head south, but not too far south. For the lucky thirteenth installment in our ongoing study of American garage rock, we’re focusing on the seven states of the Upper South: Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. While they shared borders, each of these states brought their own unique spin to the garage rock phenomenon, as the thirty tracks chosen for this feature will show.

In ways social, economic, and political, the states of the Upper South were being pulled in multiple directions during the mid-sixties. While national headlines of recent years had often focused on the states of the Deep South, cities like Greensboro, North Carolina, Little Rock, Arkansas, and Memphis, Tennessee found themselves drawing attention and scrutiny, as the Civil Rights movement morphed from activism, to legislation, to qualified progress. While these tensions were almost never reflected in the actual music of the young, predominantly white, predominantly male, artists represented in this feature, it’s important to understand how the cultural shifts did (and didn’t) intertwine with social ones.

Given its relative proximity to the cradle of the blues, R&B, and soul music, the garage scene of the Upper South inherently drew some influence from those genres, but it also pulled heavily from the equally-adjacent country and folk tradition of the Appalachians. Mixed with sounds from places further afield, Upper South garage bands could assume a twangy rockabilly sound on an A-side, drop a measured folk-pop confection on the flip, release a proto-punk scorcher as the follow-up, with an electric blues track as its B-side.

Of course, a recorded catalog of four songs was a pipe dream for most of these groups. As in previous features, this installment is dominated by bands that never released more than a lone single. Outside of Nashville and Memphis (the former of which was known for a definitively different sound), there were no real hotbed scenes for garage bands to parlay a local hit into national attention. Few of these groups would “make it” in the traditional sense, but the best of their tracks both await and reward discovery.

Once again, Spotify does a decidedly uninspiring job when it comes to representing Upper South garage rock. Sixteen of the thirty tracks are presently available on the still-Neil-and-Joni-free-but-teeming-with-counterproductive-baseless-conspiracy-theorists service. All thirty tracks – including some of the very best ones – can only be found on the vastly superior YouTube playlist below. Enjoy!


The Lost Souls

“Lost Love”

single A-side (1966)

From Jacksonville, Arkansas, The Lost Souls were among the many bands on this feature to release just one single. Their lone A-side, “Lost Love” is arguably best remembered for the high-and-lonesome, wordless harmony vocal that floats above its verses. It’s a simple accoutrement, but one that helps it stand out from the garage rock pack.

The Beau Havens

“Elizabeth”

single A-side (1966)

Another one-and-done, Belle Haven, Virginia’s The Beau Havens released their lone single on the Washington, D.C.-based Gama Record label. “Elizabeth” doesn’t exactly break the mold for angsty garage love songs, but it’s a solid entry in a crowded field of mid-sixties proto-punk.

The Esquires

“Sadie’s Ways”

single A-side (1965)

We’re still in the bare-bones garage stomper territory here, with this offering from Jonesboro, Arkansas’ The Esquires. “Sadie’s Ways” gets by on kinetic energy: its furious pacing, reckless rhythm, and spirited performances all making for a simple-but-effective one-off.

James Bond & The Agents

“Wild Angel”

single A-side (1965)

To Oklahoma – specifically the Tulsa suburb of Sand Springs – we get another excellent one-and-done from James Bond & The Agents. True to their spy film-inspired band name, “Wild Angel” incorporates twangy guitars, propulsive rhythm, and just a hint of mystery – all in the service of a captivating composition and recording.

The Indigos

“He’s Coming Home”

single A-side (1965)

From Seneca High School in Louisville, Kentucky, The Indigos are the only all-female group to appear on this list. Composed by band member Jane Bennett, “He’s Coming Home” may be a little heavy-handed in its anti-war sentiment and “big surprise” reveal, but it’s an effective track regardless. While there’s a polish that was absent from the first few tracks on this list, the fuzz guitar and rough edges keep this one firmly in the garage camp.

The Rondeus

“Anymore”

single A-side (1965)

There’s not much to this lone A-side from The Rondeus, a young quintet who hailed from Mullens, West Virginia. However, one view of the utterly-charming YouTube video – where their bass drum head clearly identifies them as The Rondeaus – will make you an instant fan of the group.

The Long Brothers

“Dream Girl”

single B-side (1966)

Brothers Chris and Gene Long formed the core of this Wheeling, West Virginia group. The country influences that one might’ve expected from a band that hailed from the Appalachian foothills is present and accounted for on “Dream Girl,” but the song also benefits from the rollicking rhythm and twangy guitars that tie it to the garage rock scene.

The Elite U.F.O.

“Now Who’s Good Enough”

single A-side (1966)

Our first Tennessee appearance comes in the form of this young group from the small town of Stanton. While any town of well under a thousand residents would struggle to support anything resembling a “scene,” The Elite U.F.O. were mainstays of local dances. Their talent shines through on “Now Who’s Good Enough,” the spirited A-side of the only record that the band would cut.

The Swinging Machine

“Do You Have to Ask”

single B-side (1966)

From Chesapeake, Virginia, The Swinging Machine present yet another intriguing example of the one-and-done recording session. The band’s 1966 single was headed by “Comin’ on Home,” but it’s the flip-side, “Do You Have to Ask,” that stands as the highlight. Its minor-key progression, tight drumming, frantic guitar solo, and commanding vocals leave the listener wanting to hear more from the long-forgotten group.

The Romans

“I’ll Find a Way”

single A-side (1966)

Incorporating a baroque-inspired arrangement and more nuanced chord progression, “I’ll Find a Way” is an appealing track from The Romans. The three singles that the Little Rock, Arkansas band released made them downright prolific compared to most of the groups on this feature, but the subtle charms of “I’ll Find a Way” push it to the top of their limited catalog.

The Chaps

“Forget Me”

single A-side (1966)

Though they would continue releasing singles into the seventies, it’s the debut A-side from Pine Bluff, Arkansas’ The Chaps which stands as the peak of their discography. Arriving in the spring of 1966, “Forget Me” was on the vanguard of the nascent country-rock movement, but even if it had arrived later, it would still be a wholly worthwhile exemplar of the sound.

The Bad Seeds

“King of the Soap Box”

single A-side (1966)

Landing somewhere on the spectrum between The Byrds and Bob Dylan, The Bad Seeds were briefly label mates with those two folk rock titans. The Erlanger, Kentucky group released their lone single on Columbia Records, and despite its jangly melodicism and socially-conscious lyrics, “King of the Soap Box” would not earn the band a chance at a follow-up.

The Mojos

“What She’s Done to Me”

single A-side (1966)

Another West Virginia band, The Mojos were from the small town of Hurricane. Self-released in the summer of 1966, “What She’s Done to Me” matches its minor-key progression with heavy tremolo and well-deployed backing vocals – all to paint an ominous picture of a love affair gone wrong.

The Grifs

“In My Life”

single A-side (1966)

We remain in downtempo mode with this vibe-y 1966 A-side from Charlotte, North Carolina’s The Grifs. “In My Life” is another prime example of teenage melodrama, albeit one with a little more vivid imagery than the typical garage rock fare. The band would release a follow-up single in 1968, but ultimately went their separate ways shortly thereafter.

The Escapades

“I Tell No Lies”

single A-side (1966)

An excellent debut from the Memphis-based The Escapades, “I Tell No Lies” is best defined by a forceful performance from the group’s rhythm section, and a dizzying Farfisa organ. While the group would land a deal with Verve Records for their next single, “I Tell No Lies” has been relegated to the status of a cult favorite, and a frequent appearer on garage compilations.

Roy Junior

“Victim of Circumstances”

single A-side (1966)

As the son of the legendary country performer/songwriter Roy Acuff, Roy Junior’s signature single is a far more rocking affair than one might expect. Mixing elements of folk, rockabilly, and surf, “Victim of Circumstances” – which was written for Roy Junior by Don Turnbow – is an impressive recording, deserving of its reputation as a garage classic.

The Young Aristocracy

“Look and See!”

single B-side (1967)

Though it was relegated to the B-side of their only single, “Look and See!” has become the best-known track from Tulsa’s The Young Aristocracy. Another Farfisa-forward monster, the briskly-paced track has been a standout of several garage rock compilations over the years.

The Dingos

“You Don’t Want Me”

single A-side (1967)

The second band on this feature to hail from Erlanger, Kentucky, The Dingos were yet another one-and-done, releasing their lone single on the Cincinnati-based Counterpart Records. “You Don’t Want Me” sounds as if it’s trying to check off every box of Garage Rock Bingo – sad-sack lyrics, swirling organ, jangly guitars, and a heavy-fuzz chorus – but it never comes off as calculated.

The Uncalled For

“Do Like Me”

single A-side (1967)

The A-side to their second-and-final single – which actually places them among the more prolific groups on this feature – “Do Like Me” is worthy cut from Manchester, Tennessee’s The Uncalled For. It’s fair to label the track as proto-punk, but the venomous delivery of its misogynistic lyrics place it firmly in the Stones-influenced camp as well.

The Light Brigade

“Baby You Don’t Care”

single A-side (1967)

It was certainly unintentional, but somewhat fitting, that a band called The Light Brigade issued one of the more easily-digestible fuzz rockers as the A-side to their debut 45. The Little Rock-based band would release just one more single in 1969, but “Baby You Don’t Care” stands as the best moment in their small catalog.

The Wig/Wags

“I’m On My Way Down the Road”

single B-side (1967)

From the small town of Hope, Arkansas – birthplace of future president Bill Clinton – The Wig/Wags turned in a solid one-off with 1967’s “I’m On My Way Down the Road.” The track breezes along at a rapid tempo – with a scratchy guitar part leading the way – but picks up both pace and intensity as it barrels toward its conclusion.

The Changing Tymes

“Go Your Way”

single A-side (1967)

I’d like to complain about the annoying spelling of tyme, but A) this Gate City, Virginia group was actually one of at least two bands to call themselves The Changing Tymes; and B) fuzzy tremolo guitar apparently heals all wounds. “Go Your Way” fronted the second-and-final single from the Tymes (ugh…), and it’s a solid track that displays a vaguely psychedelic element creeping into Upper South garage rock.

The Nomads

“Thoughts of a Madman”

single A-side (1967)

A favorite among both garage and psych enthusiasts, “Thoughts of a Madman” is the best-known recording from the The Nomads, who hailed from Mount Airy, North Carolina. It’s a notch wilder than the typical garage single of its time, but with a tunefulness that keeps it plenty palatable. While not the “another TORNADO hit” promised on its label, “Thoughts of a Madman” lives on as something of a cult classic.

The Mercenaries

“Things Found Here”

single B-side (1967)

Another intriguing one-off from a Little Rock group, “Things Found Here” tackles a time-honored garage rock theme: a sense of alienation that one feels as a self-proclaimed “outsider.” While I’m not well-versed in the social standings of its author, The Mercenaries provide an appropriately atmospheric backdrop to this descriptive and introspective track.

One of Hours

“Psychedelic Illusion”

single B-side (1967)

Here’s a favorite from this set, and a track that perfectly straddles the line between garage and psychedelia. Over their four released sides, Lexington, Kentucky’s One of Hours displayed surprising range, and this B-side to the group’s final single stands as the most vivid piece in their catalog. Despite its title, “Psychedelic Illusion” isn’t as blunt as many of its 1967-era psych contemporaries, and it arguably gains strength from a relatively nuanced approach.

Dutch Masters

“The Expectation”

single A-side (1967)

There’s not much subtlety in the warbling open to this 1967 A-side from Little Rock’s Dutch Masters, but “The Expectation” quickly settles into a steady groove. Accompanying that rhythmic strength are similarly impressive touches: thick organ chords; twisting guitars (one twangy, one fuzz-drenched); and a commanding vocal performance.

The Tamrons

“Wild-Man”

single A-side (1967)

Borrowing a motif from the musical theme of The Twilight Zone, “Wild-Man” abruptly snaps into place as a proto-punk stomper. From Concord, North Carolina, The Tamrons seem determined to prove their titular “wildness” on the strength of this track alone; and if the crashing instrumentation didn’t convince listeners, the vocal affectations probably did the trick.

Clock Work Orange

“Your Golden Touch”

single B-side (1967)

Even before Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel was adapted for the silver screen, a number of rock groups named themselves after A Clockwork Orange. Among the first was this band from Paducah, Kentucky, who released their one-and-only single in the summer of 1967. “Your Golden Touch” is another excellent, fast-paced garage-psych track, and another B-side that easily outpaces the intended “hit.”

Evil Enc. Group

“The Point Is”

single B-side (1967)

Back to West Virginia – specifically the small town of Oak Hill – we encounter this excellent 1967 B-side from Evil Enc. Group. Backed by the similarly strong “Hey You,” the jangly guitar and stomping drums of “The Point Is” make it the (slightly) preferable side of the group’s debut single.

The Us Four

“The Alligator”

single A-side (1967)

We end our tour of the Upper South with a rumination on the Deep South. A bit of a throwback to the dance-craze songs of yore, “The Alligator” kicks the tempo up a notch, and brings more than a small helping of proto-punk attitude to the table. Still, it functions as both a dance song and a stomping group sing-along; not to mention a fitting closer for this installment.

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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