Various Artists – Nuggets (review)

Various Artists – Nuggets – Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968 (40th anniversary edition) (Rhino) review

Arguably the most important compilation ever assembled gets the remastered treatment

Rewind 40 years ago:  FM radio was dominated by the progressive rock of bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, who were adding elements of classical and jazz, and stretching the boundaries (and lengths) of pop music.  Meanwhile, the AM dial was full of the easy-going sounds coming out of Southern California.  Flying in the face of all this came Nuggets – Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, a compilation of mostly-forgotten almost-hits and near-misses released originally as a 2-LP set from Elektra Records back in 1972, and now back in print thanks to Rhino Records.

The importance of Nuggets cannot be overstated.  For one, it was one of the first collections of rock music that wasn’t purely hit-driven (think: K-tel).  In addition, it helped define a new genre of music, “garage rock,” which in turn influenced the punks of the Seventies, the garage revivalists of the Eighties, and the new generation of bands that occupy Sirius/XM’s Underground Garage today.  But, to assume that the Nuggets compilation was only about this one style is to miss the point entirely.

In 1972, the head of Elektra, Jac Holzman, was talking with rock aficionado Lenny Kaye about their love of the original AM singles of the mid-Sixties.  Because radio wouldn’t play anything over three minutes, bands had to pack whatever they wanted to say in a really short amount of time.  But, this resulted in some of the most creative music of all time.  Problem was, just a few years later, much of it was already being forgotten.  The two decided to put together a collection of these under-appreciated classics and put it all under the umbrella of Nuggets.

Contrary to popular belief, the original Nuggets was not a garage-rock / punk collection.  Sure, a lot of the bands featured here fall under that category – the Electric Prunes, Chocolate Watchband, the Standells, the Seeds, and 13th Floor Elevators certainly qualify.  But, Nuggets was more about great songs, than fitting into any one genre.  Todd Rundgren’s early band the Nazz certainly weren’t a garage band, especially judging the high production value of their song “Open My Eyes.”  The Strangeloves weren’t even a band, technically – they were made up of three record producers.  Same goes for Sagittarius – actually the brain child of Beach Boys collaborators Gary Usher, Terry Melcher, and Bruce Johnston – hardly classified as punk, right?  The point is, Nuggets was a collection of songs that sounded great together.

In fact, it’s the wide scope that makes Nuggets so enjoyable.  Alongside the sneering punk numbers, are the Beatles’ knockoffs “Lies” from the Knickerbockers, and “Sugar and Spice” from the Cryan Shames.  Sometimes, the band’s signature tune is left off in favor of a lost treasure.  The Shadows of Knight hit near the top of the charts with their cover of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” – yet it’s the followup single, “Oh Yeah,” that’s included here.   Same with the Blues Magoos, who’re known for “We Ain’t Got Nothing Yet,” but turn in a decent rendition of “Tobacco Road” for this set.  Then, there’s the sad-luck story of the Vagrants, who recorded a juiced-up version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” – only to have Aretha Franklin steal their arrangement and take it to the top of the charts.

This new 40th anniversary collection marks the first time that the Nuggets album is available in a single disc during the digital era (it was released as part of the first Nuggets 4-CD box set from Rhino in 1998).  The difference here is that these are the stereo mixes that were used for the original album, while the one from 1998 used the mono (single) versions. Purely a matter of taste, but some of the stereo mixes are a little more “out there.”  Take, for example, the phasing effect of the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” – it adds to the overall zaniness of the song as the track phases in and out of the stereo spectrum. The set comes packaged in a gatefold sleeve that recreates the trippy album cover, and features new liner notes from Kaye and Holzman.  Also great are the original 1972 track notes, penned by Kaye, which are full of good humor, and still stand up today.

Nuggets not only defined the garage rock genre, it rescued over two dozen obscure singles from the junk heap and turned them into bona-fide classics.  Often imitated, the original Nuggets is still the benchmark from which all other compilations are measured.  The remastered sound, the groovy artwork, and the excellent liner notes make this 40th anniversary edition a must for any fan interested in classic music.  –Tony Peters