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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Seattle Rocks: Kingsmen Through Nirvana

Book Review

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Seattle was all the rage for a few years in the early '90s-until Kurt Cobain killed himself and people realized that most of the "grunge" acts signed in the wake of Nirvana's success sucked. Sonic Boom: The History of Northwest Rock, from "Louie Louie" to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (Backbeat Books) is a reminder that grunge wasn't the region's first contribution to rock'n'roll.

Author Peter Blecha has written a fan's book, with all the attendant strengths and weaknesses. But Blecha was around for much of his story, a witness to the events chronicled in Sonic Boom. He writes against the amnesia regarding the Pacific Northwest in most rock histories, which reference Jimi Hendrix as a Seattle homeboy and fast-forward to Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

Blecha has an eye for isolating crossroads events, starting with the 1957 gig at the Seattle Eagles Club by Richard Berry, an obscure R&B singer from LA. His performance of an original tune, "Louie Louie," packed the dance floor with its hypnotic pulse and exotic beat. Local musicians in the audience took note. Berry's "Louie Louie" became a hit in the Northwest, back in the days of distinctly regional radio charts and jukebox sales. Then a Seattle band, the Wailers, transformed "Louie Louie" into a local hit in a stripped-down garage band rendition. A Portland band called the Kingsmen picked up the song and recorded the cover that became nationally famous. The riff seeped into the DNA of rock and was audible, as an echo years later, in the chords of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

And that's not all. Sonic Boom covers a great many bands remembered locally, if at all, and others that made a wider mark, including the frantic '60s punk rock of the Sonics and the '70s hard rock of Heart, notable in their day for being fronted by women. Sonic Boom will remain as the source book for anyone interested in the rock of the Pacific Northwest.

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