Album Review: The Satyrs – Don’t Be Surprised

UPDATE: Welcome, visitors from that site that provides a free (illegal) download to the album. If you like the music, please consider supporting the artists and buying it rather than stealing it.

The point has been made often – and by many writers besides and before myself – that in the wake of the success of British Invasion bands like the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Yardbirds, countless American teenage boys took up instruments, convened in their parents’ garages and set about making music of their own. And a remarkable number of these (as they’ve come to be known) garage rockers had a good – sometimes even great – song in ‘em. Maybe not two, mind you, but quite often one.

By most accounts, it appears that most every American city or town had its own garage rock band. It may well be that in smaller municipalities, there wasn’t enough garage-rocking activity to warrant use of the word “scene” to describe what was happening, but even a then-small city like Asheville, North Carolina (where today I happen to live) was in fact home to such a scene. Bands like The Ron-De-Voos, The (Fabulous) Wunz and Orange Purple Marmalade thrived – if briefly – with their mix of original songs and cover material.

Thanks to Lenny Kaye for lighting the fuse that shone a light (forgive that mixed metaphor if you can) on the “garage rock” scene with his influential Nuggets compilation, an appreciation for the low-budget and homespun character of garage rock has endured. The first vinyl era brought forth the Pebbles and Back From the Grave series of compilations, collecting seemingly countless rare sides that showcased the music of these garage rockers. They did their thing without the backing, support or notice of the major labels, rarely bobbing their heads above the waterline of obscurity.

And select audiences – including this writer – still remember. The venerable Ponderosa Stomp festival went so far as to convince members of Texas’ own Green Fuz to reunite in 2008; I had the honor of seeing, hearing, meeting and interviewing the band during the festival in New Orleans. I wrote about it for Shindig! Magazine. And some years later I interviewed members of Asheville’s local garage rock scene for a story that would run (in truncated form) in WNC Magazine. Here’s the full version. That would be my first of many features on the subject.

A regionally-focused Facebook group, Carolina Rock’n’Roll Remembered, was launched to connect garage rock-era participants and fans alike; archivist-historian-collector Ken Friedman was and continues to be an active member of that group. Some years ago, Friedman curated the Tobacco A-Go-Go sets, bringing together rare sides from ‘60s-era North Carolina garage rockers. And much more recently, he was deeply involved in compiling Psychedelic States: The Carolinas in the 60s, a seemingly exhaustive compendium of such music. Across 3 compact discs, that set would have seemed to have exhausted the vaults.

Alas and happily: no. As one of the compilers of Psychedelic States told me at the time, one of the most compelling bands out of Asheville’s garage rock scene was intentionally left off of that set. And the reasoning for the omission was sound: there was enough material for an album! So it is that another Western N.C. quartet, The Satyrs, now have their own (somewhat belatedly released) album. It may run under a half hour, but then so did many albums of the early- and mid-’60s. What Don’t Be Surprised lacks in length, it more than delivers in (a kind of) quality.

It’s sometimes posited that technical (instrumental, vocal) limitations were a key feature – not a bug — of garage rock. That thinking holds that the very primitivism of the music was an inherent part of its charm and value. And while there’s some truth to that idea, skilled rock’n’roll practitioners weren’t wholly absent from the garage rock scene. The Satyrs were solid songwriters, excellent musicians and talented vocalists. The ten songs they cut in 1964 and ‘65 display their creativity, and while the production values are quite elemental, the mono recordings captured on Don’t be Surprised are a delight.

“Don’t Be Surprised” is the band’s most well-known cut (“well-known” being a relative term, of course). Written by bassist Bucky Hanks, it’s filled with catchy vocal harmony and a solid melody. And it’s presented here in much, much higher fidelity than the circulating YouTube clips.

“Get Out of That Rut” is a more gentle number, not miles away from some of Glen Campbell’s early work. “It Won’t Be Long” (not the Beatles song) was co-written by Hanks and rhythm guitarist Jeff Phillips; it’s characterized by more strong vocal work and a wonderfully jangling 12-string guitar. Rick Haynie’s lead guitar sounds like a string section.

“Ticky Tacky” is a true garage rocker in the mold of, well, most garage rockers. Wailing harmonica, delightfully loose-limbed playing and unbridled enthusiasm characterize the track. A spotlight number for lead guitarist Rick Haynie, the moody “Try Not to Cry” underscores just how immensely talented the group was, with tight vocal harmony and some top-notch lead guitar work.

The shimmering “To Be With You” opens Side Two; the crooning vocal is miles away from the rock vibe of Side One’s tunes. The sonorous lead guitar licks and the transistor organ work also set it apart from those tracks; it feels almost as if it’s by a different group.

The Satyrs focused on original material for most of their recording sessions; one exception is a cover of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.” Hanks’ busy bass line and the jangling guitar work are applied in a rocking reading of the tune. The muddy production values seem to obscure what was likely a spirited performance; it’s still worthwhile, though. And the fact that the band modulates mid-song should serve as a reminder that these guys could play.

“The Shortest Road to You” is also the shortest song on the set. It’s a heartfelt c&w ballad, and as such doesn’t feel quite at home on the set, but it’s quite well done; Phillips’ voice and guitar are a treat.

The annotation tells us that “Blue Blue World” was previously released on Wal-Mor. Apparently – or so says Discogs – it was the only release on the label, based at Hi-Fi Sales on Asheville’s Biltmore Avenue. (A quick bit of research suggests that Hi-Fi Sales was located a mere few hundred yards from my current home.) The song hints at the sound and style that Chris Isaak (for one) would pursue decades later.

And that record’s flip is another recording of “Don’t Be Surprised.” It concludes this new LP, and while it’s similar to the first version, it features a deeply strange middle eight during which the vocals go some strange places. It’s weirdly wild stuff, capturing – in its own way – the freedom and exuberance that characterized the garage rock scene.

The LP – pressed at Citizen Vinyl, mere steps from where the band members would have hung out in the ‘60s – is on transparent yellow vinyl, housed in an attractive sleeve. Though it’s marred by some needless hyperbole ( “This is the shit that killed Elvis” indeed) a liner note essay effectively sets the scene. Don’t Be Surprised is recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in the garage rock scene of the 1960s.

Postscript: More than a decade ago, another writer tracked down the Satyrs and wrote about them for Mountain Xpress, our local altweekly. That story’s here, and well worth reading.