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Garage Rock's 10 Biggest Hits of All Time

The ten songs that brought garage to the masses

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The huge cultural explosion set off by James Brown's 1963 landmark LP Live at the Apollo, coupled with the kind of technology that allowed any suburbanite to rock out cheaply, led to the rise of garage rock, and despite the popular perception that it was too raw for the radio, quite a number of the genre's best songs actually made it to the American top 10. Even more surprising was just how much variety could be found within this brutally simple genre. Here, according to the charts, are the biggest garage rock songs of all time.

1. "Wild Thing," The Troggs

The biggest garage rock song began as pure bubblegum, a demo crafted by songwriter Chip Taylor, who would later write some excellent but very non-garage-like hits for Merrilee Rush ("Angel of the Morning") and The Hollies ("I Can't Let Go"). The Troggs hated it, especially the goofy whistling solo, but their other option was the Lovin Spoonful's "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind," which they considered even less suited to their style. Still, they had some time left over at the end of someone else's session, so they tackled it anyway, with producer Colin Fretcher faithfully reproducing the solo on an ocarina. It became a landmark of primal lust in the Troggs' hands, inspiring tons of metal and punk bands -- even Hendrix! -- with its brilliantly simple raunch.

2. "96 Tears," ? and the Mysterians

Rudy Martinez, the founder and longtime leader of these Mexican-American Michiganders, has a persona as enigmatic as his nickname, and his big hit had just as unique a backstory: he'd originally written it as a poem called "Too Many Teardrops," then set it to music when he joined the band. Recorded in the living room of their record label's owner, its loose, declamatory, almost spoken-word ethos, backed by a hypnotic major-minor dance on a Vox Continental organ, was a huge influence on the New Wave movement. The group actually placed another top 40 hit in "I Need Somebody," and released another single called "Can't Get Enough of You Baby" that became a hit decades later in the hands of Smash Mouth, but the very oddity of "96 Tears" dwarfs the Mysterians' history. Saved the Cameo-Parkway label singlehandedly, too.

3. "Louie Louie," The Kingsmen

A badly-recorded cover of a R&B flop shouldn't have become the second most-covered song of all time, especially since the Kingsmen weren't even the first Pacific Northwest garage band to discover or re-record Richard Berry's original. But it was ironically the terribly sloppy nature of this version that made it a top 10 hit: teens began to swear they could pick out (or more likely make up) filthy lyrics buried in the mix, and the myth grew so large that it landed on the desk of the FBI, who turned out to be as mystified as everyone. By that time the song was an instant, if unlikely, garage rock standard.

4. "Wooly Bully," Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs

These Tex-Mex garage band jokers were merely searching for a way to record yet another tribute to the Hully Gully, a very popular dance of the time, when they stumbled across this classic jam. But their manager wasn't at all sure they could legally release another song with that title, so new and rather incomprehensible lyrics were made up on the spot, along with a Spanglish countoff that Sam himself wasn't that fond of. The combination was irresistible, a dance song for a dance that never existed.

5. "Kicks," Paul Revere and the Raiders

The band who actually scored the first (minor) hit cover of "Louie Louie," also Pacific Northwest garage rock heroes, and a carefully crafted answer to the British Invasion, the Raiders were taking a rare, socially conscious stand on this, their biggest garage hit. In stark contrast to the counterculture's position at the time, "Kicks" dares to show the dark side of drug addiction even as it rocks out. Maybe that's why singer Eric Burdon refused to take it on when Brill Building songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil presented it to the Animals. But their loss was American garage's gain.

6. "Time Won't Let Me," The Outsiders

Some might consider the Outsiders too poppy and also too blue-eyed soulful to make a garage band list like this, especially being from the Midwest power-pop epicenter of Cleveland. But these guys toured with garage bands and pop ones both, and their lone top 10 hit -- a band original -- demonstrates that they could hold the stage with anyone. Perhaps that's why they decided to end their signature song with a raveup you never see coming.

7. "We Ain't Got Nothin' Yet," The Blues Magoos

A true protopunk classic and one of the greatest psychedelic garage songs, "We Ain't Got Nothin' Yet" was anchored by a bassline -- based on a Ricky Nelson deep cut and doubled with cheesy yet menacing Vox Continental organ -- that's been imitated ever since. Although that menace gave this unlikely smash weight as a protest anthem, enough to be included in the seminal biker film Easy Rider, closer inspection reveals that the lyrics are actually about nothing more sinister than following your dream.

8. "Psychotic Reaction," The Count Five

Perfectly splitting the difference between hard R&B authenticity, go-go rhythm, and psychedelic freakout, "Psychotic Reaction" was sufficiently hardcore enough to inspire a classic essay from the rock critic's critic, Lester Bangs, on just how experimental '60s AM radio really was. This one stood out from that distinguished pack even further with a uniquely stuttering bass drum rhythm and not one but two raveup breaks filched directly, as Bangs pointed out, from the Yardbirds' cover of Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man." Unlike the Yardbirds, the Five followed many of their garage band brethren into the one hit wonder file, but details never stopped Lester, who just made up the career they might have gone on to have. It's still punking new fans.

9. "Nobody But Me," The Human Beinz

The most danceable of the top 10 garage hits, famously containing more instances of the word no than any other -- over 100 in 2:17! -- mentioning as many dances as James Brown's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" but less than anyone's version of "Land of 1000 Dances." Unusual unless you know that, like the Beatles' "Twist and Shout," this smash began life as an Isley Brothers original. Why it would end up in a the Grand Guignol fight scene of Kill Bill Volume 1 is anyone's guess, but no one's complaining.

10. "Little Girl," Syndicate of Sound

This single made it to #8, just like "Nobody But Me," and survived for the exact same number of weeks on the Billboard charts. Yet it doesn't receive nearly as much love on oldies radio, perhaps because it's significantly darker and meaner, a garage band kissoff as uncharitable as "96 Tears" yet with a weird hummingbird-on-speed guitar figure for a hook. At the time, however, it made such an impact that it moved 5,000 copies in the group's San Jose base alone; it later became such an influence on early punk -- through its inclusion on the epochal Nuggets compilation -- that the Rock Hall of Fame maintains a display featuring a 20-second snippet of it on eternal rotation!
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