There have been rock & roll record geeks for as long as there's been rock & roll -- but it took the music industry a while to catch on. Back when Elvis Presley was still alive and still the size of an average person, rock compilations focused almost entirely on the hits of the day (the K-Tel approach), with the occasional thematic curveball -- such as 1963's A Christmas Gift for You, producer Phil Spector's groundbreaking foray into Yuletide fare -- tossed out for good measure.
But in 1972, with Elektra Records' release of Nuggets, everything changed. Assembled by Lenny Kaye, future guitarist for the Patti Smith Group, the two-record set was filled with trippy garage music perfectly described in the album's subtitle as Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968. Moreover, a goodly number of its selections had never made more than a ripple in the pop pond. For every "Dirty Water," by the Standells, which reached No. 11 on the Billboard charts in mid-1966, there were quirky curios such as "Public Execution," a wacky Dylan rip by a guy dubbed Mouse, and the Barbarians' "Moulty," a bizarre oddity in which the act's drummer explained how he put his life back together after losing his hands. Talk about a song with hooks.
Nuggets wasn't a smash (it failed to dent Billboard's Top 40), but its influence far outstripped its modest sales figures. As it was passed from person to person like a membership card to an especially cool underground club, the package rose steadily in stature -- so much so that Sire Records, home to the Ramones and the Talking Heads, reissued it in 1977 during the rise of American punk, a movement with which garage had a great deal in common. Two years later, AIP/Bomp paid homage with Pebbles, the first volume in a sprawling series of discs devoted to tunes even more obscure than those on Nuggets, and other labels followed suit. Before long, imprints devoted to resurrecting fringe music in a wide variety of styles began sprouting like dandelions on a summer lawn, including Rhino Records, which today is arguably the largest and most successful U.S. company of its type. Appropriately, Rhino has demonstrated its affection for Nuggets on numerous occasions. Back in the vinyl-centric '80s, the firm released several albums under the Nuggets logo that attempted, with intermittent success, to expand on Kaye's baby; more recently, it put out a Nuggets box.
In some ways, this set was too much of a good thing. The 1972 Nuggets, with which the box kicked off, is so ideally programmed, each track coming across with unique potency and verve, that the discs accompanying it couldn't help but seem a bit scattershot by comparison. As a result, it was mighty tough to get excited about the prospect of a second Nuggets box. The well already seemed dry -- what was left to pump?
A lot, as it turns out. Rather than simply rehashing the Nuggets concept again, in the tradition of most sequels, Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts From the British Empire and Beyond, 1964-1969 takes the concept on a clever tangent. Specifically, the four-CD set, supplemented by a colorful trivia-stuffed booklet, delves into the alternately simplistic and fantastical pop that bubbled forth in Great Britain and beyond throughout the half-decade after the Beatles took over the youth of the planet. Unlike the Fab Four, most of the groups represented here got little attention in the States -- a fact that gives these four discs a freshness they might otherwise have lacked. On top of that, the songs chosen by project coordinator Gary Stewart and his dedicated staff of obsessives share stylistic idiosyncrasies that parallel the work of their Yankee peers in enjoyably strange and warped ways.
In England, especially, nascent garage-pop and psychedelia were informed by the mod movement closely associated in these climes with the Who -- and, indeed, Who fanatics will have no trouble picking out the influence of their faves on many of the ditties here. The Creation's "Making Time," the very first track, is a virtual blueprint of the Who style, with heavy guitar riffs surrounded by open space that's ably filled by drummer Jack Jones's belligerent, Keith Moon-like runs. (Shel Talmy, who worked with the early Who, produced the cut -- hardly a coincidence.) That's followed consecutively by "Father's Name Was Dad," by Fire, which resembles one of Tommy's bouncier moments, and the Move's "I Can Hear the Grass Grow," with background vocals that wouldn't sound out of place on the Who hits package Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy. Mr. Townshend, your lawyer is on the line.
As the set rolls on, however, the inspirational balance shifts from the Who's punchy aggression to the more surreal sounds first heard widely on the Beatles' Revolver, tunes that eventually led to art rock and prog. These related genres are widely derided by pop and punk boosters for pretentiousness and overindulgence, and often with good reason. But the music made amid the transition period captured by Nuggets II frequently encompassed the best of both worlds: the hearty, rough-hewn contentiousness of the postmods and the spiritual questing associated with art rockers. It's a yin-and-yang exemplified by disc one's "My White Bicycle," by Tomorrow. The act included guitarist Steve Howe, who went on to commit innumerable sins against humanity as a member of Yes. But on "Bicycle," his work is thoroughly exciting, whether played forward or backward (there's lots of prominent studio tinkering), and the production is cheeky enough to include the jingling of a bike bell. The result is as charming as it is silly.
The few legitimate hits on hand are equally amiable, and Nuggets II's compilers wisely resist the temptation to make too much of them: "Friday on My Mind," the Easybeats' finger-snapping tribute to the weekend, turns up toward the tail end of disc 2, and Status Quo's eccentric "Pictures of Matchstick Men," once covered by Camper Van Beethoven, is dropped into the middle of the third CD. Likewise, well-known artists receive no special favors -- or at least not many. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, Them's gritty, organ-drenched "I Can Only Give You Everything" is credited to the act's lead singer, Van Morrison, but the Davy Jones who turns up on the sloppy, schizophrenic "You've Got a Habit of Leaving" isn't the diminutive cutie-pie from the Monkees but the future David Bowie performing under his given name. Bowie's mewling vocal on the choruses of "Habit" will likely be a revelation to his aficionados -- and not necessarily a pleasant one.
Other discoveries are much more agreeable. Several fairly prominent British combos that somehow failed to achieve superstar status in the States receive their due -- not only the aforementioned Creation and Move but also Kaleidoscope ("A Dream for Julie," "Flight From Ashiya"), the Small Faces ("My Mind's Eye," "Here Comes the Nice"), the Pretty Things ("Midnight to Six Man," "Rosalyn," the shoulda-been-a-smash "Walking Through My Dreams") and John's Children ("A Midsummer's Night Scene" and "Desdemona," featuring the suitably psychosexual line "Lift up your skirt and fly"). Bands with loyal cult followings also turn up, including Brazil's Os Mutantes ("Bat Macumba") and Los Shakers ("Break It All"), a wonderfully twisted Beatles knockoff from, believe it or don't, Uruguay. You can't beat a Liverpool accent as attempted by someone from South America.
But best of all are the opportunities to hear smile-inducing one-shots by outfits that only the nerdiest, most hermetic collectors remember, period. Consider the fabulously dated "Imposters of Life's Magazine," by the Idle Race (ELO's Jeff Lynne was a member), and the lugubrious, shape-shifting "I Read You Like an Open Book," by Sweden's Tages, on disc 1; the Craig's convincingly deranged "I Must be Mad" and the Syn's drop-out manifesto "14 Hour Technicolour Dream," from the second installment; disc 3's "Social End Product," a sneering fuzztone challenge by the Bluestars, and the Downliners Sect's wonderfully amateurish "Glendora"; and, on the fourth CD, the freaked-out nonsense of "I'm Just a Mops," by a Japanese quintet called, logically enough, the Mops, and "Dance Around the Maypole," by the Acid Gallery, whose members may have been on hallucinogens when it was recorded. Lick those stamps with caution.
Not everything here qualifies as a lost masterpiece, but even the lesser offerings inspire a few grins of their own. Although Timon's "Bitter Thoughts of Little Jane" is far too fey, it does sport the peppy line "She'll find a head to pound on," and "Reflections of Charles Brown" by Rupert's People earns points for the manner in which it lifts simultaneously from Charles M. Schulz and Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" (the song's author swears he'd never heard "Pale" before penning his opus -- yeah, sure).
Cuts such as these shouldn't be dismissed as mere filler. After all, their daffiness provides context for the numbers around them, many of which turn out to be awfully daffy as well. In the end, Nuggets II achieves the seemingly impossible task of extending the legacy of its model even as it paints a picture of an era when loud, nasty rock and the search for higher consciousness weren't seen as contradictory pursuits. Just as the record geeks knew all along.