Let’s Talk About ‘Nuggets’ with Lenny Kaye
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It’s not hyperbole to assert that Nuggets affected the course of popular music. In its own way, the 2-LP set released on Elektra Records in the early ’70s influenced an entire generation of musicians.
The compilation curated by Lenny Kaye had a marked effect on the New York punk and new wave acts of the late ’70s, and the “Paisley Revival” of the 1980s would be unthinkable had Nuggets not existed.
The set’s orignal configuration included songs by The Chocolate Watch Band, Electric Prunes, 13th Floor Evelvators and other psychedelic legends. But it also featured semi-obscure pop of a high order, like The Castways (“Liar, Liar,” later covered by Blondie), the Strangeloves and the Cryan Shames. Nascent hard rock was highlighted too: the Amboy Dukes (featuring a pre-right-wing-asshole Ted Nugent) were represented by “Baby Please Don’t Go.” Nuggets also showcased ornate chamber pop (Sagittarius), guttural punk (The Seeds) and prototypical power pop (The Nazz, featuring a young Todd Rundgren).
Belying its iconic status today – with countless spin-offs, similar compilations and a celebrated expanded boxed set – it’s worth noting that on its original release, the record didn’t sell all that well. In this exclusive conversation with Lenny Kaye, we dig into how Nuggets came about, and the ways in which its legacy lives on.
Was it a challenge to sell the people at Elektra on the idea of doing Nuggets?
No, because it was Elektra’s idea. I was a rock writer at the time, and of course I was very attracted to Elektra’s roster. They were very writeable-about, especially in the rock “criticism” of the time. They were very smart.
And Jac Holzman called me up to his office one day and asked me if I’d like to be kind of an independent talent scout. Well, most of the things that I brought him he wasn’t interested in and vice versa, but one of the ideas he had was an album called Nuggets, which in his mind, was an album that would gather all those tracks from albums that had one good track … kind of little undiscovered gems.
Jack had a very good sense of concept. I mean, I have to hand it to him. And he liked this kind of anthology stuff. So, he gave it to me. On his initial list, there was Little Anthony and the Imperials’ track from their psychedelic album. But I was, I have to say, a little full of myself, and I just kind of spun it for the garage bands of the mid ’60s that I participated in. I had a band in New Jersey called The Zoo, but we never made any records or even wrote any original songs. We were on the circuit where you play four sets a night for drunken fraternity members.
I’m kind of an obsessive music fan, and I would drive across country listening to these stations and hearing their songs. And so, after about six months or a year, I gave him a list of about 50 songs. I have to say, it was kind of all over the place because I didn’t really have a definition in mind of what I was looking for. I just knew that all this music kind of grouped itself together. But there are a lot of things on the original Nuggets that are hardly garage rock. It’s a very broad definition.
If I had really been more aware of the concept, it would have probably been a lesser record.
Some of the acts compiled on Nuggets were purely studio creations…
Yeah. We like to imagine that the groups are kind of self-contained and have grown up on their own. Actually, now we see this in pop music all the time. In a weird way, pop songwriting has become very generic. Ariana Grande or Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber, Timberlake … they’re all incredible singers. But it’s like you construct these records and the singer is part of it. Who understands that better than Phil Spector? This is like producers as artists. You can say, “Well, there was a lot of scandal with Milli Vanilli,” but what’s really the difference?
Still, most of the artists that you comped on Nuggets were actual bands to one degree or another.
Yeah. I mean, there’s some that weren’t. I could think of The Third Rail is another one. My brief with Nuggets was really not to make a garage rock record, but was to kind of find these kind of wacky songs that perhaps were overlooked or kind of caught betwixt and between.
So how did you pick the songs?
Basically, I put a lot of my favorite songs, and also tried to find songs that were not as well known. I didn’t put the Blues Magoos’ “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet.” I put their version of “Tobacco Road.” I didn’t put The Shadows of Knight’s “Gloria” on there. I put their long album track, which is something I like. In my parameters, I was kind of feeling my way.
You have to remember that when I assembled the original list, some of these records were only three or four years old. So I didn’t have the perspective or even the definition. The term “garage rock” hadn’t even been invented yet! But for me, I’m not really interested in generics in a genre. “Yeah, it’s got a fuzztone, it’s got a Farfisa, got a yowling lead singer.”
But I’m interested in great records. That, to me, is what has made Nuggets live for all these amazing amount of years and still has people buying me beers wherever I go in the world. The fact that it’s got blurry boundaries, but every one of those songs is a great record.
I had the pick of the litter. There were a lot of songs I tried to get that I couldn’t get: “96 Tears,” “I See the Light” by The Five Americans. Some of those were able to be obtained when Rhino expanded the concept in 1998 and did that four CD box of Nuggets.
I’ve always wanted to do a reggae Nuggets from the ’70s. Because there are a lot of very generic records, but when you hear a great Jamaican record with a lot of melody and rhythm and a cool idea, that’s a nugget. There could be a great girl group Nuggets. And a lot of these ideas have come to fruition. I was lucky enough and Jac Holzman and Elektra Records were open-minded enough.
I know that this wasn’t the album that Jac visualized, but to be honest, he went with it. He gave me a double album, he gave me that great cover after I turned down three covers because really, in the end, I didn’t think the record was coming out.
You had moved on by then, right?
I only lasted like five or six months at Elektra. And about six months after I was gone and forgotten about it, somebody called me up from there and said, “We have the rights to all these records, these songs. What do we do with them?” And I thought, “Whoa, this is still happening?” So, in each moment, Jac, in his wisdom and intuition, went for it. The only thing he didn’t go for was that I wanted to change the name of it. I wanted to call the album Rockin’ and Reelin’ USA, and he said no.
And I’m eternally grateful to him, of course. Nuggets is just a great phrase.
It came out in October 1972. It was appreciated by rock aficionados, but it didn’t really sell that much. After 10 years, Warner Bros. stopped sending me royalty statements because it was never about to make up my $750 advance. I always think that’s funny.
But it had a real impact in showing how this music was worthy of recognition. And in the same way, I have to say that there’s a new series out called Brown Acid, put out by these lunatics in California, RidingEasy Records. What they’ve done is found all these obscure, kind of post- … I don’t even know … but it’s like a genre in itself. These ’70s bands that have a lot of Deep Purple and a lot of noise, a little Grand Funk. They’re all really cool records that are now being excavated and pretty soon will have their own slot in a record store.
AUDIO: The Remains “Don’t Look Back”
The record changed my life. Barry Tashian of the Remains was kind enough to autograph my copy of Nuggets when I interviewed him more than ten years ago.
The Remains? I mean, that’s a group that shoulda, coulda, but never dida. And that’s why they’re a nugget, that’s why the world needs to be reminded of them. I’m really proud when I met Barry Tashian, he thanked me for keeping their flame alive. I owe them a lot, because that’s really my beginnings as a musician and an appreciator of music. And I’m happy that I can still celebrate it.
I bought my copy of Nuggets in the late ’70s. But it wasn’t the Elektra release; it was a reissue on Sire. How did that come about?
Well, Seymour Stein is a very knowledgeable music person. He was very interested in stuff. Greg Shaw had just done The History of British Rock for him, and he saw that nothing was happening with Nuggets, he obviously loved those records and those things, and in the course of conversation – I think this would’ve been ‘76 – so he would’ve been hanging out at CBGB and we would’ve been friendly. He thought it would might be nice to reissue Nuggets, and he did.
I was a little disappointed with the cover, given the fact that it had such a great cover on the first one. I kind of put it in that blue frame and I kind of regret that, actually, because it’s a beautiful cover and it probably would’ve looked nice [full size]. I was just so mad that it wasn’t referential to the music. I mean, there’s no guitar on it. It was just kind of … it had dolphins! But Seymour helped widen it to bring it up to date.
The place where it made its most impact – and this is something I only realized later – was in Europe. The first time I went to Europe with Patti [Smith] in 1976, we were having a press conference in Denmark of all places. The usual discussions, and then some journalist asked me, he says, “Well, when is the next Nuggets coming out?” And I thought, “Huh. You’ve heard of it here in Copenhagen?”
A lot of those records were mid-level hits. There’s some obscurities on it, but “Dirty Water,” I heard those songs on the radio. They probably got into the midsection of the charts. But I realized in Europe nobody had heard The 13th Floor Elevators, and so what a revelation it was there.
And of course, Nuggets did what I always hoped it would do: spark this kind of archaeological interest, so all of a sudden, people started digging around for group garage band records in the same way that collectors a few years before had been digging around for obscure rockabilly and group harmony records. So, it just kind of continues on and on and on.
There were originally plans for a second volume of Nuggets, right?
Yes. [Years later] when Rhino, of course, made that beautiful, beautiful box, they utilized a lot of the songs that were on the list for the second Nuggets. Because Elektra did pick up the option for the second Nuggets, but the secret to the first Nuggets is they had a lawyer who really tracked down the rights, who worked really hard to find these obscure people who own the rights–many of whom were hoping to get a deal with Elektra. “Oh, yeah, Mouse and the Traps would be great to have on Elektra. Hey, here’s our new…”
He had to deal with all that, and he really pulled that together in a way that the next lawyer couldn’t do it. After a year, they had like three permissions of a list of another 40. And since the [first] record didn’t really sell initially, they just, “What the hell?” Just dropped it and it just continued from there.
The Nuggets legacy really does continue, doesn’t it?
It’s amazing how much of it is out there. I’m on the Underground Garage these days, the Sirius channel on Monday and Tuesday nights, and I mean, it’s interesting to hear some of these records after all this time.
I’ve participated, at this point, in many Nuggets tributes. In fact, probably around the 50th anniversary maybe we’ll have an anniversary concert in 2022 – may we all still be here – but it’s interesting to play these songs, because they’re not as simple as they look. I mean, everyone talks about, “Oh, yeah, three chords? I could be in a band in a minute.” No, they have a lot of inner workings that are very interesting, and I think that’s another one of the reasons why this music … the more you dig deep into it, the more you see how intelligent it is. I mean, it’s got an attitude, and that’s one of those things we love about it, but there’s some musical sophistication going on that are not so apparent unless you put the headphones on and have a deep listen.
But I mean, I have to say, I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time and with the right sensibility. I had no idea that, at this point, nearly 50 years later, we’d be still talking about it. I always think that, in 1972, if I’d done a record of mid-’20s acoustic into electrical recording, that’s what we would be talking about in 1972, which seems really bizarre.
So much time has passed, and yet this conceptual record in which all the stars aligned is still remembered as a touchstone of what we have come to know as garage rock.
And I think it’s because it really captures kind of the beating heart of why we make music, why we pick up a guitar, why we try to express ourselves and find ourselves. I mean, to be honest, I was kind of a mutant kid in New Jersey. I wasn’t a ball player. I wasn’t that intellectual. I loved records and I loved science fiction, and I found in music and then in being a band, a place that I could become who I always dreamed I could be.
And I still am. It’s like, “Whoa!” It’s still continuing. It’s a nugget if you dug it.
AUDIO: Nuggets I and II (full albums)
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