Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Vagrants: I Can't Make a Friend 1965-1968

Originally published by PopMatters on February 1, 2011

Virtually every ‘60s band not called The Beatles has been given some claim to the “blueprint of punk” mantle. In the case of the Vagrants, the generally tired cliché actually has some basis in fact.

The Vagrants formed at Forest Hills High School in Queens during the mid-‘60s, leaving an imprint on friends and fellow students Johnny and Tommy Ramone, who, a decade later, would turn the influence on its ear in The Ramones.

Though they played most of the happening clubs in and around New York City at the time, opened for the likes of the Who, the Doors, and the Rascals, and saw their guitarist, Leslie West, go on to form Mountain in the early ‘70s, the Vagrants still fly under the radar. An appearance on the original Nuggetscompilation in 1972 (their storming cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” which failed to gain traction when released around the same time as Aretha Franklin’s own take) solidified their credibility but did little to cast the gaze of the public at large their way.

Outside of a 1986 Arista release which cobbled together the band’s singles and some rare sessions, The Vagrants never actually released an album. They progressed like other bands from year to year, but they did so through the single. That history has finally been given its proper due with I Can’t Make a Friend 1965-1968, a new compilation by Light in the Attic Records. The Vagrants are presented here in all their ramshackle glory, a collection if A & B sides that, even when occasionally swerving into fairly garden variety garage rock, still maintains a vibrancy that makes this an absolutely essential release.

The set opens in 1965 with “Oh Those Eyes”, a seemingly standard garage shuffle with a dark sneer thanks to Jerry Storch’s lead vocal and organ stabs. “You’re Too Young” is a more than serviceable b-side with a minor debt to Phil Spector by drummer Roger Mansour. As the songs move into 1966, an air of sophistication creeps in, a welcome addition as it arrives without forcing out the band’s natural energy. “The Final Hour” has elements of what was happening in Los Angeles at the time, while “Respect” might as well be the bridge between The Sonics and Vanilla Fudge.

Producer Felix Pappalardi came into the picture midway through 1967, expanding the band’s sonic reach on the “Beside the Sea” single, on which Storch’s organ sounds like a death ray from War of the Worlds, West’s guitar solo only adding to the sense of distress in Peter Sabatino’s vocals.“And When It’s Over”, the last recorded song on the compilation, sees West’s guitar stepping even more into the spotlight, perhaps signaling what was to come in Mountain.

The album is worth seeking out on vinyl or CD, as the liner notes by Mike Stax (of Ugly Things Magazine) are the perfect accompaniment to the wild story of the Vagrants.

8 out of 10