Featuring Gary Usher
The Complete Recordings
By Frank Youngwerth
Brian Wilson once said Gary Usher showed him how to write songs. They met in 1962 during a Beach Boys practice session at the Wilson family home in Hawthorne, California. Friendship followed, and the two collaborated on several of the Beach Boys' early hits, including "In My Room." Their song "409," about a car Usher aspired to own, touched off a nationwide craze for hot rod music.
Soon Usher brought together a small group of friends to record his own music under several band names. On Capitol they were called the Super Stocks, first appearing on a hastily assembled compilation, Shut Down. The album's top-ten success helped establish Usher as a leading songwriter, arranger, and producer in Los Angeles. But like most creative people who elect to remain behind the scenes, Usher never became famous. More than 30 years later, labels like Sundazed, One Way, and AVI are reissuing Usher's hot rod music. One Way's collection of Super Stocks music, The Complete Recordings, best traces the genre's evolution and suggests that Usher, who died of cancer in 1990, deserves more than just a footnote in pop music history.
At first the Super Stocks didn't resemble the Beach Boys; they sounded more like a cross between Hank Williams and King Curtis: the rough-edged, twangy lead vocals bespeak an adult driver (albeit with an adolescent car obsession) as tenor saxophonist Steve Douglas roars mightily over a chugging rhythm and organ walking bass lines. On the four Shut Down tracks Usher's humble three- and four-chord tunes and basic vocal harmonies tread the ground between country and western music and R & B. The band never quite finds a groove--hiring an actual bassist would have helped--though hand claps and car sound effects add some spice to the proceedings.
Hot rod lyrics typically involve a lot of bragging, with plenty of automotive details and a discussion of the driver's track record. Frequently Usher relied on LA disc jockey Roger Christian, who kept a notebook filled with hot rod "poetry," to take care of the words. "Four on the Floor" even ventures into sexual politics: the driver's girlfriend would rather have his right hand touching her than shifting gears. "I got a four on the floor...with a big chrome stick / It turns on the guys but it bugs my chick." To save the relationship, he trades in his stick shift for an automatic. "There's no more draggin' but guaranteed lovin'."
Once Shut Down went gold, Capitol wanted more. Hot Rod Rally, another compilation, had six new Super Stocks tracks, some with lead vocals by Usher. Singing like you might expect Wally Cleaver would sound, Gary had an awkward, nasal voice that practically guaranteed no airplay. But Capitol didn't need radio to sell these records. Around the same time it even put out an album with just car sounds and narration, The Big Sounds of the Drags.
In early 1964, Gary's Super Stocks graduated from compilation contributors to album artists. None of the 11 selections on their first full-length outing, Thunder Road, lasts more than two minutes and seven seconds. Concise, intense, and kinda dumb, it sounds like the album Phil Spector should have produced for the Ramones. On the opening track Usher recasts the lyrics from Robert Mitchum's 1950s country hit, "The Ballad of Thunder Road," in a tune close to the Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA" (itself borrowed from Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen"), giving his buddy Brian's fun-in-the-sun anthem a dark twist. The old-time tale of a "mountain boy who ran illegal alcohol" for his daddy, pursued by both the law and the devil, rocks up a frenzy, complete with a demented guitar break.
Finally Usher had the funds to secure the services of top session players like guitarists Billy Strange and Glen Campbell, pianist Leon Russell, and drummer-percussionist Hal Blaine. These guys could play fast and hard with amazing precision and flexibility. On Thunder Road's instrumental tracks, they fly through Usher's intricate arrangements as a superb ensemble. (The song "Ramcharger" has some of the most aggressive castanets you'll hear anywhere.) The playing conveys an enthusiasm the participants no doubt shared for both driving cars and rocking out.
Here Usher's vocal limitations often work in his favor. On the strutting "Hot to Trot" he delivers plenty of auto jargon in the verses and tongue-in-cheek lines in the chorus ("She gives me all she's got now"), all the while evoking the erotic charge and pride he gets from driving and owning a cool set of wheels. Better singing would only get in the way and throw off the balance of contrasting elements (earnest and comic, reserved and fervid, vocal and instrumental) that holds together the entire album.
Only 90 days later, Usher and his troops released a summer theme album, Surf Route 101, featuring lush yet propulsive instrumentals titled after different California beaches. A loping shuffle beat and acoustic guitars set a gentler pace on the opening title track, in which Usher sings "If you've got a date tomorrow, well you'd better break it." A planned surfing excursion promises greater joys. But the fun described in "Muscle Beach Party" is offset by the philosophy of self-reliance expressed in "My First Love." Backed by a dense wave of sound, the surfer claims he's not a fool for romance, willing to shun the social scene for the sake of personal freedom: "On a wave is where I'll take my chances."
When this album was first issued on CD in Japan several instrumental demos were included as bonus tracks. They're pleasant enough as mood pieces, but come off as one-dimensional when compared to the finished productions. As quickly as he was working, Usher could still afford to discard some of his weaker ideas.
Three months later, right on schedule for fall, Capitol released the final Super Stocks album, School Is a Drag (foreshadowing the theme of the MC5's Back in the USA). By this point Usher was turning out Beach Boys-derived product for labels all over town. Better versions of many songs included here can be found elsewhere, like "Little Honda," originally a Beach Boys song, which Usher cut for Mercury as the Hondells, scoring a major hit. The lesser of two shining instrumentals, "Gridiron Goodie," also appeared as "Hon-Da Beach Party" on the Mercury album, and as "Hon-Da Beach" on a Warner Brothers 45 by the Wheel Men. Three different titles, three different group names, three different labels--and all, give or take an overdub, the same recording!
Before too long the hot rod trend had to blow out. But as LA pop headed in new directions, Usher kept pace, producing the Byrds' pioneering country-rock albums and the Firesign Theatre, whom he'd signed to Columbia, on their first foray into studio-based comedy. His nearly forgotten Super Stocks recordings not only capture an early energetic moment in the saga of California rock but anticipate the move toward integrated album-length studio creations all the major players in rock would soon make.