‘If I knew I’d be talking about it in 50 years, I would have fucked it up,” says Lenny Kaye. “I would have tried to make it too conceptual. It was a lark – just putting a bunch of my favourite records together.”
The Patti Smith guitarist is recalling the creation of Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968, a compilation he was asked to curate by Jac Holzman at Elektra Records. Half a century on, it’s considered a set text for the genre. It regularly pops up on lists of the greatest albums of all time and has a strong claim to being considered one of the most influential compilations ever. But at the time there was little hope for it. “I didn’t think it would ever come out,” says Kaye, whose working relationship with Elektra fizzled out six months before the record was released. Kaye insisted it be called Rockin and Reelin’ USA but Holzman refused. “A wise move,” Kaye laughs today, noting what a perfectly apt title Nuggets is.
Despite being a sprawling double LP, it’s a showcase for economy bursting with powerful yet compact blasts of proto-punk, psychedelic and garage rock by the likes of the Seeds, the 13th Floor Elevators, the Chocolate Watchband, the Castaways and the Standells. Released in 1972, some of its songs had previously charted, but many bands were already looking destined to drift into obscurity or the depths of record shop bargain bins. In 1965 Minnesota band the Castaways had a hit with Liar Liar, a perfect two-minute slab of surf-pop. It sold around 1m copies. “All of a sudden we’re touring with the Beach Boys,” recalls band leader James Donna. Fame didn’t last and a year later he was back in college studying business administration. “I thought, this is it, it’s over.”
Hailing from Los Angeles, the Seeds had middling chart success with their first two singles – a fierce one-two punch of pioneering proto garage via Can’t Seem to Make You Mine and Pushin’ Too Hard. But by the advent of the 70s, their run was seemingly over. “I thought it was done,” says Daryl Hooper, who still tours and records with a new iteration of the group. The band’s singer Sky Saxon left to join the Source Family, a religious commune that combined spirituality with experimental psychedelic rock. “Sky had gone bananas,” says Hooper. “You couldn’t work with him. The record company was letting us sit on the shelf. It wasn’t a good time. I thought the music was going to be forgotten.”
Similarly, the huge promise of the 13th Floor Elevators – a bunch of wild, acid-guzzling, jug-blowing Texans, who are largely credited with inventing psychedelic rock – had imploded. In 1968 the band’s singer Roky Erickson had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital where he received electroconvulsive shock therapy. A year later, in order to avoid marijuana possession and hefty prison time, Erickson pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and ended up in Rusk State hospital. Lead guitarist Stacy Sutherland also wound up in prison on drug charges. For a band that was bordering on evangelical about LSD and drug use, their trip had turned very sour.
The appeal for Kaye in putting these bands together was to capture a period of music that was in such a rapid state of evolution that it almost couldn’t keep up with itself. “My brief was to find tracks that had been left by the wayside or disregarded,” he says. “But as the project continued it honed in on this concept of capturing a transitional moment in time when rock was moving from singles to rock as art progressivism. I like those areas where things are very blurry and when people haven’t figured out what they’re doing. It’s evolution observed.”
Nuggets made little impact at the time. “It never sold a lot,” says Kaye. “I got an advance of $750 and after some years they sent me a note saying this is never going to generate any royalties so we’re going to stop sending statements.” In the late 70s, James Lowe of the Electric Prunes, a psych rock outfit who broke up in 1970, was lamenting that nobody knew who his band was. “My son said: ‘People know you because you’re the first band on the Nuggets compilation’,” he says. For Lowe, and many other bands on it, it was years before they knew the album existed, let alone featured on it.
But in 1976, Seymour Stein of Sire Records reissued the album and it gained a new lease of life. The new version had an immediate impact. “It introduced it to a new generation of bands,” Kaye says. “Television started covering the 13th Floor Elevators. Ramones [who later covered the Seeds] had a sensibility of wanting to shorten things and on Nuggets the tracks are very compact.” It also began to infiltrate the UK. Jon Savage cites it as a key catalyst for punk in the genre’s definitive book England’s Dreaming, the Undertones would cover a song from it, and Will Sergeant of Echo and the Bunnymen said it contained “some of the most important records ever made”.
The album is a transatlantic exchange – the music being an American response to the influence of the British invasion, which was then pinged back in the form of psychedelic-tinged garage rock to shape the evolution of British music. For Kaye, there’s a direct link between this raw sound of the mid-1960s and what manifested a decade later via punk – both being a stripped-back response to the bloated and overly complex music of the times. “It’s reclaiming the virtues and freedoms that come with bringing things back to the skeletal,” he says.
One key difference was social context: the Vietnam war was the backdrop to the music on Nuggets, although Kaye sees it as being more rooted in escapist joy than the harsh reality of escalating war and fear of being drafted. “Most of this music was apolitical,” he says. “Or folded into the larger counter-culture of progressive thought and ‘Make love, not war’. Letting one’s freak flag fly was important – the music was a haven from the more confrontational aspects of the war.”
The ripple of Nuggets’ influence (as well as compilations that quickly followed, such as Pebbles) would continue for decades. Much as the 13th Floor Elevators had dedicated themselves to reaching chemically induced cosmic states in the 1960s, in suburban 80s Britain, Spacemen 3 were also, as their 1990 album put it later, Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To. The band’s Peter Kember remembers the huge influence of Nuggets, which led the band to start covering the 13th Floor Elevators. “It was one of those magical discoveries,” he says. “We used to take acid and listen to those records. They were the soundtrack to many, many explorations.”
As time went on, the bands who were once oblivious to their own inclusion on the compilation started to feel its reach. “We started getting more requests to play and I couldn’t figure out why,” remembers Lowe. “That had to be what was responsible for it.” The Electric Prunes reformed in 1999 to meet demand and still play today. “We sign a lot of those records at shows,” Lowe says. “It’s a real boon.” Liar Liar would go on to be covered by Debbie Harry and feature prominently on film soundtracks such as Good Morning, Vietnam and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
Nuggets’ influence can be heard somewhere in just about every generation, from punk to the garage rock revival of the 00s to contemporary guitar bands. Dan Kjær Nielsen of Danish post-punk outfit Iceage recalls listening to it for the first time: “It was a distillation of what I knew to be 1960s rock’n’roll but it sounded almost as feverishly wild as I was promised it would be.” Shana Cleveland of LA surf-rock outfit La Luz shaped her band, which formed in 2012, around the parts of the album. “I loved the vocal harmonies,” she says. “The emotion of the music is so raw and vulnerable but the vocal harmonies made it seem like the singer wasn’t alone. It felt cathartic. I think of Lenny Kaye as a guardian angel.”
Nuggets has also become something of a template for modern crate-digging labels. Light in the Attic Records have released compilations of everything from Thai funk to Japanese boogie and South Korean psych rock. “Lenny paved the way for all of us and if anyone tells you differently, they should put down their bong,” says label founder Matt Sullivan. “All the compilations we’ve done stemmed from what Lenny did with Nuggets. It gave respect to the compilation, not just being something that a label throws out for a quick buck. It had depth and care. There were compilations before that but I don’t think they made anywhere remotely near the impact that Nuggets did.”
A five LP Nuggets box set is on the way – delayed until spring 2023 owing to the vinyl production backlog. Despite it just being “a lark” 50 years ago, the compilation is of huge personal significance to Kaye. “The music on it empowered me and gave me encouragement,” he says. “It allowed me to become someone I never dreamed I could be and I’m always happy to see that it helps others. When I go to a bar in Oslo 50 years later and somebody comes up to me and says: ‘Nuggets changed my life’, I say: ‘Thank you. It changed mine as well.’”