Early in their career, the garage/psych band The Droogs released a single entitled “Ahead of My Time,” an appropriate theme song for this underappreciated band. Several years before it became fashionable, the Droogs were playing what would later be called “garage revival”. The Droogs released several singles beginning in 1973, and their early records were energetic interpretations of little-known 1960s garage-punk songs along with original material inspired by those records. Also, in terms of their artistic independence, the Droogs anticipated the “do it yourself” approach of punk rock by several years, releasing their records on their own label, Plug ‘n Socket. Despite releasing several compelling albums over a thirty-year span, however, the Droogs are little known outside of a loyal following, much of which is in Europe.
A few years back I interviewed guitarist Roger Clay about the long and eventful career of the Droogs. Here is the two-hour show that aired on Turn Me On, Dead Man Radio.
Interview with Roger Clay of the Droogs, Part 1
Interview with Roger Clay of the Droogs, Part 2
Ric Albin (vocals) and Roger Clay (guitar) began playing together as kids in the 1960s in a band called “Savage Rose”—only later did they find out a Danish band was using the same name. They formed the Droogs in 1972, taking their name from A Clockwork Orange, a novel by Anthony Burgess (1962) made into a film by Stanley Kubrick (1971). Their first release, a 7″ with cover versions of the Sonics’ “He’s Waitin'” and the Shadows of Knight’s “Lightbulb Blues”, came out the following year. Creem praised this record as the first American independent punk rock single. “Bow down to ’em on Sunday for that alone.” Their subsequent singles included more songs that have come to be regarded as garage/psych classics, but the band quickly shifted the focus to original material. The A side of their second single was “Set My Love on You,” written by Albin and Clay, backed with “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” by the Kinks. The Droogs’ next two singles featured all original material inspired by 1960s garage punk. The Droogs choice of material at this time was certainly out of the ordinary. Lenny Kaye’s original Nuggets compilation came out in 1972 but few, if any, new bands were playing this sort of music in the early- to mid-1970s. In fact, the stripped-down approach of the Droogs was decidedly out of step with the trends toward progressive and arena rock prevalent at the time.
The Droogs had few places to play until the garage revival began in the late-1970s. The difficulty finding an audience and the lack of a stable rhythm section proved frustrating for the band. The Droogs considered packing it in, but with the success of bands such as the Last and the Unclaimed, who also drew on 1960s rock, more venues opened to them. By the time those bands were on the scene, however, the Droogs were already veterans of the genre. Rhino included the Droogs’ “Ahead of My Time” on their 1979 compilation L.A. In noting “if ever a band were ahead of its time, this was the one. Pre-dating the current movement by five years in spirit, attitude, and ideas, Ric Albin and Roger Clay epitomized the late 70’s American New Wave Band.”
The Droogs released two more singles and an EP before recording their first full-length LP in 1984, Stone Cold World. Despite its favorable reception, Stone Cold World didn’t receive the same level of attention that was given to albums by other California bands exploring similar territory. As noted in The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, “Stone Cold World was sadly obscured in the flurry to praise Green On Red, the Long Ryders and Bangles, but Albin and Clay doggedly pursued their chosen direction when the fashion faded.” The Droogs’ second LP, Kingdom Day, which was released in 1987, also received a fair amount of airplay on college radio stations. This album was included in Rolling Stone‘s retrospective section “The Year in Records” as one of a handful of albums representing “highly individual but equally striking contemporary refractions of the psychedelic dream.” Despite critical acclaim, however, the Droogs did not reach a broad audience. Perhaps most frustrating to the band is that they’ve always faced a cool reception in their home base, Los Angeles. “You’re never a prophet in your home town,” says Roger Clay with some resignation. After years of releasing their own records, the Droogs signed to the label PVC/Jem in the mid-1980s, but that label folded while the Droogs were on tour supporting Kingdom Day.
In his review of Stone Cold World in Melody Maker, Ian Gittens remarked that while the Droogs wore their 1960s garage rock influences on their sleeves, they “draw heavily on a whole range of influences to for an approach peculiarly their own; taking from all times”. His concluding remark, calling the Droogs “a curious anachronism”, clearly demonstrates a problem the Droogs long faced. That is, despite the quality of their material, the Droogs have not fit easily into any of the trends that have come and gone during their career, making the band difficult to market to a larger audience. Though Stone Cold World contained a re-recorded version of the Albin/Clay’s “Set My Love on You”, along with a live version of “He’s Waitin'”, the Droogs incorporated influences that set them apart from other garage revival bands. Creem referred to Stone Cold World as showcasing their “new, streamlined moderne approach to punkadelic blues”. Timothy Gassen, author of Knights of Fuzz: The Garage and Psychedelic Music Explosion, 1980 to Now, didn’t consider Stone Cold World—or any of the Droogs’ recordings after 1983, for that matter—to be garage rock releases. Also, despite being included on a couple of new wave compilations, the Droogs weren’t really a new wave band, either. Being from southern California and playing 1960s-inspired music, the Droogs were often associated with the neo-psychedelic Paisley Underground. The Droogs’ sound, however, was always more garage punk than the more psychedelic sound of Paisley Underground groups, such as the Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade. Still, the Droogs had close ties to other bands from the area, particularly the Dream Syndicate. Dave Provost, the bassist for the Droogs since the early 1980s, has also played for the Dream Syndicate. Other Dream Syndicate members have made guest appearances on Droogs recordings. Karl Precoda played guitar on “I Want Something” and Steve Wynn joined Ric Albin on vocals for his song “Maria”, both of which appeared on the 1990 LP Want Something.
Fortunately for the Droogs, the late-1980s brought the band success in Europe. The Droogs’ early singles had become sought-after collector’s items and the Droogs were well received on their European tours. Roger Clay attributes the Droogs’ success there to a European interest in American music and the more varied radio programming available in European countries. Some time ago I got a copy of Where The Bottles Flies!, a bootleg CD of the Droogs performance at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark in June, 1997. The Droogs had their own set to play at the festival, but they agreed to fill in for the Wu Tang Clan, who had canceled because of an altercation at the Newark airport on their way to the festival. Unfortunately for the Droogs, the festival management didn’t do a particularly good job of letting the audience know about the change. According to a story in the Danish newspaper Politiken, the Droogs were subjected to
mean behavior by the audience, throwing glass bottles, filled paper cups, food left-overs and other items at the Droogs, who were replacing the original group…. Though the situation seemed pretty dangerous to the Droogs, the Americans kept playing against the riot, without a word for the first four musical numbers, at which point the singer Ric Albin sarcastically said: “Well, thanks for the shower!”. The throwing also damaged the light control panel in the green tent, so the concert continued in a dark tent…. The Droogs, in spite of the dangerous and unreasonable conditions played a tight and well organized program to the end. When simple garage rock can be played so nicely with varied tempos and primitive atmosphere, you give in. And the audience did the same. At the end of the concert the Droogs received enormous ovations and the request for encores.
“Call Off Your Dogs” and “Puzzled Mynds” from Where The Bottles Flies!
One of the most avid collectors of the Droogs’ recordings was Hans Kesteloo of the German label Music Maniac Records. Music Maniac released Anthology in 1988, collecting all of the Droogs’ early singles and the 1983 EP Heads Examined. Music Maniac also released the Droogs’ follow-up to Kingdom Day, Mad Dog Dreams in 1989. Since PVC had folded, that album was not released in the United States until the following year. After adding a couple of tracks, Skyclad released the album in the United States as Want Something. The Droogs’ label troubles continued, however, and their next two albums, Droogs Live in Europe (1990) and Guerrilla Love-In (1991), were released only in Europe on Music Maniac.
In 1997, the Droogs returned with Atomic Garage, which featured a raw, less polished sound. No covers of 1960s garage-punk classics are included on this album, but the fuzzed-out sound of Roger Clay’s guitar harkens back to the sound of the Droogs’ early recordings. The title of the album signals a return to the energy of garage rock, but using a variety of equipment, vintage and new, the album sounds retro and current at the same. Apart from minor complaints about the drumming, The Bob called Atomic Garage an otherwise “perfect album for lovers of introspective psych-garage-rock.”
Perhaps someday the rest of the world will catch up to the Droogs. In 2006 the Droogs released a career retrospective compilation Collection, and much of their catalog is now available as digital downloads.