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Why Do We Love the Racket of Garage Bands?

Image courtesy from 1960sGarageBands.com

Starting at adolescence, kids start looking at popular icons for inspiration. They want to grow up; they want to have independence and control. One popular way, especially among boys, is by forming garage bands. Dr. Peter Roller, an ethnomusicologist at Alverno College and the author of Milwaukee Garage Bands: Generations of Grassroots Rock, delved into the garage bands that made so much noise in Milwaukee.

Garage bands have been found all over the country during the last fifty years, making it a staple in the American music tapestry. Roller says he chose to focus on Milwaukee garage bands because people in the Midwest were not aiming to get big and famous as they were in Los Angeles.

“People just love playing loud rock music with their buddies and that is good enough, in the basement or out in the garage, or maybe at a party or dance,” Roller says. "It’s about the human experience of learning to play with your buddies, and that kind of overrides the idea of good or bad. It feels good to be playing the simplest one-riff song."

In the book, Roller does not weigh in on whether the Milwaukee's bands were actually good or bad. Ever the academic, he says he takes the enthnomusicological approach and focuses instead on the culture more than on the music itself. The goal of these musicians, he says, wasn't to have the music “be good,” but to feel good.

And you didn't have to be an expert to be part of a garage band, Roller says. With the rock music culture, playing basic-structured music (one riff, three chords, etc.) is the best kind of music to start out with and to develop.

You also don't need much to start one: an electric guitar, electric bass, and a drummer are the basic elements. From there, Roller says you can add whatever instruments you want.

“You can stretch it. You can have a keyboard, you can have a lead vocalist, you could have a buddy who plays saxophone and that is where the socialism comes in. You can make do with who you want to play with."

Plus, Roller says, the sound of the electric guitar plugged into an amplifier that is just a little too loud is an attractive thing. People in garage bands get to control the noise level and the quality of tone that comes through the amplifiers - which "makes it feel real, it makes it feel validated." But Roller says that sound comes without the star fantasies because it honors basic-ness from all levels.

A unique feature of Roller’s book is that he investigates not only male garage bands, but also female garage bands. In rock society, girls were usually sent to the lead singer role. It was rare to see an all-female garage band as recently as the 1990s. But Roller says you often found all-female garage bands because when you begin at the local level, it's all about forming play-groups, those people you feel the closest to, which tend to be people who identify with your same gender.

Forming a garage band with friends sets the teenager on their own path. They do not necessarily stay on the musician path, but they are on their way to make something of themselves and setting themselves apart from the others. Roller says that confidence comes from the strong positive feelings of “being a part of the band, man.”

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.