A Clockwork Garage
The Droogs vs. rock trends: A bit of the old in-out

by Jonny Whiteside

Band photo at Union Station LA
The perpetual hallmark of any genuine rock & roll journey is adversity. If you play the music in its uncut, natural-fact form, more often than not you eat shit. The flipside, of course, is that passion has it own rewards, and the magnetic appeal of true, no-frills, insurrectionist rock & roll inevitably reaches its intended victim, providing the rich, consensual gratification that motivates all popular music. While San Fernando Valley–bred psyche-garage-blues-rock band the Droogs have been bashing it out for 25 years and are revered throughout the Old World, in Los Angeles they remain, outside of the most arcana-obsessed record-collector crowd, a rather unknown quantity.

When they recently played their first local show in almost 10 years — having just returned from a European jaunt, working the festival circuit on bills with Smashing Pumpkins, Prodigy, Suede, Live, Supergrass — the sparse crowd only confirmed the weird fact that virtually no one here has any idea who the hell they are.

Anchored by singer Ric Albin and guitarist Roger Clay, who founded the band in 1972 and joined by bassist (and former Dream Syndicate member) Dave Provost and drummer James Piston, the Droogs are one of the toughest garage-rock combos one could ever desire to hear. Mixing a deep blues passion with Iggy Pop/Sky Saxon wildness and deft arrangements, and slamming it all out in a steamy, fearsome package, the Droogs’ bare-bones crunch has a sense of conviction so deep it slaps upside the head like a well-swung Louisville slugger. They’re quite used to hometown apathy — when they started in the early ’70s, it was virtually impossible to get booked here unless you had a major-label deal; the alternatives were limited to trying to cash in on the Rodney’s English Disco glitter-fueled craze, trying for the brass ring at the Starwood’s weekly “audition nights” or grinding out pop-hit covers. One of the pioneering indie bands, the Droogs were releasing 45s on their own label years before punk rock made such capers commercially viable.

Hanging out with Albin and Provost is like getting a crash course in rock & roll survival techniques, a lesson that began for Albin in 1969 in a San Fernando Valley garage: “I met Roger in junior high school in the Valley,” Albin says. “He was in a garage band, and I wanted to sing — we were all godawful, but the thing is, we accepted it. What was happening with the Yardbirds, taking these structures of blues songs and making them contemporary, was what Roger was all about, so we worked on that level. As a real infant band, not really knowing anything, we were learning as we went along — there were no books, no seminars, there was no pathway for us. And since there wasn’t any place to play, we started writing songs and recording and putting out our own records.

“But when you’re new, you can’t get the best players, so it took a while to convince somebody that ‘We are gonna play some garage-rock, three-chord stuff — you do it straight, simple and hard.’ But they’d always say, ‘No, man, I want to play Stanley Clarke riffs on top of it’ or ‘But have you heard the Sweet’s new single?’

“You couldn’t even play in clubs in Los Angeles unless you were on a major label, unless you were a Top 40 band playing Gazzarri’s,” says Provost, who quit the Dream Syndicate to become a Droog in 1982. “You couldn’t get locked up playing original music in Los Angeles, until ’77 — the Masque deal and all that started that, but the Droogs had already been around for quite a while, putting out records.”

By the time punk rock caught up with them, via the inclusion of 1974’s “Set My Love on You” and “Ahead of My Time” on two Rhino punk anthology platters circa ’78, “We were gone, we were burned out,” Albin says. “We felt like ‘We can’t do this for real because no one is accepting it.’ We had been out there gigging for people and making it real, but it wasn’t for us at that time.”

After punk rock imploded, the Droogs inadvertently slouched into a popular local context — the so-called Paisley Underground — for the first time. Their outstanding 1984 album, Stone Cold World, was the sort of disc that bands like the Three O’Clock and Green on Red wished they could make, and along with a series of European reissues of their early recordings, helped make the Droogs one of the hottest club draws — on the East Coast.

“I’m trying to think if there was ever a good gig in L.A., with a stellar crowd,” Provost says. “We’d go to New York or Boston, be treated like royalty and sell out the Rat, sell out CBGB’s, with a line down the street to get in, and the people knew every word to all the songs, wearing our T-shirts. And then we’d come back here and play the Lingerie, and there’s maybe five or six friends of ours who show up.”

“We were kind of catapulted into the Paisley Underground thing in the early ’80s, but what is that to us?” Albin says. “We’ve lived every trend that’s come down the pike, from glitter to punk to the ’60s and back again to the metal, and within our songs and our framework we can pretty much play all that stuff. But from the early days, we’ve always had to act against the norm and be the architects of our own careers. In L.A., you’re either gonna make it to the top, get big money and piss on everybody else, or you’re not gonna make it and nobody wants to know.

“And it’s silly, because, as Dave continues to say and nobody seems to take him up on it, there is a difference between art and business. Art is something you lovingly put together, carry it out against the odds, plop it down there and see if anybody can dig it. And that’s exactly what we’ve done over the years — it’s a lot of self-management, democracy and a lot of arguments, that kind of thing. But I like going against the odds. I’ve always steered away from what’s acceptable, from ‘what it has to take.’”

That course necessarily led the Droogs overseas. They’ve been making the annual trek for 11 years, and have stopped even trying to get a gig in Los Angeles. Along the way, they’ve consciously distilled and perfected their sound, writing songs that typically are emotionally complex yet instrumentally simple; it’s a clich&eacutee-wary blending — dark, cold blasts of sound slicing past Albin’s furnace-bellow vocals — that often reaches startling peaks. Their latest album, Atomic Garage, is an epic load of sweeping, worldly garage rock, shot in wide-screen sonic Cinemascope and lurid four-strip candy-color. The Droogs, part anachronistic traditionalists, part painstaking rock & roll aesthetes, have defied the grubby cash-drunk arena of gonna-make-it-big Los Angeles and carved their own way as hard-hitting international playboys — and it can get pretty wild over there. “One of our biggest fan bases was in Yugoslavia,” Provost says. “We played in Bosnia at these clubs that, seriously, are 800 years old, and these kids were jumping onstage, licking our arms while we’re playing. They’d want the clothes we were wearing, they’d be stealing the lights, stealing our tambourine — while we were playing! You hear rap groups bragging about how their fans perform drive-by shootings? Well, we had fans who performed war crimes — our fans were bombing one another!”

The threat of flying shrapnel was no more daunting to Albin than the difficulties of trying to get a gig back in ’72. His attitude remains pure, garage-simple: “It’s just something I felt compelled to do — it was just my love of doing it, and that’s what’s sustained me. I’m not seeking anybody’s approval but my own. And I’m delighted, because it has always exceeded my expectations.”

photo credit: Joe Buissink