Ragged glory

The Woggles rock the garage with Ragged But Right

"Garage band" — it's a term that's been used to describe the greatest of DIY rock 'n' roll music and the worst sort of unschooled crap.

The term evolved during the 1960s, an era when the major record labels seized on talented bands and subjected them to a full complement of professional, unionized session players enlisted to smooth out, slick up and homogenize their sound, all of it taking place in cathedral-sized studios with producers whose main goals were Top 10 hits. As a result, few of the Byrds, the Monkees and the Grass Roots played the instruments heard on their own earliest recordings, and the same procedure was used to alter the sound of countless young artists that signed on the dotted line in hopes of being heard.

In defiance of such studio excess, a young and angry new breed of rockers arose who played their own instruments and rehearsed at home, in rec rooms and garages. They thumbed their noses at the big labels and pressed and sold their records themselves. In later decades, these sorts of artists were known variously as "punks" or "indies," but in the overheated pop-culture maelstrom of the '60s, they were called "garage bands." During the '80s and '90s, as garage bands proliferated, were imitated and even commercialized, the term became a pejorative, an insult that implied a lack of talent.

But times change. A legion of Britneys, Christinas, and their innumerable karaoke/lip-synching brethren have arrived, their studio-tweaked, computer-generated "performances" as artificial as the contents of their artfully sculpted C-cups. Once again, overproduced, generic pop has taken over. Garage bands are looking good again, with their rough edges a testament to their integrity.

Which brings us to the Woggles, whose Ragged But Right, their seventh long-playing release, is a searing testament to indie/punk/ garage power. It comes wrapped in vintage rags, soaked in gasoline, and ignited with the firebrand energy that only honest sweat can create. It's a record that shakes a tambourine in one hand and a clenched fist in the other, with its middle finger extended defiantly at the pre-processed, instantly obsolete, ProTools-enhanced effluvia churned out by the remnants of the corporate music world.

In an era during which few new bands last past a second album, and Americans elect their so-called Idol on the basis of one warbled song per night, the Woggles have lasted more than 10 years as a garage band. Since Teendanceparty first set them in motion back in 1993, they've toured the globe relentlessly, pounding out furious sets night after night for appreciative audiences in Europe, Asia and the States. There have been Woggles tribute bands based in cities as remote as Portland, Maine, and Villingen-Schwenningen, Germany. Thus do the disciples spread the word.

And yet, the Woggles have never signed to a major label. They've never recorded with hired-gun session players, aside from the occasional keyboardist or sax-blower they've borrowed from some other, like-minded garage rock ensemble. And they've never been bossed around the studio by any hot-shot superstar producer. They've survived nonetheless, and their endurance alone is remarkable, as lesser bands — the Hives, the White Stripes — have briefly copped elements of their act for an intermittent 15 minutes of glory, but so far none have gone the distance. (Whatever happened, for instance, to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club?)

The Woggles themselves initially emerged as a band that often covered other artists' material. They've performed and recorded material first popularized by the Kingsmen, Dick Dale, the Wailers, Bobby Fuller, the Replacements, and Link Wray (their Live at the Star Bar opens with a stomping rendition of Bobby Freeman's "C'mon and Swim"), but in recent years, the group's own songwriting has emerged as its greatest strength. Their newest release contains 14 powerful, road-tested original tunes that make up, in the opinion of Little Steven, guitarist of Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band, the best new album of the year.

Recorded inside a former hot-rod detailing shop near Chapel Hill, N.C., Ragged But Right was produced by Guadalcanal Diary's Jeff "Flesh Hammer" Walls, with studio engineering by Rick Miller, the leader of Southern Culture on the Skids. These two guitar-gurus' love of aggressive six-string sounds is gloriously evident from the mighty opening snarl of George "Montague" Holton's overdriven axe, heralding the rousing call-to-arms of "People Come On." As soon as frontman Manfred "The Professor" Jones lets loose a feverish shout of "All right!" amid a tornado of Mysterians-style organ chords, the listener is instantly swept away atop fiery, sing-along choruses.

What follows is perhaps the most beautiful (and possibly the most commercial) song the Woggles have ever recorded. "Collector of Broken Hearts" is a graceful exercise in Byrdsian 12-string jangle adorned with fabulous harmonies, a rare solo composition by Woggles bassist Patrick "Buzz Hagstrom" O'Connor, whose album-closing "Night Crawls" is a bluesy rocker that wouldn't seem out of place on an early platter by the Small Faces, Creation, or the Who. O'Connor also co-wrote "Red Light, Green Light," a stop-start scorcher powered by his own colorful bass runs, which builds to a climax powerful enough to launch a space shuttle.

Other highlights include the screaming pedal-to-the-metal guitar workout of "Johnny Come Lately" and a sitar-flavored excursion into exotica called "Seventh Veil." Drummer Dan "Electro" Hall contributes four exceptional solo compositions, most notably "Walking My Dog," with its classic R&B Coasters-meet-Sam-and-Dave feel. Hall also co-wrote the disc's titanic title track, on which stomping, militaristic beats summon the marching cadence of a battle-tested Green Beret squad.

The release of Ragged But Right would easily have been the happiest event so far in the Woggles' history, if not for the tragic premature death of guitarist Holton May 12, shortly before the disc appeared in stores. A diabetic, Holton was taking prescription medication for a bladder infection at the time. After chatting with friends on the phone, he went to bed, apparently consuming an accidental overdose of his medicine. Paramedics speculate that his heart stopped beating around 3 p.m. that afternoon. He was 31 years old.

Hall last saw Holton alive when the guitarist drove the Gore-Gore Girls, an all-female Detroit trio, up to the Woggles' practice space in his Thunderbird. "Montague was in his element. The consummate host. Flying high. Living large." Holton died a happy man, Hall says. "About as happy as I'd seen him lately. He was moving to new digs with a longtime friend, he had an immaculate 1959 Thunderbird in the garage, he had a hot new romance with a girl in New York City, and the new Woggles record was coming out soon."

"The Woggles always told each other, 'If I die, hoist a pint in my honor, pour one on the stage for me, then cut into the first song of the set with the new guy that replaced me,'" recalls Hall, "'and go on with it.'"

In accordance with their creed, the Woggles hoisted the pint and went on with it. Personnel changes were already a way of life to the group, who once observed that tenure in their band was much like military service, with members signing on for several years and then joining the reserves. "If you include versions where somebody came back to us after an extended absence," observes frontman Jones, "there have been over 20 different lineup changes in the band."

But when Hall took over the drum stool a year or so after Holton joined, the group entered a new and notable period of stability, which makes losing Holton all the more a shock. Nevertheless, the group will endure.

For the moment, the duties of "the new guy" have been shared by two men. Johnny Vignault (aka Johnny Vendetta) — a veteran of the Vendettas, the White Lights, and the Hate Bombs — took over on a recent tour. For recent local shows, the Woggles drafted producer Jeff Walls into the lineup.

The ultimate tribute to Holton's memory is already in the works. During the sessions for Ragged, several additional songs were recorded but not mixed in time to be included on the album. Among these is a Holton original, "Go Go Thunderbird," featuring guest vocals by Mary Huff (Southern Culture on the Skids) and Lady Fingers (Hillbilly Frankenstein), which will appear during August on a memorial 7-inch single. An ode to Holton's beloved vintage automobile, the song includes his rarely heard singing voice. "Built in a time when cars were mean/Not like today's wimpy machines," he growls amid raging chords, "Get your SUVs out of the way/ Before I hit the gas and put you in your graves!"

The track is a crazy diamond-in-the-rough, a celebration of cars and girls, of drums and guitars, of flying high and living large. And in the grand tradition of garage rock, it's ragged, but it's right.