Doug Sahm is one of the great figures in 20th century American music, which isn't quite the same thing as saying he's one of the best-known musicians. As the frontman of the Sir Douglas Quintet, he had a Top 20 hit with the garage rock classic "She's About a Mover" in 1966 and a Top 30 single with "Mendocino" three years later, but after that he settled into a small but intensely devoted cult following. Not that there weren't attempts to break him on a wider scale -- after the Quintet broke up, Atlantic launched a publicity blitz for a pair of solo albums in 1973 -- but they never quite clicked, probably because Sahm's music, no matter how brilliant it was, never was popular music. It was a wild, wooly blend of rock & roll, soul, country, blues, and Tex-Mex, as informed by the sunny vibes of hippiedom as it was by the rowdy spirit of garage rock. Sahm created this sound with the Sir Douglas Quintet in the late '60s and over the next three decades he never strayed from it, but those records that the band released between 1968 and 1971 (plus 1973's rarities round-up Rough Edges) remained at the core of his legacy, and for good reason: not only did they illustrate the breadth and depth of Sahm's ambition, they're simply dynamic rock & roll, truly visionary American roots music. What separated the Sir Douglas Quintet from their blues-rock, country-rock and hippie contemporaries is that there wasn't a shred of pretention in their music. All the genre bending and unpredictable juxtapositions flowed naturally, performed with the muscle of a roadhouse blues band and the warm, welcoming vibe of San Franciscan rockers. Of all their peers, the Band were the closest touchstone, in terms of scope and achievement, but the Sir Douglas Quintet lacked that quintet's American gothic literary bent. They were simply a rock & roll band, out to have a good time and have others follow. As such, they never got quite as much critical respect in the traditional rock history books as they deserved, but the six LPs they released for Smash/Mercury constitute one of the strongest bodies of work for an American rock & roll band of the '60s.
Even if they were terrific, these Smash/Mercury records weren't always easy to find (which may be another reason why the Sir Douglas Quintet weren't given much credit in rock histories; critics can't review what they can't hear). They went out of print in the '70s and they were never reissued during the great CD-reissue boom of the late '80s and early '90s (they were compiled on the 22-track 1990 CD Best of Doug Sahm & the Sir Douglas Quintet 1968-1975). None of these LPs saw CD release until 2002, when Raven in Australia released 1970's 1+1+1=4 and 1971's The Return of Doug Saldaña on one CD, and the U.K.-based Acadia released all the albums -- the aforementioned pair, plus 1968's Sir Douglas Quintet+2=Honkey Blues, 1969's Mendocino and 1970's Together After Five -- with bonus tracks, which eventually covered everything that was on Rough Edges plus a few other odds and ends. This was a blessing, not just for longtime Sir Douglas fans but for the curious who never had a chance to easily hear this wonderful music, and their release has the unfortunate side-effect of making Hip-O Select's splendid five-disc box set The Complete Mercury Masters seem just a bit anti-climatic. Released just two years after the 2002 reissue campaign, The Complete Mercury Masters is housed in a hardcover book-sized wallet and contains all the music from the Acadia reissues, along with a handful of rarities, of varying interest. These rarities include a country version of "Texas Me," the four-song Mexican EP by the Quintet (featuring Spanish versions of four tunes, including "Mendocino" and "And It Didn't Even Bring Me Down"), a single Sahm produced for Roy Head and four Sahm-produced sides for Junior Parker, plus an entire disc of mono-single mixes. All this is good, especially the Sahm productions, but it's not material that's significant, particularly for those who already own the Acadia reissues. Those fans may be reluctant to spend $100 to get material they bought recently, even if the packaging on The Complete Mercury Masters is handsome and the sound is a considerable improvement on the Acadia issues (nevertheless these recordings will never sound amazing -- they were recorded cheaply and no amount of cleaning can make these tapes sound full-bodied. Also, part of the music's appeal is that it's greasy, gritty, and dirty, so some listeners might actually find the grungier Acadia mixes more appealing, even if the sound on this set is hardly clean and is faithful to the original records). For those listeners, purchasing The Complete Mercury Masters is a judgment call -- are the rarities, the mono mixes and the remastering worth replacing your existing CDs? -- but for anybody that doesn't own the Acadia titles, this is flat-out essential. The converted already know how terrific these Smash/Mercury LPs are, and will be glad to get them all in one place, but this is a necessary purchase even for the curious, since this is tremendous music that gets stronger, better with age. The Complete Mercury Masters may be expensive, but consider it an investment that will pay you back tenfold, since this is truly priceless and timeless music. [The Complete Mercury Masters is a limited-edition release available only through www.hiposelect.com.]