Based in the Grand Rapids, MI, metro area, Fenton Records was not a unique phenomenon. Like many other small regional labels in the '60s, Fenton would record any band able to cough up enough cash for a single that might be little more than a vanity pressing designed to be handed out to friends and family, given to radio, or perhaps sold at gigs. Some of these labels were little more than traps for bands; others wound up cutting some blistering rock & roll. Fenton falls into the latter camp, as its head honcho, Dave Kalmbach, was a blend of musician and mogul who wanted Fenton to be a place where local groups got the chance to see what it felt like to act like a real band by laying down tracks in a studio. Although the label never broke out of Michigan -- likely never making waves outside of western Michigan, to be honest -- there is a peculiar purity to the 45s Fenton rapidly released in the '60s, as they preserve a whole gaggle of bands that were bashing out three chords for the love of the music with little hope of hitting the big time. As such, the double-disc/triple-LP set Scream Loud!! The Fenton Story -- a collection of these rare, collector-cherished 45s assembled by those very same collectors -- almost functions as a piece of regional folk art, capturing bands from Grand Rapids, Holland, Lansing, Muskegon, and elsewhere in western Michigan and thereby offering a specific portrait of a place, or perhaps more specifically a time. Western Michigan wasn't that dissimilar from other areas of the U.S. in the '60s, as there were garage bands everywhere from California to Connecticut, and they had the same influences as everybody else, but as they had no scene or sound to call their own -- or even future superstars, as only guitarist Danny Gatton cut early work at Fenton -- the Fenton sides illustrate just how deeply the garage rock phenomenon of the '60s really ran.
Band after band on Scream Loud!! recycle the same sounds -- the tinny organ, the razor-thin guitars supported by tin can drums -- and some bands even go so far as to cut faithful covers of beloved inspirations, as when the Soul Benders tear into Love's "7 and 7 Is" with a bit too much reckless abandon. As such, much of this is generic but in the best possible sense; it may not define the genre but it embodies it, embracing all the conventions long before they turned into clichés. To anybody who isn't an aficionado -- and quite frankly, anybody who isn't an aficionado has no business with this collection, as only aficionados will have the patience and temperament to sort through this -- this may all sound similar, but this is garage rock of a remarkably high quality, as all the bands play with enthusiasm and most do distinguish themselves subtly, like how the Aardvarks mine dark grooves reminiscent of the Animals, which keeps this fascinating. Nevertheless, all those clattering guitars and organs do make the bands that depart from the norm stand out, whether it's the Sheffields re-creating Merseybeat on "Nothing I Can Do," Tonto & the Renegades dipping into smooth sprightly AM pop on "Anytime You Want Some Lovin'," the Assortment bashing a Motown beat on the Contours cover "First I Look at the Purse," and, perhaps most interestingly, the Jades' "Surface World," which finds the group awakening to the possibilities outside of the hypocritical suburban world. This was a common sentiment in San Francisco, but to find it echoing so clearly on the shores of Lake Michigan is startling, particularly because "Surface World" has nothing to do with psychedelia -- it's just some kids from Sparta High School figuring out the world in 1965, finding their voice through rock & roll. That's as close to folk art as garage rock got, and while you have to be way into the garage to really appreciate Scream Loud!! The Fenton Story as either music or history, if you are on its wavelength you will find it astounding.