The Knickerbockers

The Challenge Recordings

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Contrary to popular opinion, the Knickerbockers had more than one hit. They had two. "One Track Mind" just missed Billboard's Top 40 in 1966, several months after "Lies" galloped to a peak position of 20 in late 1965. Twenty isn't a blockbuster number but "Lies" is considered a classic 45 thanks in part to its inclusion in Lenny Kaye's 1972 garage rock compilation Nuggets. Their presence on Nuggets suggested the Knickerbockers were a hard and wild garage band, an assessment that isn't strictly true. Certainly, the Jersey-based quartet could kick up some dust as they bashed out three chords but Sundazed's four-disc 2015 box set The Challenge Recordings -- a disc containing everything the group did, including the full-length LPs Jerk & Twine Time and Lies, the 1994 archival set The Great Lost Album!, singles, alternate takes, and previously unissued demos -- paints the portrait of a hard-working combo willing to try on any sound that might get them an audience. This eagerness led them straight to "Lies," as expert an imitation of the Beatlemania-era Fab Four as there ever was, but the Knickerbockers didn't content themselves with mimicking John, Paul, George, and Ringo. During their brief time at Challenge -- a stint that essentially amounts to all of 1965 and 1966, although there is a demo from 1964, a stray single and other unreleased items from 1967 -- the band touched upon every mainstream rock or pop sound of the pre-psychedelic '60s, starting as a fratty combo grinding out party covers of R&B and British Invasion hits -- not to mention a version of "The Jolly Green Giant" by early '60s rock & roll kingpins the Kingsmen -- and quickly touching upon surf and the limbo, folk-rock, and swinging pop, coming across like an AM pop station condensed into one quartet. After the hit, the productions got grander -- they were slathered in strings and horns that placed them somewhere between B.J. Thomas and Glen Campbell -- but they also had an eye for snazzy covers of crossover standards ("Harlem Nocturne," "The Girl from Ipanema") and they were hip enough to spin "King of the Road" into a groover in the style of the Sir Douglas Quintet. All of this can be heard on Sundazed's original CD reissues of the band -- apart from the unreleased 1967 side "Guaranteed Satisfaction," where the group swaggers convincingly -- but the reason why these recordings sound better as a box than on their own is how listening to four discs in succession emphasizes how the Knickerbockers jumped aboard every trend and, even if they didn't always cop a style with distinction, there's a charm to their hard-working aesthetic. Plus, their malleability is almost an asset: it makes The Challenge Recordings seem like a time capsule of what American rock & roll really sounded like in the mid-'60s.

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