Caveman. Punk. Presley. What could these words possibly have in common? One more: Troglodyte. Well, that one fits with Caveman. But you just need the first three to zero in on the only possible connection between them all, a shortened version of the fourth word: Troggs!
Here was a group unlike any other to come out of Britain in the mid-1960s. At first The Troggs lacked the polish of most of their peers, didn't seem to be influenced much by blues or pop, didn't conveniently fit into the scene. A rock and roll band, to be sure, but maybe it was a lack of musical direction, or a naievete that they could jump right into the thick of it with little trace of professionalism, that made them different. They were, in fact, pretty basic rock and rollers, but with a uniqueness so early on that they've often been cited as the originators (in England, at least) of the phenomenon that became punk rock.
The group's members grew up in Andover, a small town in the south of England, and in their formative stages went through a process of musical chairs - who would play which instrument, who's the stronger guitarist versus the better singer, and so on - with a couple of roster changes before settling on the 1964 lineup of Chris Britton on lead guitar, Pete Staples on bass, Ronnie Bullis on drums and frontman/guitarist/vocalist Reg Ball, who was ready to move away from his bricklaying vocation. Bullis changed his name to Ronnie Bond, preferring the sound of it as a stage name. The reason for Ball's switch to Reg Presley is less certain...someone in the band or in management may have suggested it, or perhaps Reg himself felt that being the second Presley in the music biz might bring good luck as it had for that other guy with the same last name. This raised questions among my own group of friends later when the Troggs' music hit America, after seeing just that surname listed as writer (an error as it turned out) on the "Wild Thing" single, causing us to wonder if Elvis was moonlighting as a composer of harder rock songs.
By a process of randomness, the guys settled on their collective moniker after considering Troglodytes and Grotty Troggs (just throwing weird names around), then took the "grotty" out and "caveman rock" was born. By 1965, they started picking up gigs, eventually hooking up with The Kinks' manager Larry Page who took over as producer, resulting in a single that year for Britain's CBS Records, "Lost Girl." It went nowhere. Reg Presley once claimed the song had gotten only one spin, on Radio Luxembourg at three in the morning...but then how did he know for sure that it didn't receive more - or even less - exposure? Regardless, the band was on the verge of creating a music milestone.
A songwriter from the States, Chip Taylor (a pseudonym for James Voight, brother of actor Jon Voight), had written a simple but promising rock tune called "Wild Thing," recorded and released toward the end of 1965 by The Wild Ones, a non-event similar to what the Troggs had experienced in their homeland so far. Page got his hands on a demo and put Reg, Chris and the guys into the studio to record it, though at the end of another session, leaving them little more than a half hour to set up and get the recording done. Legend has it they cranked out the song and its follow-up, "With a Girl Like You," in ten minutes. The U.K.'s Fontana Records released the single, with its distinctive sliding guitar intro, stop-and-start structure and mildly suggestive lyrics, and everyone knows what happened next: "Wild Thing" was huge in England, even bigger in America, leaping to number one, a perfect complement to the American garage band movement of 1966, an instant standard that, with its unrefined energy, has become one of the true classics of rock, growing in popularity over the years, ultimately time-stamping the band as the premier influence on up-and-coming punk rockers. The song has been recorded many, many times, delineations running the gamut from good (by Fancy) to bad (Bill Minkin as Senator Bobby) to downright silly (The Ventures, featuring vocals by a spot-on Peter Lorre impressionist)!
Legal entanglements between record companies in the U.S. unfortunately muddled things at first, resulting in the group's first three singles and debut album being released simultaneously on Atco, which made a claim to the recordings, and Fontana, the original label (already known in the states through hits by Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders). For reasons unclear, Atco put the first two A-sides back-to-back, while Fontana released them separately with different flips, as the equivalent British company had done. "With a Girl Like You," the other song from the fateful ten minute session, was a less-edgy but terrific follow-up and did well on the charts (though much better in England, hitting number one), followed by the rougher-rocking "I Can't Control Myself," which intriguingly was inspired by the style of U.S. band The Turtles. Even now, these early songs have an addicting quality to them. More hit-worthy singles followed, the urgent plea of "Give It To Me" and resignation of "Anyway That You Want Me" (covered by misleadingly-named Los Angeles group The Liverpool Five), top ten smashes in England but no so noticeable in America.
Next came a one-year lull during which time the single "Night of the Long Grass," a more psychedelic-leaning track with a title many perceived as a drug reference, quickly disappeared. The group reacted by deliberately taking a gentler approach than they had to this point, just for a creative change-of-pace, which worked nicely, landing them back in the top ten with "Love is All Around," a big hit in '68. Romanticism combined with their now-standard raw sound gave a unique result; it was one of the year's best tunes.
As the '60s ended and the hits did too, the group persisted, little realizing how long they might endure and prosper. Reg Presley did some acting on the side, with films and television appearances mostly in the U.K., including celebrity guest-shots on a game show or two, while maintaining the band as top priority. The Troggs' legend compounded as they played to large, enthusiastic crowds. As of this writing, Presley and Chris Britton continue performing with a couple of newer members and reviews are still positive. That means they've still got their "Wild Thing" on! And they could be coming soon to a venue near you!
- Wild Thing - 1966
- With a Girl Like You - 1966
- I Can't Control Myself - 1966
- Give It To Me - 1967
- Anyway That You Want Me - 1967
- Night of the Long Grass - 1967
- Love is All Around - 1968
- You Can Cry If You Want To - 1968