96 tears – ? and the Mysterians

? and the Mysterians. The group’s name alone might’ve been enough to secure them a place in garage rock lore. But there is also the matter of the great and weird music of the band. Their most famous song “96 tears”, an amazing piece of music, is guaranteed to still be played regularly across garages, rehearsal spaces and clubs everywhere for countless years.

Question Mark and the Mysterians are a garage rock band from Michigan, initially active during the ’60’s. It’s easy to imagine one may have originally heard this gem on compilation dealing either with “one hit wonders”, “hits of the ’60’s” or “garage rock”. But with the cryptic lyrics, spiraling organ riffs, the steady bass line, there is something truly odd and compelling about this song.

Like “Louie, Louie” or “Gloria”, “96 tears” is a premonition of punk rock and the alternative music of the ’90s. It’s based on a simple melody and chord pattern that never seem to wear out their welcome for the 3 minute duration of the song. And while everything about the composition is simple and classic, there is something, almost foreboding just below the surface.

Then there are the vocals provided by the lead singer, referring himself as “Question Mark”. the voice is cut in a simple, under produced fashion, but entirely memorable. In fact most of the production work on the band’s records shares these traits. Question Mark would present himself like a distant cousin to Mick Jagger, albeit one that was in the habit of constantly wearing black shades.

As the story goes the initial suggestion was to call the song “69 tears”, but the band deciding they might have a radio hit on their hands thought it was best to cut our the dirty words. Their idea was to switch the numbers around. The song was in fact a chart success, but the real legacy of the song and the sound really began after the initial chart success, with the many references tributes throughout pop culture.

In 1972 Lenny Kaye (guitarist with the Patti Smith Group) and Jac Holzman (founder of Elektra records) put out a series of compilation records of garage rock from the ’60’s called “Nuggets”. They featured a very diverse group of musicians and sounds. Some of those sounds long forgotten. But most of those sounds were to mutate into what eventually became punk rock in the ’70’s. The “Nuggets” captured rock music at it’s most naive and full of wonderful energy that it would get to be. It was the birth of distortion and fuzz pedals and of musicians who love with the sound made by the instruments that many of them had barely learnt to master.

The first of these compilations also featured “96 tears” and in the years that followed those garage rock sounds became some of the most quoted elements of ’60’s music. Much of it had to do with the genuine enthusiasm and the pioneering days of the music, but also with the fact that the level of skill required to play some of the songs featured on “Nuggets” was exactly the level of skill of novice musicians making noise in their own garages, around the world.

Question Mark and the Mysterians are active today. “96 tears” has been covered just about a million times and bands like the Stranglers, the Ramones, Primal Scream have expressed their admiration for the band. That’s enough to ensure them a place in the history of alternative rock.

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