While we mourn the death of any great artist, some losses hit harder than others. Though they ultimately are but a footnote in rock history, the Troggs are a brilliant footnote—an indispensible high point between the British Invasion and punk rock. A band of single-minded originals, they remain immortal to anyone who’s heard them, despite the death from cancer of singer and songwriter Reg Presley at the age of 71 on Feb. 4.
Presley was the most unlikely of rock stars. Born Reginald Ball in the nowheresburg of Andover in southern England, he was working as a bricklayer when he formed the band. He essentially had one subject as a lyricist—frustrated teenage lust, not a bad topic for Valentine’s Day—and a rudimentary knowledge of music and composition; there are perhaps a half dozen chords utilized in most of the band’s canon. His voice could charitably be described as monotone, and he looked like a Dickensian street thug prowling the shadowy alleys off the docks, even when dressed in the spiffy Beatles suits of the group’s early days.
You have to admire a character like that audaciously changing his surname to that of the King of Rock—and then somehow managing to realize a version of that dream himself.
Producer Larry Page, the man who launched the Kinks, turned the Troggs into stars with “Wild Thing” in 1966, overseeing the band’s cover of a tune penned by American songwriter Chip Taylor. But the band members soon proved they could rewrite “Louie Louie” themselves, and a string of proto-punk hits followed, all of them based on a primal tom-tom beat, raw fuzz guitar and the lewd-but-droll rasping of pudgy ol’ Reg. The Troggs got as much mileage out of this simple but timeless formula as the Ramones did a decade later, and no self-respecting rock record collection should be without a good best-of collection. My favorite: Archaeology (1966-1976); issued by Polygram in 1992, these two discs include 52 tracks, and there isn’t a stinker among them.
Some artists’ deaths hit harder than others, and I find myself deeply mourning the loss of Reg. But that sadness dissipates as soon as I return to the music, and in the spirit of celebration, I share with you a dozen of his greatest moments.
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First up: Four prime examples of the Troggs at their… um, most eager. The titles pretty much say it all, but even at his most obsessive and hottest to trot, Reg evinces an endearing clumsiness. “I can’t stand still ’cause you’ve got me goin’/Your slacks are low and your hips are showin’,” he sings. “I take you girl as you’re standin’ there/Your low-cut slacks and your long black hair.” What other rocker would even use the word “slacks”—not once, but twice?
1. “I Can’t Control Myself”
2. “I Want You”
3. “Give It to Me”
4. “The Yella in Me”
Like a lot of guys who talk about it all the time, the Troggs were masking their true romantic natures under all that puffed-up machismo, as evidenced by the heart-stirring ballads that balanced the primal stompers. Musically, the group doesn’t get enough credit for its range, while tunes such as the three that follow helped make their randy moments more amusing than annoying, since, when all was said and done, they really were the type of guys who’d send a bird flowers in the morning and kiss her mum upon meeting her.
5. “Any Way That You Want Me”
6. “You Can Cry if You Want To”
7. “With A Girl Like You”
Of course, even in ballad mode, the band never was completely innocent. “Cousin Jane” ranks as one of their creepiest moments, thanks to addition of a hint of the forbidden. Yikes!
8. “Cousin Jane”
Back on the sunnier side of romance, “Love Is All Around” may be the group’s prettiest song ever, a true power-pop gem, and it was covered by some masters of that form in a later generation, R.E.M. That led to Peter Buck, Chris Mills and Bill Berry collaborating with Presley and original Troggs guitarist Chris Britton for an odd gem on an EP titled Athens Andover released in 1992. It’s a bit heavy on the “Love Is All Around” and a bit short on the “I Can’t Control Myself.” But hey, even a legendary troglodyte starts to slow down as he gets older.
9. “Love Is All Around”
10. The Troggs with Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry, “Nowhere Road”
Everybody knows this next one—heck, even Jimi Hendrix loved it—but needless to say, it has to be on any list of the band’s best.
11. “Wild Thing”
Finally, we come to a sample of what might be considered “spoken word.” Many believe the Troggs were idiot-savants, an impression that comes from the infamous bootleg “Troggs Tape.” Towards the end of their initial run, in1970, the group struggled in the studio to nail a simple five-beat groove and capture one more piece of brutish brilliance on tape. Unbeknownst to them, a bemused recording engineer kept the reel-to-reel rolling as the musicians screamed obscenities at one another and spouted absurdities worthy of Spinal Tap. (“I know that it needs strings, that I do know!”) The 12-minute recording became a prized collectors’ item, and it’s a must-hear, though it’s nowhere near safe for work.
12. “The Troggs Tape”