Much as you don’t get to choose your nicknames, if you are a rock and roll group you don’t get to decide your legacy. Take the example of The Troggs: I’m sure if Reginald Maurice Ball d/b/a REG PRESLEY had gotten to dictate the history book write-up of his ahead-of-their-time group, he would have declared Troggsmusic to be the greatest rock and roll ever made. As is, he spent the ensuing years from 1966 until his death, at age 71, on Monday from cancer, being a one-hit or two-hit wonder (depending on whether you viewing the Troggs from American or UK eyes). It sure beat bricklaying (his pre-Troggs occupation), I’m sure Presley thought to himself with a wry and knowing smile, if his musical persona correlates at all with the person he really was.
Presley and Troggs often get lumped as “proto-punk”, “punk” because of the guitar fuzz and Presley’s lascivious vocal presence, “proto” because they did things like brazenly pursue chart fame and perform songs written by outside hit factory writers-- like “Wild Thing”, the band’s most recognizable tune that hit #1 in America in July 1966 (and #2 in Britain). That one was penned by Chip Taylor, a pro-golfer-turned-hit-machine whose specialty was girl group pomp (see his work with the criminally underrated Evie Sands) and country-pop (most notably when Juice Newton hit number 1 in 1981 with his song “Angel In The Morning”); Presley and the Troggs took his little ditty, originally written for and recorded by The Wild Ones, and mangled it into a sneering and prowling piece of sleaze, with Reg dripping bad intentions between the lines.
Presley made his intentions far more clear with the band’s follow-up to “Wild Thing”, the absolutely rutting “I Can’t Control Myself”, leading off a string of incredible singles that would each top the last one for pure yearning carnality, pounding and mashing and screaming and pleading. "Can't Control Myself" remains one of rock's most powerful sex missiles, a throbbing raw nerve that is both completely ridiculous and utterly mesmerizing. If the following years would see rock elevated as capital-A Art, this single was the complete opposite, pounding and shrieking with sheer animal lust--it hit #2 in the UK in September 1966, and would seem to be presaging a caveman resurgence in pop mythmaking.
And yet it was not to be, as 1967 ushered in an era of neutered high-concept paisley pop; Presley and the band never recaptured the hit formula of “Wild Thing”, leading them to try almost anything in the the ensuing years to cater to the changing market, like penning one of 1968’s prettiest psych ballads, the amazingly earnest “Love Is All Around”.
In a sense, Reg and the Troggs were a real-life Spinal Tap decades before the mockumentary, a theory that kind of turns to fact once you factor in that a leaked tape of the band arguing in the studio in the late 60s that became an underground sensation is so clearly an inspiration for Rob Reiner’s 1984 film. A listen-through of this unbelievably funny tape reveals not only some amazingly off-the-cuff one-liners, but sheds light on the frustration behind the high pressure rock machine of the 60s, and the way that a band like the Troggs had to operate under impossible pressures in order to bottle lightning twice for their corporate overlords. “You gotta put a little bit of fucking fairy dust over the bastard” is how Presley succinctly sums up the recording biz in this clip, and he’s pretty much dead on.
Presley and Troggs get pegged as a garage rock antecedent, but that’s really selling the band and the man monstrously short-- if anything, Presley’s antics, his leering come-ons, his witty cynicism and intimate calls to carnality, led directly to the stadium rock of the 70s and 80s, as everyone from Robert Plant to Bob Scott to David Lee Roth bit from Presley’s playbook and blew it t the rafters. Listen, for instance, to this tossed-off Troggs b-side, from 1972: “Feels Like A Woman” is as heavy as AC/DC or Sabbath and as sly and subversive as any glam metal anthem. If the thunder of the Troggs anticipated Iggy and the MC5, it also paved the way for everyone from Kiss to Van Halen. Presley’s ‘tude was the secret sauce for vaulting club-level garage kicks into the astroturf stratosphere-- it’s a pity that the man himself didn’t get to rock said enormodomes with the act that he originated.
The Troggs continued in fits and starts as the 60s came to a close, and Presley the singer and performer never stopped taking stages and gracing studios, at least not until December 2011 when the state of his health made his rigorous touring schedule untenable. The band had a number of resuscitations, most profitably for Presley when UK pop sensation Wet Wet Wet hit #1 with “Love Is All Around” in 1994, effectively keeping Presley from the need for a day job for the rest of his life. But Presley was hardly sitting around at home twiddling his thumbs and waiting for royalty checks: one of rock’s more interesting characters, he spent decades studying his life’s obsession, crop circles, publishing in 2004 his tome on the subject Wild Things They Don’t Tell Us, an amusing-yet-paranoid investigation of the links between UFOs, crop circles, our corrupt government/bank systems, and our decaying environment.
Aside from the tinfoil-hat territory that Presley clearly veered into, it’s important to view the book as an expression of Presley’s desire to, as he puts it in the book, “think outside the box”. Like any other great of 60s rock, this was Presley’s main instigation: to investigate and question things that society claims are open and shut cases. Whether you’re talking about the possibility of UFOs or the way our civilization views man’s fundamental urges to shake, rattle and rock, Presley was an avid supporter of the right to give the other side its due. A telling anecdote circulated about the man has to do with an early-80s Troggs gig in Sun City, the notorious South African luxury resort that drew a host of first world entertainers despite the country’s odious apartheid government; according to this account:
They were completely ignorant of the Apartheid situation, and when they had a peek at the all-white audience, Reg Presley said (and you have to imagine this said in his yokel accent) "'Ang on a minute, I thought we're in Africa, so 'ow come no-one's black?!"
When the situation was explained to him, the said "What, really?! Well, that's bang out of order!", and The Troggs drove out to a black township the next day and busked a gig on the back of a truck, which he said was the best gig he'd played in his life.
It is, of course, entirely possible that this story is complete bullshit-- or it could also be the implausible explanation by an artist attempting to create a cover story for why they played such a hideous money gig in the first place. But there is something to this tale that oozes the innate charm and power of Presley’s delivery in the Troggs, a delivery which will live on as long as rock and roll is still valued as a subversive kudgel to bludgeon society’s stodginess and unwillingness to view the alternate perspective.