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Wavemakers 

At work and play in musical L.A.

Wednesday, Jun 23 1999
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Back on the Strip, the Doors opened at the Whisky — lizardly sexual bump and grind for the UCLA film student set, and their little brothers. Little sisters back home could tune in to the Monkees, a prefab-for-TV group who were much more than their nice TV images, cutting a series of excellent self-penned and -produced albums in their latter days.

It all tails off in an incense haze of contrary images: groupies, protest signs, LSD, la dee da. Charles Manson, The End. The Scene sputtered out much as did the decade itself, retreating to formulate plans for prolonging, harnessing (and maybe defusing) the rebellion of youth.

The ’70s are reviled/revered as a kind of post-hippie, complacent/consumerist/bad taste state of affairs for all concerned, and, viewing the tapes now — cheesecloth shirts, shags, flares, muttonchop sideburns — that’s an absolutely accurate assessment. Obviously, the tumultuous ’60s had knocked us for a loop, and we needed to get back to the country, or to Sherman Oaks. Remember the Eagles?

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If New York had Steely Dan, smartypants urban dudes with pithy words and jazzy chords (though much of it was recorded here), Los Angeles had the Eagles, whose laid-back, cowboy-shirted guitar-pickers sipping Tequila Sunrises and singing about hitting the dusty road in search of casual sex seemed to epitomize the burnished gold leisure-world-view of the beckoning West. Their songwriting core of Glenn Frey and Don Henley came from Michigan and Texas, respectively, but they had a gift for encapsulating the L.A. dream — one of the dreams, anyway. The Eagles were all about grooving with (or coping with) the desert that encircles us, never mind teal stucco apartment buildings and Wienerschitzels strewn across the landscape.

Outsiders and insiders: We had Joni Mitchell here, too, a brilliant Canadian musician-poet with a gift for turning ç folk-derived music upside-down with new harmonies and daring warbles, a path that would lead her full-on into the realm of New Jazz and all manner of studio experimentalism. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young refined still further what was left of country music, riddling it with art-song voices sometimes reminiscent of the Lettermen. There was Rodney’s English Disco, in 1972, where pseudo-British kids could cultivate their glittering rock fantasies, where visiting English lads could indulge their mum’s-not-watching hooliganism, debauching with underage girls to the florid strains of Bowie, the Sweet and Roxy Music. By this time, the Mothers of Invention were in full dark flower, Beefheart had shattered everything we thought we knew.

Yet there came such a furiously complacent blanding down in L.A. music, due largely to the swelling power of radio — rigid formats purveying rigidly played, smoothed-over music — and police pressure on club owners, and the general numbness that had come in retreat from the ominous vibes of the late ’60s. Kim Fowley was still hanging around — he got us the Runaways, his half-glitter half-protopunk girl band. We’d had enough thinking.

And then it was time to dance: Disco reared its urban head, and most everyone applied the following sound to their records: sss-bump-sss-bump-sss-bump-sss-bump. Lines were drawn: You loved it or you hated it, never both, not yet. Disco became a scapegoat, especially when the Ramones in late 1976 and next year the Sex Pistols and the Clash cued young L.A. punks to a new lifestyle of safety pins and torn jeans, sneers and spiky hair. Los Angeles hungrily seized on punk — in this palace of smashed dreams, it was a perfect fit. For the first time in eons, we actually had places to play, after years of clubs run as showcases for major-label aspirants, or as cover-band safe houses. There was the Masque, Madame Wong’s, the Hong Kong Cafe, the ON Klub, the Music Machine, Cathay de Grande, Club Lingerie, Club 88, the Whisky, the Roxy, the Starwood — loads of mangy dives in which to vent and punch and spit. The scene produced its share of boneheads (the not-ironic kind), yet at its core seemed to understand the phenomenon’s implications: The Screamers, the Germs, Nervous Gender, sort of like electric Abstract Expressionists, took punk entirely outside its original form and intent.

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