By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Times are tight, for sure. A $50 box set is a luxury that few can afford. Given the choice between a four-CD collection of music and paying the phone bill or buying a bottle of Scotch, well, let’s just say you can’t download a bottle of Scotch for free.
But if you’re at all curious about the history of the Los Angeles rock scene, the new box Where the Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968, which came out on September 22, is an essential document. Consisting of 101 songs and an extensive book, the Rhino Records set concentrates on the shockingly fertile scene centered around the Sunset Strip, which flourished at the peak of the British Invasion. Among many others getting their start in L.A. during those three years were the Doors, Randy Newman, the Byrds, Love, Sonny & Cher, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, the Seeds, Tim Buckley, and Harry Nilsson.
It’s not hyperbole to call this the most comprehensive collection of L.A. garage rock ever issued. Action! contains a remarkably varied array of three- and four-minute bursts of guitar rock. But the release of the set, which took three years to construct, also marks another kind of historical moment: A week after Where the Action Is! came out, Rhino, the legendary Warner Music Group–owned, L.A.-based label, laid off nearly a third of its staff — 38 people. Citing in a press release the “fundamental transformation of the physical new release and catalog business,” the Rhino layoffs mark the beginning of a new, more streamlined era for the storied reissue label.
Last month, West Coast Sound spoke with Action! co-producer Andrew Sandoval, who started work on the compilation in 2006. During a fascinating hourlong conversation, he described the time and effort that he and Rhino’s licensing department put into the box. First, he said, he reached out to colleagues and experts and asked them to make mixtapes of their favorite music from that period. While he and the licensing department were working on selections culled from those ideas, Sandoval was spending weekends on research for the comprehensive book that accompanies the set. “I went to the L.A. Public Library and went through the L.A. Times database, and did searches for all of the clubs, and started getting the firsthand information on when certain clubs closed, and when certain clubs opened, and added all that in.” (A transcript of the entire conversation can be found at laweekly.com.)
Sandoval listened to old radio tapes and scoured producers’ logs and tapes to garner more detailed information about the session musicians. He and his team searched for the best masters and, barring discovery of the originals, looked for pristine 45s to transfer. It was a huge undertaking and consumed much of his life for three years. The result is a one-stop look at rock in L.A.. from 1965 to 1968. It’s as much an act of scholarship as it is an entertainment.
The set is divided into four sections: Disc one, called “On the Strip,” features bands that rose on the thriving Sunset Strip scene, and includes early, obscure music from the Byrds, Love, the Seeds, Lowell George & the Factory, and others. Disc two, “The Studio Scene,” concentrates on the local hit factories, which sought to temper the sound of the streets for a mainstream audience (The Monkees, Dino, Desi & Billy, the Mamas & the Papas and Jan & Dean). The third disc, “Beyond the City,” looks outside the city’s border to the Inland Empire and O.C., and uncovers the Turtles, Thee Midnighters, Kim Fowley and the Humane Society, among others. “New Directions,” disc four, closes out with 25 songs, many with a country twang to them. These are the seeds of the city’s country-rock movement, which immediately followed the guitar explosion of the 1960s. Disc four alone is worth the price of the box, and includes early work by Stephen Stills & Richie Furay, Jackie DeShannon with the Byrds (the great “Splendor in the Grass”), Van Dyke Parks, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Del Shannon and Randy Newman.
Sandoval says that after all the sweat equity he and his colleagues put into the compilation, though, he was left with one nagging concern: “I know how many stores have taken this, and I can see it sitting there in its shrink-wrap with its price tag — and it’s not free. If nobody ever gets to crack one of these open and see what’s inside, that’s the nightmare. That it just sits there like a book at the library that never gets read. I want people to know about this music and these groups.”
It’s a valid concern, one that was reinforced by the layoffs. In fact, Sandoval’s desire over the coming few years is to continue via a follow-up box of the story of the country-rock movement that consumed the Topanga and Laurel Canyon scenes of the late ’60s and early ’70s. The problem, says Sandoval, is that “it might take us as long as this one did. Certainly not just for the sheer amount of work it would take but for the fact that the record business is in such transition. Maybe if this does really well, we’ll immediately be following it up, but right now we’re sort of keeping our fingers crossed that this record finds its audience.” That’s another way of asking, Three years from now, will there be a market for a Topanga/Laurel Canyon box set?