The L.A. music scene has ebbed and flowed over the years, with its historical high points producing countless punk, metal and pop pioneers and chart-toppers. But there was one particular period that may never be rivaled, at least in terms of alternative music and how it changed the industry. The mid ’80s through early ’90s was an important time for L.A. nightlife and for the music that made it come alive, with three bands in particular emerging from the hedonistic heap: Guns N’ Roses, Jane’s Addiction and The Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Not only did these bands break out of the local underground into the worldwide mainstream (despite the depravity, drug use and drama that encircled them) but all are still here, selling out stadiums, getting radio play and attracting new generations of fans.
What was happening in L.A. at the time that inspired them? The documentary Scenesters: Music, Mayhem & Melrose Ave. (1985-90) — showing Sunday, Sept. 24, at Beyond Baroque as part of Taquila Mockingbird’s screening series for the Punk Rock Museum — explores that question through interviews with the people who were there: playing in, going to and throwing parties at clubs like Scream, Raji’s and Cathouse. In addition, the film (which is also streaming on Amazon Prime) shows what life was like for the neo-glam, rock and goth “scenesters” outsideof the clubs. It delves into the daytime realness of their lives with insightful focus on trendy Melrose Avenue — where music lovers cruised and congregated to buy the coolest clothes, shoes and records, often sold to them by the hot rockers they had seen onstage the night before.
Scenesters filmmaker Desi Benjamin began to immerse himself in this world at the tender age of 16 (as did I). Originally from Cheviot Hills, Benjamin credits an obsession with reading mags like Circus, Hit Parader, Rolling Stone and Kerrang! for his initial interest in the music scene. “I would marvel about adventures of rock stars in Hollywood and the clubs they played in the formative years,” he tells me. “I was too late for the Starwood. The Roxy had a lot of theater — like Pee-wee Herman’s plays and Cheech & Chong — at that time. And the Whisky was doing dance clubs. So I frequented the Troubadour to see local metal bands like London, Stryper, Ratt, Quiet Riot, Mötley Crüe and Great White.”
Benjamin fancied himself a bass player, so like many (pre-internet) musicians he rifled through The Recycler to hook up with bands. “I saw an ad to be part of London's road crew and I liked the vibe of the band, plus I could get into clubs for free and it paid $15 per show,” he recalls. ”Izzy Stradlin was my favorite in London, as he had that Joe Perry, Johnny Thunders and Keith Richards thing.”
When Stradlin quit and joined Guns N’ Roses, Benjamin would eventually follow him. “This guy with curly hair passed me a flyer at the Troub and said, ‘Check out my band.’ Slash had just joined Izzy and the rest three weeks before. So I said, ‘Hey, you want a roadie?’" Benjamin remembers. “I saw the first Guns show on June 6, 1986, and my mind was blown. They were a punk rock Aerosmith and they were so good, kinda crazy, and I was happy to be along for their wild ride. Soon after I met Taimie [Downe, of Faster Pussycat], who was a friend of GNR, did lights at the Troub and worked at Retail Slut on Melrose.”
Working for and with GNR and Pussycat, Benjamin went from the guy who used to pick up band members and lug all their gear around in his mom’s car, to a successful co-promoter, doing shows with Rikki Rachman (Headbanger’s Ball) at the Whisky, Roxy and Coconut Teaszer on the Strip.
I met Benjamin as a door girl at the Teaszer just out of high school (it was an 18-and-over venue) and worked a few of his events there in the late ’80s. He became a scout for Virgin Records, then a manager, helping artists such as Mark Curry and Face to Face from Orange County get record deals. Several other A&R jobs and bands followed.
Scene makers like DJ/Vinyl Fetish record store owner Joseph Brooks, Club Scream’s Michael Stewart and Downe provide compelling flashbacks in the film. (I make a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance in the doc talking about the impact of Jane’s Addiction and Perry Farrell’s Lollapalooza festival, which came after the band broke.) It’s raw and a little scattered editing-wise, but the recollections, footage and photographic ephemera amassed are pretty extraordinary to see and hear, whether you were there or not.
Though many think only of the hair-metal aspect of the ’80s, L.A.’s music scene was diverse and fervent back then, a real flurry of faces and places, and there was something enticing to go to almost every night. New bands were constantly forming, and at parties like Scream, which took place in an old hotel downtown, there was an artsy sensibility and an almost dangerous DIY vibe that was alluringly inclusive.
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As Benjamin celebrates in the doc, Scream and clubs like it never seemed segregated by genre, incorporating everything, even the DJ-driven goth dancescape, as long as it wasn't mainstream. This would eventually change, of course, but for a while it was a community like never before or since. As someone mentions in the film, the musicians seemed to be constantly bouncing from band to band till something gelled, so the different lineups and projects from key players were nonstop. It felt really vital.
It was this amalgamation of talented — and yes, often intoxicated — outsiders trying new things, jamming with new people and partying together that eventually led to the formation of iconic bands including Jane's, GNR, the Chili Peppers and so many more (Kommunity FK, Specimen, Human Drama, The Nymphs, Celebrity Skin, Tex and the Horseheads, The Hangmen, The Little Kings, Damn Yankees, Jet Boy, to name just a few), many of whom made music just as catchy and compelling as the ones who did make it big but have sadly been forgotten. Whatever its cinematic flaws, Benjamin’s Scenesters is a comprehensive tribute to all the bands that rocked Los Angeles during one magical moment in time, a five-year period that ultimately changed everything.
Scenesters screens along with Craig Clark's Kustomonsters Movie on Sat., Sept. 23, 5:30 p.m., at Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd., Venice. (Sonic Utopia and The Nymphs’ Inger Lorre will perform with Eric James Contreras.) Facebook invite; more info here.