We’ve been big fans so far of Sonic Highways, the HBO series in which Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters visit different cities around America seeking inspiration in their respective music scenes. Previous episodes highlighting cities like Chicago, Nashville and Washington, D.C., have pulled off a nifty balancing act, toggling between the more personal narratives of Grohl and his bandmates and the broader history and character of the city as a whole. It’s like Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations for rock nerds.
So naturally, we were excited to view last Friday night’s Los Angeles episode of Sonic Highways — and disappointed when it failed to capture our town’s sleazy rock & roll heart.
Squandering interviews with L.A. icons like Slash and the surviving members of The Doors, each of whom appeared for just seconds, the episode almost immediately ditched the big city for Joshua Tree to focus on the story of the desert generator parties that gave rise to Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age. While we have plenty of love for Queens frontman Josh Homme and his compatriots, we couldn’t help but feel that Sonic Highways missed a golden opportunity to tell the story of L.A.’s rich music history. Here were our five biggest issues with the episode as a whole.
1. The desert is not Los Angeles.
Maybe it’s stating the obvious, but once you trek way the hell out to Joshua Tree, you’re not really in L.A. anymore. It would be a little like if Sonic Highways had shot its entire Chicago episode in Milwaukee. We understand that Grohl already filmed an entire documentary at L.A.'s legendary Sound City Studios, but those of us who live here were still looking forward to an actual L.A. episode, not an “L.A. stresses me out, I’m going to the desert” episode.
2. If you must spend almost the entire episode in the desert, then tell the story of the desert.
To jump right from celebrity pool soirees and golf tournaments to Mario Lalli’s generator parties is to gloss over the Southern California desert’s long history as a haven for eccentric musicians and artists. Where were Gram Parsons (whose omission was all the more egregious considering the episode did interview one of his main collaborators, Emmylou Harris), Eric Burdon, Donovan, Victoria Williams? Where, above all, was Pappy and Harriet’s, the Pioneertown honkytonk that since the ‘80s has been synonymous with high desert rock music?
By spending almost the entire episode at the admittedly awesome Rancho de la Luna recording studio, Grohl gave the impression (a few passing shots of Slab City and Salvation Mountain notwithstanding) that the Rancho is a weirdo oasis, not part of a long tradition of freaks carving out their own niches in the California desert.
3. The Germs were not the only — or even the most important — L.A. punk band.
It’s great that the episode devoted plenty of attention to Foos guitarist Pat Smear’s old band The Germs and their incendiary, self-destructive frontman, Darby Crash. But from Sonic Highways’ narrow narrative, you’d think they existed in a vacuum, instead of being just one of at least a half-dozen bands that were huge influences not just on SoCal punk, but punk and hardcore music worldwide. Do the names Black Flag, X, Minutemen, Social Distortion and the Circle Jerks ring any bells? To trace the entire arc of The Germs’ career without name-checking a single one of their contemporaries was perhaps the episode's biggest fail.
Next: More Sonic Highways fails...
4. Of all the ‘70s-era clubs to focus on, why Rodney’s English Disco?
Rodney’s wasn’t even primarily a live music venue – it was a nightclub that occasionally booked live bands, and most of those weren’t even from L.A. Why not devote a few minutes to seminal punk and rock clubs like the Masque, Gazzarri’s, or the Fleetwood? Considering how much time the Sonic Highways Chicago episode spent on the Cubby Bear, it seems odd to almost completely ignore similar L.A. clubs where Pat Smear began his career — although the episode does deserve props for giving a shout-out to the nearly forgotten Hong Kong Cafe.
5. L.A.’s music scene is not about “the glitz and glamour.”
In explaining the L.A. episode to Rolling Stone, Grohl noted, "I didn't want to focus on the glitz and glamour because that's what people usually focus on." But that's a disingenuous argument for filming most of the episode in Joshua Tree, and Grohl knows it.
Early in the episode, right before he hits the highway, Grohl says in voiceover narration: "All you have to do is wipe away one layer of the glamour, and you're already in the dirt." That dirt, not desert sand, is the true essence of music in Los Angeles. Nearly every great L.A. recording artist, from The Doors to N.W.A. to Guns N' Roses, looked up at the glitz and glamour from their squalid life on the city's fringes and said, "Screw that fake Hollywood bullshit. I've got my own story to tell."
Sonic Highways is telling its own story, too, of course. We just wish Dave Grohl had found more space in that narrative for the real Los Angeles.
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Many thanks to Cary Baker for helping to inspire this post.