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Boxes in Flux: Where the Action Is!

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?

One issue is that the potential follow-up box, or at least something similar to it, was posted on the popular Aquarium Drunkard Web site the same week that Action! came out. Called “L.A. Burnout,” the mix, originally compiled in 2007, collects 36 songs about L.A. released in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Writes mixtape co-curator Justin Gage: “These are the tunes I was spinning while reading both Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock-and-Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood and Hotel California: The True-Life Adventures of CSN.”

The collection, which Drunkard posted without getting clearance from the artists, includes pastoral stoner classics from Spirit, Jack Nitzsche, the Beau Brummels, Loudon Wainwright III, the Mamas & the Papas, Neil Young and a host of other musicians who expanded their music after the L.A. rock & roll explosion documented on Action! The price of this compilation? Free. The distribution costs and licensing fees? $0. No wonder Rhino is letting people go, and insiders are contemplating the end of the box-set era.

It’s a constant worry for Lance Ledbetter, owner of the Grammy Award–winning reissue label Dust to Digital. The Atlanta concern deals in obscure, thematic compilations and box sets, and spends as much time and care on the object itself as it does the music within. Its most recent collection, Take Me to the Water, is subtitled “Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography, 1890-1950,” and is as much a book as a CD release. It features obscure songs and old photos that recount baptisms, and a long essay by writer Luc Sante. Ledbetter says that Dust to Digital, which has two full-time employees — “me and my wife” — is aware that they’re operating a business in flux. “I talk to several other record companies that are on our level, and a lot of the discussions we have are about, ‘This isn’t a golden era.’ We’ve come into it a little bit post–golden era for the industry, and we’re all watching to see what’s going to happen.”

Ledbetter, like Sandoval, blames the shift in buying habits. But he says that if the box set goes by the wayside, a whole scholarship vehicle vanishes with it. “I really enjoy the box set as a format because of what you can do with it — the amount of scholarship and knowledge you can convey with a great deal of audio and a great deal of liner notes and essays.” Ledbetter, whose other releases include the amazing Goodbye, Babylon collection of early–20th century spirituals, and the mysterious, stunning Victrola Favorites book and CD of vintage 78s, adds: “But a lot of work goes into doing this. We’re fortunate to be doing this for a living, but it’s a constant, heaping plate of overwhelmingness.”

For its part, Rhino continues to amaze. The Burbank-based company still has more than 100 employees working on their reissues (it just released an all-encompassing Big Star set, and has just started mailing out advances of its forthcoming six-CD box of Doors live recordings). A streamlined Rhino will continue to release unsung gems from the vast Warner Music Group archive. And regardless of whether Where the Action Is! is a commercial success or not, Sandoval is glad the collection is out there. “For me,” he says, “if it finds its audience or doesn’t find its audience, I’m just glad that I did it, especially because I feel Los Angeles needs an identity for its music scene. If you think about what happened here as far as all the great punk groups we had here in the late ’70s and early ’80s, that’s a whole other chapter — maybe not of Nuggets but a history that should get chronicled, too.” Here’s hoping it does.

Where the Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968 (Rhino Records)

L.A. Burnout: A Compilation (aquariumdrunkard.com)

Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography, 1890-1950 (Dust to Digital)

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