The city of Long Beach’s contributions to popular music probably will always be overshadowed by that of its big sister, L.A. Which is a shame, really.
Of course there are the city’s two most famous musical denizens, Snoop Dogg and Sublime, who rep Long Beach hard in their songs. But have you heard of Suburban Rhythm, The Pyramids or Z? Did you know that Zack de la Rocha, Julieta Venegas and Jack Grisham were all born in the working-class port city, too? And what does it mean that all of these fantastically disparate sounds came out of the same blocks of the same urban grit, 30 miles (and a cultural lifetime) from L.A.’s entertainment industry churn?
Here are the top 10 bands (sorry, rappers and solo artists weren't included for this one) from the International City who have (often subtly) shaped mainstream noise.
10. Crystal Antlers
Crystal Antlers never made a lot of sense — and we mean that as a compliment. Albums like 2008’s self-titled debut and 2009’s Tentacles bounce all over the place, from doomy lo-fi grumbles to Latin-tinged riffs to psych-rock freakouts, complete with bongos, organ riffs and a bassist/singer who plays as though he’s shredding a four-string guitar. Looking at a photo of the members of Crystal Antlers will confuse you more than it will give you any insight into who is behind this relentless energy and proggy goodness; each person looks as if s/he stumbled into the frame from somewhere else. That’s because Crystal Antlers is the sum of many parts, even when it’s a stripped-down three-piece, as it was for its most recent set of songs. These days, singer Jonny Bell is tending to his home studio, Jazz Cats, where he records other hard-to-define bands such as Rubedo and Jeffertitti’s Nile.
Long Beach breeds some of the industry’s top session musicians, many of whom can be heard on Grammy-nominated records and at live shows around the world. But Long Beach is home to only one session band — a group of multigenre minds so creatively on their own planet that they are hired to produce and perform as a package. The three core members of Z (formerly known as Mulatto) are so adept at fusing deep funk, punk rock, theatrical R&B, conscious hip-hop, electronic futurism and cinematic soul that they’ve been both the musical director and backing band for rap royalty Nas, as well as the composers and featured band for revolutionary magic show The Illusionists. In addition to bassist Dustin Moore, vocalist Eddie Cole (grandson of Nat King) and trumpeter and keyboardist Tom Terrell, Z includes a rotation of other musicians who came up with them in the prestigious jazz program at Poly High School. When they’re not touring, members can be found sitting in on weekly jazz jams throughout Long Beach.
8. Wild Pack of Canaries
The birth of the sometimes-seven-piece experimental psych-prog band Wild Pack of Canaries began around 2009 with a simple question: What if The Beatles and Hella made an album? Combining pristine pop sensibilities with dissonant, prog-rock nihilism is exactly the kind of insane sonic breeding that led Wild Pack of Canaries to become one of Long Beach’s most popular bands of the last decade. Each element of Wild Pack has its own quirks: Singer and guitarist Rudy de Anda sings softly but wields a brutal psychedelic ax; drummer Alfred Hernandez is a spastic ball of improvisational beats; guitarist J.P. Bendzinski is an adept tone wizard; and Matisse Ibarra stands behind a mess of electronics, ready to trip everything out with atmospheric weirdness. A rotation of horn players rounds out the band, which is at its freaky best on 2013’s In the Parian Flesh.
7. The Pyramids
Though they seem to sonically fit in with all the other white-bread surf rock of the mid-1960s, everything about The Pyramids was contrarian. Willie Glover, their left-handed lead guitarist, was black (his genre-defying R&B crooning can also be heard on the band’s B-sides). They often showed up to shows in helicopters and on elephants, purposefully upstaging limo-arriving headliners like The Beach Boys. And when the British Invasion hit the States, Glover and co. shaved their heads, performing in Beatles-esque shaggy wigs before shaking them off to reveal shiny dome-tops. The name of their biggest hit was “Penetration,” a lascivious title for two minutes of sandy, sunny instrumental rock. A shady manager and the Vietnam War draft killed The Pyramids, but their wild stage antics and anti-establishment approach to pop means we will always remember them as the band that made surf rock punk as fuck.
6. Avi Buffalo
Avi Buffalo is what emo should have sounded like when we were in high school. Fronted by the talented and tormented (aren’t they all?) Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg and his old-soul, jazz-blues chops, Avi Buffalo took poetic songs about pervy teen thoughts and unrequited love and gave them so much noodly pep that the music industry had no choice but to take notice. Did we mention the band was fresh out of high school (one was even still a senior) when they inked a two-record deal with legendary Sub Pop Records in 2010? But after touring the world and playing major festivals, Avi Buffalo broke up — as most high school relationships do — and Zahner-Isenberg landed back home, writing and recording out of a van parked in his parents' driveway. He continues to release trippy solo records and plays around Long Beach constantly, both as Avi Buffalo and with various friends' projects.
5. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
It’s been 50 years since the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band formed at McCabe’s Guitar Shop (the now-defunct Long Beach location, not the one in Santa Monica), turning impromptu jam sessions in the back room into a decades-long career that reshaped American folk and country music. But they didn’t always play the arena-ready folk-rock that attracts Dirt Band fans today. In the early days — when Jackson Browne was the singer — they were a jangly jug band. Commercial success only came later, after the group moved to Colorado, switched to electric instruments and embraced their bluegrass and country influences (reflected on 1970’s Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy, their first success). By the ’80s, the weird little folk band that could were full-on mainstream country stars. Only two members remain from the Dirt Band’s early days, but the spirit of folkie improv that started at McCabe’s half a century ago lives on.
4. Free Moral Agents
It’s hard to sum up Isaiah “Ikey” Owens’ musical contributions with just one band, but his treasured Long Beach project, Free Moral Agents, might do the trick. Owens was a prolific keyboardist and producer whose career saw him bounce from the Long Beach Dub Allstars to a hip-hop duo with rapper 2Mex to the Grammy Award–winning Mars Volta (which also formed in Long Beach). When Owens died unexpectedly in 2014, he was on tour in Mexico with Jack White. Often a hired gun or collaborator while on the road, when Owens came home, his energy focused on his first love: the Long Beach music scene. He produced local talent and wrote and performed original songs with his expansive dream-team collective, Free Moral Agents. At live shows, singer Mendee Ichikawa’s hypnotic vocals soared over ethereal tweaks from Owens’ keyboards and jazzy, psych-rock tangents from everyone else, making a sound that fit in equally at dive bar the Prospector and at Low End Theory.
3. Suburban Rhythm
Suburban Rhythm might be the best Long Beach band that never made it. Its five members have all gone on to spread their musical greatness in other ways — singer Dennis Owens is a DJ who puts on the long-running funk and soul club Goodfoot, while drummer Carlos de la Garza is a notable producer with his own L.A. studio. But for a fleeting few years in the early ’90s, the whole city was vibing out on Suburban Rhythm’s catchy blend of punk, funk, reggae and even country. If Fishbone’s brand of ska-punk was too brash for radio, then Suburban Rhythm was the pop-punk answer, paving the way for now-famous bands like No Doubt and Reel Big Fish (who frequently opened for them) to take the airwaves. It’s not unfair to say that Suburban Rhythm helped launch the third-wave ska revival in nearby Orange County, a feat forever immortalized in the Reel Big Fish song “S.R.,” which laments the short-lived band’s breakup with a single question that may plague Long Beach music history forever: “Whatever happened to Suburban Rhythm?”
“Low Rider” might be the most famous song to ever blare out of tricked-out cars bobbing down Whittier Boulevard — and it was written by a group of Afro-Latin music pioneers who grew up in Long Beach. War first gained fame with Eric Burdon as their vocalist, but even before producer Jerry Goldstein discovered them at a bar show and tossed the former Animals singer into the mix, the band’s core five members had logged nearly a decade of soul covers and funk fusion. Burdon left after recording two quick albums, which was all well and good, because War’s talented multicultural crew (which also included Danish harmonica player Lee Oskar) didn’t need Burdon’s name recognition to draw people to their catchy, jazz-influenced crossover tracks. Undoubtedly one of the most important acts to emerge from the era of ’70s experimental fusion, War released a half-dozen gold records and wrote songs like "The Cisco Kid," "Why Can't We Be Friends?" and “The World Is a Ghetto,” which, perhaps more loudly than ever, speak to the need for kindness and change in our increasingly chaotic world.
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You knew this one was coming because, love them or hate them, Sublime are the best band to call the city of Long Beach home. Sure, they inspired an entire cottage industry of suburban white boys to start playing reggae fusion (sorry about 311, y’all), but they also created a globally appealing pop sound out of a mass of local and international musical influences, making the riddims and music of Jamaican rebellion accessible to an entirely new audience. These days, everyone from German grandmothers to Mexican punks to Silver Lake indie rockers can effortlessly sing along to songs like “What I Got,” “Badfish” and “Caress Me Down.” For Sublime’s legions of fans (who still follow along with the Long Beach Dub All Stars and Sublime With Rome), the band was a dense thread of musical influences that, once pulled, exposed them to everyone from KRS-One to The Specials to Clement Irie. It’s unfair to banish Sublime's gritty dub-rock albums to the lowly pantheon of bro music. Instead, let’s start showing some appreciation for the band that turned Long Beach’s multiculturalism into the new global sound.