Los Angeles is a place where musicians’ dreams are pursued or exchanged or eliminated, where a ceaseless tide of starry-eyed youths chase an elusive fantasy of a life far bigger and better than the ones they left behind. Or so goes the cliché. In reality, the past few decades have seen a profoundly disparate array of musical minds, from Central Avenue to Soto Street to Zuma Beach to the Sunset Strip, both playing to and pulling down that sacred graven image. They’ve made music in L.A. an ever-expanding phenomenon whose dimensions — social, political, purely musical — are now mutating at a pace almost too rapid to keep track of. No one can accurately predict what kind of sounds 21st-century music fans will dig, but a look back at our city’s musical past can help trace the patterns that shaped our present-day scene, and perhaps suggest a future.
Take the musical ’60s: Los Angeles seemed a place defined by the clash between artists with the highest ideals and those who didn’t know the meaning of the word, and didn’t care. On the Sunset Strip, you’d have seen a gathering place for a strange hodgepodge of new and old values, as witnessed by the seemingly contradictory array of musical styles generated by the hopefuls and wheeler-dealers who migrated here. The early ’60s had survived an influx of earnest young guitar-strummers, variously moved by the Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Dylan had let them down, though, sacrificing the American folk heritage with savage amplified guitars and kaleidoscopic poetry.
Others took a more positive note, and adjusted their aims accordingly. They’d recently withstood the English ç Invasion, whose baby-faced Beatles and Stones and Kinks had charmed the socks off Americans by singing clever rhymes in perhaps slightly more sophisticated harmonies than we’d been getting out of our homegrown artists. Some said it was nothing more than a whitewash of Negro rhythm & blues, but the little girls understood, and the little boys, too. In L.A., this phenomenon was seized upon and joyfully corrupted by a rash of punky garage bands, some of whom had high aspirations in the biz, some of whom knew that they had one good song and were in it for the beer. At the Whisky a Go Go, a slew of ferocious beat combos in shades, Cuban heels and florid shirts — the Seeds, the Music Machine, the Leaves, the Standells,
Love — whipped out a decidedly nasty sound. These bands had taken more cues than they realized from Eastside crews like Thee Midnighters and Cannibal and the Headhunters. Maybe they’d never believed too much in American dreams, except the one about how weall free to hit it big in show biz — or at least try.
Hollywood had seen generations of pop idols come and go: zoot-suited swing-jazzers, suave crooners, rockabilly ravers and clean-cut surfers. They’d plied their trade at the Mocambo and Ciro’s in the ’40s, at the Renaissance, the Crescendo and the Red Velvet in the ’50s, at Pandora’s Box in the ’60s. In this turbulent decade, music life grew both more politicized and sillier. In the Business, we still had men like Don Kirshner, a longtime music promotion man who sidelined in pop songwriting; his “Sugar Sugar,” as performed by the Archies, managed to make pop idols out of cartoon characters, rather than cartoons out of pop idols. We still had hitmakers like Gary Lewis and the Playboys or the Grassroots making the rounds, conquering the charts, as late as 1967.
But at the Sea Witch on Sunset, or the Troubadour on Santa Monica, or the Ash Grove on Melrose, there gathered young people who liked a little unrest with their evening’s entertainment. An unshaven youth by the name of Barry McGuire drifted into town with a Dylan-drenched, gloomy ditty called “Eve of Destruction,” wherein our inescapable annihilation was hectoringly foretold to a thrashing acoustic guitar and baleful disgust — and it became an enormous hit, proving that the time was right for . . . disgust. The folk revival was a lingering force — even Sonny and Cher got into the act; the Mamas and the Papas merged nylon-string strains and multipart harmonies into their pop; in a little shack somewhere out in the Canyon, Linda Ronstadt perfected a country croon in preparation for her big cover-song hits in the coming ’70s. The Byrds’ DNA was country and folk music, but they’d taken drugs and seen Coltrane’s ghost. At Gazzarri’s, Johnny Rivers laid down country-blues rock & roll, and was among the last of his clean-cut kind.
Because there was trouble comin’ every day: Vietnam loomed, Nixon scowled, Kent State burned. On the Strip, life went on as it had, blithely reflecting the turmoil of the outer world in pop ways heavy, hard and out of control. Even the Beach Boys were freaking out. We knew that Brian Wilson was sensitive, but no one could have foreseen something like Pet Sounds. More radically still, in the vast desert just east of L.A., there were aberrations like Frank Zappa, and his pal Captain Beefheart. The clean and sober disciplinarian Zappa scorned pop’s teen revolution, preferring an irony-soaked version of society’s buffoonery couched in perverted doowop harmonies, avant-garde jazz riffing, musique concrète and a classically rock image of “I’m everything you revile and fear.” Beefheart, the more naturally surreal of the two, took Delta blues and tore it a new sound hole, fracturing the beats and chords while howling cubistic lyrical abstractions at the moon.
Back on the Strip, the Doors opened at the Whisky — lizardly sexual bump and grind for the UCLA film student set, and their little brothers. Little sisters back home could tune in to the Monkees, a prefab-for-TV group who were much more than their nice TV images, cutting a series of excellent self-penned and -produced albums in their latter days.
It all tails off in an incense haze of contrary images: groupies, protest signs, LSD, la dee da. Charles Manson, The End. The Scene sputtered out much as did the decade itself, retreating to formulate plans for prolonging, harnessing (and maybe defusing) the rebellion of youth.
The ’70s are reviled/revered as a kind of post-hippie, complacent/consumerist/bad taste state of affairs for all concerned, and, viewing the tapes now — cheesecloth shirts, shags, flares, muttonchop sideburns — that’s an absolutely accurate assessment. Obviously, the tumultuous ’60s had knocked us for a loop, and we needed to get back to the country, or to Sherman Oaks. Remember the Eagles?
If New York had Steely Dan, smartypants urban dudes with pithy words and jazzy chords (though much of it was recorded here), Los Angeles had the Eagles, whose laid-back, cowboy-shirted guitar-pickers sipping Tequila Sunrises and singing about hitting the dusty road in search of casual sex seemed to epitomize the burnished gold leisure-world-view of the beckoning West. Their songwriting core of Glenn Frey and Don Henley came from Michigan and Texas, respectively, but they had a gift for encapsulating the L.A. dream — one of the dreams, anyway. The Eagles were all about grooving with (or coping with) the desert that encircles us, never mind teal stucco apartment buildings and Wienerschitzels strewn across the landscape.
Outsiders and insiders: We had Joni Mitchell here, too, a brilliant Canadian musician-poet with a gift for turning ç folk-derived music upside-down with new harmonies and daring warbles, a path that would lead her full-on into the realm of New Jazz and all manner of studio experimentalism. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young refined still further what was left of country music, riddling it with art-song voices sometimes reminiscent of the Lettermen. There was Rodney’s English Disco, in 1972, where pseudo-British kids could cultivate their glittering rock fantasies, where visiting English lads could indulge their mum’s-not-watching hooliganism, debauching with underage girls to the florid strains of Bowie, the Sweet and Roxy Music. By this time, the Mothers of Invention were in full dark flower, Beefheart had shattered everything we thought we knew.
Yet there came such a furiously complacent blanding down in L.A. music, due largely to the swelling power of radio — rigid formats purveying rigidly played, smoothed-over music — and police pressure on club owners, and the general numbness that had come in retreat from the ominous vibes of the late ’60s. Kim Fowley was still hanging around — he got us the Runaways, his half-glitter half-protopunk girl band. We’d had enough thinking.
And then it was time to dance: Disco reared its urban head, and most everyone applied the following sound to their records: sss-bump-sss-bump-sss-bump-sss-bump. Lines were drawn: You loved it or you hated it, never both, not yet. Disco became a scapegoat, especially when the Ramones in late 1976 and next year the Sex Pistols and the Clash cued young L.A. punks to a new lifestyle of safety pins and torn jeans, sneers and spiky hair. Los Angeles hungrily seized on punk — in this palace of smashed dreams, it was a perfect fit. For the first time in eons, we actually had places to play, after years of clubs run as showcases for major-label aspirants, or as cover-band safe houses. There was the Masque, Madame Wong’s, the Hong Kong Cafe, the ON Klub, the Music Machine, Cathay de Grande, Club Lingerie, Club 88, the Whisky, the Roxy, the Starwood — loads of mangy dives in which to vent and punch and spit. The scene produced its share of boneheads (the not-ironic kind), yet at its core seemed to understand the phenomenon’s implications: The Screamers, the Germs, Nervous Gender, sort of like electric Abstract Expressionists, took punk entirely outside its original form and intent.
The ’70s? In L.A.? Extremes.
Wall Street: Remember that hellish Reagan time when young men wore power ties and pulled major scams on the stock market, screwed American taxpayers and laughed all the way to the bank, or to jail, and no one tried to stop them? (By the way, some things never change.) In the ’80s, all seemed lost, culturewise. And it was a nationwide collective fatigue — even Cheap Trick made crappy records. In L.A., hordes of New Wave bands had finally withered unto invisibility, and most former punks were proclaiming that all along they’d been big fans of country/roots music. It made its own kind of sense that music derided in the punk-rock heyday, namely hard rock, came roaring back — it had a good beat, and you couldn’t dance to it. Confusion and ennui still reigned, yet plopped down right in the center of Tinseltown was a badass post-post-punk heavy-rock scene, primarily at Raji’s on Hollywood Boulevard, that saw the likes of the Hangmen and Tex and the Horseheads ripping majestically through rock’s rich tapestry.
At the Cathouse: huge hair. Van Halen’s success at tapping into our ingrained need for heavy party music had inspired a slate of shaggy, scarf-strewn expectant rock stars, like Guns N’ Roses, initially dismissed by critics but, somehow typically, in short order acquiring Classic American Rock Band status. At Gazzarri’s on the Strip, ever-larger-haired metal heads Great White, Motley Crue, Ratt and WASP waved the Valley-dude flag. Jane’s Addiction, however, preferred an artistic, psychedelia-flecked metal. In slamming live sets around town, the Red Hot Chili Peppers demonstrated the fruits of wrapping rock in funk and rap.
Local station KDAY pushed the most radical music of this or any other era: the gangsta-style rage of Compton’s N.W.A, whose fear-inducing drive-by funk and scabrous urban imagery further nourished the outside world’s enchantment with the crumbling dreams of the Golden State.
Rodney King gets thumped, the L.A. rebellion’s on. Gangstas get their say, white kids listen, and punk makes a sort of comeback — looks like another generation is totally fed up. Here comes Nirvana with their Elvis, Kurt Cobain, who brings passion back into fashion. Cobain felt too much, so he had to put an end to it all, and a thousand bands paid homage by peeling the gloss off, in sludge and screams: honest white trash was where it was at. Here in L.A., gangsta fanned out into a hip-hop consciousness that infiltrated numerous forms of expression, such as the rise of DJs as artists, kids twiddling dials in search of the perfect beat. Their big brothers and sisters had jumped up and down, pogo’d, celebrated the spazziness, but these kids believed in a most righteous opposite: They swayed side to side.
On any given night here in L.A., say at Atlas, El Rey, the Viper, Louis XIV, blasting from lowridin’ minitrucks out on the boulevard, there’s a DJ cutting and pasting and laying it out over funky beats, slugging beats, jittery beats. An explosion of ethnic musics and the kitschy glories of pop culture’s past has permanently changed the way we’re hearing the coloring of the sound, but we’ve circled around to the one thing most of us have always known, or heard about: Gimme that beatbeatbeat.
And that’s where we are. The beat goes on, in the clubs, on the streets and online. Changing colors always — and that’s the way we like it.