Thursday, May 5, 2011

L.A. Gemstones: The Rock Box - Disc One Liner Notes

If you take a look at the current state of popular music, one notion that seems to be disappearing from our collective consciousness is the idea of a "regional sound", the last vestiges of which seemingly evaporated around 1996 in the wake of the Telcom Reform Act and Clear Channel's subsequent domination of the commercial airwaves. Seemingly the days of referring to commercial artists as part of the "SoCal Pop Punk", "East Coast Hip-Hop" or "Manchester Underground" scenes are gone, and what we're left with is a Top 40 comprised of homogenized end product with no distinct identity.

When considering the artists who define pop music and by extent pop culture today, there is no real connection to the communities or scenes that produced them. Lady Gaga does not portray a New York "sound" any more than Beyonce's music is representative of Dallas, Texas or Katy Perry's is of Southern California. In other words, while the music is state-of-the-art, it is also highly interchangeable. A Swedish producer might create a beat that is turned down by Kelly Clarkson (Fort Worth, TX) and Britney Spears (Kentwood, Louisana) before being co-opted by P!nk (Doylestown, PA). This is only made possible by the fact that most mainstream commercial artists of today's pop music market do not bring forth any sort of regional identity to their art.

Now contrast this with the 1960s, when each particular region of the United States had a signature "sound", and a listener could often identify where a record was cut simply by listening to it. Again, much of this had to do with radio play, as "regional hits" were still quite prevalent. A song that was a dud in Chicago might take off in Dallas, spread to Phoenix and then onto San Francisco, sometimes affording artists an opportunity to tour a specific area, and thereby hopefully generating a modest amount of success for them.

Likewise, a record cut for a small indie label also had the potential to explode nationwide, thereby turning a regional sound to a nationwide sensation. This happened with Chicago's Buckinghams, who recorded their first single "Kind of a Drag" for the tiny U.S.A. label. The single spread regionally, slowly at first before picking up steam, before ultimately becoming a Billboard #1 smash hit and introducing the peppy, horn-driven "Chicago Sound" to a nationwide audience.

But as this package focuses exclusively on bands from Los Angeles and Southern California, it might behoove us to consider exactly what was the L.A. sound? There are perhaps a few defining factors; of course no two bands of the era were exactly the same. But as with most cultural movements, if studied intently patterns begin to emerge.

At the top of the decade, the four primary musical influences that permeated throughout the sound of nearly every group on the SoCal scene were Rockabilly, RnB, Folk and Surf.  Which style you played determined which sort of band you were. While initially four very distinct entities, by late 1964 in the wake of the British Invasion these strains would begin to merge, and would soon be joined by a fifth (electric blues), sixth (modal jazz) and seventh (country/ bluegrass) dominant paradigm.   So while each of these seven strains were uniquely American, it was really these U.K. beat groups that first succeeded in blending them-- as with The Beatles covering Smokey's "You Really Got a Hold on Me" or The Who doing their own spin on Jan & Dean's "Bucket T".

For young West Coast bands just starting up at this time (who were perhaps not particularly as steeped in any of these influences as their musical forefathers were) it was the popular British bands who provided the blueprint, and soon these young groups began co-opting both the heavy, blues-based sounds of The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds as well as the pop smarts of The Beatles and The Hollies. Two years later, acid would hit the scene and bring with it a renewed appreciation in Eastern culture and all things mystic, along with a heavier guitar-driven sound deeply influenced by Jimi Hendrix of The Experience and Eric Clapton of The Cream. And when this psychedelic steam engine inevitably crashed, many bands would lick their wounds and retreated to the country to make a different sort of music.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here.  Let us first begin with the early (1960-63) sixties, a time when a renewed sense of optimism, fueled by a popular young President, was reflected in the popular sounds found around Southern California. While young adults would flock to the Sunset Strip to check out their favorite "show bands" (tuxedo-clad outfits specializing in covers of the "hot" songs of the day), hip teenagers were making their way up and down the coast to dig the various surfer "stomps" held at the sundry ballrooms, auditoriums and beachfront dives that dotted the coast. The bands that played these stomps were generally instrumental combos specializing in the new "Surf" style, heavy on Duane Eddy-style guitar twang, but possessing a new melodic sensibility not found in Rockabilly. (These wonderful Surf bands will be canonized in a future edition of L.A. Gemstones.) Many of these groups also doubled as show bands on a teenage scale, generating all out RnB mayhem at local hops and teen dances. Occasionally, a really hot act from out of town might come through and blow some minds. One such unit was Portland's Paul Revere & the Raiders whose driving first contribution to the Rock Box, "Over You", does a good job of capturing their early intensity as a live act.

Down on the Sunset Strip, some local artists were beginning to emerge whose popularity threatened to outgrow the greater L.A. area. Chiefly amongst these was Johnny Rivers, a transplanted New Yorker who quickly parlayed his position as the headliner at the newly opened Whisky-a-Go-Go into a series of hit "live" albums and singles, and The Standells, a quartet of local boys helmed by their singing drummer Dick Dodd, who had previously played with the Surf combo The Bel-Airs. The Standells were perhaps the first local band to become fixtures on the Hollywood TV scene, clearing a path that many other hot local acts would follow.

In the wake of the first wave of the British Invasion, seemingly all L.A. was willfully indulging itself in all things Anglo, with practically every new band emulating The Beatles or The Rolling Stones to some degree. Though derivative by definition, many of these groups and performances are in their own way just as great as the artists and songs they chose to emulate.

In the Beatles camp, look no further than The New Invaders' "Don't Let Me Down" or the San Diego based The Other Four's "Searching for My Love"-- two of the best homages to A Hard Day's Night and Beatles For Sale that one is ever likely to hear. Even better at aping the classic Beatles sound were The Knickerbockers. These former New Jerseyites took the Strip by storm, headlining at the Red Velvet and garnering a reputation as the city's premier show band, even before their Fab-tastic "Lies" became a nationwide smash hit. Their harmony-laden "I Can Do It Better" (written by Dan Seals and Dash Crofts of "Summer Breeze" fame) is a lost classic of early Brit-influenced harmony pop and is included here for your listening enjoyment.

As for Stones-esque RnB swagger, no one could do it better than The Preachers. One can only imagine today what kind of reaction this performance on TV's Shivaree caused in parents and authority figures still frightened by the "long" hair and "raucous" sounds of the Beatles:

While The Preachers were the quintessential example of the show band "gone bad" (you could tell those matching suits weren't long for this world!), they were quickly followed by other groups in the same mold such as The Starfires, whose sinister b-side "I Never Loved Her" remains one of the highest priced garage 45s you'll find anywhere. (Original copies on the G.I. label have been known to fetch over $1,000 according to Wikipedia.) Suddenly, overdriven amplifiers and the Maestro fuzz box were de rigueur as so-called "garage bands" began sprouting up throughout southern California, lead by such gone but not forgotten teen combos as Bakersfield's The Avengers ("Be a Caveman") and L.A.'s The Rogues ("Wanted Dead or Alive"). If anyone was amused by this onslaught of fuzz, it must have been Dick Dale, who had been achieving his signature guitar sound for years via loudspeakers that had been slashed with a switchblade (and can be heard here on his Gary Usher-produced "Mr. Eliminator").

Across town in East L.A., Pachuco kids were getting into the act and starting their own garage RnB combos as well. Chief amongst these much loved groups were Cannibal & the Headhunters with their hit cover of "Land of 1,000 Dances", The Premiers with another great cover in "Farmer John", Thee Midnighters, makers of a bona fide instrumental classic in "Whittier Blvd." and the multi-racial Mark & the Escorts, best remembered for their frantic "Get Your Baby". These groups all received radio play from local DJs like Huggy Boy and Godfrey, and would often play together at large package showcases before the cops, responding to complaints from irate parents, quickly put an end to it.

Back in Hollywood, both the rockabilly and folk sounds that were popular at the beginning of the decade were beginning to evolve too in the wake of the British Invasion. A group of West Texas natives going by the name of The Bobby Fuller Four came to town and began bowling the locals over with their high-energy, Buddy Holly-influenced sound. "I Fought the Law" was the big hit, but just as good was their "Never to Be Forgotten". Folk Rock, meanwhile, began in earnest the minute The Byrds hit Ciro's, as surely everyone reading this already knows. "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better" was their strongest original song, and was written and sung by the great Gene Clark who also appears solo on L.A. Gemstones: The Pop Box. Interestingly, Surf heroes The Sandals actually seem to have presaged by a year the "jangle-pop" sound that later made The Byrds famous. The evidence is included here, and is titled "Always (I Will Remember)".

The Byrds stand at Ciro's led directly to the Hollywood Folk Rock explosion, as kids from all over southern California began to descend upon the Strip, looking for kicks. In no short order the world would be introduced to other top acts such as The Association and The Leaves.  The Association would of course go on to great fame as a vocal pop group, but they started off in a genuinely Folk Rock-y vein with their great cover of Anne Bredon's "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You".  Likewise, The Leaves were a quintet of frat boys from Cal State Northridge who made inroads into the local scene at exactly the right time, and wound up replacing The Byrds as the headliners at Ciro's when that group left for their first U.S. tour.  (Their sinister version of Boyce & Hart's "Words" is their contribution to this set.)

Nobody benefited more from the Hollywood Folk Rock explosion than singer/ songwriter P.F. Sloan who along with partner Steve Barri penned hits for himself ("The Sins of the Family"), Barry McGuire ("This Precious Time"), The Turtles ("Let Me Be") and The Grass Roots ("Where Were You When I Needed You?").  And if The Byrds and these other artists just mentioned comprised the top tier of this new generation of L.A. bands, looming just below them were local club favorites such as The Palace Guard, The Matthew Moore +4, The Beckett Quintet and Chris Morgan & the Togas. It's also worth noting that some of the best records from this era came from groups that only existed in the recording studio such as The Green Beans (one of numerous anonymous studio sides to feature Davie Allan of The Arrows fame).  Somewhere in between were The Grains of Sand-- a legitimate L.A. bar band whose second single "Goin' Away Baby" was produced by ubiquitous Hollywood scenester Kim Fowley with assistance from Michael Lloyd of The Rogues.

However, three of the city's most important and individualistic groups did not appear on the scene until the end of '65.  Sean Bonniwell's black clad and gloved The Music Machine  were perhaps the most sinister band to emerge from the L.A. rock underground, and their Farfisa 'n' fuzz-driven sound, highlighted by Bonniwell's unnerving baritone, is perfectly represented on "Masculine Intuition".  The highly charged Love were led by the talented singer Arthur Lee and were not only one of the first racially diverse bands on the Strip, but also one of the best period.  The group played at the Sea Witch, Bido Lito's and the Brave New World before eventually graduating to the Whisky a-Go-Go, and stories of their early gigs are legendary.  "My Flash on You" is taken from their Elektra debut and is a prime slice of hard sixties rock. Closing out disc one is the most progressive band to emerge from the entire L.A. scene: Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.  Their "Hungry Freaks Daddy" is a timeless anthem for anyone who rejects mainstream society, and is featured here in its mono single mix.

We'll continue the trip with DISC TWO of The Rock Box!


  1. I listened to "I Never Loved Her" last night and remain in disbelief how good it sounds here.

  2. Yeah that song is a corker, isn't it? An amazingly brutal record for 1965. The Starfires are definitely a candidate for further exploration. I found a photo of them which I will post soon!