Friday, July 8, 2011

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

PART ONE: Entering Heaven Alive

1966 can probably be considered the turning point in the evolution of rock music, and many of the most forward thinking artists responsible for this sea change emerged from the garages and recording studios of Southern California. And who better to kick off Disc Two of this set than the leading lights of the Sunset Strip scene: the fabulous Byrds, with their dynamic b-side "Why?!" The brain-melting take heard here is the original mono mix that backed "Eight Miles High" as a single back in April, 1966. In its own way, this take of "Why?!" is every bit as visionary and far out as its more widely heralded counterpart.

Next up: originally known as The Fender Four until they were rechristened by Kim Fowley, The Sons of Adam featured guitarist Randy Holden (later of Bay Area-based noise merchants Blue Cheer) and were the house band at The Cinnamon Cinder for a brief spell in '66. Shortly after sharing a double bill with Love at Bido Lito's, Arthur Lee gifted The Sons with his fabulous "Feathered Fish", a hulking slice of proto-metal that must surely have been one of the loudest recordings to make it to vinyl that year. The Sons' drummer Michael Stuart would soon join Lee's band, and the rest as they say was history.

Meanwhile, across town, the young songwriting and performing duo of Chris Ducey and Craig Smith (or Chris & Craig for short) decided to audition for a new ABC series about a struggling folk rock group named The Happeners, and ultimately landed the starring roles alongside Suzannah Jordan (later of Peyton Place).  A pilot was filmed featuring original music by Chris & Craig, but the show was ultimately discarded when the network refused to cut it down from one hour in length to thirty minutes. However, the duo did manage to release one fantastic side's worth of early baroque psych with the tantalizing "Isha", produced by Wrecking Crew stalwart Steve Douglas for Capitol Records. Chris & Craig would both later surface in the much loved Sunset Strip band The Penny Arkade about whom you'll hear more later.

Also found out and about on the Strip on any given day was local scenester Bobby Jameson. Having just returned to Hollywood from an less-than-successful meeting with Andrew Oldham and The Rolling Stones over in England, Jameson found himself in the peculiar situation of now having to write somebody else's music. To elaborate, Surrey Records owner Randy Wood had commissioned a budget-line album for his label titled Songs of Protest and Anti-Protest by the aforementioned Chris Ducey. When Ducey instead bailed on the project to cast his lot with Craig Smith, Wood was left in a lurch. You see, the album's cover art (a candid shot of Brian Jones onstage blowing harp at the Whisky a-Go-Go) had already been printed before Ducey even recorded a song, and now a lucrative European distribution deal for Surrey hung in the balance. Enter Bobby Jameson, who was summarily recruited to compose and record original songs to match the titles printed on the sleeve within in the span of two weeks. Jameson responded to the challenge admirably and turned in a great set of material, and in a bizarre final move Surrey simply changed the "D" in Ducey's name, and as such a new artist was born: Chris Lucey. After all this fuss, the album predictably tanked on both continents, and Jameson went back to what he did best: bumming up and down the Strip and auditioning for anyone who would listen. The blistering "Vietnam", included here and featuring uncredited backing from The Leaves, was recorded specifically for director Robert Carl Cohen's film MONDO HOLLYWOOD.

As The Byrds were off touring the U.K. (an experience that would unfortunately cost them the services of their fine singer/ songwriter Gene Clark) and professionals like Chris Ducey, Craig Smith and Bobby Jameson struggled to find their place amidst the greats, things were starting to get white hot in the garages of the surrounding suburbs. From Santa Barbara hailed The Vandells, who would quickly change their name to The Dovers and release four hugely regarded (by collectors) singles on the tiny Miramar label. The pick of the bunch is "The Third Eye", an absolutely insane acid-fueled two-minute masterpiece. While somewhat obscure even during their own time, The Dovers may have well as been The Beatles when compared to another local band Thee In-Set, about which we could locate absolutely no information, other than the fact that they hailed from the greater L.A. area and released one single on the ultra-obscure Cal Omen label. The a-side, "They Say", is a soulful garage scorcher and well worthy of inclusion here.  Santa Barbara's His Majesties Coachmen were nearly as obscure as Thee In-Set. All we know about these fellows is that their jangle pop wonder "I Don't Want to See You" came out on the tiny Gemini label and bubbled under on the KIST Santa Barbara charts the week of August 13, 1966. Elsewhere, from the town of Garden Grove came the aptly named Limey & the Yanks, comprised of four American backing musicians and fronted by Brit expat Steve Cook. The Yanks achieved a bit more success than those other groups I just mentioned, releasing a handful of singles including the ultra-catchy "Out of Sight, Out of Mind", playing with many top acts of their time including The Turtles, The Association and The Byrds and striking a commercial sponsorship with "Boss Radio" KHJ that included promotional appearances alongside the casts of 1966's two hottest TV shows: Batman and The Monkees.

The Monkees was the brainchild of producers Bob Rafelson and Burt Schneider, and was influenced not only by A Hard Day's Night, but also by The Happeners which it was originally slated to run up against until the latter was pulled by ABC.  Craig Smith was actually one of many local kids to audition for The Monkees, and wound up striking up a friendship with Michael Nesmith in the process. (Nesmith would record Smith's "Salesman" for the Monkees' 1967 Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones, Ltd. LP and subsequently manage The Penny Arkade.) Other notable Monkee auditioners included: Stephen Stills, Rodney Bingenheimer, Bobby Jameson, Bill Chadwick, Bryan MacLean (Love) and Mark Andes (Spirit/ Jo Jo Gunne). Once the group's membership was narrowed down to Davy, Peter, Micky and Mike, Colgems exec Don Kirsher set about finding potential hit songs to record for the group. Two of the primary sources for these songs were the duos of Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart and Gerry Goffin & Carole King. The latter actually co-composed the wild "Sweet Young Thing" along with Mike Nesmith, and it is included here as a prime example of Mike's early musical greatness, as well as a stand-out track from the first Monkees LP.

Several of the tracks recorded for the Monkees' first two Colgems albums were recorded by other groups at more or less the same time. Boyce & Hart's "Words" was first recorded by The Leaves (as heard on disc one of The Rock Box), while their classic "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone" would be also covered by both Paul Revere & The Raiders and The W.C. Fields Memorial Electric String Band. Likewise, Goffin & King would see their "Take a Giant Step" reworked by a dynamic Sunset Strip band by the name of The Rising Sons. Though not generally recognized today (chiefly due to the fact that their album was buried by Columbia and never released) The Sons contained some pretty notable players in Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder and Jesse Lee Kincaid. One of the Strip's first bi-racial groups, they were also one of its best, regularly referred to as L.A.'s Rolling Stones. The Sons are represented here by Jesse Kincaid's wistful Merseybeat tribute, "The Girl with Green Eyes".

All up and down The Strip, and in endless garages throughout SoCal, the Revolution was in full bloom by Summer '66. The Byrds were now a top-tier worldwide headlining act, hobnobbing with The Beatles and The Stones at home and abroad, while in their absence Love had now conquered the Strip, becoming the hottest ticket in town upon the release of their debut LP and killer singles "My Little Red Book" and "7 and 7 Is". Finally America was producing top notch talent at or near the level of their British peers, and even the second or third rate Sunset Strip bands like The Enemys (led by future Three Dog Night-er Cory Wells) and The Things to Come (featuring the soon-to-be renowned session drummer Russ Kunkel) were producing great music. And if one were looking for signs that things were getting a little bit weird out on the southern side of the west coast, one need only consider the choice of subject matter shared by The Things to Come's "Speak of the Devil" and "The Man That Makes the Deals", a sinister cauldron brew by a young Fullerton band with the memorable moniker of The Satans. There was also an upstart group of misfits from the Valley who somewhat ridiculously named themselves The Electric Prunes. Their first single was a cover of The Gypsy Trips' "Ain't It Hard" that featured the memorable couplet "Well your brother's in the bathroom with acid in his head/ and there's no place to go 'cuz the town's all dead." Indeed.

Other sightings out on the horizon: From the south suburbs of LaVerne came a group of stoners calling themselves The Bees who released one all-time classic single in "Voices Green and Purple"/ "Trip to New Orleans". The Orange County band The Human Expression were, if anything, perhaps even more deranged than the Bees, but nevertheless crafted some brilliantly lysergic art/punk singles for the Accent label, with the help of engineer par excellance Wally Heider. The sinister "Every Night" was composed by leader Jim Quarles and was the b-side of their first 45. Another group that were getting way out of their minds by this point were Lancaster's Merrell & the Exiles, or as they were now calling themselves Farpardokly. Led by a brilliant young songwriter in Merrell Fankhauser, the group had been crafting quality music since their original surfin' days as The Impacts, during which Fankhauser had composed a little number you might have heard of called "Wipe Out". By late 1966 he had set his sights on the phoniness of the record industry with his acerbic ballad "The Music Scene." Finally there was the deceptively clean-looking Somebody's Chyldren, who wrote great garage punkers for Mike Curb's Tower Records subsidiary like "Goin' Back to New York City" and are immortalized by perhaps the most bizarre piece of wax to come out of the entire L.A. scene: a garage rock album they cut with Mae West on vocals.

PART TWO: A Swift Descent Back to Reality

The L.A. youth music scene was, of course, centered around Hollywood's Sunset Strip and the clubs and cafes that lined it: The Whisky a-Go-Go, The Trip, The Galaxy, The London Fog, The Sea Witch, It's Boss (previously Ciro's), Pandora's Box and others. With top local bands such as The Byrds, Love, The Seeds, The Standells, The Leaves, The Turtles, The Mothers of Invention, The Grass Roots, The Buffalo Springfield and The Doors (not to mention worldwide touring acts such as The Yardbirds, Them and The Lovin' Spoonful) playing nightly, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that the Strip was getting mobbed with teenagers from all over the Southland on a regular basis. Local proprietors, no doubt scared shitless by the prospect of long haired "weirdos" scaring off their straight clientele, went bitching to Country Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess and City Supervisor Eugene E. Debs. The kids were tying up traffic and, worse, not spending any money. They would have to go.

The fascist Debs wasted no time developing a plan of action based around a 10pm curfew for anyone 18 or under found on the streets of Hollywood, and Pitchess's gestapo were only to happy to oblige their Supervisor. Reports of police entering Canter's deli and physically carrying minors out and throwing them into squad cars were not uncommon. Many young men reported having guns drawn on them by the fuzz and being questioned as to the nature of their sexuality due to nothing more than the length of their hair. Eventually frustration amongst the local youth reached critical mass, and starting on Friday, November 11th, 1966, a peaceful youth demonstration organized by C.A.F.F. (Community Action for Facts and Freedom) was staged. Four the next nine days, altercations between police and protestors grew progressively worse, culminating in what the press referred to as a riot when a small group of protesters overturned a bus outside of Pandora's Box. (The full details of the showdown on the Strip can be found in Domenic Priore's aptly named Riot on the Sunset Strip [Jawbone Books; 2007].)

In the wake of the standoff, numerous clubs including the Trip, the London Fog, It's Boss and Stratford-on-Sunset were all closed down by the City. Others, like the Whisky, immediately stopped booking rock bands for fear of having their dance cards revoked. It was, in essence, the death of the scene. And while The Buffalo Springfield's timeless "For What It's Worth" did an incredible job of encapsulating in music the negative vibes the L.A. cops brought with them, no song did a better job of presenting the average teenager's point of view than Terry Randall's "S.O.S. (Save Our Strip)". In the plaintive voice of an every-teen, Randall (whom as far as I know never recorded anything before or since) lays out the lament of his entire peer group:

"Don't they realize?/ Can't they see?/ We're just being what we've got a right to be/ We have a Constitutional guarantee behind us."

If anything positive can be salvaged from the wake of what was essentially the autocratic destruction of the epicenter of the artistic renaissance of the late twentieth century, it can be summarized thusly: America's youth still had one year left until the end of the innocence. While the downfall of the Sunset Strip's nightlife may have moved the heart of the peace movement to Golden Gate Park and Height/ Ashbury, at least there was still a peace movement throughout 1967, and flower power was very much alive. And as we will see, 1967 would be the first year where the LP would overtake the 45 RPM single as the music medium of choice for "today's listeners". And no group could have more ably kick-started that trend than a group of Angelinos who had been steadily working their way up the L.A. musical hierarchy for the last year and a half: The Doors.

Not since The Rolling Stones had a band so thoroughly captivated the hearts and minds of American listeners, and not since Jagger had there been a frontman to tangibly dangerous and exciting as Morrison. Had the band only released "Light My Fire", they would still stand as one of the great groups of their era. Thankfully they would go on to release two entire LPs just in 1967 alone, the first of which would include the shimmering "The Crystal Ship" as a highlight.

Also making their presence felt at roughly the same time as The Doors were two other crucial bands of the Sunset Strip Scene: The Buffalo Springfield and The Seeds. Both had released albums prior to The Doors and already had hit singles to their name with "For What It's Worth" and "Pushin' Too Hard" respectively. However, while The Springfield were a constantly evolving entity as their follow-up single "Mr. Soul" (presented in its original mono 45 mix here) amply demonstrates, The Seeds knew exactly where their bread was buttered and proceeded to repeat the basic stomp formula of "Pushin'" ad infinitum. Not that this didn't make for some killer grooves, as the early stoner anthem "Mr. Farmer" proves beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Meanwhile, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention had returned from Hawaii with a new album ready to record. With their budget from MGM slashed in half after Freak Out! didn't deliver commercially, Frank and his cronies nevertheless went on to create what in retrospect stands as perhaps their finest album ever. Absolutely Free shows the early MOI to be a band already at the height of their powers, bolstered immeasurably by the addition of keyboardist Don Preston and second drummer Billy Mundi. The album is a stone classic from beginning to end, and would remain the Mothers' highest charting LP. "Plastic People", a song the group had been performing since 1965, was the opening cut and sounds great here in its original mono mix.

Rounding out the set, the most notable groups are the great electric boogie band Canned Heat whose "Rollin' and Tumblin" would be one of the highlights of The Monterey International Pop Festival (which we will discuss in more detail in the next essay) and The Chambers Brothers, a black family vocal group originally from the Bay Area who possessed strong gospel and folk roots but were in the process of adopting a harder rock/ soul sound since relocating to L.A. "(She Don't Want to) Tie Me Down" captures them right in the midst of this transitional phase, and is perfect. The Leaves you'll of course remember from disc one, and they make a return appearance here with a cut off their second LP All the Good That's Happening: the delightfully lysergic square dance singalong "Twilight Sanctuary". It's too bad the group imploded shortly after this, because, trust me, this song is a blast!  Elsewhere, The Merry-Go-Round were the brainchild of teenaged wunderkind Emmit Rhodes, who at a young age had already played drums with The Palace Guard and was now well on his way to achieving great stature as a McCartney-esque balladeer. Keith Allison was a sought after session guitarist from Texas, good buddy of Mike Nesmith, and future Raider. Here he adds his lead vocal to an old Raiders' album cut, the exciting "Louise". Brewer & Brewer-- formerly Mastin & Brewer, but not yet Brewer & Shipley of "One Toke Over the Line" fame-- were at this point friends of The Buffalo Springfield who put together a nice little single in the form of "Need You" that highlighted the Brewer brothers' excellent acoustic guitar work against a decidedly low-pitched flute. Billy Mundi was their drummer for a brief spell before he hooked up with Zappa.

Of the more studio-oriented rock groups releasing records in early 1967, The Grass Roots were pretty much the best of the bunch. Actually, while the musicians were new to the group, the band had been around in name only for over a year and had even had a minor hit in 1965 with a cover of Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man" which they simply re-titled "Mr. Jones". When the nascent Grass Roots (a Bay Area band originally called The Beaudoins that were enlisted to tour behind the Grass Roots name by producers P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri) could no longer hold down the gig, Sloan and Barri enlisted a new group, formerly known as The 13th Floor. This would be the line-up we all know and love, featuring the late great Rob Grill on vocals and Creed "weird dude on The Office" Bratton on lead guitar. They hit right off the bat with a re-recorded version of "Where Were You When I Needed You" (see The Pop Box [disc one]) in '66 and then re-recorded an Italian hit by the name of "Let's Live for Today", having a mega-hit with it. The Let's Live for Today LP (which also included "Where Were You When I Needed You?", co-incidentally the title of their previous LP... Confused yet?) was a mini-masterpiece, featuring numerous strong album tracks by from  both the Sloan/ Barri team and the group themselves. "Wake Up, Wake Up" is perhaps the best of the bunch, a sterling acoustic gem with a fantastically trippy breakdown section.

Of the two remaining tracks on this disc, The Leathercoated Minds were a group of session musicians including J.J. Cale who covered "The hits of the day" and lumped them together into one neat-o package titled A Trip Down the Sunset Strip. It sounds horrible in concept but in actuality the record is fab, and the groovy cover version of "Eight Miles High" that we pulled from it is the best track. Cale very nearly emulates Jim McGuinn's 12 string passages lick for lick-- very tasty! The Good Feelins were a part of what was a pretty cool little underground scene up in the Inland Empire, hailing as they did from San Bernardino Valley College. This one was released on the tiny Rock-It label.

See you next time, folks!


  1. Considering the inclusion in this set of artists not strictly from LA, perhaps you could have included the MISUNDERSTOOD from Riverside...their best recordings were made in London where they moved and I wonder if that's the reason...
    mind you they also recorded some pretty cool stuff in 1965 while still in California.

  2. You nailed it, Aldo. Riverside origins aside, I always pegged them as a U.K. band, and think they would be better served on a Brit-themed set. Very similar situation to The Walker Brothers, actually.