Late last month, my girlfriend and I took a weekend trip to Ojai, California so she could attend her friend’s wedding and I could play my PS Vita in a warmer climate. Now, because I’m never one to let a life experience pass by without exploiting it for the purposes of this blog, I’m making that trip the subject of the latest entry in my pop-music travelogue series, Dystopian Road Mix. I have to admit that I’m cheating a bit this time around: even though this playlist is about the music of Los Angeles, I only spent about five hours total in the city, and three of those were either in LAX or at the Budget rental car station right outside LAX (the remaining two hours were, of course, a combination of traffic and In-N-Out Burger). So no, I didn’t really experience L.A.; but I thought I’d spare you all the tedium of a post on the pan flute rhapsodies, coffee-shop acoustic guitar ballads, and white reggae jams that almost certainly comprise the musical tradition of Ojai. So let’s get to it: a crash course in the musical history of Los Angeles, written by someone with a whopping five hours of experience within the city limits. Enjoy!
We begin, as we often do in these posts, with jazz. Though not quite as important a jazz city as New York, Kansas City, or Chicago, by the mid-1940s L.A. had established a scene of its own, centered around the thriving African American community of Central Avenue. Bass prodigy and avant-garde composer Charles Mingus, originally from Nogales, Arizona, made his earliest recordings in Los Angeles, before leaving for New York in 1950. But the musical exchange between L.A. and N.Y.C. went both ways. Baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan was one of the central figures on the epochal New York sessions by the Miles Davis Nonet that were eventually released as the Birth of the Cool LP; he left Davis’ band soon after and relocated to Los Angeles, where his work with trumpeter Chet Baker played a major role in establishing melodic, laid-back “cool jazz” as the West Coast’s dominant style.
L.A. remained a major jazz hub through the 1950s, with groups like the Chico Hamilton Quintet carrying on the cool tradition. Featuring a rare jazz cellist in Fred Katz, along with guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Carson Smith, and multi-instrumentalist Buddy Collette on sax, clarinet, and flute, the quintet’s take on songs like Collette’s “A Nice Day” imbued the cool style with a touch of classical chamber music. At the same time, there were also the likes of L.A. native Dexter Gordon, whose more muscular saxophone style demonstrated that the palette of West Coast jazz wasn’t strictly limited to “cooler” forms.
By the early 1960s, however, L.A.’s musical claim to fame–like that of most other cities–had shifted from jazz to pop and rock. Nearby “beach cities” such as El Segundo were the birthplace of the short-lived but influential “surf rock” movement: an electrified mix of rock and traditional Mexican and Middle Eastern melodies, pioneered by Lebanese American guitarist Dick Dale. But it was Gold Star Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard that effectively served as ground zero for pre-Beatles American pop music: the source of dozens of hits produced by wunderkind/maniac Phil Spector, including 1963’s deathless “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes, featuring Veronica “Ronnie” Bennett–later known as Ronnie Spector–on lead vocals. Spector’s trademark maximalist production style, aptly named the “Wall of Sound,” was created with the aid of a massive conglomerate of session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, including such future big names as Jack Nitzsche, Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner, Joe Porcaro, Glen Campbell, Mac Rebennack–better known as Dr. John–and Leon Russell.
Another beneficiary of both Gold Star and the Wrecking Crew was Brian Wilson, arguably Spector’s foremost inheritor of the “Wall of Sound” approach. Hailing from the nearby suburb of Hawthorne, Brian, his brothers Dennis and Carl, their cousin Mike Love, and their close friend Al Jardine comprised the biggest American pop group of the early 1960s: the Beach Boys. Their blend of intricate harmonies, (literally) sunny lyrical content, and baroque pop arrangements by resident genius Brian formed the hallmark of the “California Sound,” with songs like 1965’s “California Girls” pointing the way from surf rock to sunshine pop.
A little further inland, a more openly countercultural brand of rock music was also coalescing around West Hollywood‘s Sunset Strip. The Byrds put L.A. folk-rock on the map in early 1965 with their cover of Bob Dylan‘s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which married Dylan’s abstract lyricism to the Beatles/Beach Boys-esque harmonies of Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, and David Crosby. And I do mean just their harmonies: the instrumentation for the Byrds’ first album was provided by none other than members of the Wrecking Crew, at the behest of West Coast super-producer Terry Melcher. But no session musicians were employed (or harmed) during the making of the proto-punk classic “7 and 7 Is” by the Byrds’ fellow Strip fixtures Love, an early rock signing for Jac Holzman’s counterculture-minded folk label Elektra Records; though drummer Alban “Snoopy” Pfisterer did reportedly, and understandably, struggle to keep up with the song’s manic gallop, leading to his being replaced on several takes by the band’s lead singer and songwriter Arthur Lee.
Other major players on the Strip included Love’s Elektra labelmates the Doors, who briefly served as the house band for the legendary club the Whisky-a-Go-Go. “Soul Kitchen,” from their self-titled 1967 debut album, is a kind of perfect intersection of the group’s dueling identities as bar band and psychedelic shamans, with Ray Manzarek‘s chirpy Vox organ and Robby Krieger‘s white-blues guitar providing a slinkily accessible foundation for Jim Morrison‘s portentous rock poetry. Way over on the commercial end of the Sunset Strip scene, meanwhile, were Salvatore Bono and Cherilyn Sarkisian, better known as Sonny & Cher: a pair of graduates from the Phil Spector machine whose hits, like 1967’s “The Beat Goes On,” brought a sanitized version of the “groovy” West Hollywood sound all the way to Middle America. And somewhere between the two extremes were the Mamas & the Papas: a motley crew of Southern California natives and East Coast/Canadian transplants–married couple John and Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty, and Cass Elliot–whose Wrecking Crew-backed “California Dreamin'” became an anthem for counterculture and teenyboppers alike at the cusp of the Summer of Love.
Decidedly less palatable to the rest of the country–and even a fair amount of Los Angeles–was the avant-garde rock experimentation of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. After what could only be termed a hostile takeover of a struggling suburban R&B outfit called the Soul Giants, Zappa turned the rechristened Mothers into a postmodern grab bag of sociocultural satire, Dada absurdity, doo-wop, musique concrète, and fringe proto-psychedelia: the mouthpiece for L.A.’s subculture of “freaks” adjacent to, but ultimately unaffiliated with the West Hollywood rock scene. Zappa’s home in the hip Laurel Canyon neighborhood, purchased during the recording sessions for the Mothers’ debut album Freak Out!, served for the latter half of the decade as a nexus for a local “freak” scene of musicians, groupies, and assorted weirdos of all stripes.
In the early 1970s, though, Laurel Canyon was better known for its much more musically conventional–if equally debauched–community of singer-songwriters. Joni Mitchell lived there, and immortalized its cultural milieu on her hit 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon. The Canyon was also intimately associated with Mitchell’s close friends–and, in the case of Graham Nash, one-time lover–Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young. A supergroup assembled mostly from the former members of mid-’60s Sunset Strip acts–David Crosby from the Byrds, Stephen Stills and Neil Young from Buffalo Springfield, and for some reason Nash from British Invasion also-rans the Hollies–CSN&Y’s laid-back psychedelic folk harmonies were as integral to defining the Southern California pop sound in the early 1970s as the Beach Boys had been nearly a decade before.
At the same time, in the San Fernando Valley on the other side of the city, a few more escapees from the Sunset Strip scene were formulating their own take on American roots music. The Flying Burrito Brothers reunited ex-Byrd Chris Hillman with Gram Parsons, who had joined the Byrds for just long enough to write and record a full-blown country-rock album in 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The Burrito Brothers effectively picked up where Sweetheart had left off, albeit with an injection of soul music and even psychedelic rock, courtesy of “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow‘s fuzzbox pedal steel. But with its Louvin Brothers-inspired two-part vocal harmonies and Floyd Cramer-style piano line, their 1969 ballad “Sin City”–an apocalyptic ode to the excesses of the L.A. music industry–is about as traditionally country as it gets.
It makes a kind of sense, then, that the ultimate Los Angeles band of the 1970s would come about as a union (some might say an unholy one) of the Laurel Canyon and San Fernando Valley sounds. The Eagles were another supergroup of sorts, comprised of singer/guitarist Glenn Frey and singer/drummer Don Henley, both from Linda Ronstadt’s touring band, along with Randy Meisner of Poco and Bernie Leadon of the Burrito Brothers. Their first single, 1972’s “Take It Easy,” struck a commercial chord as a watered-down version of the Burrito Brothers’ country-rock, with co-writing duties by Frey’s Laurel Canyon neighbor, singer-songwriter Jackson Browne. Scoff if you will–or just quote The Big Lebowski, if you must–but I can personally testify from my experience listening to the radio all weekend that Southern California, to this day, still loves the fucking Eagles.
And anyway, it’s not as if the Eagles are as middle-of-the-road as 1970s L.A. music gets. Lest we forget, the City of Angels was also home to brother-sister adult contemporary duo Karen and Richard Carpenter, whose hit singles as the Carpenters provided a soundtrack for Square Los Angeles just as surely as CSN&Y and their peers catered to the counterculture. Then, later in the decade, the city’s critical mass of ace session musicians–including Jeff and Steve Porcaro, the sons of Wrecking Crew percussionist Joe–almost inevitably produced a monster of its own, in the form of A.O.R. schlock-rock conglomerate Toto. Fortunately, to give us a break from all this terminal whiteness, there was still vital Black music coming out of the city: like for example Shuggie Otis, the son of Rhythm & Blues bandleader Johnny–and a session musician for, among others, Frank Zappa–whose baroque-soul classic “Strawberry Letter 23” would go on to become a massive hit for another L.A.-based R&B act, the Brothers Johnson. And of course, it just isn’t a Dystopian Dance Party post without the obligatory dose of Jheri Curl Music: so, please enjoy 1983’s “Keep on Lovin’ Me” by veteran L.A. vocal group/World Moustache Hall of Fame contenders the Whispers.
As in most other major music cities, a punk revolution was also waiting in the wings to reenergize L.A.’s rock scene. Though their treatment at the hands of longtime Sunset Strip scenester/Svengali/confirmed creep Kim Fowley was patently and apparently even physically exploitative, all-woman band the Runaways brought some much-needed proto-punk attitude and aggression to Southern California rock in the late ’70s; two of their members in particular, rhythm guitarist/lead songwriter Joan Jett and lead guitarist Lita Ford, would go on to fruitful solo careers in their own rights. And by the end of the decade, a more organic underground scene had emerged in the Runaways’ place. Probably the most famous of L.A.’s early punk bands was X: fronted by bassist John Doe and his then-girlfriend, later wife Exene Cervenka, whose 1980 debut album Los Angeles was produced by, of all people, former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek.
Less famous at the time, but perhaps even more historically important, was Black Flag from nearby Hermosa Beach: one of the first bands to pioneer the emergent American punk subgenre of hardcore. They were joined by, among others, Wasted Youth, whose 1981 debut album Reagan’s In is emblematic of hardcore’s blindingly fast and concise attack, clocking in at 10 tracks and less than 15 minutes. Today, L.A.’s hardcore scene gets most of the historical discussion, but it’s important to remember that Southern California punk, like any other fringe artistic movement, was never a monolith: see, for example, the Gun Club, who incorporated Delta blues and country-Gothic influences into their punk-rock aesthetic.
Nor was punk qua punk the only thing going on in L.A. rock clubs in the early 1980s. The ’60s-revivalist “Paisley Underground” may be one of those movements that seemed more important at the time than it ended up being, but it produced at least one major group in the Bangles, whose 1984 cover of “Live” by the obscure mid-’60s folk-rockers the Merry-Go-Round is a pleasing return to L.A. rock’s formative jangle-pop era. And while Oingo Boingo, a troupe of New Wave weirdos led by future film composer Danny Elfman, was frankly too idiosyncratic to fit into any cohesive “scene,” their left-field hits with songs like 1986’s “Dead Man’s Party” still made a lasting impression due to their frequent inclusion in contemporary Hollywood films.
But the next big movement in L.A. rock lay on arguably the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum. The roots of Hollywood’s notorious early ’80s glam metal scene can actually be traced back to Pasadena in the mid-1970s, when Netherlands-born siblings Alex and Eddie Van Halen hooked up with party-rocker par excellence David Lee Roth and some other dude to form a hard rock band, which they modestly christened after their shared surname. Van Halen‘s winning combination of Roth’s hedonistic lyrics and flamboyant stage presence with Eddie’s groundbreaking, highly technical but hook-heavy guitar style effectively set the mold for the generation of “hair bands” to come; all that was left was an extra dose of excess.
One of the most excessive of these bands–in every sense of the word–was Mötley Crüe, whose androgynous vocals (courtesy of singer Vince Neil), heavy-hitting riffs (courtesy of guitarist Mick Mars, bassist Nikki Sixx, and drummer Tommy Lee), and prodigious levels of offstage debauchery (that one was a group effort) set new standards for rock ‘n’ roll sleaze. But Hollywood glam wouldn’t reach its zenith until the middle of the decade, when Guns ‘n’ Roses formed from the ashes of lesser-known groups L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose–only for singer Axl Rose and guitarist Izzy Stradlin to fire the rest of the group and replace them with newcomers Duff McKagan, Steven Adler, and Saul “Slash” Hudson. On the strength of their 1987 debut album Appetite for Destruction, G’n’R was both the ultimate hair metal act and the band that most fully transcended the style-over-substance shackles of the genre.
But even as the Mötley Crües and the L.A. Guns of the world continued to preen on the Sunset Strip, a new, more aggressive style of metal was also bubbling up from the Los Angeles underground. Formed in 1981 after Danish-born drummer Lars Ulrich placed an ad in the local classifieds circular The Recycler, Metallica became the first of the so-called “Big Four” thrash metal bands; the second, Megadeth, was formed after Ulrich and frontman James Hetfield summarily kicked lead guitarist Dave Mustaine out of the band, soon before the recording of their 1983 debut album Kill ‘Em All. But a handful of tracks on the album still bear Mustaine co-writing credits: including “The Four Horsemen,” which retained the future Megadeth frontman’s riffage, but replaced his original lyrics (apparently about having sex in a gas station) with something more appropriately menacing. Around the same time, the third of thrash metal’s “Big Four” emerged from the depths of nearby suburb Huntington Park. With an even darker and more violent image than Metallica, the aptly-named Slayer became one of the earliest signees to the Agoura Hills-based underground label Metal Blade Records.
Meanwhile, in the inner city neighborhoods of South Central L.A. and nearby Compton, an entirely different kind of underground music was taking shape. It took some time for hip-hop to make its way West from its birthplace in the New York City boroughs; when it finally did arrive in Los Angeles, it was primarily in the form of “electro-hop”: a funkier, hookier take on the electro hip-hop of East Coast artists like Afrika Bambaataa, practiced by colorful DJ collectives like Uncle Jamm’s Army and the World Class Wreckin’ Cru. One of the principle figures in Uncle Jamm’s Army, Greg Broussard, went on to a successful solo career of his own as the DJ/MC/jheri-curled lothario the Egyptian Lover; “Los Angeles,” his 1986 tribute to his hometown and the roller-skating, bikini-clad women therein, is a representative sampling of his classic work. The Lover is also historically significant for his independent label, Egyptian Empire Records: an early home for, among others, pioneering Compton duo Rodney-O & Joe Cooley.
It didn’t take long after its emergence for L.A. hip-hop to become grittier and more reflective of its inner-city context; what’s fascinating, however, is that you can pretty much watch it happen right before your eyes. Take, for example, M.C. Tracy Lauren Marrow, better known as Ice-T: one minute he’s rhyming over electro-hop beats by Chris “The Glove” Taylor in the campy 1984 film Breakin‘–yes, Breakin‘; the next minute he’s weaving hardcore street-life narratives on tracks like 1987’s “6 ‘n the Mornin’.” Or, for that matter, take the archetypal “gangsta rappers” N.W.A., whose members included Dr. Dre of the World-Class Wreckin’ Cru and (briefly) the Egyptian Lover-alike Arabian Prince, only for them to stuff their jheri curls under Raiders hats just in time for 1988’s epochal Straight Outta Compton.
By the early 1990s, Southern California hip-hop had completely transformed. Ex-N.W.A. members like Ice Cube and (to a much lesser degree) Eazy-E were stars in their own rights, while the “G-Funk” production style of the aforementioned Dr. Dre–smooth, langorous, and heavily reliant on P-Funk samples–was all over the radio and MTV: launching the careers of West Coast rappers like Hawthorne’s Kurupt, Warren G and Snoop Doggy Dogg from nearby Long Beach, and Snoop’s cousin Nathaniel “Nate Dogg” Hale–and that’s just the list of artists on the Dre-produced 1993 Doggystyle cut “Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None).”
Given the cultural dominance of California gangsta rap in the early ’90s, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the next evolution of rock music in L.A. would incorporate elements of hip-hop. There were of course the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose funky basslines by Michael “Flea” Balzary and clumsy raps by perennially shirtless singer Anthony Kiedis lended new purpose to members of the Alternative Nation who secretly wished they were Black. And there was also Sublime from Long Beach, whose frontman Bradley Nowell sang-rapped about drinking 40s and had a 2Pac-style tattoo of the band’s name in Gothic lettering across his back. Somewhat more convincingly, Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine tapped into hip-hop’s anti-authoritarian streak on songs like 1996’s “Bulls on Parade,” and didn’t even completely embarrass himself with his flow–though he came pretty damn close to embarrassing himself with his dreadlocks. Hell, even Weezer‘s Rivers Cuomo, easily the whitest man in alternative rock this side of Morrissey, opened his breakout hit “Buddy Holly” with the rhetorical question, “What’s with these homeys dissin’ my girl?” And let’s not forget postmodern alt-folkie Beck Hansen, who got his first commercial break from a song with rap verses so self-admittedly terrible they inspired its earworm of a chorus: “I’m a ‘Loser,’ baby, so why don’t you kill me.'”
By the early 21st century, rap and rock had grown significantly less intertwined. Hip-hop continued to be represented in Los Angeles by artists like Dr. Dre protégé Jayceon Terrell Taylor, better known as the Game; while the indie scene retreated into hipster enclaves such as Silver Lake: stomping ground for shoegazey bands in the vein of Autolux and the Silversun Pickups, along with other blog-friendly acts like lo-fi noise-pop duo Best Coast. In an interesting development, however, the late 2000s saw an upsurge in what some have dubbed “hipster-hop,” thanks in large part to the emergence of L.A. alt-hip-hop collective Odd Future. The most visible of Odd Future’s members, Tyler, the Creator, made strong early impressions (both positive and negative) with his punk rock-inspired live shows, nihilistic lyrics, and endless Twitter rants about how he’s ONLY 19 YEARS OLD AND MAKES HIS OWN BEATS. But the “Wolf Gang” has given us subtler pleasures, as well: like neo-neo-soul crooner Frank Ocean, whose 2012 major label debut channel ORANGE united the Okayplayer and Pitchfork sets in a mutual desire for him to just release a goddamn followup already.
I could go on, but we’re closing in on 50 tracks, so let’s end things here with Kendrick Lamar: the latest world-strattling M.C. to come out of the city of Compton. Like the members of Odd Future, Lamar is an artist who bridges the hip-hop/hipster divide, but with much less of an emphasis on the “hipster” side of the equation. His 2012 breakout album good kid, m.A.A.d. city, executive-produced by Dr. Dre, was like a contemporary take on ’90s G-Funk with added literary aspirations; this year’s To Pimp a Butterfly is even better, seamlessly drawing together influences from his hometown’s entire musical history, all the way back to the beginnings of Central Avenue jazz. I can think of no better way to end this post than with someone like Kendrick, who expertly weaves together the past, present, and future of his art form with an indelible sense of place. Now if only I could get a ticket to one of his goddamn concerts.