From “The Rock Primer” edited by John Collins published by Penguin Handbooks in 1980
The ‘California Sun’ chapter was written by Mike Houghton
Throughout the fifties, the record industry on the West Coast of America was at once both peculiarly diverse and constricted; centred in Los Angeles, where it was overshadowed by the movie industry, it presented an amorphous mass of small labels and small recording studios, but lacked direction. By 1965, however, LA’s record industry had completed its long apprenticeship and had advanced to a point where it could offer a serious challenge to New York’s supremacy in the industry. To some extent encouraged by the emergence of LA, San Francisco also flourished in the mid sixties, only to flounder again before the decade was out. Between them, though, LA and San Francisco, despite the latter’s decline, had established beyond question the West Coast as a thriving catchment area for rock music.
LA’s rock community had traditionally taken the form of a series of interrelated groups of writers, musicians, performers and entrepreneurs, the most enduring of which centred around a bunch of middle-class high-school kids: Herb Alpert, Lou Adler, Terry Melcher, Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys. Crystallizing around this nucleus of people, the LA music industry finally secured an identity. Two factors were influential in this: on the one hand, the proximity of the long-established movie industry led to a preoccupation with professionalism and perfection in production; on the other, the almost idyllic nature of the California climate resulted in a devotion to recreational pursuits that gave rise to surfing and hot rod music and general ‘Fun Fun Fun’. A clique grew up around the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Terry Melcher, Roger Christian, Lou Adler, Gary Usher, Steve Barri, P. F. Sloan, Bruce Johnstone and others, while behind them lay yet another set of people, accomplished session musicians. These, who included Leon Russell, Glen Campbell, Larry Knechtel, Joe Osborne, Hal Blaine, Jim Gordon, David Gates and Van Dyke Parks, not only played on a good many of the hits to come out of LA in the sixties, but, later, often emerged as successful front men in their own right. David Gates’s amazing commercial triumph with Bread, or Glen Campbell’s with ‘countrypolitan’ music, epitomizes this process.
Surfing put LA well and truly on the map, but with Dylan and protest music rising in importance in 1965, it was the Byrds who were to boost the next phase in LA’s growth with their folk-rock adaptation of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. Ironically, Roger McGuinn was the only Byrd who played on the ‘Tambourine’ session (though the vocals were provided by the group), and the Byrds remained aloof from the post-Dylan protest circle. They did, however, help spawn a local club scene – notably Ciro’s, the Crescendo, the Kaleidoscope and Sunset Strip clubs such as the Whiskey – from whence sprang groups like the Doors, Love, the Leaves, the Seeds, and the Standells.
The LA garage bands stood in sharp contrast to the polished LA vocal groups. The latter perfected immaculate harmonies – often utilizing four- and five-part arrangements – plus, of course, slick instrumental backing. Among the leading groups were the Mamas and the Papas, Spanky and Our Gang, the Turtles, the Association and Harpers Bizarre. As a sign of LA’s impact on the East Coast, the New York Kama Sutra label was launched in 1965 with a deliberately Californian ‘good time’ sound, and featuring groups such as the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Tradewinds, Innocence and the San Francisco group Sopwith Camel. New York had acknowledged the threat of LA in the most flattering manner – by imitation.
Lou Adler‘s career effectively encapsulates almost all the major trends of California pop/ rock. As early as 1959 he’d been manager of Jan and Dean, working for several small labels over the next few years before, in 1964, forming Dunhill Productions. He employed Steve Bam and P. F. Sloan, writers of hundreds of surfing/protest era classics and themselves performers. Together, they were the Fantastic Baggys, while Sloan was perhaps the definitive LA protest singer. Adler later brought together and produced The Mamas and the Papas, and when, in 1966, he sold Dunhill to ABC, his newly formed label Ode scored immediately with Scott Mckenzie‘s ‘San Francisco’ anthem. He further spread the word about California pop by co-organizing the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, where many of San Francisco’s leading groups played for the first time outside the city. Later, in 1970, he reunited with Carole King, who, under Adler’s tuterage, helped establish the next major trend in LA rock – the singer/song-writer.
By 1965, with LA’s share of the music industry consolidating, in San Francisco, 450 miles to the north, the first stirrings of the ‘Frisco scene were taking place. Within two years San Francisco would be dubbed ‘Liverpool USA’ but, tragically, the seeds of the scene’s destruction had already been sown by then. The pre-boom ‘Frisco scene hinged around a handful of local labels. Most only managed local hits – Fantasy, for example, with the Golliwogs, later to become Creedence Clearwater Revival; but Autumn managed several Top Forty successes, notably by the Beau Brummells, one of the earliest ‘English Invasion’ style groups in America. Autumn involved two figures better known in – other spheres: Tom Donahue, who owned the label, was a pioneer of underground’ radio, while Autumn’s A&R production chief was Sly Stewart, later Sly of the Family Stone.
The new strain of ‘Frisco groups was, however, beginning to appear by the summer of 1965, and had little to do with labels such as Autumn and Fantasy. The acknowledged pioneers of the ‘Frisco scene were the Charlatans; the place where it all began, though, was in Nevada, at the Red Dog Saloon. All the different facets of the ‘Frisco scene were there in their infancy: a rock & roll band, a crude light show, the first psychedelic dance poster and plenty of LSD. Other groups were already coming together, all very different musically. Grace Slick’s Great Society, Big Brother and the Holding Company (sans Janis Joplin), Jefferson Airplane and the Warlocks, soon to become the Grateful Dead. It was a tight-knit scene; many of the individuals knew each other from playing the folk circuit, others studied art and design together at college. This helped forge another key element of the local scene: the creation of posters and elaborate slide/light shows.
If the scene began at the Red Dog Saloon, it evolved fully: at dances in San Francisco itself. These, initially, were promoted by the Family Dog, fronted by Chet Helms; beginning with dances at the Longshoreman’s Hall, the Family Dog soon found a permanent home at the Avalon Ballroom, while another of the new breed of promoters, Bill Graham, provided competition at the Fillmore. Dancing was a vital aspect of ‘Frisco music; it was only in the later sixties that music became a concert phenomenon. In 1965 music was for dancing and free expression. Invariably having consumed large doses of acid, then still legal, the local community of hippies would dance wildly to music that, typically, was loud and improvisational.
The scene was at its true peak in 1966. New groups were forming (Quicksilver Messenger Service, Moby Grape, Country Joe and the Fish) while musicians were flooding in to play the ‘Frisco ballrooms. The Sir Douglas Quintet, 13th Floor Elevators, Steve Miller (who remained there) travelled from Texas; Love, the Leaves and Kaleidoscope came north from LA and the Lovin’ Spoonful, Blues Project and Paul Butterfield’s Blues Band arrived from the East Coast. But, at this stage, the scene was still local; anyone drawn there was drawn by word of mouth alone. Publicity was scant but both the record industry and the media soon heard about the scene on the grapevine; the rot was about to set in. The halcyon summer of 67′ would actually see the demise ofthe San Francisco scene proper.
By 1967 most of the original groups had signed major deals; sadly the Charlatans missed out but the Airplane, the Dead and Big Brother all became household names. Second-generation groups were swelling the scene at an alarming rate, but it was the intervention of the media which killed the scene more than anything else. The ‘hippie’ community supplied irresistible media fodder and, once exposed, the ‘love generation’ was ripe for exploitation by businessmen-merchandizers and record company people alike.
The local scene had lost its inner cohesion as its once idealistic founders, one by one, set their sights on new horizons. Bill Graham, once a member of the Mime Troupe, for example, had become a big-time promoter. By 1969, San Francisco, having helped spawn the underground cult in Europe, particularly London, and in other American cities, had become just another underground music centre, and a dying one at that.
The music industry in the city had expanded, of course – especially the importance of major studios like Wally Heider’s, Columbia or Alembic (formerly-Pacific High); San Francisco was on the map as a rock centre, but it was no longer a distinctive and creative one. Ironically, in the later sixties a number of international groups did emerge – Creedence Clearwater Revival, Santana, Sly and the Family Stone – but they had little in common with the crazy days of 1965-66. Similarly, in the bars and clubs, the scene had little to link it with the glorious past, apart from the presence of a handful of survivors from groups such as Big Brother, Moby Grape, Quicksilver and the Youngbloods, still trucking after all these years. Three of the original spirits have seen out the years – the Grateful Dead, now almost an institution, the Jefferson Airplane/Starship and Steve Miller – but, at least in the case of the last two named, they have kept abreast of the times by adopting a strictly Los Angeles approach.
The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, virtually spawned the whole country-rock movement. Spinning off into the Flying Burrito Bros., Dillard and Clark’s Expedition, Mannassas, the Eagles, Poco, Loggins and Messina and Firefall, not to mention Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, who, while hardly playing country rock, helped foster that LA country-rock devotion to harmony singing – there are few major groups which do not stem from their family tree. Country rock even influenced San Francisco’s musicians; it certainly gave the Grateful Dead a direction which bore fruit in their most satisfying studio albums, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, as well as producing the enjoyable spinoff group, the New Riders of the Purple Sage. Courtesy of Creedence Clearwater’s John Fogerty, San Francisco also contributed another of the country-rock genre’s greatest albums, Blue Ridge Rangers.
Amidst the roll-call of players descending from the Byrds/Springfield axis, none made sure country rock would spread more effectively than the Eagles. Their decisive commercial success ensured that country rock would be widely adopted by their LA peers. Their influence has become all-encompassing and with one or two notable exceptions – Little Feat and Steely Dan spring readily to mind – LA groups have become alarmingly bland, uninspiring and complacent.
The other main trend, the singer/song-writer boom, soon fell prey to the same malady. Led by Carole King, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and the individuals within Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the singer/song-writers took a firm grip on the LA recording scene. Along with many of the prime movers in country rock, they’d cut regular solo albums, aided and abetted by one another and with old ‘Frisco pals from the Dead and the Airplane often lending a hand. A steady flow of female accompanists emerged to swell the list: Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Maria Muldaur, Bonnie Raitt and, more recently, Nicolette Larson.
A few broke free from this soporific world: Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne stand apart as three of the most talented artists in rock. Sadly, the LA process of sucking the lifeblood from an artist has seen even Jackson Browne looming dangerously on the edge of disaster, after mingling too much with the Eagles and achieving Top Forty success. If he does succumb, his protege, Warren Zevon, looks bestplaced to replace him in that triumvirate. Others have remained aloof from the hip circle: Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks and, until his death in 1975, Tim Buckley, must have cringed at the thought of being labelled singer/song-writers.
The two strains have now come together in what has been dubbed Hip Easy Listening – album music geared to endless hi-fi/FM radio consumption. The most successful exponents include the Eagles, Jefferson Starship, Fleetwood Mac (three fifths English but fully-fledged Californians nonetheless), Linda Ronstadt, Firefall and, increasingly, Jackson Browne. The music is intrinsically LA – perfectly played (indeed, a new clique of session-players, including David Lindley, Lee Sklar, Russ Kunkel and Danny Kootch, has formed around these soft rockers), perfectly sung, perfectly produced, and insidious. The lyrical themes, passed on from the singer/songwriters, concern adult love; Fleetwood Mac‘s Rumours, with its measured, unchallenging but skilful performance, and gently shifting moods and rhythms, is the definitive example of this growing genre.
The Los Angeles music scene, then, is ostensibly the same as in 1965; as clique-ridden and incestuous as ever, it is still chiefly concerned with recreational pursuits, though now sex and drugs have replaced kissin’ and surfin’, The sun, needless to say, shines as warmly and brightly as ever.
Together with New York, Los Angeles remains at the heart of American rock music. Although there are still creative and original artists associated with the city (for example Ry Cooder, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits and Neil Young) its primary importance is as the main influence on the all-pervasive ‘easy-listening rock’: at the start of a new decade, this is stilI proving one of the most commercially potent of contemporary styles.
Essential California Sun Singles
Euphoric ‘California’ anthem from the Florida-based Rivieras; a cunning mixture of surfer pop lyrics and the brash pre-punk style.
Jan and Dean
Dead Man’s Curve
A classic on two counts, a hot-rod song and death disc combined; it acquired a dubious significance for Jan Berry two years later, when he barely survived a car crash.
The Beach Boys
Don’t Worry Baby
Brian Wilson’s most forgotten masterpiece, the quintessential early Beach Boy ballad; early confirmation of his production genius.
The Beach Boys
Brian Wilson’s tribute to the local girls on the beach. Peerless pop, complex in structure but made to sound so simple.
Eve Of Destruction
The archetypal protest song from the former New Christy Minstrel; written by P. F. Sloan.
The Beau Brummels
An early answer to the English invasion. The group pre-dated the San Francisco boom with hits like this – produced by Sly Stewart, later leader of the Family Stone.
Sonny and Cher
I Got You Babe
Utterly simple, infectious song, indebted to Phil Spector, that sold as much on the oddball image of the duo as on the song’s obvious charms.
Still reminiscent of the surfing sound, one of a string of breezy, impeccably produced/arranged hits; a natural in ’67.
The Mamas and the Papas
Quality folk rock with both East and West Coast influences – distinctively sung, played and arranged. A timely anthem written by group member John Phillips.
The ultimate hippie, flower-power hymn.
Lovely single. Cleverly contrived, ambiguous enough to avoid being banned but clearly celebrating the new drug culture.
Eight Miles High
Courageously inventive single: it seems to hold together by a mere thread yet packs a devastatingly powerful punch.
Much recorded summer-of-love song, written by Chester Powers (a.k.a. Dino Valenti), which was ideally suited to Jesse Colin Young’s relaxed style.
Along Comes Mary
The underrated harmony group fell somewhere between straight pop and the new West Coast music; there’s still speculation about whether this was a ‘drug’ song.
Push in , Too Hard
The LA punk group’s first hit; raw and simple with characteristic bubbling piano, fuzzy guitar and quirky vocals from arch-weirdo Sky Saxon.
Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White
The most enduring of the LA garage bands, this is easily their finest punk protest epic.
59th Street Bridge Song ( Feelin’ Groovy)
Brilliant soft-rock arrangement of the Paul Simon song; their five-part harmonies were rivalled only by Spanky and Our Gang in the field of sophisticated pop.