TERRY GROSS, host:
Los Angeles became the center of the record business after World War II and by the mid-'60s housed not only successful independent labels but also labels affiliated with movie studios like Warner Brothers and Universal. So it's no surprise to learn that there was a thriving rock scene there and that it was captured on thousands of records. With the release of "Where the Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets," Rhino Records has tried to document it all, from the garages to the sound stages, on four CDs. Rock historian Ed Ward has a review.
(Soundbite of song, "You Movin'")
THE BYRDS (Band): Well, I've been watching you dance for a while little girl. And I'd like to have a chance, to learn your style little girl. 'Cause you have a way of moving that I hope to be able to do. I am girl so fascinated watching you moving. Oh, you moving. Oh, you moving. Oh, yeah. Now the way…
ED WARD: In a way, it's a shame that for some time the perception of '60s rock history in America was tied to a San Francisco-based magazine, Rolling Stone, which brought a long-standing regional rivalry into the discussion. San Francisco was groovy and organic, Los Angeles was commercial and plastic, and that was that. But there is nothing plastic about the scene developing in the clubs on the several-block-long stretch of Sunset Boulevard called the Sunset Strip, where folkies like The Byrds went to experiment with electric instruments and bands like The Leaves sang double-entendre songs about drugs just like San Francisco bands did.
(Soundbite of song, "Dr. Stone")
THE LEAVES (Band): (Singing) You are feeling alone today, (unintelligible) here what I say, I know that you feel alone, come and see my best friend, Dr. Stone. I can tell you what's in store, I can take you to his door, you're sad and you're alone, (unintelligible) Dr. Stone, all except for (unintelligible) Dr. Stone.
WARD: Los Angeles had a lot of other things going for it. For one, it was a much larger city. It had suburbs and neighborhoods in which it seemed every garage had a band.
(Soundbite of song, "Jump, Jive & Harmonize")
THEE MIDNITERS (Band): (Singing) You gotta go baby, I got the (unintelligible), you gotta (unintelligible). So jump, jive and harmonize, so jump, jive and harmonize. Come on, come on please, come on baby, baby please, all right.
WARD: One of the toughest garage bands was Thee Midniters, who broke another stereotype by being Mexican-Americans from East Los Angeles. "Jump, Jive, & Harmonize," recorded live in 1967, was just one of their masterpieces. Then there were also typically snotty teenage bands like The Mustangs in suburbs like Glendale.
(Soundbite of song, "That's For Sure")
THE MUSTANGS (Group): (Singing) I was watching you last night, when you and that guy walked down the street. And it was plain to see right then, you ain't the kind of girl for me. Don't want to see your face again, well I don't want to anyway.
WARD: Where all this gets interesting is that unlike San Francisco or the many other cities where music scenes were emerging at this time, Los Angeles had top-flight studios where a developed band could record, the cream of America's studio musicians to step in for a band member who couldn't play a part, experienced managers who could guide a band's career, and people with money looking to invest it in an act which could provide them with a nice return. This was a volatile mixture. It could mean that Dean Martin's son, Lucille Ball's son, and a friend of theirs could become a band and get a deal with no problem. Although it's still a surprise here how could Dino, Desi & Billy really were. Or that odd combinations could take to the studio, as Peter Fonda and exiled South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela did. And a proven artist could get the budget to indulge in artistic vision.
(Soundbite of song, "Fan Tan")
JAN & DEAN (Band): (Singing) (Unintelligible)
WARD: "Fan Tan" was ostensibly by Jan & Dean, although it was produced and sung by Jan Berry, recorded while he was still partially paralyzed from the 1966 auto accident which almost killed him. This studio music, the very thing that occasioned the catcalls of plastic from the San Franciscans, was the most distinctive part of the L.A. scene, the thing that made it different, although live-based bands like The Doors, Love, The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield were also very active. "Where the Action Is!" - the four-disc set which includes all these songs - has been masterfully curated by Alec Palao, who also helped put together the companion box of San Francisco music "Love is the Song We Sing."
From legendary clubs like Bido Lito's, Ciro's and the Trip, to recording studios like Gold Star and Western, L.A.'s music scene was every bit as important as San Francisco's and even better documented. And if some of it was plastic, well, what do you think they made records out of anyway?
Ed Ward lives in the south of France. He reviewed "Where the Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets" on Rhino Records.