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Thursday, 04 September 2014 01:37

Book Review - When Los Angeles Was Top of the Pops

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Few would argue that in American popular culture, New York dominates theater, and Los Angeles dominates film, despite the rise in runaway production. 

But not so with rock music from the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, for which several cities can make a claim for No. 1. In Detroit, they will boast that you can’t do much better than the Contours — the greatest pure rock and roll band on Motown — Mitch Ryder, the MC5, Bob Seger, and, yes, Grand Funk Railroad.

New York counters with the Velvet Underground, the Lovin’ Spoonful and, stretching the rules, Bob Dylan, though he migrated to Greenwich Village strictly to play acoustic folk music. In Chicago, they’ll include Chuck Berry because he recorded for a local label, Chess Records, plus hometown talents the Buckinghams and Chicago.

Then, there’s San Francisco. Ever tried to tell a Bay Area partisan that maybe, just maybe, the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, the Beau Brummels, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Dan Hicks are not the greatest single-city lineup in rock history? He will have to be restrained from pushing you off of the Golden Gate Bridge.

But for me, there’s no comparison. From the release of “Earth Angel” in 1954, through the beginning of the Eagles, Los Angeles is the premier city for rock and roll performers — groups and solo acts — in the United States.

Start with Ritchie Valens, the city’s first bona fide rock and roll star, who died in early 1959 in a plane crash. A year later, LA-based Eddie Cochran, writer of “Summertime Blues and “Twenty Flight Rock,” the song Paul played for John when they first met, died in an automobile accident in England.

Cochran and Valens had the songwriting skills and on-stage charisma to dominate rock and roll during the mostly fallow years between 1959 and 1962. Still, two huge talents are not enough to claim the undisputed title of Rock and Roll Capital of the Nation.

It’s the groups and solo artists who represented LA through the end of the ‘60s that clinch the deal: the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Turtles, P. F. Sloan, Cannibal and the Headhunters, Sonny and Cher, the Mamas and the Papas, the Buffalo Springfield, the Doors, the Mothers of Invention, the Monkees, Linda Ronstadt, the Grass Roots, Canned Heat, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. You could just include acts that hung out on the Sunset Strip and still write a thorough history of American rock from 1964 to 1969.

In his new, beautifully-packaged coffee table book, “Turn up the Radio: Rock, Pop, and Roll in Los Angeles, 1956–1972,” (Santa Monica Press) LA native and rock journalist Harvey Kubernik uses fascinating, on-point interviews with a wide range of producers, promoters, performers, and radio personalities (full disclosure: I’m quoted at length twice in the book.), plus an array of stunning photos, most of them not seen in print before, to tell a story that has been surprisingly overlooked. For every dozen books on the movie business, there may be one or two on pop music that so much as reference that LA ruled rock in the ‘60s.  author has made an irrefutable and vivid case that the best rock in America was conceived and recorded in the city of freeways, smog, and stars.

Born in 1951, Kubernik just missed the debut of “Earth Angel” by the Penguins in 1954. His earliest memory comes from the following year, when he happened to see a local Los Angeles television program called “Rhythm and Bluesville” hosted by the legendary DJ Hunter Hancock. Having started so young, the author was the perfect age to experience the highs of LA rock and roll and rock as they happened. To this reader, born five years after Kubernik, and halfway across the country, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of envy when he mentions seeing the Beach Boys perform at a Culver City record store in 1962 or regularly attending tapings of the nationally televised pop music program “Shindig!” between 1964 and 1966.

One of the more intriguing components of the history of popular music in Los Angeles during the period covered is how it to some extent reverses the immigration model that has become the standard for America over the past 125 years. Here, it was blacks, Jews, and Latinos from the area who were the pioneers; non-Jewish Caucasian outsiders such as Roger McGuinn (Chicago), Gene Clark (Missouri), Neil Young (Canada), Jim Morrison (Florida), and Graham Nash (England) arrived later.
In an early chapter titled “Birth of the Cool Cats,” Kubernik tells the story of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Jewish kids who attended Los Angeles high schools and wrote most of the hit songs for the African American vocal group the Robins, which later became the Coasters. The group’s catalog includes “Poison Ivy,” “Youngblood,” “Charlie Brown,” and Yakety Yak.” These songs were clever at their core, a stark contrast to the strutting and sexual braggadocio of most hip-hop.

Kubernik quotes Leiber on the beautiful accident of creativity: “I must say, I really didn’t think about the songs I was writing. They were the natural sort of evolution of a state of mind. I’d be walking down the street and start singing aine. I didn’t think of it. It would happen.” 

Los Angeles was becoming a segregated city in the 1950s, but there were still enough mixed neighborhoods that aspiring performers could learn up close about other musical genres and styles. Lil’ Willie G, the great lead singer of the 1960s Latino band Thee Midniters, was raised in a Mexican American family that remained in South Los Angeles for several years after blacks started moving to the area in greater numbers. White kids in the 1950s and early 1960s would visit Flash Records, located in an increasingly black section of Western Avenue, and Dolphin’s of Hollywood in Watts to buy rhythm and blues records and to watch live radio broadcasts.

In 1956, Art Laboe, a DJ of Armenian descent, become one of the first in his field to understand the commercial potential of the Mexican American audience, which adored many of the LA-based rhythm and blues performers, including Chuck Higgins, Big Jay McNeely, the Penguins, and Richard Berry. For several years, Laboe hosted shows at the famed El Monte Legion Stadium that drew an overwhelmingly Latino crowd.

He also shrewdly recognized that music made for high school kids has the added appeal of instant nostalgia. Graduating from high school is the last great act of adolescence. At 19, many of us are already missing the life we lived at 17. For those who fit this description, Art Laboe invented the Oldies but Goodies series, on his own Los Angeles label, Original Sound. Each volume contained several romantic ballads that had special appeal to the Latino community.

Ritchie Valens, the first rock and roll star to come from Los Angeles, never made it beyond 17 — a biographical detail that people who only know his music find almost impossible to believe. How could someone who died that young have written and recorded “Donna” and “Come On, Let’s Go,” and transposed “La Bamba,” three of the greatest songs in rock and roll history?

In the section on Valens, “Turn Up the Radio!” features a lengthy reminiscence from Claremont-based musician Chris Darrow, who saw the singer in concert a month before he died along with the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly in a plane crash:
“He (Valens) was a pretty big guy and loomed onstage with a graceful power. He was not overly hardcore in his presentation, but was very soulful, and I ate it up. There was a tenderness and sweetness about him, even as he rocked.”

Between the death of Valens in 1959 and the arrival of the Byrds in early 1965, surf music dominated the pop music scene across Southern California. Never before or since did East Coast snobs have more of a reason to proclaim the cultural superiority of Boston and New York over Los Angeles. While serious-minded folk music reflecting adult concerns was pouring out of Cambridge and Greenwich Village, West Coast surf groups released such singles as “Wipeout!” “Surfer Joe,” and “Summer Means Fun.”

But you won’t find a note of condescension in Kubernik’s account, which rightly celebrates the sonic allure of surf: distorted guitars, a drum beat like the sound of a thousand feet stomping on muddy sand, and vocals that run the gamut from shaky to kooky to beautifully blended. His section on the Beach Boys includes a wonderfully idiosyncratic conversation with Brian Wilson; the author asks his subject for the stories behind “The Little Girl I Once Knew,” “Warmth of the Sun,” “All Summer Long,” and other songs that were not Top 10 hits but are nonetheless major contributions to any mythical sixties songbook.

Yet the Beach Boys were immigrants to Los Angeles as well, having been brought up in Hawthorne. Jan and Dean, however, were hometown guys. Kubernik notes how they met at Emerson Junior High School in West Los Angeles and later performed at dances at University High School—two among many LAUSD products from the 1950s and 1960s who contributed mightily to the local sound.

A strong case can be made that 1965 is one of the five or 10 most important years in the 233-year history of the City of Los Angeles. In 1965, the Watts riots took place, the Dodgers won the World Series, and Los Angeles became the center of folk-rock, America’s first worthy response to the genre-shifting sounds of the British Invasion.

The final two-thirds of Kubernik’s 336-page book are dedicated to the seven years from 1965–1972, when Los Angeles produced an astonishing number of performers whose body of work justified and continues to justify the claims of longtime rock fans that the music was simply better back then. He features interviews with most of the groups and solo acts you’d expect, plus some you might not, including Mark Guerrero.

The result is such an extraordinary collection of anecdotes, observations, and oral histories during this section that it would be foolish and ultimately rather dull to list them all. Just make sure as you dip in and out that you read Jim Keltner on the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, Kim Fowley on the Mamas and the Papas, the Monkees on the Monkees, Love on Love, and … you get the idea.

When we “turned up the radio,” it was not only to hear great songs but the DJs who played them. Kubernik has included interviews collected through the years with most of the important jocks of the era, such as the Real Don Steele, Dave Hull, B. Mitchell Reed, and Jim Ladd. While the discussion of radio people distinguishes this book from many others profiling a particular place and time in rock history, it would be highly questionable to claims our jocks were better than jocks in other big cities across the country were. To his credit, Kubernik doesn’t.

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Why end in 1972? After all, “California Hotel (1976),” the quintessential commentary on the LA rock scene of the mid-1970s, became one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. Beginning in 1977, Los Angeles developed a hardcore punk scene that made New York’s look like a garden party. And if you care to continue into the late Reagan years, Guns and Roses reestablished LA’s nationwide preeminence.

I’ll suggest two reasons not provided by the author. Kubernik turned 21 in 1972, which is around the age when we stop following pop trends on a daily basis. Second, 1972 is the year that President Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern in a landslide, a blow from which both ‘60s radical politics and the counterculture never recovered. Whether or not one misses hippies, they were integral to a great period in rock.

I have but one quibble with this superb book, which should be prominently displayed on coffee tables in the canyons — Laurel and Topanga — Boyle Heights, Encino, Malibu, the Crenshaw district, and so on. There is not a single reference to Charles Manson. I understand he was a failed musician, as opposed to the other men and women in these pages, which could be considered an automatic disqualifier. But his spooky closeness to Terry Melcher and Dennis Wilson and, more important, what the Manson Family says about the downside of the LA scene in the late 60s, are strong reasons for inclusion.

Read 3045 times Last modified on Friday, 05 September 2014 01:26
Tom Waldman

Tom Waldman is the host of “Rock and Roll” Stories, which airs each month in Southern California on television station KLCS. He’s co-author of “Land of a Thousand Dances: Chicano Rock and Roll from Southern California”, and author of “We All Want to Change the World: Rock and Politics from Elvis to Eminem”. When Tom was 10, in 1966, his favorite group was the Monkees. He still likes them a lot.

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