Live Nights at Legendary Alley Studios (Rock N Roll’s Best Kept Secret)
On the corner of Lankershim and Otsego, tucked behind a nondescript burger joint, a golden-era rock n’ roll Mecca hides in plain sight. Disguised by ‘70s style wood paneling and a blue-sky mural, the building features no signs, no lettering, no visible front door, nothing to hint at the decades of rock legend preserved within. This is The Alley.
For more than 45 years this North Hollywood rehearsal and recording studio has existed as a creative oasis for the day’s most distinguished musicians. Here, Warren Zevon perfected songs for his platinum-selling 1978 record Excitable Boy; the Red Hot Chili Peppers held auditions for a new guitarist in 1993 (eventually choosing Dave Navarro) and laid tracks for One Hot Minute; Jackson Browne wrote “For Everyman,” from his album of the same name; Tom Petty recorded “Don’t Do Me Like That (Mudcrutch Version)” for Damn the Torpedoes; Etta James and her band rehearsed for a national tour in 1973. If written out in full, this list of testimonials would be novels long.
Photo by Alexandra Tirado
Now, the Alley is entering a new era. The studio recently opened its doors to public audiences for the first time as a live concert venue.
On Friday, Jan. 18, up-and-coming LA-based creatives Trent Peltz, Bellsaint, and Patrick Martin took the stage hoping to sponge up the Alley’s magic and etch their names alongside the dozens of veritable Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famers who found and explored their sound here over the years.
Entrants trickle in through a narrow, winding hallway that unfurls into a bevy of hippie dens, each cluttered with art-deco hand-chairs, cheetah print fabric, concert posters, and more wood paneling. Fluorescent disco balls cast technicolor rainbows into every corner—ultraviolet at the bar, deep crimson behind the stage. Every room is littered with relics left behind by the innumerable singers, instrumentalists, engineers, promoters, and friends who passed through over the years. A baby grand piano supposedly once owned by Gram Parsons sits in the main stageroom. Chad Smith’s drumhead leans against a support beam. A spiral stairway is guarded by yellow tape (it probably leads to heaven). It’s easy to get disoriented if you don’t know the floor plan well. That’s by design. It helps to be a little drunk.
Then there are the walls. One is covered up by swathes of dusty, time-warped records; another is draped in strips of stage-worn blue jean denim and band-tees; another is built entirely from construction scraps (percussionists have made a game out of stabbing broken drumsticks as high into this wall as they can reach); pretty much every exposed brick is smothered in sharpie signatures.
Every inch of this space is home grown, quilted together from a patchwork of jam sessions and distorted nights only half remembered by those who were lucky enough to enjoy them. The sole indications that you’re standing in a vaguely professional establishment and not a late-70s bandhouse basement are the framed records plated in RIAA-certified gold and platinum that hang near the ceiling.
All this gives the Alley an intimate, homey feel as a live music venue while hinting cheekily that, if you’ve made it here, the dream of global rockstardom might not be so far out of reach after all.
Trent Pentz – Photo by Alexandra Tirado
Warming up the roughly 50-person crowd on Friday was Trent Peltz, a handsomely dressed, red-bearded keyboardist and backup vocalist with LA synth-punk band The Pink Slips. He opened the night with a cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” a fitting tribute considering Petty’s history here (his autograph is hand-scrawled on the wall a few rooms over). For the next half hour, Peltz flexed considerable stylistic range with the session band, loosening up the crowd’s stiff legs with punk-infused classic rock, fast-rolling alt-rock, and blue indie jams. His low, throaty vocal tendencies bring to mind Eddie Vetter or even the late great Chris Cornell.
“So, how about that airline food, huh?” he joked while retuning his keyboard between songs.
Bellsaint – Photo by Alexandra Tirado
Pop singer Bellsaint graced the stage next in blindingly silver shoes, which were downright subtle compared to her explosive voice. Adele seems like an obvious inspiration in her soaring melodies and personal, emotive songwriting. The Texas native teased an EP coming later this year (after a quiet 2018), and moved at least one audience member to tears with a heart-wrenching ballad about her father. A gifted and soulful pop star in the making.
Patrick Martin – Photo by Alexandra Tirado
Soft rock crooner Patrick Martin headlined the ticket with a sound reminiscent of late-2000s Snow Patrol or the Script: melodic hooks, jaunty harmonies, and splashy instrumentals abound. He was noticeably excited to be on stage in front of people. After leaning into towering high notes, he’d flash a wide grin and pump his fist like Tiger Woods sinking a clutch chip shot. To him, he may as well have sold out Madison Square Garden.
The impassioned display speaks to how green Martin still is and how badly he wants this. He hasn’t even released an official single as a solo artist yet. This studio show was technically his first gig, but when the music stopped, those surrounding him clamored that he’s poised to break through in a major way this year. Therein lies the beauty of the Alley—it is both a time capsule frozen in the past and a spyglass peeking into the future.
After the sets, all three musicians hung around to chat with beaming audience members, decompress with libations, and revel in the bizarro rock-god glory its creator imbued it with.
In 1973, a scrappy biker named Bill Elkins opened Alley Music Studios after visiting and falling in love with the building while taking photographs for a Three Dog Night album cover. He had visions of a private rehearsal space, a sanctuary for the inspired, and would drive past it regularly waiting for a “for sale” sign to appear. When one finally did, he tore it down and called the realtor.
From then on, it was chiefly important to Elkins that his studio was kept quiet, an exclusive haven where musicians could squirm through their creative processes in peace. Operations at the Alley were highly classified. The only rules were: 1) don’t talk about the Alley; and 2) don’t take pictures or video inside the Alley (there was apparently a smidge of wiggle room here). Invitations had to be approved by the inner circle and came solely through word of mouth. The secrecy gave the studio a near-mythical reputation among artists that persisted for over four decades.
Tragically, in November 2016, Bill died suddenly of complications due to cancer and diabetes, bringing the studio’s unbelievable 43-year run to a close. His wife and Alley co-owner Shiloh Elkins was unable to take over the business at the time. She passed away the next year. Without any children to inherit the Alley, it was anyone’s guess what would happen to the property at 5066 Lankershim Blvd. Rumors of demolition swirled.
In a 2015 interview, Shiloh voiced her hopes for the Alley’s future without its founding owners: “The rich history here, I believe, should be shared with others. I think that whoever does take this on after Bill and I will try to preserve it. At least I hope so.”
Enter John Strand, the Alley’s owner since April 2017. Strand, a producer and entrepreneur, knew the Elkins’ and had basic familiarity with the studio’s musical history. When the Alley went up for sale, he gambled that he could keep its doors open without changing its appearance or insulting its importance to the rock community. It is under his direction that the Alley has pivoted towards live music.
“We’re gonna contract up with all these places, we’re gonna save the Alley, and we’re gonna move on to educating people on the music and sharing this,” Strand said.
To begin funneling random alt-rock-crazed twenty-somethings through these sacred doors at $15 a head may seem counteractive to Elkins original vision for the studio, but consider the alternative. In the digital age, it’s hard for old-school practice studios to make ends meet. Santa Fe Avenue’s famous Downtown Rehearsal space closed in 2015, pushed out by a chain of private clubs called SoHo House. Hollywood’s Grandmaster Recorders was bought out two years ago by an investment firm who hoped to spin the funky ambiance into a restaurant or lounge.
“You can’t monetize doing rehearsals,” Strand said. “Everybody and their brother has Pro Tools and can rehearse in their bathroom. The way it is now, if you have a keyboard, you basically have a whole band.”
This, and the fact that so few people knew of the Alley’s true significance when Bill passed, meant there was a distinct risk that new ownership would inadvertently erase the building’s largely unwritten story when they moved in. Strand got involved to stop that from happening.
“If we can get investors to help us without changing the Alley, then we’ve got a shot at saving this place all the way through,” Strand said. “We have to basically monetize it but not exploit it. We have to keep it as ‘the Alley.’”
This is no small responsibility. Bill Elkins’ standard of greatness looms large here, but Strand appears committed to the task.
Strand’s first public-facing move was to partner with promotion agency Concert Media to throw a series of live shows using AirBnB’s Experiences platform to spread the word and sell tickets. Concert Media works a level below AirBnB, booking artists, coordinating show logistics with venues, and running digital marketing. Event prices are modest. Most importantly, the performing artists get paid a significant cut of the show’s earnings.
“How do we help the developing artist community? That was sort of the big picture idea,” said Concert Media co-founder Greg Mertz.
Corporations getting involved with a grassroots creative institution can swiftly ruin the magic by gunning for maximum profits instead of the best possible user experience. AirBnB seems aware of this trend and is flipping the script by designing their business model around intimacy and authenticity rather than size. They’re not overreaching, and they’re letting the Alley’s event series grow organically.
Plus, AirBnB’s involvement drives a stream of consumers that small-scale venues like the Alley wouldn’t be able to get on their own.
Peltz elaborated: “You get people from Asia or South America that are traveling to LA. They see on their AirBnB page this event that has basically five stars. And that’s when it starts to get really cool because its not just friends and friends of friends [in attendance].”
After five successful shows in the fall, Strand signed a contract with Concert Media and AirBnB for 12 more concerts held monthly through the end of this year. Last Friday was the first of these 12 shows. But that’s not all. Strand says the Alley plans to host over 100 shows in 2019 organized with different production companies, including Warner Music Group. [Writer’s note: I’m entirely in favor of a max-capacity A$ton Matthews x Rucci show here.]
Photo by Alexandra Tirado
And so, the Alley’s transformation into a small-scale live event venue feels like a natural and appropriate evolution for the space. It’s a shift that, if done right, will preserve the house that Elkins built; begin sharing the Alley’s endless stories, artifacts, and energy with people who care to receive them; and uplift LA artists like it has done since 1973. Of course, the Alley will continue on as a rehearsal studio during the daytime—Jeffrey Osborne was here just weeks ago prepping for a concert at Pepperdine University.
About three years ago, video surfaced on YouTube of a Chili Peppers practice session at the Alley in 1990. Remarkably, not a single thing about the stageroom has changed in the 29 years since then. The same beach mural lies on the ceiling. The same records are framed on the same walls. The green felt floors are still warm. Step inside and you immediately feel the intangible kind of greatness that happened here not so long ago. You wonder if it might just happen again.
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