The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Flashback Friday: Was L.A. ever more cool than in the 1960s?

October 30, 2009 |  3:18 pm

I've been revisiting the swinging '60s in recent days, working on an upcoming post about what Hollywood was like four decades ago when the "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" generation took over the movie business. But the records that came out of L.A.'s mid-'60s music scene were just as groundbreaking as any of the films of the era. Rhino Records recently released "Where the Action Is: L.A. Nuggets 1965-1968," a must-have box set chronicling the heady days when the Sunset Strip was crowded with clubs filled with raucous young bands inventing a brash new kind of rock and roll.

The byrds It's a beautifully compiled box set, featuring four CDs' worth of music, some of it from bands familiar to '60s music fans (the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas and the Papas), some of it from long-forgotten one- or two-hit wonders such as the Deepest Blue, Limey and the Yanks, the Hysterics and -- how's this for a great moniker? -- the W.C. Fields Memorial Electric String Band. If you want to get a great taste of what all the excitement was about, the American Cinematheque is hosting an all-day tribute Sunday at the Egyptian Theater.

The festivities start at noon with a screening of four rarely seen episodes from "The Monkees" TV show, along with an episode of "Happening '69," which has footage of  the Monkees hanging out with Paul Revere & the Raiders. The tribute also has a 4 p.m. showing of a host of '60s promo films including performances by the Turtles, Sonny & Cher and the Mamas and the Papas along with a screening of "Mondo Mod," which features a host of '60s-era bands visiting such Strip hangouts as the Plush Pop and the legendary Pandora's Box. The day concludes at 7:30 p.m. with a screening of "Riot on Sunset Strip" (which features the Standells, the Chocolate Watchband and the Enemys -- with much of the movie having been filmed inside Pandora's Box).

The all-day '60s blast-back has something of a bittersweet air, since Rhino Records recently laid off close to 40 of its staffers, decimating its A&R, marketing and promotion departments, which makes it likely that "Where the Action Is" may be one of the label's last ambitiously curated box-set collections. Among the many casualties at the label was A&R director Andrew Sandoval, who put together the "Where the Action Is" box, which in addition to its amazing assortment of music, offers replicas of vintage concert posters, ticket stubs and matchbook covers as well as absorbing overviews of the nightclubs and boss L.A. radio stations from the period. 

I asked Sandoval why this intense burst of musical creativity happened in L.A. instead of somewhere else. He gives a lion's share of the credit to the Byrds, who debuted in March 1965 at Ciro's, which, with the Byrds as a house band, quickly emerged as one of the hippest clubs on the Strip. (Bob Dylan joined the band for its opening-night encore, cementing the Byrds' status as trendsetters.)

"The Byrds' success there really sparked a club craze in L.A.," says Sandoval. "They looked incredibly cool, but the biggest reason for their influence was that they were the first band in the scene to play original songs with an original style. That really set off the garage band explosion in L.A. If you listen to the other music in the box set, you'll hear the Byrds' style and sound being echoed by a number of other bands."

Sandoval says another big reason for L.A.'s preeminence was the arrival around the same time of Derek Taylor, a shrewd, flamboyant Londoner Liverpudlian who'd been the Beatles' publicist. He set up residency in L.A., where he first launched a music newspaper sponsored by KRLA, the city's top rock station of the time, before moving on to work for the Byrds. Sandoval says L.A. radio was a pivotal promotional tool for the scene. "Each major station published its own charts, so you could break a record and have a big hit in L.A. long before anything moved on to the rest of the country," he says. "It would all happen very fast. The Byrds would record a song at Columbia Studios, drive over to KRLA or KHJ with their acetate and give the station an exclusive long before the record company even pressed or released the song."

After listening to "Where the Action Is" for the last couple of weeks, I can say that the box set totally captures the spirit of a time when nearly anyone with one good guitar riff could cut a single. The box set is crammed with great music, along with wonderful oddities, including a song called "Flower Eyes" that features a very young John Branca -- now a lawyer representing Michael Jackson's estate -- on keyboards; a performance of "November Night" by Peter Fonda (with Hugh Masekela on trumpet), Jackie DeShannon doing "Splendor in the Grass" backed by the Byrds, and a noisy rock rendition of "Last Night I Had a Dream" by Randy Newman recorded long before he became a more cerebral pop satirist.

It may be Rhino's last great collection, so don't hesitate to grab it. You'll be getting a great look at one of the most fascinating chapters in L.A. pop history.

Here's one of the Byrds' first TV appearances, playing "Mr. Tambourine Man" in 1965. Roger McGuinn sings lead vocals and in wide shots you can see David Crosby -- pre-Crosby, Stills & Nash -- playing guitar on the far right.


Randy Lewis' review of "Where the Action Is"