Throughout the years, New York has been a hot bed of the avant garde, the new, and the different. And London has also been a real centre of forward thinking music. (Though with London – even more so than NY – many of the bands that were doing the forward thinking originated in other communities before moving to London.) But for me, the one scene that consistently excites me – when I go back to it, when I encounter new bands from it, and when I think about the overall creativity of a given time and place – actually was in Los Angeles – a city more known for its film production and more mocked for its musical contributions than New York or London.
Los Angeles generally has a very poor reputation for rock music, at least among the general public. I mean, it produced surf music, had a hand in folk rock, was the base of the mellow mafia, and the American base of hair “metal”… I mean, no wonder nobody thinks about LA when they think of rock music.
But of course that isn’t accurate at all. For those who follow independent music, LA regularly produces bands that become nationally or internationally, even if they haven’t come out of a particular scene. And of course, hardcore punk sprung up in part from LA. So really, its reputation isn’t exactly deserved.
The scene I want to focus on though, and the one that I think is utterly remarkable and unique and special in the annals of rock music, is the so-called “psychedelic” scene in and around LA in the late 1960s.
Los Angeles was actually pretty fertile back then as well, and had already produced the Byrds, the best American rock band band to come along before psychedelia. But then, in a very brief period starting in 1965, Los Angeles produced:
- Buffalo Springfield (April 1966)
- The Doors (September 1965)
- Kaleidoscope (1966)
- Love (April 1965)
- Spirit (1967)
- The United States of America (1967)
- Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention (1965)
And those are only the most notable bands.
Now one reason why LA was never really identified as a scene was because there were few commonalities between the bands. I’d like to briefly discuss them.
Buffalo Springfield began as perhaps most the promising folk-rock band after The Byrds but, in part through the interest of the Beatles – who were influencing practically everyone at the time – and partly due to the musical differences of the band members, soon morphed into a genre-hopping pop rock band that was labeled psychedelic because it was easier than explaining how they actually sounded.
The Doors, as most know, were notable compared to the other poster children for psychedelia because they came from a completely different place. Not only did poetry play a way bigger part in their background than the other successful psychedelic bands, but they also came at the genre – if they came at it at all – from completely different influences. The Doors were heavily influenced by theatre – including the musical theatre of Germany of the 1920s – and also Latin music, as opposed to the Indian music that dominated most psychedelia.
Kaleidoscope also had little influence from Indian music. Instead, they were influenced by a wide variety of American roots music, like many of the San Francisco bands, but also – and this was their distinguishing factor – by Middle Eastern musics. As has been said before, Kaleidoscope was a world music band before critics had even conceived of the idea of “world music.”
Love began as a folk-rock meets garage band but soon began to create an elaborate art-pop style that was again labeled psychedelic because people didn’t know how to describe it. Unlike other psychedelic bands, Love saw inspiration both in Phil Spector’s arrangements and mariachi music.
Spirit are the least exciting or revolutionary of the major bands from the era. They were pretty much a conventional psychedelic rock / pop band of what might be called the second wave, forming in 1967, whereas most psychedelic bands existed and had already released records by 1966. The thing that perhaps sets them most apart from other bands of their era was their debut to jazz. Aside from The Byrds, few other psychedelic bands on the American side were so clearly influenced by sounds – if not by the methods – of jazz.
The United States of America could be labeled a New York band, because of their founder and frontwoman’s origins in the musical scene of New York, but they formed and were based in LA during the late 1960s. The USA was the most radical rock band form LA outside of The Mothers and, along with them and The Velvets, the most radical of their day. They made use of the latest electronic music technology which, with keyboards and electric violin, were used in place of guitar. They were heavily influenced by both traditional and contemporary classical / art music and sounded unlike virtually anything else.
The Mothers were of course the most radical thing anyone had ever heard outside of free jazz when they debuted with a double album in the summer of 1966. Though they came from doo wop and R&B, they soon incorporated modern classical / high art, musique concrete, jazz and virtually everything else almost single-handedly created progressive rock and art rock.
These bands had little in common. Each of them – with the exception of Kaleidoscope – released at least one masterpiece and all but Spirit had a immeasurable impact on music history. I can’t really think of another scene that sprung forth such a diverse array of great, revolutionary, challenging, compelling music. That’s why LA of the late 1960s is my favourite music scene.