Monday, November 23, 2009

REVIEW: Where The Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968

Where The Action Is!
Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968
(Rhino)

Well, as of earlier this month I was finally able to set aside enough extra coin to pick up Rhino's new box set dedicated to the L.A. pop music scene from 1965-68. Don't get me wrong, I had been planning on purchasing it from the moment it was released back in September was it? But sometimes with packages like this, it's better to sit back and wait for all the advanced reviews to come in before taking the plunge. There's a lot of ways to screw up archival re-issues like this, but I'm happy to say that Rhino's latest entry to the Nuggets series is a very worthy addition.

As one whose love of the music from this city and era goes far beyond casual fan status, my expectations were set quite high. Having immersed myself in these sounds for the better part of the last decade, I was skeptical that there wasn't much Rhino could present to me that I hadn't already absorbed and digested. Again, I'm happy to state that I was wrong on all counts. The package itself was just over $50.00 at Amoeba, which is reasonable for a 4-CD set with booklet and free T-shirt. The booklet itself is quite well done: There is information provided for every band, including label, chart, musician, producer and engineer credits whenever possible, along with a paragraph or two describing each song in greater detail. The discs themselves are housed within slots in the back cover-- From an artistic perspective it's a cool idea, but practically speaking it's a disaster. Complaints on the internet abound regarding Action's CDs arriving with heavy surface scratches and sometimes even glued upon! Fortunately, all four of my discs were delivered scratch free and in good shape. I immediately withdrew them from the slots and placed them in more protective cases.

I immediately slid Disc one of Action into my car's CD player just as soon as I hit the Durant Ave. parking garage and was instantly greeted by the agreeably familiar groove of the Standells' "Riot on Sunset Strip"; a tune I had previously selected for my 10 CD L.A. Gemstones set, released last year over at the Record Room and on this site. I should take a moment to state that I have no idea whether or not the powers-that-be at Rhino had any familiarity with L.A. Gemstones before they decided to put this set together. But since the original goal of Gemstones was to encourage some forward-thinking label to put forth a licensed compilation that could put money in the pockets of the musicians who made all this wonderful music, while at the same time helping to spread these sounds to as many people as possible, I can only be grateful that Rhino was up to the challenge. And since only a mere 16 of the 100+ tracks on this set overlap with the 250+ found on L.A. Gemstones, the two sets "play nice" together for the most part. (NOTE: The idea of going back and switching out those 16 overlapped songs on L.A. Gemstones with 16 alternative cuts not found on Where the Action Is! is something I plan on doing shortly-- apologies to those of you who have already downloaded it; I'll try to make the update process as painless as possible!)

Back to the analysis at hand, the raucous Standells cut serves nicely as an "opening credits" type number (just as it did in the movie from which it originally hails), and the rest of Disc one provides a Byrds-eye view of the nascent Sunset Strip rock scene starring all the usual suspects: the Doors, Love, the Buffalo Springfield, Iron Butterfly, the Byrds, Sunny & Cher, etc. Of the four CDs included on Where the Action Is!, the material here will be the most familiar to the casual fan. Still, archivists Andrew Sandoval and Alec Palao do a nice job of selecting lesser-known numbers by most of the big groups, and all are presented in their original mono mixes for added panache. No real masterpieces here (although the Association's spirited reading of "One Too Many Mornings" comes close) but plenty of great, catchy fun.

Disc two struck me as the most bizarre of the bunch, featuring as it does many artists that may be unfamiliar to all but the most stringent of collectors. I'll admit that groups like the Light, the Bush, Ken & the Fourth Dimension and the Others were so obscure as to be completely off my radar, and I thought I knew all there was to know about the L.A. scene! As such, this is the disc that will appeal the most to Garage fans, featuring as it does such genre heroes as Thee Midnighters, the Premiers, the Spats and Opus 1, whose all-time bizarro classic "Back Seat '38 Dodge" is the best thing here. Still, in terms of overall listenability and enjoyment, I'd rate this disc the weakest of the four.

CD three focuses more on artists who were at home in the recording studio, and has a nice mix of the familiar and the eclectic. It is here that we start to encounter some real underground masterpieces: the Full Treatment's "Just Can't Wait", Hearts & Flowers' "Tin Angel", the Oracle's "Don't Say No", Pleasure's "Poor Old Organ Grinder", the Ballroom's "Baby Please Don't Go"... These are amongst the very finest "pocket symphonies" ever recorded. The fact that none of these came close to being hit singles the first time around makes their inclusion here all the more vital. Likely they will now be heard by more listeners than they were in their own time!

The final disc starts off quite retentively in a folk-rockish vein with cuts by artists like Jackie DeShannon, Peter Fonda and the Rose Garden, but quickly evolves into a sort of psych-pop w├╝nderland of obscuro delights. This is Action's strongest run, and I get the feeling Sandoval and Palao are just deejay-ing purely on feel at this point. Highlights pile up one after the other: spacey pop from the Motorcycle Abeline, rootsy rock from Gene Clark, a dippy Ricky Nelson number titled "Marshmallow Skies" of all things, an absolute stunner from Del Shannon (who knew?), Randy Newman doing heavy psych?!?! alternate "Heroes and Villains", "Come to the Sunshine", "The Truth Is Not Real", Love, the Byrds and, oh yeah, Barry Fuckin' McGuire. In short, every element that made the era special, wrapped up in one 30 minute stretch of songs.

All this is not to say that Action is perfectly compiled per se. Amongst all the quality selections are a few head scratchers, none greater than "Acid Head" by the Velvet Illusions-- a great song to be sure, but one not even recorded in the State of California let alone Los Angeles, it has no business on this set. Amongst the more established bands there are some curious choices as well: The Buffalo Springfield are represented by two of their earliest cuts (one a demo) at the expense of their more ambitious later material; The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, a band who released two classic albums for Columbia in 1967, see only one of their pre-CBS demos included here; The Doors and the Beach Boys-- arguably the two biggest groups to evolve from the scene-- only merit one cut a piece, while the much respected but less commercially viable Love rate two inclusions. Worse yet, some of the best SoCal bands of the era are completely absent. How could Rhino include songs by third rate acts like the Guilloteens (not even an L.A. band) yet leave out the Strawberry Alarm Clock, Paul Revere & the Raiders, the Grass Roots or the Millennium? (Other important artists such as Frank Zappa, the 5th Dimension, Johnny Rivers and Bobby Jameson are excluded as well, but due to licensing issues which are clearly not the fault of the compilers.)

Still, my gripes are that of an obsessive completist and fan who takes this stuff way to seriously, and as such should be taken with more than just one grain of salt. The beauty of Where the Action Is! is that is contains much to love, both for the neophyte and the avid collector. As such, is receives our highest rating: 5 Tabs

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2 comments:

  1. Awesome catch on the Velvet Illusions song.

    Earlier today I was looking San Francisco NUGGETS set's booklet, and almost every other song was recorded in LA! While I don't seriously expect every NUGGETS set to be thematically in line with one another, you have to wonder what the difference even is if half the LA scene was simply transplants from other locales to begin with.

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  2. Well it took me a while to figure it out for myself. You basically have to look at it as every band back then represented a certain scene. As some got bigger and more popular, they moved to larger locales in order to work at nicer studios and have access to bigger clubs that would generate more notoriety. The Daily Flash would be a good example. They were big in the Pacific Northwest, but moved to L.A. in order to take the next step. They signed with UNi (L.A. label) and gigged regularly at the Whisky and up and down the strip. They kept company with the Buffalo Springfield, the Leaves and the Grass Roots. Hence they *became* an L.A. band.

    Contrast that to the Chocolate Watch Band, originally from the South Bay city of San Jose. Their producer Ed Cobb brought them down to Hollywood to record their album and to appear in the movie "Riot on the Sunset Strip". Nevertheless, they stayed in a hotel the whole time they were recording and then went back to the Bay Area, and gigged all over there, including the Fillmore. As opposed to a national touring band like say the Byrds or the Springfield, they played the Fillmore because it just happened to be a local venue. Hence, the Watch Band are a Bay Area band.

    The Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane both recorded early albums in L.A., but are so associated with San Francisco and the Bay Area that they could never be viewed as L.A. bands. When not touring, they lived in Milpitas, Marin County, Sausalito and the Haight. Bay Area all the way.

    Bands like the Spoonful, Simon & Garfunkel and Chicago Transit Authority did actually make the move to L.A., but again, due to their obvious associations with New York/ Chicago, would never be viewed as SoCal bands (even though the Spoonful would ultimately enlist uber-L.A. guy Jerry Yester to replace Yal when he left.)

    The Beatles and Stones spent a lot of time in L.A. The Stones recorded "Paint It Black" and numerous other songs while there on tour with California legends like Phil Spector, Jack Nitsczhe, Phil Sloan and Gene Pitney. But in the end, this was really a tour stopover for them. Contrast this with English act Chad and Jeremy who actually made the move to L.A. in order to be closer to Hollywood so that Jeremy Stuart could pursue his acting career. This would make post 1965 Chad & Jeremy an L.A. band. (The fact they recorded with Gary Usher seals the deal.)

    The Peanut Butter Conspiracy recorded their brilliant second album "The Great Conspiracy" at Columbia's New York studios. But this was another tour stop-over situation. The band was based out of a communal house they lived out of in Silverlake; hence they were and will forever be... wait for it... an L.A. band.

    Since California only had two cities large enough to support a studio scene, generally the state is split into halves, with all NorCal bands being tagged "San Francisco" and all SoCal bands labeled "Los Angeles". It's easier for the general public to digest it that way I guess. Nevertheless, the Strawberry Alarm Clock (Santa Barbara), The Other Four (San Diego), The Avengers (Bakersfield), The Creation of Sunlight (Long Beach) and so many others fall into the L.A. Scene in the same way bands from Oakland, Berkeley, San Jose, Concord, Richmond and Humboldt County get lumped in with the S.F. scene.

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