One of the most interesting phenomena in music is the idea of the ‘scene’ — the way that good music isn’t generally created by artists in a vacuum, but certain times and places seem to produce vastly more good music than they should, usually by musicians who know and work with each other. Collaboration and competition seems to spur people on to much greater heights, while great musicians with no scene tend to stagnate.
Possibly the greatest of all these scenes is that of mid-60s LA, which was almost unique in that there were at least four separate but overlapping groups of musicians — the Laurel Canyon folkies, the studio pop bands, the Sunset Strip rockers and the Zappa/Beefheart contingent.
Each of these groups of musicians tends to have its own following, and there is at first glance little to connect, say, the Mamas And The Papas to Captain Beefheart, or Tim Buckley to the Beach Boys. But the connections are there — I remember once talking to a friend who is very into the pop music from that period, who had just heard Safe As Milk by Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band for the first time. When I asked what he thought of it, he said “It sounds just like the Monkees”.
And while that’s not a connection I’d have made at the time, it does — and it’s not surprising. Both bands were recording in the same studios, with the same engineers, and knew each other socially. Ry Cooder worked with both bands around the same time. Electricity or Yellow Brick Road could easily fit on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.
The whole LA scene — all the parts of it — is documented on the wonderful box set Where The Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-68, released in 2009 (but which I only got round to picking up the other week). At 100 songs, it covers almost all the important musicians from this era (apart from Frank Zappa, whose estate have a bad relationship with Warners, the producers of the set), as well as many, many bands who released just one or two great singles.
As a Nuggets set, it is biased more heavily towards the garage rock Sunset Strip bands than I would personally have chosen, but it still does an extraordinary job of putting this music into a proper context. You get the demo of the Monkees’ hit Words, by songwriters Boyce & Hart, along with the Monkees themselves with their Moog-psych masterpiece Daily Nightly, but then you also get the Rising Sons (Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder’s mid-60s blues band) doing a riffy blues cover of the Monkees’ Take A Giant Step.
You get Dino Desi & Billy (who were a teenage band including the son of Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball, and Dean Martin’s son Dino), and Jan & Dean singing about perfume flavoured chewing gum, but also Captain Beefheart.
And there’s also the Byrds, the Mamas & The Papas, the Beach Boys, Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman, Love, Buffalo Springfield, The Doors, Sagittarius, Tim Buckley, The Dillards, The Knickerbockers, The Turtles, The Electric Prunes, The Penny Arkade, The Association, The Standells…
The hundred tracks here lead smoothly from fuzz guitar and Rickenbacker jangle to the outer reaches of psychedelia via the most bubblegum of mainstream pop, and manage to do it in a way that makes the links between these different bands and styles apparent.
This set, particularly discs three and four, is absolutely essential to anyone with any interest in 60s pop and rock music.