Much like Randy Newman, I love LA. Since moving to my adopted home, I have a new appreciation for the sound of Los Angeles. If a band is from the City of Angels, chances are good that I like them ten times more now than I did before I lived here. Still, like 12 million other people, I was deeply disappointed by the LA Times Magazine list of the best LA bands.
It’s rare that a list of the best anything results in anything more than eye rolling and fist shaking. As a rule, journalists don’t have a clue about music, music journalists doubly so. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not that I don’t love The Monkees, but the ninth best band that LA ever birthed? Surely you jest, LA Times.
There’s also the small matter of deciding what a “Los Angeles band” is. Transplants are part of what make “El Ay” what it is, and bands flock to the city from far and wide. To that end, I have compiled a list of a dozen bands that take the Los Angeles experience and give it a sound and an image. Let the complaining begin.
It’s not surprising that my list begins and ends with Steely Dan. Comprised of New York Jews who moved to Los Angeles and promptly decided that they hated everything about it, The Dan are a truly LA story. Stocked with the cream of LA-area session musicians, it is impossible to imagine this band thriving anywhere else. Their sardonic take on Los Angeles culture represents everything that’s great about a city full of transplants.
New York City had The Velvet Underground. The Doors had Los Angeles. At a time when everyone was in love with the idea of love, The Doors called “bullshit” on the hippie project, writing raunchy, blues-oriented psychedelic numbers that even Ray Manzerek couldn’t ruin. It’s not surprising that the same city that gave birth to the Manson Family gave birth to this band. Both represent the same phenomenon: Pissed-off hippies tanked up on rock and roll, acid and sunshine but unable to take their eyes off of the black horrors of the City of Light.
Guns ‘N’ Roses
I get a lot of flack because I consider GnR to be the best LA punk rock band of the 1980s. This is largely a function of my preference for The Heartbreakers over GBH. No matter what you call them, Guns ‘N’ Roses are the sound of flyovers moving to the coast in search of their rock and roll fantasy. Amping up bands like The Dead Boys and The New York Dolls for a new generation, Guns ‘N’ Roses were to the late 1980s what The Sex Pistols were ten years earlier — a truly terrifying rock and roll band that scares the living fuck out of the squares. Say what you will about the Illusion records or any of their later work. Appetite For Destruction is quite possible the last great rock and roll record.
Since I won’t get another opportunity to say this: Fuck Mötley Crüe.
Los Angeles is a city in constant contradiction. Beverly Hills and Boyle Heights are about half an hour from one another. While the bands dishing up megadoses of sunshine and cocaine are numerous, bands that represent the poor, crime-ridden side of the city, so expansive that it cannot even be described with the term “underbelly”, are relatively few. The cliché about gangsta rap being by and for the suburban middle class could not be less true when it comes to NWA. The original lineup, woefully short lived, was to LA’s ghettoes what Guns ‘N’ Roses were to transplants living on the edge. A truly terrifying vision of a truly terrifying existence, NWA present thug life in all its aspects from crude humor to seeing the light at the end of the tunnel right before you realize it’s from an oncoming train.
Up in Pacoima at the middle school there is a mural of Ritchie Valens, one of the two talented musicians that died in a corn field in Clear Lake, Iowa. The wall the mural is on is covered in graffiti, with local crews and individual kids trying to get their name and their set up on the wall. One area, however, is left completely alone — the image of Ritchie Valens. Ricardo Valenzuela is a source of great pride for LA’s Chicano community, one of their own who wasn’t just another teen idol from the 1950s, but a hardcore rock and roller who brought Mexican-American traditions into the genre despite having never set foot south of Los Angeles until he was famous. Whether playing an uptempo rocker like “Come On, Let’s Go” or a more soulful number like “Donna,” Ritchie was the voice of Latin LA, inspiring future Chicano musicians such as ? and the Mysterians, Carlos Santana and The Zeros.
Despite the hectic pace of life here, Los Angeles fills me and many others with a peaceful, easy feeling. No list of LA musicians would be complete without at least one band that encapsulates the more laid back side of the city. The Eagles are the voice of the beach bum, the shiftless layabout, the transplant with a very small trust fund who is able to spend most of his time sitting around, picking out a tune on his acoustic guitar. The boys in the band aren’t unaware of the seedier side of LA life, however, they view it with a detached objectivity that most bands are not able to see. The addition of Joe Walsh to the band cemented this distant relationship from the darker side of the City of Angels.
The reverb, chorus and delay-drenched sound of Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat is the sound of a million illegal keg parties and middle-class kids sitting on the edge of their bed trying to learn every last lick of his innovative technique. The whisper-register screeching of Diamond Dave is the sound of every two-bit Sunset Strip vocalist asking his stripper girlfriend for her last twenty dollar bill. Together, these two men created a sound that hearkened back to everything tuneful and joyous that happened in hard rock since the Kinks put their two-chord punk stompers down on wax.
While a certain set of Dutch brothers were pioneering their neo-fun-and-sun sound, one man was mixing a love of Black Sabbath, Miles Davis, The Ramones, weed and hatred into a potent brew that would give birth to a new genre called “hardcore punk.” For some reason, Greg Ginn’s free jazz inspired guitar noodling hasn’t gone down in history alongside a certain long hair with a homebrew guitar and other Los Angeles guitar heroes. But whether fronted by Greg Ginn, Ron Reyes, Dez Cadena or that other guy from the east coast, Black Flag were the sound of (yes, yes, you’ve heard this a thousand times before, but that doesn’t make it any less true) the suburban frustration of South Bay’s beach towns. In an age when punk rock is used to sell everything from cars to AARP membership, it’s hard to remember that it was once so dangerous that scores of LAPD cruisers were dispatched to control Black Flag audiences.
Starting life as Eric Burden’s backing band, War later gave funk a fresh new sound by infusing it with a lighter shade of brown. Gangster soul, Chicano rock and electric blues combined, giving r&b a breath of fresh air in the 1970s. In 2011, it’s nearly impossible to see a lowrider cruising through Los Angeles and not have the distinctive opening bass line of the band’s biggest hit running through your head. War, however, are more than just a one-hit wonder with a minor hit bordering on novelty. “The World Is a Ghetto,” “Why Can’t We Be Friends” and “Cisco Kid” are other minor hits that hold up, and the band never made a bad record. Remember, kids, don’t go see the band called “War.” You want to see Lowrider Band. Don’t drop the ball.
X were The Doors of their day, and not just because Ray Manzerek took a massive shit all over their records with his awful and intrusive organ. Exene and John’s atonal, droning vocals are a perfect match for Jim Morrison’s bleak wail. Billy Zoom’s supercharged punkabilly guitar stands in for the blues-based psychedelic boogie. X sang about everything dark and evil about Los Angeles, describing both the cold reality of the underclass and the social sickness of high society. With one foot firmly rooted in tradition and another rooted in the cutting edge, X were the right band to express social reality for broad masses of Los Angelenos across social class.
The Beach Boys
In the 1960s, thousands of kids ditched school, hitchhiked to the west coast and lived in squats to get their piece of the American dream. The role of The Beach Boys in the counterculture has long been undervalued. More than any other band, The Beach Boys were the band who sold the dream of California to the masses. From Maine to Montana, teenagers in the colder climes were instantly sold on the dream of a permanent summer. Unfairly tarnished as an “oldies” band, The Beach Boys were both one of the last pre-Beatles rock and roll bands as well as trailblazers into the world of psychedelia and pop music as high art. Connected to every social trend of the 1960s from the Manson Family to losing your mind on acid, the family band lived through the ’60s and have the scars to show from it.
Powerviolence is an evolution of hardcore punk. The first wave of powerviolence wasn’t a movement or a sound so much as it was a tight-knit group of misfit hardcore bands that played shows together a lot. Despise You are, for better or for worse, the band that changed this, giving the genre a definitive sound and aesthetic. While the band were certainly firmly rooted in the sound of powerviolence bands like No Comment and Crossed Out, they also brought influences from the uniquely LA sound of Venice crossover thrash bands like Beowülf, No Mercy and, above all, Suicidal Tendencies. Despise You launched a legion of choloviolence bands, but none ever lived up to the original who broke the mold with their brutal, dual-intergender vocal attack.
The Sound of Los Angeles
With so many different LA stories, encapsulating the city into a single sound would be impossible. But LA acts as a filter through which bands across many different styles express themselves. LA bands have a diverse sound, but you can always hear the sunshine, the beach and the ghetto, no matter what the style.