Just a week or so after tackling Rhino’s massive Big Star release, Keep An Eye on the Sky, I’m back writing about another huge effort from Rhino, Where the Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965 – 1968. Once again Rhino has released a beautifully constructed, painstakingly researched, and essential four-disc set, this time covering a crucial period in the evolution of rock and roll in Southern California. Few if any other labels are doing this sort of thing these days. If they have the resources, they don’t have the interest, and if they have the interest, they often don’t have the resources. Rhino is presently in the position of having both, but as I said in my Big Star story, we will have to wait to see what the future brings for the label.
At first glance, Where the Action Is!, would seem to be an all-star assemblage of early tracks from bands that went on the bigger things. Disc One (“On the Strip”) features songs from a veritable “Who’s Who” of ’60s California bands who made a name from themselves on L.A.’s Sunset Strip. They include the Byrds, Iron Butterfly, the Doors, the Buffalo Springfield, Sonny & Cher, Captain Beefheart, and Love. Then there are surprises from the Bobby Fuller Four, the Leaves, the Standells, the Seeds, and the Music Machine, bands often written off as one-hit wonders. Finally, there are the tracks heretofore known only to hard-core pop junkies. These efforts come from bands like the Palace Guard, the Sons of Adam, the Joint Effort, and the Guilloteens. Of particular historical interest are songs from a young Lowell George with his band The Factory, and The Rising Sons, led by Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal. There’s the Association with a wonderful cover of Bob Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings,” and a typically offbeat, and typically compelling track from Spirit, “Girl in Your Eye.”
It’s on Disc Two (“Beyond the City”) that things begin to grow a little more, no, a lot more, obscure. Presented here are bands that prowled the periphery, making their names, such as they were, in places like Riverside, Bakersfield, and the San Fernando Valley. Yes, there are a few familiar names; the Turtles, Kim Fowley, and the Electric Prunes, but the disc is dominated by lesser known, unknown, or completely forgotten bands like the Premiers, the Odyssey, the Bush, Thee Midnighters, the Others, the Humane Society, and many more. The fact that these bands are obscure however does not mean that they didn’t make some compelling music, and it’s to the credit of producers Andrew Sandoval, Alec Palao, and Cheryl Pawelski that they managed to capture these rare tracks from a bygone era. Out of this occasionally motley crew, it’s the Merry-Go-Round, led by Emmitt Rhodes, that captured my heart with, “Listen, Listen!”
The collection’s third disc (“The Studio Scene”) brings us the work of L.A.’s noted music producers and studio musicians, highlighting the prolific Wrecking Crew along the way, and recounting some of the triumphs put to tape in legendary L.A. studios like Gold Star, and United/Western. The pros take the ball on this one, and we get studio magic from the likes of Jan & Dean, the Mamas & Papas, Dino, Desi, and Billy, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the Monkees, P.F. Sloan, and Lee Hazelwood. Once again though, it is the non-household names that carry the day. You may not be familiar with bands like the Moon (which included former original Beach Boy David Marks), Brian Wilson acolyte Gary Zeckley’s the Yellow Balloon, or Curt Boettcher’s The Oracle, but all of them were seminal figures in the L.A. music scene. Who knew that N.J.’s Knickerbockers, transplanted to California, ever recorded anything other than their fantastic Beatles rip, “Lies”? Well they did, and it’s here. One need look no further than the disc’s first track, “Action, Action, Action,” for the good stuff.Á‚ Written by frequent Monkees songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, and recorded in September, 1996 by relocated Texan Keith “Guitar” Allison, the song became the theme for Dick Clark’s after school TV show, “Where the Action Is,” and Allison became a regular on the show.
As Disc Four (“New Directions”) opens, a new era is dawning in Los Angeles. The folk-rock genre is aborning and leading the way are former Byrd Gene Clark, Buffalo Springfielders Stephen Stills and Richie Furay, one dog of Three Dog Night Danny Hutton, the brilliant but short-lived blaze that was Tim Buckley, Brian Wilson lyricist Van Dyke Parks, and of course the Beach Boys themselves, represented by a fascinating alternate take of Brian’s “Heroes and Villains.” Veterans Del Shannon and the newly renamed Rick (formerly Ricky) Nelson were still at it, and stars like Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson were just beginning their ascendancy. Even movie stars were getting in on the act, as evidenced by the inclusion of a track from easy rider Peter Fonda. It comes as no surprise that the set’s most sublime effort comes from the great Jackie DeShannon, backed on this occasion by the Byrds for “Splendor in the Grass.” It is folk-rock at its best, and if it can be said that one track out of 101 is worth the price of admission by itself, this is that track.
In his notes, Curator Andrew Sandoval describes this, and other entries in the Nuggets series, as an “alternative musical history of the 1960s. Not so much a survey of what happened, but more what could have happened if music charted on merit alone.” Just so. And speaking of notes, far be it from Rhino not to provide context for a collection like this. In addition to Sandoval’s comments, the 50-page book includes an essay by former Cheetah editor Lawrence Dietz, a track by track analysis with production credits, a musical timeline, and a description of the clubs and radio stations that “set the scene.”
Sometimes I feel like a telemarketer calling you up every week and trying to convince you to spend money on this or that. The truth is, however, if you have a serious interest in the shadow history of popular music in this country, you will want to own Where the Action Is! Even if you could care less about history, the songs are just do damn cool.