Los Angeles Music Scene, Part Two (1975-2001) (an unfinished article…)
By the mid-70s, the lure of Los Angeles as being a musical Mecca began to finally die down. Country-rock, defined as southern California rock, had just about played its hand. The Eagles seemed to put the final nail in that genre’s coffin, when they spent a great deal of effort writing and recording their grandiose masterpiece “Hotel California” in 1976. Having indulged in every narcotic excess, these carnal caballeros sang about Los Angeles decadence in songs like “Life in the Fast Lane” and “The Last Resort.” The album’s title tune harped on the sinister underpinnings of an industry and town that welcomed you in, but unmercifully ate you up. Coming from multi-millionaire musicians, the message was a bit pretentious, and ultimately, that distinction is what drew a decline in the music scene circa 1975. The ‘edge’ was gone from the town’s output of rock.
The bloated, corporate onslaught of “new discoveries” and severely-hyped talent had reached critical mass. In the 1960s and early ‘70s, the Sunset Strip was teeming with acts that demanded everyone’s attention. Experimental, innovative, and individualistic, these musicians were signed to lucrative deals and settled into a career that would comfortably support most of them for decades to come. Record company rosters were maxed-out with each new release. Little room was left for A&R execs to snoop out new talent. The Sunset Strip clubs began to lose their cachet. Mario Maglieri, owner of the Whisky-A-Go-Go, turned the famed venue back into a discotheque around 1976, simply spinning records for dancing teens. After having sold off his Asylum Records to Elektra in 1973, famed music executive David Geffen loped out of town by the mid-70s, heading east to bury himself in the burgeoning disco scene at New York’s Studio 54. But corporate rock had not completely disappeared, and one of the biggest acts to conquer the charts in the 1980s was just finding their voice in 1975.
Having grown up in Holland, the Van Halen brothers, Alex and Eddie, moved with their family to Pasadena, California, outside Los Angeles, in 1962. Young Eddie started playing piano, but found it had limitations. “When we came to the U.S.,” Eddie recalled to Guitar Player magazine, “I heard Jimi Hendrix and Cream, and I said, ‘Forget the piano, I don’t want to sit down – I want to stand up and be crazy.’ I got a paper route and bought myself a drum set. My brother started taking flamenco guitar lessons, and while I was out doing my paper route, so I could keep up on the drum payments, Alex would play my drums. Eventually, he got better than me – he could play ‘Wipe Out’ and I couldn’t. So I said, ‘You keep the drums, and I’ll play guitar.’ From then on, we have always played together.”
The siblings formed bands in high school with names like the Trojan Rubber Company and The Space Brothers, but in 1972, they became more serious about their musical aspirations, forming a group named Mammoth. Just above Pasadena, in the hills of Altadena, a former Bloomington, Indiana kid was fronting his own band, The Red Ball Jets. “I used to sing and play lead in Mammoth,” Eddie told Guitar Player, “and I couldn’t stand it – I’d rather just play. David Lee Roth was in another local band, and he used to rent us his PA system. I figured it would be much cheaper if we just got him in the band, so he joined. Then we played a gig with a group called Snake, which Mike Anthony fronted, and we invited him to join the band. So we all just got together and formed Van Halen. By the time we graduated from high school, everyone else was going on to study to become a lawyer or whatever, and so we stuck together and started playing in cities in California – Pasadena, LA, Arcadia. We played everywhere and anywhere, from backyard parties to places the size of your bathroom.”
Another group of musicians, newly arrived from Gainesville, Florida, would become rock icons in the California industry but not, however, under their initial moniker. When 11-year old Tom Petty got to meet Elvis Presley when the king filmed the movie “Follow That Dream” in his hometown, the rock ‘n’ roll bug bit hard. Forming a band named Mudcrutch, Petty and his friends loaded up a van and drove cross-country in 1973 to make it big in Hollywood. They stopped in Tulsa, Oklahoma to meet the legendary Leon Russell and were signed by his Shelter Records label. Once in Los Angeles and having cut a mediocre single, “Depot Street,” Mudcrutch soon faced a harsh reality that they were not ready for stardom just yet. Petty folded the outfit and went to work behind the scenes, assisting Russell in his Shelter endeavors.
Finally, another band of artists were bonding after school in east L.A. prior to 1975, and their musical influence would bring about a unique brand of rock unparalleled in its genre since. Garfield high school chums, David Hildago, Cesar Rosas, Louie Perez and Conread Lozano started off their Los Lobos del Este Los Angeles as a hobby. “We were out of high school, and we were friends in the neighborhood,” Hildago related to Digital Interviews. “Just for laughs, for the fun of it, we got together to play some acoustic music. We’d been playing in electric bands for years, and it was nice to do something different. We started going through Cesar’s mom’s record collection, learning some old Mexican music, some traditional stuff, just for a laugh, actually. We found out soon that we couldn’t play it – it was hard, so we gained respect for it right away.” It would take over ten years, but the music industry would also come to respect the contemporary Hispanic sounds of Los Lobos in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, David Lee Roth had always been hanging out in clubs around the Sunset Strip, most prominently Gazzarri’s at 9039 Sunset Boulevard, and it was there in April 1974, that Van Halen made their Hollywood debut. Just as they had in their suburban surroundings, the band fostered an ardent following. The humble musicians were just pleased to perform at legendary Strip clubs that once were former stomping grounds of their idols. “The greatest backstage of all was at the Whisky-A-Go-Go,” David Lee Roth wrote in his autobiography. “By the time Van Halen started playing there, which was right around 1975, they had not yet erased all of the graffiti that covered every inch of the ceiling in the famous main dressing room upstairs. You had poems by Jim Morrison written on the ceiling, complete paragraphs, Morrison’s signature, and the signature of everybody in The Doors. The signatures of everybody from Led Zeppelin to Johnny Winter to ZZ Top, Alice Cooper, Jethro Tull, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck, Santana, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and on and on…You could spend – and I did – many, many hours just checking out each little quote.”
Off the Sunset Strip, down at the corner of Santa Monica and Crescent Heights, sat a large venue called The Starwood. Another hard rocking group of musicians were just becoming known among local Hollywood fans in the summer of 1975. Kevin DuBrow and Randy Rhoads had performed at backyard parties in the quiet suburb of Burbank in the early ‘70s. Along with bassist Kelly Garni and drummer Drew Forsyth, their group was just a step behind the progress Van Halen was forging. “We first heard about Van Halen when they were still known as Mammoth,” Garni told Guitar for the Practicing Musician magazine. “They were playing parties down in Pasadena, which is like another world from Burbank – it’s about 20 miles away. We’d hear rumors of how there was this great, loud band down there, and Randy eventually got his girlfriend to drive him down to one of the parties to hear them. I asked him how they were when he came back, but all he would say was they were ‘pretty good.” Although Quiet Riot, the name of this Burbank band, would ultimately be the godfather of LA’s heavy metal revolution, at the start, anyway, they were overshadowed by the power of Van Halen.
Meanwhile, Mudcrutch members regrouped under Tom Petty, calling themselves the Heartbreakers in 1975. Laidback Petty was adamant that his band not fall into the star trappings he had witnessed while working with Shelter throughout the Brit Rock invasion of Tinseltown in the first half of the ‘70s. “We really saw all the bulls*** firsthand,” Tom related to Pulse magazine. “Groups that show up and ride around in limos on their first album, and have huge industry parties. And they’re terrible, and everybody knows nothing’s gonna happen. Everybody but them. And we saw people that got sold on the gimmick; if y’all dress up this way and do that…’ We knew not to do it. Like, I’m not getting in any suit of clothes. I’m not joining anybody’s club. We’re just gonna do our thing.” When Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers released their self-titled debut album in 1976, with its blistering single, “Breakdown,” the music industry lumped his straightforward brand of rock into a unique new category, all the same. It was a genre of music that was about to revive the club scene in Los Angeles.
Whether the Ramones in New York or the Sex Pistols in London were the first to burst forth with the defining strains of true punk is argumentative. What punk did for LA is revivify a stalling treadmill of creativity. Straddling the divide between the town’s recently-departed Brit-glam denizens and the new punk fad, a group of girls known as The Runaways would ultimately kickstart the snotty sounds of a new rebellion on the Sunset Strip. Ex-U.K.-patriot, Kim Fowley, who had haunted the city’s music industry for over a decade, hobnobbing with the likes of The Beach Boys, Phil Spector, and Led Zeppelin, was approached by a 14-year old girl named Kari Krome at an Alice Cooper party in late 1975. She presented the swanky promoter with her songs of teen-lust, suggesting an all-girl group would be just the right commodity to sell this brand of decadent ditties. Fowley snapped up the idea and soon Kari’s friend, Joan Larkin (aka Joan Jett) and Kim’s acquaintance, Sandy Pesavento were corralled into the titillating troupe. Krome was replaced by Michael (Micki) Steele as lead singer, and blonde-haired adolescent, Lita Ford, answered an ad in Backdoor Men magazine to join the jailbait jamboree.
Fowley met 16-year old Cherie Currie and asked her to front the band. Micki Steele was ousted, but she would later land in a more successful group in the 1980s. A Mercury Records A&R executive caught the girls’ sexy sound at a teen club in Cedar Grove, California, and before they knew it, The Runaways were working on their first album in the first few months of 1976. They scored a moderate hit with the single, “Cherry Bomb.” Even though they were underage, the girls were soon booked into the hottest clubs in Hollywood. While ready to play a gig at the Starwood, Currie spotted a corset in a boutique across from the venue and began wearing it onstage. Fowley soon had all his Runaways dressed in trashy lingerie.
Fowley friend, Rodney Bingenheimer, another legend of the Strip, began spinning punk 45 singles from Britain on his new Sunday show he hosted on LA’s famous radio station, KROQ. The town responded, and practically overnight, Hollywood devolved into a haven of spiky-haired, disenchanted, snarling punks and punkettes. Go-Gos’ lead singer, Belinda Carlisle, a student at the time in a quiet high school in Thousand Oaks, California, migrated swiftly to this new hotbed of discontent. “I went from being a cheerleader one year to being a complete freak the next,” she told Spin magazine. Calling herself ‘Dottie Danger,’ she began hanging out with another ‘Valley’ girl-turned-punkette named Jane Wiedlin. The two would dress in trash bags and subsequently party together in the dirty environs of punk clubs before forming their own band two years later.
John Doe from Baltimore became enchanted by this anarchic form of music. “The New York punk-rock scene was set by the time I was ready to make a move,” he recalled to Spin. “I didn’t wanna try to weasel my way into something that was already set up.” So Doe moved west to LA and fell in with local guitarist Billy Zoom and singer Exene Cervenka. It would take another year, but the trio would soon form a band named X that would certainly mark its spot.
Meanwhile, that hardrocking group from Pasadena had hooked up with an impressive mentor. Gene Simmons of KISS had caught several Van Halen shows and lent his assistance in cutting the group a demo tape. It was never used to generate label interest, yet a manager by the name of Marshall Berle heard them at the Starwood one night and leapt to their cause. He pestered label chiefs to come to the venue and check out this innovative band. “We were playing the club one rainy Monday night in 1977,” Eddie Van Halen related to Guitar Player magazine, “and Berle told us that there were some people coming to see us, so play good. It ended up that we played a good set in front of an empty house, and all of a sudden, Berle walks in with Ted (Templeman) and Mo Ostin.” Ostin was the head of Warner Brothers Records and Templeman was the label’s cherished producer. “Templeman said, ‘It’s great,’ and within a week, we were signed up. It was right out of the movies.” The band’s self-titled debut album, recorded in a blistering 4 weeks, gave notice of rock greatness with its blistering single, “Runnin’ With The Devil” in early 1978.
The town’s other reigning hard rockers, Quiet Riot, weren’t quite so fortunate. “We became the LA hard rock band after Van Halen made it big,” Randy Rhoads told Hit Parader magazine. “We thought we were good, yet the record companies kept turning us down. We thought the success of Van Halen would help us, but actually it hurt. Most of the record company people would say, ‘We don’t want the second LA metal band.’ That’s why we released the albums in Japan.” CBS/Sony Japan wound up signing Quiet Riot, and the group released two albums solely in that country over the next three years. By the end of 1979, even though they were still incessantly playing the LA club scene, fame was still nowhere within their grasp. Randy Rhoads left to play with Ozzy Osbourne and Kevin DuBrow quietly folded the Riot for awhile.
While punk beckoned suburban teens to its decadent clutches throughout 1977 and into 1978, another brand of musical mayhem known as hardcore would soon take root in the white-bread communities of Orange County, just south of Los Angeles. Guitarist Greg Ginn loved the Ramones but wished to crank up the discordant chords and guitar screeches his idols ripped from their instruments another notch. “The first band I played in was Black Flag,” Ginn told Gadfly magazine, “which originally was called Panic. Somebody else had that name, so we changed it to Black Flag before the first record came out. Mid-70s rock was getting kind of stale: The edges had been buffed off a lot of it. People wanted a more hard and aggressive sound.” Soon dubbed “hardcore,” Black Flag unofficially became acknowledged as the forefathers of this deep metal genre.
The music scene in 1978 Los Angeles was extremely divergent. Disco from the east was co-opted in trendy Beverly Hills clubs catering to West Coast show-biz scenesters. Steering away from the underlying gay and African-American themes associated with these thumping tunes, overtly white, heterosexual punkers and hardcore lovers clung to their output of discord and mayhem in ever-increasing numbers. And the seeds of what would be a new wave and heavy metal revolution were being sown by fledgling bands on the cusp of superstardom.
A seedy, rundown, x-rated theater in Hollywood became the punk palace haven named The Masque for safety-pinned delinquents to crash in. LA’s answer to the Sex Pistols were the Germs, and their July 1977 single, “Forming,” was the first true punk ditty released on vinyl in the LA area. Frontman Darby Crash frequently incited the crowds into drunken brawls, which, in turn, caused countless incidents of property damage and the arrival on-scene of the LAPD. Belinda Carlisle and her friend Jane Wiedlin (now calling herself Jane Drano) formed a band named The Misfits with bassist Margo Olivarria and drummer Elissa Bello. Jane described their surroundings at the Masque to VH-1. “It was a hellhole basically. It was in the basement of a porno theater, it was filthy, dirty and falling apart. And every time they had a show, the toilets would break, and there’d be like sewage flooding the place.” Belinda recalled The Misfits’ less than memorable first gig at The Masque. “Well, we played three songs, the second song twice, and I remember people there laughing hysterically or being just absolutely mortified.”
(Alas, valued reader, my stint as writer for the website effectively ended in May 2001, as I was in the midst of this article. Unemployment prompted me to trash my remaining voluminous research notes and seek out a way to make the next rent payment. The third wave of LA’s rejuvenated music scene, namely that of the late ‘80s metal renaissance and big hair (Guns N’ Roses, Poison, Faster Pussycat, Motley Crue, etc.) would not be captured in these pages.)
© 2001 Ned Truslow