Monday, 12 July 2010

Songs From The Canyons

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste...

In a change to the usual process (all articles reproduced as originally found) I would like to point out that I completely retract the first four lines of this article. I bloody love Spotify now.

I’ll expand on this in a further article sometime, but it’s worth flinging this in right at the start: I am fundamentally opposed to Spotify as a concept. I realise this makes me sound like old beyond my years, but I feel it makes the whole concept of discovering music too easy, takes all the dedication out of it. And also, who the fuck wants adverts in the middle of albums? This is a rant for another time though, children, so be seated and let us get to the meat of the matter.

For my playlist I have chosen to attempt to represent my all time favourite musical era: the Los Angeles Canyonscene of the late 60s and early 70s. To my mind, this time and place was a musical hotbed rivalled by nothing else, not even the London scene of the early sixties that spawned the “British Invasion” of the American music charts. Just why this is will hopefully become clear in this article.

The canyon scene is one that grew up a round a clutch of musicians and artists who emigrated from the then-vibrant and loud Los Angeles scene in search of more peaceful climes. What they found were the expanses of the Canyons that surround LA, principally Topanga Canyon and Laurel Canyon. Clubs on the Sunset Strip such as the Whiskey A Go-Go and The Trubadour played host to an unrivalled selection of the greatest music ever made: The Byrds, Love, Buffalo Springfield, Otis Redding, Joni Mitchell, The Mamas and the Papas… I could go on. Doused in sunshine and good quality marijuana (David Crosby always knew where the best smoke was to be found, according to a number of accounts), the musicians of the Canyons made some of the most diverse and evocative music ever set to record. Truly, this is not a time or a situation that could ever again be replicated.

My list begins with The Byrds, which is fitting as this band perhaps best came to embody the ethic of the scene. A much more “pop” offering here with a cut from their debut LP: I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better, which to my mind offers the best possible reason why they should be considered the US’s answer to The Beatles. This list having been thoroughly thought through, starting with The Byrds makes it easy to stroll down (in the manner of Pete Frame) through the various members of this band, linking the list together. The most obvious next step is Gram Parsons, who recorded the excellent album Sweetheart of the Rodeo with the band, before his record company threatened to sue and most of his vocal tracks were removed and re-recorded by Byrds leader Roger McGuinn. Following a tour of England, Parsons quit The Byrds in protest at plans to tour apartheid South Africa. Returning to the Canyons, Parsons formed The Flying Burrito Brothers, whose classic Dark End of the Street is my second selection. Gram’s solo work should also not be ignored in this list, as it was so tied to the Canyons where it was written and recorded. I’ve chosen Return of the Grievous Angel, as it is one of the best pieces of music ever made.

Other members of The Byrds were not idle either. Gene Clark recorded two records with Doug Dillard and Bernie Leadon (later of The Eagles), and my third choice is Out on the Side, the first track from the first of these albums, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark.

During one of their residences at The Whiskey, The Byrds’ Chris Hillman persuaded the manager to give a support slot to a little known band called Buffalo Springfield. This band, featuring a young Stephen Stills and an even-younger Neil Young, are one of music’s greatest should-have-been stories. The Stone Roses of their day, the Springfield lasted just 25 months, during which time they put out two records (a third was released after their split, but it was largely pieced together) and dissolved in ignominy, infighting and drugs. During their brief lifespan, they suffered from poor management and outrageously poor production. Their eponymous debut album should have been a serious contender for the best record ever made (seriously) but is so poorly produced it sounds flat. No release-quality live recordings of them exist, and those lucky enough to see them speak of the experience in hushed tones. It’s one of Young’s tunes I’ve chosen: Flying on the Ground is Wrong, a song that Neil later disclosed was written after having to explain to a young lady that they couldn’t be together because she didn’t understand what was so great about smoking pot.

Anyone who knows anything about this era knows what happened to Neil Young after Buffalo Springfield dissolved. His first Archives boxset contains no less than three full discs of material recorded after a disappointing reception for his self-titled debut caused him to move up to Topanga Canyon in search of a new perspective. Here he would meet Crazy Horse and, later, The Stray Gators. Choosing a single track from this period is utterly impossible, so I decided to put my iPod on shuffle and see what it chucked out. It chucked out a live version of Down by the River. This, as they say, will do nicely: especially as it shows Neil at his roaring best with three solos in twelve minutes.

Over in Laurel Canyon, the one place where all the hipsters hung out was in “Mama” Cass Elliot’s back yard. It was here that Graham Nash would meet David Crosby and Stephen Stills, with whom he would form Crosby, Stills and Nash and would embark on one of the craziest stories rock has to tell. The trio’s debut is debatably their only real masterwork, and I have chosen Long Time Gone, as possibly the ultimate stoner hippy anthem. Another regular in Mama Cass’s garden was a young singer-songwriter with an intriguing approach to tuning guitars. Joni Mitchell would go on to have relationships with both Graham Nash and David Crosby, and it is the song she wrote for the former that makes the list: Willy. Mama Cass was of course no slouch herself. In addition to acting as mother (hence the nickname) for most of Laurel Canyon, she was making music as a solo artist and with The Mamas and The Papas. My personal favourite, Make Your Own Kind of Music, also makes the list in tribute to the role Cass played in holding the whole scene together.

Finally on the list (I’ve tried to stop at ten, although I could go on), a cut from my all-time favourite record: Love’s Forever Changes. A mix of psychedelic madness and perfect pop music, this record represents all that was so great about the Canyon scene. I have chosen the insanely titled Maybe the People Would Be the Times Or Between Clark and Hilldale. The address in the later part of the title refers to the location of the Whiskey A Go-Go, which inspired the song (“And here, they always play my songs”). It is to my mind the best summary of the period in a single song.

So that’s the playlist, but there’s millions more artists on this fertile scene who didn’t make it onto the list: Jackson Browne, The Doors, James Taylor, Brian Wilson, Joe Cocker, Carole King… it goes on. Of course, the story does not end well, they never do. The Canyon scene was doomed to dissolve in excess as Gram Parsons and Mama Cass met untimely ends, David Crosby became addicted to heroin, Stephen Stills discovered cocaine and the Manson Family killings (Charles Manson was a resident of Topanga Canyon and sometime friend of Neil Young) and a succession of bad relationships generally took a sword to the whole bohemian vibe of the place. Before long, Don Henley noticed that there was a big pile of cash to be made out of the style and ethic bred in the canyon and formed The Eagles. They went on to have the biggest selling record ever and in the process destroyed so much of what had been great about the place and time. This is just your introduction. For those who want to know more, I can heartily recommend the book Hotel California by Barney Hoskyns. He’s also got a much more expansive playlist tucked away at the back…

1. I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better – The Byrds

2. Dark End of the Street – The Flying Burrito Brothers

3. Return of the Grievous Angel – Gram Parsons

4. Out on the Side – Dillard and Clark

5. Flying on the Ground Is Wrong – Buffalo Springfield

6. Down by the River – Neil Young with Crazy Horse

7. Long Time Gone – Crosby, Stills and Nash

8. Willy – Joni Mitchell

9. Make Your Own Kind of Music – The Mamas and the Papas

10. Maybe the People Would be the Times Or Between Clark and Hilldale – Love

Go Play - Canyon Songs Spotify Playlist

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