From beach bums to hippies, hair metal rockers to gangster rappers, LA’s musical story has more twists than most.
LA is a city of extremes. It’s a place where you either make it big or hit rock bottom, with a huge gulf between the mansions of Bel Air and the tents and shacks of Skid Row, home to some of the city’s more than 66,000 homeless. It’s a place of intangible dreams, but ones that are frequently dashed.
As the Red Hot Chili Peppers – the ultimate LA band of the 1990s – put it on Californication (1999), the sprawling urban mass seems to be “the edge of the world and all of Western civilization”, where the “dream of silver screen” dominates but signs of the dystopian, from plastic surgery to earthquakes, are everywhere.
In fact, LA musicians had already grappled with the Janus-faced nature of this huge city for half a decade by the time that song appeared, constantly feeling for the tipping points between paradisical glamour, decadence, and oblivion.
In the late 1950s, Doris Day could still record 1937’s tongue-in-cheek Hooray for Hollywood with minimal irony and by the early 1960s LA was still represented in song as a utopia.
Peggy Lee’s Los Angeles Blues (1962), written with Quincy Jones, sang of endless swimming, surfing, skiing, baseball games and barbeques, with mountains, ocean and desert all “under a great, big smiling sky”, concluding, “There’s very little that is blue here/ So the blues pass Los Angeles by”.
Also in 1962, the Beach Boys, who had formed in southwestern LA the previous year, released Surfin’ Safari. The band’s second single and first Top 20 hit, it crystallised an image of the area as a beach bum’s paradise, enumerating the local surf spots, from Rincon, via Malibu, Huntington and Laguna to Doheny.
Brian Wilson sealed his position as the patron saint of California life with California Girls (1965). With its harmonies that were aural sunshine, it vied for position as the ultimate celebration of the Golden State with the LA-based Mamas and the Papas California Dreamin’ of the same year. Written by Long Beach’s own Michelle Phillips and her husband John in New York, it was more complex in its mood, with even its driving flute solo sounding slightly menacing, but it was unambiguous in its longing for the city: “I’d be safe and warm if I was in LA.”
But 1965 was also the moment that the ideal of LA as a place of non-stop good living evaporated as the Watts riots, indicated the grinding social issues under the surface.
A change was taking place in music too, as the two chroniclers of carefree Californian adolescence, Wilson and Phil Spector, soon retreated to hermit-like existences, and a new set were making the Hollywood Hills their home.
Laurel Canyon became the home of a counterculture which would sail dangerously close to the LA’s dark heart. Frank Zappa, the Byrds, Love and Joni Mitchell, whose LP Ladies of the Canyon (1970) featured her Lookout Mountain Avenue home on the cover, were all residents, as was the Doors’ guitarist Robby Krieger.
It was a long way from the shiny optimism of the Beach Boys to the dark acid rock of the Doors, and the Beach Boys’ portrait of West Coast womanhood – “the cutest girls in the world” – was the antithesis of the title track of the Doors’ L.A. Woman (1971).
Opening with ten seconds of disorientating noise before the bluesy rocker takes shape, L.A. Woman dealt with the real life “little girls in their Hollywood bungalows”, asking “Are you a lucky little lady in the city of light/ Or just another lost angel, city of night?”, but it also personified the city as a woman, Morrison concluding: “Never saw a woman/ So alone, so alone.”
The L.A. Woman LP, recorded in the Doors’ own makeshift studios at 8512 Santa Monica Boulevard, would turn out to be Morrison’s farewell to the city, as he left for Paris shortly before the album’s release and died there just months later.
Meanwhile, back in LA, the Manson Family’s murder of Sharon Tate and four others at her Benedict Canyon home in the summer 1969, had already marked the death of the hippy dream. By the early 1970s, Neil Young, another of the Laurel Canyon set, was done with any sense of LA as a dreamland, his L.A. (1973) an apocalyptic vision of the destruction of this “city of smog”, as “the ground cracks” and “the mountains erupt”.
By the 1980s such animosity was forgotten as the jamboree of the 1984 Summer Olympics arrived, and then the Sunset Strip became the playground of bands that made rock ‘n’ roll excess and hedonism their complete raison d’être and sported a suitably outrageous style to go with it.
It was called ‘hair metal’ for a reason, as the likes of Mötley Crüe, Quiet Riot, L.A. Guns and Poison displayed backcombed tresses, make-up smeared faces and sprayed on trousers, straddling a line between feminine glamour and aggressive masculinity.
Mötley Crüe’s Girls, Girls, Girls (1987), a cartoonish ode to the charms of the “Girls dancin’ down on Sunset Strip”, namechecking Sunset Boulevard’s legendary Seventh Veil strip club, was the sound of this era of LA decadence, but there was room for something a little darker. Born out of a merger of L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose, Guns N’ Roses arrived with a bang with Welcome to the Jungle (1987).
Their first charting single and a Billboard No. 7, the song gave a brutal portrait of the city: “It’s worse here everyday/ You learn to live like an animal/ In the jungle where we play”.
The idea of LA as a place that will chew you up and spit you out was explored in the music video, as frontman Axl Rose arrived in the city on a Greyhound bus as a straw-chewing country hick, but by the time of the song’s final, triumphant “It’s gonna bring you down!” he has been transformed into a dolled-up, street-wise LA glam-punk.
If the 1980s were a party in LA, the 1990s were the hangover. The Rodney King riots of 1992 were the defining event of the decade for the city, there was a major earthquake two years later, and the city’s musicians looked at LA through world-weary eyes.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Under the Bridge (1992) was inspired by frontman Anthony Kiedis’ real-life experience of shooting heroin beneath a city freeway bridge, but extended to the wider feeling of alienation of the city: “Sometimes I feel like my only friend/ Is the city I live in, the City of Angels.”
While Sheryl Crow’s All I Wanna Do (1993) was a rather lighter affair, it was dripping in irony. Opening “This ain’t no disco/ It ain’t no country club either/ This is LA” and expressing “All I wanna do is have some fun/ Until the sun comes up/ Over Santa Monica Boulevard”, it contrasted the inadequate proxy for hedonism that is “drinking beer at noon on Tuesday/ In a bar that faces a giant car wash” with the equally futile efforts at dignity and achievement of “the good people of the world washing their cars on their lunch break”.
In the last two decades, Californian wildfires have been events that have shaped the region, the major conflagrations of 2003 feeding into Bad Religion’s Los Angeles is Burning (2004), a skewering of media deception (“And you can’t deny the living is easy/ If you never look behind the scenery”).
But later, artists diverse as electro dance-pop band Yacht and acclaimed rapper Kendrick Lamar have once again celebrated the city, the former’s Shangri-LA (2011) saying, not wholly unironically, “If we can’t go to Heaven, let us go to LA”, while the latter’s The Recipe (2012) from the Compton-set concept album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, praised the simple pleasures of LA’s “women, weed and weather”. For all its ugliness, LA continues to seduce.
With the rise of West Coast rap in the 1990s, LA became home of Ice Cube’s Lench Mob Records, Dr. Dre’s Death Row Records, and Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records. All three label founders were members of original gangsta rappers N.W.A, whose Straight Outta Compton (1988) was seminal.
From Snoop Dogg and Dre’s Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang (1992) (“C-O-M-P-T-O-N and the city they call Long Beach”) to 2Pac’s To Live and Die in LA (1996) (“South Central L.A. can’t get no stranger”), LA loomed large in their self-aggrandising songs.