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MIN-LAL Musical Preview (Early 80's Edition)

I'm not sure how much interest there is in the 6th or so LA thread of the Musical Preview series, especially as the back end of a LA doubleshot, but I promised to do this before the first Lakers game, and here we are.

There are exactly two episodes of my life where I felt at the time, and believe even more so now, that I was fortuitously in the right place at the right time. I'm here to talk about the first, showing up in LA for college in the early days of the Reagan regime. Now in many ways, this seemed to be the exact wrong time to appear in LA. I, like every suburban hayseed, grew up with was still living in the 70s. I showed up for college in a town where the prep style had already hit hard, and I'd never heard of 501 jeans or Sperry Top Siders (most people reading this are younger than me, and the nuances of the class warfare between long-haired, bell bottom jeans and kids popping the collars of their izod shirts need not be discussed here. In truth, it wasn't just about LA being a few years ahead on the fashion curve, MTV had just hit and kids across the country were getting the idea that there were dozens of different musical identities to try out, from punk to ska to Flock of Seagulls. The musical revolution I had stepped into, however, didn't necessitate ditching my flare leg jeans, and it was not being covered on MTV.

There were plenty of other musical movements playing out in LA during my undergrad days, for example the hair metal bands that owned the Sunset Strip clubs. Bands like Ratt, Great White, and Motley Crue (which got big early) were kicking up a glam scene that I didn't care about and knew next to nothing about. I remember watching about 30 seconds of Ratt on stage at some outdoor event and walking away to find some beer.

The real energy in the local music scene was coming from the burgeoning punk movement. There were a lot of great hardcore punk bands coming out of LA at the time, and many of my friends were going full mohawk/doc martens, but that wasn't really my thing either. I was more interested in the bands that were trying to play "real" music, but who were influenced heavily by the energy of the punk scene. All of a sudden there was a roots movement of local musicians who were heavily influenced by traditional American rock and blues, but who were interested in playing it louder and faster than had been done before. The best part is that it seemed to be a shared experience amongst these groups, with collaborations and a shared direction.

As a case in point for the cross-interaction of these bands, let's start by following the career of saxophonist Steve Berlin, who would go on to play with and produce many top bands, including the Replacements and REM. When the LA punk/roots scene was just beginning, Steve was playing with Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs, a band that had a huge cult following, and was well respected by many top musicians, but which never achieved any wide spread fame. Here is Top Jimmy playing a Dylan cover (always big on CH): Obviously 5 Believers:

Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs - Obviously Five Believers (via GuitarlosCarlos)

Top Jimmy was never much more than a R&B act, kind of a 70s-80s Paul Butterfield, and Steve Berlin's next stop was with a band that I thought got it all right, the Blasters. The Blasters never got the fame of some of their compatriots, and never found that hit, but, in my mind, they nailed everything else. Great musicianship (bringing in R&B legend Lee Allen to play sax and heavy weight Gene Taylor to play piano), great songwriting from Dave Alvin, and great vocals from brother Phil Alvin.

THE BLASTERS - "Red Rose" - 1983 Music Video (via BILL5th)


As youngsters, Dave and Phil grew up tagging along after musicians like Big Joe Turner, a Rock Hall of Famer who lived out his days in Inglewood, T-Bone Walker, another legend living in LA, and Sonny Terry, but ended up making music that was energetic enough that they could play alongside bands with a hardcore punk following. Their studio output was always a too clean and more of a polite blend of roackabilly and roots, so you have to turn to their live stuff to get a sense that nobody was doing it better.

THE BLASTERS - "So Long Baby, Goodbye" - LIVE 1982 (via BILL5th)

FWIW, Jack White recently recorded one of their signature (cover) songs, "I'm Shaking" and hit it out of the park.

The great thing about the Blasters is that they never got so big that you couldn't see them in clubs, the way that God intended it. The closest the Blasters ever got to mainstream success (not involving opening for the Go-Gos on tour) might have been their gig playing a bar band in "Streets of Fire" (Yay 80s!?!) singing One Bad Stud. Steve Berlin soon moved on to join a band out of East LA called Los Lobos. When Los Lobos first started to hit the they were becoming darlings of the indie critics while still a largely unknown neighborhood norteno band in East LA. But they had opened for a few rock/punk shows and were getting wired into this scene back when they were still mostly a house band at a dive bar on Sunset Blvd in Los Feliz or Silver Lake I don't recall exactly where the ON Club was located). Their shows were a crazy mix of friends, family and a few college kids who had read the reviews and wanted to see what the fuss was about. Their sets flipped between hard-driving roots rock and mexican folk music (complete with big polka circles spinning around the dance floor). I'm not sure you can find video of really early Los Lobos, but here, a year or two later, now with Steve Berlin (but definitely before La Bamba changed them as a group forever) is early Los Lobos:

Los Lobos-'Dont Worry Baby' Live 1984 (via knackeroo)

A great documentary on early Los Lobos was made by PBS: part 1, part 2, part 3.

Dave Alvin, Blasters guitarist and songwriter eventually jumped ship to the band that most felt truly defined the LA roots/punk movement, X, to replace the departed Billy Zoom. Led by John Doe and Exene, X had developed a large critical following from their early albums "Los Angeles" and "Wild Gift", but really killed it with "Under the Big Black Sun" which moved from a raw, punkish sound to some very sophisticated songs. Since this is an LA post, we need to start with X singing "Los Angeles":

X - Los Angeles (music video) (via GrrlBandGeek)

I don't think X ever did anything better than the title track of "Under the Big Black Sun"

X - under the big black sun (via ripoffrecords1)

Even as vanguards of the punk scene, the members of X, like the Blasters, were fans of traditional American music, and had their own side project with Dave Alvin (while he was still with the Blasters) called The Knitters, who made crazy folkpunk songs like "Poor Little Critter on the Road" and "Wrecking Ball" (rather than an early version, I bring this performance from a benefit concert for Phil Alvin (to cover medical bills) from just a week ago).

The punk energy that was best captured by local hardcore bands like Black Flag, Fear, the Circle Jerks, the Vandals, influenced musicians beyond those steeped in roots music. Also at this time the Red Hot Chili Peppers were developing a blend of funk and punk that got them attention very early. It took a couple of years to develop the musical direction that gave them mainstream appeal, but the early, raw stuff made for a good show in the local clubs.

Red Hot Chili Peppers - True Men Don't Kill Coyotes (Rockpalast 85) (via Victorls18)

Dwight Yoakam, after discovering that his traditional honky tonk style was no longer welcome in Nashville, came out to LA and cut his teeth playing in punk clubs and infusing his music with the energy that was required to play alongside bands like X and the Blasters. I couldn't find suitable early video of Dwight, but here he is in 1986 playing his first hit.

Guitars, Cadillacs - Dwight Yoakam - live 1986 (via gdoublee)

Dwight later scored a minor hit with the Dave Alvin tune Long White Cadillac (a tribute to Hank Williams) originally recorded by the Blasters.

So, that's my tribute to the early 80s punk/roots scene. For those who didn't enjoy any of the music, I leave you with Lee Ving and Fear (NSFW):

fear I Don't care about you (via pablo flores)


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