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Miscellaneous - Riot on Sunset Strip: Rock 'n' Roll's Last Stand in Hollywood

  by Adrian Janes

published: 23 / 10 / 2015

Miscellaneous - Riot on Sunset Strip: Rock 'n' Roll's Last Stand in Hollywood


Adrian Janes examines Domenic Priore's book 'Riot on Sunset Strip', which tells the story of the creative explosion in the Los Angeles clubs during the 1960s which nurtured the Byrds, Doors, Love and many others and the greed and politics which shut them down.

One of the key elements in forging a new musical scene and style has always been local geography, the ability of bands and fans to see and hear each other in the flesh. Although it needs to spread beyond those confines if a scene is to have any substantial impact, there has to be that initial place and time where the spark first catches - Merseybeat, Swinging London, ‘Madchester’. Domenic Priore’s book captures this phenomenon in its mid-60s Los Angeles incarnation, the still astonishing and inspiring upsurge of creativity that brought to prominence bands like the Byrds, the Doors, Love and a host of others. He is nothing if not exhaustive in explaining its roots, tracing the history of LA clubs from the 1920s along with the area’s confluence of musical styles which included Jazz, Country, R&B, Surf music, Rock and Roll and dance crazes like the Twist. By the early 1960s established clubs like Pandora’s Box and the Sea Witch were in decline, while at the same time there was a teenage dance audience growing in self-awareness and frustration. The catalyst that finally set off the LA and wider Californian scene seems to have been the ‘British Invasion’. The tale of events like the Beatles appearing on the Ed Sullivan show, the Rolling Stones re-introducing the blues to their country of birth and how much this affected American musicians and fans has often been told, yet still seems somewhat incredible (given the profound prior American influence on them) but Priore’s book is further evidence of its truth. Clubs called London Fog and Stratford on Sunset later reflected this Anglophile climate. Now the club owners scented profit and during the period of roughly 1964-66 musicians either from LA, or drawn by the growing scene (which helped it to grow still more) performed in the clubs and had varying degrees of success on record. Priore gives the impression of having listened to virtually every note by any band of note. This is where, for a large part of the book, it loses its way as a narrative, for having carefully outlined the venues and the musical influences, he goes on to give pithy descriptions over many pages of the careers and recorded highlights of everyone from the Byrds to Buffalo Springfield (while also taking in lesser lights like the gloriously-named Captains of Deception). It’s best to treat this chunk of the book as a reference source, for which purpose it’s invaluable. He also swerves informatively through the connections of the music scene with TV and film and how one fed another, best symbolised by the Monkees who were created for TV (via an advert which called for “4 insane boys, age 17-21”, a process derided in the Byrds’ ‘So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star’), made great pop records which they increasingly composed and ultimately their own film, ‘Head’. The story finally gets back on track with a detailed account of the riot of the title. This came about because one Ernest E. Debs, the Los Angeles County Supervisor and certain more traditional business owners wanted to set up a lucrative financial district which would have taken over Sunset Boulevard, where many of the key clubs were situated. These and other teenage hang-outs were increasingly harassed through over-zealous application of a curfew law which meant under-18s weren’t allowed to ‘loiter’ after 10 pm. A demonstration in November 1966 outside Pandora’s Box was violently attacked by the police, the resistance leading to the riot. Commemorated in Stephen Stills’ song ‘For What It’s Worth’, the confrontation broke the back of the scene with clubs losing licences or going over to more conservative music, while the centre of creative gravity shifted to San Francisco. Although this book somewhat awkwardly sandwiches the stories of countless bands between that of the LA clubs and also seems to pre-suppose a fairly detailed knowledge of the city and its politics in this era, Priore’s passion for and knowledge of the music can’t be denied. There is a sad, angry ‘Aftermath’ which examines what has happened to the venues and the scene they helped to incubate. But if it seems unlikely that such an intense local scene could occur again (the dispersing effect of the Internet being another factor now), the next best thing is that a book like this makes you want to seek out its recorded legacy.

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