❉ A comprehensive overview that shimmers with mythical Americana, writes Huw Thomas.
“I still got the jive to survive with the heroes and villains”.
The arrival of the Beatles and subsequent “British Invasion” unseated the USA as pop’s primary stomping ground. For the kids who watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 (and the slow-on-the-uptake kids who enjoyed the Dave Clark Five’s appearance a month later), England truly did swing like a pendulum do. By 1965, crew-cuts were sufficiently grown out and garages duly occupied as a teeming centre for American pop emerged in Los Angeles. A new 3-disc boxset from Cherry Red imprint Grapefruit, Heroes & Villains – The Sound of Los Angeles 1965-1968, charts every dimension of this fascinating scene over some 90 tracks.
Heroes and Villains borrows its title from the Beach Boys’ divided and divisive Old West romp, a hit escapee from Brian Wilson’s disintegrating SMiLE project in summer 1967. Though the track doesn’t feature on this set, it serves as its spiritual template. Many of these tracks shimmer with mythical Americana. On the first disc, Lee Hazlewood sounds like a cobwebbed singing cowboy on an early recording of Sand whilst the Rogues are galloping outlaws on Wanted: Dead or Alive. There are certainly all-American heroes that loom large; Buddy Holly was a clear influence on the Bobby Fuller Four, whose eternal Let Her Dance is a highlight. Fuller advanced the Holly template with his widescreen rock anthems and, like his idol, died a youngman’s death. There are villains too – Kim Fowley’s The Trip is here.
Many of the best tracks here will be unfamiliar to most. The Parade’s She Sleeps Alone is as striking a minor-key pop song as any penned in 1968, while Yesterday Holds On by Moorpark Intersection is an outstanding piece of studio psych pop bound to leave echoes long past its two-minute runtime.
The spooky Computer Girl by Ron and Russell Mael’s first band, Urban Renewal Project, is perhaps most appealing for historical reasons, but there’s incidentally a hint of their later work in Chicanery by the Royal Teens. Run, a frantic demo recorded by the Royal Teens after they changed their name to the Candy Company, is one of two previously unreleased tracks included on Heroes and Villains. Tomorrow’s Girl by Merrell & the ‘Xiles is another winning obscurity that, like Run, finds a sweet spot between raucous rock and roll and harmony pop.
Though Heroes and Villains presents the West Coast scene as a soup of ideas, styles and philosophies, it still applies some rockist partitioning. Balmy pop stars – the Monkees (subversive as ever on Pleasant Valley Sunday), Sonny and Cher (But You’re Mine), the Mamas & the Papas (Twelve Thirty), the Association (Along Comes Mary) – provide the sunshine on disc one. Walled off on the second disc are the cult deviants; the Mothers of Invention (Hungry Freaks, Daddy), Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band (the guttural Zig Zag Wanderer) and the Misunderstood (monstrous acetate She Got Me).
Frequently, however, the barrier between the commercial and the cataclysmic is broken over these 90 tracks. Fire Engine Sky by twinkly teen TV host Michael Blodgett is an alarming anti-nuclear nursery rhyme written by Herb Alpert. Kicks, a hit for Paul Revere & the Raiders, concerns LSD addiction. When Sean Bonniwell pleads “I don’t want to die/you can’t come back from the point of no return” over pained, screeching guitar in the Music Machine’s Point of No Return, it sounds genuinely alarming.
Alternative takes, demos and rarities make Heroes and Villains a carnival of sliding doors moments. Ruthann Friedman dashed off Windy, a huge success for the Association, in twenty minutes while living in David Crosby’s basement; her recording of the song has a vulnerability and homespun quality missing from the hit version. A version of the Byrds’ Why recorded at RCA Studios on Sunset Boulevard is undoubtedly superior to the final version issued as the B-side of Eight Miles High. The bizarre, brilliant Do You Like Worms may seem an odd Beach Boys choice, but its insertion on disc two begs you to wonder what the world would’ve made of it in 1967.
Indeed, many of the big names here are represented by somewhat underheard tracks. Strawberry Alarm Clock’s jazzy Sit with the Guru is a reminder of their sophistication, while Nilsson’s Mr Richland’s Favorite Song is deft, vaudevillian gold. She Comes in Colors by Love is another inspired choice, though it may not be so unfamiliar if you remember Madonna’s contribution to the soundtrack for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.
It Won’t Always Be the Same by the Millenium, Curt Boettcher’s visionary group whose following still seems to be growing, is a glistening standout that may be the most modern production here. Another of Boettcher’s projects, Sagittarius, provides the upbeat I’m Not Living Here. David Wells’ expert liner notes on this set make clear such intersections; his concise writings provide indispensable context for every track, from the Satans to Del Shannon.
Though studio-bound daydreams from the likes of Boettcher might be the most arresting tracks on this set, there’s still space for blistering garage punks (The Heros, Somebody’s Chyldren, The Prophets of Old), full-fat rockers (Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly) and the countryfied contingent (Gene Clark, Stone Poneys, Gram Parsons’ International Submarine Band). Even surf rock is included, in a roundabout way – sometime surfer Mark Eric, who recorded his sole LP A Midsummer’s Day Dream in 1969, is represented by Move with the Dawn, a windswept gem that evokes the longing of Pet Sounds rather than any crashing waves. If that all sounds a little engulfing, fear not. Heroes and Villains is a well-sequenced ride and its wide scope makes for a frequently thrilling listen. This is Los Angeles as a glorious Scooby-Doo house of trap doors, secret rooms and dead ends. It’s hard to imagine the scene getting another overview this comprehensive, or this rewarding. Hungry freaks, eat up!
❉ Various Artists: ‘Heroes & Villains – The Sound Of Los Angeles 1965-1968’ 3CD Box Set (Grapefruit CRSEGBOX109) is available from Cherry Red Records, RRP £20.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Huw Thomas is a musician and writer from Radnorshire, Wales. His special interests include Northern Irish band Cruella De Ville, Cardiacs, Back to the Egg and Oh No It’s Selwyn Froggitt. He tweets as @huwareyou.