The Beach Boys – You can’t avoid this impression that they turn up only when the surf’s up, but the Beach Boys were actually more fundamental than practically any other west coast act. In the early to mid 60s they were a great live band in terms of entertaining with rock music – pretty amazing given the youthful idiom. After numerous classic 45 rpm’s they peaked with the singles “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations” of 1966-7.
The Beau Brummels – Their name reflecting period interest in a Regency dandy is irrelevant to the music, but alphabetically it placed their albums transparently on the opposite side of the Beatles to those of their southern counterparts the Beach Boys. The Beau Brummels were the earliest Frisco band of note. Their singles “Laugh Laugh” and especially “Just A Little” were some of the finer things found on the airwaves in 1965. The band did quite not deliver the goods on two LPs for the Autumn label, which is a pity, because there are some gems – “Sad Little Girl” comes to mind – among the album tracks, B-sides, and outtakes.
Big Brother and the Holding Company – Cheap Thrills (1968 on Columbia) is the marquee item, and well enough conceived and performed to be fairly essential. Completists will be interested in the others. Like a number of Mainstream label LPs, their first album is basically for the scrap heap.
The Bobby Fuller Four – Honorary West Coast artists and Texan favorite sons, they arrived in Los Angeles just in time for the prelude to psychedelia. It is best to seek out a good compilation disc of the Bobby Fuller Four, since there was never a serious contemporary album. They hit paydirt with “I Fought The Law,” but the knowledgeable know them especially for their previous singles, “Let Her Dance” and “Never To Be Forgotten.” Their final single, the inimitable “Magic Touch,” missed the Top 100 entirely, a fate indicative of the capriciousness of radio programmers. Within weeks Bobby was found dead in his car in circumstances yet to be resolved.
Tim Buckley – An important artist, but difficult to discuss because of his premature death from a drug abuse episode. Signed by Elektra in early flower power days, he impressed increasingly with his first LPs and brought out the classic Happy Sad in 1968. This was a superb amalgamation of folk, blues and jazz mentalities, thanks in good measure to vibraphonist David Friedman, guitarist Lee Underwood, and the other members of the group. There are other records with some of the same performers, and they have great merit. Tim’s vocal and instrumental leadership is prominent, and one has the impression that the contributors were successful in every respect only when the leader was in reasonable shape.
The Byrds – Many of the early records are quite fundamental. Both “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn Turn Turn” were decisively important hit singles around 1965, whether in the U.S., Britain or Australia. The group was neither original enough to be leaders in the psychedelic late sixties, nor organized enough to plan an escape from Dylanism, but during the mid-sixties they made seminal contributions to both trends. Their 1967 single “Lady Friend” is perhaps their greatest feat artistically as well as their greatest radio flop: this was a classic both in studio and as recorded live at the Monterey Pop Festival.
Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band – Very talented individual who has always brought out the best in his co-performers. For me, the best record is Unconditionally Guaranteed (1974 on Mercury), which is an uncharacteristic sort of ‘New Velvet Underground’ with really good songs, really good playing, really good construction, and no bad aftertaste. I’m told that Beefheart has formally disowned this record – there can be nothing so peculiar. Each record preceding Unconditionally Guaranteed is also a joy, and some of them truly are bizarre. Of later records, unfortunately I can make no comment, not having heard them.
The Doors – Usually rather good, the standout item being Strange Days (1967 on Elektra). Lead singer Jim Morrison used to pull it out on stage, so he wasn’t all musician(!), but his sense of word and sound was sometimes infallible. After his death allegedly from overdose following the impressive sixth studio LP entitled L.A. Woman, the three remaining Doors put out two more that must not be dismissed out of hand.
Flying Burrito Brothers – When I heard their first record I was listening pretty intently and the thing that struck me was that these were kids, old enough to know better, unabashed, working together pretty well with vocal harmonies, but also really wrecked, probably on a combination of things. This was Chris Hillman from the Byrds and Gram Parsons (briefly a Byrd) – and not long after, the latter died from just such a combination of drugs, but the country-rock music legend lives on.
Grateful Dead – From 1967 to 1970 they were dead great, full of stuff that was truly revolutionary. Thereafter they changed rapidly into a cult band. Throughout, they were inconsistent in live performance and ego-driven in their publicity, but amazingly popular for outdoor venues. Driving home one evening I ran into a horrendous traffic jam on Interstate 70 in rural Ohio and stood almost stationary for 45 minutes before passing a highway exit that led to an outdoor Dead concert.
It’s A Beautiful Day – Immortal first album (1969) for these San Francisco rockers on the Columbia label, then each outing progressively less memorable, but never inferior. These records all tend to sound better the more you hear them.
Jefferson Airplane – They had their moments, which came with greatest frequency on After Bathing At Baxters (1968 on RCA) and Bark (1971 on their homemade Grunt label). Some albums are better than others, but the bottom line is an abounding individuality. In 1967 the radio hit singles “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit” were fairly epoch-making.
Love – Important in both incarnations (1966-7, 1969-70): all these albums are very fine, including a well-known achievement, Forever Changes (1967 on Elektra), and the perennially underestimated False Start (1970 on Blue Thumb). The latter was designed to surround Hendrix’s last conventional studio performance (on the track “The Everlasting First”). The final album Real to Reel of 1974 is really an Arthur Lee solo album and inessential as such, but still high quality listening.
The Mamas and the Papas – Not an album band for my money, but the string of hit singles from 1965 to 1968 was stunning. It is difficult to decide which in particular to mention. If there’s one you should not miss it would be “Monday, Monday”. My personal favorite is “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming To The Canyon).” On occasion they veered into pop without much prodding, but their best and most popular singles are far too significant to burden with that designation.
Moby Grape – The big one! Five 45rpm’s released simultaneously in 1967, but don’t worry, the first album contains ’em all. Each LP is successively better, while public acclaim gets progressively worse and publicity dwindles to a trickle. The fourth, Truly Fine Citizen (Columbia 1969), is probably the best contractual obligation album ever made, containing perhaps 2 of their best 5 songs ever, while their fifth album, 20 Granite Creek (Reprise 1971), is an unusually concentrated and solid reunion album.
Morning Glory – Only the one album, yet a marvelous group, with a real-live cheerleader on vocals. The album Two Suns Worth (1968 on Fontana) is notable in having a B-side consistently richer than the A-side, but listen to this LP enough and you say, hey, thanks for that fantastic A-side. The disc sold nicely and was probably manufactured in significant quantities, but at the present point in time this music is seriously neglected compared to other efforts from that period. Midway through the B-side is “Point Of No Return”, the only composition by the organist, but it solidifies this disc as a classic. Most group members share the task of composition, and all come out on top. A drawback is the bizarre appearance of John Cale as sound engineer in one of his worst efforts. All possibility of a decent stereo was thrown directly out the window, hence much of the aural artistry stands in a half-light between imagination and reality.
The Mojo – An early radar sighting of Van Dyke Parks was his 1967 arrangement of the Mojo Men’s stellar rendition of a Buffalo Springfield album track, “Sit Down I Think I Love You.” Earlier the Mojo Men had recorded for Autumn records without much to show for it. When Autumn was bought up by Warner Bros., a certain Jan Errico, drummer-vocalist of Autumn stablemates the Vejtables, was taken on board and became a key contributor. Eventually changing their name to The Mojo in deference to her wishes, the band managed to record an original and worthy LP that was rejected by Warner Bros., as well as to acquire waivers on these and some other Warner tracks in order to complete a different LP, the belated Mojo Magic. The style is flower pop, but with a serious undertone.
The Music Machine (aka The Bonniwell Music Machine) – At the cutting edge of rock-pop in late 1966, their leader Sean Bonniwell guided them from the minor Original Sound label to a contract with major player Warner Brothers, but in the process shed the rest of his band, who turned up later in The Millenium, a nice piece of soft psych that was much better hyped by Columbia than Bonniwell ever was by the Bro’s. Keywords here are: Unabashed adolescence, High school paranoia, Important music or a Facsimile thereof, to be Underestimated at your peril, etc. A contemporary and iconic girl-group called the Luv’d Ones covered their “Come On In” and made it (artistically but not popularly) the best Bonniwell song next to “Talk Talk”, and so one should definitely add Undisclosed potential to the mix.
New Riders of the Purple Sage – Virtually a Grateful Dead spin-off, arriving just as the Dead started to go off the boil. Their first (1971, Columbia) is excellent and their second (1972) stands up well – fewer ideas after that, though a great hippy-country sound. To my annoyance they eschewed their signature song “Dirty Business” at a concert I attended.
Quicksilver Messenger Service – A single impeccable and triumphant classic in Happy Trails (1968), plus some moments to write home about on Shady Grove (1969): those are the ones that best survive the drug-induced euphoria that was catered for by these Capitol label artists, but their first album has some staying power as well. To my mind their considerable artistry wilted with the return of Dino Valente to their fold (he had been busted for drugs before they recorded their first LP).
Santana – Frisco band with a pan-Hispanic flavor, the best is their second, Abraxas (1970), which had exceptional gatefold cover artwork and a nice enthusiastic group photo as a poster insert, so original copies in great condition must surely be desirable despite the wide popularity of the record. This is unquestionably a ranking LP, one of the finest one can hear. Their other LPs on Columbia label all offer something driving and special. Keyboardist Gregg Rolie and second guitarist Neal Schon continued on Columbia in the best Santana tradition with their group Journey, producing at least three fine discs, but Carlos Santana himself always made that first series seem very genuine.
Spirit – Three albums on Ode in the late 60s all excellent, then the usual regrettable overproduction on the major label (Epic, and later Mercury), but Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (1970) remains impressive and Randy California was always an interesting vocalist and guitarist. After Sardonicus lead vocalist Jay Ferguson split for Jo Jo Gunne, a band significantly intertwined with Spirit, but only really notabale for its first (eponymous) LP, a strong outing that rocked pretty well.
United States of America – The irresistible Joseph Byrd assisted by the irrepressible Dorothy Moskowitz in a veritable ‘garden of earthly delights‘. A recent edition of the sole LP is replete with outtakes and acetates. This LP is a do-not-miss affair, containing perhaps two of the three best psychedelic tracks in existence – a superb overall construction even though composition was shared between almost all group members, plus a unique group sound by any standard. Despite Joseph Byrd’s domination of their musical ethic, Dorothy Moskowitz proved to be a great rock composer, and we would have been blessed if she had managed to float her new band that sought to provide a USA sequel. Alas it was not to be.
Wendy Waldman – Arriving late she charted a course through the burgeoning Los Angeles music industry and made a 70s classic, The Main Refrain (Warner Bros., 1976), and other worthy items. Eventually made it as a Nashville songwriter, but the records of the 70s and 80s are all greatly underestimated. This is actually rock, not folk as one might suppose, hence her well-merited inclusion here.
Frank Zappa / Mothers of Invention – I saw them in concert in the mid-70s, and I don’t imagine they ever disappointed. They seemed rather hung up, however, on their song entitled “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow.” When in 1967 I arrived permanently in the States at the tender age of 13, I saw an advertising display for Absolutely Free. I believed that this must actually be a free LP, but was too timid to inquire, since the cover suggested something altogether unpredictable. Not long after, Absolutely Free became my favorite Zappa record and has remained so: I’m a particular fan of “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It.”