As a songwriter, session guitarist, producer, music supervisor and latter-day musicologist, T Bone Burnett has spent parts of the last five decades observing Los Angeles music history up close and from the inside. Here’s his take on that ephemeral phenomenon known as “the Los Angeles Sound.”
Los Angeles is the Athens of the modern world: It’s the place where all gods are worshipped, all new ideas come to be tried out and all commerce passes through eventually. The New York scene was much harder — it was like a stern father; Los Angeles was more like the nurturing mother.
I would probably start with Phil Spector and Gold Star Studios. I know Spector wasn’t from here, but so many of the great musicians of the next 30 years began in that Gold Star stable. And then there was a guy named Maxwell Davis who was an orchestrator in the ’50s, who would go in and cut 30 B.B. King songs in a week. So there was that R&B scene, and then there was the pop scene that was Spector.
Growing out of that, when I got here in 1969, was this place in the Valley called the Plantation. It was three houses on a big lot — Jesse Ed Davis lived there, and a bunch of guys from Tulsa (the Oklahoma Mafia). Ry Cooder was part of that, Taj Mahal, J.J. Cale, Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett. A lot of those cats played on the television show “Shindig!” and all the Dunhill and A&M records were infected by that Texas-Oklahoma axis. It influenced the Troubadour — the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt — and the Palomino Club, a country joint up in the Valley with a very adventurous booking policy.
And then I guess the other cats who were knocking it down really hard were Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson. Van Dyke Parks and his influence can’t be overstated, even though he’s labored in incredible obscurity all of these years. Not only is he an avant gardist and musical genius, he’s an extraordinarily literate and adventurous lyricist, and I think he challenged Brian Wilson to reach places he probably wouldn’t have thought of going without that relationship.
Which leads us to the San Gabriel Valley aspect of the Los Angeles sound — Pomona, Azusa, West Covina. There must be something in the water, because all these guys came out of there: Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Sam Shepard, James Ellroy. I guess there was a clear channel from Del Rio, Texas — I can hear a lot of Wolfman Jack in all of those people.
In the late ’70s/early ’80s, there was all the great wild music happening at Madame Wong’s and some of the smaller clubs that sprung up — Wall of Voodoo, Fear, X. I thought another great Los Angeles band was the Plimsouls. And we haven’t even touched on West Coast hardcore rap, like N.W.A. “The Chronic” (by Dr. Dre) is probably one of the most important records of the last 15 years, which set a whole wave in motion in terms of imaginative production and pointed lyrics. All the way up to now: There’s a woman in town named Jesca Hoop, who was Tom Waits’ children’s nanny, doing some incredibly free and interesting music. She hasn’t even made a record yet.
The music business is over now; it’s a fait accompli. It was a beautiful, horrible thing, but in a way, all the old criminals seem so quaint now, compared to the criminals we’re dealing with these days.
It’s an extraordinary place.
— as told to Paul Cullum