BY MIKE PODSEDLY
I watched a TV documentary on EPIX recently titled “Laurel Canyon: A Place In Time” directed by Alison Ellwood that sought to capture one of rock music’s greatest eras. Constructed from old videos and photos augmented by new interviews, it told the story of this landmark music scene. Many of the songs generated during this time are mainstays in the Inside the Gates Radio vast music library.
The golden years of the Laurel Canyon scene, roughly 1967-74, saw the birth of the singer-songwriter movement and the rise of huge stars, from folk-rock bands like the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas to Crosby, Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Carole King, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, the Flying Burrito Brothers, America, and the Eagles—many of whom played on each other’s records.
Artists didn’t initially move to Laurel Canyon because it was a musical mecca. They moved there because it was a cheap place to live, with easy access to L.A. and clubs like the Troubadour and Whisky A-Go-Go that would give new artists a shot. Musicians gravitated to places that were inexpensive and then their friends gravitated there. Pretty soon, no one but musicians lived there.
There were so many artists that had gotten out of folk music because folk had gone out of fashion. The music produced there has often been labeled as folk or soft rock for its mellow sound, but the canyon was a melting pot, cross-breeding the genres of folk, psychedelia, pop, blues, country and rock. Laurel Canyon bloomed with melodic, atmospheric and politicized songs that defined the moment, made by artists who defined a generation.
Laurel Canyon was an idyll for musicians, a place secluded from the bright lights of Los Angeles, where they could breathe the same air and create freely, together. During the show photographer Henry Diltz, who saw and documented much of the scene, narrates the encounter where David Crosby recalls inviting his protégé, an unknown Joni Mitchell, to a party arranged by Cass Elliott to welcome Eric Clapton on his first visit to America. Clapton sat mesmerized, Crosby recalls, by Mitchell’s unique guitar-fingering style.
In a new interview for the show, “We were living in the very center of this beautiful bubble of friendship, sunshine, sex, drugs and music,” says Graham Nash, the British Invasion veteran who defected to Southern California, where he became a charter member of Laurel Canyon society, hooking up with David Crosby of the Byrds and Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield at the Laurel Canyon home of Joni Mitchell, Nash’s girlfriend at the time, to form Crosby, Stills & Nash.
The heyday of the Laurel Canyon music scene may be over, but that’s the point. Lisa Robinson wrote in a February 8, 2015 Vanity Fair article entitled “An Oral History of Laurel Canyon, the 60s and 70s Music Mecca”, “Scenes aren’t meant to last. They sparkle with activity, flourish, then burn out.” It’s never forgotten though — the musical style and sound lives on, continuing to inspire and influence the artists of today.
Gary Tripp from Long Live Vinyl.net compiled a list of 40 albums in terms of Laurel Canyon-ness. I have selected some of the great albums released from his list during this time have endured time and genre changes. They are big part of “the Greatest Music of our Lifetime” played on the Inside The Gates Radio rotation.
“Buffalo Springfield” (1967): Buffalo Springfield’s songwriting power trio of Young, Stills and Richie Furay combined to produce a timeless and stupidly influential release.
“Crosby, Stills & Nash” (1969): The harmonies and the confessional songwriting of CSN’s debut has come to define the Laurel Canyon sound.
“Sweet Baby James” James Taylor (1970): After recording his debut in the UK for The Beatles’ Apple label, Taylor decamped to Laurel Canyon, adding to the ranks of straggly-haired, denim-clad, introspective singer-songwriters.
“Ladies of the Canyon” Joni Mitchell (1970): Moving away from the airy folkiness of her first two albums, the singer-songwriter’s transitional third opens her up as an artist of boundless talent.
“Déjà Vu” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (1970) Crosby, Stills and Nash were bolstered by the arrival of Neil Young into their fold. the album’s magical harmonies and memorable songs mark it out as a milestone of the movement. It remains the quintessential Laurel Canyon LP.
“If I Could Only Remember My Name” David Crosby (1971)
Surfing the wave of Déjà Vu, David Crosby invited his mates to help him out on his solo debut and Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Grace Slick and Jerry Garcia, among others, answered the call.
“Tapestry” –Carole King (1971)
Carole King had written a string of hits for others as a songwriter in New York’s Brill Building, but on “Tapestry”, she was singing for herself. Its perfectly crafted songs marked it as one of the quintessential singer-songwriter albums of the 70s.
“Songs For Beginners” Graham Nash (1971) Nash recorded his first solo album in the wake of his split with Joni Mitchell, and many of the songs lament the time spent together.
“For Everyman” Jackson Browne (1973) Equal parts bluesy folk and piano-driven ballads, Laurel Canyon resident Jackson Browne. The serene songwriter was able to enlist a star-studded supporting cast including his buddies Glenn Frey and Don Henley, while Elton John, credited as “Rockaday Johnnie,” contributes some piano. As a side note, the genius of Jackson Browne was presented in a midweek special show by Craig Looney on Inside the Gates Radio Live.
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