Look! Listen! Vibrate! Enjoy
Where the Action Is: La Nuggets 1965-1968
First, the earth cooled. Then, the Beatles went to America. And after they came back (and went again several times), others followed en-masse creating what rapidly became known as ‘the British Invasion’.
The result? Unsuspecting American teenagers being first caressed by the soothing sounds of the Beatles who just wanted to hold your hand, and then being viciously slapped round the face by the rawer sounds of the Animals, the Yardbirds and – naturally – the ‘Stones.
And the result of that? Thousands of American teenagers wanting to be just like Keith Relf, Mick Jagger and John Lennon, and forming their own groups, but, more importantly creating a very different sound where something got lost in the translation, and a whole bunch of new things were found instead.
If you’re no stranger to Rhino Records’ Nuggets series then you’ll have a fair idea of what the Where The Action Is box set contains. It’s the fifth one to emerge since 1998’s Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968 and focuses solely on the Los Angeles scene. As such, it acts as a nice companion to 2007's Love Is The Song We Sing collection that concentrated on San Francisco.
On the other hand, if you don’t know what a Nuggets box set contains then you’re in for a treat. What you have is 101 slices (normally no more than 3 minutes long) of Los Angeles’ reaction to the British Invasion.
The bulk of these are short-lived bands that may have a had a brief regional hit then dropped into wilful obscurity, while there’s also some big-hitters here like Love (above), Captain Beefheart, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Mamas and Papas, Lee Hazlewood and Sonny & Cher.
Stylistically too you’ve got a boiling mix of prototype garage punk, raw r’n’b, psychedelia, faux-Merseybeat and the occasional bit of just pure boundary-pushing. In a nutshell, as with most Nuggets sets, you never know exactly what you’re going to get, but nine tenths of the time, it’s pretty damn good.
If you’re after audiophile quality you might be out on a limb though – 100 of the 101 tracks are in mono (Barry McGuire seems to have escaped and is in uber-wide stereo) and have been digitally re-mastered lovingly from, often, the original thoroughly worn-out or damaged 2 and 4 track master-tapes.
This means that while they are, in the main, crystal clear, every analogue wart shows up, and in the case of demo tracks, every cough, sneeze and car passing outside too. Saying that though, if you know your Nuggets you’ll be happy regardless.
A quick glance at the track-listing will have musos salivating in anticipation – two gems from the Byrds' (above) 1964 World Pacific Studios sessions stand out*, one being with Jackie DeShannon (the coming of age Splendor In The Grass complete with a gorgeous shimmering Rickenbacker backing and lovely McGuinn/Crosby vocal harmonies). PF Sloan’s Halloween Mary is a swaggering folk-rock drawl like Dylan on uppers, while Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart’s^ scorching and sneering demo of Words has to be heard to be believed.
Those who only associate The Turtles**(left) with the saccharine Happy Together should check out the blackly waltzing Grim Reaper of Love - sample lyric “killing the living and living to kill” or the unwieldy monikered West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, not to mention R’n’B hitters The Sons of Adam or Gary ‘Magic’ Marker’s Rising Sons who submit a killer cover of Goffin & Kings teeny-bopping Take A Giant Step.
Intriguing too are the established artists who leapt onto the back of the new sounds – Del Shannon, Lee Hazlewood and Rick Nelson, of whom only Hazlewood keeps his cool in the echo-chamber with the strings-laden Rainbow Woman.
Not enough to tempt you? – you’ve also got golden-voiced Tim Buckley, lothario Gene Clark and the distinctly kooky Van Dyke Parks, who also appears again with his collaboration on the alternative take of Heroes and Villains by the Beach Boys. It’s a far superior version to the one on Smiley Smile and should be in any self-respecting Brian Wilson fan's collection.
In fact it’s quite noticeable how much cross-pollination goes on here… one particular member of the Leaves, moves progressively through the Gene Clark Group and finally the Merry Go-Round in this collection, while other personnel seem to swap groups with an almost incestuous haste – Sons of Adam spawning Love’s tight-hitting drummer Michael Stuart, the Rising Sons’ Taj Mahal, The Byrds’ Gene Clark etc etc.
Naturally I have to mention the packaging. To be fair, it really is only the cherry on the cake when you think about what’s on the CDs themselves, but as always it’s well-researched, with a 48 page booklet, exhaustive liner notes, a pretty good history of the LA club-scene and the four CD’s in a neat slot-in system at the back. The whole thing looks like a big book, and as a coffee-table talking point isn’t bad either.
Are there any bad points? Well, no, although you’ve got to wonder how many more Nuggets sets can be left to emerge? There’s a couple of things that would have been nice here – maybe something really odd from Smile^^ perhaps (i.e. The Fire Suite)? Or one of the West Coast Pop Art Band’s weirder moments from A Child’s Guide To Good and Evil perhaps? But these really are niggles that verge on the insignificant.
So once again, Rhino comes up trumps – dig deep and buy… it’s worth it.
*In 1964 the Byrds, having just changed their name from the somewhat unconvincing Beefeaters, de-camped to World Pacific Studios to thrash themselves into shape. The results ended up on the rather-good Preflyte (re-pressed on CD by Poptones in 2000), and show a work-in-progress, with raw versions of songs such as the much-covered Jim McGuinn/Gene Clark composition You Showed Me among others. Shortly afterwards, having signed to Columbia (CBS), they went into the studios, cut Mr Tambourine Man and the rest is history so they say.
^Boyce and Hart – being pop-geniuses but not really lookers – ended up writing the bulk of the hits for the Monkees, such as Last Train To Clarksville, She, Words, Teardrop City and Valleri. They finally ended up becoming part of the Monkees and touring as such with Dolenz and Jones after Nesmith and Tork had departed. Despite writing cheery, chirpy music, Boyce shot himself in 1994.
**The Turtles really don’t seem to get the recognition they deserve despite some awesome records. Vocalists Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman later ended up providing some of the music for The Care Bears. Hmmm…
^^As a follow up to 1966's jaw-droppingly good Pet Sounds Brian Wilson started on Smile – a much more ambitious project, which featured a series of linear themes. Internal group tension, coupled with Wilson’s increasing LSD intake meant that sessions got progressively bogged down. Eventually, after the sleeves had been printed, the album was shelved, being partially-released as the distinctly patchy Smiley Smile in late 1967.
Wilson never recovered his impetus and Smile proved his undoing. It's possible to piece together the actual album from various sessions but on hearing it, you have to ask just how good it really could have been? I suspect that compared to Pet Sounds it just wouldn’t stand up as well in this day and age.