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New Box Set Shows 'Where The Action' Really Was

In a way, it's a shame that for some time the perception of '60s rock history in America was tied to a San Francisco-based magazine, Rolling Stone, which brought a long-standing regional rivalry between Los Angeles and San Francisco into the discussion. San Francisco was groovy and organic, Los Angeles was commercial and plastic, and that was that.

But Rhino Records' new box set Where the Action Is! proves that there was nothing plastic about the scene that developed in the clubs on the several-block-long stretch of Sunset Boulevard called the Sunset Strip. Where the Action Is! attempts to document L.A.'s thriving rock scene, which featured not only successful labels, but also labels affiliated with movie studios like Warner Bros and Universal.

Los Angeles had a lot of other things going for it. For one, it was a much larger city with suburbs and neighborhoods in which it seemed every garage had a band. One of the toughest garage bands was Thee Midniters, who broke another stereotype by being Mexican-Americans from East Los Angeles. They recorded one of their masterpieces, "Jump, Jive, and Harmonize", live in 1967. There were also typically snotty teenage bands like the Mustangs in suburbs like Glendale.

Where all this debate gets interesting is that — unlike San Francisco or the many other cities where music scenes were emerging at this time — Los Angeles was well-equipped with top-flight studios where a developed band could record; the cream of America's studio musicians to step in for a band-member who couldn't play a part; experienced managers who could guide a band's career; and people with money looking to invest it in an act which could provide them with a nice return.

These resources made for a volatile mixture of a music scene. It could mean that, say, Dean Martin's son, Lucille Ball's son and a friend of theirs could become a band and get a deal with no problem, or that odd combinations could take to the studio, like Peter Fonda and exiled South African trumpeter Hugh Masakela.

It also meant that a proven artist could get the budget to indulge an artistic vision: "Fan Tan" was ostensibly by Jan and Dean, although it was produced and sung by Jan Berry and recorded while he was still partially paralyzed from the 1966 auto accident that almost killed him. This studio music — the very thing that occasioned the catcalls of "plastic" from the San Franciscans — was the most distinctive part of the L.A. scene, the thing that made it different, even though live-based bands like the Doors, Love, the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield were also very active.

Where the Action Is!, the four-disc set which includes all these songs, is produced by Andrew Sandoval along with Alec Palao, who also helped put together the companion box of San Francisco music Love is the Song We Sing. From legendary clubs like Bido Lito's, Ciro's and the Trip to recording studios like Gold Star and Western, L.A.'s music scene was every bit as important as San Francisco's — and even better documented. And if some of it was plastic, well, what do you think they made records out of, anyway?

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Corrected: September 25, 2009 at 5:27 PM EDT
In his review of the Rhino Records box set Where the Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets, rock historian Ed Ward referred to Alec Palao as the curator. Palao is one of the producers along with Andrew Sandoval, who was the sole compiler and curator of the collection. The Web text has been corrected.
Ed Ward is the rock-and-roll historian on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.