POP MUSIC : L.A.'s Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band--Who Is It?

So what's Los Angeles' greatest rock band ever?

Is it:

The Beach Boys, whose recordings, including "California Girls," have tempted pop fans around the world for almost three decades with visions of a Southern California world filled with gorgeous beaches and good vibrations?

The Byrds, the quintet whose mid-'60s hits such as "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn! Turn! Turn!" gave birth to folk-rock and introduced a jangling guitar sound that continues to influence generations of new groups?

The Doors, who combined Jim Morrison's often dark, mystical poetry and sexual heat with unusually seductive, bluesy musical textures in such late-'60s songs as "Light My Fire"?

The Eagles, the '70s band whose early songs projected a "laid-back" image of Southern California life, but whose later tunes insightfully chronicled a generation's struggle against disillusionment?

Or what about Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young? Fleetwood Mac? The Mothers of Invention? Van Halen? Los Lobos?

Calendar polled 34 pop industry insiders to come up with the answer--and the winner is . . . the Doors.

The reasons behind the Doors' finish varied considerably.

Some scholarly minded voters spoke about the haunting or innovative nature of the Doors' songs, while others gave more personal or--primal--views.

In voting for the Doors, Dayle Gloria, co-owner of the underground nightclub the Scream, suggested, "Jim Morrison was the ultimate frontman. . . . There's never been anybody cuter in rock or . . . who looked better in leather pants."

Defining the Terms

L.A.'s greatest rock band?

The members of Calendar's panel were left to define that term for themselves.

Some judges felt musical influence was the key factor to be weighed, while others went for bands whose music in some way defined the L.A. life style. A few voters said they considered a band's abilities live. Several went strictly on personal taste.

The judges--each of whom was asked to vote for five bands--were also given freedom in determing what constitutes an "L.A." rock band.

It was enough for some voters if the group simply recorded here, but most felt the identification with Los Angeles should be more tangible. A couple even insisted that the band had to have performed enough in local clubs to assert an L.A. "presence."

Whatever the reasoning, the race proved to be strictly a two-band affair, with the Beach Boys and Doors accounting for first-place mentions on 27 of the 34 ballots. The only other groups to top anyone's ballot: the Eagles (three first-place votes), the Byrds (two), and the Doobie Brothers and Little Feat (one each).

On a scoring system that gave five points for every first-place vote, four points for every second-place vote and so forth, the Doors registered 113 points to the Beach Boys' 86. The Doors also edged out the Beach Boys both in the number of first-place votes--15 to 12.

The Eagles finished third with 58 points, narrowly beating the Byrds, who scored 51.

Far behind:

Buffalo Springfield (21 points), the short-lived late-'60s group that was a launching pad for Neil Young and Stephen Stills, and whose song "For What It's Worth" was an anthem about the Establishment vs. young people during the psychedelic era.

Van Halen (21), the hard-rock band that was built initially around the guitar excellence of Eddie Van Halen and the vaudevillian good humor of David Lee Roth. One of only four groups in the panel's first 10 to have been formed after 1970.

Little Feat (17), a band that enjoyed only limited commercial success in the '70s but was widely admired by critics and musicians in an era of anonymous corporate rock for its integrity and allegiance to jazz, country and blues roots.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (13), who merged elements of the Byrds and Stones in the late '70s and '80s with Petty's anthemic tales of idealism and desire.

Love (12), a rival in the psychedelic era to the Doors and one of the few bands in rock to have a black frontman (Arthur Lee).

Rounding out the Top 10: X, the critically acclaimed leader of L.A.'s late-'70s punk explosion; Fleetwood Mac, the Buckingham-Nicks line-up that produced "Rumours" and "Tusk," and Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, two of rock's most relentlessly independent figures.

What about such big sellers or critical favorites as the Jackson 5, Steely Dan, the Coasters, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Mamas & the Papas, the Go-Go's and Earth, Wind & Fire?

In some cases, the judges--while expressing admiration for the bands--thought of the groups as R & B vocal outfits rather than self-contained rock bands (the Coasters), or as bands identified with other cities more than with Los Angeles (the Jackson 5 with Detroit; Steely Dan with New York; Earth, Wind & Fire with Chicago).

Most of the remaining bands, however, simply didn't generate enough support.

Morrison, That's All

Jim Morrison wasn't alone in the Doors, but the controversial lead singer dominates any discussion of the group. His fame was built by his charisma as a performer, his provocative lyrics and--for many--his role as a rock martyr.

Son of a Navy rear admiral, Morrison, attended film classes at UCLA briefly before joining the Doors and pursuing the extremes of the rock 'n' roll experience with a fury that caused him to be described as a "demonic vision out of a medieval Hellmouth."

Morrison wanted to test the "bounds of reality," as he put it, and he conducted those tests on stage--where he was once arrested for drunkenness and lewd conduct--and in his personal life, which was sometimes a fascinating, sometimes sad blend of innocence and excess.

Though Morrison died of a heart attack--at age 27--in 1971, his image and his work with the Doors still intrigue rock fans. A 1980 Morrison biography was a best-seller and a film is in the works.

In a 1981 report on Morrison's continuing spell on the rock audience, Rolling Stone magazine came up with one of its most famous headlines. Next to Morrison's picture on the cover were the words, "He's Hot, He's Sexy and He's Dead."

Here are how some members of the Calendar panel see him:

Paul Atkinson, senior vice president of artists and repertoire for RCA Records and former member of the British rock group the Zombies, calls Morrison the "quintessential rock idol."

Ron Oberman, vice president of artists and repertoire for Columbia Records, believes that the Doors' music and Morrison, unlike so many figures from the '60s, remain relevant today. "Look at pictures or videos of Morrison . . . his look, his attitude. . . . It all stands up," he said. "He could easily be singing today, fronting someone like Guns N' Roses."

Agrees Tom Zutaut, who signed Guns N' Roses at Geffen Records: "Ever since I moved here in 1980, I keep hearing how some hot new band contains the 'new' Jim Morrison. That's always the (reference point). So, I have to figure that if he created that much of a vibe--where people are still trying to find the next Jim Morrison after all these years, I've got to figure that the Doors and Jim Morrison must have been the most important thing ever to come out of Los Angeles."

Penelope Spheeris, the film director whose works include highly regarded documentaries on the L.A. punk and heavy-metal scenes, also stresses the Doors' relevance to much of today's young rock audience.

"But there was also something else that the Doors did in the beginning," she said. "I look at rock 'n' roll trends as reactions to society's moral mind set at a certain time and the Doors had something to offer that was missing in the flower-child movement of the '60s: sexuality."

There was, however, more to the Doors than Morrison. His partners--keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore--built a sound around a haunting update of the blues that mirrored with sometimes chilling detail the recklessness and experimental quest outlined in Morrison's often forbidding lyrics.

Like many judges, Bill Hein, co-owner of Enigma Records, spoke of the dark edges in the Doors' music. "I was still in junior high when I first heard 'Light My Fire,' but it was amazing . . . like nothing I had ever heard before. There was something sinister, yet intelligent . . . something not exactly evil, but very dark."

Added Jim Ladd, an 18-year veteran of rock radio in Los Angeles, "To me, the Doors have always represented the mystery and the magic of L.A. . . . kind of the madness of it as well. They had more influence on me than any band . . . save maybe the Beatles."

Not everyone on the panel, however, was enthralled with the Doors.

Bob Merlis, vice president of publicity at Warner Bros. Records, called them "too ponderous."

Ken Barnes, editor of Radio & Records magazine, agreed. "I just find them really overblown, overrated. To me, the music doesn't hold up well. There's a lot of pretension and not that much substance. But my feelings are partly a reaction to the way they have ben canonized by so many people. I don't think they really deserve it."

California Boys

For all the sunny, good-time images in their songs, the Beach Boys too have undergone moments of tragedy.

Brian Wilson's decade-long struggle to re-establish his career and his life have been widely detailed, and Wilson's brother--and group member--Dennis drowned in 1983, following years of personal problems.

While many panelists praised the songwriting and production of Brian Wilson, the theme that came up again and again--especially from people who moved here from other parts of the country and the world--was the image of Southern California that the Beach Boys' music sent out

Jo Bergman, vice president of video for Warner Bros. Records, remembers listening to the Beach Boys in London and daydreaming about the California good times.

"They wove an international fantasy of Los Angeles," she said. "It's not just a dream of sunshine and beaches, but a dream of a simpler world, and that's part of the continuing appeal of the music. (The early songs) were kind of cartoon-like--a world that wasn't (troubled) by politics, drugs, world hunger."

Larry Solters, senior vice president of creative services and artist development at MCA Records, listened to the records in New York, but had many of the same reactions.

"Growing up in New York (in the '60s), the Beach Boys represented California--just as the Beatles represented England. When I came out here, I expected everybody to be driving around in woodies and hanging out at the beach, surfing. The Beach Boys embodied Southern California."

Panelists also saluted the Beach Boys' music.

Peter Philbin, vice president of artists and repertoire at Elektra Records, said that the best Beach Boys' songs are "timeless works that are a testimony to the endurance of a simple, cinematic lyric."

Again, however, there were detractors--though generally less polemic than Doors opponents.

Lenny Beer, editor of Hits magazine, said he found it hard, as a New Yorker in the '60s, to relate to the Beach Boys' music. He quipped, "I don't know . . . maybe it's just that I relate to concrete rather than cars and the surf."

Film director Spheeris summarized several panel members' feelings, suggesting the group's music--at least the hits--was generally too "soft" for her taste.

The Eagles' Lyrics

The Eagles' strength was in the songwriting and the way the lyrics reflected on life in the '70s.

"In a less universal, more complex way, the Eagles were to Southern California in the '70s what the Beach Boys were in the '60s," maintained Glen Brunman, director of West Coast publicity at Epic Records. "Better than anyone, they took the myth and the dream and chronicled its extensions and its corruptions."

Radio's Jim Ladd also saw a sociological power in the Eagles' music.

"If the Doors were kind of the magic and the mystery and the darker side of L.A., the Eagles always represented to me the idea of the dreamer turned realist.

"If you looked at something like 'Sad Cafe' and 'Hotel California' or 'The Last Resort' and 'Life in the Fast Lane'--that kind of duality of view pretty much summed up L.A. in the '70s."

Geffen Records' John Kalodner, one of the industry's most respected judges of talent, placed the Eagles second on his list "for the sheer quality of their music and the quantity of the records they sold--a unique combination."

Other panelists, however, downgraded the Eagles for a lack of dynamics and for building on a vision they felt was introduced by earlier bands.

Music Connection editor Bud Scoppa said, "I could see my way to put them in honorable mention, but I think what they did was to take more esoteric and more original concepts hatched by the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers and popularize it. I don't know if there is anything wrong with that, but it just made it a little less special for me."

Enigma Records chief executive officer Bill Hein admits he rejected the Eagles on strictly emotional grounds.

"I can't be objective about the Eagles," he said. "I worked in record stores in the mid '70s and every other record I sold was Fleetwood Mac or the Eagles. So irrespective of the quality of those band's work, I came to hate them because I was so sick of selling the records and so sick of playing them in stores."

The Influential Byrds

Ken Barnes, editor of Radio & Records and widely admired as a pop historian, nominates the Byrds as L.A.'s greatest band.

"The Byrds' first album was the first record I ever bought and I've always liked them," said Barnes, who saw the group live almost 25 years ago at his high school in Sierra Madre. "Their guitar sound has influenced bands all the way up to R.E.M. and beyond. Without them, there also may never have been bands like the Eagles."

Bud Scoppa, of Music Connection, agreed.

"I think they eliminated this distinction between sound, or the sensory realm, and substance, the intellectual and emotional realm, by making them the same thing--which is something I see as tying into the (Los Angeles) environment."

Yet Shelly Heber, who runs her own marketing and management firms, smiles when she recalls the frustration of seeing the Byrds live at clubs around town. "It was maddening because I swear to God there was a 15-minute wait after every song, while (Roger) McGuinn tuned his 12-string guitar. It seemed like the Byrds' shows would last 2 1/2 hours, of which you got maybe 10 songs."

Van Halen

Van Halen was widely admired by panelists, with most voters expressing a preference for the band when David Lee Roth was the lead singer rather than Sammy Hagar, the current frontman.

RCA's Paul Atkinson, however, prefers Hagar and describes the group as "one of the best American hard-rock bands ever."

Says Elektra's Philbin, "Eddie Van Halen's style has been emulated by an entire generation of guitar players and David Lee Roth rejuvenated the flamboyant image of the rock singer.

"The band transformed the Los Angeles club scene in the '80s by giving birth to a whole new generation of hard-rock bands who took their lead from both Van Halen's artistry and also their success."

Echoed Club Lingerie's impresario Brendan Mullen, "There are 5 million American high school boys playing air guitar in front of the mirror in their rooms with the door locked and the headphones on. With David's vaudeville-like showmanship, the band stands as an undeniable cultural phenomenon that brought fun back to rock."

Among Others . . .

Comments in brief.

* Love: "Always in the shadow of the Doors, but musically I think they were slightly better." (Harold Bronson, vice president of Rhino Records).

"One of the great underrated and unheralded bands of the '60s. As someone black who grew up loving rock 'n' roll, one thing I liked about them was seeing Arthur Lee--a black man--fronting a band that was purely a rock 'n' roll band, without any nod to R & B or whatever." (Ed Eckstine senior vice president of Wing Records).

* Tom Petty: "He let the world know that it was OK to be honest in your music." (Vicki Hamilton.)

"A real personal favorite. I actually like his records more than Springsteen's. They're a little more direct and communicate a little better. He's such an obvious heir of the Byrds." (Ken Barnes.)

* X: "It was so much the L.A. band of the '80s. Their song 'Los Angeles' was one of the quintessential songs about this city . . . its darkness and its light." (Shelly Heber.)

"The greatest band out of L.A. during the last 10 years. Nobody has written and performed songs of greater significance. If there hadn't had so many important predecessors, they would have been higher." (Chris Morris, reporter and critic for Billboard magazine.)

* Little Feat: "I'm now managing the new Little Feat so everyone is going to think there is a lot of self-interest in (my remarks), but I loved them years ago. . . . The fact that they could take fairly complicated songs and unusual rhythms and make them into rock 'n' roll." (Peter Asher, who also manages Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor.)

"Little Feat is perhaps the ultimate musician's band. There was a combination of fancifulness and real seriousness in (leader) Lowell George's music. I think the thing that made them an extraordinary band was that anything was possible on stage with them. They really did what others claim the Grateful Dead did." (Bud Scoppa.)

* Buffalo Springfield: "You've got to be impressed by the sheer number of talented people (including Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay) who came out of one band and had so much influence on so many other groups. Their albums are still standards." (John Kalodner.)

* Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention: "He just represents integrity to me. Nobody tells him what to do and I always liked that about him--not to mention his great musicianship." (Jim Ladd.)

"He put forth an unabashed candor, sort of defined the idea of doing exactly the music he wanted to do." (Jay Boberg, president of I.R.S. Records.)

* Capt. Beefheart & the Magic Band: "There is really nothing like it--his sound is some kind of weird mystical desert outgrowth, mixed with the blues. I think it is much more interesting than Zappa for experimental music." (Ken Barnes.)

"I'll vote for him if for no other reason than 'Clear Spot' is one of the greatest records ever made." (Bill Hein.)

Time Will Tell

The domination of '60s bands in the poll reinforces the argument that '60s rock was more original and affecting than the music of subsequent decades. Even Chris Morris--a critic who is a big booster of late-'70s and '80s rock in L.A.--found room for only one post-'60s band (X) in his list of five greatest bands.

But Morris points out that the veteran bands have a major advantage because it's easier to weigh their influence.

"You've got to remember that I grew up with that ('60s) music," Morris said. "It formed my (rock) consciousness. A lot of other--and newer--great bands, including the Blasters and Los Lobos, are as important to me personally.

"But in a way the bands I listed (the Beach Boys, Byrds, Doors, Captain Beefheart) shaped the way people perceive the Los Angeles rock sound and we're only talking about five slots (on the ballot). Who knows, maybe 20 years from now the Blasters and Los Lobos may be considered as important as any of these. Only time will tell."

The Greatest Vote

Total 1st-Place "Top-5" Points* Votes Votes 1. Doors 113 15 26 2. Beach Boys 86 12 20 3. Eagles 58 3 17 4. Byrds 51 2 14 5. Buffalo Springfield 21 -- 9 Van Halen 21 -- 12 7. Little Feat 17 1 5 8. Tom Petty/ Heartbreakers 13 -- 5 9. Love 12 -- 6 10. X 10 -- 6 Captain Beefheart 10 -- 3 Fleetwood Mac 10 -- 3 Frank Zappa/Mothers 10 -- 3 14. Motley Crue 8 -- 3 15. Turtles 7 -- 2 16. Steely Dan 6 -- 3 17. Bangles 5 -- 3 18. Wall of Voodoo 5 -- 2 19. Doobie Brothers 5 1 1

20. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Neil Young/Crazy Horse;Black Flag; Dickies and Runaways each had 4 points and were listed on two ballots.

Also nominated: War (4 points/1 ballot), Dream Syndicate (3/1), Cannibal & the Headhunters (3/1) Sly & the Family Stone (3/1), Alice Cooper (2/2), Flying Burrito Brothers (2/2), Germs (2/1), Ventures (2/1), Los Lobos (1 1/2/2), B-People (1), Go-Go's (1), Knack (1), Premiers (1) and Plimsouls ( 1/2).

*The point system: 5 points for every first-place vote, 4 for every second, etc.

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