With a rock history that dates back to Eddie Cochran, the Beach Boys and the Doors, Los Angeles has been a launching pad for new bands for so long that it’s hard to imagine a time when there wasn’t an active club scene here.
But Martha Davis, Dean Chamberlain, David Swanson, Roger Prescott and Louren Molinaire remember such a period. When these musicians arrived separately in L.A. in the mid-'70s, filled with rock ‘n’ roll dreams, they found no place for their bands to play. It was virtually a closed shop.
Only three clubs mattered at the time--the Roxy, the Whisky and the now-defunct Starwood--and they only booked bands that already had record deals. The only alternative for unsigned bands: clubs that expected musicians to play the radio hits of the day rather than original material.
Frustrated by the situation, the five newcomers banded together on Aug. 14, 1976 to stage their own concert. That event--called “Radio Free Hollywood"--helped change the face of L.A. rock. The concert, with a lineup of the Pop (including Prescott and Swanson), the Motels (with Davis and Chamberlain) and the Dogs (Molinaire’s trio), was held at the now-demolished Troupers Hall on La Brea Avenue.
The event cost $900 to stage, drew about 400 people, and ended up $90 in the red. But the strategy worked. The concert became a rallying point for a small, dedicated contingent of L.A. rock fans who were fed up with rock ‘n’ roll business as usual. It convinced bookers at the Whisky and the Starwood that there was an audience for local, unsigned groups.
The momentum from that 1976 concert led to the new wave scene centered around a series of clubs including punk haven the Masque, Chinatown rivals Madame Wong’s and the Hong Kong Cafe, Club 88, Cathay De Grande and the Anticlub, and eventually the Lingerie and Music Machine.
Those clubs spawned X (see story on page 67), the Blasters, Los Lobos, the Go-Go’s and the Bangles in the early ‘80s. Later in the decade, the Troubadour and Whisky (among other clubs) were instrumental in developing the hard-rock scene which brought Motley Crue, Guns N’ Roses, Poison and others to the fore.
Fourteen years after Radio Free Hollywood, these five key participants are still pursuing their musical dreams. The idealism that led them to stage the 1976 concert has been tempered by years of exposure to music-business wheeling and dealing, but their commitment to music is as strong as ever.
“In the majority of people in this so-called Sunset Strip scene now, there isn’t an ounce of rebellion,” Molinaire observed. “It’s a whole conformity to what they think it is to be a rock star.
“The Dogs, Motels and Pop wave was a lot more true and coming from the heart. You had three bands from what seemed like three different musical countries but the common attitude that made up the music was the same.”
Said Davis of the Radio Free Hollywood period: “Hollywood is like anything else in the sociological world--there’s the pendulum swing. There’s the stage where everything is open and free and giving and then everybody tightens up and it swings over to repressive.
“You see club scenes flouriiiiissssshhhhh and then die out. Those were some good times--we weren’t raking in the gravy but there was nothing more fun than running up and down Sunset Boulevard with a bunch of Xeroxed flyers and a staple gun ducking the police.”
Most of the musicians on the Radio Free Hollywood bill wound up with label deals. The initial version of the Motels fell apart in 1977, but Davis quickly put together a new lineup and ultimately recorded five group albums and one solo effort for Capitol. Guitarist Chamberlain’s trio Code Blue released one album for Warner Bros. and another for Chameleon. The Pop released one independent album, one for Arista and a third for Rhino before splitting up in 1981. Molinaire and the Dogs never got a deal.
Davis, 39, enjoyed the greatest national visibility and commercial success. The second edition of the Motels inspired a bidding war in 1978 that was won by Capitol. The group went through a succession of lead guitarists but finally broke through when “Only the Lonely” became a Top 10 pop single in 1982.
But a successful follow-up wasn’t in the cards and the Motels split up in 1985. Davis recorded one solo album for Capitol in 1987 that was a hit in Australia, but a combination of health and label problems kept her career on the back burner.
Davis overcame ovarian cancer and now, freed from her Capitol contract, is making tentative steps toward resuming her career. She’s been indulging her passion for carpentry, is engaged to saxophonist Larry Klimas, and will soon become a grandmother.
“I don’t have anything to show for the eight years the Motels were together,” Davis reflected. “I have a locker full of road cases, which is costing me money to rent every day, and I still rent my house.
“I’m older and wiser to what this business is, which is the saddest part of it. I had to be away, unsigned, for almost a year to get back into what I loved--the music. In this city, especially, it’s so easy to get snafu-ed by all the bull. . . .”
Louren Molinaire, 37, finally got his major-label shot with Little Caesar . . . after he had stopped looking for that elusive deal. The touted L.A. band recently released a debut album on DGC.
“I got frustrated after being in town for 15 years and never copping a deal and watching all my friends go up or down,” said Molinaire. “I personally gave up on making it and took it more like, ‘It’s just art, rock ‘n’ roll.’ ”
Molinaire traveled a rocky road to reach that point. When the Dogs failed to get signed in the wake of Radio Free Hollywood, the group left Los Angeles in late 1978 to tour England with hopes of landing a deal there.
That strategy didn’t pan out and Molinaire returned to Michigan prepared to call it a career until his bandmates persuaded him to give Hollywood one more shot.
“I was here when it was really happening for me,” he said. “I used to be totally into the scene--it was important to hit the Starwood, be out and see what’s going on, but I stopped in the early ‘80s because I was already feeling like an outcast.
“When you have your time here, you have it, and after that you’re on the fringes of it. You turn into a Hollywood landmark: ‘There’s what’s-his-name, he used to be happening.’ ”
Molinaire retreated to Boulder, Colo., and formed Attack, initially with David Swanson and later with several female singers. The group came close to landing record deals several times and released a four-song EP. Molinaire reformed the Dogs in 1986 and that band was getting significant label interest when Molinaire jammed with Little Caesar in August, 1987. “Of course, the second gig with Little Caesar the buzz was on intensely, which is the last thing in the world the band expected. Everybody was frustrated with what was going on in town--it was going to be a Sunday afternoon hobby band.
“I always sit around this town at night and remember all the years that went by and what I used to feel,” he said. “One night I was sitting on the steps of a church on Gower, looking at the tower of Capitol Records just going, ‘I used to think God lived there.’
“I’m just getting my record deal now. What kicks my butt is that all the others (in Radio Free Hollywood) have had their deals and they still want to do it like they did before they got involved with the whole corporate thing that can (mess) up the music and your life. It’s still the music--it’s such an obsession there’s no way out.”
“One likes to romantically think about those desperate years,” said David Swanson. “But I sense an even greater desperation and fanaticism in the people coming out in the metal bands now. We had nights of glory--that’s the way we perceived it, and it felt like there was light and energy being generated, not just darkness and death.”
The Pop formed in 1975 when Swanson joined forces with Roger Prescott and David Robinson (who soon returned to Boston to taste success as drummer for the Cars). Swanson and Prescott continued developing the group’s concept, combining the sound of hard-edged, ‘60s British pop with a visual style indebted to Pop Art.
After the Pop split up, Swanson went to Boulder to join Molinaire in Attack before returning here in 1982. He focused on songwriting and landing a solo deal rather than forming another band, but had to fight to keep his spirits high.
“Nothing was happening and you get so disillusioned that you wonder, ‘Why am I doing this?’ ” said Swanson, who declined to divulge his age. “The final realization I had was that, perhaps unlike people not in the creative arts, a good portion of who I am is what I do.
“It’s much more than a job and it’s like you can’t stop doing it. You realize at some point that these songs are always gonna sort of dribble out from time to time whether I’m focused on it or not.”
Swanson, who supported himself as a free-lance architectural draftsman through most of his musical career, took another stab at the club scene when he formed the band Route 66. That unit was short-lived and Swanson shifted his focus to writing songs and playing solo and duo concerts.
His second shot at a record deal literally dropped out of the sky. RCA Records president Bob Buziak, who had been Swanson’s de facto manager during the mid-'80s, called him one morning from a transcontinental flight and set up a meeting with the team who produced his “Reclamation” album, which was released this month.
“It’s like falling in love--you never can find somebody when you’re out there really lookin’,” Swanson said with a laugh. “It sort of has to come when you’re not lookin’ and that’s the way it was for me this time.”
After the advent of punk in the late ‘70s, the L.A. rock scene split into polarized camps, and the Pop got caught in the reaction against “power pop” stirred up by the success of the Knack.
“The backlash hurt a little bit, but you do your music as a sort of spiritual therapy,” said Roger Prescott. “That’s what an artist does and why they do it. You work in different circles, doing the things you are doing when you’re creating, and what I’ve done has taken me in one direction.”
Prescott didn’t waste any time reentering the club scene after the Pop folded. He worked through the first half of the decade with his band the Exiles, which released a four-song EP in 1985.
“The Exiles suffered from being ignored by the media here,” he contended. “Everybody was pretty much being ignored except for X and the Blasters. For the most part, L.A. bands didn’t get recognition even though they were out there playing the clubs and making good music.”
Prescott played guitar for six months with the L.A. club band the Juju Hounds in 1985 and, after a year evaluating his creative direction, formed Trainwreck Ghosts in 1987. He also formed the acoustic Cajun group the Holy Boys and did double duty playing guitar in Walking Wounded until earlier this year.
Fed up with lack of fan support in Los Angeles, Prescott moved to Austin, Texas, earlier this year to focus on Trainwreck Ghosts. The reception Trainwreck Ghosts received at the regional record industry conference South by Southwest in Austin earlier this year--which resulted in three label feelers and a recording arrangement with producer Aaron White there--clinched Prescott’s decision to leave Los Angeles.
“I’ve sort of written off L.A. support,” he said. “If we don’t get the support in our hometown that we deserve, the hell with it. We’ll get it in Boulder, Austin and Seattle.
“Radio Free Hollywood happened because we had no place to play. We have plenty of places to play now but we had a hard time building the audience.”
“I loved guitar and I loved musicianship but hated what they’d done with it in the ‘70s,” Dean Chamberlain said of his late-'70s shift toward punk. “I wanted to drive a nail in that coffin, but at the same time what I do best is play guitar.
“Then there was a revolution, in came punk, just three chords and that’s it. We threw out all the guitars and if you played a single string solo, you were tried and shot on the spot.”
Code Blue had a lucrative deal with Warner Bros. and Chamberlain took the band’s failure hard. He kept musically active with his band Skin and played with the Juju Hounds for three years, but all was not well in his personal life.
“I finally reached bottom when a girlfriend of mine OD’d,” Chamberlain, 38, remembered. “I realized that the rockin’ world is full of fire and snakes and poison and excitement and adrenaline and sex and thrills, but when that stuff rubs off on you until that’s your life, you can get trapped.
“When she died, I realized I was in much deeper than I thought and I didn’t like where I was. It wasn’t the rock ‘n’ roll life and it was a million miles away from that sunny, white picket fence world I grew up in. That was about as low as I got.”
Chamberlain took another tack by landing a publishing deal that placed his songs in several movies, including “Friday the 13th,” “Pretty in Pink” and “Echo Park.” He even had one R&B-slanted; song recorded by the Jets. He’s been working his way back into the L.A. scene by running a small rehearsal and recording studio in Hollywood and returning to his favorite band format with the three-piece, blues-influenced Resurrection.
“It’s been a long time since I felt good about just playing,” he reflected. “There was something we all wanted to achieve with Radio Free Hollywood that was immediate, from the gut from me to you.