The year 1990 was a record year for the Orange County pop music scene--record in the toss-it-on-the-box-and-listen sense of the word.
In styles ranging from dance pop to heavy metal, alternative rock to country, locally based artists turned out an unprecedented number of good recordings, a vintage crop of strong new music that isn’t likely to be surpassed easily in any coming year.
But in terms of what the world beyond our borders heard, the Orange County recording that mattered most in 1990 was a quarter-century old. In one of the biggest surprises of the year, the Righteous Brothers’ gorgeous 1965 ballad, “Unchained Melody,” became a pop phenomenon, thanks to its inclusion as the love theme in the hit-movie “Ghost.” Righteous Brothers Bobby Hatfield and Bill Medley didn’t reap a new fortune from the song’s success, having sold the royalty rights to their ‘60s catalogue years before. But they did profit from the release of a new, true-to-the-original rendition of “Unchained Melody.” In one of the year’s oddest developments, the new “Unchained Melody” reached No. 19 on the Billboard singles chart in early November--with the original version holding the No. 17 spot the same week.
Louie Louie, the dance-pop singer from Santa Ana, also had a Top 20 single with “Sittin’ in the Lap of Luxury.” While his debut album, “The State I’m In,” didn’t result in the quick rise to stardom that some had predicted for the handsome, charismatic singer, it established him as a talented contender.
The same was true of Social Distortion, the veteran Orange County punk band whose 1990 album, “Social Distortion,” was the third of the band’s career and its first for a major label. SD toured extensively, building on its long-established cult audience and placing its album on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart for several months.
Another veteran of the local scene country singer Jann Browne also began to attract a national following with her well-received debut album, “Tell Me Why.” Stryper, the Christian pop-metal band that had been Orange County’s biggest commercial success of the ‘80s, shot quickly up the albums chart with its 1990 release, “Against the Law,” only to see it fall just as rapidly off the charts. The lack of staying power may have been due to musical changes, as Stryper adopted a tougher sound and turned away from overtly religious messages in its lyrics. Then again, it may have been due to chaotic business conditions at Enigma Records, which underwent severe staff turnover and drastic cutbacks. One of the most promising Orange County talents, folk-rocker Vinnie James, signed with RCA Records but saw the release of his already-finished debut album, “All American Boy,” delayed until February, 1991.
For a discriminating rock fan, staying home and listening to the best of the locals on record offered more rewards than seeing most of the big-name shows at the county’s outdoor amphitheaters. With a handful of exceptions at both the Pacific Amphitheatre and Irvine Meadows, it was an uninspiring year for concert-going in the great outdoors.
The Orange County Performing Arts Center marked another year unsullied by the low-brow musical excitations of the Baby Boom generation. Lacking any other suitable mid-size, indoor venue (many acts won’t appear in the in-the-round format of the Celebrity Theatre), the county was bypassed by some of the year’s most attractive tours, including Sinead O’Connor’s and Van Morrison’s.
On the club scene, the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano remained the county’s top venue for national touring talent, but its four-year monopoly didn’t go unchallenged. One bid to rival the Coach House fizzled when Hamptons, a beautifully appointed but undercapitalized nightclub in Santa Ana, went dark in May after about five months of promisingly eclectic, but too-often unsuccessful bookings. Next came Peppers Golden Bear, part of a club and restaurant chain, which opened in August in Huntington Beach. Peppers’ stated ambition was to bring back the glory days of the original Golden Bear, which had been the county’s only major pop club until it closed in 1986. But the Coach House, with its well-established business relationships and good reputation, continued to get most of the prime pop attractions. Still, Peppers’ size advantage--a seating capacity of 580, compared to 380 at the Coach House--gives it the potential to develop into a significant stop for touring pop acts.
The grass-roots rock scene for Orange County continued to revolve around Bogart’s in Long Beach, the club most devoted to fostering creative local talent. It is largely because of Bogart’s that the Long Beach and Orange County alternative-music scenes have fused into a single entity. Night Moves in Huntington Beach tried to distance itself from its punk-flavored, alternative-rock image by changing its name to Foul Play and attempting to tone down its musical offerings. But by year’s end, the old name was back, along with most of the old favorite bands.
Peppers showed some interest in giving slots to local bands, especially if they fit into the danceable-rock format that the club has come to favor. The Coach House also provided an occasional home for locals, but overall the grass-roots club scene remained anemic. The efforts of amateur promoters who ran once-a-week clubs dubbed the Rat Trap, Club Cannibal and Club Tangent added some spark early in the year, but those enterprises inevitably turned out to be sporadic or fleeting. Consequently, Orange County’s pop-music scene continues to look healthier on record than it does in the flesh.
This list of the top albums by Orange County artists includes several--Lost Souls, 3D Picnic, Tender Fury and T.S.O.L.--whose members reside outside county lines. However, each band originated here and continues to have a regular local presence.
1. Chris Gaffney, “Chris Gaffney & the Cold Hard Facts” (ROM). Memorable melodies, pithy and offbeat lyrical observations and exceptionally skilled and zestful playing make this rockin’ country album one of the all-time peaks of O.C. pop.
2. Eggplant, “Sad Astrology” (Dr. Dream). Weaving together some of the best strands in alternative guitar rock, Eggplant’s second album is funny and poignant, ironic and heartfelt. It’s also catchy and inventive, no matter what the mood.
3. Rick Elias & the Confessions, “Rick Elias & the Confessions” (Alarma). A Christian believer searches for spiritual illumination but does it without compromising his gritty, independent, heartland rocker’s attitude.
4. Social Distortion, “Social Distortion” (Epic). Repetitive in spots but still a highly personal album that merges a punk band’s blazing force with the timeless quality of strong country and blues influences.
5. 3D Picnic, “Dirt,” (Earth Music/Cargo). An eminently hummable cornucopia of pop that zig-zags from style to style without losing its charm or its lyrical energy.
6. James Harman Band, “Strictly Live ... in ’85" (Rivera). Captures the all-around excellence and versatility of Harman’s tremendous mid-'80s blues lineup.
7. Bill Ward, “Ward One: Along the Way” (Chameleon). The former Black Sabbath drummer tells his own story of decline and recovery with a strong merger of metal and progressive rock that features fine guest turns by Ozzy Osbourne and Jack Bruce.
8. Lost Souls, “Howlin’ at the Moon” (no label). Blues and punk influences converge in a multifaceted, intelligent brand of raw biker rock.
9. Burning Tree, “Burning Tree” (Epic). This blues-powered trio hews closely to its roots in Hendrix and Cream, but stormy playing and good songwriting make this more than an exercise in retro-rock.
10. T.S.O.L., “Strange Love” (Enigma). Lots of metal bands bark about having an authentic “street” sensibility. This one backs it up with a gritty sound and a dark, fatalistic outlook. Catchy, hard-hitting and, alas, overlooked.
11. Louie Louie, “The State I’m In” (WTG).
12. Tender Fury, “Garden of Evil” (Triple X).
13. Swamp Zombies, “Scratch and Sniff Car Crash” (Dr. Dream).
14. Rikk Agnew’s Yardsale, “Emotional Vomit” (Triple X).
15. Jann Browne, “Tell Me Why” (Curb).
Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow Award: Thousands of Robert Plant fans ignited their soft drink and beer cups at Irvine Meadows in a brilliant but hazardous and air-fouling torchlight salute.
Person We’d Most Like to See in the Ring With Mike Tyson: Donnie Wahlberg of the New Kids on the Block tried to prove his macho by publicly haranguing a young woman he suspected of giving him a thumbs-down gesture at the Pacific Amphitheatre. During the same show, a fan tossed a large, undoubtedly expensive toy stuffed animal on stage; Wahlberg kicked it away disdainfully, telling his audience not to throw things.
T.S. Eliot Award: The ill-fated Hamptons finished not with a bang, and not even with a whimper. Management just shut the doors one day without a word of public explanation.
Rube of the Year Award: To anyone who cheered Milli Vanilli’s singing at Irvine Meadows.