A journey through Elektra's glory days

Special to The Times

Whenever the '60s glory days of Elektra Records are mentioned, it's usually in terms of the daring artists on the culture-bending label, including the Doors, Love, Tim Buckley and the Stooges.

But the real hero of the Elektra story is Jac Holzman, a brilliant young visionary who started the label at 19, driven by his love of folk music and audio engineering. Holzman launched Elektra in New York in 1950 but moved to Los Angeles in the early '60s because he sensed that the West Coast was emerging as a creative hotspot musically.

A lavish new five-disc boxed set saluting Holzman and the Elektra legacy is one of several Los Angeles-related collections topping Calendar's annual holiday guide to noteworthy CD boxed sets. Prices are based on a sample of retail outlets.

Various Artists' "Forever Changing: The Golden Age of Elektra Records 1963-1973" (Elektra/Rhino, $179.)

The title is a play on the name of Love's most prized album and it captures perfectly Holzman's spirit in building Elektra into what British rock critic Richard Williams describes as the "house label of the counterculture" in the '60s.

In a forward to a hardback scrapbook included in the boxed set, Holzman, now 75, said his goal in opening the indie label was never to follow the rules laid down by the major record companies. Rather, he said, Elektra "evolved alongside them, doing what we did best, taking chances and creating a compelling alternative music catalog for curious and open ears."

In the process, Elektra artists enriched the music scene in America by opening the ears of fans -- including such folk artists as Judy Collins, Bob Gibson and Tom Rush, and then such challenging rock forces as MC5.

Rather than abandon folk after the huge commercial success of the Doors, Holzman continued to sign such gifted singer-songwriters as Mickey Newbury, one of the most underappreciated singer-songwriters of the modern pop era, and Paul Siebel. At the same time, Elektra found room for some more mainstream artists, including Bread, Harry Chapin and Queen.

The musical history of Elektra is told over five discs, focusing more on tracks that defined the artists' musical character than necessarily their biggest hits. The ambitious set also has a CD-ROM that includes an illustrated discography, "Follow the Music," the book about the label that Holzman wrote with Gavan Daws, and various souvenir items, including old publicity photos.

A more affordable edition of "Forever Changing," focusing on the five music discs, is due late next month, but this deluxe set is as classy and stimulating as Holzman himself.

The Doors' "Perception" (Elektra/Rhino, $119). Here's Elektra's most celebrated band, one that titillated us with gloriously seductive singles and then rattled us with some darkly disturbing psychological exportations. The box includes six studio albums (with bonus tracks) and six DVDs (with surround-sound mixes of the albums, videos and other features). If you already have lots of Doors material, check to make sure there is enough here to justify the price.

The Byrds' "There Is a Season" (Columbia/Legacy, $40). The debate over who was Los Angeles' greatest band usually centers on the Doors and the Beach Boys, but this folk-country outfit certainly deserves to be on the shortlist, maybe even rank alongside the other two. This four-disc set (replacing an earlier boxed set) features 99 selections, all the way back to two tracks featuring three of the Byrds in a group called the Beefeaters (on Elektra Records, no less). It features the hits and key album numbers, as well as alternative versions of some album tracks. A DVD includes footage from various television appearances. Some classic moments.

Gram Parsons' "The Complete Reprise Sessions" (Reprise/Rhino, $30). When Parsons moved to Los Angeles in the late-'60s, the city was marching to a rock 'n' roll beat that increasingly saw the world as an angry battlefield between young and old. But Parsons wanted to write more about the struggles inside us all in a time of rapidly shifting values, and his music was so honest and vulnerable that his influence continues to radiate through the music world today. This three-disc set contains remastered versions of his two Reprise albums, alternate tracks from those album sessions and a few other extras. Essential.

John Lee Hooker's "Hooker" (Shout Factory, $55). We now move out of Southern California for a couple of blues and R&B; sets. Unlike blues-related figures in the '50s who tailored their music to the emerging youth market, Hooker gave us menacing, lustful, adult tales that greatly influenced the Rolling Stones and other British rock invaders. This splendid four-disc set is the first time Hooker's work has been brought together in a complete and satisfying way.

Various Artists, "Blowing the Fuse" (Bear Family, $25 to $30 per disc). This is a series of individual discs rather than a boxed set, but the retrospectives from Germany's Bear Family label were among my favorite listening experiences of the year, and the concept is in keeping with a boxed set. Each disc in the 16-volume series contains the 28 or so biggest tunes from one of the years during R&B;'s first golden age, 1945 to 1960. Listening to it now lets you step back in time and imagine the excitement of rock pioneers, including Presley and Dylan, listening to R&B; stations and shaping their own musical visions. Because they are individual volumes, you can mix or match them to form your own boxed set. My five favorite volumes are 1951 to 1955, which take you from Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" to Johnny Ace's "Pledging My Love." For a list of all song titles, try www.bear-family.de or www.ccmusic.com.

Various Artists' "A Life Less Lived: The Gothic Box" (Rhino, $58). Even if you never went around in black raincoats and heavy eyeliner, you should find much to enjoy in this surprisingly eclectic look at the dark side of modern rock over the last 25 years or so. Among the acts featured: Joy Division, the Cure, Jesus & Mary Chain, Ministry, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and, of course, Siouxsie & the Banshees. Cleverly packaged in a black leather corset.

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