RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP: MORE ACTION THAN EVER
illustration by felipe flores
Fifty years ago this week, the music scene on the Sunset Strip—home to the Byrds, Love, the Doors, Buffalo Springfield and an endless number of freaked-out L.A. garage bands—was snuffed out when L.A. police and L.A. politicians cranked up their curfew enforcement and sparked what the Standells sang about as the ‘riot on Sunset Strip.’ What happened then, according to author Domenic Priore’s impressively researched history Riot On Sunset Strip: county supervisor Eugene Debs made a push to tank property values and force through a freeway and financial district, but he pushed too hard, and a thousand-person sit-in outside the beloved all-ages venue Pandora’s Box turned from a demonstration to a disturbance. This was the beginning of the end for the classic 60s Sunset Strip scene, as independent clubs closed and musicians (and maybe more importantly promoters) left for an enthusiastically welcoming San Francisco, cutting L.A.’s true psychedelic potential short. According to Priore, East L.A. was already a mini-Liverpool, and until the end of 1967, this was the hippest and most happening city on the planet—and then it faded out. The anniversary show (inspired by Priore’s book) at the Echo on Sat. Nov. 12 features 66 originators like Love (Revisited) and Randy Holden, 80s revival acts like the mighty Pandoras and new-generation L.A. bands like Creation Factory, Bombon, Frankie and the Witch Fingers and more. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
This book makes the case that if the city of L.A. hadn’t cracked down on the Sunset Strip scene, the psychedelic mainstreaming that happened in San Francisco would have happened here—and probably been more powerful. When and why did you decide that’s what really happened?
Domenic Priore: I’d been thinking along those lines because some of that was really evident. There were pictures in a book Ellen Sander did in the early 70s called Trips, and I think David Crosby was originally a partial writer who isn’t credited, or a lot of his original ideas but then she made her own book. But if you look at these Jim Marshall pictures of people dancing to the Byrds at Ciro’s in 1965 … what the girls are wearing is clearly proto-hippie. I think I made a real clean specific draw on how the Byrds did ‘Eight Miles High’—recorded it at RCA Music Center of the World in December of 1965, the first version, and it came out as a single in early 1966. And you really can’t point to any like psychedelic 45s before that. You just can’t. And then the Beatles … the Beatles first got dosed with acid in England by George’s dentist, and they said, ‘Ah, man, we didn’t like the way he did that but we liked the stuff—so we’ll wait til we get out to California and take it with our friends the Byrds.’ Which happened in August of 1965. The Grateful Dead, according to Gene Sculatti who was one of my sources—he did the first article ever on the San Francisco music scene in 1966—he says to me that Grateful Dead guys hadn’t even taken LSD until December of 65. So the Byrds are already recording ‘Eight Miles High’ in that manner when the Grateful Dead are still fuddling around and trying to transfer from folk. This precedes all that. The Grateful Dead come here in 1966 and start throwing all these acid tests—they actually move to Los Angeles. So when you say Los Angeles had the ability to become the first place for a psychedelic movement, in truth, it did—but history is told by the winners. So when Jan Wenner starts Rolling Stone and Monterey Pop and all that … it’s like how [San Francisco critic] Ralph Gleeson would sit there and write really bad things about the Fugs from New York and the Mothers from L.A. and really bad things about the Velvet Underground … but you know damn well that if those bands had been in San Francisco, he’d have been celebrating them like they were the greatest thing on Earth! San Francisco and Wenner especially didn’t really have the journalistic responsibility in terms of music history as they have presented themselves with. That was the frustrating thing when I was doing the book—I was living in San Francisco and the younger people in the 90s when I was writing the first draft, they understood that! But the older people were extremely condescending. They just didn’t wanna hear it. They weren’t hearing it. I had to deal with that with my editors. I was originally at Chronicle in San Francisco and I got pushed to the gills on some of these things. The day when the Beatles and the Byrds took acid—I told that story and it’s kind of a commonly known story, but they asked me, ‘Well, what day was it? What time was it?’ And I actually found out—within an hour—the time and day that they did it cuz guess what? That kind of Beatles research is out there! They must’ve dropped the acid sometime between 11 AM and 12:30 PM.
Domenic Priore: Acid brunch—and you can find out the day in any Beatle history. It happened to be the same day the Beatles were brought to a Hollywood party with the at-the-time old Hollywood guys. Jack Benny, Edward G. Robinson, Groucho Marx—the idea of this party was Hollywood was going to accept the Beatles. Jack Benny is on this ABC newsreel like, ‘Well, you know, they did very good business at the Mets’ ballpark, and they’ve made two good movies and they have so many fans and so many people love them, and they have some very good songs … so I guess they’re OK.’ Groucho is the funniest guy on that reel.
Why do people hate L.A.? Even people in L.A. will sometimes hate L.A.
Domenic Priore: In California history—1849—San Francisco becomes the grande dame of the west coast and in 1906 they have that earthquake. So right at the time San Francisco has its earthquake is also the time when Los Angeles is starting to develop in a large manner. I’d trace it all the way back to the fact that while San Francisco is rebuilding, L.A. became the emergent city on the west coast. That caused resentment from the get-go. It goes back generations.
How did you decide the Sunset Strip in 66 was something important in the first place?
Domenic Priore: The thing that fascinated me first was how could so many good groups come from such a short time span in place? That’s unprecedented. If you look at 52nd St. in New York, that’s a 1938-1952 phenom. New Orleans, forget it—that’s twenty-something years of development of jazz. London and Liverpool are also major things in that same decade. You gotta admit, a lot of really great stuff came out of London at once! But a place like London could never be as diverse as Los Angeles. You don’t really have a lot of black population in England like you do here in America. And then of course in L.A., we had our own little Liverpool right in East Los Angeles. They had all these little tiny clubs everywhere. The big union hall, the little union hall, the Montebello Ballroom, the Paramount Ballroom—so many of ‘em! The kids would drive from place to place and do like three gigs a night, with their parents often driving ‘em around! We had more diversity here. And not just diversity as far as ethnicity—just the different kinds of even Anglo groups. The Mothers are so different than the Byrds. And there’s the Doors on another level. And then all these garage punk bands that fuel the Nuggets box set. There’s a much rider range even just in the Anglo music of Los Angeles because so many different people come from maybe the beach or come from the San Fernando Valley or the city. You get different flavors. Even Orange County was a wonderful place during the 60s! Just the fact that guys from Tim Buckley and Jackson Browne really broke out of Orange County. It wasn’t just garage bands. It was these major folk guys!
You say cross-pollination, cooperation and community are the things that made the L.A. scene great. Why? And how?
Domenic Priore: Interestingly enough, I interviewed John Sebastian about that very thing. He was in New York City and he came out here and was so integrated into the L.A. scene that by the time Crosby Stills and Nash got together, they did their first big rehearsals at his house. He was extremely involved with New York—where he’s from—and the way he put it was that New York musicians were a little bit more competitive, a little more in their own corner. The Young Rascals over here, Velvet Underground over there, the Spoonful here … there wasn’t that interaction. Maybe just cuz of old-fashioned competitiveness that comes from previous generations? Out here, things like … grass being the main thing and just the whole idea of sitting and passing a joint to one another, that was also key to the music.
A defining metaphor.
Domenic Priore: That’s the same spirit the music was done. You look at an album like Love’s Forever Changes and you hear Tijuana Brass-type horns and arrangements. It seems incongruent mentally, but not when you’re listening to the music—then it sounds perfect. And the reason why is because these guys didn’t have that sense of competition. One other analogy you can make is with sports. If you’re on the East Coast, you don’t have surfing.
Jersey shore surfing?
Domenic Priore: There is some—but it’s a minority thing. Here, surfing was much more a part of the largesse. Surfing was such a thing here, and the people who were involved were more a bohemian style. The guys who were surfers in their teenage years when they also were involved with crossing with sort of bands—some people played music, went surfing, but even just a little later I remember all the guys on my varsity football team when I was a freshman—older 60s guys—they were basically surfers who were also good at other sports. They were smoking pot—it wasn’t that jock mentality here so much, as far as the guys go. That led to a lot more good feelings between people.
One theme of this book is integration—racial, cultural, different forms of art all mixing together.
Domenic Priore: It was really the county supervisor Ernest Debs who was most vociferous in his efforts. He was a major county official—similar personality to Robert Moses in New York where his idea in the 1950s was, ‘Oh, the glamour nightclubs of the Sunset Strip—the Mocambo, Ciro’s—those places are all closing. And jazz artists with black skin are playing at them. Therefore, like houses … if a Black person moves into your neighborhood, then the property value goes down.’ So the property value goes down on the Sunset Strip of the 40s, according to Ernest Debs, and he sees this as an opportunity to develop bank buildings—
His plan was to allow Black musicians and people to participate and exist in this area, which he felt would depress property values … which would pave the way for him to push through this financial district and freeway plan?
Domenic Priore: Yes.
That is so insidious.
Domenic Priore: Yes. Absolutely. That’s exactly what happened. But he couldn’t have expected the Beatles to come out and teenagers grabbing guitars more than ever and filling these nightclubs full of Dylan-influenced Beatle-esque bands. That was unprecedented in 1965 and that was what was happening. At first, clubs were given license to open and the basic running of the city allowed for it. But as we saw crowds come up there, it didn’t look like this would ever go away—there was more action on the Sunset Strip in the 60s then there’d ever been.
So this plan backfires.
Domenic Priore: You gotta consider 1957 to 1963 … that’s more of the jazz and folk era before rock. The Whisky-A-Go-Go opens in January of 1964, the same time the Beatles are breaking. The timing is impeccable. What follows by 1965 is the Byrds. Which is the first Dylan-fueled pop music. And that’s happening at Ciro’s during its very last months of existence, and then it became It’s Boss—a pop-art themed club. It’s not often mentioned that the Trip especially was a place where the Temptations were playing. And the local rhythm and blues artists like Billy Preston would open, or the Rising Songs with Taj Majal and Ry Cooder. The R&B artists I talk about in the earlier chapters were also playing up on the Strip opening for the more national R&B artists coming and playing.
What has to happen to make moment like the Sunset Strip in 66? What makes it all start?
Domenic Priore: Somebody truly inspired comes along—someone or some thing truly unique and inspired. Then there’s maybe another person who catches on to that. Then they’re also doing their own thing, but grafting on to the energy of it. All of a sudden everyone’s going down to see the inspired person. They can’t play every night, so they go see the other person. You could say this about Elephant 6 or any of those things—sometimes it just starts with one really important person. Then more people come. And when those people are also creative … it’s domino theory. The Whisky-A-Go-Go overrates itself because it was ultimately the Byrds at Ciro’s who started this whole thing. The Byrds and Bob Dylan joining them for the first gig at Ciro’s—that was a real set-up. Miles Davis helped the Byrds get signed to Columbia cuz of some backroom stuff. Miles went to Columbia and said, ‘You should turn on to this group.’ This whole thing with Dylan breaking at Newport … that came well after he’d worked with the Byrds here in L.A. and then when he joined the Byrds for the encore at Ciro’s opening night—they played ‘Spanish Harlem Incident’ and ‘All I Really Wanna Do.’ The Whisky had good energy in 64, but it took the Byrds and Dylan at Ciro’s to echo throughout both coasts’ underground. I put a picture of them playing together on the back cover of the book—that photograph of Dylan with the Byrds at Ciro’s resonated all over the country. That’s when people started saying L.A.’s the place. Greenwich Village was kinda spent by then. Then before you know it, the Doors doing their first demos at the same studio the Byrds had recorded at—World Pacific—and the Byrds are singing on one of the tracks before anyone really knows who the Byrds and the Doors are, and the Doors start getting gigs, Frank Zappa starts getting booked …
The riots themselves reminded me of Occupy. People showed up just to be there, and then the police overreacted. The book even says it started just as a ‘funeral for a bar,’ but was converted to a political protest because of the way the city handled it.
Domenic Priore: Yeah—it was a sit-in. But Stephen Stills said that, and I think Stephen missed the mark a little bit. Yeah, it was a funeral for a bar, except I don’t even think they served booze! It was an all-ages club. But it was in a sense about preservation, basically. They were trying to save Pandora’s Box and the clubs in general, but they were also protesting police brutality over the previous months. It wasn’t just saving the night club. They were getting harassed cuz they had Beatle-length hair. Which was absurd. Johnny Legend told me he was riding shotgun in a car with his mom with his hair down to his shoulders—pretty long for 66—and a cop pulls him over and says, ‘MALE OR FEMALE PASSENGER!?’
Why did the city of L.A. react so badly to live music? This music is developing, but they kept it illegal or barely legal for so long. In the book, live rock ‘n’ roll shows have to start outside of the city—in El Monte, Long Beach and more.
Domenic Priore: It’s mentioned in the book that all the dancehalls in the old days were out by the beach—Venice was its own city then, Santa Monica was its own city. They had their own piers, their own ballrooms and that’s where people went to dance. The real hoochie-coochie was there. They had all these laws basically about exploiting kids. It’s hard to understand but I think people were super protective of their children in those days, and a teenager didn’t have any sense of being something other than a child in those days. But kids liked to dance. So there was this repression that goes all the way back to that period in the city of Los Angeles proper. That’s not to say that good music didn’t happen in the city, but most of the best music in the happened in the Black neighborhood. The white authorities looked the other way when it came to the Black neighborhood.
Kids in here are asking why they’re old enough to be drafted but they can’t go see bands play and dance.
Domenic Priore: Yeah—when you look at the city’s records about them trying to close clubs … the parents of those kids in the 60s were saying, ‘Our kids don’t have places to go!’ The city would come back like, ‘But here’s the high school chess club! We have thirty dances a year at local high schools.’ Thirty dances a year at a local high school … the Doors aren’t necessarily gonna be playing there. The Byrds. The kids went to the Strip cuz they were getting live music action that wasn’t available that much in their neighborhoods. Good bands I’m sure played those dances—actually quite a few of the Doors and those bands did play some high school dances!—but a bill at the Trip had the Byrds as headliners and the Butterfield Blues Band would open for them … for a month. So if you wanna go dancing, you have a whole month to catch that. Maybe you go more than once to dance to the Byrds and the Butterfield. That high level creative band was not something that the city fathers even acknowledged—there being a difference between a pick-up band at a high school and bands that were signed creating Bob Dylan type music.
One of the root causes here seems to be the city condescending to the kids: ‘They can’t have any sense of taste, this isn’t important, they’re just kids throwing fits.’
Domenic Priore: That is true. And that is why the Monterey Pop Festival set itself up for a more mature presentation. I also see a tremendous difference with music post-Monterey, where everyone starts taking themselves too seriously cuz of that ethos.
You also write that the era of the greatest creative freedom in this era ended when people stopped dancing to live bands.
Domenic Priore: There’s this one good clip in there from Gordon McClellan, an Orange County guy, and he’s talking about Harmony Park Ballroom in Anaheim where you’d have Dick Dale and Dave Myers alternating nights, and I think the Rhythm Rockers which was an R&B group that had Richard Berry in it.
And he wrote ‘Louie Louie’ at Harmony Park in Anaheim?
Domenic Priore: The birthplace of ‘Louie Louie’! [McClellan is] talking about how Harmony Park since the late 50s and early 60s, kids would just go to dance—but they had these superb groups. Then one week toward the very late 60s, the Jeff Beck Group played there. And everybody went at this gig and watched Jeff Beck and Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart and instead of dancing, they just stood there and stared. He says it was a palpable change. People were just standing there going, ‘Oh, wow.’ As opposed to seeing a girl and getting together and dancing. You’re not necessarily staring at the stage—you look at the band, at your partner, it was more of a fun thing and a little lighter atmosphere in some respects. And the music plays off of that energy, too.
You suggest that these bands themselves embodied a kind of political protest just by existing—why?
Domenic Priore: The kids were being treated in a condescending manner by the adults. All the way back to the 1950s. Let’s get straight about one thing that most people don’t recognize about rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s: a lot of younger people might think and even people who grew up in the 60s may think that in the 1950s, music was inconsequential. I interviewed Little Richard about this, and he said, ‘Look—most of the places we played, there was a rope in the middle of the arena. The rope kept the white kids on the one side and the black kids on the other.’ And every arena he went to, if it was allowable in that place—depending on the police protection and how crazy and conservative it was—there would be a situation where the kids would jump over that rope. From the get-go! Young teenage girls having their music heroes be young Black guys already is extremely scary to the racist culture of the parents in that period. So they already have this crazy discourse between themselves and their parents concerning the music they like being associated with ‘the Negro,’ so to speak. It was a radical thing for kids to jump those ropes and get through and dance with people of the opposite race. I talked to musicians—I worked for this African-American history teacher and in the 50s, he was a musician. He backed a lot of people. He was telling me at the Million Dollar Theatre one time, Buddy Holly and the Crickets were playing there and after the show, they were are all looking at each other and picking up their instruments like, ‘OK, you do this … we do this … what do we do together?’ And that’s downtown L.A.—Buddy Holly and the Crickets jamming with this R&B group that my friend was in. That in itself is a great act of radicalism in an early phase of rock ‘n’ roll that is overlooked by most of the hippie era people and it’s overlooked by most people afterward—cuz again we have Jan Wenner and Rolling Stone books writing history in the image of San Francisco, and not in the reality of how it really happened. The most important part about music in L.A. in the middle 60s before Monterey Pop: it is the place where social consciousness becomes embedded into the popular song. And then we start seeing a larger popular culture imprint when that then becomes part of the New Hollywood cinema thing—or even the older guys involved with the Ferus Gallery art scene on La Cienega, and coming to do all these protests against the Vietnam War, first on La Cienega and at the L.A. County Museum of Art and then finally creating the Artist’s Tower of Protest between March and May of 1966. This is really one of the first large efforts against the Vietnam War—that’s pretty early for that, you know. I think a group called the Answers had a song called ‘Cry For Freedom’ in 1965 that actually addresses the Vietnam war, and it’s a garage punk song—this is the beginnings of that. And there are very definitive moments that are totally overlooked in pop and rock music histories that came out of Wenner Media.
There’s a parallel with the Sunset Strip in 66 and L.A. punk in 77—people want something new, original, from their own generation. And the city hates it.
Domenic Priore: It repeated itself on a smaller scale. I was part of that 70s thing. The first punk rock bands in L.A. were the Berlin Brats and the Quick, and then in 77 all of a sudden there was a slew of ‘em that just came out. X, the Eyes, the Germs would be in there. What I saw with my own two eyes is a situation where there was an established order in the music business, and punk and new wave really upset that cart so much that in San Francisco, Bill Graham had so much power that he was the Ernest Debs of the 70s—he told the police ‘go down to the Mabuhay Gardens and bust those punk rockers!’ The same thing happened in Los Angeles. They kept banning punk rock and a lot of times you’d get these guys who were heavy metal hair band guys—almost always in a white pickup truck, with six or eight in the back and three in the cab—and they’d all pull up in front of a bunch of punk rock kids sitting in front of the Whisky and just start beating on ‘em! And cuz you have classic rock stations like KLOS, there is gonna be more of the hair band kind of guy—that is the established order of classic rock. They had the high-power radio stations, but we had the new music and they felt extremely challenged by it. And the record industry followed suit in the 80s. Whatever blip Blondie had or Talking Heads or Elvis Costello … that’s about all that broke through of that new music. You never heard the Stranglers or the Damned on radio. I remember the first time the played the Ramones on KLOS at 3 in the afternoon when the Sire album came out in 1976—they got tons of phone calls from people saying, ‘Don’t ever play that again.’
So this is the story of an establishment reacting against new music in 66, and you personally saw that happen again in 77—who do you think ultimately wins these battles? Debs’ developments were never built, and people all over the world know this music. But the scene was also cut short.
Domenic Priore: The important thing to recognize is eras come and go. I often blame Wenner Media for everything! I was actually considered for a job with Wenner after I wrote the book—they offered me a job editing that Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock N Roll. I know a little bit about what they’re looking for. If you read the history, they treat every single band as a continuum—not recognizing there is a beginning, a peak and an end. There’s this hallucination of the continuum—a continuum from the past. No. There’s a beginning, a peak and an end to all these creative eras. You’ve probably seen a few come and go yourself. There’s been a lot of different good old days! A lot of times people, things and creative movements pass by the wayside, and it’s really important to acknowledge that and not falsely think this is one big huge continuum. Then everything is this bland metronome … there’s this thing, ‘it’s all good’? No, it’s not ‘all good’! You have to recognize that sure, people make a living with music, but some things rise above others. That’s not a bad thing!
THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE SUNSET STRIP DEMONSTRATION WITH LOVE (REVISITED), THE PREMIERS, THE PANDORAS, BRENDA HOLLOWAY, THE LOONS, RANDY HOLDEN, THE CREATION FACTORY, FRANKIE AND THE WITCH FINGERS, BOMBÓN, SHAG RATS AND DJ TONY THE TYGER AND MORE ON SAT., NOV. 12, AT THE ECHOPLEX, 1154 GLENDALE BLVD., ECHO PARK. 7 PM / $10-$33.50 / ALL AGES. GET TICKETS HERE! DOMENIC PRIORE’S RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM JAWBONE.