Before the Tate-LaBianca murders at the hands of the Manson Family brought the Flower Power era to a devastating end, the music scene in Los Angeles was permeated by soft psychedelia and gorgeous production values. The time between 1965 and 1968 held the seeds of the AM Gold period of the early 1970s. While some songs about drugs made their way to the surface, the real experimentation seemed to happen in the recording studio. Interesting takes on standard song structure were the norm, as were odd punctuations with unexpected instrumentation. That music is chronicled in the Grapefruit/Cherry Red set Heroes and Villains: The Sound of Los Angeles 1965-1968, four hours of Los Angeles pop that includes both familiar songs and music that should have been more popular than it was.
Legendary pop groups like The Mamas and The Papas are represented here, along with Iron Butterfly, Steppenwolf, The Grass Roots and The Association. The Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band scratch the surface of the more adventurous side of L.A. pop. But much like Los Angeles, there’s always something else to be found in Heroes and Villains: The Sound of Los Angeles 1965-1968.
It makes sense that the set begins with a song by the as-seen-on-TV group, The Monkees. Cunningly designed to be a consumer-friendly American version of The Beatles, The Monkees evolved from being a product to being a real band. “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” blessed with a fat guitar riff from Michael Nesmith and sardonic vocals by Micky Dolenz, is one of The Monkees’ best songs. With its disdain for the rigamarole of suburban life and materialism, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” sums up the intent of Heroes and Villains. There’s something more out there somewhere if one can get past their own complacence to find it.
“Sand,” the 1966 single by Lee Hazlewood and Suzi Jane Hokom might be one of the greatest songs ever recorded. Then again, it could be a steaming pile of garbage. I can’t decide, and my opinion changes with every listen. Hazlewood’s baritone voice insists the young girl he met called him Sand. Towards the end, Hokom whispers the word “sand” in a way that elicits either giggles or nausea. Hazlewood later re-recorded the song with Nancy Sinatra, but if it’s possible for there to be a good version of “Sand,” the Hazlewood/Hokom collaboration is the better. Regardless of which version holds more appeal to the listener, the song needs to be rediscovered by modern audiences.
While the glitzy, well-produced pop side of LA’s music scene makes multiple appearances on Heroes and Villains: The Sound of Los Angeles 1965-1968, the set gets great when it gets weird. Listeners seeking something positioned to the left of center should head directly to “A Child’s Guide to Good and Evil” by The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. Vocalist Bob Markley rants through the tune about horrid things made all the more disturbing by his delivery. “A vampire bat will suck blood from our hands,” Markley says. “A dog with rabies will bite us/Rats will run up your legs/But nothing will matter.”
Kim Fowley takes a similar approach on “The Trip,” a paean to LSD. Fowley promises that if you trip out, you’ll see “silver cats and emerald rats and purple clowns.” The concept of purple clowns is terrifying, but everything else in “The Trip” sounds intriguing.
Even with those side-quests into strangeness, Heroes and Villains exudes both a sweet spirit and a beckoning for astute listeners to dig deeper into the era. Here you’ll find a version of “Windy,” which was a huge hit for The Association, performed by songwriter Ruthann Friedman. Listen to the band Love perform the original version of “She Comes in Colors,” known mostly to 1980s kids as a deep cut on the Hooter’s breakthrough album, Nervous Night.
Research is king on Heroes and Villains: The Sound of Los Angeles 1965-1968, as evidenced by the 78-page book by David Wells accompanying the set. Readers will learn more than they realized they wanted to know about both the artists and the included songs. It’s a deep dive, entertaining and informative, placing each tune into the context of the time.
In some cases, the context takes precedence over the songs themselves. It’s not that there are any real stinkers throughout the collection’s 90 songs, but as is to be expected with any wide-ranging musical anthology, some songs are better than others. Strawberry Alarm Clock’s “Sit With the Guru” isn’t a bad song at all, but it flounders in its own pretention. “Trip On Me” by The Forum is a wobbly attempt to meld psychedelia with the kind of watered-down rock one would expect to hear on a night-time variety show while background dancers in smocks and face paint sway in front of splatter art visual projections.
Even tunes like “Trip On Me,” which comes across as a desperate plea for short-lived stardom, underscore the brash hopefulness of Heroes and Villains. There was always the sense that success was just around the corner, provided you were willing to do what it took to achieve it. What better place than Los Angeles to board that train to the stars?
Heroes and Villains provides the soundtrack for a more innocent time before peace and love succumbed to violence and madness. Music was never the same after the murderous acts of the Manson Family. Everyone’s guard went up and music after April 1969 began to reflect that cynicism and paranoia. Heroes and Villains: The Sound of Los Angeles 1965-1968 drops a massive pin on the map of Where We Were to How We Got Here.
Heroes and Villains: The Sound of Los Angeles 1965-68 will be available from May 27, 2022 from Grapefruit, an imprint of Cherry Red Records.