Los Angeles. Not too long ago. Brush fires had turned the air a greyish shade of pink, and made your eyes sting a little more than usual. The local cultural newspaper had full-page ads for botox armpit injections. The traffic on La Cienega made mockery of that staple of L.A. conversation: 'It's only twenty minutes away.' In a recording studio in the hills off Sunset, Wilson Phillips were doing vocals for their first album in ten years.
The 'Monday Monday' tracks were up, Chynna Phillips was singing the lead on the out-choruses. How does that go again? 'Do we have the record?,' she asks. 'I want to hear how dad and mom did it.'
We have gathered here to celebrate California. California music, to be more exact. The songs of the girls on the beach, the girls in convertibles, whipping down Pacific Coast Highway; the young girls coming to the canyon; the girls of myth, a myth that radio wrought, and everyone bought.
What did we know about California, the rest of us? Little geographic clues: 'I caught him at Doheny' (Doheny?) 'All over La Jolla.' Beach jargon. We devoured the records, dreamed of girls who looked like, well, Chynna's mom, to be quite honest. Our fantasies scored to a soundtrack by Wendy and Carnie's dad.
Blame Brian Wilson, and John Phillips. While you're at it, blame P.F. Sloan, and Jimmy Webb, and Jan Berry, and Jackie DeShannon, and any number of Eagles, and anyone who ever wrote a song that David Crosby sang harmony on. Not to mention McGuinn and McGuire, and a few transplanted Canadians. They defined Southern California for anyone with a record player.
The Capitol tower still stands on Vine Street, but most of the other west coast labels are either gone, or just don't represent what they once did: A&M, Dunhill, White Whale, Liberty, Imperial, Ode, Asylum, even, it has to be said, Warner Brothers; From the early '60s through the mid-'70s, they issued records like cultural bulletins around the world: come to the sunshine.
The records sparkled and shimmered; they were bathed in light, they were blond on blond So Carnie, Chynna, and Wendy. and the pop songs of Los Angeles. Well, who else? The sound is, after all, their birthright. Genetic entitlement aside, their voices are just made for this stuff.
It's just so...right. And orchestrating this second-generation homage, producer Peter Asher, who had his own hand in shaping the west coast sound (and whose own records, it should be remembered, shared that orange-and-yellow Capitol label with the Beach Boys and the Honeys and Glen Campbell).
A perfect match, as it turns out. Not that it was easy getting here. Getting Wilson Phillips to embrace this idea was one thing; getting everyone to agree on material was something else altogether. Right now, you're looking at the track listing and asking, 'Where are the Association and the Turtles and Love, the Merry-Go-Round and the Grass Roots and Johnny Rivers, Zevon and Newman and Nilsson? Where, for goodness sake, is Sonny Bono?' Fair questions.
We think every song here is a piece of the bigger story. There's Brian Wilson in an early moment of isolated introspection, and at his most ebullient. There's John Phillips achieving a divine, quintessential pop moment. Linda Ronstadt taking a Betty Everett r&b song and becoming the west coast's primary interpretive voice. Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and the Eagles and the effenization of the '70s.
Fleetwood Mac's marvelously disfunctional cross-continental update of the Beach Boys/Mama's and Papa's pop esthetic. And who could be unmoved by the esonance of these particular young women singing Neil Young's 'Old Man'? There are also a couple of --- what should we call them? 'anthems'? 'generational themes'? 'Let's Get Together' and 'Turn, Turn, Turn' are '60s standards, of course, as iconic as the peace sign. The first was passed along from the Bay Area's Kingston Trio and L.A.'s We Five, to San Francisco's Jefferson Airplane, to Marin County's (by way of NY) Youngbloods; and Pete Seeger's biblical adaptation was the Byrds' biggest hit single and a folk-rock touchstone.
'Farewell to the First Golden Era' was the title of a Mama's and Papa's retrospective, and it could have been the name of this album as well. Or, since Brian Wilson never quite got around to it, it could have been called 'Smile.'
Listening to these three harmonically gifted California girls sing the Great Western-American Songbook (Volume One, we hope) is a joyful experience. They've taken the sound and the spirit of a place and a time, and made it all their own. It's as though they grew up in it. Imagine that.
- Mitchell Cohen