Perfect Sound Forever

Los Angeles Orchestra Pop

Mason Williams

by Fred Cisterna (February 1998)

I'm listening to The Mason Williams Phonograph Record, a long-playing record released by Warner Brothers in 1968. This near-concept album is by turns arty, schmaltzy, literary, goofy, ambitious and, at times, beautiful. It contains an instrumental, "Classical Gas," that won a couple of Grammys, but "Wanderlove" is Phonograph Record's centerpiece. "Wanderlove"'s arrangement opens with percolating Latin percussion before adding layers of droning violins and violas that accompany Williams' vocal rendering of a lovely folkish melody (reminiscent of the modal line in "Venus in Furs" by The Velvet Underground). The string section shifts gears to play a catchy rhythmic figure, then the song comes into full flower: spare, rock-steady rhythm section; punchy, tasteful brass chart; French horn variation on the melody; even a passage in 10/4 time. Williams' pure vocal recalls Bryan Maclean's work for Love -- maybe overly sincere but moving. The piece ends by returning to a cool simmer of Latin percussion before jump-cutting to the album's next track.

Phonograph Record is representative of what could be considered a regional genre -- 60's L.A. orchestral pop -- a style that, broadly characterized, featured lush orchestration, a wildly promiscuous (and at times tasteless) borrowing of styles, the use of studio musicians (often the same ones over and over again), stylized non-rock vocals, less-than-hip lyrics, and an emphasis on song construction (and its expansion). The first practitioner of the genre was probably Phil Spector with his ravishing productions from the first part of the decade; Brian Wilson, in his Pet Sounds phase, was the undisputed master of the style; and the most whacked (and hardest rocking) example of the form may be the dark masterpiece Forever Changes by the barely-a-band-at-all Love (studio players augmented the drug-addled group and this is clearly reflected in Changes' sound). Randy Newman's first LP, The Walker Brothers' albums, and Richard Harris' A Tramp Shining are all of the genre. Jimmy Webb is a key figure. Glen Campbell, Jack Nitzsche, The Association and Harry Nilsson were players. Harpers Bizarre and The Fifth Dimension were around. And the Carpenters kept L.A. orch pop alive (and commercially successful) well into the 70's, a time when the style seemed more hopelessly square than ever. Descended from pre-rock pop but feeling rock's pull, this style sat in an uneasy, even queasy space. If you were into the rock of, say, Jimi Hendrix, a lot of this stuff probably appeared laughable at best, the work of generational traitors at worst.

In the era of Stereolab it's hard to imagine such a great musicological and sociological rift. In the late nineties it's no big deal to listen to Electric Ladyland and Glen Campbell singing Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman" back to back. I doubt if too many people did that then. At the time string-laden records featuring ridiculously smooth singers sounded ludicrous to young rockers and hippies. To many, this predecessor of soft-rock symbolized a phony American culture that was born in the fifties and was still going strong a decade later. For those in the other camp, rock records could be heard as unnecessarily harsh and untuneful -- noise plus endlessly insistent rhythm spinning round and round.

Van Dyke Parks
Van Dyke Parks

In Los Angeles, in the middle of the 1960's, the sun shone bright. L.A., an optimistic place basking in the spotlight of national consciousness, (a consciousness that was increasingly shaped by L.A. the media center) had only begun to come into its own after the war. It was a city most definitely on the rise.

Watch TV and what would you see? Ideal weather, great beaches, a swinging scene on Sunset Boulevard and new movies that portrayed Los Angeles as an endless party. And everything -- the stores, the baseball teams, the cars -- was new, really new. This was a city that was constantly turning its back on the past, ever replacing itself with new buildings. The fact that El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora La Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula had once been a town in northwestern Mexico was like a barely remembered old yarn, especially for recently arrived southerners and midwesterners.

New York was old and weighted with its highbrow culture. The city's pop culture shared the high culture's modernist qualities -- irony, a suspicion of beauty, a distanced stance. Look at the Velvets -- flat, dispassionate vocals; squelching noise and "bad" production; the band's sly demolition of/remake of pop music. But L.A. didn't really care about those things. In L.A., corny stuff like barbershop quartets and country music with strings and made-for-the-movies pop songs were not exotic artifacts from faraway middle America; they were part of the cultural climate of what was the most Anglo-American big city in the country. Los Angeles essentially was and is the capital of middle America; many of the L.A. orchestral popsters grew up in the Midwest and the South.

In Los Angeles you could go straight for Beauty, free of irony and distortion, and you could do it shamelessly. The beauty that was achieved was often put down as "plastic" (in reference to SoCal's newness and pointing up its inherent artificiality -- a densely populated desert irrigated from afar) or "Hollywood" (inauthentic, brazenly commercial, whitewashed, absolutely not-folk, patched together from every which style).

L.A. orchestral pop possessed a certain musical sophisication as well as an aesthetic conservatism. Nevertheless, the genre displayed experimental urges, however restrained, that were typical of the time. It was a nouveau riche sound; glossy, supposedly rootless, contrived, made-up. This was music in which taste and tastelessness often mixed, where elegance blended with silliness and trash. But the genre didn't come out of nowhere. Movie scores, suave Brazilian stylings, Mexican horn and fiddle traditions, '50's West Coast cool jazz, easy listening/exotica records, and Latin American and Hawaiian forms were just some of the sources that fed into the L.A. sound.

One (sort of) homegrown musical tradition that Los Angeles did have was the orchestral Hollywood movie score- a very practical take on the European symphonic tradition. These scores were often unrestrained affairs underlining emotions that were already clearly delineated on the big screen. Music pushed war stories, domestic dramas and crime tales to twisted heights of sturm und drang. L.A.'s orchestral pop could go pretty far and never reach this degree of bathos. A ridiculously sensationalistic standard had been set: the popsters didn't have to hold back, they could pour it on. Local 47 of the Musicians' Union provided Hollywood with its players and would become a talent pool for the lush pop sound that was a trademark of L.A..

One branch of the L.A. orchestral pop tree was Americana as practiced by composer/arrangers Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks, two musicians with a love of string sections and the American vernacular that must have been considered incredibly unhip at the time. In their work you can hear Stephen Foster, circus music, echoes of a turn-of-the- century brass band. In the case of Newman, older African-American styles and Hollywood movie scores are part of the mix, not surprising considering that he spent part of his childhood in that font of American music, New Orleans, and that his uncle, Alfred Newman, and his cousin, David Newman, are film composers.

Mexican influences were everywhere -- on the radio, in the streets, at your local Mexican Bar and Restaurant. There were bands that served up Mexi-gringo pop like The Baja Marimba Band and Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass but other groups incorporated Mexican influences in less corny, more nuanced ways. One instance of this is the mariachi flavorings that grace Love's Forever Changes. Certainly Changes arranger David Angel was listening to Herb Alpert as much as Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano; Angel's fine work serves as one more example of the pleasures of inauthenticity.

Bossa nova's smooth rhythms and rich stacked harmonies were popping up in all sorts of places. Travelling from one laid-back coastal culture to another made perfect sense- just keepin' it mellow and sexy. Bossa nova influences mixed with arty garage rock on the first Love album, and the band would continue to draw from this source as its sound developed. You can also hear Brazilian-y sounds on Williams' Phonograph Record, various Burt Bacharach tunes and on numerous minor hits.

The style that has come to be known as exotica or lounge developed and was centered in L.A. during the late 50's and early 60's (with influences from its neighbor to the West -- if you don't count 3,000 miles of Pacific Ocean -- Hawaii). This primarily instrumental genre's meisters (Martin Denny, Les Baxter, Esquivel, et al) mixed musical styles in a manner not unlike the way movie theater designers created fantastic decor combining faux South Pacific, Aztec, Indian, Chinese and Caribbean elements. The anything-goes instrumentation of lounge created a multiculti sonic fantasy that would heavily influence such Brian Wilson instrumentals as "Let's Go Away For Awhile" and "Pet Sounds." Exotica, with its innovative combination of timbres, cultural cross-pollination (however fake, however cheesy), and wicked sense of soundplay influenced L.A. orch pop in more general ways- would Van Dyke Parks have used balalaikas on Song Cycle, would Jimmy Webb have crafted the mini-symphony "MacArthur Park" if not for the loopy explorations of their forebearers?

Another predecessor of LA's lush sixties sound was the West Coast or cool jazz of Shorty Rogers, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker and Art Pepper. Light stuff compared to the tough, driving sound of East Coast hard bop, it was a style that emphasized arrangements and pristine textures over explorative, emotive solos. The style could be limited and even sterile but at its best it created a distinctive sound world -- one that was true to the easy living of postwar Los Angeles, to smooth car rides on spankin' new freeways, to an afternoon spent at the beach -- jazzy, elegant chamber music for an emerging bachelor pad life style.

L.A. orch pop drew from other sources as well -- the tremolo-driven, room-filling tones of surf music- not its reckless energy but the way it immersed the listener in a sea of reverberating sound. Maybe the sound of the ocean itself, just minutes away from any L.A. recording studio, was an inspiration. Possibly even the wind blowing through the canyons.

Of course Southern California, in a sense, was a state of mind -- Dionne Warwick's version of New Yorker Burt Bacharach's "Do You Know The Way to San Jose" came out of that Manhattan song factory, the Brill Building. Former Angelenos The Walker Brothers (originally from Ohio) created overwhelmingly lush recordings in a London studio. The band moved to England in 1965 and produced a string of hits including a cover of Bacharach's "Take It Easy On Yourself," a dramatic version that arguably topped Ms. Warwick's rendition. Scott Walker, the band's visionary, has had a solo career that has been an exhaustive exploration of lush, a transformation of the L.A. pop sound into something hallucinogenic.

So many of these records hung around unwanted in discount bins or Goodwills before they became the desired collectibles they are today. Critics discuss many of these orch pop works a little too reverently or else with easy, campy condescension. In fact, most of these records are a mix of the tainted sublime and the engagingly ridiculous, with results that can be oddly moving on one hearing and silly on the next. These discs are certainly the return of the repressed and the reevaluated. In the late nineties, the SoCal creed of mellowness in song is everywhere.