Are You Playing An LA?

I visited Los Angeles, California a few years back at the gracious invitation of my great friends Ricky Ross and Lorraine McIntosh who were heading out to make what would become the McIntosh Ross album The Great Lakes. Work had started with some fairly eccentric demos recorded mostly by the two main protagonists around a single microphone in their nice front room in Glasgow and because I happened to be around now and then adding this and that I got to go (in the words of PF Sloan and Steve Barri) where the action is. I well remember arriving at LAX to see the already-resident McIntosh Ross zooming round the corner towards the arrivals terminal in an already-damaged hire car and the three of us hooting and hollering all the way to town past the nodding oil pumps, just knocked out to be there. Now, it may be a romanticised memory, in fact I’ll come clean and say that it definitely IS a romanticised memory, the following incident never actually happened, but that very night driving down Sunset Strip we turned on the radio and there was God Only Knows followed by Fleetwood Mac’s Silver Springs: California in two songs. You couldn’t make it up.

We recorded at Redstar, a beautiful little studio on a residential street in Silverlake with Dylan / Lanois veteran Mark Howard, lasting a good day before caving in and begging scraps from the table marked ‘Anecdotes About The Eccentricity Of Bob Dylan’. The studio was in the home of David Kalish, longstanding collaborator of Rickie Lee Jones, and was stuffed to the gills with dusty old Hammond Organs, Wurlitzer pianos and the kind of jaw dropping vintage guitars that are depressingly common in California. There was an actual pink Chevy 55 in the drive. In the band were Steven Nistor on drums, the amazing Doug Pettibone on pedalsteelmandobanjoguitar and my personal favourite, Darryl Johnson of The Neville Brothers and Emmylou Harris & Spyboy (“I came up with that name, Spyboy…I named that band”). Well over six-foot, permanent quizzical look on his face, amazing bass player, amazing all-round musician. Daryl often dawdled up first thing in the morning with a warm hello before planking himself right in front of me to sing a hymn – usually just the four or five verses, with refrains. While tracking he’d go “Hey, man, did you just play a D”? No Daryl, it’s an A in that part of the tune. “Yeah, I know it’s an A but did you play a D”? I don’t think so, it’s an A there. “Well…okay baby, but it sounded like a D to me, heh heh”. And just as I’m thinking ‘pasty faced Scotsman can’t distinguish difference between basic notes and consequently is a fool in the eyes of seasoned LA studio veterans’ he chirps, “Sound good tho”!!! Mark liked to record live, everything at once, building up the performance from the ground, working with parts (“we don’t need that Mexican shit, Davie”) then just going for one definitive take. He was performing too, through in the control room, moving the faders of an ancient API console, surfing the reverb channel, getting my (acoustic) guitar sounding a wee bit more sunburned by using the vibrato from an electric guitar amp. By the time he came to mix the record he had effectively rehearsed his moves and was good to go.

When I first got interested in music around the mid to late 70s it was suddenly the height of vulgarity to admit to liking any music made in Los Angeles. The implication being that sun, cocaine, money and more cocaine had turned the city’s collective mind to mush, which may have been true in some cases. But I was hearing Lindsay Buckingham turning popular music on its head from a mainstream perspective in Tusk and Brian Wilson’s charming, quirky The Beach Boys Love You; all seemed well in the Garden to me. And digging deeper and further back there was the legend of the Wrecking Crew; Campbell, DeLory, Russell, Kaye, Kessel, Blaine, Knetchel, session musicians punching the clock for Sinatra, Wilson, Spector and Webb and together creating the tapestry of 1960s popular music in powerful, complex and song-enhancing arrangements performed live in the moment, in Western Recorders, Capitol or Goldstar. There were only six of us in our own ickle wrecking crew at Redstar but it did feel magical to be there in the city, looking out as the Golden Hour descended on Silverlake, blessing our little band as we steered arrangement after arrangement onto tape. The McIntosh Ross album is one of the best and most distinctive works by its creators. Particularly beautiful are The Bluebell Wood, Gloria, Oh The Dark and Winter Is Coming; a few odd titles to record in LA but there you go. Check it out here.

The other thing I remember well was a trip to Hawthorne in the company of Brian Wilson biographer David Leaf to see the monument to The Beach Boys that stands where the Wilson house once stood. Truthfully the word memorial might be more appropriate. The street itself is an ordinary, suburban row. It reminded me of the low-slung 1930s houses in Larbert, Falkirk, Kings Park Glasgow and of the fact that magic usually springs from the most unprepossessing places. Of course LA has plenty of real and in-your-face magic and I look forward to drinking it in again when I visit UCLA to talk and perform to songwriting students there about my own works with The Pearlfishers and our MA: Songwriting and Performance on Monday 4th June 2012. See you there?

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