(Reminiscences from) The Music Scene in LA in the Early Eighties

Ray Mankarek, keyboards player of the Doors, at his home beside his beautiful blonde piano - March 1984

I have recently published The Forbidden Book, a novel co-written with Joscelyn Godwin, the noted scholar of western esotericism. Before publication, when our publisher was looking for blurbs, the name of Gary Lachman came up, himself a distinguished author in the field. He read the book and wrote a wonderful blurb. Then I noticed on Google that he went under another name, too: Gary Valentine, which opened the floodgates of memory. The Gary Valentine? The bass player for Blondie? We used to know and frequent each other in LA in what must be, for both of us, another life. I wrote to him to thank him for his blurb and refresh our friendship; he replied, “Dear Guido, my God it’s a small world! Yes, I remember meeting you and Stenie a few times back in the early 80’s with Lisa. You both dressed very well, I recall… ”

Stenie Gunn, then my girlfriend, now my wife, was the reason why I found myself in the midst of the punk/new wave scene in Los Angeles in the early Eighties. Although very young, she’d been intensely involved in music in her native New York, and of course was a regular at CBGB’s. When she moved to LA to attend UCLA, she still kept up with music. In fact her qualifications—she had had two successful college radio shows back East and had written for National RockStar, the English weekly newspaper—got us a gig with one of Italy’s best music and film magazines, the monthly Tutti Frutti, from Rome.

Anthony Kiedis, lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, sitting on Stenie’s Alfa Romeo Duetto - November 1984

We became their LA correspondents, and at times provided them with all the material they needed for the whole issue, texts (interviews, reviews, features, columns, news) and photos (our own or the ones given to us by record labels, as slides). In the pre-computer days, we relied on mail, notoriously terrible in Italy. In the hope of speeding things up, Tutti Frutti got a P.O. Box in the Vatican, which has its own mail (but I wonder, its own mail planes? Or did it rely on miracles?).

Back in Europe I had overdosed on “high culture,” which eventually had led me (and the world) to the aleatory, abstract (non-)music of, among many others, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. As therapy against a surfeit of intellectualism, I was hungering for the exact opposite and the hardcore punk and new wave scene in LA offered just that. I loved the directness and crispness of that music, its raw energy, intensity and concision. Short, fast and snappy—and making a point, finally.

The more memorable venue for punk concerts back then was Madam Wong’s. Esther Wong, the club owner, became somewhat of a legend. A no-nonsense businesswoman, she owned a restaurant in Chinatown that used to feature Polynesian bands, of all things, but didn’t attract a lot of aficionados. In 1978 she tried her luck with rock concerts, and it was an instant success. We saw there Black Flag, X, The Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks and many more. But the music scene in LA was very eclectic, and the music industry had just been reenergized by a novelty: MTV, and the music videos it showed all day long. We were the first ones in the world to publish a feature about it. It seemed clear to us that this new medium was going to give a new lease of life to rock music.

As we lived through it we sensed that we were in the Silver Age of Rock, and that the Golden Age was already behind us. As for the difference between the Golden and Silver Age, it can easily be summed up to this: instead of eagerly anticipating the new LP by Led Zeppelin, or The Who, or Pink Floyd, or young David Bowie, we were now waiting for the new LP (or CD, for those who bought them) by The Talking Heads, or The Ramones, or the B-52’s, or sold out David Bowie. It bore no comparison, but even then we realized that it was still a good time for music. Why? Because there was a lot of money behind it.

In his autobiography, Bill Bruford (the former drummer of Yes and King Crimson) explains how the music industry of the late Sixties and early Seventies in London reminded him of the dot-com craze of the late Nineties in America. Everybody wanted to invest in music, and very many investors did, which explains why so many bands were signed so quickly and so many genres were invented.

The early Eighties got a boost from MTV, as mentioned, and from the experience that record labels had acquired in the meantime. Independent labels, like Sire Records, would make alliances with major ones to improve their distribution; there were larger and better in-house publicity departments; ever more college and/or commercial radios; more specialized press for all tastes; merchandise was beginning to be sold at concerts—and kids kept spending their money on LP’s. There were no technological distractions: no smart phones or Internet; the first rudimental PC’s were for dorks and the same went for early video games, which were played in arcades. Music was still the thing kids wanted/needed the most.

We lived at walking distance from the Sunset Strip. You could walk from a huge Tower Records store (now defunct) to the Roxy and then to the Whisky a Go Go. The list of the groups that we saw in these two small clubs is sensational, from The Police to Fred Frith’s Massacre, from X to The Replacements to the greatest local new wave band that should always have made it big but never did: The Plimsouls (but their leader Peter Case has blossomed into a minstrel and is still active).

Publicity departments began to like us—and Tutti Frutti, of which we would give them issues featuring their artists—so they kept inviting us to concerts and asking us to interview their acts, big and small. The label I.R.S. introduced us to a new band which was “weird, but weird good”—R.E.M.

We were hooked up for an interview with Mark Mothersbaugh, from Devo. He had just begun composing soundtracks for films and the legendary producer Dino De Lurentis had commissioned one. While Mark wanted to give him electronics, Dino wanted, “Violins, violins, passion!”

Our publisher, the greatest expert on Frank Zappa, told us to go interview him at his home/studio, where he talked to us mainly about his classical compositions with a competence, seriousness and thoroughness one would have expected from a composer, which, behind all his histrionics, he really was.

Ray Manzarek, of The Doors, welcomed us to his home in the Hollywood Hills, with a beautiful blonde piano in the living room. He was working on a solo album of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. While I don’t remember the content of the interview with him (though I could easily dig it up, having kept the all Tutti Frutti issues), I do remember something else: he welcomed us to his home with grace. Someone who had been at the heart of Rock’s Golden Age was now taking these young pups under his wing and talking to them about the good old days, but not at all in a patronizing way. The warmth and wisdom of his deportment have stayed with me all these years.

I remember Paul Westerberg, of The Replacements, fuming right after an awkward interview with some French journalist; but Stenie made him feel at ease, and got a very interesting conversation going. He was not only a brilliant songwriter but a charming man. His band, of all the ones we heard then and since, has another distinction—it was by far the loudest!

We were asked to interview the lead singer of a brand new group: Anthony Kiedis, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. When Stenie mentioned that she owned an old Alfa Romeo Duetto, he got so excited that he wanted to take a look at it and for her to take a picture of his sitting at its wheel. And the list goes on and on.

An aspect of those days was the lack of information. In the pre-Internet age, info was hard to come by. We, as insiders, could ring up people at the various publicity departments as well as A&R men and women (artists and repertoire) to find out what so-and-so was up to, but the regular record-buyer had to rely on what the clerk at Tower Records would tell them, or their friends, or music magazines. There was a lot of hearsay, and plenty of misinformation.

David Byrne, lead singer of Talking Heads - January, 1985.

The LA music scene went from neo-psychedelic to metal; from punk and new wave to girl groups and everything in between. The unofficial high priest officiating over it all was Rodney Bingenheimer, a radio deejay who had a knack for discovering and then promoting “edgy new bands.” His intuition was almost uncannily infallible, and in an age of disproportionate earnings for so many involved in the music industry he represents an exception. A soft-spoken, sweet-natured man, it seems to us that he promoted music for the sake of music itself rather than for personal advancement.

We received promotional albums daily; in their inner sleeves were photos of the artists; their bios; clips from the press—a whole package. Many music journalists took the promo albums they didn’t care for to record stores for quick cash, but we never did. And that’s why, going through our collection now, and finding the LP’s filled with (excessive) promotional material, we look back and think of a period of opulence. We were eventually invited to the after-concert parties, too. If record labels wanted us to interview some new act, to entice us they’d send a chauffeur to pick us up. Kids were buying records by the millions, and Duran Duran were causing the same mass hysteria of the Beatles. Touring then was a money-losing proposition, but bands did it anyway to support their albums, whose sales were the money-makers. Nowadays, it’s exactly the opposite, as even Brian Eno has recently remarked.

We interviewed David Lee Roth, the lead singer from Van Halen, shortly before the release of “1984,” their greatest commercial success which went on to sell 12 million copies in the US alone. He was a bigger-than-life character, hyperactive, funny and genuinely personable. He liked us and invited us to their general rehearsal before they went on tour. They had rented a huge warehouse; in attendance were a few fellow members of the press, and hundreds upon hundreds of groupies dressed to kill.

There was no way that somebody like David Lee Roth would sit as judge in a televised singing contest; that would have been simply inconceivable.

It seems another lifetime: the record industry—created by technology, with FM radios, LP’s and hi-fi, and then boosted by MTV and music videos—has now succumbed to technology. But more than that, music is no longer that important in the lives of most young people. The energy seems to have migrated elsewhere. Also, the number of things that can be done with the same instruments and chords is great, but not infinite, and one has the impression of having heard it all before. Post-rock has shown the way to a non-rock use of traditional rock instruments, but contemporary creative (i.e., non-derivative) music is a lively but marginal niche market. Great periods do come to an end. It’s happened to, say, church-building; and to sculpture, and painting.

Madame Wong’s downtown closed up in 1985, and Madame Wong’s West in Santa Monica, in 1991. The “godmother of punk” had realized that music trends had changed, and that kids were no longer living on bread and music. In 1988, on the other side of the Atlantic, a synth-pop group that had been called the poor person’s Duran Duran, Talk Talk, committed commercial suicide by recording Spirit of Eden, which in retrospect many see as the first album of post-rock, or at least proto-post-rock. And in my view, that’s just about when rock ceased to be young and innovative. But in fairness, the period between, say, Buddy Holly’s That’ll Be The Day, released in 1957, and 1988 must be considered a very good run—31 years. Despite its many incarnations, rock music could not realistically hope to remain forever young.

 

All photographs are from the archives of and with kind permission from Stenie Mina di Sospiro.

About the author

Guido Mina di Sospiro is an award-winning, internationally published novelist born in Argentina, and raised in Italy. He belongs to an ancient aristocratic Italian family, and grew up in Milan in a multilingual home.

He trained as a classical guitarist and studied orchestration with the Swiss conductor Antoine-Pierre de Bavier, who had been Wilhelm Furtwängler’s favorite pupil. The Hungarian composer Miklós Rózsa, who wrote the soundtracks of “Ben-Hur,” “El Cid,” “Double Indemnity,” etc., and won three Academy Awards, used to spend his summers across from the Mina di Sospiro’s seaside home in Italy. Then in his seventies, he took young Guido under his wing and acquainted him with the University of Southern California, where he and Arnold Schönberg had taught composition.

At twenty, after attending the University of Pavia and making a feature film that premiered at the National Cinémathèque in Milan, Mina di Sospiro left Italy to attend USC School of Cinema-Television. Among his mentors were Ernest Lehman, Hitchcock’s favorite screenwriter and, later on, Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, the celebrated English editor and publisher, who launched among others William Boyd, Peter Ackroyd and Paul Theroux.

Mina di Sospiro’s novel “The Story of Yew” (the memoirs of an age-old tree), published in the UK, is permanently featured on the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and has been translated into many languages, as has “From the River”, the memoirs of a mighty river. Both books have met with critical acclaim.

Mina di Sospiro currently lives in the DC area with his wife and their three sons, and travels often to Europe and elsewhere so as to promote the various editions of his books.

He has recently completed the novel “The Forbidden Book,” co-authored with Joscelyn Godwin, the noted scholar of western esoteric tradition.

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  • P.M.C. Soundsystem

    For someone who praises Mazarek for ‘talking to [us] about the good old days, but not at all in a patronizing way’ the author seems intent on doing the exact opposite. It was a different time! Music is so meek and irrelevant now! It just doesn’t mean anything! They’re all sell-outs!

    I’ve grown up with the Internet and far from ‘succumbing’ to technology, music is adapting in ways poor Mr. dis Sospiro simply can’t understand. Far from the wastes of mainstream music, there is a renaissance of music unfolding unrivaled since the fifties or sixties.

    The Internet has allowed artists to deal with their fans directly instead of depending on interlopers such as Mr. dis Sospiro and co. Any decent artist willing to put their tracks for free download on Bandcamp or blogs will quickly discover that fans are more than willing to pay for records, merch and tickets. No record executives, no lawyers or corporate interference. If an artist shows they have a following and a demand, boutique record labels make CDs, LPs and even cassette tapes (!!!) available on sites such as InSound or Amazon, not to mention the record stores which are flourishing once more.

    Foxes in Fiction, Warpaint, HEALTH, Widowspeak, Tu Fawning, Julianna Barwick – all of these artists I first discovered through the Internet before moving on to buy (that’s right, purchase) their records, digital albums and tickets and these are only the ones I can name off the top of my head. You will hear none of these bands on the radio and yet all of their music exceeds, or at least matches the work of those golden gods Duran Duran and Van Halen.

    God damn, what a trite, cliche article. But guess what? Nothing’s changed. I’m sure I’ll be on the other end of a rant like this in twenty years when I’m forty and bitching about the ‘good old days’.

    • Guido Mina di Sospiro

      It was more about a different era. I follow some musicians on the Internet, and realize that back then they would have been signed immediately, and now they are working out of their home. Above all, music is not that important to young people. Maybe to you it is, which is great, but normally it has to contend with smartphones, videogames, etc. As for “new” music, if you had heard as much as I have, possibly you wouldn’t call it “new”. The only band I tend to like is GYBE. Nowhere in the article did I say that I liked Duran Duran or Van Halen. They were just part of the phenomenon, and we would be sent to interview them.

      • P.M.C. Soundsystem

        While many bands may not be seeing the success they could have enjoyed in the early eighties, what of those deserving bands of your era which never saw any success? Massive, world-wide success may be much rarer now, but many more bands are now enjoying modest success which allows them to create music on their own terms, rather than churning out albums because of the demands of a contract.
        Furthermore, don’t you think it’s a bit disingenuous to suggest ‘new’ music isn’t as new as I think? After all, the Rolling Stones started as a cover band; there is no artist anywhere who can be considered truly original and to suggest today’s bands are particularly derivative is laughable. Bands like GYBE or DMST could be dismissed as mere modern imitators of the Grateful Dead but that wouldn’t be entirely honest, would it?
        I really appreciate the reply and I found the article quite interesting but it was the suggestion that someone such as myself and the many audiophiles I know don’t value music which I found frustrating.

        • Guest

          My dear friend (if I may),

          I think we are in agreement. I wondered on whether or not I should use the adjective “superb” before Talk Talk’s “Spirit of Eden”, and in the end I did not (although it IS superb) because the piece was not about good or bad music, but rather about the phenomenon of music in the Eighties.

          The history of all arts teach us one thing: that when there is a lot of money, the arts flourish. Unfortunately, there isn’t much money in the music industry nowadays. I am aware of the existence of many bands that are worth listening to, and I very much regret that they cannot get the exposure they would have gotten in the Seventies or Eighties. The thing is, with so much money floating around, even “off-the-wall” bands got a chance, from time to time. For example, Ten Thousand Maniacs’ first album, produced by Joe Boyd, had a folksy sound that didn’t do them any favor. It went nowhere, and yet they were given a chance to record a second album, but they finally got it right with the third one. The same goes for REM. When we were invited to listen to their first concert in LA, their A&R man told us in confidence, “They’ll get it right with their next album.” This kind of patience and willingness to nurture a band’s potential could have not been afforded without a lot of money around, without Duran Duran, Van Halen and Michael Jackson and so on paying the bills for the alternative bands, too. Would I ever willingly listen to these three mega-sellers? I would not. But they and others kept the industry going and indirectly allowed genuinely good music to emerge and at times enter the mainstream.

          GYBE has nothing to to with The Grateful Dead; they are seen as the harbingers of post-rock (which began back in 1988 with “Spirit of Eden”), and the other ones pale in comparison.

          Unfortunately, there ARE limits to what can be done with the same instruments and the same chords, and after three decades of furious music production, with tens of thousands of records, all possibilities were seemingly exhausted. That’s why post-rock kicked in, and world music, too. It’s the same with chess: the number of possibilities is great, but not infinite. It does get repetitive.

          As for the Rolling Stones, think about this: 1969, a concert at Hyde Park, in London. The opening act was (then little known) King Crimson. The huge, huge audience, after hearing the likes of “Twenty-first Century Schizoid Man” had no more use for the Rolling Stones, and with good reason! (that they are still around is irrelevant). This kind of radical innovation is simply no longer possible.

          But if you are involved in music, I wish you the very best and will be rooting for you.

          With all good wishes,

          Guido Mina di Sospiro

        • Guest

          My dear friend (if I may),

          Of course you value music! And indeed there is contemporary music worth listening to, but unfortunately it cannot get the exposure it deserves.

          Commercial acts in the Eighties indirectly paid the bill also for alternative bands, which were allowed to emerge slowly and then even enter the mainstream (think of REM). The article was not about good or bad music, but rather about the very peculiar phenomenon of music in the Eighties, which may well be chronicles from another planet compared to the music industry nowadays.

          Music in the Sixties and Seventies was an act of rebellion, embraced my millions and millions of young people who opposed the establishment. In the Eighties, the establishment had understood that there was a lot of money to be made with music, so it jumped on the band wagon. Some music was good, most of it was bad to terrible. The intention of the article was not to provoke nostalgia, but simply a presentation of how music was in that decade.

          I have three kids in their teen and early twenties. I know their friends, too. Some of them even play (one of my sons is a very good drummer). But music for them is another pastime. Once, it was THE pastime. In fact, there was nothing else.

          Having said that, I wish you well, and hope that music will give you all the joy it has given me, and then some!

          With all good wishes,

          Guido Mina di Sospiro

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