To have been even a peripheral cog in that late ’60s/early ’70s Laurel Canyon songwriting wheel would have been quite something, I’d imagine. In houses tucked deep into the lush Californian flora and fauna, bands shared players and partners – of both the writin’ and romantic kind – and created a stoned immaculate co-operative of epoch-defining music.
The beautiful and not so (hi, David Crosby) plucked all manner of floaty harmonies straight out of the west coast ether and entangled them in gently strummed 12 strings and carefully picked alternatively-tuned Martin guitars and, with the help of a passing drummer or two – Buffalo Springfield’s Dewey Martin perhaps, or maybe crack sessioner Eddie Hoh, or, if he was looking for a quick gig in-between sessions, Hal Blaine (the drummers’ drummer) – commited to vinyl tracks that still ring and resonate half a century and more later.
Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name album – check it out! – reads like a Wikipedia who’s who of the era’s Californian singer/songwriter scene. Graham Nash, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and assorted Grateful Deads and Jefferson Airplanes show up to add their lightly toasted harmonies and frazzled, sloppy guitar playing to the record. The result is something of a one-off, recorded spontaneously (mostly) and sent to the pressing plant before anyone had the bright idea of tinkering with it. As rough ‘n ready albums go, it’s hard to beat.
I’m a sucker for the meandering and hippy Laughing, a track written in memory of the time Crosby met George Harrison at the height of Beatlemania and they bonded over Eastern philosophy and Ravi Shankar. It’s a tapestry of highly strung guitars, weeping pedal steel and overlapping, multi-stacked harmonies and it just might soothe your troubled post-millenial soul.
David Crosby – Laughing
Recorded while Crosby was in the heavy depths of grief following his girlfriend’s death in a car crash, those in attendance would often find the singer curled up on the studio floor, overcome to the point of uselessness. Yet, when he made it to the mic, you’d never have known.
With a voice coated thick in heavy drugs and alcohol, he sang his melody-rich songs; some entirely wordless, their meaning conveyed by multi-stacked Eastern-tinged vocal-less harmonies, others thinly disguised accounts of life as a free lovin’, easy ridin’ Laurel Canyon troubadour.
Cowboy Movie, for example, is the sprawling musical story of the end of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, with Young himself riffing on a loose ‘n funky guitar duel with Jerry Garcia. It’s Down By The River by way of Cowgirl In The Sand, while Crosby outlines (via lyrical aliases) how Rita Coolidge came between he and Graham Nash, to the detriment of their band. You should seek it out.
Just out of the eye of the storm, and slightly more peripheral to the machinations of the scene were The Monkees. Desperate to be seen as credible and serious, they employed the best writers, the best sessioneers and called in the best favours to ensure their records sparkled and soared like the best of ’em. Dig beneath the hits – and there are plenty – and you’ll discover a catalogue rich in introspective melancholy and sef-deprecating balladeering.
Written by Carole King and sung by Micky Dolenz, As We Go Along first appeared in the film Head and then crept out on the b-side of the movie’s lead single, the trippy and non-hit Porpoise Song – a track that probably requires a blog all of its own at some point.
The Monkees – As We Go Along
As We Go Along is so un-Monkees. There’s no obvious poppy hook. It’s downbeat, languid and loosely strummed, a raggle-taggle Rod and The Faces soundalike played on gently scrubbed acoustic guitars and thunking, woody bass. Carole King’s embeded melody eventually finds its way to the fore between the skirling acoustic strings and flutes, electric guitars riffing off into the Laurel Canyon sunset. You’ll want to play it again and again. It’s a beauty.