Long before Instagram gave a filtered wash to photographic memories, musicians from the Los Angeles enclave of Laurel Canyon were perfecting songwriting styles offering similarly cosy and wistful hues. As the batik dresses of the ‘60s made way for the patched denim of the ‘70s, the warm days and clear summer nights in the Hollywood Hills inspired a generation of performers to escape from record label shackles and follow their own musical instincts. Like a pop Camelot, Laurel Canyon artists found themselves linked geographically, professionally, philosophically and even romantically, with the resulting music still keeping radio waves glowing with the resulting magic even today. Here are 10 definitive songs offering an overview of what made the Laurel Canyon scene so creatively inspiring and musically timeless.
1. Joni Mitchell – Big Yellow Taxi
A month prior to the 1970 release of her Ladies Of The Canyon LP, Joni Mitchell announced during a Royal Albert Hall performance she was retiring from music. The blonde singer songwriter was back performing by the end of the year, at least partially thanks to the success of her third album. Named after the eucalypt-lined enclave she called home, Ladies Of The Canyon featured Woodstock (Mitchell’s in absentia tribute to the 1969 festival), the pensive folk of The Circle Game and the upbeat Big Yellow Taxi, her only top 10 Australian single. Behind Big Yellow Taxi’s breezy, almost naïve front lurked a furtive forewarning of environmental destruction. A measure of Mitchell’s power to mix singer songwriter finesse with activist zeal was demonstrated when no less than Bob Dylan recorded a cover of the song soon after its release.
2. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Our House
Not only do rock historians cite Joni Mitchell’s Laurel Canyon living room as the location of David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young’s first harmonising session prior to formalising Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young as the neighbourhood’s first legitimate supergroup, it’s also the setting for one of the scene’s quintessential songs. Mitchell’s partner Nash quickly penned the quaint and homely homage to Mitchell’s Lookout Mountain residence after returning from a morning outing with his girlfriend. Simple in its joyous, vocally rich construct, subtle elements of Nash’s earlier success with British hit-makers The Hollies also shine through.
3. The Eagles – New Kid In Town
Thanks to the many wayward binges and marathon poker sessions that occurred within its Laurel Canyon walls, Eagles guitarist and songwriter Glenn Frey’s Kirkwood Drive hacienda became known among associates as the Kirkwood Casino & Health Club. If their card games and renegade bravado weren’t enough of a throwback to the Old West, The Eagles’ music also brought the sound of the wild frontier to the LA hills. Like a gunslinger eyeing off a fresh rival, New Kid In Town finds Frey wistfully singing of the fear of being outgunned. The band needn’t have worried – the single’s 1976 parent album Hotel California eventually sold in the vicinity of 30 million copies.
4. Jackson Browne – Take It Easy
When singer songwriter Jackson Browne was struggling to finish a song intended for his eponymous 1971 debut, his LA neighbour Glenn Frey lent a hand to finish it off. The resulting Take It Easy became Frey’s burgeoning outfit The Eagles’ debut single, released while Browne was touring Europe as the support act for his new girlfriend Joni Mitchell. When Browne eventually dispatched his own version of the classic road tune in 1973, he imbued it with pedal steel and accentuated the journeying spirit of the Laurel Canyon creatives he surrounded himself with.
5. Carly Simon – You’re So Vain
Take note, Taylor Swift: You’re So Vain is perhaps the most flawless distillation of feminine spite ever put to music. After failing to make a breakthrough while recording children’s albums with her sister in the ‘60s, Carly Simon’s ‘70s output transformed the bohemian songwriter into a provocative orator. A number one in both Australia and the United States, You’re So Vain’s pointed, venomous narrative is wrapped in an irresistible melody. From Simon’s whispered ‘son of a gun’ during the opening bar through to Mick Jagger’s backing vocal howls, You’re So Vain’s enduring mystery (the antagonist is apparently drawn from a composite of Simon’s early ‘70s associates, including Warren Beatty, David Geffen and Nick Nolte) adds to its sense of perennial perfection.
6. James Taylor – You’ve Got A Friend
After a grim stint living in London while signed to The Beatles’ Apple label in the ‘60s, James Taylor’s breakthrough came after he returned to sunny California. Recording with Brill Building veteran Carole King at his side, 1970’s Sweet Baby James album provided the thoughtful troubadour with the commercial kickstart even his Fab Four friends couldn’t offer. With his confidence renewed, the following year saw Taylor take King’s song You’ve Got A Friend to the top of the Billboard chart, with Laurel Canyon acquaintance Joni Mitchell adding backing vocals to the hit. Thanks to its reassuring vocal style, casual fingerpicking and understated production, Taylor’s loving rendition picked up Best Male Vocal Grammy on the same evening the song won Carole King the Song Of The Year Grammy.
7. Carole King – Will You Love Me Tomorrow
Featuring a barefoot, relaxed and natural Carole King sitting at her Laurel Canyon windowsill with her cat Telemachus, no album cover captures the mystique of LA’s ‘70s troubadours like King’s 1971 opus Tapestry. A musical scrapbook of her earliest Brill Building songwriting successes as well as new material, Tapestry stayed at number one in the United States for 15 consecutive weeks and went on to sell more than 25 million copies. King channels a pensive heartache into her version of Will You Love Me Tomorrow, The Shirelles hit she’d penned as a teen in 1960 with her then husband Gerry Goffin. With James Taylor and Joni Mitchell adding backing vocals, it’s a masterclass in Laurel Canyon beauty.
8. Fleetwood Mac – Rhiannon
Despite their English heritage, Fleetwood Mac’s John and Christine McVie had relocated to Laurel Canyon by the time work commenced on the band’s eponymous breakthrough of 1975. Less than 20 miles away, future vocalist Stevie Nicks was scraping together a living cleaning Sound City Studios. A happenstance meeting between her guitarist boyfriend Lindsey Buckingham and drummer Mick Fleetwood at the studio led to the dejected West Coast musos joining the British act - and achieving million-selling success within a year. Nicks brought this husky tale of a bewitching temptress to her first sessions, with Rhiannon’s ensuing arrangement perfectly showcasing the Mac’s new mix of blissful production and nocturnal grooves.
9. The Mamas & The Papas – Monday Monday
Like many of the best Laurel Canyon tracks, the warm and vivid arrangements of The Mamas & The Papas’ hits often concealed a weary sadness and melancholy. Monday Monday might have been the band’s final US number one, but the group’s members remained key players in the LA scene through to the ‘70s. Boisterous frontwoman Cass Elliot’s 1969 ABC show Mama Cass Television Program featured upcoming singer songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, while her house parties have entered Canyon folklore. The good times ended with the 32-year-old’s fatal heart attack in 1974 – it was, rather ominously, a Monday morning.
10. The Doors – LA Woman
The opening bars offer creeping paranoia, Ray Manzarek’s signature keyboards and Robby Krieger’s devil-may-care guitar licks, but it’s when frontman Jim Morrison leaps into LA Woman’s opening verse that this bluesy Californian jam truly erupts with sexual charisma. Like a deranged tourist bus conductor with a penchant for publicly unzipping his pants, Morrison’s lyrics take the listeners through the midnight alleys, topless bars and the Hollywood bungalows just down the hill from his Laurel Canyon digs. Barely containing its lasciviousness, this dark cruise through the neon backstreets proved to be Morrison’s curtain call; the swaggering frontman died just three months after its 1971 release.
Like what you hear? Be sure to checkout the 2nd installment of the Classic Americana series which drops today. Cop it on iTunes or pick it up at any good record store including the JB HiFi chain.