The Essential: Laurel Canyon
The artists of the Laurel Canyon movement were a mellow, yet tightly knit bunch who formed bands, wrote songs, partied hard and slept together and, as Gary Tipp details, released an incredible catalogue of music…
Laurel Canyon is a mountainous neighbourhood located in the Hollywood Hills district of Los Angeles, California. With the birth of the film industry in 1910, it attracted a host of movie people, including Tom Mix, Clara Bow, Harry Houdini and even Bela Lugosi. Many of the English Tudor- and Spanish-style homes built around this time survive in the Canyon today, while some were burnt down by careless rockstars.
The Canyon is also one of rock music’s most fabled locations. During the late 60s and early 70s, this is where Crosby, Stills, Nash and, latterly, Young got together to pool their collective talents. This is where the ladies of the canyon, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Carly Simon and others poured their heart and soul into deeply personal songs. Sensitive straggly-haired men such as Jackson Browne and James Taylor got in on the act, as well.
With its proximity to the Sunset Strip, Laurel Canyon was also the drug-friendly, party playground of Frank Zappa, The Monkees (specifically Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz), Arthur Lee’s Love, Gram Parsons and countless others.
It inspired Jim Morrison to write Love Street, Graham Nash to compose Our House and The Mamas And The Papas to sing Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming To The Canyon). UK blues legend John Mayall was so enamoured with the place he recorded a whole album about it (Blues From Laurel Canyon); at the time, he was only on holiday and had yet to move there.
It was also, crucially, where businessmen such as Asylum’s David Geffen and Elektra’s Jac Holzman were content to run their labels and develop their roster.
The scene is associated primarily with attractive brooding singer-songwriters writing heartfelt, confessional albums about getting off with other attractive brooding singer-songwriters, who, in turn, wrote heartfelt confessional albums about the experience. However, it was also a fertile breeding ground for country-rock, with The Byrds, Michael Nesmith, Poco, The Flying Burrito Brothers and the Eagles all loosely part of the same movement
For the most part, what they all have in common (Frank Zappa being a notable exception) is that mellow, laid-back South Californian sound; a product of the warm climate and the beautiful surroundings.
We’ve foregone chronological order for this list, and have ordered the albums on musical merit, longevity and an even more subjective factor: Laurel Canyon-ness.
40 The Souther-Hillman-Furay Band
The Souther-Hillman-Furay Band (1974)
One of the clunkier named country-rock supergroups of the era, SHF formed at the suggestion of industry impresario David Geffen in an obvious grab for CSNY-style superstardom. Across the course of the debut album, echoes of former glories were evident, but conflicting egos and a lack of genuine chemistry meant the trio soon fizzled out.
Rarest 1974 Asylum £10/£15
Latest Out of press
With their US Air Force fathers stationed at South Ruislip, the folk-rock trio America, ironically enough, developed their mellow SoCal sound in London. The success of the self-titled debut facilitated a return to native shores with follow-up Homecoming recorded at The Record Plant in LA. It proved to be a career high point and spawned hit single Ventura Highway.
Rarest 1972 Warner Bros £10/£15
Latest 2013 Music On Vinyl £15
38 Instant Replay
The Monkees (1969)
The Monkees may not have been the quintessential Laurel Canyon band, but they were established fixtures on the party scene. Instant Replay was the group’s first album after the cancellation of their TV show and also the departure of Peter Tork. Despite these setbacks, it was one of their best, featuring both Stephen Stills and Neil Young on guitar.
Rarest 1969 RCA £35
Latest Out of press
37 Three Dog Night
Three Dog Night (1969)
Primarily song interpreters, Three Dog Night’s choice of what material to cover was often inspired, with Harry Nilsson’s lonesome One their breakthrough hit. The lack of original material meant they weren’t taken as seriously as the music merited. The band’s name originates from an aboriginal expression about the number of dingoes needed to keep warm on a cold night.
Rarest 1969 Stateside £15
Latest Out of press
36 No Secrets
Carly Simon (1972)
Carly Simon may have been born in The Bronx, but the singer-songwriter quickly adapted to Californian life with hubby James Taylor. Her third studio album No Secrets made her an international star, with the enigmatic You’re So Vain a fixture on untold radio playlists. The album was recorded at Trident Studios: Jagger and McCartney popped in to help out.
Rarest 1972 Elektra £10
Latest 2009 Friday (import) £15
35 Boogie With Canned Heat
Canned Heat (1968)
Members of Canned Heat shared a house on Lookout Mountain Avenue, right next door to Joni Mitchell’s place, until the place burnt to the ground in a fire. Formed by a couple of hardcore blues enthusiasts, the band’s brand of electrified endless boogie is best represented by their second album, featuring the huge hit On The Road Again.
Rarest 1968 Liberty £40
Latest 2014 Pure Pleasure £18
34 Laurel Canyon
Jackie DeShannon (1969)
Writer and performer DeShannon had a long and interesting career that never quite broke through to superstardom. In 1964, she toured with The Beatles, and has co-writing credits with both Jimmy Page and Randy Newman. She moved out west from New York and paid respects to her new surroundings with this titular album of country-soul.
Rarest 1969 Imperial (gatefold, import) £15
Latest Out of press
Jonathan Wilson (2013)
Producer and performer Jonathan Wilson is seemingly on a one-man mission to add to Laurel Canyon’s musical legacy. Over the four sides of his expansive second album, Fanfare, he reverentially captures the early-70s atmospherics; skilfully managing to avoid pastiche. The record’s credibility is boosted no end by the presence of original scenesters, David Crosby, Graham Nash and Jackson Browne.
Rarest 2013 Bella Union £25
Latest 2017 Bella Union £20
32 Happy Together
The Turtles (1967)
Due to the ridiculous catchiness of the big hit, The Turtles are regarded as a novelty act, but the psychedelic folk-pop of the band’s third album bears witness that there was a lot more to them than just a few minutes of sunshine pop. Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, the band’s leaders, went on to join Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention.
Rarest 1970 London (mono) £25
Latest 2013 Manifesto £15
31 Pickin’ Up The Pieces
When Richie Furay lost his regular gig with Buffalo Springfield, he formed Poco and became embroiled in the developing country-rock scene. The debut album, Pickin’ Up The Pieces, didn’t sell a whole load at the time, but is now acknowledged as one of the movement’s landmark releases. Among the band’s founding members was Randy Meisner, latterly of the Eagles.
Rarest 1969 Epic (US import) £15
Latest Out of press
30 Give It Up
Bonnie Raitt (1972)
In her early 20s, Raitt was living in Laurel Canyon and a regular on the LA club scene. She was also signed to Warner Bros, and her second album features her trademark blend of blues, folk and a splash of mellow rock. She received critical success in the 70s, but had to hold on until the next decade for stardom.
Rarest 1972 Warner Bros (gatefold) £10
Latest 2013 Music On Vinyl £15
29 Warren Zevon
Warren Zevon (1976)
Zevon’s solo deal was, in part, as a result of his friendship with Jackson Browne. The songs on his solo debut, however, are far darker and harder-edged than traditional mellow Laurel Canyon fare. Nonetheless, that didn’t stop the cream of the scene from helping him out, with several Eagles, two fifths of Fleetwood Mac and an Everly Brother involved.
Rarest 1976 Asylum £15/£20
Latest 2015 Music On Vinyl £15
28 Alone Together
Dave Mason (1970)
Dave Mason is best known as the guitarist in Traffic’s original line-up and for penning the trippy-dippy Hole In My Shoe. After leaving the band, he made his way out to Hollywood. Featuring a starry crop of LA musicians, his initial solo outing is a long-lost classic. Also, the first US pressing was on splatter-effect marble vinyl.
Rarest 1970 Harvest (gatefold, die-cut) £50
Latest 2018 Friday Music (US import) £20
27 The Wolfking Of LA
John Phillips (1970)
Without a Mama in sight, the former head Papa assembled a fine collection of country-inflected songs for this hidden treasure of a debut album. Phillips also put together a great studio band including James Burton, Buddy Emmons and Red Rhodes. The album was far from a commercial success and Papa John’s career subsequently spiralled downward into heroin addiction.
Rarest 1970 Stateside £40/£45
Latest 2016 Varese Vintage (US import) £18
26 Magnetic South
Michael Nesmith & The First National Band (1970)
Long before the Eagles and just about around the same time as Gram Parsons, Mike Nesmith, the cool, sardonic one in The Monkees – him with the woolly hat – was an early pioneering force in country-rock. His debut release Magnetic South is a cosmic slice of rocking Americana. Its follow-up, Loose Salute, isn’t half bad, either.
Rarest 1970 RCA
Latest 2018 Sundazed (US import) £20
25 Blues From Laurel Canyon
John Mayall (1968)
The Godfather of British blues’ first album after the break-up of the Bluesbreakers was a concept album of sorts, a musical diary of a three-week vacation spent in Laurel Canyon. It made such an impression on Mayall that a year later, he packed his guitar cases and took up residence. A young, pre-Stones Mick Taylor is present on guitar.
Rarest 1968 Decca (gatefold) £50
Latest 2007 Decca £20
24 Stephen Stills
Stephen Stills (1970)
Laurel Canyon resident Stephen Stills lived on Shady Oak Road in a house he bought from Monkee Peter Tork. As well as Crosby and Nash, his debut album featured guest spots from Booker T. Jones, Ringo Starr, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, which is a pretty decent line-up. Opener Love The One You’re With provided Stills with a US hit single.
Rarest 1970 Atlantic £35/£40
Latest 2010 Atlantic £15
Linda Perhacs (1970)
Cult album Parallelograms was recorded when Linda Perhacs, a lady of the Canyon, was a full-time dental hygienist and a part-time writer of songs. Her debut album is a hypnotic psych-folk classic that came out of nowhere and quickly returned there, until resurfacing as a touchstone for the freak-folk scene may decades later.
Rarest 1970 Kapp Records £150
Latest 2014 Anthology (US import) £30
22 The Gilded Palace Of Sin
The Flying Burrito Brothers (1969)
After migrating from The Byrds, Gram Parsons teamed up with Chris Hillman (himself a former Byrd) to form The Flying Burrito Brothers. The first album fused country, rock and soul so seamlessly that a musical genre developed out of it. It was just a shame that Parsons lacked the discipline to see his vision for Cosmic American Music through.
Rarest 1969 A&M £40
Latest 2017 A&M (US import) £20
21 John David Souther
JD Souther (1972)
Having shared a flat with Glenn Frey and dated Linda Ronstadt, Souther was a well-connected member of the Laurel Canyon set, but his profile was higher as a writer of songs for others rather than as an interpreter of his own. Saying that, his first two albums (the other being Black Rose) are near-perfect slices of mellow country.
Rarest 1972 Asylum £15
Latest Out of press
20 Dixie Chicken
Little Feat (1973)
Little Feat leader Lowell George was born in Hollywood and didn’t have far to travel to take up residence in Laurel Canyon. As a former member of Zappa’s Mothers, he was a big part of the scene, but his band’s all-important third album swapped the mellow Cali sounds for a great big swampy slice of New Orleans funk.
Rarest 1973 Warner Bros (green label) £15/£20
Latest 2008 Warner Bros £15
Multi-million-seller Hotel California was pretty much the death rattle of the Laurel Canyon scene, while second album Desperado echoes less cynical times. Recorded in London by Stones producer Glyn Johns, the songs are, ironically, all based on themes of the Old West, including crowd-pleaser Tequila Sunrise. The iconic artwork sees the band dressed as the gun-toting outlaws.
Rarest 1973 Asylum £20
Latest 2014 Asylum £15
18 Songs For Beginners
Graham Nash (1971)
Nash recorded his first solo album in the wake of his split with Joni Mitchell, and many of the songs lament the time spent together; the poignant Simple Man was written on the afternoon of the break-up. Nash assembles a galaxy of stars to help him including David Crosby, Jerry Garcia and Neil Young (under the pseudonym ‘Joe Yankee’).
Rarest 1971 Atlantic £25
Latest 2010 Rhino £18
17 If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears
The Mamas And The Papas (1966)
The sunshine pop of The Mamas And The Papas was never more radiant than on their debut album. Showcasing the quartet’s spectacular harmonies, hit singles Monday, Monday and California Dreamin’ brought folk-rock into the mainstream. The sleeve on the first press of the US release featured the image of a toilet and was subsequently banned.
Rarest 1966 RCA Victor £20/£25
Latest 2010 Sundazed (US import) £20
16 Heart Like A Wheel
Linda Ronstadt (1974)
Heart Like A Wheel was Ronstadt’s third solo album since leaving folk-rock outfit The Stone Poneys and the first to break through to the mainstream. Produced by Peter Asher, the album was the perfect platform for her incredible interpretative talents. A critical and commercial success, it paved the way for LA’s developing soft-rock scene.
Rarest 1974 Asylum £10/£15
Latest 2017 Capitol £18
15 For Everyman
Jackson Browne (1973)
Equal parts bluesy folk and piano-driven ballads, Laurel Canyon resident Jackson Browne followed up his self-titled debut with another plaintive offering. The serene songwriter was able to enlist a star-studded supporting cast including his buddies Glenn Frey and Don Henley, while Elton John, credited as ‘Rockaday Johnnie’, contributes some piano.
Rarest 1973 Asylum £20
Latest 1975 Asylum £5
14 Waiting For The Sun
The Doors (1968)
During the recording of The Doors’ third album, Jim Morrison was shacked up with his muse Pamela Courson, living on Rothdell Trail, or ‘Love Street’ as they preferred to call it. The album was a considerably less bombastic affair than the previous two, which was no bad thing, and contained the band’s second No. 1 hit Hello, I Love You.
Rarest 1968 Elektra (gatefold, orange label, mono) £200
Latest 2013 Elektra £20
13 Hot Rats
Frank Zappa (1969)
Frank Zappa was a long-term Laurel Canyon resident and stayed even after the singer-songwriters had split. He famously lived on Laurel Canyon Boulevard in a log cabin with a bowling alley in the basement. Hot Rats, his first album without The Mothers, remains a jam-heavy jazz-rock masterwork; the man himself described it as “a movie for your ears”.
Rarest 1970 Reprise (gatefold, ‘riverboat’ label) £60/£70
Latest 2016 Zappa Records £17
12 Heart Food
Judee Sill (1973)
Before releasing two albums on the Asylum label in the early 70s, Judee Sill’s world contained heroin addiction, jail time and even prostitution. Despite the hard life, her music was uplifting, spiritual and touching on the transcendent. Backed by, among others, Spooner Oldham, Chris Etheridge and Doug Dillard, Heart Food is regarded as her world-weary masterpiece.
Rarest 1973 Asylum £30
Latest 2017 Asylum £20
11 Sweet Baby James
James Taylor (1970)
After recording his debut in the UK for The Beatles’ Apple label, Taylor decamped to Laurel Canyon, adding to the ranks of straggly-haired, denim-clad, introspective singer-songwriters. There, he recorded his breakthrough album, Sweet Baby James, which included hit single Fire And Rain, a reflective song telling of his early experiences of time spent in and out of mental institutions.
Rarest 1971 Warner Bros (orange label) £25
Latest 2017 Warner Bros (US import) £20
10 Forever Changes – Click to buy your copy
During the time of recording, Arthur Lee and co. all lived together in a decaying old mansion in Laurel Canyon called The Castle, once owned by Bela Lugosi. The band’s 24/7 open-door policy was causing its members to frazzle round the edges, and Forever Changes is the crazed result of this perpetual, psychedelic love-in.
Rarest 1967 Elektra (orange label, mono) £200
Latest 2015 Elektra £15
9 Rumours – Get your copy here now
Fleetwood Mac (1977)
The first time the Rumours line-up Fleetwood Mac met was in Mick Fleetwood’s rented house in Laurel Canyon. Armed with a serious array of songwriting talent, a mountain of cocaine and a sophisticated Cali-pop sound, the band hit previously unchartered heights of success. It was about as far away from the band’s hard-edged British-blues origins as you could imagine.
Rarest 1977 Warner Bros (gatefold) £35
Latest 2011 Warner Bros £15
8 Crosby, Stills & Nash – Buy your copy here
Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969)
The harmonies and the confessional songwriting of CSN’s debut has come to define the Laurel Canyon sound, with opener Suite: Judy Blue Eyes as archetypal as it gets. According to legend, the out-of-order photo for the sleeve was taken before the trio had decided on a name; when they returned to reshoot, the building had burnt to the ground.
Rarest 1969 Atlantic (gatefold) £30
Latest 2009 Atlantic £15
7 After The Gold Rush – Buy your copy here
Neil Young (1970)
The contrary Canadian followed up the stellar success of Déjà Vu with one of his most loved records. While his bandmates lived in Laurel Canyon, Young had moved to a different ZIP Code and a chunk of the album was recorded in a makeshift studio in his Topanga home. The album’s raw, confessional style continues to wrench hearts.
Rarest 1970 Reprise (gatefold, lyric sheet) £50/£60
Latest 2010 Reprise £20
6 Younger Than Yesterday – Buy your copy here
The Byrds (1967)
With Chris Hillman plugging the songwriting gap caused by Gene Clark’s sudden departure, The Byrds’ fourth album finds them at their most accessible and charming. With Monkees-bashing opener So You Want To Be A Rock ’N’ Roll Star setting the jazzy, psychedelic tone, Younger Than Yesterday is a high-flying Californian folk-rock classic.
Rarest 1967 CBS (mono) £50
Latest 2012 Columbia £18
5 Tapestry – Get your copy now
Carole King (1971)
Carole King had written a string of hits for others as a songwriter in New York’s Brill Building, but on Tapestry, she was singing for herself. Its perfectly crafted songs marked it as one of the quintessential singer-songwriter albums of the 70s. The cover image depicts King and Telemachus (her cat) at repose in her Laurel Canyon home.
Rarest 1971 A&M £15
Latest 2016 Sony £15
4 Buffalo Springfield Again – Buy your copy now
Buffalo Springfield (1967)
Buffalo Springfield were formed when Neil Young and bassist Bruce Palmer exited Canada and bumped into Stephen Stills while driving along Sunset. With the band’s name ‘borrowed’ from a brand of steamroller, Buffalo Springfield’s songwriting power trio of Young, Stills and Richie Furay combined to produce a timeless and stupidly influential release.
Rarest 1968 Atlantic (plum label, mono) £80
Latest 1975 ATCO £20
3 If I Could Only Remember My Name – Click to buy your copy
David Crosby (1971)
Surfing the wave of Déjà Vu, David Crosby invited his mates to help him out on his solo debut and Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Grace Slick and Jerry Garcia, among others, answered the call. The result was a cosmic-cowboy masterpiece that still sounds as fresh as a daisy. Crosby didn’t make another solo album until 1989.
Rarest 1971 Atlantic (gatefold, red/plum label) £45
Latest 2010 Rhino £14
2 Ladies Of The Canyon – Click to buy your copy
Joni Mitchell (1970)
Moving away from the airy folkiness of her first two albums, the singer-songwriter’s transitional third opens her up as an artist of boundless talent. It’s a fascinating snapshot of Canyon life in the post-hippie era and is the album where CSNY’s influence on her work is the most pervading. Big Yellow Taxi, The Circle Game and Woodstock all feature.
Rarest 1970 Reprise (gatefold, steamboat label) £35
Latest 2013 Reprise £15
1 Déjà Vu – Click to get your copy
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (1970)
Crosby, Stills and Nash were bolstered by the arrival of Neil Young into their fold. Despite a famously fractious recording process, with clashing egos racking up over 500 hours of studio time, the album’s magical harmonies and memorable songs mark it out as a milestone of the movement. It remains the quintessential Laurel Canyon LP.
Rarest 1970 Atlantic (gatefold, past-on photo) £60
Latest 2011 Atlantic £20
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