Los Angeles seems like some kind of paradise from its iconic images and its magnetic pull on many who work in the visual and audio arts. Yet in song it can seem a much bleaker place than the constant sunshine of the sunshine state might lead one to imagine – it seems to retain the darkness of the long vanished LA of Phillip Marlowe. In music it’s a place that people seem to be going to go, or going from, pining for or wishing they could throw off. Let’s take a bit of a stroll down those wide boulevards – but let’s at least try and save Hollywood for another occasion.
Arlo Guthrie – ‘Coming into Los Angeles’
The rockiest folk-rock for Arlo’s classic song of flying high for an LA arrival – he tells the story now of realising that the times had changed when a custom’s official approached him at LAX and jokingly asked “so, are you bring in a couple of keys Mr Guthrie?”
Warren Zevon – ‘Join Me in L.A.‘
If one songwriter was going to revel in the perpetually warm and seedy city of LA then it was going to be Warren Zevon, who declares his impartiality from the start “Well they say this place is evil – that ain’t why I stay“.
John Stewart – ‘Angeles (The city of the Angels)‘
From the album ‘Blondes‘, a song about how Los Angles supplies an insatiable need for restaurant waiting staff, as dreams quickly fade but pride prevents the admission of failure: “they all come, nobody leaves“.
Phosphorescent -‘ Los Angeles‘
Heading for the darker stuff now, as Matthew Houck questions the shallow regard that the naive may bask in “are they covering you up with affection now ? Are you getting a lot of attention now?” It’s all fake and you have to hold onto your own reality if you’re going to negotiate it.
Joe Purdy – ‘LA Livin’ ‘
Joe Purdy’s solution to Matthew Houck’s problem is to face it head-on, and punch it down: “Same old conversations – do you want to be famous or do you want to be cool ? Guess I’d better go home before I hit someone. ‘Cos this LA Livin’ ain’t like it was back home.”
John Phillips – ‘Topanga Canyon’
In fact, and unsurprisingly, the whole of the album ‘John the Wolfking of LA‘ is some kind of love note to that city – a twisted love note of life and love going wrong in a drug fuelled haze. Painfully honest in places, ‘Topanga Canyon‘ captures that sense of hopeless drifting and an awareness of how bad things are getting that is still not turned into a single useful action to prevent a further descent.
Guy Clark – ‘LA Freeway‘
In the end the only sane thing to do is to leave – if the car bound city will let you – “adios to all this concrete I’m going to get me some dirt road back street“. There’s no finer version than that which adorned the opening credits to ‘Heartworn Highways‘.
Israel Nash – ‘LA Lately‘
Having escaped there’s a constant lure to return – LA is presented like an out of reach nirvana – or a drug – on this moment of desolate perfection. There’s a real longing to return to where dreams are made (or, as shown earlier in this list, destroyed).
Byrds – ‘Gungadin‘
One of the few songs in this list which has a band with no doubts that LA is the place they want to be: The Byrds lick their wounds from a blow-out of a rock and roll gig where the promised Chuck Berry didn’t show. There’s really not much that’s rock and roll, they suggest, in constant travelling and then being turned away from fancy restaurants for being too scruffy. No wonder they’re “chasing the sun back to LA“.
Billy Joel – ‘Los Angelenos‘
Alexis Sayle may have mocked “he’s got a record by Billy Joel“, but there was a time when Billy Joel didn’t suck. Really. ‘Streetlife Serenader‘ was probably the peak studio album, but where Joel really hit a home run was with his live album ‘Songs in the Attic‘. Taken from that album ‘Los Angelenos‘ sees him – briefly – reaching peak rock credibility as he celebrates the superficiality of LA. Turn the volume all the way up and enjoy.