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A Grand Tour of L.A.'s Kingdom of Rock

October 25, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

JOE SMITH, ONE OF THE key players in the Los Angeles rock kingdom for almost three decades, smiles sheepishly as he sits in his 13th-floor office in the Capitol Tower in Hollywood and lets his visitor in on a secret.

Brought in earlier this year by Capitol-EMI Industries to help rejuvenate its sluggish record division, Smith toyed briefly, he confides, with the idea of moving the Capitol staff out of the Tower. That's sacrilege akin to the motion picture business taking the projectors out of Mann's Chinese Theatre.

The Tower, a high-rise landmark designed to resemble a stack of record albums, was opened in 1956--well before there was much of a record business in town.

"The fact is this building doesn't work well," Smith explains. "A record company should be more horizontal than vertical, so that a promotion man can run from desk to desk to spread the good news when a major radio station adds one of our records. Here, he's got to wait for an elevator."

But Smith decided to stick with the Tower and history.

"This building isn't just a symbol of Capitol Records, it is a symbol of the record business in Los Angeles, because at one time Capitol was the only major record company here," says Smith, whose title is president and chief executive. "The rest of the empire was in New York--and I'm not just talking about the 1940s; I'm talking about 1960, when I came out here.

"There were a few other (record) companies by then, but not enough for anyone to think of Los Angeles as anything more than a little outpost. My friends couldn't believe it when I told them I was moving here. They thought of Los Angeles as a place where everyone spent all their time at the beach. They said, 'The sun will bake your brain.' "

SMITH, A TOP EXECUTIVE AT Warner Bros. Records and Elektra Records before joining Capitol, is writing a history of the record business--from the Big Band era through Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen. But Smith, who got his start in the music business as a disc jockey in Boston, doesn't need to interview anyone to tell the story of the record business's remarkable growth in Los Angeles. He was one of a small army of East Coast transplants (including A & M Records co-founder Jerry Moss) who in the early '60s saw Los Angeles as the future.

"I had come out here on business a few times, and I loved what I saw," Smith recalls. "New York was beginning to be a hostile place, and this seemed like the promised land. We all realized that the (future of the) record business was out here. You could not miss. The climate was here, the motion picture industry was here and the musicians would eventually be here."

Smith and the other pioneers didn't have to wait long. The West Coast's bid for success began with infectious hits by the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean that spread the word about the sun-drenched advantages of the Southern California life style. Not only did some New York executives, soured on the increasing malaise of life in Manhattan, head west, but aspiring musicians also sensed a more creative environment.

And sure enough, artistic explosions followed in Los Angeles (the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, the Doors)--and, on a somewhat smaller scale, in San Francisco (Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead).

The ease of the shift of power from New York to Los Angeles "was almost embarrassing," Smith says. "By the '60s, we had won it. By the '70s, it was no contest. There were the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt--the whole Southern California sound. There was also Fleetwood Mac. Neil Diamond had moved out here, Streisand, Elton John, Dylan. It looked like it would never end. It was Camelot for a while."

Smith relished the competition between New York and Los Angeles in those days. "The funny thing is the people in New York used to get crazed about us. They always saw pictures in the trade papers of (Warner Bros.') Mo Ostin or (Asylum's) David Geffen in a sport shirt with an artist, and they'd think, 'Those guys are too much into having a good time. We'll outwork them.'

"So the lights would burn at 10 o'clock at night in New York-- especially at CBS--while they all thought we were at the beach or something. But we jammed it in their face all the time. We had as many records on the chart no matter how late they worked. Hours weren't the issue. This was where the talent was and where the power was."

By 1978, the industry was selling $4.1 billion in records, thanks in great part to the L.A. boom. Nobody questioned the kingdom's supremacy. But Camelot soon lost its luster.

LOS ANGELES' ROCK KINGDOM was under siege between 1979 and 1982. Retail sales of records in the United States fell by 18%. Teens and preteens started spending their money on video games rather than on records. Firings were commonplace throughout the industry. Companies stopped dangling big advances in front of new bands. Some stopped signing new bands altogether. Clubs closed.

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