With a rock history that dates back to Eddie Cochran, the Beach Boys and the Doors, Los Angeles has been a launching pad for new bands for so long that it's hard to imagine a time when there wasn't an active club scene here.
But Martha Davis, Dean Chamberlain, David Swanson, Roger Prescott and Louren Molinaire remember such a period. When these musicians arrived separately in L.A. in the mid-'70s, filled with rock 'n' roll dreams, they found no place for their bands to play. It was virtually a closed shop.
Only three clubs mattered at the time--the Roxy, the Whisky and the now-defunct Starwood--and they only booked bands that already had record deals. The only alternative for unsigned bands: clubs that expected musicians to play the radio hits of the day rather than original material.
Frustrated by the situation, the five newcomers banded together on Aug. 14, 1976 to stage their own concert. That event--called "Radio Free Hollywood"--helped change the face of L.A. rock. The concert, with a lineup of the Pop (including Prescott and Swanson), the Motels (with Davis and Chamberlain) and the Dogs (Molinaire's trio), was held at the now-demolished Troupers Hall on La Brea Avenue.
The event cost $900 to stage, drew about 400 people, and ended up $90 in the red. But the strategy worked. The concert became a rallying point for a small, dedicated contingent of L.A. rock fans who were fed up with rock 'n' roll business as usual. It convinced bookers at the Whisky and the Starwood that there was an audience for local, unsigned groups.
The momentum from that 1976 concert led to the new wave scene centered around a series of clubs including punk haven the Masque, Chinatown rivals Madame Wong's and the Hong Kong Cafe, Club 88, Cathay De Grande and the Anticlub, and eventually the Lingerie and Music Machine.
Those clubs spawned X (see story on page 67), the Blasters, Los Lobos, the Go-Go's and the Bangles in the early '80s. Later in the decade, the Troubadour and Whisky (among other clubs) were instrumental in developing the hard-rock scene which brought Motley Crue, Guns N' Roses, Poison and others to the fore.
Fourteen years after Radio Free Hollywood, these five key participants are still pursuing their musical dreams. The idealism that led them to stage the 1976 concert has been tempered by years of exposure to music-business wheeling and dealing, but their commitment to music is as strong as ever.
"In the majority of people in this so-called Sunset Strip scene now, there isn't an ounce of rebellion," Molinaire observed. "It's a whole conformity to what they think it is to be a rock star.
"The Dogs, Motels and Pop wave was a lot more true and coming from the heart. You had three bands from what seemed like three different musical countries but the common attitude that made up the music was the same."
Said Davis of the Radio Free Hollywood period: "Hollywood is like anything else in the sociological world--there's the pendulum swing. There's the stage where everything is open and free and giving and then everybody tightens up and it swings over to repressive.
"You see club scenes flouriiiiissssshhhhh and then die out. Those were some good times--we weren't raking in the gravy but there was nothing more fun than running up and down Sunset Boulevard with a bunch of Xeroxed flyers and a staple gun ducking the police."
Most of the musicians on the Radio Free Hollywood bill wound up with label deals. The initial version of the Motels fell apart in 1977, but Davis quickly put together a new lineup and ultimately recorded five group albums and one solo effort for Capitol. Guitarist Chamberlain's trio Code Blue released one album for Warner Bros. and another for Chameleon. The Pop released one independent album, one for Arista and a third for Rhino before splitting up in 1981. Molinaire and the Dogs never got a deal.
Davis, 39, enjoyed the greatest national visibility and commercial success. The second edition of the Motels inspired a bidding war in 1978 that was won by Capitol. The group went through a succession of lead guitarists but finally broke through when "Only the Lonely" became a Top 10 pop single in 1982.
But a successful follow-up wasn't in the cards and the Motels split up in 1985. Davis recorded one solo album for Capitol in 1987 that was a hit in Australia, but a combination of health and label problems kept her career on the back burner.
Davis overcame ovarian cancer and now, freed from her Capitol contract, is making tentative steps toward resuming her career. She's been indulging her passion for carpentry, is engaged to saxophonist Larry Klimas, and will soon become a grandmother.
"I don't have anything to show for the eight years the Motels were together," Davis reflected. "I have a locker full of road cases, which is costing me money to rent every day, and I still rent my house.