Echo in the Canyon and the Birth of the California Sound

Andrew Slater's documentary Echo in the Canyon twiddles the knobs in the Laurel Canyon studios that gave birth to the California Sound.

Before forming the Byrds, Roger McGuinn backed up Bobby Darin, the “Dream Lover” who let “Mack the Knife” swing. The Bronx-born rock and roll legend was adding folk and protest music into his live shows and saw McGuinn playing guitar and making faces behind the Chad Mitchell Trio when they were opening for Lenny Bruce at the Crescendo night club on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. By the time The Beatles hit, McGuinn played, sang harmonies and trained as a professional songwriter under the rock and roll innovator. After the British Invasion, McGuinn consolidated the folk rock sound, first by playing Beatles’ songs on solo guitar in folk clubs and then by plugging a 12-string guitar onto a Bob Dylan song. Andrew Slater’s loving documentary Echo in the Canyon recounts the musical progression of the Laurel Canyon sound, and begins the first frame with that magical instrument.

Tom Petty gave his last film interview in Santa Monica’s Truetone music store with a 12-string Rickenbacker in his hands. Talking with Bob Dylan’s son Jakob Dylan, Petty demonstrates the bright trebly vibrato that brought the folk rock sound, and a community together. Echo in the Canyon captures Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys reminiscing about echoes, and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas invoking romance. Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield remembers intimidating David Crosby of The Byrds with stage presence. The Beatles’ beatkeeper Ringo Starr happily confirms all the stories.

Echo in the Canyon celebrates the music of Los Angeles’s Laurel Canyon from 1965 to 1967 as folk went electric and The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield and The Mamas and the Papas gave birth to the California Sound. The film was inspired by the 1968 movie Model Shop, which starred Gary Lockwood who played astronaut Frank Poole in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lieutenant Commander Gary Mitchell in the Star Trek pilot episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” The film music was done by the band Spirit, produced by Lou Adler, whose studio is showcased, which captured the sound and feel of the area.

Echo in the Canyon is writer/director Andrew Slater’s first film. The former Rolling Stone, Billboard, and People rock journalist and music manager is best known for his work as a producer. Slater produced records for Warren Zevon and the Wallflowers, and recorded Fiona Apple and Macy Gray’s debut albums. The former President and CEO of Capitol Records spoke with Den of Geek about the cross pollination of music between British and American artists and the endless summer of a picturesque enclave in LA.

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Den of Geek: The concept of the perfect echo goes back to tales of doo-wop groups, and your documentary even lets Brian Wilson mention the echo in Sunset Studios. So, before we walk inside this studio, does Laurel Canyon have a natural echo?

Andrew Slater: I don’t think so. I think the unfortunate thing is that technology has eliminated that by all of the cars, and the Uber drivers, and the Lyft drivers, driving up and down the canyon. So, if there is an echo, you would not be able to hear it.

So it wouldn’t be a natural amphitheater.

I like that you have picked up on that. For me the film is probably more about the echo than it is about the canyon, in the sense that it covers the echo of people’s ideas, passing back between each other. But also, as you pointed out, the echo is the thing that gives the human voice depth and character sometimes, and the records that were made in that period from 65-67 were made in these rooms, where each of these rooms have echo chambers and have a different sound and all of that has contributed greatly to the development of record making. I hope that the buildings that we recorded in and paid homage to, will still be there in 10 years, because with the development of Sunset and Hollywood, a single-story building on Sunset Boulevard is not long for this world because of the property values.

Early in the film you showcase an original recording setup amidst the new studio technology. Did you get to record on the vintage equipment of the area’s studios?

I think Lou [Adler] was in that scene. He was pointing to, I think it may have been an 1176. I’m trying to remember what piece of gear he was playing. It was probably a compressor. In that room, you are able to use [the equipment]. In all of those rooms, depending on which one you are in, you have all sorts of gear in there. Obviously, a Studer tape machine, and mic pre’s, and EQs, and all of that stuff goes into making a record.

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You film includes Tom Petty’s last interview. Do you remember the first thing he played when his fingers hit the strings the vintage Rickenbacker?

I don’t remember. I think the first thing he plays is what he plays in the film.

I never heard the story about George Harrison getting the 12-string from Rickenbacker because he happened to be alone in the Beatles Hotel. I want to know a little bit about the importance of the Beatles and the Rickenbacker on those early recordings and how that helped shape the sound.

Well, there is a reason that the Rickenbacker is on the poster for the film. It really begins with that 12-string guitar that probably exercised the most pronounced influence over anything in folk-rock, in the last 50 years. Roger McGuinn sees a Hard Day’s Night, sees George playing a Rickenbacker, has to go get a Rickenbacker. He records the first Byrds album. George hears that, he writes, “If I Needed Someone,” which is based on a riff of “Bells of Rhymney” on that first record, that goes on Rubber Soul. Brian Wilson hears Rubber Soul, he writes Pet Sounds, as you know. The Beatles hear Pet Sounds, they write Sgt. Pepper.

I think all of it, has its beginnings with the electrification of folk music. Maybe that is something that would not have happened in New York because of their rigidity to the folk scene. The thing about The Byrds and the Rickenbacker and the echo of the ideas that went from California to London and back, I think L.A. represents a kind of sense of freedom that anything goes. I think the ability for those guys to experiment with the 12-string and their harmonies, gave way to their ideas echoing across the ocean to the Beatles. 

Have you been to Abbey Road Studios?

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I know the artists at the time were recording with the engineers in lab coats, but is there a different feel in the sonics of the actual studio?

Every room sounds different to me. If you clap your hands in the tracking room of any studio, it’s going to have a different reverberation of sound. Abbey Road has its charm and also it has all sorts of other gear. It’s not just the room, it’s the person who is playing in the room and what being in that room inspires them to do. Obviously, rooms where you know greatness has been accomplished is inspiring to any creative person.

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When you spoke to McGuinn and Tom Petty, they had an instrument in their hand.  Is it different when you are talking to a musician when they have the instrument in their hand? 

You know, that’s an interesting question. It’s probably something to ask a musician, if they feel different. For someone asking questions or trying to capture that moment, you know they have two voices to communicate with you. Their human voice and then they have their voice through their instrument, so, your chances of getting a good answer are twice as good perhaps.

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Michelle Phillips talks about the romance of the area. How does that play into the music and the community?

I just think it was a time of innocence. It was before big business, and super stardom had taken over. I think all of these bands were just emulating the Beatles in a sense. They saw how fun it was in A Hard Day’s Night, and they all wanted to be in that experience of being in a gang, and playing music, and traveling around. You know, at the same time, if you recall, it was the beginning of the cultural revolution and the sexual revolution. So, depending on how you were raised, I would imagine that would inform how your behavior would be in terms of what you choose to do personally. Living close together, I would imagine that made it easy for people to become personally involved.

The picture of Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra made me smile. So, I was wondering if the pre-Beatle generations of singers got caught up in the Laurel Canyon sound?

I can’t find anything in Ray Charles’s music that echoes what harmony groups were doing at that time, but I love Ray Charles and everything that he was doing was transcendent to the sound.

I love the Stephen Stills party story, so I want to know how come more busts didn’t happen in that artist’s enclave?

You would have to ask the Los Angeles Police Department. 

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How did the film Model Shop influence Echoes in the Canyon?

The film is the genesis for the idea of going back and examining this period of music. Even though the film doesn’t contain the music of The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Mamas and Papas, the Buffalo Springfield, it contains images of Los Angeles in ’67. What Jacob and I saw when we watched this film just randomly, was the place that we live, that we love, and it sent us on a journey back to that time to discover and look at the music that made me come here and was part of Jacob’s generation of looking back, on the foundation of it.

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So, Gary Lockwood’s character’s journey in the film, he’s just sort of on his own mission of discovery and in some ways in the film, mirrors that. Going back and forth in time, in a sense. There’s a great moment in the film where he says, “I was standing up in this canyon and I was looking out, and people say it’s an ugly city, but it’s really a beautiful city. It made me want to create something.” Using that as the center of the film was just a way of expressing the idea behind the inspiring aspect of life at the edge of loneliness in the canyons of Los Angeles.

As a director, how is the documentary similar and different to your work as a music journalist?

Well, the only thing that is similar is that you’re able to take the quotes of the people you interview and use them to be the part of your story. So, it was not unfamiliar for me to look at a transcript and start pulling quotes together to illustrate the story that I wanted to tell. Luckily, I had some experience writing the synopsis, or writing a paragraph, other than a snappy text. That’s what my writing has been diminished by. So, those two things were really helpful in getting to make this.

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One of the things that struck me was some of the nonmusical people who were in the area. My favorites were Houdini and Boris Karloff. So, I would like to know a little bit about the magic of the place and if there was another kind of mysticism going on?

That’s not something we explore in the film so I think that’s for somebody else. The narrative that I am following is just about the idea of being in a band and coming to L.A. and chasing the dream of the Beatles, and why that doesn’t last. In the film you hear from various people. Michelle tells you why the Mamas and the Papas had tension. David Crosby tells you why the Byrds had tension. Stephen Stills tells you what multiple singers and multiple writers do to a band when they diverge in directions. That leads you to the end of the film where you see the singer/songwriter standing alone, playing guitar. 

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I just felt like there’s three distinct periods in Laurel Canyon. There’s the period where everybody comes to be in a band, there’s the period of psychedelia that changes everything, and then there’s the era of the singer/songwriter in the search for the individual. That’s why, in the late ’60s the band is called Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and Joni Mitchell shows up and that is the year that is most closely associated with Laurel Canyon.

I also think that David Crosby and Neil Young’s exits from Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds are great bad-ass rockstar stories. Leaving the night before being on Johnny Carson is just classic.

Yes, indeed.

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What is happening in the area of the Laurel Canyon area now? Who is making the most noise?

I think in Los Angeles there is creativity happening all over, in Echo Park, in Silver Lake, in Eagle Rock, in Topanga Canyon, and in Laurel Canyon. It’s happening everywhere.

Echo in the Canyon opens in theaters on May 31.