Rock Out at Home: Top Ten LA Rock Bands
Published on 18 August 2020
Geography is important to music.
Where you come from is often intrinsically linked to how you sound.
Seattle had Grunge, San Francisco had the Haight-Ashbury hippy movement, Detroit brought us Techno, Cambridge had a Folk Scene, and on it goes.
Los Angeles has this too, and it often doesn’t get noticed. This is perhaps because of the diversity of acts associated with the city. LA’s a diverse place in itself, with all kinds of colourful zones and areas, from movie-star neighbourhood Los Feliz to uber-trendy Venice, hip-hop hive Inglewood to the glitz and grime of North Hollywood & the Sunset Strip. There are lots of LA’s and therefore, suitably, lots of LA styles of music. This huge sprawl of a city (actually over 70 individual cities gathered together into one humongous megalopolis) is one of the world’s most significant in cultural terms, not least due to it being the heart of the US movie industry. So many Americans have left their hometowns for LA, looking for fame and fortune, that in many ways it’s a distillation of the entire country. ‘Melting pot’ doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Today, we’ve gathered together a potent Top Ten list of bands from Los Angeles, travelling back to the dawn of Rock n Roll and bringing things up to (relatively) the current day. We’ve picked each band on the merits of their cultural significance, and even so, it’s been tough! For example, Guns ‘n’ Roses beat Motley Crue, and there’s only enough space for one Sunset Strip band, so the Crue lose out!
It’s a tough gig.
Also, the bands really have to have come from LA or very close by: merely being Californian is not enough! So, no Metallica (San Francisco), Korn (Bakersfield) or Green Day (Berkeley), but we have included Van Halen (Pasadena) because that is within most people’s idea of Los Angeles. And yes, you’ll notice that there are eleven choices. So what? It’s one more video to watch!
The other thing we’re omitting is non-Rock bands. We think NWA are extremely significant, as are Beck and Frank Ocean, but they aren’t Rock bands, so they don’t get in this excusive club! Read on, to find out who did! Our running order is roughly chronological where possible, to help illustrate how culture has moved, changed and advanced from decade to decade.
The Beach Boys
Who defines sun, surf and Californian coastal culture better than the original sunshine band? No matter how rainy or grey is gets, a quick blast of Brian Wilson's masterful, technicolour songwriting is sure to inject some ‘Californ-eye-ae’ into your day. The Beach Boys have such a genuinely likeable sound, we’d be inclined to say that you should be very suspicious of anyone who isn’t a fan. What’s wrong with them?
These timeless songs about girls, driving, surfing and hanging out describe a mythical Los Angeles that is as true and as fictional now as it always was. It’s a place we can go to through these songs, though, and there’s huge power and appeal in that.
If the Beach Boys are the Californian sunshine, then the Doors are the sound of the city when the sun goes down over Malibu. Nocturnal, shamanistic and wonderfully mysterious, the Doors are in many ways the ultimate LA band. Their sound is both easy to get into and pointedly unlike any other band then or now, which is a weird thing when you consider how influential they are. Their frontman was an intense and tragic messiah figure, and their story has itself been immortalised in the only appropriate way for an LA band: as a blockbuster movie.
In the space of 6 years and as many albums, the Doors put a stamp on the world’s music scene that reverberates today. Whenever poetry, theatrical performance styles and deep baritone voices are used in music, there is a debt owed to Jim Morrison and his ‘riders on the storm’. It’s a mad thing to say, but are the Doors actually underrated?
Famously disliked by Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski, Laurel Canyon’s most famous outlaws typify the 70s excess and sheen of a music industry flirting with its Hollywood movie neighbours. There’s just something expensive about the Eagles, and we aren’t only referring to their ticket prices! Their luxurious sound – slightly countrified, slightly decadent – brings with it something that’s true of many great LA bands: a sense of self-mythology. The Eagles may be your dad’s favourite band, but there’s plenty of merit in their songcraft, not to mention some super-slick guitar harmonies and laid-back grooves. Plus, we’d wager that even The Dude would like Hotel California’s wonderfully evocative, narcotic haze of a song.
A band hardly in need of introduction among guitar circles, ‘Diamond’ David Lee Roth’s party-loving squad from Pasadena went out to show the world a good time, and by-golly did they achieve it!
You’ve heard plenty from us in the past extolling the virtues of Amsterdam-born guitar wizard Eddie, so instead let us celebrate the influence Van Halen had on 80s Rock music. Before them, Rock was Led Zeppelin and the Blue Oyster Cult. Punk certainly came along to tear that scene down, but it obviously wasn’t for everyone, given how huge VH became in so little a time. Van Halen practically invented Poison, Motley Crue, Guns n Roses, Skid Row, Warrant, Ratt and basically all hard rock of the 1980s. Music in films started sounding like Van Halen. Michael Jackson started sounding like Van Halen. If any music released in that decade wasn’t clearly inspired by Phil Collins, it was ripping off Van Halen instead. You don’t get more loud, brash, showy or ‘LA’ than Diamond Dave-era Van Halen. Or more fun.
Taking themselves altogether more seriously, Black Flag are easily the most influential Punk Rock act to came from LA. Hailing from Hermosa Beach (yes, it’s in Los Angeles), Black Flag brought a thrillingly noisy message of anti-authoritarianism to late 70s and early 80s LA. Led by guitarist Greg Ginn, Black Flag began what’s now known as Hardcore, a staunchly principled, social-political style of punk that still remembered to sound loud and angry.
Henry Rollins joined in 1981, establishing probably the band’s most celebrated lineup. Their DIY ethos and disregard for the type of posturing we just mentioned with Van Halen provided an antidote for disenfranchised youths who needed a band who represented and channelled their own dissatisfaction and disillusionment. Not everybody wanted to chug beers and Dance the Night Away, we suppose...
The Black Flag sound, whilst undoubtedly punk, shows more diverse influences than just that particular genre. They also appeal to Metal fans and fans of avant-garde music, due to their eschewing of genre conventions. Fans of distortion will find plenty to get on with, too!
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Apart from the Beach Boys, has any other band in the world come to be associated with their hometown quite as much as the Chilis? Much as Bruce Springsteen would be stuck for songs if he never had a car, so would the Red Hot Chili Peppers if they didn’t have Los Angeles as their eternal muse. You can’t listen to any of their songs without picturing palm trees, can you?
Although the Chilis became huge in the early 90s, they’d actually been on the go for some time by that point. Started by friends Anthony Kiedis, Michael ‘Flea’ Balzary and Hillel Slovak, the Chilis helped define an underground alternative to the hair metal that swept through 80s LA thanks to Van Halen. The sound of the Chilis is in many ways the product of Flea, who is probably today the world’s most famous bassist. Building a funk Rock tapestry around his virtuosic lines, the Chilis brought a sound out from LA’s alternative scene that hadn’t been heard before, though their similarities to scene pioneers Jane’s Addiction is more than coincidental.
Whilst the Chilis’ funk workouts are perhaps less manic than in the early ‘Freaky Styley’ days, the band’s focus on songcraft, feel and vibe has not diminished. Within an extremely strong body of work, and a sonic blueprint established, their various odes to California (Californication, Scar Tissue, Under the Bridge, Dani California, Venice Queen...) are amongst their greatest songs.
Guitarist John Frusciante is probably the best-loved of the band’s six-stringers, but the band has also hosted the supernatural talents of Dave Navarro, whom we’ll meet soon...
Guns ‘n’ Roses
Axl, Slash and the team definitely embody the hard-drinkin’, slightly sleazy end of LA Rock that sells extremely well across the world. They have an iconic image and the tunes to match, so there’s really no big secret as to why they’re one of the world’s most revered acts. Whilst coming through the ranks of 80s Sunset Strip Hair Metal bands, Guns n Roses in reality don’t share too much in common with their spandex comrades. Theirs was always a (slightly) more genuine and authentic reading of the Hard Rock manual, with a skillset that included the ability to make gigantic Rock tunes accessible for millions of people who’d never be part of that scene.
It seems sacrilegious to say it, but Guns n Roses are kind of like a heavier Meatloaf in certain ways: both have huge tunes with plenty of Hard Rock imagery (bandanas, motorcycles, girls etc) the songs are stuffed with poppy hooks, raunchy riffs and loads of dynamic shifts in the arrangements. Both sold a ton of records to Rock fans and non-Rock fans. Guns n Roses are a band that make resolutely safe people feel a bit dangerous, and therein lies the secret of their huge appeal. You can’t argue with greatness, though, and Guns have that in spades, along with plenty of star power in the guise of vocalist Axl Rose and lead guitarist Slash.
With a name taken from their housemate’s heroin problem, songs written about infamous serial killers and album covers that were banned from being sold in stores, it’s fair to say that Jane’s Addiction weren’t afraid of a little controversy.
Rising up from the same 80s underground scene as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction stood for almost the opposite of the endless hair metal bands that clogged up Sunset Strip. Their gargantuan, dark, rhythmic sound had as much to do with the city’s Santerían worshippers, drug pushers and cross-dressers as it did the Hard Rockers and Indie crowd. Jane’s were a band that pulled disparate groups together, and with crazed frontman Perry Farrell, they had a spokesman who could not only walk the walk but also express himself eloquently, even if his behaviour frequently proved questionable.
There was a real darkness to the band, but it felt authentic and vital to the music. Albums like their major label debut Nothing’s Shocking are wonderful artefacts of that primal mix of energies, with songs about homelessness and prostitution sitting next to lullabies about Summer love.
Guitarist Dave Navarro was a star at an early age (the first Jane’s record was released whilst he was still a teenager), an effortless player with style and charisma, who himself was no stranger to personal demons. Indeed, it often seems that the same behavioural knife edge that made the band’s members magnetic musicians also made them intolerable to each other, though substance problems may have played a part too...
Jane’s Addiction are responsible for inventing Lollapalooza, the travelling festival that introduced much of America to Alternative culture in the 90s. It’s appropriate, that those leading the troupe were the most influential alternative tastemakers of them all.
Still technically together, Jane’s Addiction regroup every so often, whenever their volatile collective energy allows it, to tour and create new music. We’d say it’s about time for some more...
Rage Against the Machine
Mixing Hard Rock riffs with rap vocals and a positively hostile attitude towards authority figures, Rage Against the Machine brought politics to the mind of every teenage Rock-loving fan in the 90s. Inventing Nu Metal in theory before it was even an idea, Rage’s music seems to have sidestepped the peculiar smell that has stuck to most other 90s Rap-Metal bands. This may be down to an overall sound that’s slightly more Led Zep than detuned 7 string, but more likely the lack of pantomime involved and a sense of integrity to their art. Rage really sounded like they meant it, and that power was infectious.
Formed in the very early 90s, Rage Against the Machine took notes from fellow LA bands Jane’s Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but also paid attention to Public Enemy, NWA and other rap acts that spoke to the anger and frustration of Rodney King-era Los Angeles. This was a voice not often heard in the context of a Rock band, making the message that much more powerful.
Tom Morello redefined the role of the lead guitarist, whilst keeping most of his riffs recognisable and accessible, and became one of the most unique voices in Rock guitar. The unlikeliest band ever to score a UK Christmas number one, Rage Against the Machine are there for you when you need an outlet of righteous, inspired Rock fury.
A deeply secretive and idiosyncratic band, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Tool are a not a Rock band but instead a cabal of occult demigods, such is the esteem they are held by their fans. Intense devotion to all things Tool means that their rabid fanbase routinely hear deep, hidden meanings in every syllable sung by vocalist Maynard James Keenan, and every pick scrape scratched out by guitarist Adam Jones.
It’s their own fault, really. Using ancient ‘Da Vinci Code’ number sequences to time their songs doesn’t help things. Neither does their references to arcane esoteric texts and practices. Their labyrinthine songs blend impressive musicianship with progressive thinking to provide mental goodness for those who like their Hard Rock to be as above the belt as below it. Their refusal to play by the book in pretty much every way (album cycles, interviews, videos etc) has resulted in them becoming one of the most respected and highly esteemed bands in modern history, not to mention one of the most challenging.
Whether you call them Prog Metal, Alternative Rock or just Tool, their music is both immediately recognisable, massively satisfying and difficult to categorise.
Who could forget the Happy Days video for Weezer’s hit song Buddy Holly? Talk about career-making stuff? Rivers Cuomo’s hard-rocking quartet mixed heavy crunch with heavy harmony in a way that often comes across like Grungey 50s love songs. Sounds like a winning formula!
Songs like Beverly Hills make a clear statement about their heritage, and River’s awkward outsider persona is more of an iconic badge of honour for identifying fans who see the songwriter as one of them. Weezer’s sound is simple and direct, meaning there’s nothing clever to hide behind if the song itself isn’t working. Hit after hit, album after album, Weezer prove that their songwriting machine is efficient and well-oiled.
Well that was our Top Ten. Apart from it being a Top Eleven, what did you think? If we had more space, we would definitely have included Arthur Lee’s Love, Bad Religion, Motley Crue, Buffalo Springfield, Thelonius Monster and Warpaint. We’d probably still have left out Maroon 5, to be honest.
Have we missed any other incredible LA bands? Let us know in the comments below! Thanks for reading! We hope you enjoyed this little taster menu as proof of just how good Los Angeles has been to us in terms of Rock bands! The well of talent seems to be somewhat drier in terms bands from the last decade or so, so let’s have you Angelinos bring us some more of that sun-drenched, slightly sinister greatness! LA has more bands than pretty much anywhere else in the world, so where are you all hiding?
Until next time,