In the late 1960s, Los Angeles’ Laurel and Topanga Canyons were breeding grounds of musical cross-pollination, as super groups formed, country-rock and folk legends shacked up, and experimentalists partied alongside pop stars. But 1970 would be a year of change: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young releasing gorgeous music and then falling apart (ditto the Flying Burrito Brothers); golden couple Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell’s split inspiring one of the best heartbreak songs ever; John Phillips revealing a dark side after the bright harmonies of the Mamas and the Papas. The Doors would fly high, only for Jim Morrison to be dead a year later. Artists may have been fiddling while the scene burned but incredible records came out of that last halcyon year. From the debut of piano genius Leon Russell to Harry Nilsson singing Randy Newman songs; an initially misunderstood Neil Young masterpiece to a trippy cult classic by Linda Perhacs. And once again, Brian Wilson predicted the future. Here are the best songs to come out of the canyon scene of 1970...
“Older Guys” by the Flying Burrito Brothers
Patron saints of Laurel Canyon, the Burritos dreamed up their own Cosmic American Music genre; this lesser-known track is a chugging good time.
“Cecilia” by Simon & Garfunkel
On the outskirts of Laurel Canyon, at a house on Blue Jay Way, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel experimented with xylophone, reverb and found sounds to create an irresistible jumble that would become “Cecilia” from 1970′s Bridge Over Troubled Water.
“Our House” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Forever the idyllic portrait of domesticity, written by Graham Nash about his Laurel Canyon home life with Joni Mitchell.
“A Song for You” by Leon Russell
A Laurel Canyon stalwart, Russell embodied the enclave’s eclectic, sometimes just plain weird spirit. One of his best songs, “A Song for You,” is pure emotion and would later be covered by Ray Charles, the Carpenters, Willie Nelson and Christina Aguilera.
“The Circle Game” by Joni Mitchell
Mitchell once told an audience that when she and Neil Young were growing up in Canada, he penned the tune “Sugar Mountain” after “feeling terrible” about turning 21 and being too old to go to his favourite “teeny-bopper club.” Mitchell said: “If we get to 21 and there’s nothing after that, that’s a pretty bleak future, so I wrote a song for him, and for myself just to give me some hope.”
“Better Think Twice” by Poco
Formed from the ashes of Buffalo Springfield and spawning multiple future members of the Eagles, Poco never hit it as big as either of those bands; but songs like this one helped set a road map for the country-rock that dominated the early and mid-’70s.
“WPLJ” by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention
Originally recorded by 1950s R&B vocal group The Four Deuces, “WPLJ”— an aphrodisiac of white port and lemon juice—gives Laurel Canyon godfather Zappa the opportunity to pay absurd homage to his beloved doo-wop.
“Roll Away the Stone” by Leon Russell
Another excellent cut from Russell’s self-titled debut, this one marries ragtime and funk, complete with rollercoaster piano.
“Roadhouse Blues” by The Doors
It’s believed that the roadhouse that inspired this song was the Corral, a Topanga Canyon bar frequented by Linda Ronstadt, members of Little Feat and Canned Heat, and the Doors’ Jim Morrison. Harmonica credit goes to G. Puglese, a.k.a. the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian.
“Teach Your Children” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
CSNY allegedly spent 500 studio hours on the songs from ‘70s Déjà Vu, including “Teach Your Children” which had been rejected by Graham Nash’s old band The Hollies. It became a Top 40 hit for CSNY.
“After the Gold Rush” by Neil Young
Meanwhile, CSNY’s Neil Young was making genre-defining solo sounds farther west in Topanga Canyon. Accompanied only by piano and a mournful French horn, he eerily predicted climate change and environmental devastation on the spare title track to After the Gold Rush, an album panned by Rolling Stone.
“Topanga Canyon” by John Phillips
In the 1960s, the Mamas and the Papas were Laurel Canyon royalty. With his debut solo album, John Phillips (John, The Wolf King of L.A.), Papa John Phillips ditched his former band’s lush, sunny harmonies for a Dylan-esque vibe on tracks like “Topanga Canyon”—about a junkie waiting for his dope dealer in that hippie enclave.
“Paper Mountain Man” by Linda Perhacs
In addition to all the future legends in Laurel Canyon, more humble residents were making glorious noise. Linda Perhacs was a dental hygienist when she recorded the cult classic Parallelograms. “Paper Mountain Man” could’ve provided a template for Heart’s “Magic Man” five years later.
“What Have You Got to Lose” by Carole King
After leaving Manhattan’s Brill Building—and her songwriting partner/husband Gerry Goffin—King took to Laurel Canyon. This laid-back track is the bridge between her old life and 1971′s Tapestry.
“Vine Street” by Harry Nilsson
The first song on the brilliant Nilsson Sings Newman starts off with a propulsive, jangling intro, then fades into a dramatic cabaret of layered harmonies to which Rufus Wainwright owes his entire career.
“Only Love Can Break Your Heart” by Neil Young
It may or may not have been written to console Graham Nash after his break-up from Joni Mitchell, but one thing’s for sure: This waltz stands the test of time.
“All I Wanna Do” by the Beach Boys
Leave it to Laurel Canyon mad genius Brian Wilson to create a shoegazing classic two full decades before that genre took off.
“Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell
The much-covered, bittersweet jangle, with its pro-environment/anti-commercial lyrics (“They took all the trees and put ‘em in a tree museum/And they charge the people a dollar and a half to see ‘em”) was inspired by a trip to Hawaii.
“Love The One You’re With” by Stephen Stills
This hit single from Stills’ eponymous debut (released the same year as CSNY’s Déjà Vu) is reportedly inspired by keyboard legend Billy Preston, whose catchphrase was: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”
“Parallelograms” by Linda Perhacs.
A total mind-bender. Best listened to through headphones.
“Calico Girlfriend” by Michael Nesmith and the First National Band
After years chafing at the Monkees’ bubblegum pop reputation, Laurel Canyon denizen Nesmith (who’d already written songs recorded by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Stone Poneys) finally got his chance to go country.
“Slip On Through” by the Beach Boys
Rustic Canyon resident Dennis Wilson wrote this joyously soaring track, which dovetails nicely with the ‘60s Beach Boys canon.
“Everlasting First” by Love
The 1970 album False Start was Love’s first after guitarist/songwriter Bryan MacLean left the band and marks a shift from psych-rock to a more straightforward blues-rock sound. Frontman and Laurel Canyon old-timer Arthur Lee made up for the potent loss of MacLean and by bringing in none other than Jimi Hendrix for this opening track.
“My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama” by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention
Zappa released three albums in 1970, including Weasels Ripped My Flesh —featuring this cock-rock strut that’s dressed up with horns, swinging jazz drums and a fiery (acoustic!) guitar solo.
“Wild Horses” by the Flying Burrito Brothers
The 1970 album Burrito Deluxe included the recorded debut of “Wild Horses” a year before the Rolling Stones, who wrote the song, released it.