Get Lit: Riot on Sunset Strip -- Rock 'n Roll's Last Stand in Hollywood

The Sunset Strip running from Beverly Hills to Hollywood is only 1.7 miles long and is inevitably linked to celebrity and the film industry. But for a brief time in the mid-‘60s, it also served as the epicenter of American – and thus worldwide – rock and roll with its succession of nightclubs, coffeehouses, bars, and theatres.

And in those venues in front of the mostly teens and young adults who came to them, the careers of an awful lot of now-staple classic rock bands took flight, including the Doors, The Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas, Love, Buffalo Springfield, The Turtles, and Frank Zappa.

The Strip also served as the unofficial birthplace of garage rock (The Seeds, The Electric Prunes, The Music Machine) as well as home to bands with only-of-the-times names like the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, the Chocolate Watchband, and the Peppermint Trolley Company.

With a die-hard record collector geek’s eye, Priore’s exhaustively researched an annotated tome tells the history of the location, bands, and audience who came together just at the right time to make a huge impact on pop culture between 1965-1967. And while San Francisco and their hippie-centric bands would later get the lion’s share of the press and historical glory, the acts who played clubs like the Whisky-a-Go-Go, Ciro’s, the Troubadour, and Gazzari’s were just as important.

One of the great things about Riot is the pictures, as Priore eschews familiar publicity shots for scores of informal and concert photos, many of which actually point their lenses into the crowd (we see future actress Teri Garr and “Mickey” singer Toni Basil frenetically dancing). In fact, the book goes to great lengths to theorize that the audiences and their levels of activity were symbiotic with the music, creating a real community between performers and audience.

If the book has a weak point, it is Priore’s reliance on encyclopedia-style prose, with a standard biographical profile of one band slipping right into the next. Chock full of information, yes, but it doesn’t make for the liveliest of reading – layers of a quilt that could use a little more stitching together. Separate chapters on Sunset Strip art, culture, clubs, and TV/movies are likewise not necessarily crucial to the general reader.

Like a lot of other cultural movements, though, it was the very popularity of the Sunset Strip that led to its demise. City leaders – who wanted to turn the area into a financial district – were not exactly happy with the thousands of strange-looking longhairs descending on the area to dance lasciviously to bizarre-sounding music. So they started instituting policies on curfews, loitering, noise levels, and club capacity enforced by an all-too-happy-to-do so L.A. police force.

Tensions between kids and cops boiled over on several nights in November 1966, leading to the riots of the book’s title, which it shares with a quickie movie later made of the events. Stephen Stills – then a member of Buffalo Springfield – memorialized the incidents in the then-incendiary “For What It’s Worth” which included the stanza “There’s something happenin’ here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. There’s a man with a gun over there, tellin’ me I’ve got to beware.

By the next year, audiences had either dissipated or grown up, clubs shuttered, and the acts that you used to be able to hang out with at the bar went on to national prominence. Later years would see the Strip play home to the birth of hair metal, but the good vibes were never the same. Today, the Whisky-a-Go-Go is just the Whisky, with its pay-to-play nights and beefy bouncers with headsets a far cry from its fresh and free-form origins.

All in all, Riot on Sunset Strip brings the era, the people, and the music roaring back to a coffee table near you. And without any bruises from nightsticks! -- Bob Ruggiero

Riot on Sunset Strip – Rock ‘n Roll’s Last Stand in Hollywood, by Domenic Priore, 288 pp., $29.95, Jawbone Press

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero