Playlist Release: Pacific Palisades ‘69

Clockwise from left: Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, California | Frank Sinatra on the TV special Francis Albert Sinatra Does His Thing, 1968 | Dusty Springfield on Top of the Pops, 1970

Apologies for the deluge of playlisting stuff recently, but we’ve got a backlog of material to release, all of which is pretty damn good! (Not to toot my own horn…) Case in point: this new playlist, Sounds of Pacific Palisades, ’69, which, in my opinion, is the best thing I’ve released since Monaco ’75. And just in time for summer, too!

For the uninitiated, Pacific Palisades is a neighbourhood in L.A., one of the most affluent and exclusive in its environs. On the extreme west of the city, the Palisades’ famous bluffs overlook the Pacific Ocean, where the setting sun meets the sea on beige-yellow sands. Alongside Beverly Hills and Malibu, it’s one of the preserves of Hollywood glamour; this is where the stars come home to roost. Yet, unlike the other two locations, Pacific Palisades is not famous- it’s a quiet glamour, an exclusivity that speaks for itself. It’s not for nothing that the City of Pacific Palisades’ motto is “If you’re rich, you live in Beverly Hills. If you’re famous, you live in Malibu. If you’re lucky, you live in Pacific Palisades.”

It’s this quiet glamour that I aim to capture in this playlist, by focusing on the last moments of Hollywood’s golden age — the late ’60s. Just as the Swinging Sixties remade the politics of the age in their image, so too did they remake the music of the age. By 1969, the giants of “traditional pop”, those great disciples of the Great American Songbook, are dying out, either literally, in the case of Louis Armstrong, or in terms of their record sales, for artists like Julie London and Sarah Vaughan. In their place comes the rock ’n’ roll revolution, led most prominently by the Beatles, but also by groups like the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, playing songs in an entirely different songwriting tradition, that of rhythm and blues and folk music, as opposed to the Tin Pan Alley descendants of Sinatra and company. These new artists aren’t glamourous by the standards of old Hollywood, where “celebrity was worn with the elegance and grace of diamonds and mink”; no, these ascendant stars belong to a new tradition, that of rock ’n’ roll, encompassing everything from John and Yoko’s “Bed-In” to the hotel-trashing debauchery of Robert “I am a Golden God!” Plant and Led Zeppelin.

This great clash of musical traditions came to a head around 1955–65, and everyone knows who won. Yet talent and stardom do not simply disappear; the protagonists of the Great American Songbook simply shift gears. Some, Sinatra chief among them, pivot towards Astrud Gilberto and Sergio Mendes’ bossa nova (“I Concentrate on You”, “Wave”), that stereotypically 1960s trend, as a way of staying relevant. Others, like Andy Williams, Julie London, and Sarah Vaughan, decide to simply issue covers of modern pop songs (“Michelle”, “Like to Get to Know You”, “A Taste of Honey”), attempting to tack into the prevailing musical winds.

Yet these protagonists of the old world are joined by the stars of the new age- artists like José Feliciano, Dusty Springfield, and Chris Montez. Bridging the gap between traditional pop and the modern sounds of the ’60s, some of them play classics from the trad-pop repertoire in a hybrid style, such as Feliciano’s interpretation of “Nature Boy” and Montez’s “I Will Wait for You”. Others, like Dusty Springfield, decide to produce crossover hits, singing new songs in this hybrid style such as the Burt Bacharach-penned “The Look of Love”.

But as Dylan famously puts it, “the times they are a-changin’”. The influence of new styles cannot be ignored, be it soul, pop, or rock. Check out Marlena Shaw’s epic “California Soul”, a sprawling, laid-back masterpiece of sun-drenched soul, building up to a climax of “Wall of Sound”-esque proportions. And listen to the jazzy, hypnotic soft-rock of the Byrds’ “Everybody’s Been Burned”, or the light folk guitar of the Cyrkle’s “The Visit (She Was Here)”.

In this melting pot of musical transition, a hybrid style emerges, something in between soul, bossa nova, modern pop, traditional pop, rock, folk, and jazz. It takes the form of classic bossa nova tunes like Sinatra’s version of “Aqua de Beber”, augmented with the swaggering yet tender full orchestration typical of trad-pop, and of rock ’n’ roll grooves paired with jazz guitar on the Guess Who’s “Undun”. Vocal harmonies and sparse guitar, those hallmarks of folk rock, bleed into the gentle, floating strings of trad-pop on Roger Nichol’s “Cocoanut Grove”, as a tender trad-pop love song gets updated with Latin beats on Jaye P. Morgan’s “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life”.

Symbolizing the unity of the new and old are the no less than three Bond themes on this playlist. “Goldfinger”, “You Only Live Twice”, and “Diamonds Are Forever” are perfect examples of this hybrid style, combining soulful delivery, mid-’60s pop beats, electric guitars, and trad-pop string and horn stylings in a singularly slick package, sung by Shirley Bassey, a representative of the old and venerable, and Nancy Sinatra, an emblem of the hip and new. (It doesn’t hurt that these Bond songs also add a little extra cool to this playlist…)

The lyrics of this strange assemblage also reflect this hybrid style, something between the old-school love songs of trad-pop and the new narrative explorations of the burgeoning modern pop and rock ’n’ roll scenes. Perhaps the most interesting is Buffalo Springfield’s “Pretty Girl Why”, combining the classic romantic imagery of trad-pop and the abstracted symbolism of late ’60s rock ’n’ roll in a bouncy bit of oh-so-groovy Latinate psychedelia:

Like the ghost of someone dear
She comes to haunt me in my sleep
Still unable to sincerely
Give her heart away for keeps

There she leaves me, twice as lonely
As I was but yesterday
Keeping such a hold upon my thoughts
So near, yet far away

The minstrel boy has gone to war now
Burdened with his father’s sword
Still, she doesn’t see how she can
Give him peace amidst the horror

-“Pretty Girl Why” | Buffalo Springfield — Last Time Around (1968)

In this cocktail of contrasting yet coherent styles, there’s a unity, of an ephemeral moment in time, never to be resurrected. Every song on this playlist (bar one) is selected from the period 1966–71, a very tight spread that reflects the passing nature of this hybrid style. It occupies no particularly great place in the history of music; instead of the glories of the old world, of Sinatra and Julie London in their ’50s heyday, or of the Beatles, the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield in their great ’60s explorations into ever stranger sonic territory, this playlist details the death throes of the old guard and the courtesies paid by the new guard to the vanquished. But in its unheralded beauty, it does something special- in bridging the gap between trad-pop and modern pop, it brings the glamour of old stardom into the recognizable currency, borne of living memory, of modern pop.

To put it in other words, this playlist bleeds cool. It’s precisely what this playlist is designed to do- to evoke a vision of mature, sophisticated, glamourous cool, yet one that remains recognizably and refreshingly modern. If it fails in this task, of building this atmosphere, I’ve failed as a playlister.

To close this release off, and to help you envision exactly what I mean by this concept of cool, I invite you to share what this playlist conjures in my mind’s eye. Summer sunset, Pacific Palisades, 1969. In the cool of the evening, when everything is getting kind of groovy, perched atop the bluffs, you overlook the coast, where the golden sun, sitting low in the sky, almost touches the brilliant blue of the Pacific surf. Sunlight streams into your sunglass-insulated eyes, as a slow, hot wind rakes its way across the Palisades. In your hand, a cold glass of something alcoholic, perhaps a Jack Daniel’s a la Sinatra- “three rocks, two fingers, and a splash”. And as you raise the glass to your lips, you realize that this moment, this perfect, sublime instant, will never, can never come again. But it’ll live on in your memory, where you’ll go back, where it will always be, as if enclosed in amber, forever golden.

Good evening.

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Guitarist, cinephile, and sometime intellectual. Join me on a journey through ideas, music, and film as I read PPE at the University of Oxford.

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Perry Aw

Perry Aw

Guitarist, cinephile, and sometime intellectual. Join me on a journey through ideas, music, and film as I read PPE at the University of Oxford.

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