Featured Documentary – Echo in the Canyon

IMDb: A look at the roots of the historic music scene in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon featuring the music of iconic music groups such as The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, and The Mamas and the Papas.

When I first heard about this documentary, I wasn’t initially keen on seeing it. While I liked the aforementioned bands, I was not as big a fan of that LA sound as I was of the San Francisco sound. And neither of these appealed to me as much as say, Chuck Berry, Stones, Beatles or blues. Frankly, it struck me as nice chime-y music that lacked anything resembling balls. Just a little too laid back.

And while frankly the appeal of the Byrds is somewhat lost on me, this still seemed like an important slice of rock history, especially since you only have to research rock for five minutes to read about tributes to Laurel Canyon. Which, to me, seemed a bit like an artist’s paradise.

But having said all that, I’m really glad I went to see it and enjoyed it quite a bit. Jakob Dylan is an executive producer and it runs out this is a collaboration between him and a guy named Andrew Slater who used to be a honcho over at Capitol Records. Slater – who used to manage Dylan – and Jakob sat down one night to watch a 1969 movie I have never heard of called Model Shop.

According to Wikipedia, “Apparently the directors caught it playing on Turner Classic Movies. The filmmakers consider it particularly evocative of mid-‘1960s sensibilities. It definitely embodies the feel of that era. Perhaps that’s why Don Draper is watching this movie in episode 7.3 [of Mad Men].”

Inspired by this film, in 2015 Dylan hosted a tribute concert to these bands in LA featuring artists such as Fiona Apple, Beck, Regina Spektor, Cat Power and Jade (who has a pretty amazing voice.) The film is set up to alternate between nostalgic interviews with the artists Who Were There and the younger musicians who grew to appreciate and be inspired by their music.

Dylan is the linchpin who holds the whole thing together, jamming with the various artists, interviewing the older ones, all of whom are pretty much friends of his father (which gives him access.) In one recurring sequence, Dylan, Cat Power, Beck, and Regina Spektor sing some of those artists songs and talk about their understanding of that era.

What made this flick work for me were the interviews with the stars of that era and hearing some of those old tunes. Poignantly, the movie starts with Jakob and Tom Petty (who really wasn’t part of that scene initially) hanging out in a guitar store discussing the proper pronunciation of Rickenbacker.

Because it was the Rickenbacker guitar, specifically the 12-string, that inspired Roger McGuinn which inspired other bands to get into what became known as folk-rock. McGuinn credits the Beatles (specifically George Harrison) for inspiring him to pick up the 12-string. Oddly, he doesn’t relate the fairly well-known story that he first saw George playing it in A Hard Day’s Night.

I like Dylan’s approach to the interviews which is basically to shut up, respectfully listen and not try to inject himself into the story. This gives the interviewees room to reminisce and talk about their experiences. It surprised me somewhat to see Eric Clapton interviewed as I associate him exactly zero with that time and place. But he dug these artists and met a lot of them when Cream was first touring the US.

Dylan: “Eric Clapton was the first person we sat with. Once Eric Clapton says yes, it becomes easier to approach other people. But when pitching the people in this film — all people we knew one way or another — we would send a bit of footage to show them that it was a real project and that we were going to respect them. We just wanted them to talk about whatever they wanted to recall about that time.”

Another poignant sequence involves the only surviving member of the Mamas and the Papas, Michelle Phillips, recounting how “California Dreaming” came to be or how she was a free spirit, essentially having an affair with lead singer Denny Doherty under her husband’s nose.

David Crosby reveals here for the first time why he was tossed out of the Byrds. Not because he wrote a song, “Triad,” about a menage a trois but because – in his own words – “I was an asshole.”

The influence of the Beatles hovers over this movie as – in addition to the Byrds – the Beach Boys are featured and Brian Wilson talks about the well-documented fact that Rubber Soul inspired Pet Sounds which in turn inspired Sgt. Pepper.

Missing conspicuously interview-wise from this film are Paul McCartney (Ringo is here) and Neil Young. And while I’m aware that this was a celebration largely of the community vibe of the Canyon that spawned bands, it puzzled me mightily that not one person mentioned Joni Mitchell who later named an album Ladies of the Canyon. Not even her one-time boyfriend Graham Nash mentioned her. Odd.

Last thing I’ll say is that I was struck by the absence of any people of color whatsoever either in this movie or apparently in this community. Having grown up on R&B, doo-wop and soul in Philly, maybe it was this lack of any kind of black influence that made so much of this music seem, well, kind of white bread.

Anyway, that aside, I dug the film even though it does kinda run out of steam and fresh ideas near the end. If you’re a fan of this music, this movie is a must-see. And if not, it’s still a good slice of rock and roll history.





27 thoughts on “Featured Documentary – Echo in the Canyon

  1. No Joni or Neil is kind of weird – I wonder if Neil disqualified himself by singing that he hated them more than lepers. Why would McCartney need to to be in it? I read that Elliot Roberts, manager to a lot of the Laurel Canyon guys, died yesterday.


    1. I’m not saying that McCartney needed to be in it. But he is pretty generous about making himself available for these documentaries. And as a diehard Wilson fan it would have been great to hear his perspective, especially in regards to his friendly rivalry with the Beach Boys. Much as I love Clapton, by comparison his viewpoint was somewhat peripheral to this particular scene. As to Roberts, I recall hearing his name. Odd coincidence.

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  2. I would probably approach this the same way you did. Not really interested in the Ma &Pas or the music of Crosby or his life but sounds like enough to keep my interest if I stumble on it. You are simply put, an inquisitive guy.


    1. Yeah, that California stuff is not really my bag but then at the same time it is, you know. I love rock music enough and I enjoy seeing these people interviewed enough that it was worth checking out. I like hearing people reminisce about a scene, whether it’s Laurel Canyon in the ’60’s or Paris in the ’20’s.

      Interestingly, I kinda liked the Mamas and Papas, or at least some of their stuff. Actually I typically liked one or two songs by all these bands but usually not enough to run out and buy their albums.

      And that whole era didn’t really become interesting for me until it morphed into Crosby, Stills and Nash who I liked quite a bit.

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      1. You know me Doc, if people dig it and they get enjoyment great. So much other stuff I listen to and haven’t got around to that pushes this aside. But like you said it sounds like the film-makers make it interesting. I just watched one called ‘The Devils Horn’ all about Aldophus Sax. As a music guy it caught my interest and was well done. A music history lesson.


  3. I like a good music documentary or conversation and this sounds interesting enough, Jim.

    Also, Spirit did the soundtrack for Model Shop. That’s all I know about that one.


    1. “Model Shop” seems to have largely disappeared into the annals of film history. Were it not for these two guys it might well have stayed there.

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  4. This sounds right up my alley in terms of documentaries – some elements I know, lots to discover, and a dollop of Tom Petty. I’ll be sure to keep an eye for it. I do love a good 12-string sound, there’s one in a music store in Canterbury that I’ll pick up and play whenever I’m in the area that I’m sure will be in my home sooner or later.


    1. Yeah, definitely a nice, unexpected bit of Petty. I don’t know if this movie is playing in Old Blighty but it’s sure to eventually turn up on the usual streaming sites. Well worth your time. Interestingly, I’m not a big 12-string guy. I like the sound of it alright but I don’t gravitate to it. And I already hate re-stringing my six strings. I’d have to hire a guitar tech!


      1. Yeah the tuning and stringing is kinda a turn-off and probably why I haven’t pushed the button just yet. I’ve played a few in the past though and do love the sound so I know I’d play the snot out of it if it were mine


  5. I might have to see this. But if they didn’t mention Joni (!), and it looks like the great Arthur Lee and Love has been left out (please tell me I’m wrong), I would agree this doc on Laurel Canyon is somewhat flawed. And it looks like Jakob threw in himself and fellow youngsters merely to widen the appeal of his flick. And why is Gainesville’s Tom Petty in this, the first name listed? Merely because he’s a big Byrds fan? Or because Jake’s dad played with him?

    I can understand why you consider ’60s So-Cal music as being laid-back and lacking “balls.” Most rock writers seem to define that time and place by citing the “sweet” sounds of CSNY, Joni, Buffalo Springfield, Beach Boys, Mamas and Papas, etc. But that’s deceiving. There were also the heavier Doors, Love, Mothers, Seeds, Music Machine, Iron Butterfly, Steppenwolf, Spirit, and others. San Francisco was rougher, more down-home and bluesy, with lotsa electric guitar solos. I love both scenes, but these days my long-ravaged ears prefer melody and harmony to blues-rock and guitar wailing.


    1. Zero mention of Joni, none at all on Arthur Lee. As to widening the appeal, well sure, it’s marketing 101. Statistically, we boomers never go see anything but the younger crowd does. So sure, they’re going to appeal to a younger crowd. That said, if you do see it, you’ll see that the “youngsters” have some definite affection for this music.

      Petty’s presence and billing is odd. Maybe due as much to the fact that he died as anything else. Don’t forget that Jake’s dad influenced and/or played with just about everybody in this movie.

      Point absolutely taken about the heavier bands. A documentary waiting to be made perhaps. (Stills mentions that Zappa lived in the Canyon. But the idea that he would go over to their houses and jam on folk songs is laughable.)

      I hear you on the “ear-ravaged” thing. I can go either way these days depending on my mood. But recall that music having balls does not necessarily, or even, mean screaming guitar solo. “Mustang Sally” is kinda ballsy without any of that.

      But one other perspective on that – as a guitar player, it has only been in the last 4 years or so that I’ve developed the proficiency to play Hendrix, Clapton, Trower, SRV solos. And so from a pure player perspective, I haven’t quite gotten those screaming solos out of my system. They’re just a joy to play and in fact I’m currently about 2/3 of the way through the “Free Bird” solo. So, call me Peter Pan on this one. 🙂

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  6. Does it offer any explanation for why a bunch of people (mostly from the Eastern States and Canada) all decided to move to California to form bands but chose LA and specifically Laurel Canyon when the music centres of the day were NYC, San Francisco, and (considering a lot of them were doing country rock) Nashville? It’s a mystery to me how all these people independently decided their musical futures lay in an obscure canyon in the culturally devoid LA Hills. They didn’t move to where the music scene was, a music scene quickly sprang up around them.


    1. Good question. As I recall it was because certain bands/artists already lived there and so – as these things happen – attracted other ones. California is/was always a mecca, a sort of dream paradise. And so once they got there, it was the very remoteness, affordability and laid-back country like feel of Laurel Canyon that appealed, the very fact that it was NOT LA or NY or SF. There were no clubs so they’d visit each other’s houses, get high and play music. So it evolved into an artists’ colony but seemed to attract a musically mellower crowd.

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      1. Zappa seems to have been at the centre of it all. He had a huge house up there called the log cabin and a lot of people either lived, stayed or visited there. It was 24/7 party central.


        1. If that’s the case it didn’t get played up in the movie. Steven Stills mentions living across the way from him or something and seeing/hearing him play. That was the only mention. Zappa was so NOT 12-string mellow I wonder how well he mixed with that crowd. He could be a condescending, judgmental SOB> Plus he was a few years older and virulently anti=drug.


        2. Huh! Now THAT would have been an interesting story to go into detail on. None of this made it into that documentary at all. Zappa is, at best, a side character. I suppose all filmmakers have their own agenda and that story didn’t fit it. Especially since it was less about the party scene and more about that 12-string California sound. If you haven’t seen it, there’s a good Zappa documentary called ‘Eat That Question.’

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