1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

'Echo in the Canyon': trippy story of folk rock

Philipp Jedicke sh
June 8, 2020

The documentary revisits the Laurel Canyon music scene, which created bands like the Beach Boys and left a lasting impact on music history. The community was rife with psychedelics, parties and musical experimentation

Echo in the Canyon
Image: Echo In The Canyon LLC

Some cities are rooted in music history, like Detroit with Motown or Seattle with grunge rock.

In some cases, a musical scene is even associated with a specific neighborhood ⁠— like Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills West district of Los Angeles. The hilly neighborhood became the counterculture center of the late 60s and 70s and is known as the birthplace of California folk rock, which emerged around 1965. A variation of the West Coast sound, it was never a clearly defined musical genre, but involved musical legends such as the Beach Boys and The Mamas and the Papas.

As the first bars of "Turn! Turn! Turn!" by The Byrds or the intro to "California Dreaming" by The Mamas and the Papas indicate, the California sound was something special. It symbolized new beginnings and hope in a time of great social upheaval.

The documentary Echo in the Canyon, released in Germany on June 8, tells this story.

A new place and sound

From 1965 to 1967, during the golden era of the hippies and love and peace, California couldn't get enough of The Byrds' Mr. Tambourine Man or the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. Even the Beatles, who were the world's top band, were enthralled by the sounds coming out of sunny California. In the cultural consciousness, music from this forested neighborhood became as synonymous with flower power as the peace sign or the Woodstock music festival.

Five years ago, Andrew Slater, a filmmaker and the former head of storied label Capitol Records, organized a concert in honor of the Laurel Canyon scene with singer-songwriter Jakob Dylan (the son of Bob Dylan). This gave rise to the idea of making a documentary film, directed by Slater with Dylan conducting interviews as the protagonist.

Read more: A sign for climate protection: Beethoven's Pastoral in pandemic times

Laurel Canyon: unique place of musical exchange

Throughout the film he meets the artists responsible for Californian folk rock, some of whom still partly reside in the famous canyon. During their heyday, they influenced one another, creating a musical sound for which the area became known. Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Carole King are among the musicians who once lived there and left their mark on this feel-good sound.

Echo in the Canyon
The mountainous Laurel Canyon neighborhood of L.A. was the epicenter of the California soundImage: Echo In The Canyon LLC

Although the city center of Los Angeles was only a short drive away, the Laurel Canyon musicians skipped the clubs of the city and instead held house parties, took mind-expanding drugs and jammed together day in and day out. The free flow of ideas meant the musicians influenced one another, sometimes "stealing" musical concepts or ideas from one another — a kind of exchange that was embraced and accepted.

Several developments led to the success of the Laurel Canyon scene around the time. For one, guitar maker Rickenbacker developed a 12-string electric guitar that gave amplified folk exactly the sonic boost it needed.

Secondly, for the first time, DJs played rock music with poetic depth on the radio.

Finally, the Beatles and the Beach Boys influenced each other from across the Atlantic over several albums. The exchange began when Brian Williams of the Beach Boys sat down and listened to the Beatles' album Rubber Soul in awe. The record was a major inspiration for the layered tracks of Pet Sounds, while Pet Sounds was in turn an inspiration for the Beatles' next album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Until this period "bubblegum-pop" — a musical subgenre that emerged in the 60s and was targeted at teens — was the primary pop sound. But with the Laurel Canyon scene came a more sophisticated message, with socio-critical voices coming into prominence. Bands set lyrics by folk icons like Pete Seeger or Bob Dylan to music in new ways. "We were beginning to take rock 'n' roll seriously," David Crosby says in the documentary. Thus, folk rock was born. 

Read more: On decolonizing school books, the internet and mindsets

A lasting influence on pop and rock music

In the film, Neil Young's departure from the band Buffalo Springfield marks the end of the Laurel Canyon scene. Neil Young is not interviewed in the film, but his guitar can be heard throughout it. As the credits on the film roll, recent footage of Young alone in a recording studio seems to symbolize how many Laurel Canyon musicians broke away to make music on their own.

Echo in the Canyon
Regina Spektor, Jakob Dylan, Beck and Cat Power (from left to right) rehearse songs from the era together in a scene from the filmImage: Echo In The Canyon LLC

The Laurel Canyon sound had a lasting influence on musicians such as Tom Petty, who was inspired by the period while writing songs like "Free Fallin'" or "Learning To Fly." Other contemporary musicians sharing his influence include 80s and 90s indie artists like Beck, Cat Power, Regina Spektor and Fiona Apple, and some of them appear in the documentary to reinterpret songs from that era.

Echo in the Canyon offers a look at the short, intense era that continues to exert an immense influence on all rock and pop music today. The film is more than just a successful music documentary; it shows the USA as the best it can be: a country of unbridled creativity, poetry and openness.