In the mid-60s big changes were afoot in the US, culturally, politically, and musically. The British invasion brought The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and others to America, and rock music was in its formative years. It was still coming together and mutating from its roots in the blues, country, and folk. The watershed moment was Bob Dylan trading in his acoustic guitar for electric thus helping to take folk music beyond what it had been before.
But he wasn’t the first or only musician to do it — there was a broader context of new technology, a spirit of experimentation, and musical cross-pollination, particularly in and around LA, and specifically in Laurel Canyon. The canyon scene had groups of astounding musicians focused on poetic lyrics and complex harmonies, like The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas and the Papas, and The Beach Boys. They influenced each other, as well as their friends like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jackson Browne, and Eric Clapton.
In Echo in the Canyon, Jakob Dylan interviews some of the major players from that scene, like Roger McGuinn, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Brian Wilson, and Michelle Phillips, plus some of the people they influenced like Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, and Tom Petty. And if that weren’t enough, he brings together some of his musical contemporaries like Regina Spektor, Beck, Norah Jones, Cat Power, and Fiona Apple to re-record and talk about some of the most interesting songs of the time period. Between the original songs, the new versions, and the firsthand stories of how they came about, the result is a combination musical documentary and concert film right up there with the all-time greats.
“…a broader context of new technology, a spirit of experimentation, and musical cross-pollination, particularly…in Laurel Canyon.”
A highlight of the film is the way it weaves together stories from the bands who knew and influenced each other. Bob Dylan heard the electric folk of the Byrds and decided to do it himself. And of course, they were influenced by Dylan, recording their own version of Mr. Tambourine Man. Clapton and the Beatles were influenced by the electric folk sound too. George Harrison snagged one of the prototypes of the 12 string Rickenbackers (an instrument favored by Petty himself and Roger McGuinn). How would history have been different if someone else got that guitar?
The pop sound evolved quickly, from songs about love to more poetic lyrics influenced by the folk tradition. Complex harmonies started to dominate, and experimentation continued from there. Perhaps the pinnacle of the era was the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, delivered by the genius of Brian Wilson. Just about every musician of the times mentions the revelatory nature of that album, and the race of each band to make their own version of something that groundbreaking. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was The Beatles’ answer.