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Audio Autopsy, 1979: The Last, "L.A. Explosion!" LP on Bomp! Records: Anachronistic Power Pop
It's the best album no one's ever heard, which might just make it the blinding, decade-defining '80s musical turn-signal no one noticed.
If There’s an Explosion, Shouldn’t Somebody Feel Its Blast Wave?
If an album could be a “landmark recording” with virtually no one having heard it, that album might just be L.A. Explosion! by The Last (Bomp! Records, US, 1979, London Records in the UK; it also saw distribution in Germany and Japan). To paraphrase the old philosophical thought experiment: “If an album is released to the public, and there’s no one around to hear it, can it make an impact?”
This one is spoken of in hushed tones at record shows, brought up about once a year in online chat rooms, and seems to just sit in the corner, minding its own business. Meanwhile, unlimited bandwidth is stretched to the limit with non-stop online blather about Journey-this and Eagles-that.
Again With the Genre Tussle
The Last is a product of Los Angeles, circa 1976, which is just as it should be: While impossible to shackle them to one musical genre, they effortlessly skateboard around such disparate labels as SoCal folk, the early surfin’ bros, garage rock, with even a hint of flowered psychedelia…featuring three-part harmonies by a set of brothers, yet!
They’re often saddled with the lazy handle of “power pop,” but that doesn’t even come close to being accurate, despite the recent desperate plea of one Frank Valish in UnderTheRadarMag that The Last “was a remarkable blend of chiming guitars, Beatles-esque melodies, sparkling harmonies, and just a dash of something more dangerous, more punk.”
Except for that last nine-word phrase, he could be describing no one other than The Raspberries! The Last was as distant from The Raspberries as they were from brussels sprouts.
In 2014, The OCWeekly came with this succinct observation: Calling The Last “punk rock survivors,” they declared that “the ferocity of their sound combined hardcore punk with a splash of surf pop that became the area’s calling card, even if others made it more popular.”
Continuing, the OCWeekly reminds us that “The Last's first shows were at local house parties, which became the blueprint to how many Southern California punk bands hone their craft today.”
Lighting the Fuse
Their 1979 album, L.A. Explosion! (produced by John Harrison with The Last) was, however, released on the decidedly power pop-celebrating Bomp! Records, the label founded by the late, great Greg Shaw, a key curator and protector of the oft-maligned genre, certainly in the non-corporate, fan-led grass roots level of the music.
‘Twas Shaw (whom I came to know fairly well at the time) who came up with the definitive apologetics lesson for those who would pooh-pooh the power pop trend: “A few hand claps and la-las won’t kill you!” I should’ve gotten a tattoo.
Under the audio microscope, the sound of The Last can be dissected by spotlighting the songwriters who contributed tunes to bands The Last can be said to heavily echo, namely:
A musical mash-up of Ed Cobb’s “Dirty Water” by the Standells (Cobb wrote “Tainted Love,” hits by Gloria Jones and Soft Cell), the tuneful stomp of The Music Explosion (whose “Little Bit O’ Soul” was co-penned by John Carter, who would later write the First Class’s ersatz surfin’ “Beach Baby”), and arguably the most direct influence, The Seeds’ “A Thousand Shadows,” written by singer, Sky Saxon.
They may just be the Electric Prunes’ little brothers.
Call it stylistic influences by osmosis.
The Last, for L.A. Explosion!, were brothers Joe Nolte (guitar), Mike Nolte (vocals), and David Nolte (bass). Joining them were Jack Reynolds on drums, and Vitus Mataré on keyboards and flute.
You Can Almost Smell the Oil on the Floor and Dried Grass on the Mower Blades
The actual first of The Last ended up being the poorly-mixed, re-recorded lead-off track on L.A. Explosion! two years later on Bomp!. It’s the signature “She Don’t Know Why I’m Here” (written by Joe Nolte), presented here in the glorious, raw passion of restless SoCal teens bored, inspired, and 1/4-of-a-mile from the beach (impossibly rare—with but 300 being pressed, according to Joe—and self-financed on their own Backlash Records, a single, released in November 1977. Two more on Backlash followed before their 1979 Bomp! signing):
“This Kind of Feeling”
L.A. Explosion!’s second track explores the mid-60s, jangly, ferry-’cross-the-Arroyo-Seco/Peter & Gordon harmony sound that flustered many who were completely sold on their occasional Raw Power/Iggy ferocity. “This Kind of Feeling”: You’d think it would be impossible to evoke an era without sounding cloying or cutely derivative.
Somehow, Joe manages to do two notable things here: A) display the selfless, gentlemanly courtesy toward girls Mr. and Mrs. Nolte obviously taught him, with his, “I’d rather see you free than sad with me” lyric, and B) like the unselfconscious, late ‘60s psych-pop triumph of Tears for Fears’ “Sowing the Seeds of Love” in 1989, pens a remarkable tune that sounds shockingly of the time, here, about 1966…and, all without a knowing wink.
Seriously, AM radio of 1979, how could you possibly keep this from getting airplay?:
Where Van Halen Once Plotted and Plodded
“Century City Rag” follows, in Joe’s paean to the concrete jungle just 18 miles north up the 405. In this live clip from October 1979, the boys take over The Starwood in West Hollywood (it closed two years later).
Two things to notice in the club where, two years before, Van Halen was famously signed by Warner Bros. Records prez, Mo Ostin and A&R exec/producer, Ted Templeman by scribbling a letter of intent on a napkin: Whatever stage clothes worn by Van Halen on their memorable night (later, of course, nothing but custom jumpsuits and “rock star” gear), it’s doubtful they were wearing Sears t-shirts like Joe and Mike, here!
Also, the Rickenbacker guitars, so gently caressed by “power pop” bands of the day, are all but shredded, here, like Johnny Ramone’s storied Mosrite! Never have Ricks been forced to endure such glorious punishment!
“I wanna go back to when the world was free, When all my friends were just like me: Southern California, 1963. And we'll run, Under the summer sun; Ride the summer waves Every summer day”--Joe Nolte
It’s The Last at their very Jan & Dean-ish, with jangly Ricks! “Every Summer Day”:
“I think I'll be able to be a teen idol by the time I'm 65!”--Joe Nolte, 2014
Tremor Over Time
“I'm struggling to get used to the idea that all memory of me has been mostly consigned to the ashes of the ages,” sighed Joe Nolte in 2014, recalling L.A. Explosion!. “But, people seem to like it, and that little record had much more of an impact that you'd expect from the sales.”
Summing up the ultimate influence of The Last over the decades, OCWeekly explains: “Despite the group's short time in the punk spotlight, Nolte's outfit had a lasting impact on Southern California punk.
“The Last has been cited by members of Black Flag and The Bangles – Susanna Hoffs almost joined Nolte as a second singer in the early '80s(!) – as one of the most important bands of their time.
“Though they came up around the same time, the singer jokes that the people have only heard of Black Flag and (Manhattan Beach neighbors) the Descendents. He doesn't say this is a sense of regret or bitterness, instead, he fondly compares The Last to ‘the ancient Chicago blues guys the English bands would talk about in the '60s that no one would have ever heard of.’”
Finally, “The Last may not be as celebrated as their contemporaries, but their legacy, [four] decades later, is cemented in South Bay punk history. Nolte doesn't lament the band's lack of popularity, instead, he relishes it:
“‘I've had a lot of years to philosophically adjust to it,’ he says. ‘I've had enough experience to where I've been able to come to grips with it and let it be whatever it was, or to play in traffic. I chose not to play in traffic, but if we keep at it, I think I'll be able to be a teen idol by the time I'm 65!’”
Sometime in 1980, the band endured what might have been called their “L.A. Implosion.” Amid frustration in recording L.A. Explosion!’s follow-up, Look Again, the band called it quits, but not before finishing recording.
A few albums (late ‘80s into the mid-‘90s), mostly for SST Records, were also released.
Now, 40 years later, in November 2020, Look Again, re-mixed and re-mastered, finally saw the light of day:
“Listening to Look Again,” asserts Undertheradarmag.com, “confirms what those who experienced the band in real time testify: The Last could have (and should have) been huge. But as frontman Joe Nolte says in the liner notes, ‘…we would still be has-beens by now.’” Follow The Last on Facebook!
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