Of all the musical streets in Los Angeles, and there are many, Sunset Boulevard is the most musical of all. No other street has so consistently shaped the city’s sonic identities, on so many different levels across so many different decades, in the ways that Sunset has.
The iconic 1.7 West Hollywood miles of what’s known around the world as the Sunset Strip is certainly a big part of this story, but it’s only one among many as you follow the boulevard from the coast to downtown. Ever since its future was laid on Tongva land by a convict labor chain gang in the early 1900s, Sunset has been home to multiple musical cultures and industries: instrument shops, sheet music and record stores, recording and TV studios, theaters, nightclubs, and record labels. Sunset may be most synonymous with the Strip’s golden age of late-‘60s psychedelic rock rebellion and late-‘80s hair metal excess—scenes and lifestyles typically associated with white youth—but the musical stories the street tells include key histories of trailblazing racial integration, the expanded influence of Latin American and Chicano scenes, the West Coast outposts of Motown and Soul Train, the boom of disco, the evolution of punk, and the long revolutionary arc of underground queer culture. It’s been a street of musical capitalism run amok—the place where subcultural rebels end up in major label boardrooms— and a street of radical protest, where policed and oppressed communities agitate for justice and rights.
When I learned of Ed Ruscha’s photographic archive of Sunset’s built environment, I wanted to listen to it. What does the history of Sunset sound like? What is the music of all of this visual urbanism? I imagined songs for every building, sounds for every address. “Is there a way to portray Los Angeles that hasn’t already been seen?” Ruscha recently asked. “There is always another view.” He’s right, and there is always another sound as well, another musical portrayal that hasn’t already been heard.
In the past, I have written about L.A.’s musical history and its sprawling “musical ecologies” (to remix a phrase by another white automotive L.A. street chronicler Reyner Banham) from a variety of angles—early sheet music, civil unrest, Latin American immigration, among others—and Sunset always makes an appearance. The street is saturated with musical ghosts, layered in rich sonic sediment. Ruscha’s photographs of buildings, sidewalks, and signage make a lot of invaluable noise. By listening to Sunset, you can hear how the street’s built environment has changed, how its musical color lines have been both crossed and shored up, how gentrification has displaced generations of communities, and how the city’s love of amnesia is so often foiled by musical returns of the repressed.
Follow along over the coming weeks as I visit ten photographs, and tune in to the songs that help reveal their histories.
“Everyone looked like a star to me”
In 1974, El Club Continental was in its final year as a nightlife capital of Latino Silver Lake. Located next to a Mexican appliance store advertising estufas and secadoras on its windows, the club’s dance floor was a reliable neighborhood stop for local Mexicans and Central Americans who dressed up and found after-work refuge in classic cumbias and salsa montunos. Still a predominantly middle-class Latino neighborhood, 1970’s Silver Lake was also home to a growing gay and lesbian community, and by the end of the decade leather bars shared sidewalks with Mexican restaurants.
El Club Continental had a ton of real estate (its location now holds a Japanese izakaya, a nail spa, and a dental office) and solid bones. The music steeped in its walls helps unravel the club’s illustrious backstory. In the 1940s, it was Club Zarape, a legendary upscale dancehall that featured top Cuban and Puerto Rican bands and billed itself as “California’s most popular Latin American rendezvous.” Zarape promised an “original Spanish atmosphere” (a gringo-friendly appeal to non-Latinos looking for a taste of the city’s “fantasy heritage,” as Carey McWilliams famously called it) and delivered a menu that offered both a “Special Mexican Dinner” and a “Special American Dinner.”
Among its acclaimed house bands was the “Latin-American Orchestra” of Esy Morales. The Puerto Rican flautist and horn player, a veteran of Xavier Cugat’s band, became an L.A. favorite when he and his glossy rumba “Jungle Fantasy” were featured on screen in the 1949 Hollywood film Criss Cross (which brought Burt Lancaster to Bunker Hill). Other Zarape residents included the esteemed likes of Chicano music pioneer Lalo Guerrero, Cuban singer Miguelito Valdés, and Cuban pianist Nilo Menéndez, best known as the composer of the classic bolero Aquellos Ojos Verdes (later a translated hit for Jimmy Dorsey). They all did their time on studio backlots—Valdés shared the screen with Humphrey Bogart and Rita Hayworth in 1942’s You Were Never Lovelier—which helped make Club Zarape into a certified haunt for Hollywood celebs. “The place was full of stars and beautiful people,” percussionist Tito Puente recalled of a night at the club. “Everyone looked like a star to me.”
When Zarape morphed into Club Havana, its reputation for top-shelf Latin music skyrocketed. Co-owned by respected LA bandleader and saxophonist Rene Bloch (a veteran of both the Johnny Otis and Pérez Prado big bands), the Havana was notorious for thrilling mambo dance-offs and packed Battle of the Bands nights that pitted Bloch’s elite house orchestra against visiting headliners like Tito Puente. But by the end of the 1960s, Latin music was catering less and less to Hollywood tastes. Unlike previous eras when Sunset clubs were more segregated and the Mocambo and Trocadero allowed more Latinos on stage than on the dancefloor, Club Havana’s patrons were browner and blacker than ever before. By the time El Club Continental took the space over, the “El” in its title and its use of “baile” and “música latina” in its signage were direct messages to the local Latino neighborhood that it belonged to them as much as anyone else.
El Club Continental was demolished after a fire in 1975, replaced by a pawn shop, an immigration tax office, a mom-and-pop mariscos restaurant, and a corner liquor store, Silver Sun Liquor. The nearly 60-year reign of Latin music at 2905 Sunset Boulevard had met its end.
As gentrification accelerated in the late ‘90s, Latinos were gradually pushed out of the neighborhood. Silver Sun Liquor hung around long enough to get a second life. It inspired the band name of early-aughts favorite Silversun Pickups and finalized the transformation of a majestic address of Latin American Los Angeles into a hipster landmark for a new era of indie rock.