It’s tempting to imagine that Kenny Laguna invented the lifework he chronicles in the songs and liner notes of Laguna Tunes, that this parade of detritus—Tony Orlando before Dawn, Sissy Spacek singing the soundtrack to an Andy Warhol film, Bill Medley between the Righteous Brothers and his 1980s blip—is some kind of Nabokovian ploy concocted six months ago in a New York studio. But it isn’t a sham, exactly, just an unprecedented distillation of a phantasmic realm: the world of shameless bubblegum, where balladeers rejected pathos as bathos that wasn’t trying hard enough, studio groups were invented at the drop of a hat, and anything could be stuck on the B side.
Laguna, later the keyboardist and producer for Joan Jett, broke in as a teenage wunderkind, backing the Shangri-Las and others at concerts staged by New York’s main AM station, and conjuring 45s whenever he could line up a song, singer, and label. Stranded in California by Tommy James, he befriended Beserkeley, home to Jonathan Richman (not included, though Laguna produced him) among other crazies; on this compilation, Beserkeley’s Zep-suppressed radio cult staple “Stairway to Gilligan’s Island” finally gets a legit issuing. When punk hit, La-guna fit right in, recognizing grubby hustlers underneath all the hype. Besides Jett, he helmed Malcolm McLaren’s version of teenybop: Bow Wow Wow, represented by the still greasy rape fantasy “Louis Quatorze.” The latest tracks here are a 1997 Cole Porter cover by Jett and Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin and a 1985 Jett session with the Beach Boys and Darlene Love. For a career arc, quite a wingspan.
The latter song’s called “Good Music,” pretty funny given Laguna’s spaghetti-on-the-wall aesthetic. But the CD might convince you that that isn’t a sham, either, or that it’s the founding sham of rock and roll. There’s an August Darnell-penned disco tune about trying to get into Studio 54—everyone in Lagunaland is trying to get an in somewhere—and its even better B side: the saga of how many labels said no to the A side before Eddie O’, who’d go on to found Salt-N-Pepa’s Next Plateau, said yes. The version of “Dancin’ in the Moonlight” that King Harvest stole (“once again, ‘we was robbed’ “). An instrumental B side for Wind that became a British chart topper in 1970 after the BBC didn’t know which side to play. Any number of baritones trying to make like Neil Diamond. And endless covers, by ersatz ensembles like Moose and the Pelicans, because “rock and roll is going to set you free.” Think they’re kidding? Look at them!
You could draw cynical conclusions from this album: that pop never changes, just the shtick of those trying to cash in; that the only difference between a song on a Rhino compilation and one in somebody’s attic is a million spins on the radio. The truth is, Laguna and his pals, even Joan Jett, had a hard time mustering the self-importance to become historic figures. So they drifted around, with the result a record that keeps finding the same sweet spot, whether the inspiration is the Brill Building, Motown, longhair AM, or the Ramones. I find myself singing “Sudden Death” by Anders, Laguna, and Ginsberg, which tries so hard to top Procol Harum it ends up anticipating Tom Petty. Rock isn’t just trash. But that’s one of the things it is, and weirdly enough, the folks cutting demos in the garbage can are often the truest believers.