My “Sad California” playlist – Part 1

When we decided to move from Germany to California, of course I immedately started to compile a “mix tape” for the occasion. And me being me, it of course tended to be more on the dark, sad, melancholy side.

Now you might ask, how can anyone write sad songs about the Golden State, where the sun shines most of the time (unless on foggy San Francisco days) and the happy people go to the beach every day. Well… for one California is not just beach and fun, no Sir. It has more to offer than that, in every respect. But for me it’s the bittersweet, melancholy part that’s more interesting: The sad feeling of leaving friends and family for a new life somewhere else, the hopelesness of never seeing certain places you always wanted to go, the lonely feeling when you don’t know a lot of people (yet), the fear of not making it… As one of these romanticized places that people dream about and a lot of people eventually move to, California has quite some darkness to offer.

And the playlist kept on growing. There actually are a lot of songs dealing with the dark side of California – from homelessness to shattered dreams, from unrequited love to feeling outcast, from separation to this romantic unfulfilled and often vague longing a lot of people have, especially here. So, here’s the first five songs on this playlist:


Under The Bridge – Red Hot Chili Peppers

Starting with an obvious one, so please bare with me – there will be more obscure ones further down this road. To me the Red Hot Chili Peppers are masters in conveying the beauty, the lifestyle AND the dark underbelly, the desperate emotions you find in California at the same time, especially in a city like Los Angeles.

Their songs are full of the fun and the stranded, the perfect desparate soundtrack for walking down Hollywood Boulevard from the touristy, glitzy corner of Highland and Hollywood towards the non-glamerous part of town. The newer “Californication” is another one that would fit here (and it actually is on the playlist), but “Under The Bridge” is the LA classic: “Sometimes I feel like my only friend is the city I live in, the city of angels, lonely as I am, together we cry…”


Hollywood Seven – Alides Hidding

An underrated gem, “Hollywood Seven” by Dutch singer/songwriter Alides Hidding, tells the sad story of a young girl from Omaha, coming to Hollywood to make it as a movie star. An everyday story – today as much as it was in 1980 when the song was released. Although this kind of story doesn’t end as tragic for everyone, it often ends in defeat, self-recrimination and falling-out with former friends. Leaving more and more stranded characters on the outskirts of Tinseltown.

“Hollywood Seven, rooms to rent ’till your name goes up in lights, Hollywood Seven, you can dream your dreams for seven bucks a night.” I’m sure that today you won’t find rooms for seven bucks, but the melancholy of the song still rings true: Not everyone hustling in the city of angels will make it. Eventually Hollywood probably spits out more disillusioned and broken people than glamourous stars.

And the song’s story ends tragically: “Now the months went by without a job, the money that she saved was nearly spent, so she started bringing strangers home, had to find a way to pay the rent.” While still keeping the dream alive: “She’d sit and drink black coffee, with nothing much to say, just busy rehearsing in her mind, the scene she’d never play.” In the last verses she loses her life after she “brought the wrong one home”, going back to Omaha “but not the way she planned, there’ll be no crowd to cheer her up, no ‘Welcome home’, no band.”

With the tens of thousands of aspiring people in this city I can only guess how many fail every day, become desparate, see no future…


California – Manfred Mann’s Earth Band

Feeling left behind and empty, full of sad nostalgia: The topics in Manfred Mann’s “California”, released in 1978. “Livin’ out in California, seems to suit you well, but my news is all second hand, so it’s hard for me to tell.”

I think this is one of the songs that describe my feeling of leaving behind friends and family best: You’re worlds apart (sometimes geographically and mentally) and they hope you’re well, but can’t just come over for a visit: “One day I’ll make it out to California, see if it’s what it seems, I’ve been there many times before, but only in my dreams.” I feel for the ones left behind, their pain is perfectly captured in these wailing vocals.


California – Belinda Carlisle (and our own no:carrier cover version…)

Leaving California and how this is not easy for a Golden State native – Belinda Carlisle’s main topic in her 1996 song about the death of River Phoenix and the Northridge Quake that ultimately brought her to the decision to move her family to France. Again, it’s about the dark side of showbiz that leads to failed carreers and sometimes even untimely deaths: “It took a lot for me to say, I want to walk away LA, from the sharks and the chardonnay, in California…” – are these the sharks in the entertainment industry she’s singing about or just the sharks in the ocean?

This is also one of the California themed songs we covered with no:carrier on our 2015 EP “Ghosts Of The West Coast”. It’s somewhat darker and edgier then the original, with great haunting vocals by Melissa Harding:


Sunset Grill – Don Henley

Another song about stranded creatures, unreachable dreams and the feeling that you’d have to move away but just can’t. Don Henley’s 1984 song “Sunset Grill” about this actual Hollywood landmark (although the building has been torn down and re-built since then) seems to have all this in it. According to his co-writer Danny Kortchmar, Henley “admired the fact that the same family and the same people had run it for many years, and that the burgers were made with love – they were everything he liked about American society. So he used that Sunset Grill as a metaphor for what he liked, what he thought was great about society. And then he also used it to describe what he didn’t like, which is plenty.” With lyrics talking about the meanness in the city and little murders that pay, the song takes a good look at this dark side of life in Los Angeles.

And again there’s this longing for a change: But although he promises his girl that someday they’ll drive away to a better life, he says “Meanwhile, have another beer, what would we do without all these jerks anyway? Besides, all our friends are here.”

Author: Chris Wirsig

Chris Wirsig enjoyed classical training on piano and saxophone, studied audio engineering at Munich’s SAE Technology College and has more than 15 years experience in music production. He has been writing songs since 1991 and contributed music for computer demos and commercial games throughout the 1990s. Apart from other music projects he started the acclaimed Electro Noire band no:carrier in 1995 and the Electronica/Chill-Out project Virtual Conformity in 2001. He worked as an editor for the musician’s magazine KEYS and founded the first German fair-trade record label, NovaTune. His latest works include music and sound fx for the acclaimed Top Ten iPad game “Alien Tribe 2”, the short mystery movie "20 Matches", the critically acclaimed no:carrier album “Wisdom & Failure”, and their EP of cover versions, "Ghosts Of The West Coast".

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