Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Stevie Nicks and Jack Johnson are just a few of the big name musicians who developed their art and audience in tiny Isla Vista.
The genesis of the Isla Vista music scene dates back to the 1960s. There were no music clubs in Isla Vista then, or today for that matter, except folky Borsodi’s, a beatnik-like espresso bar, which sometimes hosted rock bands but leaned more to open mic poetry and classical acts like the now-respectable Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, arguably Isla Vista’s longest-running band. It was a time when stars like Hendrix and The Band played Rob Gym, and the most legendary rock moment was the day Morrison hung out near Sands and wrote “The Crystal Ship” staring with glazed eyes at the oil platforms. Santana’s group, then called the Santana’s Blues Band, played a tiny club just outside Isla Vista (later FUBAR) so often people assumed they were the local’s opening act. Isla Vista at that time was more hippie kaleidoscope than student enclave, and bands played wherever they could.
Despite the lack of a nightclub, the players came. Ensuing decades brought a dizzying variety of bands forged in garages and house parties. In the pre-coffee house era of sock hops, homecoming games and Greek parties, Santa Barbara bands like Ernie and the Emperors stepped up to the college town; later turning into Giant Crab and Captain Speed as the times warranted.
Over time, the college grew from cozy liberal arts school to a complex institution, and Isla Vista transformed from strategic hamlet to party town. Music filled the air. “You heard bands from outside the parties and you went in,” said Kim Flory ’77. “All the parties were open.”
“I didn’t know a lot of bands by name,” said Erik Moore ’89, now technical director at Campbell Hall. “The thing that was so cool back then was that you would have a few drinks with friends and head out into the night listening for music. You could hear a band play several blocks away. You’d aim in that general direction until you found them.”
Then the flood gate opened with a vengeance. The first great Isla Vista band I heard was a progressive rock outfit circa 1972 called Little Emo playing in a vacant lot across from Perfect Park led by classically-trained violinist James Sitterly—now a teacher and Hollywood Studio Orchestra member. Bouncy and satirical like Frank Zappa, lush like Jethro Tull and dazzling like no one else. By the late decade punk was ascendant and the Rotters played their most famous song addressed obscenely to one of the Fleetwood Mac women just outside the UCen glass doors (“Sit on My Face Stevie Nicks”). The Moorpark punk band with Isla Vista players included, were gleefully booed at a later beer-spitting fest in Anisq’Oyo’ Park and became infamous enough to be banned by KROQ—allegedly by Stevie Nicks herself.
The 1980s brought the emergence of an actual club first dubbed the Graduate, though friendlier to big names than to homegrown sounds. The club was re-named The Anaconda, then later the Isla Vista Brewing Company.
Music during this time had expanded to include many genres. Marshall Donovan ’80, a communication systems manager for Kaiser Permanente, played in three Isla Vista cover bands himself, savoring mainstream rockers like Sneakers with UCSB professor Doug Scott on guitar and Reverie, a band featuring Jeff Foskett who went on to play with the Beach Boys and became Brian Wilson’s musical director. Santa Barbara Independent writer Henry Sarria claims to have seen Sonic Youth at Borsodi’s in those days for $5 cover. Who needed local bands?
The 1990s were the deluge years thanks to a vibrant Santa Barbara club scene. Townie bands like Dishwalla, Nerfherder and Toad the Wet Sprocket were signed by big labels and made national charts. Many of them played Isla Vista parties and the infamous Red Barn in Anisq’Oyo’ and were confused for college town rockers. The classic Isla Vista band signing was Ugly Kid Joe, a metal group whose band members were couch surfing Isla Vista one week and putting down payments on Goleta tract homes the next.
"You could hear a band play several blocks away. You'd aim in that general direction until you found them."
- Erik Moore '89
Matt Kettman ’99, a senior editor at the Santa Barbara Independent, came along during this time with Animal Liberation Orchestra (ALO) and others with surprisingly rural agrarian monikers like Evil Farmer, Cool Water Canyon and Soil, the band that put Jack Johnson ’97 on stage. Johnson, a platinum record seller and UCSB film studies grad, has made it a point to give back to the campus on many levels.
The years have been eclectic, with dance stars emerging as frequently as pop stars. There was the reggae and ska comeback from the 1970s heyday, reborn in Del Playa parties through the still active rock bands Iration and Rebelution. Even grander than Jack Johnson is deejay (nix: electro house musician) Steve Aoki ’01 who began a career, a label and a scene called the Pickle Room in the 90s and is now world famous. A superstar, Aoki began spinning in a little garage known as Biko House which remains a champion of Isla Vista music and where music lovers can see bands up close.
Or they can still go into the parks. Three years ago, the student-run WORD Magazine held its Wordstock celebration of four bands headlined by FMLYBND. The band Psychedelic, offers a Christian message that neo-hippies in the park didn’t mind while dancing to streaming bubbles. And I remembered Little Emo in the same park 40 years earlier. Imagine what a regular concert space might have created.
D.J. Palladino is a longtime Santa Barbara resident and is on staff in UCSB’s Department of Film & Media Studies.