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P.F Sloan and Steve Barri
While you may not immediately recognize the name PF Sloan, there’s a good chance that somewhere in the depths of your record collection, perhaps in the section reserved exclusively for the 1960s, you’ll find a song written by the talented teenage composer, or even another -recorded two numbers, under one of many pseudonyms.
Phil Sloan, as he was known then, had already started out as a fake singer when he was gorgeously tenderly signed to the West Coast branch of Screen Gems in 1964 at the age of 18. He immediately teamed up with another young songwriter, Steve Barr, and together, in quick succession, they wrote Billboard 100 hits in a wide variety of genres, from R&B and folk-rock to girl groups and surf pop. Unfortunately, a feud with Dunhill Records president Jay Lasker, largely a byproduct of Sloan’s understandable desire to record under his own name, led to his permanent dismissal from the label in late 1967. Barri, who had always been content in his role as a writer/producer, became head of the label’s A&R department before taking the same position at Warner Bros. Records. He is currently on a college tour giving lectures on the history of rock ‘n’ roll.
After releasing a couple of solo albums, Measure for Pleasure (1968) and Raised on Records (1972), Sloane simply disappeared without a trace. He later admitted that he had been “abandoned and mentally ill” for a long time. An account in the LA Times of a 1993 performance at the Troubadour in West Hollywood to promote his comeback album (Still on the) Eve of Destruction suggests that even then his problems may not have been entirely behind him:
“Unfortunately, Sloan’s eccentric performance style too often interfered with the more appealing qualities of his songs. He was constantly on the move, full of nervous tics and movements, incessantly chewing gum, often interrupting the flow of the music with long, indistinct stories that were torn apart to the point of disconnection. As the evening progressed, he occasionally added aggressive voices in support of a vague socio-political agenda.
After that, in 2006, he recorded only one more album, Sailover.
His incredible work at Dunhills in the years leading up to his devastating collapse must have taken its toll. Between 1964 and 1967, he collaborated with Barri to write hits for some of the biggest acts of the decade, including The Searchers, The Mamas and Papas, The Fifth Dimension, The Turtles, Herman’s Remits and Johnny Rivers. In addition, his anguished protest song Eve of Destruction (Eve of Destruction), written in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, was a worldwide hit for Barry McGuire. He also charted in the UK under his own name, or at least its latest variation, PF Sloan, for the first and last time when his Dylanesque boilerplate ‘The Sins of a Family’ reached No.38 in 1965.
During the Dunhill years, Sloan recorded around the clock with Barr under group names such as The Lifeguards, The Wildcats, Sheridan Hollenbeck Orchestra and Chorus, Phillip and Stephan, Willie & the Wheels, The Fantastic Baggys, Themes Inc., Themes Street Cleaners and The Grass Roots. Among the side projects, perhaps the Fantastic Baggys cut a truly wonderful surf pop album in 1964, Tell Em I’m Surfin’, which is still considered one of the best albums in the history of the genre. When not writing and recording songs on an industrial scale, Sloan was busy playing guitar on several other major records, including The Mamas and Papas’ all-time classic “California Dreaming.”
It all ended in tears, of course, as Sloan’s insistence on being the center of attention ended up costing him his career at Dunhill. His attempt to “ride the lightning between creativity and commercialism” ended at the age of 22. An alternate reading of the boy/girl breakup song “Let me Be” that was not accepted by the Turtles. 28 on the Billboard charts in 1965 can be seen in retrospect as defining his attitude to art in general and his ongoing conflict with Lasker in particular;
‘Please don’t fool me and don’t try to / make me someone else’s shadow / I’m not who you think I am / I’m just trying to be myself… And I’m not a pawn to be told how to move / I’m sorry, I’m not that fool , who you thought would play by your rules.
If this was a verbal warning or a plea to understand that he no longer wanted to be seen as a “gun for hire”, then the power brokers at Dunhill were beyond caring.
This 25-track compilation from 2010, lovingly compiled by Ace Records, includes essential cuts from the halcyon days, as well as lesser-known offerings such as “The Sh-Down Song” credited to The Ginger Snaps Featuring Dandee Dawson, “Summer”. Means Fun” from would-be Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, Ramona King’s simple slapstick “You Say Pretty Words” and a wounded Anne-Margaret delivering the goods on “You Sure Know How to Hurt Someone”. album comes with a highly informative and well-presented booklet that answers questions about the enigmatic Sloan.
It includes a particularly poignant anecdote about Sixties soft pop exponents The Association, represented on You Baby by a version of Sloane’s 1967 composition ‘On a Quiet Night’. In 1992, while headlining a show for the National Songwriters Association, Sloan listened curiously as The Association played “P. F Sloan,” a song that legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb had written in tribute to him back in 1970. When Sloan left. backstage to introduce himself to the band, they didn’t want to believe he was the subject of the song and insisted that PF Sloan was a fictional character! It should be noted that Webb, for whatever odd reason, fueled rumors that PF Sloan was actually a figment of his imagination. The texts themselves are sufficiently obscure –
‘Looking for PF Sloan / But no one knows where he’s gone / No one ever heard the song / that good old boy who took to the wings / Last time I saw PF Sloan / Burnt up in the summer and turned out in the winter / turned the corner all alone / But he kept on singing’ .
Many years after the event, it’s easy to forget that in the “mid-’60s” Sloan and Barri helped define and codify the emerging language of pop, just as the likes of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly had entered Rock n’ Roll a decade earlier. . The song titles themselves reconstruct a familiar narrative – “Anywhere the Girls Are”, “Found a Girl”, “Summer is Fun”, “If You Don’t Care”, “Where Were You When I Needed You”, “Another Day”, Another Heartbreak,” “Only When You’re Lonely,” “What I Had To Say” and “All I Want is Loving”—evoking the testosterone angst, the hormonal heartbreak, the teenage trauma of the day.
Not only does You Baby represent the best work of an exceptionally talented songwriting partnership, it also serves as a gorgeous reminder of the salad days of pop music.
* For those who want to delve a little deeper into PF Sloan’s work, Ace released a collection of Sloane’s own Dunhill recordings Here’s Where I Belong: The Best of the Dunhill Years 1965-1967 in 2008, and Sloane co-wrote a biography with SE Feinberg, in the entertaining if somewhat unreliable autobiography What’s Exactly the Matter with Me: Memoirs of a Life in Music.
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