P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri
While you may not immediately recognize the name, PF Sloan, chances are good that somewhere in the depths of your record collection, perhaps in the section reserved solely for the 1960s, you’ll find a song written by the talented teenage songwriter, or indeed, even a track or two recorded by him, under one of his many pseudonyms.
Phil Sloan, as he was then known, had already had a false start as a singer behind him when he was hired as a staff writer for the West Coast branch of Screen Gems in 1964, at the splendidly tender age of eighteen. He immediately teamed up with another young songwriter, Steve Barri, and together they wrote, in quick succession, a string of Billboard 100 hits, in a wide variety of genres, from R&B and folk-rock to girl group and surf-pop. . Sadly, a simmering feud with Dunhill Records president Jay Lasker, which was largely the byproduct of Sloan’s understandable desire to perform under his own name, led to his being summarily fired from the fledgling label in late 1967. Barri, always content with his role as writer/producer, became the label’s head of A&R before taking the same position at Warner Bros. Records. He currently earns a muffin touring the college circuit reading up 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 subsequently admitted to being “devastated and mentally ill” for long periods. A review in the LA Times of a 1993 concert at the Troubadour in West Hollywood to promote his comeback album (Still on the) Eve of Destruction suggests that his troubles may not be completely behind him. even then:
“Unfortunately, Sloan’s eccentric playing mannerisms clashed uncomfortably too often with the more appealing qualities of her songs. Constantly on the go, full of tics and fidgeting, incessantly chewing gum, he would frequently interrupt the flow of the music with long unfocused stories that would disconnect to the point of dissociation. As the night wore on, he would occasionally add aggressive harangues in support of a vague sociopolitical agenda.”
He subsequently recorded just one more album, Sailover, in 2006.
His incredible work rate at Dunhills, in the years before his devastating collapse, must have taken its toll. Between 1964 and 1967 he wrote, in partnership with Barri, hits for some of the biggest acts of the decade, including The Searchers, The Mamas and Papas, The Fifth Dimension, The Turtles, Herman’s Hermits and Johnny Rivers. In addition, his harrowing protest song “Eve of Destruction,” written in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, was a worldwide hit for Barry McGuire. He also chartered in the UK under his own name or, at least, his latest variation of it, PF Sloan, for the first and last time, when his Dylanesque cauldron ‘The Sins of a Family’ reached No. 38 in 1965. .
Throughout the Dunhill years, Sloan was also recording around the clock with Barri, under band names like The Lifeguards, The Wildcats, Sheridan Hollenbeck Orchestra and Chorus, Phillip and Stephan, Willie & the Wheels, The Fantastic Baggys , Themes Inc., The Street Cleaners and Grassroots. The Fantastic Baggys, perhaps the best of these side projects, recorded a truly wonderful surf pop album, Tell Em I’m Surfin’ in 1964, which is still regarded today as one of the greatest albums in the genre’s history. When he wasn’t writing or recording songs, on an industrial scale, Sloan was busy playing guitar on a multitude of other seminal records, including The Mamas and Papas’ all-time classic, “California Dreaming.”
It all ended in tears, of course, as Sloan’s insistence on moving to center stage ultimately cost her her Dunhill career. His attempt to “ride the beam between creativity and commerciality” ended at the age of 22. An alternate reading of their boy/girl breakup song, “Let me Be,” which the Turtles took to no. 28 on the Billboard chart in 1965 may, in hindsight, define his attitude toward art in general and his ongoing conflict with Lasker in particular;
‘Please don’t confuse me or try to make me / anyone else’s shadow / I’m not the he or she you think I am / I’m just trying to be myself… And I’m not a pawn to be told how to move / Sorry, I’m not the fool who thought I’d play by your rules.’
Whether it was a verbal warning or a plea for understanding that he no longer wanted to be considered a “gun for hire” then the Dunhill powerhouses didn’t care.
This 25-track compilation from 2010, carefully curated by Ace Records, includes all the essential cuts from their halcyon days, along with less familiar offerings like “The Sh-Down Song,” credited to The Ginger Snaps featuring Dandee Dawson, “Summer Means Fun” from future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, Ramona King’s no-nonsense slap, “You Say Pretty Words” and Anne-Margaret wounded, handing over the goods on “You Sure Know How to Hurt Someone”. Additionally, the album comes with a superbly informative and well-presented booklet that answers some of the questions surrounding the enigmatic Sloan.
This includes a particularly moving anecdote about 1960s soft pop exponents The Association, represented on You Baby by their cover of Sloane’s 1967 composition “On a Quiet Night,” which bears repeating in this review. Headlining a National Songwriters Association show in 1992, Sloan was intrigued to hear the Association play the song “P. F Sloan,” which legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb had written as a tribute to him back in the 1970s. went backstage to introduce himself to the band, they refused to believe he was the subject of the song, insisting that PF Sloan was a fictional character! It should be noted that Webb, for some peculiar reason, had fueled the rumors that PF Sloan was, in fact, a figment of his imagination. The lyrics themselves are conveniently vague:
‘I’ve been looking for PF Sloan / But no one knows where he’s gone / No one heard the song / That good old man blew up / Last time I saw PF Sloan / He was burnt in the summer and blown in the winter / He turned the corner alone / But kept singing’.
It can be easy to forget, so many years after the event, that throughout the ‘mid-’60s, Sloan and Barri helped define and codify the burgeoning language of pop, in exactly the same way that Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly had. made for Rock n’ Roll a decade earlier. The song titles alone piece together a familiar narrative: “Anywhere the Girls Are,” “I Found a Girl,” “Summer Means Fun,” “Unless You Care,” “Where Were You When I Needed You?” Another Day, Another Heartache”, “Only When You’re Lonely”, “Things I Should Have Said” and “All I Want is Loving”, evoking the testosterone angst, the hormonal angst, the teenage trauma of the day.
You Baby not only chronicles the best work of an exceptionally talented songwriting couple, it also serves as a glorious reminder of the salad days of pop music.
*For those wishing to delve a little deeper into the work of PF Sloan, Ace released a collection of Sloane’s Dunhill recordings, Here’s Where I Belong: The Best of the Dunhill Years 1965 to 1967, in 2008 and Sloane co-wrote his history of life, with SE Feinberg, in the entertaining, if somewhat unreliable autobiography, What’s Exactly the Matter with Me: Memoirs of a Life in Music.