P.F Sloan and Steve Barri

Whilst you may not immediately recognise the name, P F Sloan, there’s every chance that submerged 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 gifted teenage composer, or indeed, even a track or two recorded by him, under one of his many pseudonyms.

Phil Sloan, as he was then known, already had a false start as a singer behind him when he was signed as a staff writer for the West Coast branch of Screen Gems in 1964, at the splendidly tender age of eighteen. He was immediately teamed with another young songwriter, Steve Barri, and together they wrote, in quick succession, a stream of Billboard 100 hits, in a wide variety of genres, ranging 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 by-product of Sloan’s understandable desire to perform under his own name, led to his being summarily dismissed from the fledgling label at the back end of 1967. Barri, who’d always been content with his role as a writer/producer, went on to become the label’s Head of A&R before taking up the same post with Warner Bros. Records. He currently earns a crust touring the college circuit lecturing 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 has subsequently admitted to being ‘desolate and mentally ill’ for long periods. A review in the LA Times of a 1993 gig at the Troubadour, in West Hollywood, to promote his comeback album (Still on the) Eve of Destruction, suggests that his problems may not have been fully behind him even then:

‘Unfortunately, Sloan’s eccentric performing mannerisms too often jarred uncomfortably against the more attractive qualities of his songs. Constantly in motion, full of nervous tics and movements, chewing gum incessantly, he frequently interrupted the flow of the music with long, out-of-focus stories that were disconnected to the point of disassociation. As the evening wore on, he occasionally added aggressive harangues in support of a vague socio-political agenda’.

He has subsequently recorded just one more album, Sailover, in 2006.

His incredible work rate at Dunhills, in the years preceding his devastating breakdown, must have taken their toll. Between 1964 and 1967 he penned, in partnership with Barri, hits for some of the decade’s biggest acts, including The Searchers, The Mamas and Papas, The Fifth Dimension, The Turtles, Herman’s Hermits and Johnny Rivers. In addition, his anguished protest song “Eve of Destruction”, written in the wake of the Cuban Missile crisis, was a world-wide smash for Barry McGuire. He also charted in the U.K under his own name or, at least, his latest variation of it, P. F. Sloan, for the first and last time, when his Dylanesque pot-boiler ‘The Sins of a Family’ reached no 38 in 1965.

Throughout the Dunhill years, Sloan was also recording around the clock with Barri, under such group names as The Lifeguards, The Wildcats, Sheridan Hollenbeck Orchestra and Chorus, Phillip and Stephan, Willie & the Wheels, The Fantastic Baggys, Themes Inc., The Street Cleaners and The Grass Roots. The Fantastic Baggys, perhaps the best of these side-projects, cut a truly wonderful surf pop album, Tell Em I’m Surfin’ in 1964, which is still regarded today as one of the best 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 centre stage ultimately cost him his Dunhill career. His attempt to “ride the lightning bolt between creativity and commerciality” was over at the age of 22. An alternative reading of his boy/girl break-up song, “Let me Be”, which the Turtles took to no. 28 on the Billboard chart in 1965 may, in hindsight, be seen as defining his attitude to art in general and in particular his on-going conflict with Lasker;

‘Please don’t mistake me or try to make me / the shadow of anybody else / I ain’t the him or her you think I am / I’m just trying hard to be myself… And I’m not a pawn to be told how to move / I’m sorry I ain’t the fool you thought would play by your rules’.

If this was a verbal warning or a plea for understanding that he no longer wanted to be considered as a “gun for hire”, then the power-brokers at Dunhill were past caring.

This 2010, 25 track compilation, lovingly put together by Ace Records, includes all the essential cuts from his halcyon days, together with less familiar offerings like the “The Sh-Down Song”, credited to The Ginger Snaps featuring Dandee Dawson, “Summer Means Fun” by future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, Ramona King’s no-nonsense slap down, “You Say Pretty Words” and a wounded Anne-Margaret, delivering the goods on “You Sure Know How to Hurt Someone”. In addition, 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 poignant anecdote, concerning sixties’ soft pop exponents The Association, represented on You Baby by their version of Sloane’s 1967 composition, “On a Quiet Night”, which bears repeating in this review. Headlining a show by the National Association of Songwriters in 1992, Sloan was intrigued to hear The Association play the song “P. F Sloan”, which legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb had penned as a tribute to him, way back in 1970. When Sloan went backstage to introduce himself to the band, they refused to believe he was the subject of the song, insisting P.F Sloan was a fictional character! It should be noted that Webb, for whatever peculiar reason, had fuelled rumours that P F Sloan was, in fact, a figment of his imagination. The lyrics themselves are suitably vague –

‘I have been seeking P.F. Sloan / But no one knows where he has gone / No one ever heard the song / that good old boy sent winging / Last time I saw P.F. Sloan / He was summer burned and winter blown / He turned the corner all alone / But he continued singing’.

It can be easy to forget, so many years after the event, that throughout the ‘mid ’60s’, Sloan and Barri were helping to define and codify the burgeoning language of pop, in exactly the same way that the likes of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly had done for Rock n’ Roll a decade earlier. The song titles alone re-construct 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” – by evoking the testosterone angst, the hormonal heartbreak, the teen trauma of the day.

You Baby not only chronicles the best work of an exceptionally gifted song-writing partnership, it serves, too, as a glorious reminder of pop music’s salad days.

* For those wishing to delve a little deeper into the work of P.F. Sloan, Ace released a collection of Sloane’s own Dunhill recordings, Here’s Where I Belong: The Best of the Dunhill Years 1965 to 1967, back in 2008 and Sloane co-wrote his life story, with S. E. Feinberg, in the entertaining, if somewhat unreliable autobiography, What’s Exactly the Matter with Me: Memoirs of a Life in Music.