But no one knows where he has gone
No one ever heard the song that boy set winging
~"P.F. Sloan" by Jimmy Webb, 1971
Like Jimmy Webb, the name P.F. Sloan shows up most often on the songwriting credits to some of the biggest hits in the game. Sloan wrote "Secret Agent Man," "Where Were You When I Needed You," and the song that marked his career crossroads, "Eve of Destruction."
Sloan wrote "Eve of Destruction" when he was still a teenager; the song was so incendiary that it got him booted from the pop music business - his services providing tunes for Jan & Dean and the Rip Chords were no longer welcome. "Eve" went to #1 for Barry McGuire in 1965, but pushed Sloan under the radar and by the early '70s, out of the business.
P.F. (a moniker he adopted for his folk singer persona - before that he was "Phil") found himself working regular jobs (delivering beer, telemarketing) for the next 35 years or so, making a comeback of sorts when fellow Sai Baba devotee Jon Tiven coaxed him into recording the album Sailover, released in 2006.
Sloan didn't release another album until 2014. This time it wasn't Tiven who coaxed him back, but Beethoven.
P.F. Sloan: Oh, absolutely correct, Dan. His life, his music, literally brought me back from the dead.
Being a so-called "successful" musician in the era of pop music and surf and rock & roll and folk, one tends to think that one has really created music. But after I burned out from music, it was Beethoven that brought me back to the beauty of music. And then reading the intimate details of his life from his journals and his letters and his diaries, I realized that I was suffering in the same way that he was in a lot of ways. And to be honest with you, Dan, he became my best friend in life.
I know that that's sad and bizarre, because he's been dead over 100 years, but he truly became my best friend. I saw life through his eyes and he changed my life. I spent over 15, 16 years on this project, and it's been the happiest time of my life.
Songfacts: People tend to belittle pop music, although I think it was Brian Wilson who called his songs "teenage symphonies to God." So it seems to me there is a real art and beauty to writing great pop music. Do you look back on some of the songs you've written with that same sort of professional pride?
Sloan: I do. Please understand that I'm not belittling any form of music whatsoever. I think it's all beautiful. Even the worst of it, I find something entrancing. I'm just saying that there's a difference between teenage music and having the opportunity - I don't even know if it's an opportunity - I don't know what you would call it. But to be able to explore music from your heart and soul without the filter of it being commercial. Mostly those things are big flops. I've spent my life in music and I know people who get involved in projects like that, and they're always flops.
But this is something different. This is unique. I don't know what to say. I'm a simple man with simple tastes. You go through the world of celebrity with rock & roll and it does seem to take you away from your heart and soul, which was music to begin with. That I can tell you.
Songfacts: I want to talk, if we can, a little bit about some of the songs that you participated in. And one of the ones that never gets old is "California Dreamin'." What can you tell me about that session? Was it as magical to participate in it as it sounds when it comes over the radio?
Sloan: Yeah, Dan, it was. You know, it's rare when magic happens inside a studio. Mostly there's some creative things that happen with the bass player or the drummer or the piano player that everyone likes. But I had worked with John Phillips before they became famous. He literally was playing guitar on one of my singles, "City Women," and that was his first introduction to the studios. "Go Where You Want To Go" was their first single, and I played on that. I thought that was an absolutely stupendous record. I don't know if you agree or not.
Songfacts: Oh, it's great. Absolutely.
Sloan: Yeah. I mean, it's magical. I thought it had everything. And it was a complete stiff. It just goes to show you that everything is timing. You'd think that if the song is great and the vocals are great and the band is great, you've got a hit, but God shows us that timing is everything.
The "California Dreamin'" session was magical. John was very nervous. Nobody particularly liked the song, and to be honest with you, "California Dreamin'" was maybe three or four chords. I added the "Walk - Don't Run" Ventures guitar riffs for that "da da da da da da." That was all creative work inside the studio when I heard them singing on mic. I had recorded them with Barry McGuire on his second album, so I knew how good they were. And yeah, it was magical, Dan.
This real band needed real members, so they recruited a San Francisco band called the Bedouins to join them, re-recording "Where Were You When I Needed You" with lead vocals by their new singer, Bill Fulton. This version was a hit, going to #28 in America, but the Bedouins soon departed and Barri and Sloan recruited another band, the 13th Floor, to join them for their next album, Let's Live For Today. Soon after this album was released, Sloan left the project, leaving new lead singer Rob Grill with a much larger role.
Sloan: Yeah. It did. That was a turn of events that I didn't expect, but it turned out for the best for everyone involved. The label didn't want me to be out on the road. I was their bread and butter in working behind the scenes, and that's the reason that they didn't really want to get behind the P.F. Sloan albums. They would put it out just to say, "You can do it." But they didn't want it to happen, because they realized that it's a big world out there and I would be getting a lot of offers. So that's the way that worked out.
Sloan: Oh, yes. Keep in mind that these were grown men in their 20s and 30s with families, wives, houses, all the trappings of life. And I'm 16 years old living at home.
Songfacts: Very different.
Sloan: Very different. To be honest with you, being in a studio with musicians of that ilk, I didn't have a great relationship with my father, so there wasn't a lot of men in my life. Being around men like this who were funny and open and wise and beautiful, each one of them was like a surrogate father to me. So to me that was family.
Songfacts: When you think back on those days, do you have any favorite songs that you've played on that stand out?
Sloan: Every now and then I listen to the guitar work that I've done on the Mamas and Papas. I would have liked to become known as the George Harrison of the Mamas and Papas. It would have been nice to go out on the road with them. That was a mysterious adventure for a 19-year-old kid who basically just graduated school in Los Angeles and was going to college and was supposed to be a pharmacist. So there was a lot of mystery and adventure.
But obviously, Dan, I was gifted with an immense talent. I don't know why, I don't know where it came from. All I know is that it weighed heavily upon me to do the best work that I could do. And to be honest with you, nobody was really looking for your best work. They just wanted you to do mediocre stuff. Nobody was interested in anything creative or new. It just was pump it out, push it out, go on to the next.
Songfacts: And yet so much of it is so good, even so.
Sloan: Yeah. That is what's magical about it. All the things came together for three years, four years. It is inexplicable. But everybody was happening, inspiring one another. But it was basically a business.
The bottom line was dollars, what the record label made. I wasn't making any money. To me it was about the music. That made me an odd bird, because everybody was in it for the money, and I just wanted to make music.
Songfacts: What about the story about Elvis Presley giving you a guitar lesson? What can you tell me about that? Do you remember specifically what he taught you how to do?
Sloan: Yes, I do. He basically showed me how to play "Love Me Tender."
Songfacts: You were what, 13?
Sloan: 12 and a half.
Songfacts: You weren't so nervous that you couldn't play? What was your reaction to meeting the King?
Sloan: Well, I can tell you this. The amount of love that he poured over me took away all fear, all anxiety and all worry. In other words, I was not looking at Elvis Presley, I was looking at a dear friend who loved me and knew that I loved him. And that's what it was all about. It wasn't about celebrity, it was about love.
He gave me leverage to want to pursue my musical endeavors against my parents' wishes. Meeting Elvis Presley was an impossible thing to happen, so he gave me a lot of leverage. He helped me tremendously in my career.
Songfacts: I want to talk a little bit about the songwriting process. You write both words and music - do you start with a melody and then eventually put words to it, or do they come at the same time? How does it normally happen with you?
Sloan: Well, when I was writing pop songs, it was different than P.F. Sloan songs. I realized later that when I was writing pop songs, some with my partner at that time, Steve Barri, that I would start off with a riff or a melody and then come up with the lyric. But with P.F. Sloan it was just the opposite. The lyrics all came first, and I was faced with the dilemma of looking at an entire page of lyrics without any idea of a melody. So it was just the opposite - words came first with P.F. Sloan. And with the pop part of myself, the music, came first.
Songfacts: I was just listening to Johnny Rivers doing "Secret Agent Man," and I realized how much I love that song. Did you come up with that little riff first and did that kind of propel that song?
Sloan: Something like that. The process was, the riff came first. But originally the song was called "Danger Man," because that was the name of the TV show. And basically all they wanted was 30 seconds, so I wrote a riff and I wrote a lyric that went, "Look out Danger Man, look out Danger Man," and sent that in to them. They said, "Hey, we're changing the name of the show to 'Secret Agent.'"
That was magical. That changed everything. The lyric just came together in no time at all. It just worked immediately. So "Danger Man" was holding the song back, and when they called it "Secret Agent" it all came together. But the riff came first.
Johnny was a songwriter of his own, and he basically didn't like the song, so he just recorded the 30 seconds of it. He just did 30 seconds for the TV show, but The Ventures heard the demo that I made of the instrumental version of it and they released it. They went in and recorded "Secret Agent," and boom, it was the fastest-selling Ventures record ever.
They happened to be labelmates, so Liberty said to Johnny Rivers, "My God, man, you really ought to record this song." So he literally was forced into recording it, though he didn't really want to.
Songfacts: Do you think he ever grew to like the song?
Sloan: Yeah, of course. I saw him about two months ago and I've got to say he did an absolutely killer version. You know, poor Chuck Berry has sung "Maybellene" maybe 50,000 times, but Johnny must have sang that song half a million times, and he still sings it with so much gusto, and the audience goes nuts. That's something great to see.
Jan Berry and Dean Torrence started off in a band called The Barons with Arnie Ginsburg. When their first single was released in 1958 ("Jennie Lee"), Dean was serving in the Army Reserve so it was credited as Jan & Arnie. When Dean returned, he and Jan formed their famous duo and Ginsburg joined the Army.
Sloan: Surf was everything at that time. I was 15 and I was listening to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and Odetta and Brownie McGhee, but I was a huge Jan & Dean fan.
I was on a label when I was 15 with Jan and Arnie. And Terry Melcher. That was predestined, right? I was on a label with Jan and Arnie; I'm at Screen Gems and Lou Adler is managing Jan & Dean. And the next thing I know I'm singing background for Jan & Dean records and being asked to write surf songs for them. So it just seemed like a natural thing. I loved it. I was 16, 17 years old. Got my first electric guitar. Life was sweet, couldn't be any better than that.
Songfacts: Would you call Dick Dale an influence at all? Did you listen to his music growing up?
Sloan: Oh, of course. But, you know, music was like a smorgasbord. Everything down the line was incredible. You took a little of everything: A little of this, a little of that. You just picked up influences.
Songfacts: Who were the guitarists that impacted your style the most?
Sloan: Thanks for asking. Well, it starts off with Scotty Moore. And then James Burton, Chuck Berry, and the Everly Brothers. That's basically all you need to know.
Songfacts: That's the building blocks of success if you can master some of those styles.
Sloan: Well, with Scotty Moore, the word "genius" is bandied about. But he and Jimmy Burton were just absolute geniuses. I mean, they were playing jazz chords at 18, fusing that with rock and pop. Wow. I mean, do you remember the Beatles ending all their early records with a sixth? Whoever heard of a sixth ending a song? It's the same with Scotty Moore. He would end his songs with a D 13 flat fifth ninth. Whoever heard of that stuff? [Laughing]
Songfacts: I wanted to circle back and wind things up talking a little bit about piano, because piano is what you used primarily for this new recording. How did you discover the piano as an instrument to really compose with?
Sloan: Wow. It was just magical. Just absolutely magical. When I came into contact with the spirit of Beethoven - this was about 18 years ago - I had no piano. I didn't have money for a piano. But I started listening to Glenn Gould doing Beethoven, and I chose Glenn Gould over Rubenstein and the other Greek one whose name escapes me right now. But I bought their albums and I listened. And I read the liner notes.
The greatest pianist is Vladimir Horowitz, right? Horowitz is saying that he could improve upon Beethoven, so he thought that when he does Beethoven he adds more drama to it. And I said, you know, fuck that. Forgive me for saying that, but I want Beethoven as Beethoven wrote it.
And Arthur Rubinstein sort of said the same thing, but Glenn Gould said, "I play Beethoven note for note exactly as he wrote it." So I listened to Glenn Gould for about six years before getting a piano.
Songfacts: That's a long time.
Sloan: It was. And I couldn't get enough. Because Beethoven surprised me constantly as a musician. He would keep going to places, even though I heard it 100 times, I never could guess that he's going to go where he's going. So he was just a constant delight and a surprise.
And then magically a piano appeared, very inexpensive, and I began to play because I absorbed Glenn Gould. I just sat down at the piano and began to play piano. I played a little bit when I was 15 or 16, but just playing quarter notes and banging on it. But I seemed to learn from Glen Gould. He was my teacher.
And then I worked on the lyrics and the compositions began happening over the course of 15 years. And then it took about two years to record. As one of the lines in the song says, "The work is its own reward."
Songfacts: I want to give you a chance just to tell me a little bit about some of the other things that you might be working on. Do you have other projects that are in the works?
Sloan: Well, there is a new book that's coming out called What's Exactly the Matter With Me, and that's being released by Jawbone Press. And we've written a pop opera about the secret life of Ludwig van Beethoven called "Louie Louie." We're looking to get that going. So it looks like it might be a very busy fourth quarter for me.
September 12, 2014
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