Tag Archives: 60s

Review – the Thomas Group

***** (5 stars out of 6)

The other day a much anticipated package from Spain arrived at Cue Castanets headquarters. The contents? The new CD release ‘Hollywoodland, 1966-1969’ by Hanky Panky Records which collects both released and unreleased recordings by the Thomas Group.

thomas group

The Thomas Group?

Some readers may scratch their heads upon meeting this unfamiliar band. However, if you are as much of a fan of 60s songwriting duo PF Sloan and Steve Barri as I am, the “blink and you’ll miss ‘em” career of the Thomas Group will be something you are well aware of.

I have already written here before about my appreciation of PF Sloan. As far as I’m concerned, PF Sloan, Brian Wilson and, you guessed it, Phil Spector make up the holy trinity of 60s pop. But where Brian Wilson and Phil Spector both carved out a very distinctive style and approach for their recordings, PF Sloan was much more adventurous or exploitative depending on how you look at his recordings. A musical chameleon with a capital C, Sloan and his songwriting partner Steve Barri could jump on any bandwagon and write tailormade songs for the latest dance or music craze. They dabbled effortlessly in vocal surf pop, merseybeat, girl group records, folk rock,… You name it, Sloan/Barri could write it!

sloan and barri
Steve Barri & PF Sloan working up a song.
The interesting thing is that as cynical as this may sound like, the duo churned out the most jubilant, first class pop records anyone’s ever likely to make. They were bonafide pop commandos. Need a hit? Call these guys! They may have written songs to order, but my god, the care, love and quality they instilled in their songs is in the grooves.

You can pick up a Sloan/Barri song a mile away; catchy riffs, clever word play, dreamy harmonies. Yet, despite knocking up hit records for a bunch of artists including the Turtles, Johnny Rivers and the Grass Roots, PF Sloan and Steve Barri have unfairly stood in the shadows of other, more celebrated 60s songwriters such as the husband & wife teams of the Brill Building.

Maybe Sloan/Barri just didn’t write enough monster hit records to get fully recognised? Maybe they were too young and inexperienced to really make their mark in the business? Or maybe they were held somewhat back because they were tied to a second-tier record label like Dunhill? We’ll never know for sure and it doesn’t really matter. The music speaks for itself and it speaks volumes in terms of the sheer talent on offer by these two young songwriters.

Sloan, of course, later went solo issuing a couple of brilliant albums until his career fell on the wayside due to personal problems. Steve Barri ventured into production work.

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Where does the Thomas Group fit into all of this? Well, seeing that the Sloan/Barri story is filled with examples of upcoming groups or one-off Sloan/Barri singles by established artists, the Thomas Group is a prime example of the former. 

The band came together in 1965 at the behest of drummer Tony Thomas who was the son of the TV producer and comedian Danny Thomas. Enlisting some friends to form a band, Thomas & friends were inspired by the current chart success of Gary Lewis & the Playboys, yet another band formed around the drumming son of a comedian, Jerry Lewis.

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Back then things happened fast. Almost immediately after getting together, the band was snapped up by Dunhill producer Lou Adler and assigned to Sloan and Barri leading an assortment of Wrecking Crew regulars in the studio. In typical mid-60s pop fashion hardly a Thomas Group member played on the resulting singles. Lead vocals on all were sung by Thomas Group keyboardist Greg Gilford, often sounding uncannily like Sloan. This also occurred with the Grass Roots where lead singer Rob Grill closely followed Sloan’s vocals on the songwriting demos.

Back to the Thomas Group; over a short time span 6 Sloan/Barri songs were recorded and issued on Dunhill but inexplicably none of them saw any notable chart action. However, the recordings are stellar and from a moment in time where Sloan/Barri had truly perfected their catchy formula.

Take a bit of Four Season-ish falsetto for the chorus, some jangling guitars, a heavy dose of Merseybeat-styled energy and, at times, even a pinch of garage group shakeup and you’ll get some idea of what these records sound like. To these ears, songs like ‘Penny Arcade’, ‘Ordinary Girl’ and ‘Autumn’ are among Sloan/Barri’s very best songs. Fun fact; Gary Zekley was so floored by ‘Penny Arcade’ that he by his own admission ripped off the opening verse melody for his own verses to Bonnie’s Wall of Sound classic “Close Your Eyes.”

Sloan/Barri fans have of course known and cherished these pop gems for decades but what’s special about this new release is the fact that we now have the 6 Sloan/Barri songs in crystal clear, glorious stereo for the first time. And it is a revelation to hear these recordings with fresh ears! The lead vocals and cool backing harmonies especially benefit from stereo.

These new mixes are basically a must-hear for any pop fan. You’ll also get your hands on a wealth of unreleased songs by the Thomas Group recorded while at Dunhill or later on while shopping for a deal under the new name Morning Sun. These tracks are interesting and include some really good songs overall, though none come close to the Sloan/Barri singles.

‘Is Happy this Way’, released as a single by Dunhill, is prime sunshine pop and a really strong recording and you’ll also get two versions of Greg Gilford’s catchy ‘Someone’. He turned out to be an interesting songwriter himself as songs such as ‘Is it Over’ and ‘New People’ show – maybe he learned a trick or two from Sloan/Barri?

You need this release for the 6 stereo Sloan/Barri songs alone! And better place your order now since the print run by Hanky Panky Records is limited to 500 copies.

Now, if some enterprising label out there could only do something similar with Sloan/Barri’s remaining 60s songwriting demos or the two albums with a wealth of Sloan/Barri songs by Canadian singer Terry Back? (hint hint)

Read more about the new release and order your copy here: http://hankypankyrecords.bigcartel.com/product/thomas-group-hollywoodland-1966-1969-cd-digipack

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The PSAS revisited

More than a year ago I devoted some blog posts to the history of Spector fandom, specifically focusing on the UK based Phil Spector Appreciation Society (PSAS) that was active during the second half of the 70s. I was even able to follow-up with an interview with Paul Dunford who formed the PSAS in 1975.

If you’d like to read the lengthy blog post about the PSAS, go here:

https://cuecastanets.wordpress.com/2014/11/19/the-phil-spector-appreciation-society/

For my interview with the founder of the PSAS, click here:

https://cuecastanets.wordpress.com/2015/01/11/interview-paul-dunford/

In terms of the 70s, it’s fascinating to look back on this phase of Spector’s career and the lust for news, ANY news, felt by the admirers of his sound in Europe and the US. The previous decade had been Spector’s golden era with a steady flow of fantastic productions coming out of Gold Star studios. But come the 70s, the output dwindled – and even though Spector was still very much in demand, working with John Lennon and George Harrison as his most high-profile ventures, news about future plans and projects became infrequent.

With less coverage in the music papers and newsletters, Spector fans were more in the dark about upcoming projects than they’d ever been. There definitely was a void to be filled for those who still worshipped at the altar of echo and bombast despite the ever changing trends of popular music.

Insecurity behind the swagger? Phil Spector with the Kessel Brothers during the 70s.
Phil Spector with the Kessel Brothers during the 70s.

As a music fan in my mid-30s, one who’s practically grown up with the advent of the Internet and online music resources, it’s interesting to consider how difficult it must have been for Spector fans in the 60s and the 70s to stay updated. With no internet to consult, discovering new releases or gathering more info on your favorite Spector recordings depended on chance encounters in record stores or at record fairs, the odd news article or review in music papers or, if you even knew about this option, a membership of PSAS.

Luckily, quite a few Spector fans, mainly based in Europa and the US, got to know about PSAS and were thus served with a steady flow of news and background information via the DIY newsletters PSAS mailed out to its members. In the blog post I linked to above, you can read the whole story about the mid-to late 70s PSAS and how its newsletters eventually evolved into a fully-fledged and lovingly compiled fanzine with the clever title ‘Philately.’

Issue 1, 4 and 6 of Philately. The design got more professional with each issue.
Issue 1, 4 and 6 of Philately. The design got more professional with each issue.

However, what’s interesting is the fact that PSAS in fact got its name from an even earlier association started in 1969 by two young British Spector fans and friends, Phil Chapman and Steve Percival. When Paul Dunford started up his fan club in 1975, hot on the heels of the publicity garnered from the first Rare Masters compilation of previously unreleased 60s Spector productions, he simply reused the name.

Lately, I’ve corresponded with Phil Chapman of the first PSAS and I hope to be able to feature an interview with him about this fan club and other Spector-related topics shortly. But besides this, Phil has also been kind enough to send me a package with all six newsletters that the first PSAS eventually issued as well as some related material.

Here's Phil and Steve's original description of their vision for the PSAS sent out to the likeminded fans who responded to their music paper ad.
Here’s Phil and Steve’s original description of their vision for the PSAS sent out to the likeminded fans who responded to their music paper ad.

I’m very grateful that Phil would share all this with me as it means that I now seemingly have a complete set of the Spector fan club newsletters / fanzines issued through time – ranging from the very first newsletter by the first PSAS in ’69, all the newsletters by the ‘second’ PSAS throughout the 70s and finally all copies of the more professional fanzine ‘Philately’ that picked up the mantle in the 80s. This later fanzine was helmed by Spector expert Mick Patrick whose compilation work for UK reissue label Ace Records is essential listening for anyone following this blog.

Why, it's an original Membership Card for the PSAS, just waiting to be filled out with my name! Sadly, I've joined the party almost 50 years too late.
Why, it’s an original Membership Card for the PSAS, just waiting to be filled out with my name! Sadly, I’ve joined the party almost 50 years too late.

So to get to the bottom of things, this lengthy blog post is basically just to present to you the stuff Phil has kindly shared with me – I’m sure you’ll find it as interesting as I have, so no need not to share the info with likeminded fans.

So, how did it all come about, then? Well, during the 60s Phil had discovered Spector’s music and wrote back and forth with other fans he had befriended through pen pal-type ads in the local music papers. Having done so for a while – and finding that they basically just exchanged the same tid bits of info about all things Spector – he realized it might be easier to just set up an actual fan club. Contact was made with Spector’s office and lo and behold – official recognition enabled Phil to place the following ad in British music papers.

Phil1

Soon, enough fans had expressed interest for Phil and his partner-in-crime Steve Percival to launch a fan club newsletter for the first PSAS, aided by promotional photos and similar material provided by Spector’s US office. During this time Phil and Steve were still in school which makes their pursuit of setting up a fanclub and establishing contact with Spector’s office even more impressive. Naturally though, their young age and lack of experience of course meant that the newsletters has a certain naivity and amatuerness to them but you can certainly sense the earnest love for Spector’s music throughout.

The first newsletter was sent out in May 1969 just as Spector was emerging again as a music force to be reckoned with by way of ‘You Came, You Saw, You Concquered’ by the Ronettes and ‘Love is All I Have to Give’ by the Checkmates Ltd, – both on A&M.

By # 6 in May/June 1970 the PSAS, in its first incarnation, had run its course due to other obligations in Phil and Steve’s lives. Taken as a whole, the newsletters that were issued are very similar to the newsletters the second PSAS put out in the mid-70s. We’re talking Xeroxed pages with occasional newspaper clippings or photos thrown in.

Newsletters 1-6 issued by the first PSAS.
Newsletters 1-6 issued by the first PSAS.

In general, Phil and Steve reviewed the latest singles or albums such as the Checkmates debut LP for other fans. They also discussed soundalike records and listed discographies that could aid Spector / Wall of Sound collectors. Reading through the newsletters, I was glad to learn about the driving ‘Boys Cry’ by UK singer Eden Kane. Great track! And one that had somehow escaped me.

Later on, Phil Chapman would become a music producer himself who often used his expert knowledge to achieve a convincing Wall of Sound on his own productions. You can almost sense his future endeavors by reading some of his reviews for the PSAS newsletters. Often, he points out very specific details about the production values that reveal how intently he listened for things buried deep in the muddy mono mixes.

What’s interesting is the fact that tiny bits of info scattered throughout the newsletters, and undoubtedly coming from Spector’s camp to the PSAS, would indicate that ‘You Came, You Saw, You Conquered’ and ‘I Can Hear Music’ were intended for a follow-up Ronettes album. This of course never came to fruition but one wonders how much may have been recorded? Unless, of course, Spector planned to just dust off old tracks like ‘Here I Sit’ and ‘Paradise’ and issue those with the A&M single?

Among the stuff Phil has sent me is also a Phil Spector Productions / A&M Records promotional folder from this time, complete with sets of press releases detailing Spector’s resumé and short bios of the Ronettes and Checkmates Ltd. A&M clearly hyped their deal with Spector and had high hopes for the project. It’s a shame there wasn’t a bigger output.

A&M promotional folder, closed.
A&M promotional folder, closed.
And voila! A&M promo folder opened and containing promo photos, artist bios and handouts for the new Spector productions.
And voila! A&M promo folder opened and containing promo photos, artist bios and handouts for the new Spector productions.

So there you have it – the final piece in my puzzle to research the history of Spector fandom. And let me thank Phil Chapman for kindly supplying me with his insights and the spare newsletters and other material he’s kept since 1969. I hope to feature an interview with Phil in the near future. Stay tuned!

Here's a photocopy of a personal message from Spector sent to Phil during the PSAS days. Very cool!
Here’s a photocopy of a personal message from Spector sent to Phil during the PSAS days. Very cool!