***** (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.
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!
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.
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.
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