Tag Archives: Steve Barri

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

Take Him for What He’s Worth

As of typing this latest blog post, Cue Castanets has been active for a year. I hope that those of you who check in here from time to time or, even better, subscribe to my posts via e-mail alerts have found some interesting writing on all things Spector and beyond.

I wish I’d been more active during the past two or three months but I’ve been busy with other things in my life which will make future posts on here more infrequent. But keep checking in – I have lots of ideas for interviews, reviews, song run-throughs and what not and I will eventually get around to those, I’m sure.

I had originally planned to post about something else tonight but then yesterday evening I learned about the sad passing of P. F. Sloan – one of my all-time musical heroes.

If I were to name my own, deeply personal holy Trinity of pop music, I would choose Brian Wilson, Phil Spector and PF Sloan,… or Philip Schlein as he was known before donning the P.F. Sloan moniker. Naming Sloan along with those two musical giants should give you all the proof you need that he is a musician I hold in extremely high regard. I’ve been deeply in love with his music ever since discovering it in the early 00s.

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It’s always difficult to put into words the effect your favorite music has upon you. With Sloan, a great part of it has to do with his overwhelmingly emotive and expressive vocals. I’m continually amazed at the urgency that seems to simmer beneath each and every lead vocal of his. And the hooks! Sloan equals hook heaven! Oh man, the stuff he wrote alone or along with partner-in-crime Steve Barri is the stuff of legends as far as I’m concerned.

Merseybeat knockoffs? Check. Beach Boys-styled surf pop? You got it! Elvis soundalikes? No problem. Girl Group songs? Sure, how many d’ya need? Jangly folk-rock or Bob Dylan type social commentary? Why, I have a bunch of songs scribled down right here!

One type of music that Sloan actually didn’t take a stab at was fully fledged Wall of Sound productions. Which is no surprise really. Along with Steve Barri Sloan was on such a tight, grueling recording schedule that he probably never really had the possibility to spend time developing bombast productions. But I’ll bet he could have worked wonders within that type of genre too. There’s a demo floating around among Sloan collectors – ‘Cry over You’ – that’s just begging for a over-the-top dramatic production. And Sloan gives it his all on the demo. It could have been a monster record, – either with his lead or someone else singing it, as was often the case with his early-to-mid 60s output.

 

Basically, Sloan could – and did – it all. He was a master at being versatile and inventive – a musical chameleon whose talent for spitting out hooks far outshone most other songwriters of the era. That’s my opinion of course but really, take a listen to any Sloan-Barri song and Sloan’s solo material and you’ll be amazed at what was achieved within a few, frantic years. Heck, the Fantastic Baggys album alone beats a few of the otherwise classic early 60s Beach Boys albums!

sloan

Yet, as fantastic as Sloan was he never achieved the amount of fame or recognition he should have and sadly withdrew during the 70s due to personal problems. To me, that’s one of the saddest tales in rock’n’roll. There was so much promise there, – so much talent that should have kept flowing and graced our ears. Why it didn’t happen probably amounts to a bunch of reasons, but it’s tragic all the same.

sunflower

Anyone wanting to delve deeper into the Sloan legend should seek out Andrew Sandoval’s lovingly compiled ‘Trousdale Sessions’ demo collection that came out in 2001. It’s mindblowing! The sound quality is top-notch and listening to these rough demos you really get a sense of how good and versatile a pop singer Sloan was when he allowed himself to loosen up some of the Dylan voal mannerisms that dominate his two 60s solo albums. (‘Songs of our Times’, ‘Twelve More Times’)

Trousdale Sessions

There are actually more demos out there, passed on between collectors, but sadly with a sound quality that’s only so-and-so. Apparently, Sandoval had located enough demos to comprise a second demo collection but it never came out. What a shame! I hope that someday, somehow, other unreleased Sloan demos, known or unknown, will come out with the love and care that characterised the Trousdale Demos collection.

Sloan was one of a kind. A great talent, – one whose music has given me so much joy I can barely express it. Music that I know I’ll return to time and again for decades to come. So with this, allow me to bow my head and pay my respects to the one and only P. F. Sloan.

RIP & thank you for the music.