Even more than most pop-music pseudonyms, P.F. Sloan hints at the cryptic. The name belongs to Philip Schlein, an undeniably real singer and songwriter born 60 years ago in Queens, N.Y., but there’s something fanciful and wistful in its sound. It’s a melancholy whistle of a moniker, and suits a career that reads more like a fictional dossier than the story of a living, breathing musician.
Yet Sloan’s is a remarkable career that spans nearly a half-century, and last month saw the release of Sailover, his first recording in over a decade. Cut in Nashville with producer Jon Tiven and a cast of guests including Frank Black and Lucinda Williams, Sailover attests to the continuing vitality of Sloan’s songs, even as it illustrates how tricky it can be to conceive settings for them.
The record attempts to re-create the folk-rock sound of Sloan’s Dunhill albums, 1965’s Songs of Our Times and Twelve More Times, from 1966. It features numbers associated with Sloan and artists like The Grass Roots and Barry McGuire, whose version of Sloan’s “Eve of Destruction” ranks with Johnny Rivers’ take on “Secret Agent Man” as one of the most famous Sloan compositions. (Sailover also contains several new Sloan tracks.) He might be associated with the post-Bob Dylan era and the folk-rockers who appeared in the wake of Dylan and The Byrds, but Sloan’s roots draw upon pop and rock ’n’ roll.
“I started out when I was 12-and-a-half, on Aladdin Records,” Sloan says. His family moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1957, and Sloan had his first audition. “My parents were living in an apartment house, and I got a flier from Aladdin Records and Specialty Records, and I chose Aladdin,” he says. “I picked up my guitar, put it in a pillowcase, got on a bus to Pico Boulevard and waited in a long line with 500 black guys and ladies.”
Signed with Aladdin, Sloan made a single, only to see Aladdin promptly fold. As he laughs, “I was a has-been at 13.” He didn’t remain a has-been for long; he wrote 1964’s “Kick That Little Foot Sally Ann,” a hit performed by Watts singer Round Robin with an exquisite arrangement by a young Jack Nitzsche.
The next three years were fat ones for Sloan, and what he accomplished with songs like “The Sins of a Family,” “Take Me for What I’m Worth,” “See Ya ’Round on the Rebound” and “You Baby” was nothing less than the transmutation of Dylan’s sprung rhythms into a catchy, nervous American plainsong that every teenager could identify with. “I started writing in the idiom that I knew best: Elvis, Little Richard. Pop music, rock ’n’ roll,” he says.
Sloan was also transfixed by Dylan. “In terms of songwriting, as a teenager, if I had any idea, it was to extol Bob Dylan to friends of mine I played him for, and who could not get him at all,” Sloan says. “I thought there had to be a language they can understand.” This meant Sloan took criticism from both sides: folkies dismissed him as a Dylan imitator, especially in light of the massively successful 1965 “Eve of Destruction,” while some conservative pop fans (and their parents) didn’t know what to make of songs like “Sins of a Family.”
Still, Sloan’s aesthetic, and that of frequent collaborator, Steve Barri, wasn’t Dylan’s—compared to the fantasias of Brian Wilson, a song like “Is It Any Wonder” seems uninflected. But the song works on an almost nonverbal level. The chorus is nothing but the title sprung hard against conventional pop scansion, brought to life by an infectious, descending melodic figure.
Sloan is conscious of his singularity. As he says, “Brian Wilson is considered a genius, but I’m looking way in advance, when we’re gonna be looking at these things and saying, ‘That was teenage fluff, and it was well done.’ But it’s not Gershwin, and they all want to be Gershwin. Gershwin isn’t relevant, because his world is vanished. I’m not a tunesmith.”
If Sloan didn’t turn out to be Gershwin, he didn’t become Dylan, either. Nor did he function always as a willing tunesmith. Dunhill, according to Sloan, was a conservative, even reactionary company with little interest in innovation, and Sloan left the label in 1967. (“They had me sign everything away, and it was all gone,” he says.)
He went to New York and signed to Atco, making his best record, 1968’s Measure of Pleasure, a free-associating pop-soul work. Cut in Muscle Shoals, Ala., and produced by Tom Dowd, it was accomplished and funky, but he spent the next 20 years in obscurity in L.A., his career stalled. He made a 1994 record that he dismisses, so Sailover represents his first major effort since Measure of Pleasure. (Collectors’ Choice Music will give Measure its first CD issue in 2007.)
Unfortunately, Sailover is a thoroughly botched job. Jon Tiven’s flat, etiolated production is a far cry from Dowd’s rich, fat sound. The vocals sound lifeless, and on the “Eve of Destruction” remake, the drums are mixed too far back for such a rousing song. Those who saw Sloan’s amazing performance at Nashville’s Bluebird Café in June can only wonder at the contrast between his vitality and the weak tea that is Sailover.
It’s hardly surprising that this superb vocalist, stylish guitarist and first-rate songwriter would be ill-served by a producer. Sloan is a major talent, but there’s something in his musical conception, and in his idea of himself, that resists codification. As Sloan says, “I don’t talk to P.F. Sloan, and I don’t know P.F Sloan. I’ll start working on a lyric for four years, and P.F. Sloan appears and says to me, ‘Get out of the way, let me show you how it’s done,’ and then he says, ‘Now go ahead and write a melody if you want,’ and then Sloan gives me a hint.”