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Tandyn Almer: sunshine and psychodramas

Tandyn AlmerAs far as I’m concerned, Tandyn Almer deserves a place in the history of rock and roll simply on the basis of “Along Comes Mary”, the song he wrote for the Association in 1966. Together with Norma Tanega’s “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog”, the Mamas and Papas’ “California Dreamin'” and a couple of others, it was one of a small group of unmistakeably white pop records that managed to infiltrate themselves between the latest from Motown and Stax in the clubs I was attending at the time. This was music that hinted at the psychedelic revolution to come, while still working within the disciplines of conventional pop music. “Along Comes Mary” had a lovely light and highly danceable groove created by an acoustic guitar and what sounds like an electric harpsichord, intelligent bass playing, pushing drums and party handclaps on the backbeat, with fine group vocals, a baritone saxophone almost buried in the background, the flute/recorder/ocarina solo that seemed to be obligatory that season (e.g. “California Dreamin'” and the Troggs’ “Wild Thing”), a half-hidden reference to marijuana in the title and a tumbling, bewildering lyric: “And when the morning / Of the warning’s past / The gassed and flaccid kids / Are flung across the stars / The psychodramas and the traumas gone / The songs have all been sung/And hung upon the scars.” It was, I believe, the first time I had encountered the term “psychodrama”.

Tandyn Almer was born in Minneapolis in 1942, studied music there, spent his teenage years listening to John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, harboured ambitions to become a jazz pianist, and moved to California in the early 1960s, attending Los Angeles City College before striking out as a songwriter and record producer. He smoked dope, took acid, and became a member of the interesting clique that included Curt Boettcher (who arranged “Along Comes Mary”), Mason Williams, Van Dyke Parks, John Phillips and Brian Wilson, with whom he co-wrote “Marcella” for the Beach Boys’ Carl & The Passions — So Tough in 1972 and “Sail On, Sailor” for Holland the following year. He was a regular scenemaker at Doug Weston’s Troubadour club in West Hollywood and wrote and/or produced records with obscure outfits such as the Paper Fortress, the Garden Club and Pleasure.

Around the time of “Along Comes Mary” he was signed to a small LA publishing company, Davon Music, whose owner had demos of his compositions made by studio singers and musicians (a common practice in those days: remember those demos of songs by Nick Drake, John Martyn and Mike Heron made by the pre-fame Elton John at his publisher’s studio in 1968?). A number of the resulting tracks were compiled into an album to be sent to artists and producers who might have been interested in recording them. The output from that period has now been lovingly reassembled by Parke Puterbaugh, a former Rolling Stone journalist, and released by the Sundazed label, specialists in the “sunshine pop” of the middle and late ’60s. And the 15 songs on Along Comes Tandyn are enough to prompt a serious reassessment of the composer’s talent.

I don’t want to overrate Almer’s music by proclaiming it to be the fruit of genius, but it’s full of interest. His tunes are ingenious yet memorable, their structures quite intricate, and the lyrics are always literate and sometimes amusing in the rather fey manner of the time, frequently demonstrating an urge to break away from traditional pop themes: “psychodramas and traumas” indeed. The tumble of words in “Anything You Want” is strongly reminiscent of Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma”. “Victims of Chance” could have been recorded by Harpers Bizarre. “Where Will They Go” is a protest song in an style that might be called sunshine punk. At times there’s some sort of a coincidental affinity with the very early Pink Floyd, perhaps most obviously in the coyly titled “Alice Designs” (try saying it in an LA drawl). Even the inevitably anonymous — although generally adequate — contributions of the hired singers and backing musicians cannot dim the songs’ merits, although the one truly committed performance comes in the only non-demo, a version of the driving “Bring Your Own Self Down” released on the MGM label by the Purple Gang, an LA band. The most adventurous song of the set is the cool, jazzy “I Get High”, which is not unlike the Doors in “Riders on the Storm” mode and reverses Almer’s normal practice by using druggy terms to describe conventional emotions. The most ambitious is “Sunset Strip Soliloquy”, a Hollywood protest song in the form of a mid-tempo narrative ballad occupying the space between Dylan’s “Desolation Row”, P.F. Sloan’s “The Sins of the Family” and Sonny Bono’s “I Just Sit There”: not a bad place to be.

He left Los Angeles in the mid-’70s and disappeared to northern Virginia, where he seems to have spent the rest of his life. (Puterbaugh fills in as many biographical gaps as possible in his very comprehensive sleeve essay.) I followed an internet lead a few years ago — prompted, I think, by the Spectropop website — and found some very strange pages. His Wikipedia entry says that he invented a high-tech bong called the Slave-Master. At any rate, having given permission for these tracks to be assembled and released, and after a period of poor health, he died last January, aged 70. Maybe “Along Comes Mary”, “Marcella” and “Sail On, Sailor” — three exceptionally beautiful songs — will be enough for most people to remember him by. But the demos show that they were no accidents.

* The photograph of Tandyn Almer is taken from the cover of Along Comes Tandyn.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. A few years ago Jerry Scheff told me a wonderful story about his bass playing on the Association’s recording of Along Comes Mary. Curt Boettcher had a home studio, and the band, with Scheff’s help, cut its first album there in an hour. During the session, Jerry said he made two big errors in Along Comes Mary, but because the Boettcher didn’t want any more takes, they went with what they had. “The very first time I heard myself on the radio, it was `Along Comes Mary,'” said Jerry. “I was driving down Sunset Boulevard, and here comes that (mistake) in the ending. And I was mortified. That was the take they used. What cured me was, a couple of years later I’m in a supermarket. And on the Muzak I hear `Along Comes Mary.’ The studio band transcribed it exactly as I played it, mistakes and all. I figured if they didn’t care, I didn’t care.” Scheff went on to play with both Elvis P and Elvis C, Dylan, The Doors and a few others…

    Off to download Almer’s album and to play Sagittarius…

    July 5, 2013
    • Great story. Marvellous bass-playing, remarkably sensitive to the song, particularly the half-time descending triplet figures in the holes between the vocal lines — twice in the first verse, and again just before the start of the last verse. It’s a clever pre-echo of what he does under the repeated “sweet as the punch” on the coda. What do you think the mistake is? The odd note under “psychodramas”? Seems a perfect fit to me.

      July 5, 2013
  2. Dick A #

    Too right. Blimey, we’ll be discussing the career of Curt Boettcher next. A handful of great tracks. But, alas, only a handful.

    July 5, 2013
  3. rminetor #

    Richard, what a wonderful, insightful review. I’m Tandyn’s sister-in-law and the administrator of his estate. There are a few more songs, never released or demoed (to my knowledge), that only his closest friends heard—I’m in the process of piecing together music and lyrics from Tandyn’s fairly disheveled files. I am looking for ways to make these public; if you have any thoughts about how to do this, I would love to hear them. Thank you for this great piece.

    July 14, 2013

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