The songwriter P.F. Sloan died this week, aged 70. More than 40 years ago, the record producer Lou Adler told me a story about him that still makes me smile, even though it had the polish of a tale that had been told many times and perhaps enhanced by the process of repetition.
It was in 1964 that Adler had signed the teenaged Sloan to his publishing company, along with his writing partner, Steve Barri. The duo’s early pop hits included “Secret Agent Man” for Johnny Rivers, “Summer Means Fun” for Bruce (Johnson) and Terry (Melcher), and “A Must to Avoid” for Herman’s Hermits.
But Adler had a new idea. He’d noted Bob Dylan’s growing celebrity and thought that Sloan might have potential in that direction. One day in 1965, he told me, he gave the 19-year-old a corduroy cap, an acoustic guitar and a copy of Dylan’s most recent album, shut him in a room — it might even have been a bungalow at the Beverly Hills hotel — for a weekend, and told him to write some songs. When Sloan emerged, it was with “Eve of Destruction”. After Barri had added a couple of lines (to be precise: “You may leave here for four days in space / But when you return it’s the same old place,” he told the New York Times‘s obituaries writer this week), it was ready for its destiny as a worldwide hit for Barry McGuire.
Sloan quickly came up with other soft-protest folk-rock songs, including “The Sins of a Family”, which became his own single, “Leave Me Be” for the Turtles, and “Take Me For What I’m Worth” for the Searchers. But after he returned from a trip to London with McGuire, during which they both appeared on Top of the Pops, Barri noted a change. “When he came back he was never really the same person,” he told Richard Cromelin of the LA Times. “There was no more joking around. Everything was very serious, and he was angry. After a while he just broke off all relationships with everybody and we lost contact for many, many years.”
Those lost years, which included addiction and mental illness, prompted Jimmy Webb to write “P.F. Sloan” in 1970. Sloan had re-emerged long before Rumer covered Webb’s song a couple of years ago, and in 2006 he re-recorded the biggest hit from his catalogue as part of an album for the Hightone label, produced by Jon Tiven. It’s a wonderful version, making “Eve of Destruction” sound like the serious song the 19-year-old composer had probably intended it to be. Here he is that year, performing the song in a Los Angeles club.
His original demo is on an album called Here’s Where I Belong, a selection of his recordings for Adler’s Dunhill label between 1965 and 1967, compiled by Tim Forster for Ace’s Big Beat label. As well as the better known songs, it reveals gems — previously unknown to me — like “From a Distance” and “I Can’t Help But Wonder, Elizabeth”, which he released under the name Philip Sloan. There’s also an album in Ace’s songwriters series devoted to the songs of Sloan and Barri. It’s called You Baby and it features, among many other goodies, the Mamas and the Papas’ version of the title track. Sloan had played one of the two acoustic guitars on intro to their “California Dreamin'”: another decent claim to immortality.
* The photograph of P.F Sloan is from the cover of Here’s Where I Belong, released in 2008.