The Light Still Shines From Under the Basket
P. F. Sloan's Child of Our Times provides a peek into the world of mid-'60s L. A. staff songwriting via the song demos of one of its most prolific and controversial figures.
As a staff songwriter for Lou Adler's Trousdale Publishing Company, Sloan was part of the Los Angeles extension of New York's Brill Building, which had produced songwriters like Goffin and King, Mann and Weil, and many others. Though years younger than most of his peers, Sloan (with co-writer Steve Barri) soon proved capable of writing material of a comparable caliber, leading to more cuts with more recording artists. Though too late for the less-competitive marketplace of the pre-Beatles early '60s, Sloan and Barri came along at a time when staff songwriting was getting strong competition from the "self-contained" bands and solo artists following the Beatles musical invasion of America. Because it was a booming market, there was still plenty of need for the "outside material" furnished by publishing companies, and Sloan and Barri did their part to help fill that need, resulting in covers by recording artists from both sides of the Atlantic.
But by 1965, Sloan had heard Bob Dylan, and, though continuing his partnership with Barri, began writing songs of a more personal/serious nature, and, more importantly, began viewing himself as a performing songwriter in the Dylan vein, much to the chagrin of his Trousdale "handlers." The ensuing battles fought with Lou Adler and Jay Lasker in Sloan's effort to be viewed seriously as a recording artist are truly legendary, and left ripples felt in the L. A. musical community for years to come.
Sloan's defiant stance no doubt had much to do with his not getting asked to perform at 1967's Monterey Pop Festival, put together largely by Adler and Dunhill label-mate John Phillips, thereby depriving Sloan of his one real chance at the brass ring, and an audience that might have been able to appreciate him. By the end of the decade, the self-contained recording artist was more the rule than the exception, and the early 1970s ushered in the era of the "singer-songwriter" - with Sloan, a likely candidate for that category, nowhere to be found.
The twenty tracks on Child of Our Times show a staff songwriter bursting with vitality and raw talent, both in structuring songs and in getting them across. Reverberating with trademark Sloan "passion," the songs may be formulaic in nature, but that doesn't keep their earnestness from leaking through, as Sloan lays down the tracks from which other recording artists would be learning his songs - tracks that more often than not dictate the arrangements of the future recordings as well.
The Beatles influence can't be denied in songs like "I've Got No More to Say", (which seems to owe a bit to "You Won't See Me") and "Say It Again" (a more obvious descendant of "It Won't Be Long"). "Cling to Me" seems to anticipate in both sentiment and approach King's "You've Got a Friend" of a half-decade later. (This is even more evident in the Johnny Tillotson cover of the song.) "Another Day, Another Heartache" proves to be the perfect "follow-up" to the Fifth Dimension's cover of John Phillips' "Go Where You Wanna Go," key modulation and all. Hits like "You Baby" and "Secret Agent Man" are finally heard here in their pre-hit versions. (If you've ever wondered why the Ventures version of "Secret Agent Man" is structured a bit differently than other versions, it's because they learned it from this demo - when it was still called Danger Man.") "Child of Our Times" becomes more than just a hastily thrown-together follow-up to Barry McGuire's controversial, Sloan-written "Eve of Destruction" and is finally heard in all of its stark beauty, with its eerie portrayal of despair and moral relativity, Dylanesque rhymes, harmonica and all. ("All the heroes of the past were all good guys, but the leaders of the next war no one will memorize.") The origins of the Grassroots can be heard in many of these tracks, as well, several of which would later turn up on their first two albums - some with Sloan on lead vocals.
Sloan's post-'60s disappearance seems to have only buried him in that decade, except for a small but growing legion of diehard fans. Indeed, many of the artists who recorded Jimmy Webb's Sloan tribute "P. F. Sloan" over the years were under the impression that Sloan was a fictional character used by Webb to depict missing-in-action songwriters of the past. Child of Our Times goes a long way in portraying Sloan as a living, breathing contributor to some of the best music to come out of L. A. in the 1960s. It should also prove a testing ground for future releases of other Sloan demos that have been unearthed in the last few years - demos of songs that for the most part have never really got their hearing.