Full circle: P. F. Sloan rediscovers the songwriter within.
By Bruce Robinson
Forty-one years ago this week, P. F. Sloan had the No. 1 record in America. If his name doesn't ring a bell, it's probably because he was the writer, not the singer, of the 1965 protest classic "Eve of Destruction."
The popularity of Barry McGuire's recording surprised everyone involved.
"The song was originally the back side of the McGuire record," Sloan recalled recently, doing publicity in advance of his Sept. 30 show at the Mystic Theatre. "And though I knew in my soul that it was a very important song, they didn't think it was worthy of publishing until Barry McGuire recorded it. There really wasn't any feeling of it being a hit."
Someone at McGuire's record label leaked a rough mix of the track to Top 40 radio powerhouse KFWB, so the story goes, and the L.A. station jumped on it. A month later, it topped Billboard's Hot 100. Sloan's reaction? "Well, shocked doesn't even come close."
At the time, Sloan and his partner Steve Barri were already a well-established Southern California writer/producer team. Beginning as a surf-music duo (they even performed as the Fantastic Baggys for "Tell 'Em I'm Surfin'" in 1964), the pair created major hits for the Grass Roots ("Where Were You When I Needed You?"), Johnny Rivers ("Secret Agent Man"), the Turtles ("You Baby") and others. "Eve" eclipsed them all, and Sloan knew immediately that it was something different.
"It really felt as if it was coming through me, rather than from me," he recounts, "but it was definitely my feelings as an American that I wanted to communicate to others. It was very strange. Information was being given to me, perhaps from a higher consciousness or a divine source."
But if the song's subsequent sales were strong, so was the political reaction. "It was very polarizing, unfortunately," Sloan says now. "To me, it was just a simple prescription, saying this needs to be looked at or otherwise there's going to be real problems. I had no idea that people would react to a prescription in such negative way."
One of those reactions was hastily released flag-waving answer song, "The Dawn of Correction." Sloan, who initially liked the idea of a political and philosophical dialogue playing out on pop radio, now dismisses it as "just an exploitation record."
Not long afterward, Sloan released his own version of "Eve of Destruction" on his first solo album, Songs of Our Times. It also appears anew (with guest appearances by Frank Black and Buddy Miller) on a freshly issued CD, Sailover. Amid a batch of new material, several of his other famous hits are also revisited on the disc.
"My passion and my love for those songs are intact, so I thought we'd give it a shot to see if we could better what we did," he explains. "Obviously, if you're a record fan like myself, you don't want to pick up Little Richard's 1986 version of 'The Girl Can't Help It.' You'd rather get the original. But the originals aren't available."
In the early 1970s, Sloan (his first initials stand for Philip Faith, and friends address him as Phil) bitterly walked away from the music business completely, neither writing nor recording for more than three decades, listening, he says, to little more than Beethoven. So when producer Jon Tiven finally coaxed him back into a studio last year, Sloan had to find out if he could still create new music.
"I hadn't been in touch with the songwriter P. F. Sloan for 30 years, so I really didn't know if he existed any longer," he says softly. "And to my awe and surprise, he does. And I'm really surprised and very happy with that."
He's also happy about being on tour--his first ever as a performer--which has added to his own appreciation of his songs. "There's a deeper connection when you're singing them in front of people that I hadn't really noticed before, when the song was being written or recorded," he elaborates. "It's sort of like an ice skater, I guess, who doesn't really know the depth he's skating on."
Even though he is hard-pressed to explain why he has chosen to emerge from his self-imposed musical exile just now, Sloan seems cautiously pleased with that decision. When the interviewer comments that it seems that this opportunity to sing his own songs in public has been a long time coming, Sloan pauses, then laughs ruefully.
"Yeah," he says, "isn't it, though?"
P. F. Sloan opens for Ramblin' Jack Elliott at the Mystic Theatre on Saturday, Sept. 30. 23 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. 8pm. $20. 707.765.2121.
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