The second track on Soundsville! is “Soul City,” which we have already heard as performed by girl group the Foxes. For the album it is redone in a blue-eyed-soul stylee by “The Hi-Lifes.” Again it makes the destination sound pretty appealing, but I figure that once you got there you’d find a Potemkin village with tumbleweeds blowing through the rutted streets — not unlike modern-day Detroit.
It is followed by the song that is supposed to represent the West Coast in the collection. Credited to “the Hollywoods,” this is clearly Southern California–oriented; the San Francisco Sound was not yet a thing.
Sunny harmonies notwithstanding, “Teardrop in the Sand” is a heartbroken surfer’s lament. He’s standing on the shore watching his ex-girl frolic, too depressed to even pick up his board. “There’s no more fun in surfing,” he wails.
This seems like a pretty jaded, New York view of California. “You’d get your heart stomped on there too,” is the message, “and life would suck just as much. Bah humbug!”
“Teardrop” has a companion piece on the B side of the album written from the girl’s perspective. “Johnny won’t surf no more, and I’m the one to blame,” she says. It’s intimated that Johnny is dead, so maybe it’s not exactly the same story, but close enough.
“Johnny” is supposed to be the album’s “Surfing” song, which is splitting hairs if you ask me. But it’s got a nice groove and I like the way Jeannie Larimore bends the vowel at the end of every line. This is my favorite of the Soundsville! songs so far, and it’s not impossible to imagine Nico singing it. I’m going to go do that right now while enjoying a tasty beverage; we shall reconvene at a later date.
The most ambitious project Lou Reed was involved with during his time at Pickwick International was a concept album called Soundsville! Its 11 songs are supposed to represent 11 different styles of music divided by geography (New York, Philadelphia, England, Nashville, Detroit, Chicago, and “the West Coast”) as well as lifestyle (Surfing, Hot Rod, Motorcycle, and Campus).
It’s a sham, though. All the songs were written by the Philips/Reed/Vance/Sims team and recorded by the label’s in-house musicians. Author Aidan Levy calls Soundsville! a “budget record par excellence,” a backhanded compliment if ever there was one. But it’s pretty successful on its own terms; if they don’t convincingly sound like 11 different bands, they at least manage to produce a thoroughly disorienting listening experience.
The first song is the “Nashville” one and is credited to the J Brothers, a frequent pseudonym for the revolving-door Pickwick crew. (Does the “J” stand for “joint”? It’d be cooler if it did.) A melancholy shuffle, it seems an odd choice for leadoff track; someone expecting a rock’n’roll record might have ripped it off the turntable and hurled it across the room. And I’m no country expert, but to my ear it sounds more Texas than Nashville.
It sounds a little unfinished, too; room was left for a guitar solo that never materializes. But what do you want for $1.98? That was the list price for the album, anyway; I paid 20 bucks for it, but we’ll get our money’s worth over the next few weeks.
Because I am a little slow on the uptake, I did not notice at first that the song “Maybe Tomorrow” — which is credited to “Ronnie Dickerson” on the Pickwick compilation LP — is the same one that had been released on a 45 under Robertha Williams’ name. That would seem to clinch it that they were one and the same. Why the subterfuge? Who knows — the ways of the Long Plastic Hallway are arcane and impenetrable. You can be sure that, one way or another, it made or saved the company some money.
That leaves one Dickerson song we haven’t covered, “Love Can Make You Cry.” I should take a moment here to thank “Clare Onions,” whose YouTube channel has helpfully posted many of these songs, absolving me of the responsibility of tracking down the LP.1I think she likes this music more than I do. I mean, it’s fine; this song is atmospheric, the lead vocal performance is solid, and the brassy backup singer tries again to mount a coup, coming on like Frankie Valli (or is it Frankie Lymon?) in the choruses.
But I must admit I’m antsy to get on to the real stuff. And I bet Lou was too. Getting a regular paycheck is nice — precious few people in the music business ever do — but he knew there was more to life than cranking out quickie pop songs for second-tier artists. “While I was doing that, I was doing my own stuff and trying to get by,” he said later, “but the material I was doing, people wouldn’t go near me with it at the time.”
Even so, as time went on, Terry Philips (Lou’s boss) started to get a smidgen of leeway from his boss (Cy Leslie) to experiment a little bit as long as the bottom line remained solid. That’s where we’ll pick up next time.
Upon reflection, it’s a bit odd that the four “Ronnie Dickerson” songs written by Lou Reed and his team were used as album filler, rather than released as singles. It may be that they were deemed commercially unpromising, though this one is pretty catchy:
The reference point here is probably Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t You Do It,” which was a few months old at the time and had been a hit (if not a huge one by Marvin’s standards). But “Oh No” is a different beast musically, with a pseudo-Jamaican downbeat rhythm and ominous piano notes floating in the background. It’s promising and then — in keeping with Pickwick’s “two minutes is enough” policy — it’s over.
I note that the release date of Light in the Attic Records’ not-entirely-accurately-titled Lou Reed: Words and Music 1965, originally given as August 23, came and went this week. The website now says September 16, though no physical versions are available to ship until October.
But three of the songs are already available for your listening pleasure: “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Heroin,” and “Men of Good Fortune.” Since the timeframe in which they were recorded is still a little ahead of where we are in this blog, I’m not going to get into them right now. They are quite different from the songs we know — very raw, sometimes painfully so, but of course interesting. More about that at the right time.
In the meantime, there are more songs from the Pickwick catalog to cover. Four of them are on a compilation featuring three female vocalists: New Orleans legend Irma Thomas, journeywoman soul singer Maxine Brown, and Ronnie Dickerson, a mysterious figure who is possibly the same person as the aforementioned Robertha Williams. It is the latter who concerns us here — all the “Dickerson” songs were written by the Reed/Philips/Vance/Sims team.
The first of these is called “What About Me,” and in contrast to the relatively slick Robertha Williams sides, it sounds very much like it was tossed together over an afternoon. The rhythm plods, the harmonies don’t quite jibe, and the bass player is clearly phoning it in.
Having said that, “What About Me” is not entirely charmless. I like the way the male background singer — who sounds like he had a few martinis over lunch, and is shouting from across the studio — keeps trying to take over. “What about me?” he seems to be asking.
And is that snaky little guitar part a Lou Reed special? Could be. Let’s just say that it is, and call that a wrap for today.
I wouldn’t say “Ya Running, but I’ll Getcha” is a great song, but it has gotten stuck in my head over the last few days, so I guess you’d have to call it successful in that way at least. The similarity to “Run for Your Life” is really quite striking, but it appears to have been a case of parallel evolution.
Up next is a song that Lou Reed noticeably does not get a songwriting credit on; the label lists only Sims/Vance/Philips, with the customary fourth name omitted. Maybe it was written during one of Lou’s trips to the ER? In any case, I am told that he did play guitar on it — you make up your own mind:
Whereas “Soul City” was a Motown wannabe, this is more in a Phil Spector vein. It’s credible enough; you could hear it on an oldies station without batting an eyelash.
Very little is known about Spongy & the Dolls, who apparently existed only for this one single. (I don’t think that’s them in the video.) “Really Really etc.” is the B-side; the A-side was called “It Looks Like Love,” and for some reason is not on YouTube. They’re asking $60 for the single and so, no… we will not be going there. It’s not relevant anyway. Moving on!
This faux-dialect phrase is the name of a song on a “Design Records” (Pickwick International) compilation album I just got. In true Pickwick style it is a hodgepodge of miscellany, including two songs each by Johnny Rivers, Neil Sedaka, and the Four Seasons. Each side is filled out by two tunes credited to the “J Brothers,” which is the Pickwick house band that Lou Reed played in when he wasn’t too stoned to stand up.
Even at that, the two sides together clock in at less than 25 minutes. Chintzy, but then again, what do you want for 99 cents? The spiel on the back of the album explains why it is actually a fantastic deal; I’m going to share the whole thing with you here because it is an absolute masterpiece of Long Plastic Hallway horseshit:
In creating the Design Catalog we have succeeded in bringing you many of America’s leading recording artists performing tunes which have made them famous. It is these individual performer’s [sic] talents which add so much to your perennial favorite songs, making them so enjoyable that you want the opportunity of hearing them over and over again.
This one will be short as I am still reeling from having learned that at the Lou Reed exhibit currently running at the New York Public Library, there is a special room where they play Metal Machine Music twice a day in quadraphonic sound. I wonder if they lock the door behind you. I tried to listen to MMM all the way through once and I didn’t make it; round about the middle of side 3 I started ideating homicide and/or suicide, and cut short the experiment in the name of sanity. (Supposedly Lou once said, “Anybody who gets to side four is dumber than I am.”)
Like “Tell Mamma Not to Cry,” the B-side — which is called “Maybe Tomorrow” — is credited to Vance/Sims/Reed/Philips. Since the four of them worked as a team, it is impossible to tell who is responsible for what, exactly. I assume Lou worked on words more than music, but that is pure speculation.
The words here are pretty minimal, but they get the idea across. The music takes a back seat to Robertha Williams’ vocal performance, which is certainly committed, if a little shaky towards the end. Another take might have been a good idea — but maybe she had shredded her voice doing this one, or maybe it was considered Good Enough for Pickwick’s cut/print/move on ethos. It’s a pretty good tune — I can’t tell you why there’s a picture of Amy Winehouse on the video, but I don’t really need to know, either. Cut. Print. Move on.
This strange slice of gothic pop-soul is credited to one “Robertha Williams,” about whom I have found very little information. The YouTube video has exactly one comment:
I suppose I could reach out to Tiffiny, but I am at heart a lazy man and is isn’t necessarily relevant anyway. What matters is the song, which — despite Pickwick’s quick-n-dirty recording style — sounds like it had some care lavished on it. The verses are minimalist and ominous, the choruses ornate and fervid; a lot of drama is crammed into two and a half minutes.
The scenario here is clear enough: The singer is preparing to run off with her boyfriend, and telling her sister (I assume) to break the news gently to her mom. But there’s something unsettling about the way the song is presented, as if it were being sung by a ghost. It seems pretty clear that things are not going to work out, and that Mamma is going to end up crying one way or another.
[Lou Reed] would come into work stoned every day, because he was the king, as I found out, of pills. I could never figure out what he took. Lou was very bright, and he was taking pills that I think doctors didn’t know about. We used to have to pick him up off the floor each day; he had to be taken to the emergency room twice. Nobody would have gone near him but a wild man like me. [Label owner] Cy Leslie would come in and they would go crazy. And I kept saying, “You’ve got to understand, this guy’s special.”
It’s nice when the boss likes you. In Lou Reed’s case, Terry Philips was content to let him get wasted every day as long as he produced. This was no ordinary workplace, after all; it was a “songwriting emergency room” where the goal was to churn out saleable material and do it fast.
I think that in Lou, Philips saw the wildman he wanted to be. As the supervisor, Philips had to be responsible; he was the point of contact with Cy Leslie, who signed the checks. “In order to keep Lou’s pill-taking ass and get him his weekly paycheck and allow him to write,” Philips said, “I had to compromise my — not his — my integrity.” So Philips kept the factory going and did the paperwork while Lou indulged himself.
One of the songs they wrote together for Swingin’ Teen Sounds of Ronnie Dove & Terry Phillips is called “Wild One,” and it tries very hard to live up to the title, with a manufactured party atmosphere and would-be jungle drums high in the mix:
But it is not convincing. I don’t think people really call this guy “the wild one”; I think he would like them to, but no one does. (One thinks of George Costanza trying to get people to call him “T-Bone.”) The real Wild One was probably passed out in a corner.