One of the most prolific and ubiquitous voices of the 1960s was Phil Sloan, better known by his alter-ego’s initials, P.F. An in-house songwriter for music powerhouses like Dunhill Records and Screen Gems, Sloan (along with songwriting partner Steve Barri) churned out some of the most memorable and canonical ’60s tunes, many of which are still enjoying loads of airplay over radio waves today.
Casual listeners might know that Sloan wrote Barry McGuire’s 1965 hit “Eve of Destruction” and Johnny Rivers’ spy theme “Secret Agent Man,” or that he landed the Turtles on the charts more than once. They may even recognize his own vocals on songs like “Sins of a Family.” But there’s so much more to the Sloan catalog than what floats to the surface. Here are 10 tracks, painstakingly plucked from his songbook (seriously, choosing just 10 was a challenge, and I’m still going back and forth on a few of them) that help to illustrate the range of his work; some known, some less so. The ranking is all mine — take it for what it’s worth. (Pun for the learn-ed only.)
Tomorrow, we’ll feature an exclusive interview with P.F. Sloan and talk to him about his vast career, his mysterious disappearance from the music industry, and his new biography, What’s Exactly the Matter With Me? But, for now, enjoy these tunes.
10) “Meet Me Tonight Little Girl” by Phillip & Steven (1964)
Though released by the Iguanas, a group of former mariachis scooped up from Mexico and deposited onto the Dunhill label, this working version of “Meet Me Tonight Little Girl” features both Sloan and Barri on the lead vocals. Under the name “Phillip & Steven,” the duo attempted to put an English slant on the song and sell it as a simple tune in the vein of early Beatles.
9) “A Must to Avoid” by Herman’s Hermits (1966)
In What’s Exactly the Matter With Me?, Sloan tells the story of being approached one night at the Trip on the Sunset Strip by legendary British impresario and producer Mickie Most about writing a song for Herman’s Hermits’ next film, tentatively titled A Must to Avoid. The only stipulation was that Most was returning to England the next day and needed it before he left. Sloan immediately sat down with a guitar belonging to Donovan (performing that night and also managed and produced by Most) and wrote the song. Though the name of the movie was changed to Hold On! (a song also written by Sloan/Barri), “A Must to Avoid” became a hit.
8) “Is It Any Wonder” by The Turtles (1970)
The first appearance on our list by California’s own Turtles, but certainly not the last. Unreleased until the band’s Wooden Head compilation album in 1970, “Is It Any Wonder” dates back to the group’s folk-rock period before “Happy Together” hit. Its soaring harmonies and horn-laden arrangement vary greatly from the version Steve Barri cut with the Grass Roots a bit later.
7) “Anywhere the Girls Are” by The Fantastic Baggys (1966)
With nods to (okay, direct derivations from) Barrett Strong (“Money”) and the Beach Boys (“Don’t Back Down,” “Little Honda”), “Anywhere the Girls Are” was a product of the SoCal surf craze — not just on the beach, but also in every Los Angeles recording studio. The Fantastic Baggys were led by Sloan and Barri, and this track features Sloan on all of the fuzzed-up guitars. The tune itself could easily pass for proto-New Wave and actually sounds more post-punk than some of its covers in the 1980s.
6) “Please Don’t Go” by Yvonne Carroll (1964)
Sloan admits that most of the lyrics to this little-known gem were written by Steve Barri, but it still serves as a prime example of the duo’s ability to write for the girls of the day. Besides Yvonne Carroll, Sloan recounts working with Darlene Love, including hiring her to demo some tracks for ridiculously little money.
5) “Let Me Be” by The Turtles (1965)
The Turtles’ second single, “Let Me Be” didn’t even come close to achieving the success of its predecessor, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe,” but it did establish a working relationship between Sloan and the band. More importantly, the song’s lyrics illustrate the independent, free-thinking spirit of both its composer and audience, and though, in the big picture, the Turtles weren’t really “that kind” of a band, their energetic and expressive take on the song is really what makes it fresh and relatable today.
4) “Where Were You When I Needed You” by The Grass Roots (1966)
It would be an oversight to leave the Grass Roots off of this list. A manufactured pop group if there ever was one, Dunhill execs hijacked an already-established group’s good name and stuck it on a bunch of guys from LA who’d previously been known as the 13th Floor. (That other group? Oh, just some fella named Arthur Lee who was forced to change his band’s name to Love.) Sloan and Barri were the conductors driving the train, and “Where Were You When I Needed You” became the Grass Roots’ first single to crack the Top 40.
3) “You Baby” by The Turtles (1966)
Created with the aesthetic of the Vogues in mind, “You Baby” became the title of the Turtles’ second album, while the single (released directly after “Let Me Be”) just failed to land in the Top 20. Though it’s ostensibly about the one person that makes the listener feel like everything in the world is perfect, Sloan actually wrote this song with “nobody” in mind. That is, “Who makes me feel like smiling when the weary day is through?” Nobody. “And who believes that my wildest dreams and my craziest schemes could come true?” Nobody. He added the “but you” as a way to loop it back around to love, but the dark underbelly still exists between the lines.
2) “That’s Cool, That’s Trash” by The Street Cleaners (1964)
My placement of “That’s Cool, That’s Trash” at #2 on this list probably says more about me than it does about the song. It was a real toss-up between this demo version and the Kingsmen’s polished treatment on the Kingsmen Volume 3 album. Both are great, but this original (recorded by Sloan/Barri and released on the East Coast under the pseudonym the Street Cleaners) captures Sloan’s snotty punk vibe especially well.
1) “I Get Out of Breath” by The Turtles (1970)
And, finally, numero uno. Another track from the Turtles’ Wooden Head comp, this incredible song was also probably cut around the same time as “Is It Any Wonder.” Though often mistaken for a protest song, “I Get Out of Breath” is a prime example of what we might now call a “quarter-life crisis,” in which the protagonist, a wandering 20-something, searches for some sort of purpose in life, but keeps hitting brick walls. Sure, the world is a mess and he’s none too pleased about that, but it’s his lack of direction that ultimately devastates him. This, perhaps more than any other song of the era, captures P.F. Sloan as the constantly searching, never abiding, and explosively frustrated talent he was.