SHAWN PHILLIPS - At The BBC (Hux Records HUX102, 2009)
It’s something of a cliché to say it but unbelievably Shawn Phillips remains on the periphery of mainstream rock, despite selling hundreds of thousands of albums and singles since he first came on to the scene in the 1960s. Once famously described by the late rock impresario Bill Graham as ‘the best kept secret in the music business’, Shawn has collaborated with the good and great, from Stevie Winwood and Eric Clapton, to Donovan and Bernie Taupin, was cast to play the lead in the original production of Jesus Christ Superstar (he had to pull out due to his other music commitments), written soundtracks for and starred in movie,s and yet he’s as far as ever from being a household name. Born in Fort Worth, Texas on February 3, 1943, Shawn was smitten by pop music from an early age. ‘My father gave me a Stella guitar when I was six, and it started there’, he recalls. ‘ Texas blues and rock’n’roll on the radio - "Rockin’ Robin" for one, and the Everly Brothers and such’. In 1959 he left Texas, ‘because the police wanted me for my automobile. It was fast’, and he ended up in the US Navy for the next three years until he was discharged. ‘Honorable discharge’, he now quips, ‘it was due to medical reasons. I had too much cartilage in my knees (it’s called Osgoodschlatter’s Disease. A lot of young sports people get it). I later had it corrected’.
As fate would have it, he ended up in Southern California where he befriended singer/guitarist Tim Hardin. ‘I met Tim in LA around 1962’, he recounts, ‘after we had known each other for several weeks, he suggested we go to New York ’. The folk revival was in full swing and Greenwich Village was awash with a wave of new talent, they were soon rubbing shoulders with the likes of Fred Neil, Ritchie Havens and a young Bob Dylan. As he later joked, ‘I played every class A club that exists in the United States from the ‘Hungry I’ on down to the other end. The best gig I ever had was the Café Au-Go-Go when it opened, with Lenny Bruce’. But there was obviously a bit of the Woody Guthrie in Shawn, he’s always been a travelling man. Whilst in Toronto he met the classical Indian musician Ravi Shankar and ‘he set me off with the desire to play sitar. I left the States to go to India to study the instrument. I got waylaid in London by Denis Preston, who heard me sing at a party and asked me if I wanted to make a record. I told him sure as long as there’s no time clause to the contract. Never got to India but I learned to play the instrument anyway’.
It was in London in Ivor Moraint’s famous Music Store that Shawn met Donovan Leitch, who was just enjoying his first taste of fame and they shared a fruitful if brief relationship, with Shawn touring America with the young guitarist, they even played the Pete Seger TV show, where Shawn was interviewed by the great ex-Weavers singer about the sitar and mentor Ravi Shankar. But the relationship with Donovan was rather one-way and in 1971 Shawn would observe, ‘we wrote a lot of things together and there wasn’t over much said about my part. The only thing I ever got credit for was "Little Tin Soldier" on the "Fairy Tale" album. We co-wrote "Season of the Witch". We were sitting there on the floor and I was playing my guitar and Don started making up words to what I was playing. And I made up that funny little riff that you hear on the original ‘Season of the Witch’. The "Sunshine Superman", I co-wrote most of the stuff on that’. However, Shawn’s stay in the UK was cut short by the Home Office, ‘the English government said my work permit had expired and I must leave England for three months’, a short bout in jail in Dublin and a stay in Paris followed, before Shawn found a new base in Italy. ‘My friend Casy Deiss told me to go to Positano and return after three months was up. I didn’t’. This little Mediterranean fishing village was to be Phillips’s home for the next 13 years, and its friendly, gentle atmosphere would provide him with the perfect environment to write and develop as a musician.
He’d already recorded a number of singles and albums for various EMI imprints, but in 1968 he signed to A&M and embarked on a project which should have cemented his reputation as not only a gifted composer, a fine singer, highly innovative guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, but also as a musician willing to take chances. It should have catapulted him into the big time. Recorded at Trident Studios in London with producer Jonathan Weston, Shawn began his most ambitious work to date, Trilogy. Unfortunately as he later opined, it ‘took me four and a half years to make and it took them (A&M Records) about two weeks to take apart’. All that music that he’d been soaking up since his first got into the business five years before poured out in an amazing splurge of creativity and originality, written against that sweeping psychedelic backdrop of the late 60s, it combined elements of jazz, rock, folk, blues, gospel, classical and his love of Indian music to stunning effect. It should have been his masterwork, his "Solid Air" or "Sgt. Pepper". It was a tragedy that the work was never released as it was intended. As Shawn recounted to Goldmine in 2006: 'the Trilogy was actually made and presented to A&M Records with the stipulation that each album would be released separately so that people would not have to buy all three at once. Everyone at A&M said yes to this project except one man, an executive at A&M. He considered it was unrealistic and looked at it solely from a financial standpoint, never even considering the artistic endeavour involved. He was the comptroller at the time. He made me take the Trilogy apart and put eight of the songs on to one album, which became "Contribution". The rest, with the exception of one or two songs, went on to "Second Contribution". This man was one of the forerunners for the desolate miasma the music business is today’.One can only ponder on what might have been had the original concept prevailed.
Even so these two records, which eventually emerged in 1970, are not without their pleasures, the first LP featured some great Phillips songs and also superlative playing not just from Shawn but from old ‘Slow Hand’ himself on "Man Hole Covered Wagon", and Messrs Winwood, Capaldi and Wood (Traffic) on ‘For RFK, JFK and MLK’. ‘Every single song was recorded in less than three takes and the master vocals were not overdubbed later but were done in the same moment’, says Shawn. Second Contribution was more experimental and abstract with fabulous orchestrations from Paul Buckmaster. Despite these major frustrations with his record label, Shawn came to record his first Peel session on something of a roll. Although never well marketed, "Contribution" was described by Rolling Stone magazine as ‘one of 1970’s better efforts’. On Saturday afternoon 29th August he’d played unbilled to an audience of some 500000 people at the third Isle of Wight Pop Festival. The previous December he had also released a well-received Yuletide 45, "A Christmas Song". Indeed, side by side with the broadcast of his first BBC session, Rolling Stone had also just given him a highly positive centre spread, written by noted critic Chet Flippo. The timing could not have been better.
Phillips’s staunchest fans already know what a treat these Beeb recordings are, but with 38 years of hindsight it strikes this scribe somewhat odd that in the realms of ‘legendary sessions’ done by ‘Auntie’, this is never mentioned in despatches. To these ears at least, it’s up there with the likes of Tim Buckley’s legendary 68 recordings for the corporation. Kicking off with "Hey Miss Lonely" which he would later re-do in 1972 in LA with highly regarded session men Lee Sklar and Sneeky Pete Kleinow as part of the sessions for Faces, this gets us off to a cracking start. Shawn’s memories of this session are at best sketchy but he wryly adds, ‘Fuck me! Did I do that ? OK, the acoustic tunes are what they are, and I notice I flat picked "Hey Miss Lonely", I finger pick it now, and can’t remember when I started doing that’. The version on Faces is a gentler take with a country lilt rounded out by Sklar’s lovely bubbling bass and Pete’s sweet steel. The Radio 1 recording here maybe a rawer snapshot but both versions work equally well. In contrast "Spring Wind" is a reading take of the 9 ½ minute full-blown electric epic found on 1971’s "Collaboration" - an introspective, brooding piece which features some incredibly dexterous picking from the man and the lower range of his wonderfully elastic voice. "Salty Tears" is a bluesy number, with superb harmonising between his guitar lines and voice, Shawn could flick from a low rumble to a soaring falsetto in the blink of an eye, this is a performance of one of the more obscure songs in his catalogue that only ever saw the light of day as the flipside of the 1974 single "All the Kings and Castles" - and it’s the only number on the session to use an electric guitar and the way he wields his Fender Telecaster is just jaw-droppingly brilliant.
For most musicians a performance like that would be hard to top but the last two numbers from March 1971 are just as potent, and both taken from the aforementioned "Contribution" LP. Shawn’s driving 12-string playing is given full flight on "Withered Roses". The song starts with a stunning raga-like sequence - shades of the great Fred Neal and David Crosby here - before a full onslaught of super-fast picking. In 2008 Shawn observes, ‘I have a conundrum. I’ve been thinking about playing "Withered Roses" again in concert, but instead of an acoustic 12-string, I would use an electric 12-string. Peter Robinson has my original Gibson 12 string at his home in LA. He sampled it for use on his New England Digital Synclavier. I would rather it be in safe place, as it is the second 12 string Gibson made, after the prototype. Barney Kessel got the first one. We played a session together once, and he played mine, and I played his, and he offered to trade mine for his, with $500 on top of that. I said, “Don’t think so. Thanks anyway”’. "L. Ballad" is just gorgeous, one of his best - a song brimming with mystery and imagination that has undergone various transformations. Here somewhat reminiscent of the best work by the Tims (Hardin, Rose and Buckley), it was later re-done for Faces where Shawn was backed up by Skaila Kanga on harp and the 85-piece David Katz Orchestra with a haunting, majestic arrangement courtesy of Paul Buckmaster. Even so, this unadorned solo version is hard to fault, it’s the real jewel in the crown of this first BBC set. By the time he came to do the next BBC session for Bob Harris in March 1973, Shawn was regularly working with a backing band which featured
Drummer Barry de Souza, guitarist Tony Walmsley and keyboard player Peter Robinson. As Peter recalls, ‘I met Shawn in the autumn of 1971. My long standing friend and fellow Royal Academy of Music alumnus, Paul Buckmaster, had met Shawn during the recording of Contribution and took me over to see him at his flat located in one of London ’s famously secluded squares. We instantly hit it off and we all talked endlessly until the wee hours. It was during these dialogues that Shawn asked me to play keyboards on his next album. We took the songs from "Contribution", "Second Contribution" and "Collaboration" on the road and I played with Shawn for the next five years in concert. On the Bob Harris Show we had no bass player at that time and so I played all the bass parts on Fender Rhodes bass keyboard. The only other group I knew about that utilised this instrument was the Doors’. First up is "Spaceman", done for the "Collaboration" album, a number says Shawn ‘prompted by my getting hit on, on the street, by various sundry Jesus freaks, whom I would invariably leave standing speechless, because I would remind them of the origins of the bible, and the myriad cultures that actually contributed to its writing, much of which was long before Jesus. For someone who loves Jesus so much, they weren’t real happy with the truth. Also contributing to it was a blonde lady (now long forgotten), that piqued my fancy’. "Not Quite Nonsense" was another song from the Contribution record – something of a humorous break-neck tongue-twister - ‘”will the lady in the rear please be kind enough to take her lovely hat off”’, was actually the line that set the writing of the song off’, he says, ‘I like the ending as well, “and we’ll call a stop to all that’s not harmonic”. There wasn’t anything left to say. Dead stop’.
There is a pair of aces from the Faces record: "Anello" has a Donovan flavour particularly in the vocal phrasing, not surprising given their earlier friendship, whilst "I Took A Walk" shows the more political side of Phillips’ song writing. Talking now of the versions recorded for Bob Harris, Shawn says: ‘OK, what you have to remember is that in the studio when you’re trying to make an album, you have time to create several different moments, whereas in the radio studio you’ve got to get it right the first time. Each situation is different’. The take of "Took A Walk" is certainly faster and snappier, with Robinson’ electric keyboards adding a funkier edge compared to the one on the record. The final contribution to this session is another gem: "Dream Queen", later recorded for 1974’s "Bright White" album, is pretty much another solo performance. Phillips adds, ‘I think the guitar I was playing was a Fender 6-string bass. I had turned the bridge around, so I could put guitar strings on it’.
When Phillips came to do his second Peel show in October 1974 former Big Three bassist Johnny Gustafson had replaced Tony Walmsley. Gustafson had already played with Shawn on "Spaceman" and had been in the prog-rock organ-led power trio with Peter Robinson, Quatermass, and they’d co-headlined concerts together so this was a grand reunion. The funk elements that had been peeping through on the Harris recordings were now given full reign. Phillips’s music was now following a heavy jazz-funk direction. Peter Robinson recalls, ‘we recorded an album called "Furthermore" which made several musical turns to funk and extended improvisations. We were asked to record again for the Beeb in 1974, for John Peel. What a gentleman. He treated us so well and, I think, it made us play better. Thank you John!’ The final tracks on this Hux release are all based on tracks recorded for that LP. Talking about this change of style, Phillips now observes, ‘Truthfully, I have to pass the buck on to Pete (Robinson) and Paul (Buckmaster). They opened my mind to soooo much music: Stockhausen, Miles, Penderecki, composers who made music that made you run out of the fucking room.’
About that final Peel session, he adds: ‘I have to say that I think they were amazing moments. Dude, Miles would be proud. The jam on "See You / Planscape" is wonderful. ’92 years’ is funk personified, and "Talking in the Garden" / "Furthermore" just flat out smokes. I can’t believe the tempo on "January 1st". Great energy by everyone involved’. Gustafson adds: ‘It’s difficult to say how the music evolved, but Shawn was always open to ideas as long as it didn’t interfere with his original concept. For instance, when we rehearsed "January 1st" in Los Angeles, there wasn’t an arrangement as such so after a few attempts I tried something quite fast that I thought might fit in with Barry’s drum pattern. It was just a repeated bass riff spread over an A flat minor 7th scale. It seemed to work after it was played more staccato’. Peter Robinson, who played B3 Hammond Organ, Moog and ARP synthesizers, Fender Rhodes piano, clavinets ‘and the kitchen sink thrown in for good measure’ says, ‘Everything was done in one take! At the end of the song "Planscape", one can distinguish a somewhat truncated version of a tune that Paul Buckmaster wrote for Miles Davis. I think secretly Paul’s a little pissed off that Miles never credited him with the composition so here it is, quoted as if to quietly cock a snoot.’
Going by these recordings, live gigs at the time must have been extraordinary - there’s an incredible electricity to them that had not been over evident in his earlier work. Shawn’s fixation with this type of music would see him go on to work with various ex-Herbie Hancock Headhunters sidemen, on records like "Rumplestiltskin’s Resolve", whilst the spaced out jazz-funk jams would reach their zenith on 1977’s "Spaced" and the 16-minute "Came To Say Goodbye". Sadly he has as yet never returned to the portals of Broadcasting House, but he has gone on to enjoy a long career as a musician and continues making interesting records and playing gigs to this day. He’s currently living in Port Elizabeth, South Africa , where in between writing and touring, he works as an emergency medical technician and fire fighter. He remains outspoken too - when I spoke to him about the BBC sessions, he finished with a typically forthright burst of Phillips insight - ‘now I got a question for you. Why don’t we hear music like this today ? Where are the artists and musicians that create at that level ? Seems everybody wants to play rock, blues or pop. For me today rock is standard chords with amps at 11, and no substance, and pop is oversimplified, and panders to the raging hormones of adolescent teenagers, and I don’t play blues, because I’m not black, and have no conception of the depths of despair those people suffered under such oppression, and never will. Any white guy that says they can identify with that is deluding themselves’.