The above statement aptly sums up Emitt Rhodes' self-titled debut, released when he was just 20 years old. As Daniel Silverman argues on his Music Base website, the album "is perhaps the purest pop confection ever created." The albums that followed it were not exactly slouches. So, what happened? Why haven't this music and the man responsible for it received the recognition they deserve? There are a couple of likely reasons unfortunate circumstances and business moves that contributed to the present state-of-affairs. But before we examine these, let's take a look at Emitt's musical career leading up to the Dunhill albums.
Born February 25, 1950, Emitt Rhodes first made his mark on the Hawthorne, California music scene as drummer for The Emerals. Various sources, including the liner notes of "Listen, Listen: The Best of Emitt Rhodes", refer to the band as the "Emeralds". It was, in fact, The "Emerals." As John Gardner, a member of the band, recalls:
Along with Emitt and Gardner, the band was comprised of brothers Don, Dave and John Beaudoin, Bill Leeder and Dennis Troll. The band wasn't around for long, though. In 1964, due to a contract dispute, a fifteen year-old Emitt, John Gardner, and Bill Leeder decided to part ways with the group. (Gardner still remembers the three of them coming to this decision while sitting in a Winchell's Doughnut shop on Hawthorne Boulevard!)Apparently, Emitt had a change of heart and reconciled with the other band members. After growing their hair out and bringing in a few new members, they rechristened themselves The Palace Guard. The following excerpt is from the booklet that accompanies Rhino's box set "Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Period" (which features the group's single, "Falling Sugar"):
"Falling Sugar" did fairly well locally, and The Palace Guard landed the job of house band at the Hollywood nightspot, The Hullabaloo. There, Emitt really got a chance to polish his skills as a drummer. Occasionally, the band would even let him come out from behind his drum kit to sing a dead on rendition of "Michelle."
But Emitt was itching for something more. He had clearly been bitten by the "Beatles-bug" and, in 1966, left The Palace Guard to form his own four-piece, The Merry-Go-Round. In the process of changing bands, he decided to change instruments as well, switching from drums to guitar. "I learned how to play guitar," he explains, "because it was easier to carry around...I wrote a song on a guitar that I had picked up it was my grandfather's or something and I thought, wow, this is fun! That led me to writing songs and playing the guitar, and that led to The Merry-Go-Round, because I needed a band."
Emitt and the high-school buddies he recruited to flesh out the group (Gary Kato, Mike Rice and Doug Harwood) congregated in his parents' garage and began the process of learning their instruments. As Emitt remembers, "I had to get people who didn't know how to play so we could all learn at the same time!" Eventually ex-Grass Roots drummer Joel Larson and ex-Leaves bassist Bill Rhinehart were brought in to replace Rice and Harwood, at manager Russ Shaw's suggestion. After rehearsing until they were comfortable playing together, the group headed to the studio and plunked down $500 to record demos of two of their songs "Live" and "Clown's No Good.""We went to the studio with the idea that we were gonna demo... so we could listen to it," relates Emitt. "We just went in and played it that was it. We didn't spend any time working on it. Nowadays, you work on things. It was just pretty much live; we did work vocals and then overdubbed the vocals. It wasn't like making a record today." A&M Records heard the demo of "Live" and decided to sign the band. Gary Kato remembers; "We used the original demo of 'Live', but we beefed it up after A&M signed us. We transferred it from the original four-track, which we had recorded over at Western Sound Recorders about four months earlier." The song was transferred to eight-track at Sunset Sound, and the band laid down guitar and vocal overdubs to thicken up the sound. A&M released the dressed-up demo as a single but wasn't prepared for the song to do as well as it did. It quickly shot to the number one spot in L.A.
The previously-mentioned Nuggets box set also features "Live" and the booklet weighs in on the song:
"When it started to make money," Emitt remembers, "and it was, like, number one in L.A., the company said, 'Quick, let's put out product,' So, they took the demos and mixed 'em all down and that was our album." In late 1967, their debut album, The Merry-Go-Round was released. The songs showed a group clearly inspired by the British beat bands particularly the Beatles and Emitt's vocals drew strong comparisons to Paul McCartney. Along with the Beatles influence, the songs featured sprinklings of influence by other British bands such as The Who and The Small Faces. There are also shades of The Byrds here and there not surprising, considering The Merry-Go-Round's base of operation. Of the twelve songs on the album, Emitt was the sole author of ten of them. He collaborated on an eleventh track, "Gonna Leave You Alone" with Gary Kato, and the song is a fantastic example of Sixties garage-band rock. With its driving beat and stinging guitar, the song is one of the album's highlights and should have been a shoo-in for the Nuggets compilation.
The fourth track recorded by M-G-R and featured on the album, "Time Will Show The Wiser", featured a backwards guitar intro a then still-innovative technique. It was the first song to receive any actual production. "It took us two months of sessions," Gary Kato remembers. "Like the intro [guitar] line, Emitt and I did together, then took the time to learn it completely in reverse, so that we could take the tape, reverse the reversal, and get the original performance with a backwards sound a kind of sucking feeling. There's an overdubbed autoharp played by our producer, Larry Marks. There were some guitar parts in the middle section where we learned them an octave lower slow and Bill Rhinehart and I played this slow pattern, which was then sped up to regular speed, so it comes out sounding like teeny guitars. We did the same thing to the piano part Larry Marks played. We went that far. It was tricky stuff for the time." The Beatles influence was becoming clearer and clearer. "We knew their albums inside out," Kato admits.
It was nice to actually have an album out, but in reality it was nothing more than a collection of dressed-up demos. Emitt had broader ambitions. Again, he was itching for more. "After the album," he says, "we then spent some time: we did overdubs, we thought about it, the sounds got bigger. It was a Beatles trip. They were my favorite, that's for sure. I like what the Beatles were doing because they seemed to be the most innovative; actually they still sound pretty good. Shit... they were hot."It was during this period that M-G-R recorded some of their finest work songs like, "Listen, Listen", "'Til The Day After," and "She Laughed Loud" (the last song saw Emitt foregoing his typical McCartney-esque vocal approach to deliver a fairly convincing Lennon impression.) "So, we were making singles at that point," Emitt continues. "They were attempts at getting something that made some money so we could keep our phony-baloney contract with A&M. And in actual fact, they were all probably better than the stuff we had done before because we actually spent some time in the studio."But, as the Nugget's commentary continues:
"After the success of 'Live,' A&M quickly rushed out an album, which revealed Rhodes to be a gifted songwriter, heavily influenced by Lennon & McCartney. The group went two-for-two when their second single, 'You're A Very Lovely Woman,' also hit the top spot in L.A. But subsequent singles, though showing Rhodes' rapid maturation, didn't sell as well. Relationships in the band quickly became frayed, and after several lineup changes, The Merry-Go-Round split up in early '69."
"Being in a band is kinda like a marriage," Emitt explains. "It works out for a while, then cracks start to develop. Rhinehart and I just didn't get along. He was older, like 20. I wanted my way: 'I don't care if you're bigger and older, I WANT MY WAY!' It all got to be a pain in the ass. You spend a lot of time together, you get on each other's nerves, you can't help it. There was no psychologist in the group; it was more, 'I HATE you!' We used to spit in each other's faces, bloody each other's noses. In the middle of the studio can you imagine?"
They were a fantastic band and deserved so much more recognition than they received. However, after lasting just over two years, The Merry-Go-Round was no more.
And so we come to the much-loved Emitt Rhodes solo period. To avoid the conflicts of personality and direction one encounters within a group, Emitt decided that he would be better off as a one-man studio band. This would allow him complete freedom and control over his musical vision. He set up shop back at his parent's home. "When the Merry-Go-Round broke up," he explains, "I bought myself an Ampex four-track it looked like a washing machine with big black knobs [and] I put it in a little shed my father had built behind the garage, and went for it... I [had] three microphones, two microphone mixers Shure microphone mixers and some amplifier speakers for monitoring purposes."
Emitt assumed various roles simultaneously during the recording process. All at once he would be the vocalist, musician, engineer and producer. The first thing he would do is record a metronome set to the desired tempo on one of the four tracks of his recorder. "I'd lay down a click track," Emitt says. "a metronome, to keep a constant beat. To set the tempo. Then on top of that I'd play the piano. Then I'd put down, like tambourine and I'd combine that with drums. I'd put down bass and I'd combine that with the rhythm guitar. Then I'd put down the lead." He would have to record one instrument part at a time on the four-track machine laying down drums on one track, playing guitar on the next, percussion on a third then mixing them all down to the fourth track so as to free up the first three for new parts. (The Beatles employed the very same technique in the recording of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, among others, though they had the luxury of being four separate musicians and having George Martin and Geoff Emerick to perform the more technical tasks.) For Emitt, wearing all the hats, it was a very time consuming process. "Then after I'd finished all the tracks, I'd transfer them to an eight-track." The eight-track machine was one that he rented and brought back to his studio. After transferring the instruments from the four-track to the eight-track, he would lay down vocals on the eight-track's leftover tracks. "It was not like today," he explains, "where you have a separate channel for everything. I had to demo them first because I had limited tracks. I would have to plan on what I did and where it would go, so that it would mix correctly... I did a lot of stereo synthesizing on the mixdown. I did all the stuff on the four-track and then took it into Sound City with [former Music Machine bassist] Keith Olsen who wasn't rich then, just an engineer and we split everything up into multi-signals, filtered it all, and brought the kick drum back up."
Earlier in the recording process, Emitt had approached ABC/Dunhill with four instrumental backing tracks without vocals and pitched his idea for a one-man-band album. They liked what they heard and signed him to a solo deal. "The first [album] I made with no money Big Macs were my staple. It was sold [to ABC/Dunhill], and I made $5,000 off of it. I was rich. So I went out and bought more tape machines and more microphones; there went the money. Then it was back to McDonald's again. But I did move back into the garage I needed a place to put my grand piano."
With the support of A&R rep Harvey Bruce, his album was given a home, and the Producer credit was split between Bruce and Emitt. Also, receiving credit on the album as mixdown engineers were Keith Olsen and Curt Boettcher (As a side note, Boettcher was one half of the commercially unsuccessful but now legendary sugary-psychedelic pop group Sagittarius, the late-sixties studio creation that was the brainchild of producer Gary Usher. They had a minor hit with the incredible single "My World Fell Down" in 1967. Their only album, Present Tense, another overlooked late-sixties pop gem, has miraculously been re-released on CD with bonus tracks. Highly recommended. Keith Olsen would go on to produce the mega-hit Rumours for Fleetwood Mac.)
Released in 1970, Emitt Rhodes is considered by many to be one of the most overlooked and underappreciated albums ever. It is the kind of record that literally got worn out due to repeated listens by the people who did discover it. Few can deny the pop power of the album. Daniel Silverman, on his wonderful Music Base website, had this to say about the album:
At the time of its 1970 release, the album met with a warm response from the critics and listeners. A few radio DJs lent the album a bit of mystique and notoriety by implying (or blatantly claiming) that it was a new Beatles record. (the Miscellaneous section of this site has a great example of a DJ doing this very thing. Click here to hear it.) And it did sound very much like White Album-era McCartney, didn't it? Certainly, "Martha, My Dear" and "She's Such A Beauty" could have been written by the same hand. Whether anyone was fooled or not, the album began rising up the charts along with the first single from the album, "Fresh As A Daisy." Everything seemed to be going well for Emitt. He had made the music he wanted to make and people were liking it. People were buying it. The album and single continued to rise, but then the first of the previously mentioned setbacks arrived.
Back in '69 when the Merry-Go-Round had disbanded, the group was still contractually bound to provide A&M Records with another album. To fulfill this obligation, Emitt had returned to the studio with a group of session players. He recorded a few new tracks and completed some abandoned, half-finished M-G-R tracks. The rest of the album was to be fleshed out with older, previously released M-G-R tracks. It was to be, in effect, the last record by the Merry-Go-Round. But it sat on the shelf at A&M, unreleased.
However, once Emitt went on to secure a record deal with ABC/Dunhill and his debut solo release started climbing up the charts, A&M saw an opportunity and took it. They dusted off the shelved M-G-R album, renamed it The American Dream and released it as a solo Emitt Rhodes album, pitting one solo Emitt Rhodes album against the other. Buyers were confused. This was where the first damage was done. Emitt feels that this one act of corporate greed caused irreversible damage. "It definitely hurt sales, because people went out to buy the record they heard on the radio, and they ended up buying The American Dream."
Though its timing may have been bad, by no means was The American Dream a poor album. In fact, for Beatles fans, this album, along with Emitt Rhodes, is essential listening. Emitt didn't seem pleased with it, however, when talking about the album in 1970 prior to its release. "...Unfortunately, ... it had strings and horn parts that I just really didn't particularly care for, but the producer felt it was necessary, so it went in." It is a little puzzling that Emitt didn't care for all the Beatle-esque embellishments of the songs, considering his penchant for the group and his willingness to otherwise embrace their sound. The album contains some classic Merry-Go-Round tracks such as "You're A Very Lovely Woman" and "Till The Day After," but also quite a few new and previously unreleased tracks which feature Emitt in some of his finer "McCartney-moments." Songs like "Holly Park" and "In Days of Old," painted in a vivid Magical Mystery Tour palette and chock-full of quarter-note bounce, reveal Emitt to be Paul's long-lost musical twin. And Emitt wrote few songs more beautiful and melodic than the haunting "Pardon Me", with its hazy psychedelic "Fool On The Hill" flute/recorder sounds. "Let's All Sing" is a happy little sing-along, most notable for the fade out, in which, if you listen closely, you can hear Emitt singing "All we are saying, is give peace a chance" in the background. "Come Ride, Come Ride" apparently intended to serve as the centerpiece of a never fully realised M-G-R meisterwerk showcases Emitt at his psychedelic best, with layers of strings and flutes swirling around the song's theme of a carousel (or as the album's liner notes refer to it, the "great mandalla" or wheel of life.) This number alone makes the album worthy of a reissue on CD. There are, however, a couple of less-than-stellar moments on the album moments Daniel Silverman accurately describes as "...a mildly embarrassing trek into Appalachia [Textile Factory], and a not-so-successful excursion into calypso [Mary Will You Take My Hand]" but overall the album is a fantastic collection of pop music.
However nice it may be to have these songs released, the album competed with Emitt's newly created masterpiece, and as a result, Emitt Rhodes peaked at #29 in early 1971. By all means a respectable showing, the album would undoubtedly have gone higher without the release of The American Dream thrown into the equation. The single, "Fresh As A Daisy," topped out at #54. None of the other singles managed to chart.
As Emitt put it, "A little glory in the sun, and then, boom, right back to reality."
But reality was even grimmer than before. It's hard to imagine now, but in 1970, artists were still expected to turn out two albums per year. Often times, this was a contract stipulation. Such was the case with Emitt. "Six months after I signed my solo deal, the contract was in suspension because I hadn't given them another record," he explains. "I was being sued...I was twenty years old when I signed my agreements. I don't know what you were doing at twenty, but I wasn't a legal person, and I'm still not. I was just making noise and playing and doing what I liked, and I made this record." In one February 1971 newspaper article, Emitt was interviewed during a six-night engagement at the Troubadour. He explained that he liked performing, but was ready for the engagement to end because it was "taking away from my studio time. I'm just upset that I have to delay my second album."
But even when he was in the studio, it was slow going, as the one-man band production was still in effect. "I couldn't produce a record in six months and have a life and like what I was doing. It was a lousy deal. It wasn't as if I wasn't aware that it had taken me nine months to record the first record and [that] six months was three months less. But I thought, well, I made that first record. I can crank 'em out now [laughs]!" The pressure from the label only made things harder.
In the end, it took Emitt almost a year to finish Mirror. While not as thoroughly sparkling as its predecessor the songs in general are not as polished or developed as those of his debut it is still a wonderful record and definitely deserves to be rereleased on CD. In the book 'Power Pop! - Conversations With The Power Pop Elite,' authors Ken Sharp and Doug Sulpy interview Emitt. "...the difference between Mirror and Emitt Rhodes," he explains, "was that I actually started getting equipment then. I got a limiter. I got the kind of things you can abuse." But he abused them well. Granted, some of the tracks may have a slightly murky, squashed feel. However, the songs are so good, they overcome these sonic shortcomings. Many of the songs, such as "Better Side Of Life" and "Side We Seldom Show," would have fit in perfectly on his first album (and in reality may have evolved from older demos.) "Really Wanted You" is one of Emitt's finest, most rocking songs, and the interplay between the guitar parts is sublime (even more so when one bears in mind that he had only been playing guitar for little over four years!) "That song is about when I went and retrieved my wife from back East," Emitt says of "Really Wanted You". "She was the flyer in some circus act, and I got beat up. I'm not kidding. My wife went to replace somebody in this act, she was a trapeze artist. I went and retrieved her, and the catcher, the guy who catches the trapeze artist, got upset at me and beat me up!"
Matthew Greewald, a reviewer for All Music Guide, had this to say about the album:
Despite the album's undeniable gems, it only managed to crawl to #182. Emitt suggests that the album's poor showing was possibly due to the fact that his label was more interested in his breach of contract than they were in promoting the record.
Things got even worse when his third album, Farewell To Paradise, failed to chart at all. This aptly titled album had its share of decent songs, but Emitt's musical focus had understandably shifted. Indeed, it seemed as if he had undergone a sort of transformation. Gone was the clean cut youth of days past; he had been replaced a more hirsute and moody-looking Emitt, as the album cover showed us. And the liner notes more than hinted at the turmoil he had been dealing with:
From Sharp and Sulpy's book: "It was a conglomerate of everything I gleaned from all the mistakes I made before. I thought that was probably my best record and it was the record that I was least in contact with what was going on in the rest of the world. By that time I had been isolated in the garage for the longest period of time, but I was probably more in contact with myself, so I got better and worse, all at the same time."
The album showcases a wider range of sounds and influences, incorporating at various times mellotron, saxophone, banjo and mandolin into its tracks and finds Emitt experimentig more with time changes and rhythmical devices. While virtually every song on his debut, Emitt Rhodes, would have been perfectly at home on The White Album, Emitt had always maintained that his influences were not limited to the Beatles, and he backs that up on Farewell. The album has a few "McCartney moments" (in particular "Only Lovers Decide" and the title track), but it reaches well beyond them. Farewell To Paradise finds Emitt taking a more hard-nosed, blues/rock-based approach to music, distancing himself from the Sixties-pop mentality he had so skillfully mastered, and, unfortunately, at times sacrificing much of the wonderfully developed melody and endearing pop quality of his previous work. However, this makes those tracks on which he does venture beyond standard blues/rock progressions and arrangements stand out even more brightly.
This album saw the return of the talented Curt Boettcher as mixdown engineer and, perhaps as a result, sounds brighter and cleaner than Mirror, on which Boettcher was absent. Emitt himself was also clearly learning to get better sound with what he had and, by his own admission, was working with better equipment than he had been previously. All of this lends Farewell a slightly more modern and slicker sound than the previous albums. One can definitely hear the "Seventies" seeping from the songs, in both recording quality and content (maybe it's just the inclusion of that ubiquitous Seventies saxophone in many of the tracks.) While I suppose cleaner recording quality should generally be regarded as a good thing, I personally prefer the slightly more lo-fi, homey pop quality of Emitt Rhodes and Mirror. To these ears, the songs have a more organic and warm quality than those on Farewell and, indeed, much of the music that was released by the recording industry in the Seventies. A clear example of the change in recording quality that occurred during the Seventies can be had by comparing "Somebody Made For Me" from the first album in 1970 to the unreleased 1980 Emitt track "Isn't It So" from the Listen, Listen compilation. While it's always nice to hear a new tune from Emitt, there is no question as to which of these songs is superior, even though the latter track was recorded on a twenty-four track machine with session musicians in a proper studio. It's so slick and polished nearly perfect and a bit soulless as a result (though I have to admit, that chorus gets stuck in my head sometimes!) On the other hand, the 1970 song is perfect in its imperfection perfect in spite of its imperfection. There's just something about the fact that it was recorded in a shed behind the man's garage (his mom's garage at that!) and that he played all the parts sweating in deliberation over the details, innovating to make up for his lack of technology that helps make it a true pop gem (outside of the fact that it is just a better song in general not to make less ot your later efforts, Emitt. I still want to hear the other two tracks you recorded during the 1980 sessions. )
But, I digress. Though tending toward a fairly different sound than the previous albums, Farewell does make for good listening, and Emitt's skills as a songwriter and musician are strongly evident. Says All Music Guide:
In the end, the album was overlooked and the label was after him. "After that album, I stopped recording. I stopped writing because I was burnt out. It was a lot of work, and a lot of trouble, to boot. The harder I tried, the more trouble I was in. It wasn't rewarding anymore...I had taken a much longer period of time to do the third album, and they were suing me for more money than I had ever seen, and I just thought, why do I want to do this?"
A few shows here, a few shows there Emitt eventually found himself without a label, and his career came to a halt.
He had had enough. He was 24.
The strain and pressure of the record company breathing down his neck could not have fostered the most creative of environments for Emitt's second and third album. After the initial success of his incredible first album, things had only gone downhill. His creativity and drive had to have been affected by the strain caused by the legal situation he faced. He had still managed to turn out albums with many wonderfully crafted and memorable songs, but neither quite lived up to that brilliant 1970 debut masterpiece. It is understandable, though, how the second and third album had a hard time matching the glow of their predecessor. Few albums could. Created in an atmosphere free from expectations and corporate pressure, the first album had the vigor and immediacy of a twenty-year old musical tour-de-force at the height of his game and with the whole world ahead of him. That same prodigious force had crafted quite a few gems with the Merry-Go-Round as well. It was his passion, it was his drive, it was his inspiration that carried him forward. At some point, these were replaced by his obligation, his contractual fulfillment, his breach of contract destructive things. And he eventually had enough.
So it was probably with some small sense of relief that Emitt stepped into obscurity, jaded at age 24. He had been burned by the business and decided to play it safe. During the rest of the Seventies he spent most of his time in the studio, not as an artist, but as a staff engineer/producer/pre-production man and studio operator for Elektra/Asylum. A 1980 Emitt Rhodes return album was started and then aborted when the A&R executive behind the project left the label. Emitt laid low for a couple of decades, but the scenario was repeated much more recently when an Emitt Rhodes album on the Rocktopia label was planned for a 2000 release, only to be delayed and eventually scrapped altogether when the label ran into some legal troubles.
Emitt is still writing and recording, still in his garage studio. Now, however, it's in his own garage, in the house he bought just across the street from his parents house where he had recorded the Dunhill albums. It is a far cry from those four-track days. His new studio is equipped with all the modern necessities, from synthesizers and drum machines to digital recorders.
"I'm good at making noise," he says. "I'm a wonderful producer. I should be doing it for a living. But I've never made big money off of it that's a talent, too. I've been in the garage forever. That's how I got stuck in Hawthorne, because my studio was always there. I never made enough money to buy myself a studio on the street. Actually, I never had any desire to do that anyway I'd much rather have it out back."
Emitt still intends to release a new album in the near future. He's got thirty years worth of demos and unrecorded songs hidden away in his studio. It's only a matter of hooking up with the right people. Hopefully some day soon we'll be blessed with another collection of songs from this long-lost pop genius.
But until then, crank up "Really Wanted You" or "With My Face On The Floor" or "Listen, Listen" and revel in it. That ought to hold you for a while. Hey, it's worked so far.
Obvious thanks go to Michael Amicone and the liner notes that accompanied "Listen, Listen: The Best Of Emitt Rhodes." I am also deeply indebted to Jennifer DeBernardis for her incredible 1970 Emitt Rhodes radio recordings, Bud Scoppa for the liner notes to "The Best of The-Merry-Go-Round," Matthew Greenwald and All Music Guide, Greg Shaw, Alec Palao, and Mike Stax for the Nuggets liner notes, Ken Sharp and Doug Sulpy for their terrific book "Power Pop! Conversations With The Power Pop Elite", Alan Robinson for pointing out said book and for writing the liner notes for the Edsel compilation, John Gardner for sharing his Emitt memories and Emerals memorabilia, and Daniel Silverman for the wonderful Emitt commentary on his Music Base website.