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Review: Tom Northcott, “Sunny Goodge Street: The Warner Bros. Recordings”

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Extra!  Extra!  Lost Folk Singer Found!

His name is Tom Northcott, and had things turned out a little differently, he might be remembered in the same breath as Joni Mitchell or Gordon Lightfoot, fellow Canadian troubadours.  After founding the Tom Northcott Trio, he headed for California during perhaps the most fertile period ever for creative, boundary-breaking musical exploration, the mid-1960s.  Northcott opened for The Who, The Doors and Jefferson Airplane, and was signed to Warner Bros. Records.  He gained solid regional airplay and a minor chart entry in the U.S., but his music never struck the same chord in America as in his native Canada.  In the early 1970s, Northcott retreated from the music business to practice law, returning only sporadically.  Thanks to the team at Rhino Handmade, however, the fresh and inventive music he created in his heyday is available once more.  Sunny Goodge Street: The Warner Bros. Recordings (Rhino Handmade RHM2 524879) brings together twenty long-lost tracks on one CD.  Is it sunshine folk?  Is it baroque coffeehouse?  This genre-defying and blissfully offbeat music speaks for itself.

Northcott was supported by a virtual “Who’s Who” of the L.A. scene, including Harry Nilsson, Leon Russell, Randy Newman and Jack Nitzsche, all under the watchful eye of Warner Bros.’ supreme A&R man, Lenny Waronker.  He stood apart from many of his contemporaries, though, by his reliance on material from outside songwriters.  Though an accomplished composer and lyricist with six self-penned tracks included here, Northcott was launched by Warner Bros. as an interpretive singer in an era when the rules were being rewritten on the spot.  Young men, armed with guitars, had little need for the songs coming from New York’s Aldon or Los Angeles’ Metric offices.

At the heart of Sunny Goodge Street is the 10-track Best of Tom Northcott, a Canada-only LP release.  It included a number of Northcott’s American single sides such as Harry Nilsson’s “1941” and a version of the Donovan song that gives the new Rhino anthology its title.  One month prior to the May 1967 release of Northcott’s “Sunny Goodge Street,” Leon Russell and Lenny Waronker had crafted the immaculate title track to Harpers Bizarre’s Feelin’ Groovy, and Russell is also responsible for the most vividly imaginative arrangements here.  The ornate, dreamy take on “Sunny Goodge Street” is even more far-out than “Feelin’ Groovy.”  The song is dramatically reinvented from Donovan’s slow, lysergic original, with Russell layering on a shimmering harp, calliope, accordion, strings, horns and background vocals in a beautiful cacophony.  Did Russell take his cue from the lyric’s “strange music boxes sadly tinkling?”  There are some similarities to Judy Collins’ earlier version of the song, but the vision of Northcott, Waronker and Russell is strikingly original.  The luscious orchestration contrasts with the impressionistic and vaguely disturbing words:  “On the firefly platform on sunny Goodge Street, violent hash-smoker shook a chocolate machine, involved in an eating scene/Smashing into neon streets in their stonedness, smearing their eyes on the crazy cult goddess, listenin’ to sounds of Mingus, mellow fantastic/My, my, they sigh!”  Northcott recalled in 1997 that Glen Campbell, James Burton, Larry Knechtel and Jim Gordon, all of the “Wrecking Crew,” all played on the song.

Perhaps proving the old adage that one must know the rules before breaking them, Russell ironically made his own solo career on stripped-down, raw and visceral rock and roll, the complete opposite of the style he supplied on songs like “Sunny Goodge Street,” John Hartford’s “Landscape Grown Cold” and Harry Nilsson’s “1941.”  Northcott, alas, didn’t find the same kind of success with “Landscape” that Glen Campbell did with Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind.”  James Burton fronts the Russell arrangement on dobro.  Nilsson’s “1941,” a sad and personal tale of one family’s history repeating itself, is adorned by Russell’s grandiose orchestra which embraces the song’s circus setting.  Northcott supplies an imploring vocal, and the resulting production is less delicate than Nilsson’s stately 1967 original.  “1941” cracked the U.S. pop charts at No. 88, and another Nilsson song, “The Rainmaker,” was issued the following year.  Jack Nitzsche was responsible for the quirky arrangement on Northcott’s version.

Hit the jump for more!

A cover of fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell’s “Night in the City” adds an appealing sheen to Mitchell’s original with its intricately arranged vocals.  As Mitchell was making waves in America, Northcott scored a hit in Canada with Waronker and Russell’s big, intricate production of Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country.” Despite its soaring strings (or perhaps because of them!), it failed to make much of an impression in America in 1968.  But Northcott’s originals sit comfortably here alongside the songs of Dylan, Donovan, Nilsson and company.  He wrote the B-sides for his first two singles, “Who Planted Thorns in Miss Alice’s Garden” (the flip of “Sunny Goodge Street”) and “Other Times” (backing “1941”).  The former is more than just a twee title; it bears a thematic similarity to Brian Wilson and Tony Asher’s “Caroline No” (“Who planted thorns in Miss Alice’s garden?  Who put the black in the clothes she now wears?  Where is the softness?  And why did it harden? And what has been broken that can’t be repaired?”).   It also is one of the harder-edged tracks here, with a particularly arresting guitar.  The latter is a harpsichord-driven slice of baroque pop.  The autobiographical and slightly Beatlesque “Cities Make the Country Colder” also makes a strong case that the artist could have found success just a few years later during the singer/songwriter boom of the early 1970s.

Closing out the original Best of Tom Northcott was his spare acoustic ballad, “And God Created Woman,” which offers a tantalizing glimpse of the unplugged singer sans orchestra.  Sunny Goodge Street adds ten more tracks to that Best Of: six previously unreleased songs, the aforementioned B-side “Other Times” and the 45 versions of “Sunny Goodge Street” and “Miss Alice’s Garden.”  (“Sunny Goodge Street” was sanitized for single release.  The lyric’s “violent hash smoker” became an apparently less threatening “fearless believer.”  The single of “Miss Alice’s Garden” is actually a different recording altogether than the album version.)

Four of the unreleased tracks date from 1968, including songs from Buffy Sainte-Marie and Randy Newman.  “Somebody Always Gets Hurt,” never commercially recorded by Newman, is recognizable as one of his songs from its opening piano notes, not to mention its cynical lyric: “You think you’ve found someone to rely on?/You’ll end up with your face in the dirt/  No hand to hold and no shoulder to cry on/‘Cause somebody always gets hurt…”  The writer of “A Long Way Down” is lost to time, but the scratch vocal by Northcott is nonetheless affecting, and Ron Elliott of the Beau Brummels (another Waronker-produced act) plays guitar on this track.

Another two previously unissued songs date from 1969 sessions in London with Tony Hatch, the producer/songwriter considered by many to be Britain’s answer to Burt Bacharach thanks to his string of sophisticated pop hits with Petula Clark.  These are the most atypical tracks here, and also among the most fascinating.  “See the Tinker Ride,” written by Ralph Murphy, is a Hatch approximation of folk-rock.  Hatch and then-wife Jackie Trent supplied “There’s No Time,” which they also recorded on their Together Again album.  It’s recognizably the work of the composer of “Downtown” and “I Know a Place” with its catchy hook, and if Hatch’s straight-ahead pop style wasn’t a perfect match for Northcott, he did a good job disguising any discomfort.  The Hatch tracks make their first-ever appearance here.

The beauty and the darkness in Northcott’s voice are the consistent factors in all of these radically different recordings.  It’s easy to see why Lenny Waronker, always attracted to the artists on the fringe of pop music, would have put his production muscle behind Northcott.  Compilation producer Andrew Sandoval has exquisitely presented and sequenced the artist’s stirringly singular ouevre here.   Yet completists should take note that this isn’t everything recorded by Northcott for the Warner Bros. label.  Among the missing items are both sides of a 1972 single, “The Last Thing on My Mind” b/w “Ask Me No Questions.”

Sunny Goodge Street is one of the more unusual packages to come from Rhino’s house of ideas of late.  Graphic artist Bruce Licher designed the package, a 10” x 10” letterpress-printed folio adorned with a psychedelic illustration from Bob Masse.  In addition to the CD (housed in a simple sleeve affixed to the folio’s interior), it contains an “underground newspaper” of liner notes plus reproductions of a 1966 concert handbill and a promotional photo of the artist. The newspaper has been written by compilation producer Andrew Sandoval, and it details Northcott’s years with Warner Bros. along with track-by-track annotation.  Though the look of the set is quite nifty, there is an unfortunate drawback.  The folio can be closed by inserting the top flap into a handy slit, but a needless sticker has been placed over the flap, as well.  (This is in addition to the shrink-wrap in which the folio is sealed.)  Though the sticker can be carefully removed without damaging the lightweight cardboard, it apparently can’t be removed without leaving an ugly layer of sticky residue on the otherwise “suitable for framing” package.  To avoid this, you might want to consider using a knife to break the seal, but this, too, could end badly for the packaging; caution is advised.

Tom Northcott may not have recorded enough of his own material for his true voice to have deeply registered.  But his top-drawer interpretations of Newman, Nilsson, Mitchell, Leitch and others shouldn’t be overlooked.  Sunny Goodge Street: The Warner Bros. Recordings harkens back to an era when the studio itself was an essential weapon in the artist’s arsenal, and Northcott, Waronker and Russell used it better than most.  Thanks, Rhino Handmade.  This collection’s twenty flights of fancy have certainly left us wanting more.

Written by Joe Marchese

April 2, 2012 at 13:13

3 Responses

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  1. I’m fine with stickers on the outer plastic wrap but stickers on the packaging itself is a huge pet peeve of mine. Another pet peeve is huge packaging! 10” x 10” is too big! I would have loved this set if it was half that size though.


    April 2, 2012 at 14:43

  2. Another great “interpretive” artist that just brushed up against the hitmaking machinery was/is Ian (now Iain) Matthews. His deft song selection has always been topshelf. I often wonder if Matthews would have made a bigger impression on the music buying public if one label had kept him around long enough to nuture that magnificent talent. That was the strength and foresight that Lenny and the gang at Warner Bros. had, the curation of an artist. Just reflect on your favorite WB artists and the string of albums it took to fully capture their talents…..Morrison, Newman, Raitt, Guthrie, Lightfoot, Taylor, etc. I believe the closest anyone ever came to capturing the brilliant light from Ian Matthews was Michael Nesmith (yes, ol’ Woolhat) in Matthews’ Elektra period. That album along with the “Search for Amelia Earhart” Lp were fine representations of what Ian could do.

    Sean Anglum

    April 2, 2012 at 16:18

  3. Unfortunately RH went for elaborate packaging on this one instead of a complete audio package that included all of Tom’s hits. “Goin’ Down” & “Crazy Jane” could have rounded out the package perfectly, instead we have an oversized promo pack (newspaper style liner notes, 8×10, color concert poster) that is neat, but really doesn’t justify the price this retailed for when released.


    September 7, 2012 at 14:30

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