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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.

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Written by Joe Marchese

April 2, 2012 at 13:13

Who Is Tom Northcott? Rhino Handmade Clues You In with New Warner Bros. Anthology

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Somewhere in rock’s back pages, you might find the name of Tom Northcott, troubadour.  After establishing himself as the folk-singing frontman of The Tom Northcott Trio in his native Canada, Northcott headed for California, and proved himself in the fertile musical ground of the San Francisco Bay Area, opening for acts like The Who, The Doors and Jefferson Airplane.  Soon he found himself even further south, signed to Los Angeles’ Warner Bros. Records.  And between 1966 and1969, Northcott recorded some twenty sides for the label, working with names from the WB “house team,” gents like Lenny Waronker and Leon Russell.   At the water tower, Northcott also had access to some of rock’s great songwriters, so he recorded compositions by the likes of Harry Nilsson and, of course, Waronker’s close pal Randy Newman.  But when Tom Northcott abandoned music to practice law in the early 1970s, after having cut one 1971 LP for UNI Records, he was all but forgotten.  In recent months, Rhino Handmade had been asking the question “Who is Tom Northcott?” in various teasers.  Now, the question is answered, and in the best way possible: via the man’s music.

Sunny Goodge Street: The Warner Bros. Recordings collects twenty of Northcott’s recordings for the label, including six previously-unreleased tracks from 1968 and 1969, recorded in both Los Angeles and London.  The collection has been many years in the making, beginning with Andrew Sandoval and Bill Inglot’s unearthing of the original tapes and finding the additional unissued tracks and rare single versions.  The complete, 10-track The Best of Tom Northcott LP as originally released in 1970 is, of course, included in full.  This LP never received wide release in the U.S., designed for the Canadian market, so the music contained within its grooves will be particularly new to many listeners. (Billboard noted on August 1, 1970 that the album was “enjoying much Vancouver sales success.”)  The album also contains the single versions of “Sunny Goodge Street” and its flip, “Who Planted Thorns in Miss Alice’s Garden,” plus Northcott’s final single with Warner Bros., “Make Me an Island,” written by Albert (“It Never Rains in Southern California”) Hammond and arranged by Nilsson collaborator Perry Botkin, Jr.

Hit the jump for much, much more, including the full track listing and discography! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

January 19, 2012 at 14:05