In a record shop somewhere in London a few years ago, some rather excellent McCartneyesque power pop played over the speakers. Only, it wasn’t a McCartney song I recognised.
I asked the shop owner what he was playing and instead of showing me an obscure Macca LP, he showed me an album with a nice textured gatefold sleeve. A blue frame surrounded a seventies-looking singer-songwriter in a denim shirt. The singer went by the name of Emitt Rhodes.
In a romantic version of this tale, I’d tell you I bought the record there and then and skipped down the road desperate to play the new find, delighted I had unearthed a lost gem. Sadly, the shop wanted thirty quid for it. They might as well have asked me for my first born.
If I may digress slightly, it’s a tricky thing, is record shop etiquette. When you find something you haven’t seen before, the first instinct of every seasoned collector is to get their phone out. But I’m a bit of a purist. Sure, there’s a devil-like character on my left shoulder telling me to check the prices online, but it seems rude, and in this case I didn’t need to. Because (top tip) I’d looked around the shop already and seen how he’d priced things I was familiar with. And he was one of those shops where he was never knowingly underpriced. You know the sort of thing. No Parlez for a tenner. Mid period Roxy Music for twenty. Catering for tourists.
I guessed this was therefore toppy, confirmed when I found the LP for £5 a month or two later.
You can be grateful to a record shop owner for his tasteful musical choices, but you don’t need to be so grateful as to agree to be subjected to daylight robbery.
But the find did make me curious. You don’t need to be overly obscure a musician, in truth, to escape my attention, especially in the seventies singer-songwriter camp which is littered with people I wouldn’t recognise if they knocked on my door and sang their biggest hit, but I did wonder about this mercurial figure who had previously avoided my notice and who had sprung fully-formed in the competitive field of LA Based Singer-Songwriters, Class of 1970.
Two other Emitt Rhodes LPs soon revealed themselves. But after 1973, nothing.
Had he simply disappeared? Was he, as the image of his debut LP suggested, hiding?
Emitt Rhodes was always destined to be a musician. He went to school with Debbie Harry and The Beach Boys lived in his neighbourhood when he was growing up.
He began as a drummer. Dennis Wilson, no less, once played on his kit. In what was, perhaps a metaphor for Rhodes’ career, Wilson sat at the Kit and after an initial bright flurry, broke Rhodes’ drum pedal and drum-head.
Rhodes’ kit was green because his band was called The Emeralds, (some say Emerals). Whatever they were called, they morphed into The Palace Guard, becoming popular in 1964 when anything resembling British – even American kids wearing fake military uniforms – became instantly fashionable in the Beatles’ wake. The Palace Guard became the house band at Sunset Strip club The Hullaballoo. Sporting red coats with Nehru collars (sensibly eschewing the Bearskin hats worn by actual Buckingham Palace Guards) and playing beat music, whether they looked like palace guards or Butlins rejects is a matter of opinion. Compilers of the psychedelic LP series “Nuggets” were less than complimentary, saying of the band “though bereft of any discernible musical talent, they didn’t let that obstacle stand in their way”.
Who knew the Nuggets compilers had such sharp claws…?
An occasional Rhodes’ star turn saw him leave his kit and take the mic for a rendition of The Beatles’ “Michelle” and one night, perhaps amazingly given the circumstances, A&M records saw the good-looking sixteen-year-old singing drummer dressed as a Buck House Guard and offered him a record deal. Truly the sixties were a magical time to be a musician in LA.
So in 1966 Rhodes formed a new band, The Merry-Go-Round, who sounded like a mixture of The Beatles and The Byrds. Their 1967 debut single, “Live” (later covered by The Bangles) was a surprise hit. Rhodes, a kid who knew how to write a hit single, was still in High School. The b-side was “Time Will Show The Wiser”, later covered by Fairport Convention.
It was a time of Sgt Pepper, psychedelia and of bands releasing singles called “You’re a Very Lovely Woman”.
Or at least The Merry-Go-Round did.
The killer line in the chorus went “You’re a very lovely woman / but I think I better turn you down this time”. You can almost hear the fake English accent.
The song scraped into the top 100, but wasn’t a legendary success and in those days that was enough reason for a band to split up, which they dutifully did in early 1969.
Undeterred, Rhodes set to work. With money raised from an interested new record company, ABC/Dunhill, he bought a four track recording machine resembling a “washing machine with big black knobs” which he installed in his mum’s garden shed.
He recorded drums, bass and guitar on three tracks and then dubbed them onto the fourth, leaving more room to record, a technique called “bouncing” which The Beatles used regularly in Abbey Road. “The Beatles were my role models” Rhodes said, “I just compared everything to them”.
His debut album was released in 1970 and entered the top 30. It was extraordinary. He wrote and sang every song and played every instrument himself, recorded in his mum’s shed. The album was compared by critics – favourably – to Paul McCartney’s own similarly constructed debut solo album that year, “McCartney”.
Rhodes sold out a six night residency at The Troubadour in Los Angeles just six months after a British singer songwriter named Elton John played his career-making Troubadour residency. The future looked bright for Emitt Rhodes, the One Man Beatles.
He and Elton has both signed record deals that demanded two LPs a year. But while Elton John delivered classics such as Honky Chateau, Madman Across The Water, Tumbleweed Connection and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton also had a band and producers to help him make his records. Emmitt Rhodes did everything himself, and this was not conducive to churning out two albums a year. The debut alone took nine months to make.
The contract was a bad one and sadly Rhodes was not destined to have the same storied career as Elton, something confirmed when his previous record company found some old songs and put them on an album releasing it just months after the debut. The record-buying public were confused by older songs and it killed off the momentum his debut had gained.
And that’s a pity, because that first album – one of three he released between 1970 and 1973 – was superb. The thanks he got from his record company was to be sued for not delivering his two albums a year. After the release of his third album in 1973, he called it quits, burnt out. He was just 24 years old.
” 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?”
Rhodes became an engineer and producer for Elektra and didn’t release another record for over forty years. They made a documentary about him called “The One Man Beatles” and when it did finally see the light of day, his 2016 LP, Rainbow Ends, featured musicians such as Susanna Hoffs, Aimee Mann and Jason Falkner. It was a worthy successor to the first three albums.
Sadly Emitt Rhodes died earlier this year in July 2020, aged 70. His debut self-titled album in particular is a fantastic LP, and well worth picking up for its baroque, and, yes, McCartneyesque power pop.
Streaming services aren’t too helpful as they don’t split up the albums, so confusing modern audiences just as A&M did after the release of the debut, so a good excuse to buy this on vinyl.
A decent first pressing shouldn’t be too hard to find on the pink-labelled Probe Records label, lockdown permitting, and the follow up, Mirror, isn’t too far behind, quality-wise.