P.F. Sloan - Biography
By J Poet
“PF Sloan (born Philip Gary Schlein) was born sometime between midnight and dawn on an inspired evening in 1964,” PF Sloan says, from his small Los Angeles apartment. That was the night he wrote “Eve Of Destruction,” possibly the most famous and definitely the most commercially successful protest song of the ‘60s, a monster hit for Barry McGuire. “Up until the night I wrote ‘Eve’ I’d been Phil Sloan, pop songwriter. I was half of (surf duo) The Fantastic Baggys with my writing partner Steve Barri. I’d been cranking out product for the pop music machine since I was 16, stuff like Round Robin’s ‘Kick That Little Foot, Sally Ann’ [a regional hit in LA] and producing and playing on a lot of the early sides at Dunhill Records. [Sloan was part of the Mamas and Papas studio band and created the guitar hook that opens “California Dreamin.’”] At the same time, I’d started listening to Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and other folkies. That music opened up a level of consciousness I’d never experienced. I decided to move away from the pop stuff and created PF Sloan to be my folksinging identity.”
On that night in 1964, Sloan wrote five songs including “Take Me For What I’m Worth,” later recorded by The Searchers, “Sins Of A Family,” a hit for Sloan in England and “Eve Of Destruction,” his greatest success and his nemesis as well. When McGuire took “Eve” to the top of the charts in 1965, it created a huge backlash. The pop music people he’d been working with refused to publish “Eve,” or any other PF Sloan tunes. “Until that happened, I didn’t realize how conservative some people in the music business were,” Sloan says. “There were quite a few people with the mindset we now call neo-con.” The folk community accused him of trying to cash in on the folk-protest movement, somehow overlooking the fact that protest songs were commercial suicide for most artists. Sloan made three albums under his folk-singing alias – Songs of Our Times (1965 Dunhill), which includes “Exactly What’s The Matter With Me”, “Sins of the Family” and “Eve”; Twelve More Times (1966 Dunhill) which includes “Halloween Mary” and “Let Me Be”, later a hit for The Turtles, and Measure of Pleasure (1968 Atco) a more pop oriented effort recorded at Muscle Shoals with producer Tom Dowd.
Sloan had a few more successes in the next two years, including The Grass Roots’ “Where Were You When I Needed You” and Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man,” but “Eve” effectively put an end to Sloan’s career as a pop songwriter. He was drummed out of the music business and crashed into a clinical depression that, self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. He spent time in a mental hospital and moved back in with his parents, living with them until they died. Sloan then spent years sleeping on a couch in his sister’s apartment.
Oddly, “Eve of Destruction” was the B-side of Barry McGuire’s first single. “[Barry had] just started his solo career after years in the New Christy Minstrels and wanted a hit. I played him ‘Exactly What’s The Matter With Me’ and he signed with Dunhill to record it. He needed three more songs for the session and ‘Eve’ was the last one he chose. Eventually some DJ turned the record over and the phones lit up with people saying: ‘Don’t play that record again,’ or ‘Play it again, right now.’ The rest, as they say, is history.”
Sloan put down his guitar for almost 40 years and made a living with blue-collar jobs - delivering beer, doing telephone solicitation and “rearranging sunglasses at a Thrifty Drug Store.” In 1991, he met musician and producer John Tiven. “For the last 14 years, he’s been calling me three times a year asking me to do an album. I always said no.” Tiven finally convinced Sloan to buy a guitar and he started playing again. “The songs I was writing in my head didn’t seem worth putting down, but suddenly the kid that was killed in 1966 reemerged and wrote three songs in three days. There was an explosion of creativity after that, which was pretty cool after 22 or 23 years of not knowing if it even existed anymore.”
Sloan and Tiven went to Nashville and cut Sailover (2006 HighTone) on a tight budget. The musicians on the album - including Frank Black (The Pixies,) Felix Cavaliere (The Rascals) and Americana icons Buddy Miller and Lucinda Williams – all admired Sloan’s work and donated their talents. The album mixes hits - “Eve” and “Where Were You When I Needed You” - with new tunes like “If You Knew,” a smoky R&B ballad, and “PK and the Evil Doctor” a free form surrealistic rant that tips its hat to Bob Dylan. The album has an organ driven, 60s folk rock vibe that sounds timeless. Sloan’s vocals are smooth and mellow, without the edge of anger he had in his youth. “I started a spiritual practice years ago,” Sloan explains. “I sing bhajans (devotional songs) every week for two hours and I’ve been living a clean life, no alcohol or drugs, although I do smoke too much.” Sloan now considers singing and songwriting a spiritual practice. “When I sing ‘Eve of Destruction’ today, I sing it as a prayer. I’m singing to God and waiting for an answer. Back then, the line ‘You don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction’ was a message to my peers. I was saying despite what was going on, we didn’t believe we were on the eve of destruction. At 20, I thought in five years we’d clean the mess up, deal with racism and war and greed and have a better world. ‘Eve’ was my diagnosis of what was killing the country. The question is still the same: ‘Why do all these bad things happen and why do we let them happen?’ It’s insane that it’s still topical after all these years.” On November 15, 2015 P.F. Sloan passed away from pancreatic cancer.