“I think there will always be an audience for song-oriented music and for the craftsmanship of a great pop record”: Truer words were never spoken. We hereby pay tribute to the power pop auteur and his late musical partner.
BY FRED MILLS
Ed. note: For this installment of my ongoing “College Rock Chronicles” series (previously excavated: archival interviews with Big Star, Dumptruck, The Gun Club and Green On Red) I’m paying tribute to perhaps my favorite ever power pop group, The Dwight Twilley Band. Steered by the titular songwriter and his drumming/singing foil Phil Seymour, the group released only two albums before both men embarked on solo careers, but those two records—1976’s Sincerely and 1977’s Twilley Don’t Mind—remain etched in pop devotees’ minds. No better evidence of that is the just issued Twilley Won’t Mind tribute album, comprising material from that mid/late ‘70s period. Coincidentally, a posthumous live Seymour album, Phil Seymour In Concert! has also just arrived, so as you might surmise, ye olde editor’s pop fiend gears started turning and I decided to excavate portions of a 2002 interview I did with Twilley to flesh out my musings on the two new releases. Enjoy. – FM
We power pop acolytes can be a long-suffering bunch. Many is the time when our heroes have seemed on the cusp of breaking big, only to be shoved aside by a more mainstream-stroking bandwagon-hopper or, worse, discovering that their supporters at the label were gone (or, even worse, the label itself had shuttered). This tends to leave us, the lonely fans, casting our hosannas year after year to the utter indifference of friends, family, foils and foes. Still, we persist, viewing our unconditional love as a noble cause. Yes, we are sad bastards.
Just the same, submitted for your consideration: Dwight Twilley and his early musical partner, Phil Seymour. In the summer of ’75 the inordinately handsome 24-year old Okie with a joint Sun Records/Elvis and British Invasion/Beatles fixation vaulted from out of nowhere into the Top 20 with the chiming/throbbing radio anthem “I’m On Fire.” Credited to The Dwight Twilley Band, it was the brainchild of Mrs. Twilley’s kid and Seymour, who by that point had been working together for nearly a decade. Back then no one outside a select circle of Tulsa, Okla., musicians and Twilley and Seymour’s Shelter Records label bosses, Leon Russell and Denny Cordell, had even heard of the upstart songwriters, but as the summer unfolded and the song blared from car radios everywhere, it looked to be the start of a beautiful career for the duo.
At the time, though, neither Twilley nor Seymour seemed all that concerned with how the music biz operated, to the extent that the band rarely performed live, the pair preferring to hole up in the relative isolation of their Tulsa studio and craft the songs that would eventually grace their debut. They presumed, in their youthful arrogance, that every song they recorded was a potential hit followup to “I’m On Fire.”
“Oh, we were so naïve,” Twilley told me years later in a 2002 interview, laughing somewhat ruefully at the memories. “We thought we were indestructible – and were proven wrong really quick.”
Indeed, many of Twilley’s subsequent activities fell prey to bad timing; Sincerely, the album containing the hit single, was delayed for a year, at which time Shelter was already in the process of going under, so following a second Twilley Band album for the Arista label he and Seymour both went solo. There were also bad business decisions: in ’86 Twilley signed with a CBS affiliate for his sixth album, Wild Dogs, only to see the shady president of his label become embroiled in a huge payola scandal, effectively killing the album upon its release; meanwhile, Seymour enjoyed moderate success with the single “Precious to Me” but the label he had signed with, Boardwalk, folded shortly after his second album was released. And then there were just plain bad breaks; after forming his own Big Oak label, in 2001 Twilley prepared to released The Luck , but its release two weeks after September 11 ensured that everyone’s attention was directed elsewhere.
However, the Twilley story isn’t strictly a cautionary tale. To the contrary: Twilley’s been luckier than most, and a lot of musicians would kill to have the same level of respect and recognition that he’s amassed over the years. Critics consistently vote Sincerely and its ’77 follow-up Twilley Don’t Mind onto their All-Time Greatest Powerpop Albums lists. Tragically, Seymour passed away in ’93 from lymphoma, but Twilley has consistently persevered, with his two most recent albums, Green Blimp (reviewed HERE at Blurt and Always (reviewed HERE), maintaining the high standards he and Seymour set nearly four decades earlier. “I definitely feel like I have my little spot, and I’m proud of what I do,” Twilley insisted to me. “I think there will always be an audience for song-oriented music and for the craftsmanship of a great pop record.” (Following this text is more of my 2002 conversation with Twilley.)
Under discussion today: a pair of Twilley Band related releases. First, Phil Seymour In Concert!, no less than the third installment in the Phil Seymour Archive Series, issued by Airline Records (distributed by Ingrooves). Vols. 1 and 2 were released by quirky reissue specialist Fuel 2000 and offered up, respectively, an expanded version of Seymour’s superb 1980 eponymous debut (recorded shortly after the original Twilley Band had split), and its somewhat less inspired—though still quite enjoyable—followup, 1982’s 2. This time around we get a 2CD set with pair of live concerts from L.A. in 1979 and 1980.
The ’79 performance of Seymour and The Feel at the Hong Kong Café is high on energy but suffers from just average sonic quality, a kind of flat soundboard feel, something that actually won’t bother Seymour collectors since medium fidelity tapes swapped rabidly over the years have already primed the ears to settle for what we can get. Two obvious highlights are “Looking For the Magic,” from the classic Twilley-Seymour partnership that won us over in the first place all those years ago, and a cover of the Supremes’ “Can’t Hurry Love.” Indeed, the set is heavy on covers, including tunes from Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Bobby Fuller and Nick Lowe; as such, it suggests that Seymour, along with his band at the time, The Feel, was still working out his identity as a bandleader. The ’80 show is much better, from the setlist to the sound (it was originally recorded at Gazzari’s for an FM broadcast) to the musicians backing up Seymour. Gone is the hastily-assembled The Feel, and taking their place is a far more accomplished ensemble that includes the mighty Bill Pitcock IV, from the Twilley band, natch, on lead guitar. The set is accordingly frontloaded with Twilley/Seymour-centric material, notably Twilley’s luscious “Then We Go Up,” Seymour’s surprise hit single “Precious to Me” and a “Peter Gunne”-like thumper penned by Pitcock titled “Don’t Blow Your Life Away.” Among the covers are Lieber & Stoller, Bobby Fuller (again) and go-to power pop femme Kathy Valentine of the Go-Go’s.
By this point Seymour has become a more confident frontman, partly due no doubt to having more seasoned players surrounding him and partly because with the success of “Precious to Me” he was staking his own turf rather than being simply “the other guy” onstage with Twilley. At times you can hear him taking on a bit of a McCartney persona, animated and clearly enjoying himself. (For proof see the live video of “Precious to Me,” above, although not that is not from the Gazzari’s show.) Sadly, Seymour’s record label would fold shortly after the release of the second album, effectively squelching whatever momentum he had, although he continued to work for another decade (notably as a member of the Textones, with Carla Olson) until his death in ‘93.
As sweet as it is to have previously unreleased Seymour in the record bins, most of us know that you ain’t been properly memorialized until a tribute album is recorded. Enter the power pop fanatics of Australia’s Zero Hour who’ve assembled a host of international indieites to redo some 23 tracks hailing from the Sincerely and Twilley Don’t Mind era. And while we all know that tribs tend to be spotty, if not outright compromised, when it’s your personal fave getting the proverbial musical hat-tip, it’s easy to be generous if you already love the material and enough of the performances are solid.
For the most part, Twilley Won’t Mind is exactly that. With 23 tunes, it’s inevitable that some of ‘em are gonna fall flat; several tracks are overly earnest, overtly schmaltzy, or just plain poorly recorded. But with such killer readings as Honeychain’s sleek, sexy and seamless “I’m On Fire,” Donovan’s Brain’s unbelievably accurate (right down to the backwards guitar), 12-string powered “Sincerely,” Michael Carpenter’s rousing handclapathon “Here She Comes” and the Slapbacks’ urgently buoyant “Looking For the Magic” it’s easy not only to be generous, but seduced. The musicians on the album have clearly studied and loved those two albums and their creators over the years, and the inspiration comes through in their recreations.
Writes journalist/archivist John M. Borack in his liner notes, “The Dwight Twilley Band [was] a true collaborative effort. No power pop duo could match the chemistry created when Dwight Twilley and Phil Seymour played and sang together. Sincerely could have been subtitled ‘The Beatles Meet Elvis and the Byrds in Tulsa… a record for the ages. [And] Twilley Don’t Mind is nearly as perfect as the debut. Enjoy these covers, then go back and listen to the originals, too. You won’t have to look hard to find the magic.”
It’s perhaps significant that Borack and Bobby Sutliff from the Windbreakers perform on two of the tracks I’ve singled out above. Knowing both men’s deep, abiding love for power pop, I feel confident in saying that as long as they and their compatriots are around, the early Twilley Band’s estimable legacy will be in good hands. A hearty salute all around, gentlemen.
Below: Around 1977 the Dwight Twilley Band, which featured Bill Pitcock IV on guitar and guest Tom Petty on bass, popped up a number of times on American TV. Here they are doing “That I Remember” and “Looking For the Magic.” Nice lip-synching, lads!
Dwight Twilley: The Interview
BLURT: When you and Phil hit with “I’m On Fire,” did you have an awareness of being thrust into the belly of the music industry beast, so to speak?
DWIGHT TWILLEY: Oh, we were so naïve, too naive to be aware of anything like that. We thought we were indestructible. And we were proven wrong really quick! We had so many problems right from the get-go. The album didn’t even come out until a year after “I’m On Fire,” and it would have gone gold if it had come out then. They believed in it so much they were going to release two more singles before it came out. They released the second single and then the company went under. That’s when Leon and Denny parted company. So what do you do about that?
And you guys weren’t really touring at first anyway. You were more of a studio outfit. Did you have to play catch-up to get out there and tour?
Essentially, yeah. In a way. We could have been a stronger live act. We were so strong in the studio that I don’t think we could match what we did in the studio live.
How were you marketed? By the time Sincerely came out “new wave” was slowly becoming a buzzword… and then there was “power pop,” which some artists seem to be ambivalent towards.
Oh, I’ve had all those titles! About 20 of them! I have no problem with power pop. But would you really say “I’m On Fire” is a power pop record? To me it’s a rock record. I do pop music, but I also do rock music. So I dunno, that’s the kind of thing you leave to the writers and critics to decide. I’ll float along with it…
What was going through your head after Phil left the band and you started moving towards the MTV era? Did you have a game plan? Because you actually shelved two albums.
Well, I had a ton of legal problems. I got bogged down for several years and it really took a toll on me. I have people tell me I’d never have another hit, and it was almost the same thing again – I was determined that I would.
Then MTV waved my flag. It said I wasn’t gone. But then again, once I stood up I got knocked down again by that payola scandal. I had my big followup album, which I thought was a good album. But boy, after that payola scandal I was, pffft, really almost blacklisted. A lot of fans didn’t even know it was out. Which is a little bit like what’s happened with The Luck. It was released 2 weeks after 9/11, so a lot of our press for that record was really blanketed. Not only were the press and everyone else walking around like zombies at the time, but so were we. Nobody did anything for about 2 months and that really killed our momentum.
It seems that a lot of American pop artists dropped off the radar in the late ‘80s also. Was there that much of a seachange in the business or in the public’s taste?
Well, I think there was that. And at that point in the music business, that was when it was starting to be uncool if you’d had hits. And I literally had people say that they would sign me if I wasn’t Dwight Twilley! It was kind of the A&R thing too: if you signed Dwight Twilley and he had a hit, what a talented guy that Dwight Twilley is, but if you were an A&R man who signed [some unknown artist] and he got a hit, what a genius the A&R guy is. That was the syndrome.
Quite a Catch-22.
Yeah, it really was. And can you believe that things actually got worse? I spent several years with a chip on my shoulder, not believing that I didn’t have a major label record deal. Yet today, I wouldn’t take one if you shoved it in my face.
People forget that a number of these bands had good deals, reasonable backing, then all of a sudden were persona non grata. We were moving into the flannel shirt era where notions of “authenticity” took over from notions of “classic songwriting.”
And I heard for years that “pop is coming back.” [bitter laugh] You hear that every once in awhile. And people would come to me and say, ‘We just need somebody to lead it, and you should be the guy!’ No such thing ever happened! And if it came back at all, I guess it came back in the form of the homogenized songs that all these little girls and boy bands are doing. I don’t think there’s a venue for it now – there’s hardly any stations that will play it.
Going all the way back to “I’m On Fire,” though, you’ve plugged into a classic style and sound that a lot of people can relate to.
And fortunately I’m still able to actually sing my hits! [laughs] And they come off pretty well live. We always like to do “TV” [from Sincerely]. I revitalize the words every two or three years, so now when I do it there’s lyrics about Pay-Per-View, VCRs, computer screens, that whole thing. It’s always a fun song – it would have been great if Elvis could have covered that! It was being talked about at one point before he died… I’m playing at least one song from every record I’ve put out. Some of the old stuff just sounds amazing, really authentic. It’s really fresh for us. You won’t hear a tired, played-out thing that we’ve been doing forever.
What do you think is the appeal, the enduring strength of American pop music?
I think there will always be an audience for song-oriented music. For people that really understand the craftsmanship of a great pop record, great pop songs. Music and lyrics tied together.
Do you feel you slot into that tradition? Ever feel like walking away from music altogether?
I dunno, I definitely feel like I have my little spot and I’m proud of what I do. And you know, there was that long period where I wasn’t doing anything, and then I put out Tulsa  and it really took me by surprise how much people appreciate when I go and make a record.
So it really kind of made me want to make some more records. I was really fortunate.
Dwight Twilley online: http://www.dwighttwilley.com/