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John Phillips - Pussycat

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Artist: John Phillips

Album: Pussycat

Label: Varese Vintage

Review date: Oct. 13, 2008

By the time 1976 rolled around, John Phillips was a decade removed from his peak of popularity with the Mamas & the Papas. It had not been a good 10 years. Following his group’s split, Phillips had faded away, becoming entrenched in an early-’70s L.A. ripe with glamour and dope, and near-vanishing from the fertile music scene he helped create. His first, and only, proper solo record, John, The Wolfking of L.A., slipped out in 1970 to muted praise and minuscule sales. While it’s now seen as a minor classic of feel-good West Coast vibes, the album did little upon its release to deter Phillips from his slide towards infamy.

In the summer of ’76, Phillips was staggering down a road traveled by many other frustrated artists of his time. Attempts to revitalize his career found him palling around London with the Rolling Stones, dreaming up ideas and getting high with a band whose gargantuan drug habits hadn’t yet derailed their own creativity. It must have been a frustrating situation. Phillips, one of the ’60s most successful and lauded songwriters, now spiraling speedily toward footnote status a mere nine years since “Creeque Alley” cracked the Billboard top five.

Gaunt and aged, mired in the depths of severe cocaine and heroin addiction, Phillips nevertheless brought to the table some choice material. Mick Jagger was impressed enough to sign him to Rolling Stones Records, the first solo artist to ink a contract with the group’s imprint. Recording began that fall and quickly – not surprisingly, in retrospect – devolved into an orgy of substances. London sessions were scrapped, with Phillips and Richards convening the next summer in L.A. for a second shot. Come early ’78, the recordings were finally complete, but by that time studio costs were nearing 200 grand, and both the Stones and distributor Atlantic Records had lost interest.

Oft bootlegged, the original album mixes were lost on the shelves for decades. In 2001, months prior to his death, Phillips released an overdubbed, remixed version of the album titled Pay, Pack and Follow. Notable mainly for sounding even more wasted than expected, the record is a slop of half-baked tunes, scuzzy and sick in prime Stones tradition, yet not memorable enough to make it ’til morning. It sounds like the boys were having a damn good time – but it’s not necessarily pleasant to listen to.

All of this makes Pussycat an interesting proposition: A ‘great lost album’ that is neither all that great nor all that lost.

Boasting the original final mixes of the album’s 10 tracks, Pussycat claims to be quite a different record than Pay, Pack and Follow. Thankfully, it is. Gone are the face-crinkling episodes of embarrassment; muted, the moments of wobbling wastedness. In their place stands a rather remarkable, utterly of its time, rock ’n’ roll record.

With the Glimmer Twins behind the console, it’s of little surprise that much of the record bears resemblance to Stones material of the time, most notably Some Girls. Opener “Wilderness of Love” drops a disco/funk beat and nu-soul backing vocals into the mid-tempo groove. Fruity production aside, the song is a clear view into Phillips’ faltering mind as he entrusts himself to his wife. “Lost my way long ago,” he sings. “I’ll just follow you down / because I think we’re going forward.”

“Mr. Blue” kicks the coke-funk up a notch with Richards’ choppy leads and Jagger’s “ya ya ya” backing vocals. Lyrically, Phillips is again deep in urban paranoia, writing about the dark end of the street where fellow lost souls lurk. “Diamonds and things / shiners and dings / powder-puff whores,” he sighs. The track reaches its chilling climax when Phillips sings “pretty soon I’m going to shoot myself up with you / just to find out where it is that you go.”

“Oh Virginia” and “She’s Just 14” highlight the countrified side of the Stones-influenced tracks. The former is one of Phillips’ tighter songs of the period, a shuffling roots ballad dealing with the boredoms of life on the road. The title of “She’s Just 14” becomes even creepier after learning it was written for John’s daughter, Mackenzie. Yet the song’s sticky, Beggars Banquet-like blues and Jagger’s panting vocals make it one of the album’s most intriguing cuts.

Weak spots certainly abound. The anti-apartheid anthem “Zulu Warrior” is a laughable hand-drum and disco beat sing-along that falls flatter than the Serengeti. The end-of-the-millennium groover “2001” obviously sounds dated, though there’s something touching about Phillips’ lazy melody and oozing optimism – a great example of how his massive songwriting talent could spin gold from the most worn clichés. And when Phillips swoons “baby we’re so young / our love is just beginning / our love will still be young / in the year 2000” it’s hard not to be caught up in the moment, especially while thinking of how Phillips himself barely made it to that milestone.

The album ends with a trio of tracks that reinforce the breadth of Phillips’ songwriting. “Sunset Boulevard” is an uplifting, humorous love song seasoned with a healthy dose of journeyman sadness. “Very Dread” confronts Philips’ heroin addiction and the effect the drug was having on Jagger’s dissolving relationship with Marianne Faithful. The sexually-charged lullaby “Susan, Susan” is Phillips at his horny, whimsical best.

Ultimately, what makes Pussycat so compelling is that it shows how Phillips’ strength as a songwriter outweighed even the most horrifying personal circumstances. Many artists, including the Stones, would have killed for songs like these at the same point in their career. Maybe that’s what so ensnared the notoriously fickle Jagger and Richards. While Pussycat now may sound at times like an idea built from far too many late nights at the bar, Phillips produced a record of heavyweight songs and achieved his goal of making an album with the Stones – something Gram Parsons went to his grave wishing for.

By Ethan Covey

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