Lost Beatles songs? Given all the vault plundering that’s come with the CD age, it hardly seems possible. But the new From a Window: Lost Songs of Lennon & McCartney (Gallery Six) dusts off Beatles-related tunes that, if they weren’t exactly lost, certainly were never celebrated as major parts of the Lennon/McCartney songbook. Indeed, they’re not on any Beatles albums. Written by John and Paul in the mid ’60s, they were divvied out by Brian Epstein to such English pop acts as Peter and Gordon, Cilla Black, and Billy J. Kramer, adding a secondary string of #1 hits to Epstein’s concerns. A few of the better ones, like Badfinger’s " Come and Get It, " made it onto the US charts. Others are mere period pieces, best forgotten in their original form, like " Tip of My Tongue " by some Austin Powers–style swinger called Tommy Quickly.
But with Lowell-bred producer Jim Sampas at the helm, an improbable group of singers and songwriters, including Brit pub-rocker Graham Parker, Buffalo Tom frontman Bill Janovitz, and B-52’s singer Kate Pierson, spent last summer at Longview Studios in North Brookfield reinterpreting this largely ignored section of the Beatles’ legacy. Parker, Janovitz, and Pierson, who will share a stage for the first time at next Thursday’s release party at the House of Blues (backed by drummer Joe Magistro, guitarist Marc Copely, bassist Winston Roy, and keyboardist Jeff Karger), contribute all but two of the album’s lead vocals. On the CD they’re backed by the NYC-based rock band Johnny Society and Cheap Trick guitarist Robin Zander. The largely stripped-down versions of these ’60s bubblegum nuggets reveal the songwriting pedigree at the source: the tracks are unmistakably Lennon/McCartney artifacts, loaded with Beatlesque chord changes and melodic turns. " It’s mindblowing how they could just write these seeming ditties, " says Pierson, calling from the road in New Mexico. " And they are all really incredible little jewelboxes of songs. The bridges are great, the choruses are great, all the songs are under three minutes. It’s all just . . . there. "
Producer Jim Sampas is no stranger to the improbable. On his first tribute compilation, 1997’s Kerouac: kicks joy darkness (Rykodisc), this unknown beginner brought such odd trackmates as Allen Ginsberg, Morphine, Michael Stipe, Juliana Hatfield, Johnny Depp, William S. Burroughs, and comedian Richard Lewis together to read poetry and essays by Kerouac, who was married to Sampas’s late aunt, Stella, in the last years of his life and had been close to the Sampas family since childhood. (Sampas’s uncle John is the executor of Kerouac’s literary estate.) The Kerouac connection helped Sampas get his foot in the door, but his career has been built on equal parts good hunches and good luck. His greatest talent as a producer is in finding an innovative angle and bringing together the right talents to make it work.
For From a Window, he expanded on the concept behind his 1997 project Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s " Nebraska " (Sub Pop), which included contributions by Johnny Cash, Chrissie Hynde, Ben Harper, Ani DiFranco, and Aimee Mann. To avoid the inconsistencies that annoyed him on other tribute compilations, Sampas had the artists record their numbers on a four-track, just as Springsteen had originally done. For the Beatles tribute, he used a short list of singers and one core band — including Boston guitar star Duke Levine, drummer Dave Mattacks (an esteemed vet who has played with McCartney and George Harrison), and famed jazz-clarinettist Don Byron — in a single studio environment. " The cool thing about it, " says Janovitz over a beer at the Rosebud Diner in Somerville, " is that it’s not just a collection of various artists doing their own thing but more like one band collaborating with a few artists. "
Sampas’s shy, bookish, boy-next-door mien is not what you’d expect from a guy with the juju to pull off such projects and attract talent like Steven Tyler, Joe Strummer, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Patti Smith, Paul Auster, Philip Glass, and Sonic Youth. Talking over coffee at the Someday Café in Davis Square, the 38-year-old looks more like someone you’d encounter at the stage door of a Springsteen gig, waiting patiently for an autograph with his copy of Nebraska in hand, than a producer behind the board at Longview Studios. He’s not much of a knob twiddler, he admits; he relies on talented engineers to mix while he focuses on the broader picture. If he seems " too nice to be a producer, " Janovitz says, " there aren’t too many people who can pull things together as well as he does. "
Sampas’s business partner, Phil Hopkins, who’s vice-president of the Rockport-based RPH Productions, concurs: " Jim is very successful in taking concepts and using his perseverance and excitement to get people to do things. " RPH was born when Hopkins teamed up with Sampas’s Gallery Six label for its debut release, the soundtrack for the art film Condo Painting. (A " terrible movie, " Hopkins admits, " with an amazing soundtrack. " ) For most producers, the first project " isn’t always the one you want to be remembered for, " Hopkins says. " But Jim’s first record [Kerouac] did very well, about 60,000 copies. And he financed a lot of it with his own credit card " after a cautious advance from Ryko had run out.
Unassuming, sincere, and focused on what he wants to hear, Sampas comes across as a nice guy in a business that’s not known for them. Being a mensch doesn’t get you far without other assets, and he’s been extraordinarily lucky in that regard. Kerouac was the name he dropped when he first wrote to Allen Ginsberg as a young music fan, hoping to enlist the poet’s help in getting him a roadie gig with the Clash. That didn’t come through, but Ginsberg became a friend, paving the way for Sampas to hook up with the likes of Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and punk poet Jim Carroll. A non-Kerouac kinship had earlier served Sampas when he was an aspiring singer-songwriter playing Boston clubs. A friend of the family led him to Dreamland engineer Dave Cook, who encouraged him to submit demos until one finally caught his ear. Cook mixed Sampas’s self-released solo album at Dreamland (in Woodstock, New York), bringing in session players like drummer Jerry Marrotta and Graham Parker, who sang back-up on one track. Eventually, Sampas decided he was too stage-shy to pursue his own musical career. Instead, his experiences at Dreamland ushered in another wide-eyed dream: " When I got into the studio, I really fell in love with the process of making music. I just wanted to try producing. "
A maze of introductions led him through one door after another until he’d earned a reputation as a producer with the artistic vision to dream up compelling projects and the clout to get them done. He’s had help: RPH Productions is allied with the distribution outfit Navarre Corporation. Hopkins sees RPH as a " boutique company " that could become " a mini-version of Rhino Records. " He formed it in 1998 with Ralph Stevens, founder of the reggae label Ruff Stuff. Mentioning another offbeat Gallery Six project, a Dracula album produced in conjunction with the Bela Lugosi estate and featuring Rob Zombie, Alice Cooper, and Gene Simmons of Kiss, he says he’s interested in all kinds of " pop culture, niche-catalogue stuff that’s under the radar. "
Meanwhile Sampas is talking about his next batch of projects, and his enthusiasm is contagious, even when the ideas at first seem, well, iffy. He has in mind an Eagles Greatest Hits: 1971-’75 tribute. Already on the boards is Dr. Sax and the Great World Snake, a reading of an unpublished Kerouac screenplay for which he enlisted Pierson, Janovitz, Carroll, and poet Robert Creeley. He also wants to do a Lost Songs of the Clash comp based on songs written and performed by Strummer/Jones for former Jones squeeze Ellen Foley’s 1981 album Spirit of St. Louis.
As for From a Window, its interest goes beyond its odd provenance. The distinctive interpretations remove the songs from their Beatles context without overshadowing the songwriting. Pierson’s take on Cilla Black’s " Step Inside Love " is one of the more infectious tracks, replacing the pumped-up sophisto-lounge arrangements of the original with a vivaciously edgy B-52’s vibe.
Parker and Janovitz approached their performances with a certain whiskey-flavored rock æsthetic generally associated with that other big Brit band of the day. " Like Graham, I’ve always been more a Stones than a Beatles guy, " Janovitz admits. " We talked about that a lot while we were at Longview — how the Stones doing Beatles songs might feel. " Janovitz’s bloozy Keith Richards vocal on Billy J. Kramer’s " I’ll Keep You Satisfied " is a case in point; Parker’s version of " From a Window " recalls early Stones tunes like " Tell Me (You’re Coming Back). "
" I have fake arguments with friends all the time about Beatles versus Stones, " Janovitz concludes. " But the amount of stuff the Beatles did in a short period of time is just so impressive. These are just pop songs, but they’re amazing pop songs. The melodies are so strong, and when you take away the candy coating, there’s some real darkness in there too. "
The " Lost Songs of Lennon & McCartney " tour will arrive at the House of Blues, 96 Winthrop Street in Harvard Square, next Thursday, May 15; call (617) 491-BLUE.