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[Cellars]
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Lost and found
The Ďotherí songs of John Lennon and Paul McCartney
BY ROBIN VAUGHAN

Lost Beatles songs? Given all the vault plundering thatís 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 werenít exactly lost, certainly were never celebrated as major parts of the Lennon/McCartney songbook. Indeed, theyíre not on any Beatles albums. Written by John and Paul in the mid í60s, 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 Epsteinís concerns. A few of the better ones, like Badfingerís " 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 PowersĖstyle 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-52ís singer Kate Pierson, spent last summer at Longview Studios in North Brookfield reinterpreting this largely ignored section of the Beatlesí legacy. Parker, Janovitz, and Pierson, who will share a stage for the first time at next Thursdayís 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 albumís lead vocals. On the CD theyíre backed by the NYC-based rock band Johnny Society and Cheap Trick guitarist Robin Zander. The largely stripped-down versions of these í60s bubblegum nuggets reveal the songwriting pedigree at the source: the tracks are unmistakably Lennon/McCartney artifacts, loaded with Beatlesque chord changes and melodic turns. " Itís 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. Itís all just . . . there. "

Producer Jim Sampas is no stranger to the improbable. On his first tribute compilation, 1997ís 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 Sampasís late aunt, Stella, in the last years of his life and had been close to the Sampas family since childhood. (Sampasís uncle John is the executor of Kerouacís 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 Springsteenís " 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 ó 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 ó in a single studio environment. " The cool thing about it, " says Janovitz over a beer at the Rosebud Diner in Somerville, " is that itís not just a collection of various artists doing their own thing but more like one band collaborating with a few artists. "

Sampasís shy, bookish, boy-next-door mien is not what youíd 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 youíd 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. Heís 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 arenít too many people who can pull things together as well as he does. "

Sampasís business partner, Phil Hopkins, whoís 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 Sampasís 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 " isnít always the one you want to be remembered for, " Hopkins says. " But Jimís 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 thatís not known for them. Being a mensch doesnít get you far without other assets, and heís 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 poetís help in getting him a roadie gig with the Clash. That didnít come through, but Ginsberg became a friend, paving the way for Sampas to hook up with the likes of Sonic Youthís 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 Sampasís 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 heíd earned a reputation as a producer with the artistic vision to dream up compelling projects and the clout to get them done. Heís 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 heís interested in all kinds of " pop culture, niche-catalogue stuff thatís 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-í75 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 Foleyís 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. Piersonís take on Cilla Blackís " 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-52ís 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, Iíve always been more a Stones than a Beatles guy, " Janovitz admits. " We talked about that a lot while we were at Longview ó how the Stones doing Beatles songs might feel. " Janovitzís bloozy Keith Richards vocal on Billy J. Kramerís " Iíll Keep You Satisfied " is a case in point; Parkerís version of " From a Window " recalls early Stones tunes like " Tell Me (Youíre 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 theyíre amazing pop songs. The melodies are so strong, and when you take away the candy coating, thereís 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.

 

Issue Date: May 9 - 15, 2003
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