Each week, we dig in the crates to tell you about a "lost" or classic album we think you should hear. This week's covers Sugar Creek's 1969 album, Please Tell a Friend.
Picture the American folk scene of the mid-1960’s: young musicians flocking to the big cities to play quiet songs in coffee shops, the whole world renowned with this grand revival in the old ways of songwriting, when a simple strum with heartfelt lyrics was all you needed for a million-dollar hit. People believed that if what they were doing wasn’t working for them, all it would take was a simple move to New York or Los Angeles to set their career on track. And although it certainly worked for everyone’s folk icon Bob Dylan, “the dream” didn’t come together for most, including Johnathan Edwards of Sugar Creek. He was more known to his friends for writing songs like this, politically charged and well intentioned, but coming off sounding more like a college kid at an open mic than someone who can craft a record worth talking about 40 years later. His were the kind of songs that made your eyes glaze over and turn back to the bar.
‘Headstone Circus’ founder Glenn Faria recalls their early days: "Around 1966, Nick Bonis, Mike Johnstone, Randy Pope, and I formed a psychedelic band. On Halloween night we went to an old cemetery, dropped acid, and spent a very strange night among the tombstones. The tombstones appeared to be melting and taking on animal shapes. Some of us saw spirits, and I'm not sure what I saw, but it was disturbing. Afterwards, we referred to that night as the 'Headstone Circus'. It seemed appropriate to call ourselves 'Headstone Circus' as a band so we did." An early recording of ‘I’m Goin’ Down’ exists on YouTube, which shines some light on what the players would later hone in with the Sugar Creek recordings, but set to a much slower tempo and masked with much poorer quality production. An entire album of such recordings was compiled for a 2004 release by German psychedelic label Shadoks Music. Only 350 copies were pressed, and although the music wasn’t anywhere near as good as Sugar Creek, the album remains somewhat of a collector’s item, highly favored by fans of Neil Young and Crosby, Stills, & Nash.
It was this hard “6-40” lifestyle that allowed the band to refine their sound, going through several name-changes before settling on Sugar Creek, and recording an album at A&R Studios in New York City for Metromedia Records, the famed studio hosting the likes of Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Paul McCartney, and just about any hit-maker who found themselves in New York. Edwards’ friends who heard the album after its completion were stunned, and many couldn’t believe it was actually his voice they heard singing, asking him: “Is that really you?” Here was an entirely new voice, rough and impassioned. Never before and never again would Edwards be able to convey his music with such ferocity.
Sugar Creek bandmate Joe Dolce recalls: “After we recorded the 'Please Tell a Friend' album, I resigned from the band (after all our equipment was stolen one night from our traveling bread truck band vehicle) and went solo. The other members decided to drop all mention of my participation from the album credits and close ranks for professional reasons to work as a foursome.” The remaining players did continue touring as a four-piece following the album's release and Dolce’s resignation, but it was impossible to keep everyone together for too long. "After several years, I began to tire of the 6-40s and grew fonder of the sound of an acoustic guitar,” Edwards explains. "I just one night said, 'Hey fellas, this isn't sounding as good as it could, and I'd like us to sound more intimate'. I liked the sound of bronze strings on rosewood better than steel strings on magnets, and so I walked out of that club in Vermont, rented myself a van and PA system, and started traveling around the colleges in New England by myself, without gigs, just setting up in the lobbies of dormitories on a Saturday." Their other guitarist/bassist Gary Gans quit the band and became a fundamentalist Christian, apparently saying that the music they were playing was “the work of the devil.”
Edwards made a few records after the band’s split, and his aforementioned single ‘Sunshine’ sold over a million copies for Capricorn Records. But each effort grew more and more influenced by country music, and his major label overseers were having difficulty marketing his sound. With sales in sharp decline he retired from music and moved to a farm in Nova Scotia. It wasn’t until 1976 that Emmylou Harris recruited him to sing on her second album, Elite Hotel. But even this monolithic partnership and a deal with Warner Brothers failed to resurrect Edwards’ career. It’s surprising to note that despite each individual’s proficient musicianship, and their ability to tour without end under harsh circumstances, none of them were able to find much artistic success after Sugar Creek, sometimes to an embarrassingly bad degree. Joe Dolce’s hit “Shaddap You Face” sounds like a sad joke. ‘Please Tell A Friend,’ however, remains the perfect blend of acoustic musicianship with psychedelic rock influences. There is a beautiful arc of emotive highs and lows, from the soft, melodic ‘Lady Linda,’ to the lightning-fast, blues-driving ‘A Million Years,’ all wrapped up in that beguiling, Revolver-esque album cover. But the composition is perhaps the album’s defining quality. There is no anthemic verse-chorus monotony, no overbearing guitar solos, no cheeky stadium-rock production. Some songs change rhythms two or three times over the course of just three-and-a-half minutes, the apex of which can be heard in ‘Woman.’ Chords change, the tempo quickens, and the band plays on as if they can hardly keep up, as if they themselves don’t know what’s next. As a whole, the album sounds infinitely out of place; too weird to be down, but too down to be weird. And it doesn’t line up with either of the players’ solo efforts. So who does it belong to? And where does it fit in?
Thus it was that for almost 40 years it was nearly impossible to find Sugar Creek’s one, sole album. It wasn’t reissued until 2001, and even then, it was pressed by the Italian label ‘Akarma’ who’d carved a niche for themselves by reissuing great American classics like Big Star and Creedence Clearwater Revival. But in those early days of the internet, although these Italian pressings were much more affordable than the originals, tracking one down was no easy feat. It wasn’t until 10 years after that Italian pressing when the recent 180-gram reissue by ‘Rhino Records’ arrived, making this album readily available for the first time. Further yet, only this fall was it uploaded to YouTube, Spotify, and elsewhere for streaming.
But even after the European and American reissues, it has remained a rare and overlooked oddity. The original 1965 pressings have been selling for ever-growing amounts of money ever since its release (there are currently four listings on Discogs, starting at around $100), but the album still hasn’t received anywhere near its due in respect as an American psychedelic classic. Their story is fast-paced, short-lived, and absolutely mystifying, and it certainly fills the blues gap for record fans lucky enough to grab a hold of it.
You can stream the album below:
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