The Road to Tarkio: Brewer and Shipley’s Debut “Down in L.A.” Remastered and Expanded By Now Sounds
Oklahoma-born Michael Brewer and Ohio native Tom Shipley found fame on Missouri’s mythical Tarkio Road, thousands of miles away from Hollywood’s La Brea Avenue and the headquarters of A&M Records. But before they took one pivotal toke over the line into stardom, Brewer and Shipley recorded an album for Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss’ label that couldn’t have been recorded at any other time and place than Los Angeles, circa 1967-1968. Down in L.A. was almost entirely written by Brewer and Shipley, either individually or collectively, and recorded at such landmark studios as United/Western Recorders and Sunset Sound. The names dotting the album’s personnel list are about as lustrous as you could possibly find at the time: Hal Blaine and Jim Gordon on drums, Joe Osborn and Lyle Ritz on bass, Leon Russell on piano, keyboard and organ. These Wrecking Crew vets supported Brewer and Shipley in creating an album that stands as a lost treasure of the California folk-rock genre. Thanks to the fine folks at Now Sounds, Down in L.A. has made its long-awaited CD release.
Brewer and Shipley first bonded over their mutual love of folk music, playing the coffeehouse circuit alongside countless other young troubadours in the early 1960s. Brewer was the first of the duo to answer California’s siren call, teaming with songwriter Tom Mastin as Mastin & Brewer. That twosome made vital connections with members of The Mothers of Invention and Buffalo Springfield, but Mastin’s personal demons brought the partnership to an abrupt halt. Brewer’s brother Keith deputized for Mastin, but the real magic happened when Brewer and Shipley brought their voices together. Shipley, an acquaintance of Brewer’s, had independently made his way to the Golden State and reconnected with his old friend. Reissue producer Steve Stanley’s copious liner notes inform us that Brewer received an offer to join The Association in early 1967 as a replacement for the departing Jules (Gary) Alexander. Brewer declined the offer, preferring to continue developing a professional bond with Shipley. Shortly thereafter, Brewer and Shipley were signed as staff songwriters to A&M Records’ Good Sam Music publishing division. At Good Sam, they placed songs with artists as diverse as Bobby Rydell, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and even Noel “The Windmills of Your Mind” Harrison. But it wasn’t long before A&M gave them the green light to proceed with the album that became Down in L.A. under the production auspices of Allen Stanton and Jerry Riopelle.
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Stanton was the album’s original producer, and was no stranger to folk-rock or psychedelia, having produced the Byrds’ Fifth Dimension LP at Columbia, where he served as West Coast Vice President before decamping for A&M. Much as he had clashed with the Byrds (Roger McGuinn recalled him as rather officious), Stanton wasn’t a perfect fit for Brewer and Shipley and so Jerry Riopelle, a one-time protégé of Phil Spector and member of sunshine pop group The Parade, was brought in to complete the album. If you don’t know Riopelle’s work with The Parade, previously reissued asNow Sounds’ inaugural release, do check it out. There’s a fantastic photo in the reissue’s booklet of the bespectacled Stanton, clad in a suit, uneasily posing with the younger Riopelle, looking casual yet intense in a sweater. Nick DeCaro, an arranger with A&M credits including Roger Nichols and the Small Circle of Friends, Claudine Longet, Chris Montez and The Sandpipers, was brought in to provide the subtle string and horn arrangements. In his long career, DeCaro worked with artists ranging from James Taylor to Andy Williams, and he contributes customarily fine work here.
Though Brewer and Shipley’s own collective voice on Down in L.A. isn’t as distinct as it would become on those later albums for which they became famous, the duo had already begun marrying socially conscious lyrics to hook-laden melodies. Some of these songs would be performed by other artists, as well, but the versions here are definitive. Textured, shimmering harmonies, at time reminiscent of their friends The Association, abound on the album, from the dreamy “Small Town Girl” to the Tolkien-influenced “Keeper of the Keys.” (“Keeper” was also recorded by H.P. Lovecraft and revisited by Brewer and Shipley themselves in 1974. A mono mix is included on this reissue as a bonus track.)
Love, of course, was in the air. “Green Bamboo” is a pastoral piece of Eastern-influenced light psychedelia: (“Sitting on a hill/High above the green bamboo/Changing with the wind/I’m thankful for the love that I’m in/And I feel love is everywhere/Love is everywhere.”) “Love, Love,” co-written by Brewer and Shipley with Keith Brewer, has a similar theme set to a rock-steady beat courtesy of Blaine or Gordon: “Everything is fine/Everything’s all right/Love, love.”
But in actuality, it wasn’t all love. The haunting “I Can’t See Her” is a frank, personal look at a deteriorating relationship, highlighted by some funky keyboard work, and “Mass for M’Lady” is another intense track. Leon Russell played the majestic pipe organ on the song which co-composer Shipley describes in the album notes as “the other side of ‘California Dreamin’.” (“Straining eyes to see the game/Of painted hearts and plastic shame, she cries/Feeling quite the same she doesn’t know/She’s already found the new beginning/So she listens for a different kind of sound…”) It’s no surprise that Brewer and Shipley retreated from L.A. soon after the album’s recording. In “An Incredible State of Affairs,” the team poetically reflected on the Riots on the Sunset Strip. Shipley: “I remember Neil Young going up to get a pack of cigarettes and getting the crap beaten out of him.” Clearly, Brewer and Shipley’s L.A. wasn’t just safe and warm.
Standing at the crossroads of folk-rock, pop and psychedelia, Down in L.A. has all of the hallmarks of a lost classic from the A&M library. Now Sounds has reissued this fascinating and diverse album, awarded four stars upon its release by Billboard, with the label’s typical flair. The booklet offers both an introductory essay from producer Stanley and track-by-track commentary from Michael Brewer and Tom Shipley. Alan Brownstein has remastered the album from the original stereo master tapes, and one mono bonus track (“Keeper of the Keys”) has been added. Down in L.A. is available now in the U.K., and will arrive next week on American shores. You can order at the link below!
Brewer & Shipley, Down in L.A. (A&M SP-4154, 1968 – reissued Now Sounds CRNOW 32, 2012)
- Truly Right
- She Thinks
- She’s a Woman
- Time and Changes
- Small Town Girl
- I Can’t See Her
- Green Bamboo
- An Incredible State of Affairs
- Keeper of the Keys
- Love, Love
- Dreamin’ in the Shade (Down in L.A.)
- Mass for M’Lady
- Keeper of the Keys (Mono Mix – Bonus Track)