Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Psychobabble Loves P.P.

Finish snickering at those initials then get hip to the reality that P.P. Arnold is the greatest soul singer you may have never heard. Pat Arnold was opening for The Rolling Stones as an Ikette in the Ike and Tina Turner Review when she struck up a friendship with Mick Jagger. Jealous Ike gave Pat her pink slip, but The Stones’ savvy manager, Andrew “Loog” Oldham, quickly snatched her up… and away from Stones bassist Bill Wyman, who wanted her to sing backup for his protégés Moon’s Train. Oldham gave Pat her new moniker, which was intended to suggest bluesiness, and signed her up to his independent label, Immediate Records.

As P.P. Arnold, she released “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” (co-written by Oldham) in early 1967. A smooth bubblegum soul production that was equal parts Phil Spector and Motown, “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” is a standout because of P.P.’s unpolished pipes, which rasp away over the orchestral backing. But the record’s real gem—and the real indicator of the Arnold agenda— was buried on the flip. Written by David Skinner and Andrew Rose of Immediate’s pasty folk duo Twice as Much, “Life Is Nothing” is a moody, acoustic ballad with tasteful strings, more reminiscent of The Beatles than anything Aretha Franklin would have cut. That’s what really set P.P. Arnold apart from her soul peers: she essentially transformed British pop numbers into achingly soulful work outs every time she layered on that cracked rasp. What P.P. Arnold was doing was not dissimilar from the records of her label mates, Small Faces, so when she eventually started recording with them it was a match made in Northern Soul Nirvana. But first she’d work her magic on her signature song: Cat Stevens oft-recorded “The First Cut Is the Deepest”. That she was able to a transform a song that is, let’s face it, pretty corny into a work of flaming rage and hurt that could peel the paint off Rod Stewart’s little red wagon is another of P.P. Arnold’s great gifts. She did the same thing with the even cornier “Angel of the Morning”, a song that more famously got the sap treatment by the likes of Juice Newton, Merilee Rush, and Olivia Newton John. Careening from P.P. Arnold’s throat, “Angel of the Morning” is a masterpiece of mighty assuredness (John Paul Jones’s exquisite baroque-soul arrangement doesn’t hurt either).

P.P. Arnold’s greatest record was written by Small Faces Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane and saddled with the laughably dated title “(If You Think You’re) Groovy”. With Small Faces as her backing, Arnold shreds her vocal cords beyond the call of duty as she lets a cat know that he isn’t nearly as groovy as he thinks he is. The chorus punches in with a Kenny Jones drum fill that detonates like an A-bomb, then Arnold takes over to rant and rave her way to transcendence. Fucking unbelievable.

The first of P.P. Arnold’s LPs, The First Lady of Immediate, is her greatest, a flawless soul pop album bolstered by her first few singles and some exceptional additional material, some of which was composed by the singer. With the smoldering “Though It Hurts Me Badly”, “Treat Me Like a Lady”, and “Am I Still Dreaming”—a track that would have inspired Spiro Agnew to leap off his ass and do the pony—she delivered the record’s purest soul numbers. Arnold’s second album, the more conceptually produced Kafunta, is great as well, although it is slightly lessened by an abundance of overly familiar covers. But though her versions of Jagger and Richards’s “As Tears Go By” and The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yesterday” are inessential, her reading of “God Only Knows” is stunning, and even more so considering that the original features what might be the most beautiful vocal ever captured in a pop recording; the kind of recording that should make all others irrelevant.

An outtake from the Kafunta photo session.

After P.P. Arnold cut her final sides for Immediate in 1969, she appeared in stage musicals, acted in the nighttime soaps "Knot's Landing" and "St. Elsewhere" in the '80s, and performed session work for such artists as Nick Drake, Roger Waters, Ocean Colour Scene, and Oasis.

All the amazing recordings P.P. Arnold made during her brief two-year career with Immediate Records are compiled on First Cut, which you should pick up immediately.

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