California Dreaming: This Could Be The Night

Phil Spector wanted in on the folk-rock boom, and so he started looking for a folk-rock band of his own to produce. He really wanted the Lovin’ Spoonful, a New York-based band who played what they called “good time music”, a more cheerful brand of folk-rock that was more influenced by jug-band records than by protest songs.

Being unable to acquire them for his label, he did the next best thing and signed MFQ. The Modern Folk Quartet, a band consisting of Chip Douglas, Cyrus Faryar, Henry Diltz and Barry McGuire’s old bandmate Jerry Yester, had played on the same bills as the Lovin’ Spoonful, and before they’d expanded their lineup with drummer Eddie Hoh (and changed their name as a result to just MFQ), the Spoonful’s singer John Sebastian had occasionally sat in with them on drums. MFQ could sound just like the Lovin’ Spoonful, but unlike them were willing to give up their own artistic vision to sing whatever Spector wanted.

And what Spector wanted them to sing was a song by a banker.

Harry Nilsson had been leading a double life for years. By night, he was supervisor of the computer department of Security First National Bank, supervising thirty-two people working on three computers between them, and working from five PM to one AM. By day, he was recording demos, shopping songs round to publishers, and trying to use his considerable charm and natural talent to hustle himself into a position in the pop world.

One of the demos Nilsson recorded had been at Gold Star studios, Spector’s regular studio, and Spector had heard the music and asked Perry Botkin jr, the session’s producer, who had written it. Having been told that Botkin and Nilsson had collaborated on it, Spector decided that this was a talent worth investigating.

Nilsson and Spector began collaborating, although the collaboration seems to have involved Nilsson writing the songs and Spector adding his name to them. A couple of the songs were recorded by the Ronettes, although they weren’t released until many years later, but it was already apparent that Nilsson was not only a unique talent but one who would have difficulty taking pop music entirely seriously — one of the songs, Here I Sit, was a typical doom-laden Spector ballad, and started “Here I sit, broken hearted/Fell in love but now we’ve parted/Couldn’t read the writing on the wall”. Any similarity to the famous graffito on the walls of pay toilets “Here I sit, broken hearted/Paid a dime and only farted” was entirely intentional.

But one song, about a couple making love for the first time, seemed perfect for Spector’s Spoonful knock-off. The song was apparently inspired by the Beach Boys (and the chorus melody bears a slight resemblance to California Girls) but the shuffle beat on which the backing was based also bore more than a little resemblance to the Lovin’ Spoonful’s hit Do You Believe In Magic? It also had some slightly risque moments, of course — “If love’s what she wants then I’m going to give her some”, “I feel like I’m sitting on dynamite” — but compared to Here I Sit it seemed entirely innocent.

Spector worked with the MFQ for many weeks to get the song sounding right, before taking it into the studio and recording it with an arrangement by Jack Nitzsche that split the difference between the Lovin’ Spoonful’s folky whimsicality and Spector’s own huge wall of sound. The end result. with a vocal from Henry Diltz sounding very like Spoonful guitarist Zal Yanovsky, had nothing to do with the twelve-string jangle that had become known as the folk-rock sound, but was a perfect example of the burgeoning genre of sunshine pop. The main folk-rock influence came in the steel guitar part — otherwise, this was pure pop all the way, with sleighbells and glockenspiel rather than twelve-strings and harmonica.

Brian Wilson attended the final session and was so impressed that six years later he would still play the song to anyone who would listen, from memory.

But the reason he had to play it from memory is that what was meant to be MFQ’s big break didn’t quite turn out that way. While the track was meant to be the new line-up’s debut single, and presumably to be as big a hit as everything Spector produced at that time, but it didn’t get an official release until 1976.

Spector had decided, instead, to use the track as the theme for The Big TNT Show, a concert film for which he was the musical director and associate producer (and which featured the Lovin’ Spoonful, but not MFQ). And while producing The Big TNT Show, he had what amounted to a musical revelation. Even though most of that film had been folk or folk-rock, one of the acts was utterly different from the late-1965 chart norm, but even though they were has-beens who’d only had a few minor hits a few years earlier, their singer was so fantastic, and had such a stage presence, that she was clearly the highlight of the show.

Phil Spector didn’t care about MFQ any more — now he was only interested in Ike and Tina Turner…

This Could Be The Night

Composer: Harry Nilsson and Phil Spector

Line-up: Henry Diltz (vocals, banjo), Cyrus Faryar (vocals, guitar), Chip Douglas (vocals, bass), Jerry Yester (vocals, guitar) and Eddie Hoh (drums) were all band members, and presumably on the record, although only Diltz is individually audible as a vocalist. The backing track is by Wrecking Crew members, but without the session sheets being publicly available it is difficult to say which ones.

Original release: Phil Spector Wall of Sound, Vol. 6: Rare Masters, Vol. 2 Various Artists album, Phil Spector International Records, SUPER 2307 009

Currently available on: The Essential Phil Spector, Legacy Recordings CD

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