Saturday, 6 July 2013

The Aerovons - Record Collector Magazine No.282 - Feb 2003

In February 2003, David Wells wrote an article about the Aerovons for Record Collector magazine. At that point in time only a handful of collectors had heard of them and the story seemed quite far fetched, leaving many of us to think that it might be another RC hoax. Not long after, RPM released "Ressurection" on CD and for the first time, the Aerovons album was officially released and we were all knocked back by this Beatlesque nuggett. Here is the original magazine article for your delight and delectation...

It's widely acknowledge by genre buffs that EMI's abbey Road recording studios were one of the key constituents in the shaping of the British psychedelic pop sound, hosting classic productions from the Beatles, the Pink Floyd, Donovan, the Hollies, the Pretty Things and a swathe of equally essential peers.

But despite its clout within the industry, Abbey Road was also responsible for an unfeasibly large number of top-drawer psych-era projects that inexplicably failed to see the light of day. The second Simon Dupree & the Big Sound album, Mark Wirtz's semi-legendary Teenage Opera, a host of material from Tim Rice/ Andre Lloyd Webber popsike proteges Tales Of Justine, even a fabulous late-period baroque psych album from post Mandrake Paddle Steamer band the Corn & Seed Merchants -- all these and more were left to gather dust in EMI's bounteous archives.

The Aerovons
Arguably, however, these lost-in-action marvels are all eclipsed by a more recent discovery. An obscure US Beatles obsessed teenage outfit called the Aerovons released a couple of neglected Parlophone singles in 1969 before returning to their St. Louis, Missouri base with tles of their adventures in the bowels of Abbey Road. They left behind an aborted album, of which just a handful of test pressings have survived. This suggests that, remarkably, they may have been the band the Beatles were looking for when they chanced instead upon Badfinger. Following a limited edition vinyl reissue of the album in 2001, this is the Aerovons story, and if it sounds too good to be true --well, that's just the way it is. Assembled by guitarist and singer Tom Hartman in 1966, the Aerovons quickly became a leading local band in their area. Like fellow Anglophiles the Choir and the Nazz, the group were influenced by the Beatles, but also by the Who, the Bee Gees, the Kinks and, in Hartman.s own words, "others who were masters of the hook-laden single".

Having conquered St. Louis, the Aerovons booked a local studio to record a couple of original tunes, including the Beatles soundalike, "World Of You". Within a matter of days, the studio notified them that a representative of Capitol Records (which had a distribution office in the town) had stopped by, and heard the group's demo tape. Would they be interested in going to Los Angeles to audition for Capitol? With the arrogance of youth, Tom Hartman airily replied that he would prefer to go to London and record at the same studio as the Beatles.

Tom Hartman having an illicit strum 
on a Fab Ricky!
Astonishingly enough, Capitol agreed to put the Aerovons in touch with EMI's UK chief, Roy Featherstone. In the autumn of 1968, the group and their manager (actually Tom's mother) duly arrived in England for appointments with not only Featherstone , but with Dick Rowe at Decca -- the man who had famously turned down the Beatles back in 1962.

After receiving a firm offer from Featherstone, the group then called at Rowe's office, where they played their demo of "World Of You". He took the bait, declaring "I'm not going to make the same mistake twice -- I'd be interested in doing this song". However, the Aerovons merely used Rowe's interest as leverage, telling Featherstone that Decca had offered them an advance of several thousand dollars (they hadn't). Not only did EMI agree to match the offer, but they set the group up with passes for the Speakeasy Club (where they secured Paul McCartney's autograph) and threw in a tour of Abbey Road, where the group received some friendly advice from George Harrison and watched the Beatles record "Yer Blues" and "Sexy Sadie". Roy Featherstone then sent them back to St. Louis for the winter to write some new material.

The Abbey Road store room where 
the Aerovons encountered a hoard 
of Beatles gear.
Returning to London in March 1969 with rough demos of about 20 new songs, the Aerovons were initially assigned to Beatles/Pink Floyd soundman Norman Smith, but the group were unhappy with his early input. Tom Hartman took over as producer, ably supported by tape operator Alan Parsons (who also played recorder on the album's epic closing track, "The Children"), with Jeff Jarrett and the vastly experienced Geoff Emerick sharing the role of chief engineer.

With Featherstone's approval, the Aerovons enthusiastically embarked on recording their debut album. "The songs varied from acoustic ballads to full orchestral productions," remembers Hartman. "It was all very Beatles-inspired of course, but we were also inspired by everyone from the Lettermen ("Words From A Song") to Dinah Washington ("Quotes And Photos"). We also did 50s-based things like "Say Georgia", which unfortunately lifted a bit too much from" Oh! Darling", which our engineer had played us one night after the Beatles had left. The similarity was unintentional, but that's what happens when you're avid Beatles fans and writers. Ask Oasis!"

The moment when the Aerovons met 
George Harrison.
Unsurprisingly, the Aerovons' album album was drenched in a typically florid late-60s Abbey Road production: "I had a flair for the dramatic," admits Tom. "After discovering EMI's sound effects library, I loaded the LP down with waves, seagulls and everything else from bagpipes to playground noises. Perhaps, in retrospect, it was a bit overdone! We also sequenced the tracks very close together, so that one song would burst right into the next."

Not everything in the garden was rosy, however. The two single releases ("The Train"/"Song For Jane", released on Parlophone in July 1969, and "World Of You"/"Say Georgia" which appeared two months later) were well received by radio DJs, but failed to find favour with the general public. Both are valued at £30 each, although we've heard of the latter reaching triple figures. Rhythm guitarist Phil Edholm, who had only recently joined the group, was sent home after a personality clash, while the remaining three members were unable to get a work permit to perform in the country. Nevertheless, they did play one gig at Hatchetts, the London nightclub/disco, where they were given a standing ovation.

Why, it's one of the Beatles' Les Pauls:
would you have resisted the urge?
Working in Studio 2, the group were surrounded by examples of the Beatles' omnipresence . "I played the 'We Can Work It Out' pattern on the harmonium that was in the corner, and it sounded just like the record," recalls an awed Hartman. "I'm not kidding -- your hands would actually tremble. The Steinway was also there, and playing 'Lady Madonna' on it was equally disconcerting."

There was even more tangible evidence that, in Hartman's words, "this was truly the room it all came from", as he now reminisces. "We kept our equipment in the same room as the Beatles. It was apparently a storage room, and since their stuff was there, EMI said 'Go ahead and keep it there, just don't bother their stuff'. So, naturally, late at night, we did. We took a load of pictures with us holding their guitars, and me holding the famous 'The Beatles' drumhead. I've got that picture framed!"

The great and the good, side by side 
in drum-head form
Having finished the album, the Aerovons returned to St. Louis to await a release date. It was at this point, how-ever, that the group started to unravel. Drummer Mike Lombardo was rocked by family problems that appeared to send him into a rapid decline: already one member down from Edholm's dismissal, the Aerovons were now a duo -- Hartman and Lombardo's brother Billy on bass.

When EMI discovered that the group would be unable to promote the record, they reacted swiftly: to Hartman's horror and lasting despair, the release was cancelled. Nevertheless, they offered  him an extension of his contract if he agreed to relocate to London. Still only 17 years old and and already homesick, he made  the fateful decision to decline the company's invitation. "Looking back, it might have been the biggest mistake of my life," Tom now admits. "But I like to think not."

Hartman briefly moved out to LA, where he recorded a single for Bell under the aegis of staff producer Mike Post before dicing to go back to his studies. After graduating from the university of Miami, he returned to the music industry, recording commercials and documentaries. He now operates a home studio, recording local bands as well as his own music. But, as the song goes, the teenage dream is hard to beat, and the adventures of the Aerovons at Abbey Road loom large in his personal history. As he now reflects, "it was the thrill of a lifetime."