Some time in 2010, I was scouring a record shop in Soho, London. Disappointed that I hadn’t found a great deal to get excited about to be honest. A Brazilian 70s re-issue I was looking for perhaps. As I did a final scan of the racks, the music playing in the shop changed from a nice (but generic) jazzy house to something very different. A kind of orchestrated folk/rock with a trippy dark undertone, certainly a late 60s sound with a deep knowing country soul vocal. The playing was tight, funky and controlled and the sound was part David Axelrod, part Glen Campbell. These songs had a spooky Jimmy Webb quality to them and felt so familiar. I gravitated towards the counter to ask the staff what was playing. “what’s this?” I asked. “Erm… it’s this…” And thus began my love affair with U.F.O. At the time I never expected to play this album so much and recommended it so often.
Reissued that year by Light In The Attic Records, the story of Jim Sullivan unfolded as I read the sleeve notes. Born in rural Nebraska, Sullivan moved to LA in the mid 60s. A well known face on the LA music scene but always on the edge of fame, playing regular packed local shows at The Raft in Malibu, hanging with superstar actors ( Harry Dean Stanton was a friend and fan) but never hitting the big time. Recorded in 1969, this first album was funded by a friend who drafted in Wrecking Crew session giants, Earl Palmer (drums), Don Randi (keyboards) and bassist Jimmy Bond who also doubled up as arranger on U.F.O. These cats were fresh from sessions with The Beach Boys and Simon & Garfunkel. LA’s top players no less. Sullivan’s first release on Monnie Records disappeared without a trace and he continued to do shows and record until 1975 when broke, disillusioned and alcohol taking a grip, he set off for Nashville to hopefully re-fire his career and provide for his family. He never made it. Somewhere in the desert. Jim Sullivan disappeared . A body was never found. The only clues were an untouched motel room, a dusty abandoned VW Beetle, some 26 miles from the said motel.Locked up, engine dead, containing Jim’s guitar, his wallet, some reel to reel tapes, cassettes, Jim’s LPs and a silver appointment book .One of rock music’s strangest stories, possibly the weirdest. Some theorists suggest he got on the wrong side of a family with mafia connections, others say he was abducted by aliens. Whatever happened, we’ll probably never know the truth, but the story shimmers with dark mystery and the music here is haunting and beautiful.
Opening song Jerome sings of a mystery town in California where outcasts, artists and hippies escaped from the city. A pretty, picked acoustic folk guitar emerges from an oboe lined cello intro and Earl Palmer’s effortless sounding tom rumble and snare crack drives us to Sullivan’s opening line. “And I found a magic man . . . . .I poured a pound of magic in . . . ” There’s heartbreak in that voice. A weather weary blues with untold stories of disappointment and vanished opportunities. It’s compelling. Plain As Your Eyes Can See sounds lighter until that voice, once more echoes with an unmovable sadness yet again. Roll Back The Time and Whistle Stop are maybe more Dylanesque in style, the latter riding across a swirling hammond bed while the sublime Rosey entrances with it’s echoing pizzicato stabs and dark spacey strings framing Palmer’s funky drum shuffle, til once again, it’s Sullivan’s aching lovelorn voice carrying us home. Title song U.F.O. uplifts us into the desert sky while we’re told of a ” ticket for a front row seat, checkin out the show, with a glassy eye, looking at the sun dancing through the sky, did he come, by a U.F.O? ” Once again the orchestration is lush and uplifting, the taught, effortlessss rhythm section tethers us from floating away.
It’s a magical journey with an aching heart, storm clouds and spaceships. Desert skies and broken dreams.
I truly love this album , It’s stayed with me and gets more and more intriguing with Sullivan’s untold truth constantly adding layers to the music. So Natural laments with the strangely prophetic “It’s my time to go , I just want the wind to blow…. my ashes until they’re completely , outta sight ” while Johnny juxtaposes bluesy rhythms with Jean-Claude Vannier style strings and the melodic call “Johnny come down , come down from the sky” Finally the whimsical sign-off number Sandman lays down a west coast Paul McCartney doing Her Majesty but actually completing the song.
Track this record down and let it’s songs haunt your daydreams. The ghost of Jim Sullivan will become your favourite spook in no time