Jason Barnard speaks to Tom Hartman of The Aerovons
The Aerovons, often know as “the American Beatles”, bucked the trend of the British invasion and sought inspiration from England, then the creative hub of the music industry. Their leader and singer Tom Hartman wrote, and subsequently produced and recorded an album’s worth of material at Abbey Road while just 17 in 1969.
Their Parlophone single “World of You” rightly gained cult status over the years and has subsequently recognised as one of the best of the era. Sadly band difficulties halted their progress. However in 2003 RPM finally released the their album “Resurrection” to universal acclaim with Rolling Stone calling it a “stunning album of bulls-eye Beatles pop… the Aerovons never got to be stars. Now they get to be heard.” Tom is making plans to release new material and after hearing “Stopped!” on the Strange Brew Podcast” we are extremely excited!
You’re known to have been a bit of child prodigy. When and at what age did you form the Aerovons?
I was about 14. I had moved back to St.Louis from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. where I had attended 8th grade, and had discovered a local band there named “The Aerovons.” They were older guys than myself, about 18, and they were just terrific. Great singers, very professional. I made friends with the lead guitarist and when I moved back to St. Louis found out they had broken up, so I asked him if he minded if I started my own “Aerovons” in St. Louis, which he said was fine with him.
What was the inspiration for the band’s name?
My friend in that band, Chuck Kirkpatrick, said that in fact they had gotten the name from a band in New York, who had made it up after seeing the name “Aerovox” on a speaker component made at the time!
What was music/high school scene in the Mid-West in the mid-sixties?
It was everything. It was the only way a band could learn to play in front of people, and it was the only way kids could see bands live. So all the high school dances, unlike today where they just hire D.J.s, had live bands. We played every weekend. We would travel all over St. Louis, out in the far reaches of the county to play little schools, and in the city for the bigger schools.
The charts were dominated by the Beatles/British invasion. Was this your inspiration for starting a band?
When I was very young and first learning guitar I had a friend in elementary school who also played. When we would play together after school, the SOUND of two guitars playing together was just so amazing to me that I wanted to get a band from early on, even before The Beatles. Though we were greatly influenced by The Beatles, we also liked a lot of other people, so though we were kind of known for doing Beatles very well, we also were the first band in St. Louis to play “My Generation” by The Who, and we also enjoyed offbeat stuff like “Talk Talk” by The Music Machine,” and all manner of melodic pop like “Friday On My Mind” by The Easybeats. “I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night” by the Electric Prunes was one of our favorites as well. Then we would switch over and do soul stuff like “Midnight Hour.”
We were pretty versatile. Some of my favorite stuff to play was the Paul Revere and The Raiders songs like “Hungry” and “Kicks” though, which we did very well, as well as some of our own arrangements of songs like The Kinks “Till The End of the Day,” which we often opened with.
We were a much louder and more up tempo group than you would ever guess from our album;)
What was the band’s line-up?
The Aerovons went through many members, but it was always 3 guitars and drums, with all the guitar players singing as well. The longest lasting member of the band was Bob Frank, who unfortunately had to leave just before we went to England, which is why there are only 3 people on the album.
How did you make the leap from playing covers to writing your own material?
My Mother told us to 😉 Basically once we had played all over St. Louis for a couple years there wasn’t much else to do. She was booking us and managing us and basically came to us one day and said “It seems like the next step is for you to write something of your own, and we’ll try to find the money to record a demo of it.” So it wasn’t inspiration, it was just kind of the next logical step.
Starting with “World of You”?
Yes, “World of You” was the first song I wrote. It was written on an old piano that a friend gave us that somehow got into the basement where the Aerovons practiced in St Louis. I just remember fiddling around with it. It was nice to have a piano around. I played and taken piano lessons as a kid and so I remember hacking about with some chords. I just fiddled around until I got that opening piano riff going. The melody just kind of came. I pictured how strange and wonderful it is to fall in love and meet somebody and that when you do that your whole world changes and everything is new. It’s exciting but a little scary. It’s a journey. That’s what I think the song was really about, what I was trying to say in it.
Can you tell me about your trips to London 1968?
Well they were something. It was an incredible time to be there. Carnaby Street, Swinging London, just amazing. We were hearing music over there we had never heard, seeing things we had only seen on TV, etc. I loved it.
Was this through Capitol and was it your idea? I’ve read that you saw Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney and Michael Caine.
Someone at Capitol who heard our demo of “World of You” gave us the name of a man to see at EMI, because we told him that going to England was our dream. And yes we met Paul and Hendrix at Speakeasy. Later we saw Paul a lot at the studio.
What was it like meeting the Beatles? Did you get to speak much to them?
It’s probably everything you would imagine it to be. Only you are twice as nervous as you even picture yourself being!
The most wonderful thing about meeting them was finding out how down to earth they were. I spoke with Paul and George quite a bit, and George was surprisingly loose and funny. Way different than the kind of stern image he had later on. But it was one of the biggest moments in my life. John even loaned me a guitar cable! Paul was very polite, and kind of, I don’t know, “regal” to me. I met him first at Speakeasy club in London, then later again a couple of times at the studio. He was also pretty funny. He walked out of the studio one day and saw me sitting on a couch, our eyes met, and he said “Hello.” Next time he came out…he looked…and pointed his finger at us….”Not going to say HELLO this time!” and kept walking. Beatles humor. We were all laughing.
Did you meet any other bands on the scene?
Peter Noone at the EMI offices, B.B. King at the EMI offices, and most important to me, The Hollies. They were really nice and Tony Hicks took me with them to a pub down the street from Abbey Road. It was quite an experience sitting at the table with the Hollies. Amazing.
You went back to the States to write material before going back to Abbey Road to record in March 1969. Can you tell me about the recording of your material – how long did it take?
We had a couple little amateur tape recorders in our basement. We set up in a little room and wrote and recorded the songs you hear on the album all Winter, before coming to England in March of 69 to record. It was great, creative time.
We did a demo version of “World of You” at St Louis in a little studio that was quite different to the way it came out on the EMI album. It was very dreamy and soft. It was literally my first time in a studio so I was a nervous wreck. I was very timid in the way I sang it, and we played it very softly and dreamy.
By the time we got to England it wasn’t the first track we recorded – a few tracks in. We had already got a rhythm, a vibe and a feel going for how things were going to sound. So when it came time to do “World of You”, when I played the track, since the piano starts the song, I just played it a little faster. It was played a little harder by the whole band. We listened to the track back. We all realised it was quite different to the demo, but we liked it! So when I went to sing it we heard the whole thing back and said “Yeah, this is way better than the other approach.”
Did you sign a record deal with EMI/Parlophone at that point?
Yes, “World of You” is near and dear to my heart because it’s the song that got us signed. When we brought that demo from St Louis to EMI they really liked it. They were impressed that we were from the US and wanted to come over to England. As they told us “All of our groups want to go over to the US and get out of here and you want to come to us.” They thought that was charming and we thought that they we were crazy. We didn’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to know why anyone wouldn’t want to come where The Beatles had recorded all their records.
Did you get to see the Fab Four play at Abbey Road?
We saw them singing “Old Brown Shoe” and I stood outside Studio 3 while John and Paul recorded “Ballad of John & Yoko.” I heard them working on “Sexy Sadie” on one of the earlier trips there, and I actually got to see them all recording “Yer Blues,” from just about 3 feet away, out in the hallway looking through the glass into the little room where they did that. Pretty stunning.
Which studio did you use and did you get to borrow any instruments?
We mainly used to Studio 2 but “With Her” was done in Studio 3. We used The Beatles electric piano on “She’s Not Dead.” Also borrowed one of their tambourines for a track.
Did you get any insights into their recording techniques/tricks?
Once I played a piano part which I wanted to sound “Beatle-y” and on playback when it didn’t, Geoff Emerick (“Sgt Peppers, Revolver, etc) said… “OK, let’s try it again…but this time play much harder and louder.” It worked. He added compression to the piano and the louder playing triggered the compression so that the piano was more like “Lady Madonna.” So that was the first trick we learned!
You were given great freedom to produce. Who engineered and assisted the sessions?
Alan Parsons was our main assistant, he was brilliant, and still is. I’m fortunate to still be in touch with him. Geoff Emerick and Jeff Jarratt also engineered.
There is clearly a strong Beatles influence but there are rumours that John and Paul heard your tracks and this influenced them! “Across the Universe” and “Resurrection” seem to share a similar sound, as well as “Oh, Darling” compared with “Say Georgia” – is this true?
No that isn’t true. We actually heard that track before recording “Resurrection” and I unfortunately just remembered a bit too much of it when I wrote “Resurrection.” It truly was unintentional, as I only heard their song once, literally. Ah youth!
After recording, the band started to fracture…
The band was already short one member when we did the album. So when we got back, our drummer Mike, unfortunately, had some personal problems that hit him, literally, at the airport when we came back. So that took him out of the group while he sorted things out, and left only the bass player and myself. EMI didn’t want to go forward with no group, and offered to have me come back to England and be kind of a young “producer” on staff. I stupidly didn’t do it.
“World of You” got released on Parlophone in September 1969. Did it get released in the States as well as the UK?
No just a UK release. BBC didn’t play it long. To be fair, it was never supposed to be a single, I knew when we did it that this was just a cool piece of music that would be on the album. Not exactly danceable!
What did you and the band members do afterwards?
I went to LA and got a contract with Mike Post Productions, who was signed to Bell Records. He had about ten people signed. He did a single called “Sunshine Woman” with me. The song was never really meant by me to be SUNG by me, I just thought it was a cool song and maybe I could find someone to do it. I ended up doing it though because Mike felt it had potential for a Summer single. The “B” side was actually more popular, called “A Little More.”
Have you been back to the UK since the Sixties?
Never got to go back, no. Would love to someday. One of my daughters, Lea, is a big Beatles fan, and would love see it all. I think it might be kind of sad for me personally…it was such a magic time, and I guess it would be a little like visiting a house that you grew up in, with new people living there now.
Were you aware of the legend building around the band and “World Of You” leading to the release of the sessions by RPM as “Resurrection” in 2003?
Not at all. I got a phone call from RPM in 2003 and they told me about it, and asked if I had any objections to them approaching EMI to get permission to release it. I was thrilled really.
Resurrection got great reviews after its release. How did this feel given the length of time that had passed?
Oh I’ve been really happy that so many people like it. I usually apologize to them and tell them I wish I had it all to do again, I’d make the album much better, but…it is what it is. I’m really touched that people respond to it. I get emails from all over the world, and mostly from young people who just heard it.
Are there any more Aerovons tracks in the vaults?
Not from the original band, but as soon as I got back home, after the group split, I began writing again on my own.
I had one track in particular called “Stopped!” that I really liked. It was written about a year after I got back from England. I never got the chance to record it. It kind of got stuck in my mind for years and years. Once I decided to do the new project, that I’m doing, it was the first song I recorded for it. I looked forward to the chance to finally hear it. I think it came out well.
On your MySpace page you say that The Aerovons evolved into Secrets, and have at least 8 albums of unreleased material. When where they recorded and can you tell me more about Secrets?
This is a touchy subject but I really need to clear this up. I don’t have a MySpace page, and the page you are speaking of was started by ex drummer Mike Lombardo. Mike and Billy went on to form a band called Secrets, which had nothing to do with The Aerovons whatsoever. There was no evolving whatsoever. I had nothing to do with any of that. There is also some really bad information on that page unfortunately spawned by some resentment, which is unfortunate. The only official site for The Aerovons is www.aerovons.com. So anything you hear anywhere else is not coming from me. None of The Secrets songs have anything to do with me or The Aerovons.
It would be like Ringo leaving The Beatles and calling his new releases “The Beatles.” What happens is, when you start a band, and get established like we were locally in St. Louis, when you need a new member or two, you state from the beginning “This is my band” and try to state as clearly as possible that though you are not going to be a “dictator” in any kind of unreasonable sense, it IS indeed your band, and the final word on direction will always be your decision. The people joining the band always say “Hey cool, that’s fine,” but as time goes by, some of them want to have equal say and they want you to do their songs, etc, etc, and all of a sudden it isn’t your vision anymore. So problems start up, and later on when the band is no more you start hearing that you were “impossible” and that you were “running the show” etc.
Well of course you were running the show. It was your band for heaven’s sake. The key here is that anyone was always free to go start their own band, like I did. But in my group I wanted to complete control, just like directors want control over their films. It certainly seemed to work out well for Brian Wilson, for instance.
What are your favourite tracks that you’ve written and why?
Probably “World of You” and “With Her” on that album. I like “Everything’s Alright” too and “The Years.” But my favorite music that I’ve done is off the new project I’m doing. It really is. They are songs that I am really happy with. The project has been going on forever, because I write music for commercials and clients as a living nowadays, and it’s hard to find time to do a personal project. I wouldn’t do one unless it had good songs, and sounded great. Those two things mean LOTS of time. And I’ve taken it. But when I’m done I know it will be the stuff I’m most proud of. I’m older now and have a lot more production experience, and I think I am better at self editing….cutting out things that are OK, but not really super good. Back then I wasn’t. We were happy just to write a complete song 😉
How much do you still write and record, what are your future plans?
I do a lot of TV commercials and private projects where someone hires me to write or produce something of theirs, and of course as I mentioned I’m doing this EP or LP whatever it turns out to be. I hope to get this out actually pretty soon now….meaning in the next six months or less.
Will your new material – including “Stopped!” – share a similar sound to the original Aerovons material?
I think the sound is different but the thread is that I’m making it, so I’m sure if you played both albums back to back, you’d hear a thread. But the sound is much more electric. I want to mention one song in particular on the record called “Swinging London” which is all about our adventure back then. I think that one sounds a bit more like the first album.
Fans of the Aerovons and Tom Hartman can find out more at http://aerovons.com/
The Strange Brew’s Adopted Brits podcast featuring Tom exclusively introducing the classic “World of You” as well as his brilliant new track “Stopped!” is available here:
Many thanks to Tom for his help and support with this feature.
Copyright © Jason Barnard and Tom Hartman, 2011, All Rights Reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without the permission of the authors.