Listen to this track by former The Merry-Go-Round multi-instrumentalist, and once-hailed ‘one man Beatles’ singer-songwriter Emitt Rhodes. It’s the optimistic and contemplative “You Must Have”, the closing track to one of rock’s unlawfully buried treasures, the self-titled Emitt Rhodes, from 1970.
Emitt Rhodes’ debut was a record that was hailed as ‘best album of the decade’ by many fans and critics when it hit Billboard’s top forty that year, reaching a very respectable #29. Sadly for Rhodes, the decade had only just begun and played out in a rather underwhelming way for him as a solo artist after this initial success.
The song itself is typical of the whole record; full of melodic sunshine with a hint of melancholic cloud, and rife with plenty of optimism and magic left over from the late 1960s. Rhodes had established himself in that earlier period with the Beatlesque band The Merry Go-Round, an L.A based band that one could have sworn was from Merseyside. When the band folded in 1969, and when recordings for an album called The American Dream were shelved by label A&M, Rhodes took to the garage to record on his own. The resulting album, including this gem of a track, was astounding.
This song, and others on his record, captured a pure pop feel and a steady hand in knowing how to structure a song effectively. In many ways, his example was the prototype model for indie musicians today, working outside of traditional studios as he was. Even today, self-recording is still a hard thing to pull off, because the results are still largely dependent on a single factor; the ability to write songs, play them well, and capture some semblence of magic while doing it.
Twenty-year old Rhodes did it on a four track recorder in his parents’ garage, and made it sound easy.
Despite the album’s humble origins, Rhodes was signed to a label – ABC/Dunhill – who signed him to a six album deal. Great, right? Not really. Rhodes’ contract tied him to a commitment of two albums a year over three years. They paid him a paltry $5000 for the debut, which paid for the equipment to record the second record, due six months later. It was an impossible schedule, and Rhodes couldn’t meet it. What solo artist recording albums without a band, and who cared about quality could?
The follow-up LP, Mirror, sailed by the deadline, resulting in a lawsuit and the threat of withheld royalties. Needless to say, it didn’t get much label support, and therefore fewer sales. The legal pressures his label put on him, and the continued lack of promotional support for his output hung over Rhodes’ head until the end of his professional recording career. The appropriately titled third and final album Farewell to Paradise didn’t chart at all.
Disillusioned, Emitt Rhodes stopped releasing albums at the seasoned age of 24.
Major labels. Sheesh
Still, “You Must Have” is a standout track. This is a song about balance, and keeping perspective, strengthened by an aural palette of bright colours and shades of grey held in perfect tension. It’s one of those songs that you wish would keep on going. Through the frustrations of being this talented and being effectively scuppered by “the money” represented by his label, it seemed that Rhodes was forced to take his own advice as it is written so delicately and profoundly in this song, taken from an album that should have been a smash and the start of a decades long career as a professional recording artist.
Emitt Rhodes continued his career as an engineer for Elektra/Asylum, and all the while kept writing and recording on his own, although releasing nothing more to date. I weep to think about what Emitt Rhodes could have done, had he been born thirty years later, and putting out records in this era of the laptop, the Internet, online marketing, and without the burden of major label douchebaggery. Although, Rhodes is still around, running his own studio with many of the instruments used on this track and others still around, too. You never know what might happen, should Emitt Rhodes discover Soundcloud and CD Baby …
To read more about his history, check out the official Emitt Rhodes site.
Also, for the full range of music by this underappreciated artist, consider investing in The Emitt Rhodes Recordings (1969 – 1973).
[UPDATE, May 17, 2012 – Here’s an article about Emitt Rhodes, including a new interview with Emitt Rhodes. This piece, among other things, talks about some new music we can expect to see from him. Exciting!]
[UPDATE, November 12, 2015 – Emitt Rhodes is putting out a new album! Entitled Rainbow Ends, it will be his first album in 43 years. Take a read of this article from The Wall Street Journal for more information, including a preview of a new single “Dog On A Chain”.]