Classic Review: Jim Sullivan – UFO


UFO was the 1969 debut disc from this LA-based singer songwriter. Sullivan released another similarly unheralded collection in 1972 on the Playboy label. Three years later, Sullivan vanished on his way to a recording session in Goodlettsville, Tennessee .It is tempting to view the record through the prism of these subsequent events. Lyrically it is suffused with a very modish preoccupation with mysticism and space travel (it was recorded after all the year Neil Armstrong landed on the moon).

The music here is in the tradition of what Gram Parsons called ‘Cosmic American’ music. Emerging in the late 60′s as a rock hybrid of folk, blues, country and soul. This frontier was inhabited by ‘space cowboys’ hippy practitioners of an idiosyncratic American experience; steeped in its’ folklore and musical idioms while being narcotic-guzzling denizens of the counterculture.

Sullivan’s ‘space cowboy’ credentials are pretty impeccable; he appeared (uncredited ) in Easy Rider and UFO occupies a similar aesthetic universe of highways and lone troubadours. Listening now, it is startling that a songwriter of his magnitude should have fallen under the radar (an oversight akin to Judee Sill’s similar languishing in obscurity). Equally astonishing is how a record that fuses various strands in late 60′s kaleidoscopic rock should do so with such concision (just 10 tracks and 29 minutes long) and remain undimmed by the passing of time.

UFO welds psych rock’s lysergic explorations to the kind of bucolic back-to-basics Americana that The Band were gaining huge acclaim for with 1968′s Music From the Big Pink. One track, Whistle Stop, apparently inspired by the ‘karmic curse’ of Pandora and The Flying Dutchman, recalls Whiter Shade Of Pale-era Procul Harum. Blue-eyed, solemn Soul.

His earthy delivery keeps things grounded (Gene Clark comes to mind particularly on the jaunty folk-rock of ‘Roll Back the Time) . Another bedrock are the strident, funky grooves of Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew members. The arrangements (by bass player Jimmy Bond) are often peppered with aleatory overdubs such as the cinematic strings which bookend opener Jerome. These give UFO a disquieting, bolted on feel that chafes at the mellow West Coast veneer and it’s apt for Sullivan’s love of the uncanny.

The title track soars with its’ lavish orchestral score, dizzying brass and woodwinds to the fore. If this is MOR then it is of a haunted , rather spectral nature. Indeed, Johnny’s pirouetting strings and protagonist that is ‘flyin’ too high’ suggest a rusticated analogue to Scott Walker’s Plastic Palace People.

Light In The Attic have done a tremendous job of restoring its’ sound considering the original masters have been destroyed and this is is a vinyl transfer. So it’s not as pristine sonically as one would hope but It contains surprisingly little sibilant top end and details such as the luminous solo in ‘Plain As The Eyes Can See’ and the plucked strings on ‘Rosie’ still burst forth. This is an artist who deserves to be salvaged from cult status as UFO’s uniformly excellent song-writing and performances surpass many of rock’s more canonized ‘classics’.

Matthew Lindsay


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