JOHN SEBASTIAN'S WELCOME BACK
mid-1970s, it looked
as though John Sebastian's association with Warner Brothers might be
coming to an end. The singer-songwriter had done four albums for the
label's Reprise subsidiary (all reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice
Music), the last of which had failed to make the charts altogether.
Sebastian had started to ask whether it might be possible to get a
release from his contract. An unexpected #1 hit single changed all of
companies sometimes have to react very quickly to events as they
happen," explains John today. "In the case of 'Welcome Back,' they had
an artist they had pretty much given up on. [They had] pretty much
figured that this guy is stylistically too far from what we're gonna be
about now in our new modern Warner Brothers-ness to really accommodate
this guy. Just to stay alive while I'm waiting for any opportunity, I'm
doing any work that comes to me, a television show that had a very
logical theme to it being one of them. Being a dyslexic student who was
often in those slow learner groups, I felt a camaraderie, and it made
it easier to write the song"—that song being "Welcome Back," used as
the theme to the hit program Welcome
"The television show happens, six months go by, and
all of a sudden everybody wants this song," continues Sebastian. "Then
Warner Brothers had to suddenly go, 'Our biggest song the company has
this year is this song where we have pretty much been ignoring this
guy. So quickly, we have to get some idea on how to make a record.'
Because as much as I'd been trying to get in the studio with a couple
tunes, I had not been getting the green light from Warner Brothers.
I've even been getting messages from some of the people over there that
I could leave. I said, 'Let's work something out. Let me give back part
of my advance,' and I'd go be a big frog in a smaller pond or
something. I've told the joke many times, that walking into Warner
Brothers and seeing the life-size poster of Alice Cooper over the
secretary's desk reminded me that stuff moves real fast, Sebastian!
Sometimes you're way behind it."
Warner Brothers determined, however, that a
different, longer version of the theme should be released as a single.
As John tells it, "They decided, well, Steve Barri has had a television
hit song recently. Let's pair him up with Sebastian, who's had a
television hit song lately.'" Barri had long been a successful pop-rock
songwriter (often in collaboration with P.F. Sloan in the mid-1960s)
and producer, in which capacity he oversaw hits for the Grass Roots. He
wasn't the kind of producer with whom Sebastian usually worked, those
duties usually falling to Erik Jacobsen and Paul Rothchild, both of
whom had come out of the same folk and folk-rock scene that John had.
The single version of "Welcome Back," however, couldn't have been more
commercially successful, going all the way to #1 in the spring of 1976.
The single version of "Welcome Back" isn't much
different than the demo used on the television show, but it's not
exactly the same. The demo, elaborates Sebastian, "lasted about a
minute and three quarters. So as soon as the song became viable to be a
single on the radio, that was the point at which people were asking for
another version. Knowing that half of what makes a magic record is the
way it was recorded, and going back doesn't necessarily get you what
you want, I simply spliced another verse of the version that I already
had into the shorter version, adding a space for a harmonica break. The
other technical detail is that after I made the cut, then I used the
guitar [riff] kind of sequentially; that is, I re-recorded that part so
that it would comment and always be changing, rather than doing the
same thing, where'd you be able to tell that you were listening to two
recordings of the same verse."
With the popularity of "Welcome Back," Warner
Brothers, which only recently had seemed uninterested in keeping
Sebastian on the label, now quickly wanted to get an album released.
While John remains fond of some of the songs on the Welcome Back LP, he feels the
record could have benefited from more time in the studio and a more
fully thought-out approach. "What we could attribute Steve Barri with
was knowing a good ensemble," he observes. "He put together a very nice
group in [drummer Jeff] Porcaro, [bassist David] Hungate, [arp and
marimba player Michael] Omartian, and so on. It just didn't have that
much to do with me. Given my own time, I've very often been able to
come up with good ideas and good combinations of players. These were
great players; I relished the opportunity to play with Jeff Porcaro and
David Hungate. But I probably would have set its mood a little
differently. I was starting to get friendly again with [Lovin' Spoonful
guitarist] Zal Yanovsky. You could speculate that there might have been
a little more Yanovsky-Sebastian interactivity there, which of course
would have been a good idea."
Asked which were his favorite songs on Welcome Back, Sebastian responds,
"'I Needed Her Most When I Told Her To Go' is still a tune that I like,
but the good version hasn't been done yet. I think there's a couple of
tunes on that album that had that. 'You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine'
has something to it that it needs, you know, Buck Owens and [Owens's
longtime guitarist] Don Rich or something. Also I still have hope for
'A Song a Day in Nashville.' It's odd because it isn't exactly a song
for a country and western guy now. It's like [the Lovin' Spoonful hit]
'Nashville Cats' or a couple of tunes that I've written as an outsider
fan of country music." The song, with Jeff "Skunk" Baxter (who put in
stints with both Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers in the 1970s) on
pedal steel, grew out of an actual week-long trip John had recently
taken to Nashville specifically to write songs, as he wanted to be in
"a town where music is a buzz, and music is being played. It was also a
less self-conscious scene than the Los Angeles rock and roll scene."
Sebastian had made a couple of ventures into reggae
and Caribbean music on his previous albums, and did so again with "One
Step Forward, Two Steps Back," which John re-recorded with the J Band
on his 1999 album Chasin' Gus' Ghost.
"That's a tune that my cousin John Charles Lewis wrote during the
calypso era [around the beginning of the 1960s]," says Sebastian. "I
think my main contribution was organizing, putting little licks in, and
more or less being an arranger for that tune. He's also the composer of
'Rooty-Toot,'" which John had included on his 1971 album Cheapo Cheapo Productions Presents Real
Live. Filling out the LP were a couple of remakes of songs the
Lovin' Spoonful had recorded, "Didn't Wanna Have to Do It" and "Warm
Despite the inclusion of a chart-topping 45, the Welcome Back album wasn't a big
hit, peaking at #79. Neither was the follow-up single to "Welcome
Back," "Hideaway" (also included on the LP), which only got to #95.
"The [promotional] effort on both the album and single were absolutely
shameful," says Sebastian. "It really was like, 'Not only will we be
really nice after we've ignored you, but then we'll go right back to
ignoring you immediately right after we were making nice.' You could
chalk it up to not so much as 'let's not promote this' as the energy
going into 'hey, let's promote that.'" As for "Hideaway, "We'll never
know what that silly little tune might have done. I don't consider it a
magnum opus. But it was catchy, and it was a hit in Germany, for
example"—in a German-sung cover that, he laughs, changed a lyric to
"we're coming in jeans, and hanging out in Saint-Tropez."
Sebastian and Warner Brothers did part ways after Welcome Back, ending a relationship
that had endured from the beginning of the singer-songwriter era to the
dawn of punk. "My original feeling of confidence in Warner Brothers
came very much from [executive] Mo Ostin, and the more that he was
involved, the better these projects [were], the more soul they had,"
feels John. "You know, 'pull an album project away from MGM and do it
right. Do an ambitious album that has a 15-minute side to it.' Really,
those were all done with Mo Ostin's encouragement, and when I didn't
have his ear, things at Warner Brothers were much more difficult."
-- Richie Unterberger
unless otherwise specified.
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