by Steven Goss
For many, Alan O’Day’s work as a singer, songwriter and musician could be summarized in two words: Undercover Angel. It makes sense, not only was it a number one hit in 1977, but it’s also the kind of song that once you hear it, it’s not easy to forget. What many people may not know is that before O’Day struck gold with Appetizers, the album featuring Undercover Angel, he released two first-rate pop albums: Songs By Alan O'Day and Caress Me Pretty Music.
Songs By Alan O’Day is not so much forgotten as unknown. It’s a “for promotional use only” album issued by The Edwin H. Morris Company, O’Day’s publishing firm, and circulated around music industry to publicize his songwriting. Nearly all of the songs on this album are more or less demos O’Day recorded in his Los Angeles apartment, where he had assembled a small studio consisting of little more than a four-track recorder and mixer he purchased with an advance from his publishers. The record is an intimate portrayal of O’Day, who sings and plays most of the songs by himself, but it’s not the typical “singer-at-piano” type affair. O’Day adds rich layers of guitar, bass, drums and electronic effects to give the demos a robust, if not lo-fi, pop sound. The combination of O’Day’s bedroom-studio production technique and his monster hook sensibilities makes this album a lost gem worth digging for.
When you hear this album, you get the sense you’ve been given access to a secret O’Day that has asked you personally not to tell anyone else. It’s surprising that what could’ve been a lackluster compilation of one-off demos, became a strikingly personal collection of pop songs. Of course it makes complete sense to O’Day, who considers the album as, “closer to me than any of the other records. It documents me at the start of my career, when I was highly motivated and didn't have any number ones. This is not to say that I was struggling, but I was motivated and working really hard. I was deeply involved in my craft and enjoying it."
It’s with this pre-freshman effort that O'Day establishes himself as a pop rock singer with a soulful bluesy sound. This may seem conflicted, but O’Day acknowledges that he was as much inspired by The Beatles as he was the great blues musicians John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williams, Little Jr. Parker, and Bobby "Blue" Bland. Songs By Alan O’Day is a mixed bag of pop rock and soul with hints of psych and funk to keep things even more exciting.
The song, Easy Evil, with its minimal production and soulful harmonies, is the best example of the album’s lo-fi pop sound. When you hear it, you understand why its sort of like O’Day’s Yesterday, as a lot of artists recorded versions of it. The best cover is Dusty Springfield’s, although John Kay’s also rocks hard. Interestingly enough, O'Day made an appearance on Kay’s rendition, playing piano and, as he describes it, adding “that sucky effected drum part."
As a side note, Springfield and Kay weren’t the only artists enamored by O’Day’s songwriting. Read down the track list* for this album and you realize a lot of pop songs at the start of the seventies were truly songs by Alan O'Day. Loads of top 40 artists drank from O’Day’s well, some going back more than once. (I’m looking at you Bobby Sherman and Mark Lindsey.) By O’Day’s estimate, there were only 500 to 1000 copies of this album released, so unless you discover an original somewhere, the only way your going to experience this album is if you make an iTunes mix of other artists performing the songs off this record.
It also worth noting that this album is the first glimpse into what would become O'Day's penchant for writing songs from the perspective of the lonely sex-hungry man-child with Do Me Wrong, But Do Me. It's no Undercover Angel, but I bet if O’Day had recorded it outside of his apartment studio, it could've been. Listen to Chris Christman's cover to get a sense of the songs’ potential as a sultry disco grinder. That said, the song sits perfectly on this album as O'Day's bedroom production deliciously makes it as sexy as a Kraftwerk single. It’s just him, his piano and a metronome-sounding drumbeat. It will make you desperately want to buy a whole O’Day album of minimal electronic disco music.
There are lots of standout tracks on this album, each full of sticky pop soul goodness. There are sad little songs that build into swirling epics filled with plush harmonies, such as O’Day’s response to Nilsson’s One, Everybody Is An Only Child. The Good Guy Gets The Girl is a funky rocker that amply demonstrates O'Day's ability to write songs that stick in your head and don’t leave. Day Becomes Night is O'Day at his most power poppiest. His singing is heavy and soulful, the choruses reach out and grab you and the harmonies are lush. It's the type of tune David Cassidy should've had a hit with. Finally, Are You Old Enough is exemplary of the album’s eclectic sound, it could be best described as a song Stevie Wonder may’ve written for Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall album. All in all, it’s a wonderful record, and it only hints at the pop soul psych tour de force he’d follow up with.
* Provided is the Songs By Alan O’Day track list for anyone who wants to make a mix of other artists performing the songs from the album. Side One: Flashback, Caress Me Pretty Music, Everybody Is An Only Child, The Drum, The Good Guy Always Gets The Girl, Spin Away, Are You Old Enough. Side Two: Easy Evil, Good Book, Gifts, Do Me Wrong, But Do Me, Day Becomes Night, American Family, Get It Off, Get It On.
Special thanks to Alan O’Day for agreeing to be interviewed for this article.