Graded on a Curve:
P.J. Proby,
Three Week Hero

When it comes to bizarre, eccentric, and just flat-out inexplicable rock stars, it’s hard to top P.J. Proby (aka Jett Storm, aka Orville Wood, birth name James Marcus Smith), the wild Houston-born master of vocal histrionics who never made much of a dent in the American pop charts, but was (and still is) a legendary figure in English music circles. I’d heard the name, but I never thought to check Proby out until Ian Hunter, in his Diary of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star, called him, “The ace punk of all time,” adding, “His own worst enemy, so what. P.J. Proby’s the greatest—he’s a fuckin’ pirate in this world of drudge. Wherever you are P.J., the world needs you now.”

Those words were written way back in 1972, but the world still needs P.J. Proby, because if there’s one thing he isn’t, it’s predictable. Over the course his 50-plus-year career Proby has released more outrageous—a word that hardly does his schlock-ridden catalogue justice—songs than perhaps anyone in the history of rock, and he has proven over and over again that there’s nothing he won’t do for a hit, or because he just fucking feels like it.

Proby began his career in the late fifties under the name Jett Storm, but both his acting and singing careers stalled in his own country so he set his sights on England. There he changed his stage name to P.J. Proby, perhaps because England already had a Rory Storm, who in a weird coincidence also briefly adopted the stage name Jett Storm. And before long Proby found himself a bona fide pop star with a series of saccharine, string-laden hits, including overwrought versions of “Somewhere” and “Maria” from West Side Story. He also appeared on the 1964 Beatles TV special and was given a song by Lennon and McCartney that they’d intended to include on “Help!” but could never get quite right.

But as Ian Hunter noted Proby was his own worst enemy in so far as his stage antics were every bit as over the top as his vocal delivery, and his string of hits ended following a suspicious duo of trouser-splitting performances—or “wardrobe malfunctions” as we call them nowadays—that led to his being banned from appearing on England’s ABC theatre chain, its TV namesake, and BBC TV. By 1968 Proby’s days at the Top of the Pops were over, but instead of calling it a day he followed Hunter S. Thompson’s dictum that “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” by going on to record with everyone from Dutch rock group Focus, the Sex Pistols, and Marc Almond, while churning out often bizarre takes on such modern standards as David Bowie’s “Heroes” (a must listen), Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (the live version is really quite good), and Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.”

If 1968 marked the end of Proby’s stay on the pop charts, it was significant for another reason; it was the year he went into the studio with a bunch of musicians called The New Yardbirds, who would shortly thereafter change their name to Led Zeppelin. The resulting LP, 1969’s Three Week Hero, mixed country-tinged ballads and the blues, and is probably Proby’s best LP because he largely abandoned his orotund vocal histrionics and sang ‘em straight like a country boy.

Indeed, you would never guess the C&W singer with the big voice who sings “The Day That Lorraine Came Down,” which tells the story of a beautiful girl and her overprotective, shotgun-wielding father, is the same fella who sang “Maria.” But if he no longer sounds like Engelbert Humperdinck Jr. he’s still one overly emotive singer, stretching out the words at the end of each stanza in a manner that I’ll call, for lack of a better phrase, totally fucking bizarro. Jimmy Page opens the song on acoustic guitar and is joined by John Bonham, who isn’t in full “Moby Dick” mode but still makes a whale of a noise. The tune features strings but they actually work, as does the Great Wall of Backing Vocals on the very cool chorus. Hell, Proby even throws in some shotgun blasts, to let you know the character in love with Lorraine actually lived up to his oath (whether he succeeded or died trying, we’ll never know) to make Lorraine his own. “The Day That Lorraine Came Down” is a great story song in the tradition of “Harper Valley P.T.A.” and “Indiana Wants Me,” are great songs, and I can’t believe it wasn’t a hit somewhere.

As for the title track, it opens with some delicate acoustic guitar picking by Page before going country honk on your ass, with Proby singing in a weird parody of a country accent about his sudden transformation into a star, and just as sudden fall from grace. It’s as autobiographical a song as Proby would ever sing, although he didn’t write it, and it’s very funny in the mode of Roger Miller, Jim “I Don’t Like Spiders and Snakes” Stafford, and Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show. You’d never know it was Led Zeppelin behind him; a rudimentary drumbeat, some cool piano, and a tambourine do the bulk of the heavy lifting, although Page does play a brief bit at the end. I love the group vocals almost as much as I love the lines, “I’m on all the TV shows wearing all my far-out clothes/But I’m the same old me/I’ll never change/And that guy in the autograph line/Used to be a friend of mine, ha!/It must be such a thrill for what’s his name.” I think this one should have been a hit for Proby too, or somebody, but that’s the way it goes.

“Empty Bottles” is one strange tune on one very strange album. I don’t quite know what it’s about, but I do know it opens with some chugalug electric guitar, then Proby talks for a while about all the places he’s been. But the worst was—and here he’s interrupted by a veritable regiment of backup singers going on about empty bottles rolling across the street. And from there on it gets wilder and wilder, with Proby—a vocal changeling who sounds a bit like Ronnie Hawkins on this one—growling a bit before letting out a great “Uuuhh!” I especially like the final verse, in which each of Proby’s lines is followed by an “Uh!” It kinda reminds me (I’m dating myself here) of Blue Swede’s immortal 1974 hit “Hooked on a Feeling,” which introduced to a grateful world the phrase “hooga chaka.”

“Reflections (of Your Face) is purest schmaltz, with Proby dropping the country guise for a plaintive warble while an acoustic guitar plays and strings, strings, and even more strings gunk up the works. It’s Proby at his most magniloquent, straining for notes that lie dead on the peaks of Mount Maudlin while those god awful strings sweep golden emotions into a pile that smells suspiciously of dog shit. Did you get any of that? Neither did I. Suffice it to say this song should be quarantined for the sake of public safety, and it’s a mark of just how bad “Reflections (of Your Face)” is that the rockabilly by way of Las Vegas number that follows, “Won’t Be Long,” is welcome despite its overwrought production, which includes more horns than Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears put together (awful thought), to say nothing of a small town’s worth of female backing vocalists. Meanwhile Proby’s vocals veer from showbiz glitz to authentic rockabilly ferocity, but at long last you get an idea of what Ian Hunter heard in Proby that made him think Proby was worth thinking about. Did you get that either?

“I Have a Dream” continues the LP’s downward slide, and may be one of music history’s greatest examples of good intentions gone horribly, horribly wrong. The song begins with Proby talking in a portentous manner about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement against a backdrop of thousands of “aaaaahiiing” vocals. Finally he starts to sing, then returns to oration, and his vocal delivery grows more and more melodramatic until he basically goes berserk, saying “And the voice became a great big chorus!/And the people’s voice was heard singing!/ Listen!!” before letting out a series of great shouts and exclamations. “I Have a Dream” is breathtaking in its awfulness, and if the Civil Rights Movement had a downside, which I never would have believed possible, this awful homage is it.

“Today I Killed a Man I Didn’t Know” is set during the Civil War and features a P.J. Proby who sounds more like Johnny Cash than himself, singing about how he killed a “Johnny Reb” and feels really awful about it. The song boasts great acoustic guitar by Page, some martial drums, and fortunately subdued strings and backing vocals, and despite long odds, it actually works. As does “New Directions,” a rollicking kuntry tune that is oddly upbeat given that it’s a cautionary tale about the progression from pot to LSD and then heroin in which the singer ends up dead. The band behind Proby is great, with Page shining as usual, but the song’s best feature is its chorus, which features a rough and tumble bunch of guys exuberantly singing, “New directions, new connections/Open up that golden door/New directions, new connections/All new places to explore.”

“It’s Too Good to Last” is a funky and syncopated number that is also pure Vegas, with lots of brass and backing singers and a great big sound that is unfortunately not rock’n’roll but just fatally overproduced schlock. “Sugar Mama,” on the other hand, is a great pop tune and features a big opening riff—which is repeated through the song—that has Led Zeppelin written all over it. Proby does some funky down’n’dirty singing on it, and the backing vocalists are essential, especially towards the end, when they sing, “Yea! Yea! Yea! Yea! Yea! Yea!/Yea I love you sugar mama!”

LP closer “Medley: It’s So Hard to Be a Nigger/Jim’s Blues/George Wallace Is Rollin’ in This Mornin’” opens with Proby talking, then singing the first section acapella in his bluesiest voice. Jimmy Page takes over on the second part, accompanied by some great piano and Robert Plant on harmonica. I love the segue between the song’s second and third sections when Proby says, “Are you ready to pick up the tempo, Jimmy? All right let’s go. Right now! Now! Hup two thee shuck it!” at which point Led Zeppelin becomes the Led Zeppelin everybody knows, with Proby singing about George Wallace rollin’ in and Page playing magnificent guitar and Bonham taking the song out with some characteristic drum abuse. If you’re a Led Zeppelin fan and want to hear the band playing in a totally unique context, this one’s for you, and Page’s playing alone makes the song, if not the entire LP, worth owning.

Three Week Hero is a good album undermined by a few unbelievably mawkish tunes, and as such is representative of Proby, who was undone, at least in my opinion, by his irrepressible taste for grandiloquent hokum. That said, Three Week Hero has some undeniably excellent songs on it, songs that hold their own and have stood the test of time, which I can’t say for most of his other sixties material. In short, this is the P.J. Proby album to get.

When all’s said and done, I find myself at a loss for words when it comes to summing up the unique character is P.J. Proby. Much of his body of work is pure grandiloquent hokum, but I find myself rooting for him as he wrestles with his own worst impulses. He’s a wonder—and not just a campy wonder—and vocal catastrophe rolled into one, and I’m beginning to understand why Ian Hunter thought so highly of him. It’s because he does exactly what he wants—I invite you to check out his take on Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” if you don’t believe me—and doesn’t give a flying fuck what anybody thinks. Which makes him a punk, and maybe even the ace punk of all time.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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