Music Review: The Sloths make their way into the fast lane

Jonny Whiteside

The Sunset Strip, 1966. Epicenter for a drastic burst of rock ‘n’ roll evolution, a feverish outbreak of creativity that produced Love, the Seeds, the Doors, the Standells, the Electric Prunes. For most of that year, the Sloths, a high school age combo who specialized in a raunchy, playful brand of British influenced maximum R&B, were favorites at the fabled Pandora’s Box. They burned hot and fast, breaking up in ’67, re-emerging, equally briefly, as the May Wines and then evaporating completely.

Fifty years later, the Sloths, who appear Saturday afternoon at Dark Delicacies in Burbank, are enjoying one of the most unlikely rediscoveries in rock history.

“The Strip in those days was our playground,” recalled singer Tommy McLoughlin. “We are all 14, 15, 16 years old and our group of choice was Love, who were so original next to what we were doing, all the British and R&B stuff. We literally came out of the garages and started playing all those clubs, Pandora’s Box, Bido Lito’s, the Sea Witch. No one ever asked our age, they never carded us — we were in the band and we just did it. And you never knew who was going to show up: You’d look out and there’d be three members of the Byrds, one night Frank Zappa got up with us and did ‘Smokestack Lightnin” for 20 minutes. There was just so much happening, it was amazing. People ask did you realize that it was a special time? Yes we did.”

Nonetheless, not long after recording their one and only 45 rpm single, the Sloths split. “It was just the way it was. [Guitarist] Jeff Briskin left because his parents wanted him to concentrate on his studies,” McLoughlin said. “Some of the guys got offers to join other bands that paid more money, which they did, then Jeff came back against his parents wishes and we formed the May Wines.”

“There was always something. You could never keep a bass player for too long, and then the music changed. We were all into the R&B garage stuff and everyone else went psychedelic, so we all sort of went off to follow our destinies. I wanted to be a more visual front man than Mick Jagger or James Brown so I started studying mime, which in turn led me into film.”

After their one recording, “Makin Love,” a masterpiece of overstimulated teenage arousal, was reissued on the 1993 on the “Back From Grave Vol. 2” garage rarities compilation, interest in the group reignited. By 2011, the Sloths were a highly desirable commodity — after an original pressing of “Makin’ Love” auctioned for over $6,000, founder Briskin was tracked down by an interviewer working on a Sloths story. Briskin, in turn, hired a private detective to seek out his rock ‘n’ roll colleagues, and a fateful, apparently inevitable reunion brought the survivors (two of the original members had passed away) back together.

Briskin was a successful attorney, bassist Michael Rummans had remained a professional musician and McLoughlin (originally the May Wines singer) had long worked both in front of and behind the camera in Hollywood. “There wasn’t a day that I didn’t regret leaving rock ‘n’ roll,” McLoughlin said. “I didn’t give up listening to it, I didn’t give up the look, I still have the same haircut, the one that got me kicked out of seven high schools! And all my films have a lot of rock ‘n’ roll in them and on the soundtracks. I hired Alice Cooper to do the music for “Friday the 13th Part 6: Jason Lives” — we had done shows with him, back when he was still Vince, in the Nazz.”

“No one expected it to come back — certainly not 50 years later! When Jeff contacted us all at first, it was to do interviews, get together and just talk about it all. Then one of the guys said ‘Hey I’ve got a drum kit set up in my garage, why don’t we get together?’ So everyone says, ‘Well, yeah, let’s just jam.’ And we sounded terrible! We all played way too loud, and of course the cops came: ‘Hey, we can hear you three blocks away.’ That really brought us back to our childhood!”

They began playing shows in 2012 and were so enthusiastically received by local garage rock fanatics that they essentially had no choice but to officially reform. Almost four years and several personnel shifts later (history repeated itself when Briskin opted out to re-form the May Wines), the Sloths are back in top form, giving passionate, high-energy shows. They also have just released a full-length album, “Back From the Grave,” on Lolipop Records, and are playing everywhere they can.

“You’re never too old to live your dreams and it just keeps building. We did the album last year, we just did our first video, some great students from Chapman College where I teach filmmaking, they did a great job, it’s really cool,” McLoughlin said. “We’re going back to South by Southwest for the second time, we did the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans, they flew us over to Leon, Spain for the Purple Weekend, a rock festival which has been going on for decades. It’s been amazing.”

“We play what we know, what was part of us, what it was that got us fired up,” McLoughlin added. “It’s in our bones, and when we write today, we still have all of those feelings. The lyrics are always rebellious: You can always change things, make them better. And you never find the right girl, you’re always getting dumped — it hasn’t changed. We keep that rockin’ spirit, and people want to hear that. We want to connect, emotionally, and find that rock ‘n’ roll emotion that gets you at 14 and still gets to you at 64.”

“You can’t kill the Sloths. We moved slow to get where we are and we’re going to move slow until they make us leave!”

The Long, Strange, Hollywood Path of the Sloths’ Tom McLoughlin

The Sloths

The Sloths
Photo Courtesy Tom McLoughlin

The Sloths will make their Denver debut on Tuesday, March 10th at the hi-dive. Early purveyors of California garage rock in the mid-1960s when its members were teenagers, The Sloths in their earliest incarnation released a two-sided 45 of “Makin’ Love” and “You Mean Everything to Me” in 1965 and broke up a year later with its members going on to other bands or basically quitting music. In 2011 that single sold on eBay for $6,500, a by-product of the recent resurgence in the popularity of the genre. Following that, the band started back up and played its first shows as the Sloths in 45 years, with Tom McLoughlin of the May Wines as the frontman. With over a hundred shows under its belt, it’s safe to assume the band can continue to be a going concern into the foreseeable future. But it has been a long road and McLoughlin has lead a very interesting life along the way.

After leaving playing in rock bands in the early ’70s, McLoughlin found himself leaving music because of the dark turn the scene was taking — friends and heroes were dying off far too regularly.

Seeing the benefit of another method of visual performance, he talked to the legendary Marcel Marceau who was in Los Angeles at that time and took his final regular job at a warehouse for six months and went to Paris to study with Marceau. Cultivating his gift for physical comedy, McLoughlin returned to L.A. and became a one-man visual performer for the following decade and founded the L.A. Mime Company. Spotted by Dick Van Dyke, he was invited onto Van Dyke’s show Van Dyke and Company, where he was nominated for a writing Emmy.

From there, McLoughlin ended up in various films that required physical comedy, like John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy as a mutated bear and as the Jabborwocky in Alice In Wonderland. Performing on the streets to make ends meet, McLoughlin also impressed someone with a friend who worked with Woody Allen, and McLoughlin got a gig choreographing and performing as one of the robots in Allen’s 1973 film, Sleeper. But McLoughlin felt limited as a performer and felt like he wanted more to follow the path of Charlie Chaplin who had been a physical comedian in his early films and went on to write, direct and perform his own creative work. He found he didn’t have an interest in being a performer anymore and committed himself to becoming a writer/director and made his first horror movie, 1982’s One Dark Night.

McLoughlin made a variety of movies over his career, including Sometimes They Come Back and Date With An Angel. He met and became friends with legendary and influential director Frank Capra and he now teaches film at Chapman University in Orange, California. Long term, though, McLoughlin as a filmmaker has been more known for having written and directed Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives.

McLoughlin had been doing mainly comedies at the time because it spoke to his love of making people laugh. But in the late 70s and early 80s comedy was mainly on television and to make a break in film you had to make a horror picture. But McLoughlin felt that the popular slasher films of the day weren’t to his taste but opportunity intervened.

“I had a deal with Paramount that fell through on a horror comedy but then I was offered a Friday the 13th and I was like, ‘No, uh-uh, that’s not what I want to do,’ recalls McLoughlin. “My agent said, ‘Look, this is going to open in eighteen hundred theaters. You can write it. So you can write whatever.’ I asked if I could make it a comedy and he said, ‘Ask the producer.'”

After assuring producer Frank Mancuso that he had no intention of making fun of Jason but would have some fun with the movie and make it tongue-in-cheek because it was, after all, the sixth part of a horror movie series.

“I still wanted it to be scary but I wanted people to like the characters,” concludes McLoughlin. We had a ball and everyone in the cast and I are still friends. In the last two years I can’t tell you how strange it is that I suddenly have four thousand Facebook friends from that movie. This was something I was going to take off my resume because it would hurt me for other jobs. It was a job, I tried to show a sense of humor to and it just goes to show you that you never know what actually works years later.”