“Secret Agent Man” — Johnny Rivers

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Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

For a Bond-esque tale of glamour, danger and intrigue, you can’t go far wrong with the PF Sloan and Steve Barri song “Secret Agent Man”…

PF Sloan was a fascinating character who operated right at the heart of the LA record industry in the early-to-mid-1960s and played for, wrote for and produced for many of the biggest acts of 1960s.

A great guitar player and session musician, you can hear him playing the intro on The Mamas and Papas’ “California Dreamin’”.

He also worked as a producer and label executive, most famously for music industry legend Lou Adler at Dunhill Records.

And…very unusually…PF Sloan even had a song written about him by one of his songwriting contemporaries — “PF Sloan” by Jimmy Webb, who also wrote hits like “Wichita Lineman”, “Up, Up And Away” and “MacArthur Park”.

You can probably tell I’ve got a mild obsession with PF Sloan’s life and work, but I can highly recommend his biography “What’s Exactly the Matter with Me? Memiors of a Life in Music” if the record industry of the 1960s is something you’re interested in too.

As a songwriter, PF Sloan had two massive hits. His biggest record as a songwriter was Barry Maguire’s “The Eve Of Destruction” — a 1965 Billboard Number One, a UK Number Three and quite simply the best record ever made, from my perspective.

But today we’re talking about PF Sloan’s other big hit as a songwriter, “Secret Agent Man” — a Billboard Number Three for Johnny Rivers in 1966.

The Ventures , famous for their 1964 Top Ten record “Walk, Don’t Run”, also had a minor instrumental hit with a somewhat more up-tempo version of “Secret Agent Man” later in 1966.

In case you’re wondering why you probably know the song, even though you might not remember the mid-1960s or the “Secret Agent Man” TV series, that’s probably because a cover by Blues Traveler was used in Jim Carrey’s 1995 hit movie “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls”.

However, what became the hit record “Secret Agent Man” started off as just a 14-second TV theme. The CBS network in the US bought the rights to a British TV series called “Danger Man”, starring Patrick McGoohan as a Bond-esque secret agent character.

CBS didn’t much like the original British theme tune, nor the title. So they changed both of them. That turned out to be a good decision.

PF Sloan wrote the music…although Johnny Rivers later implied that he had…with some help from his long-time collaborator Steve Barri on the lyrics.

It’s always sad when two greater performers dispute who did what or try to claim credit for someone else’s work. All I’ll say is the theme for the TV show was written long before Johnny Rivers went anywhere near it and, great guitarist though Johnny Rivers was, PF Sloan was a guitar player of considerable ability himself. He was more than capable of coming up with a signature riff like the one on “Secret Agent Man” without help from anyone else.

Either way, the song is officially credited to PF Sloan and Steve Barri and if its provenance hasn’t been challenged in over 50 years, I’m happy to take it that Phil Sloan wrote it.

Another clue to who wrote “Secret Agent Man” is that it contains a very distinctive PF Sloan feature, something he was well-known for in his songwriting and record producing days. He could produce something which was very evocative of another piece of music, without coming close enough to startle the copyright lawyers.

You don’t need to wait for long before you get a distinctively James Bond feel coming through “Secret Agent Man” although 007 is never mentioned specifically or alluded to directly in any way…something else I suspect the copyright lawyers were very pleased about.

That is, apart from this one section where I think we all know what they’re referring to but there’s still not enough ammunition to call in the copyright lawyers…

Secret agent man, secret agent man
They’ve given you a number and taken away your name

My money’s on that number being 007 but, like all great songwriting, that’s an association made entirely in your mind without the songwriter having to spell it out.

The rest of the lyrics do read exactly like the script for a Bond movie, though…

Swinging on the Riviera one day
Then lying in a Bombay alley next day
Oh, no, you let the wrong word slip
While kissing persuasive lips
The odds are you won’t live to see tomorrow

Despite the high risk of imminent death, Johnny Rivers sounds positively cheerful about the whole affair, but I guess that’s got something to do with the glamorous life that British secret agents live on the silver screen, a pretty girl on each arm, a glass of champagne and a swanky Aston Martin never far away.

I’m sure real-life secret agents despair about the way their profession is portrayed sometimes, but I guess that’s par for the course. Like accountants, allegedly, being incredibly boring and computer programmers being anti-social to a fault, I don’t suppose secret agents are any closer to their media stereotypes in real life than any other profession.

At least “Secret Agent Man” brings some joy into our lives. It’s a very upbeat song, well-written and well-performed by Johnny Rivers.

The production (credited to Lou Adler) is fabulous too and it’s got the sunshine you’d be more likely to find in a surf record than a tale of mortal danger, culminating in the possibility of being found face-down in an alleyway in Bombay. This is another PF Sloan “signature style”, following his work with surf record pioneers Jan and Dean earlier in his career.

So, although “Secret Agent Man” is only my second-favourite PF Sloan song…after his masterpiece “Eve Of Destruction”…it’s a great tune and always puts a smile on my face.

Quick, it’s time to shin down a drainpipe, jump into your sports car without opening the doors first and pour yourself a class of champagne as you hurtle down the highway with the baddies in hot pursuit…

Here’s Johnny Rivers with “Secret Agent Man”…(and if you keep scrolling you’ll see a rare PF Sloan live acoustic performance of “Secret Agent Man” too, showcasing his wonderful guitar skills)

If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/5RNeOg5D1AwMvEILRxPZbG

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Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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