In the midst of personal tragedy and music biz roadblocks, Atlanta-based guitar hero Glenn Phillips had the answer: He’d self-release his own album.
No biggie today, but momentous in 1975. Years before the do-it-yourself music movement, only ace mechanics used pro tools back then.
This makes the 40th anniversary of Phillips’ debut solo disc, “Lost at Sea,” all the more significant. With a commemorative rerelease now available, Phillips and all but one of the members of the album’s backing band reconvene for a one-night stand Saturday at Eddie Owen Presents at Red Clay Music Foundry in Duluth.
“We started practicing (for the show) six months ago,” Phillips said. “Everybody wanted to do it. It was a very important period in all of our lives.”
To call it pivotal for Phillips would be a disservice. Beginning in 1967, Phillips wielded his ax in Atlanta’s Hampton Grease Band, which reached cult status soon thereafter. Although the group released its infamous album “Music to Eat” in 1971, and garnered ardent support from the likes of Duane Allman and Frank Zappa, it folded in 1973.
By this time, Phillips’ fretwork had also impressed Lowell George of Little Feat, who urged Warner Bros. Records to sign Phillips as a solo artist. In turn, George would produce the album.
But a contract dispute with Frank Zappa’s former manager, Herb Cohen, who still represented the now-defunct Hampton Grease Band, prevented the Warner Bros. deal from happening.
Around this same time, Phillips’ father committed suicide.
“Then I just felt an incredible emotional need,” Phillips recalled. “When something like that happens, it leaves a hole inside and you want to fill it with something. And music is what I did. So I just felt the need to record, and I had to find a way to do it.”
Phillips had no idea where to start. He had never heard of anyone releasing their own album. So he put down the guitar, put on a detective cap and learned how.
The guitarist borrowed recording equipment, loaded it into his cramped Brookhaven abode and handpicked a volunteer band. Fueled by inner turmoil and artistic catharsis, Phillips put music to tape. The result would eventually speak for itself.
“It had this organic energy,” recalled AM 1690 radio host Mike Holbrook, the former Hampton Grease Band bassist who played on “Lost at Sea.” “It’s totally self-contained with a real freedom of spirit. It has some rough edges, but like the blues, that’s what gives it its level of energy.”
Legendary British disc jockey John Peel felt that energy. After receiving airplay in England, “Lost at Sea” caught the ear of Virgin Records impresario Richard Branson. Branson then reached out to Phillips and flew to Atlanta to persuade the artist to sign to his label.
Phillips recalls Branson arriving at his self-proclaimed “Brookhaven shack” in a Trans Am straight out of “Smokey and the Bandit.”
“My girlfriend at the time asked Richard why he had rented a redneck muscle car,” Phillips remembered. “Flashing a big grin, he said, ‘Because it’s the American thing to do, isn’t it, love?’ He was just a real outgoing, friendly guy.”
With the Virgin release, the album’s European audience grew. Phillips and company went on tour, and the label wound up releasing the 1977 follow-up “Swim in the Wind.”
Although some characterize Phillips’ career as more of a critical success rather than a commercial one — Rolling Stone gave two Phillips projects four-star reviews — he’s performed and recorded steadily ever since. This includes 10 solo albums, one compilation and two Supreme Court discs with collaborator Jeff Calder. That’s not including guest spots with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir.
Yet Phillips never thought about rereleasing “Lost at Sea” for its 40th anniversary. It wasn’t until Nigel Cross, owner of British record label Shagrat Records, offered to release a special edition of the disc. Feeding Tube Records agreed to distribute the album in America.
Just as making the album proved to be a profound experience for Phillips, revisiting it would coincide with a change in his life. Phillips, who’s suffered from medically related panic attacks for 40 years, had a debilitating one last year during a doctor visit. The physician thought Phillips was having a heart attack, and Phillips could hear his wife crying in the background.
It was then the musician knew he had to do something. He began researching panic attacks, and he came to the realization his condition began just after his father’s suicide.
“All those years, I’d thought my anxiety was about the uncertainty of the future, but it was never about that,” he said. “It was about my past. Over the course of the next year, I learned how to control stress, and for the first time in my adult life, the monkey is off my back.”
Now four decades after the fact, as Phillips readies to perform the entirety of “Lost at Sea” in concert, he’ll set sail with a deeper level of self-awareness, both personally and musically.
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