Thursday, August 21, 2008

One-Hit Wonder Week: "Magic," by Pilot

The Bay City Rollers came across to most Americans as sort of a Scottish version of Menudo, but they were a real working band for a long time before their American success. (Their name comes from the alleged gambit of, in hopes of finding an American-sounding handle, throwing a dart at the map of the U.S.A. and landing on Bay City, Michigan. I hope they realized - with my apologies to our Michigander readers - that no American actually has ever heard of Bay City, and most of them, as I did, probably thought Bay City was a place in Scotland.)

The early Rollers were managed by a chap named Tam Paton, who wanted the boys to dress up in tartan and tam o'shanters and all that, making you wonder why they went to all the trouble of choosing an American name. Guitarist David Paton was having none of that, so he left the Rollers just as they signed their first record deal in 1969. (David and Tam don't appear to have been brothers, although I can't find anything to confirm that.) Organist Billy Lyall left the same band in 1971, and went on to become an engineer at Craighill Studios in Edinburgh.

Paton and Lyall bumped into each other, supposedly at the Edinburgh library, and decided to start writing songs together. After a year of this, with a hundred songs under their belt, they recruited drummer Stuart Tosh and went into the studio to lay down some tracks. They took the first letter of each of their last names, PLT, and called themselves Pilot, and secured themselves a deal.

Their label, EMI, assigned producer Alan Parsons to the project, coming off his engineering work on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Session guitarist Ian Bairnson also worked on the record, and was eventually asked to join the band, with Paton switching to bass. The first single, "Just a Smile," came out in June 1974, and went nowhere. The finished album, given the ungainly title Pilot (From the Album of the Same Name), came out in October 1974, a couple of weeks after the second single, "Magic."

"Magic" was a hit in Britain, going to Number Eleven in the fall of '74. The follow-up, "January," was even bigger, going all the way to Number One in January of '75. When they went back into the studio in March to cut their second album, Second Flight, again with Alan Parsons, they still hadn't made an impact in America.

It's not clear to me when "Magic" was released in America, but it moved into the Top Forty on May 10, 1975, and would eventually peak at Number Five while Pilot was on a European tour. Pilot wanted to be a respected rock band, but they found themselves in the same sheer-pop place as the Bay City Rollers. "We were reluctant pop stars and I was a very reluctant frontman - I'm very happy playing bass somewhere," Paton said later. "Fronting the band and having all the responsibility was just a bit too much for me really."

Lyall wasn't too crazy about it either. He hated touring and left the band before their third album. Shortly thereafter, Alan Parsons began recording Tales of Mystery and Imagination, the debut album from the Alan Parsons Project, and enlisted the remaining Pilot trio to play on it.

Pilot put out another album, another dud; drummer Tosh left, and the remaining pair put out an album called, lamely, Two's a Crowd. They were really bad at naming albums. When that one stiffed, too, Pilot called it quits. Paton went on to play with Elton John, Rick Wakeman, and a bunch of Scottish acts, as well as with the Alan Parsons Project. Tosh spent some time in 10cc. Lyall died of AIDS in 1989. Paton and Bairnson reunited in 2002 to make Pilot again, and are still sort of at it.

If any of them ever said anything about "Magic," I can't find it. It's too bad, because it's purt near a perfect pop song, and I'd love to hear how it came together. At least we can still hear the song:


Scraps said...

"Magic" features my favorite vocal hook of the 1970s. It had become pretty obscure until a commercial brought it back into the culture's consciousness a few years ago. I think of that when people talk about pop songs sold to commercials as an unmitigated evil.

Kinky Paprika said...

Love the drummer's expression.
Aw shucks, I'm a pop star.