Hanging around the observatory / Overcoats


2006 Beat Goes on Records

CD. BGO CD 711
  Hanging around the observatory    
1 Maybe baby, say you do 2:35 30 seconds preview
2 Whistles in my ears 3:25 30 seconds preview
3 Sure as i'm sittin here 3:19 30 seconds preview
4 Rose 3:05 30 seconds preview
5 Hangin around the observatory 3:01 30 seconds preview
6 Full moon 5:13 30 seconds preview
7 Wild eyed gypsies 4:43 30 seconds preview
8 It's alright with me 3:46 30 seconds preview
9 Little blue song for you 3:13 30 seconds preview
10 Ocean 5:14 30 seconds preview
11 One more time 3:35 30 seconds preview
12 Smiling in the rain 4:15 30 seconds preview
13 I'm tired of your stuff 3:30 30 seconds preview
14 Distance 3:29 30 seconds preview
15 Down home 3:07 30 seconds preview
16 Overcoats 6:51 30 seconds preview
17 I want your love inside of me 3:08 30 seconds preview
18 I killed an ant with my guitar 3:22 30 seconds preview
19 Motorboat to heaven 5:22 30 seconds preview
20 The lady of the night 3:11 30 seconds preview

Total running time:



remastered by andrew thompson at sound performance

Liner Notes - John Tobler

John Hiatt has rarely, if ever, been a commercial success, yet the overwhelming majority of rock critics with a reputation for excellent taste will tell you that Hiatt should be considerably better known and successful. Hiatt is a critic’s choice, but for whatever reason, he has somehow failed to become as popular with record buyers as with the reviewers. This is the second Twofer reissue by BGO of John Hiatt’s earlier years. The first, which is still available, couples 1979’s ‘Slug Line’ album with 1980’s ‘Two Bit Monsters’ (BGOCD 176), but this one goes even further back, to 1974 for ‘Hangin’ Around The Observatory’ and 1975 for ‘Overcoats’

This is how the sleeve note on that first Twofer began: “The name of John Hiatt is well known among those of discrimination and taste who enjoy the work of the maverick, the artist who has failed to make the big time to the extent that he deserves, yet whose career must be followed because one day he's probably going to be huge. It's not just those with discrimination who admire Hiatt, but also the record business, because Hiatt has been signed to a lot of big labels - Epic, MCA, Geffen, A&M, Warner Bros (although that was a member of an over-democratic supergroup of sorts)”. It’s a bit of a mystery…

There follows a chronological account of his musical career to around 1990 plus a few aspects of his real life. He was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1952, as one of seven children. Hiatt’s father, a salesman of kitchen and school furniture, became ill, and Hiatt’s older brother took over the family business, but at the age of 21, when John was nine years old, the brother, who John idolised, committed suicide, and two years after that, his father died. That was presumably why he started playing the guitar at the age of 11 and joined local garage bands as a teenager - he told an American writer that both Joe Lynch & The Hangmen and The Four Fifths did quite well, but he might have been making it up (at least those names). His initial influence was Elvis Presley, although he only heard Presley during the 1960s because his sisters were fans. The Beatles also captured the imagination of the adolescent Hiatt, who once said that after hearing Presley's 'I Don't Care If The Sun Don't Shine', he decided to play the guitar, working in groups of which he was the youngest member. Other music which impressed him during his formative years included Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, all of whom he heard on the radio. This was no doubt where he first became exposed to black soul music, a love of which is clear not only in many of Hiatt's songs and recordings, but also in his cover version on 'Two Bit Monsters' of the 1966 soul hit by Jamo Thomas, 'I Spy (For The FBI)'.

To expand somewhat, Hiatt seemingly experienced a difficult childhood, and perhaps as a result, found some comfort in music. He apparently wrote his first song at the age of 11, and was initially influenced as a songwriter by Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan – he listened to the latter’s ‘Visions Of Johanna’ (from the peerless 1966 album, ‘Blonde On Blonde’, which in my opinion, Dylan has never surpassed and probably not even equalled) to distraction. In his situation, as an unhappy teenager in an averagely dysfunctional family, Hiatt decided to opt for music, and left Indianapolis as a teenager for Nashville (where ‘Blonde On Blonde’ had been recorded a couple of years earlier, although that may not be significant). He apparently drove to Nashville (several hundred miles) when he could hardly have been an experienced driver, but arrived safely and set about trying to get a job with a music publisher. Initially, he was turned away by many companies, but eventually, after performing his songs live while backing himself on guitar, Tree Publishing hired him at $25 a week. Over the next few years, Hiatt wrote several hundred songs which a website devoted to him quotes him as calling “an exercise in songwriting”.

In a 2001 interview with Maurice Hope, Hiatt expanded on his move to Nashville: “In one of my many attempts to leave home, when I was 17 I met a folk singer called Bob Frank. I was so impressed with this guy, who wasn’t country, but a folk singer who wrote his own songs and lived in Nashville, and there was a publishing company that was paying him a little advance every week to keep him going. A year later, I returned with that in mind, and landed a job writing for the same company. I wasn’t writing country music, and they knew that. Maybe they figured I would start making my own records, which was my plan, and I signed for Epic during my five years at the publishing company. Then I went out on the road pretty much for two years straight after that. Here I was getting the opportunity to write songs, and play for people”. Hope also asked what had been the first Hiatt song to be covered: “It was a song that I wrote the year before I came to Nashville, called ‘Thinking Of You’, and was recorded by Tracy Nelson. We had met the year previous when she was in Nashville”. Around 1971, he joined a group called White Duck, and performed on their 1972 LP, ‘In Season’, but White Duck were less commercially successful than, for example, Whitesnake (and possibly quite different musically). By 1974, Hiatt had acquired his own recording contract with Epic Records, who undoubtedly felt that he was sufficiently talented and different to be given a chance. So they put him in Columbia’s Nashville Studios, where ‘Blonde On Blonde’ had been recorded, with producer Glen Spreen, who had worked as arranger and sax player on Elvis Presley’s 1969 recording sessions in Memphis (resulting in ‘Suspicious Minds’ and ‘In The Ghetto’, among other tracks) and as a keyboard player on Eric Andersen’s ‘Blue River’, as string arranger on Dan Fogelberg’s ‘Home Free’ (also soon to be reissued by BGO as a Twofer with his second album, ‘Souvenirs’) and on a couple of B.J.Thomas albums of the time, and later in the 1970s as keyboard player and co-producer on ‘Go For Broke’ by Ian Matthews, four albums by Rusty Wier and albums by Katy Moffatt and The Sutherland Brothers. ‘Hangin’ Around The Observatory’ was one of Spreen’s earliest production assignments for CBS/Columbia, and without wanting to criticise, the album sounds at times as though both artist and producer lacked experience. The backing band, described on the sleeve as The Hot Babies Band, included Hayward Bishop (drums), Doug Yankus (from White Duck, guitar), Theodore ‘Ted’ Reynolds (bass) and Shane Keister (keyboards) along with Nashville pickers like drummers Larry Londin and Kenny Malone and steel guitarist Pete Drake. In retrospect (with the benefit of hindsight), the most significant song on the album is ‘Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here’, because it was covered by Three Dog Night, whose version was a 1974 US Top 20 hit. The Hiatt original includes backing vocals by The Valentines, a male gospel quartet, while two of the other tracks, ‘Wild-Eyed Gypsies’ and ‘Little Blue Song For You’, feature backing vocals by The Heavenly Spirits, a female gospel trio. The latter track seems to bear traces of Philly soul, but with more invention and less repetition, and thus less commercial appeal. Throughout the album, but particularly on ‘Rose’, Hiatt’s vocals are very stylised, sometimes almost to the point of incomprehensibility, and on the title track, he uses heavily exaggerated diction, but Shane Keister’s honky tonk piano is prominent on both this track and on the opener, ‘Maybe Baby, Say You Do’, where he plays in a very similar manner to his dynamic finger-busting performance on Joe Ely’s ‘Fingernails’. ‘Full Moon’ gives Pete Drake’s steel a chance to shine, and (presumably) Doug Yankus plays several OK guitar solos. ‘Whistles In My Ears’ is very much a country song, reminiscent to these ears of Steve Goodman’s brilliant ‘You Never Even Call Me By My Name’. Overall, more than thirty years later, Hiatt’s debut solo album sounds pretty good, although when it was first released, it was probably far too unconventional to make any commercial waves, and perhaps could be compared with the early output of Graham Parker as a street sign pointing towards punk/New Wave. The original sleeve notes to this album by Hiatt himself and Bruce Harris suggest that the album title is a play on words, that Hiatt spends time observing people, and gets his inspiration for songs from these observations. Two singles were released from the album: ‘Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here’/’Ocean’ and ‘Full Moon’/’Hangin’ Around The Observatory’.

Clearly someone at Epic felt that ‘Observatory’ was sufficiently promising to let Hiatt have another go, and the result was ‘Overcoats’, the sleeve of which shows a smiling Hiatt (clad in an overcoat) standing in a lake with water up to his waist. ‘Overcoats’ was again produced by Glen Spreen, but this time was recorded at American Studios in Nashville, and no backing musicians are credited unless they are some or all of The Refugees, Tracy and the girls and The Grease Brothers. None of the songs on ‘Overcoats’ appear to have been covered, and critics, while enjoying parts of it, apparently considered it too stylistically diverse to be successful – and it wasn’t. However, again with the benefit of hindsight, this seems either a very brave or somewhat foolhardy album – audacious in places, eccentric (eg ‘I Killed An Ant With My Guitar’, which some consider to be the stupidest song Hiatt has ever recorded, or the Mexican-styled novelty song, ‘Down Home’) and slightly upsetting to the point where Hiatt’s surreal notions are almost impossible to follow without the benefit of a lyric sheet. In fact, both these albums could be immeasurably easier to understand if we could easily hear what Hiatt is singing about. ‘Motorboat To Heaven’/’Down Home’ was released as an unsuccessful single from the album.

Unsurprisingly, Epic dropped him due to lack of commercial success, and Tree Publishing followed suit, so Hiatt moved to San Francisco for 1976. In 1977, after a whirlwind romance, he married his first wife, Barbara Mordes, and they were living in Beverly Hills in 1978, when he met Denny Bruce, who managed Leo Kottke. Bruce negotiated a record deal for Hiatt with MCA. Which brings us to 'Slug Line', the earlier of the two albums reissued as BGOCD 176, which was at least partially made with session musicians, some of whom are well-known, like the quartet of drummers, B.J.Wilson (Procol Harum), Bruce Gary (The Knack), Gerry Conway (Fairport family) and Thom Mooney (The Nazz), but also with Doug Yankus (from White Duck) on guitar. Most of the others who play on the album are less familiar names, and the band which Hiatt took on the road to promote the album included Steven T. (lead guitar, ex-Venus & The Razorblades, who maybe had something to do with Kim Fowley ?) and bass player Howie Epstein, later one of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers. ‘Slug Line’, which was produced by Denny Bruce, who has also produced albums for Kottke, John Fahey, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Chris Darrow, etc., was released in 1979, and was no more commercially successful than its predecessors. Three singles were apparently released, containing the abum’s title track, ‘Madonna Road’, ‘Radio Girl’, ‘Sharon’s Got A Drugstore and ‘Washable Ink’, and of the songs on ‘Slug Line’, ‘(No More) Dancin’ In The Street’ has been covered by both Maria Muldaur and the late Dutch rock star, Herman Brood, while The Neville Brothers covered ‘Washable Ink’ and Albert Lee covered ‘Radio Girl’. The MCA deal was extended for a second album, 1980’s ‘Two Bit Monsters’, which was again produced by Denny Bruce, and featured a quartet of musicians: Hiatt (vocals, guitar), Shane Keister (keyboards), Howie Epstein (bass, vocals) and Daryl (or Darrell) Verdusco (drums, vocals) – Verdusco had appeared on Ry Cooder’s eponymous debut album and a 1978 Eddie Money album. Once again, three unsuccessful singles were released: ‘I Spy (For The FBI’ (Hiatt’s cover of the Jamo Thomas 1966 US hit/1969 UK hit)/’It Hasn’t Happened Yet’, ‘Back To The War’/’Pink Bedroom’ and ‘Back To Normal’/’String Pull Job’. ‘Two Bit Monsters’, despite its commercial failure, included two of Hiatt’s most successful compositions: ‘Pink Bedroom’ has been covered by Rosanne Cash, Albert Lee and Lou Ann Barton and ‘It Hasn’t Happened Yet’ by Rick Nelson and Rosanne Cash.

Just as it had been with Epic, lack of sales led to Hiatt being dropped by MCA, although perhaps another contributory factor to the demise of ‘Two Bit Monsters’ was that Hiatt spent much of 1980 and 1981 as a member of Ry Cooder’s band, as second vocalist and rhythm guitarist, appearing on Cooder’s 1980 album, ‘Borderline’, his 1981 soundtrack album, ‘The Border’, his 1982 album, ‘The Slide Area’, and also touring as a member of Cooder’s band. Later, he also appeared on the 1985 Cooder soundtrack album to the film, ‘Alamo Bay’.
This spell with Cooder was no doubt useful to Hiatt, who by then had made four albums for two major labels, both of whom had dropped him. During 1980, he also divorced his first wife, Barbara Mordes, and married a second Isabella Wood, with whom he moved to live in Topanga Canyon.

In 1981, he signed to Geffen Records, for which label he made three albums: ‘All Of A Sudden’ (1981) was produced by Tony Visconti and featured a backing band of Jesse Harms (keyboards), James Rolleston (bass) and Darrell Verdusco again on drums, and included ‘I Look For Love’, which has been covered by Rosanne Cash. ‘Riding With The King’ (1983) was an album divided into two: the first half was produced by Ron Nagle & Scott Matthews (who had a late 1970s band together called Durocs), with Matthews the only musician involved, and the second half was produced by Nick Lowe, who also played bass in a backing band which included Paul Carrack (keyboards), Martin Belmont (guitar) and Bobby Irwin (drums). The album included ‘She Loves The Jerk’ (covered by Rodney Crowell), ‘Girl On A String’ (covered by Gail Davies) and ‘Love Like Blood’ (covered by Amy Grant and her husband, Gary Chapman). ‘Warming Up To The Ice Age’ (1985) was produced by Norbert Putnam, and used a basic backing band of Larry Londin (drums), Randy McCormick (keyboards) and Jesse Boyce (bass), plus an array of guest stars, mostly vocalists, including Elvis Costello, Bobby King & Willie Greene (who had worked with Ry Cooder), Tracy Nelson, and others, plus Shane Keister and other instrumentalists. No less than five songs from this album were covered, and by some major names: Bob Dylan covered ‘The Usual’, Steve Earle and US country act J.J.White recorded ‘The Crush’, both Katy Moffatt and Maura O’Connell did ‘When We Ran’, Dr. Feelgood used ‘I’m A Real Man’ and Nonfiction cut ‘I Got A Gun’.
However, this period was not a happy time for Hiatt, as in 1984, despite becoming the father of Lily, he fell into severe alcoholism, and in 1985, soon after the release of ‘Ice Age’, his wife, Isabella, committed suicide, resulting in Hiatt entering rehab later that year. In 1986, he signed with A&M Records, a fourth major label in 12 years, suggesting that those inside the industry could see his potential, even if record buyers were less convinced. His first album for A&M, which was released in the UK by Demon Records, was ‘Bring The Family’, and this proved to be the commercial breakthrough which so many had predicted. Featuring an all-star band of Hiatt, Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and drummer Jim Keltner, the album, which was produced by John Chelew, and spent four months in the US chart, peaking just outside the Top 100, included two songs which have been covered by major stars. The sublime Bonnie Raitt included ‘Thing Called Love’ on her triple platinum 1989 US chart-topping, Grammy Award winning Album Of The Year, ‘Nick Of Time’, and it has been a highlight of her live shows ever since, while Joe Cocker, Delbert McClinton and Jo-El Sonnier all recorded ‘Have A Little Faith In Me’, but perhaps the best track on ‘Bring The Family’ is ‘Lipstick Sunset’, which Ry Cooder takes into orbit.
Despite such connections, and while critically he has generally been regarded as both consistent and brilliant, the man on the Wimbledon omnibus has never heard of John Hiatt - unless he reads songwriting credits on country albums, where the name of Hiatt is fairly common. He wrote the title track of Willie Nelson's acclaimed 1993 album, 'Across The Borderline', and other great songs which have been stand-outs on albums by many notable country (and less often, folk or rock) names in the last few years. His purple period in commercial terms as an artist was between 1987 and 1990, but to his fans, such as my chums in Sunderland, Tom Fielding and Ray Dobson, every John Hiatt album is more than likely to include a little gem, or probably several. As far as the perception of the general public is concerned, Hiatt is caught in the most vicious of circles - he doesn't get big hits, so nobody writes about him, and because nobody writes about him, few know who he is or what he's capable of. existed.. In the wake of ‘Bring The Family’s success, in 1989 Geffen released a compilation album, 'Y'All Caught ?', which included a couple of tracks from each of the MCA albums as well as from the three Geffen collections, and was subtitled 'The Ones That Got Away 1979 - 1985'; obviously released in an attempt to recoup some of their losses on an artist who they were certain made excellent records which somehow failed to make commercial waves, it once again failed to chart in the US, and may not even have been released in the UK. Ry Cooder contributed a written tribute which included intemperate appreciation of "John Hiatt's great songs, his meat-on-the-bone guitar playing and his fuel-injector voice. He's the real thing, and I've met a few - but only a few". Hiatt in some ways is rather an enigma, or perhaps mystery is a better word.

The album's significant success on both critical and commercial levels resulted in Hiatt joining A&M, who had licensed 'Bring The Family' and subsequently signed him exclusively. 'Slow Turning' in 1988 became his first US Top 100 album, and in 1990, 'Stolen Moments' peaked not far outside the US Top 50. Both were produced by noted British studio legend Glyn Johns. Hiatt was poised to finally go into orbit commercially, but what seems in retrospect to have been a rather unfortunate episode may have lost him much of the advantage so painstakingly accumulated over the previous 15 years, when the quartet which had recorded 'Bring The Family' (Hiatt, Cooder, Lowe & Keltner) decided to form a group known as Little Village, whose first album and tour were generally regarded as disappointing (although the album made the Top 100 of the US chart). The problem seemed to be that where 'Bring The Family' had been Hiatt's album, on which he naturally called the shots, Little Village was too democratic for its own good. We await with impatient interest Hiatt's next solo album whenever it emerges... In the meantime, if you've got this far, you should find this collection containing 20 tracks and including 'Hangin’ Around The Observvatory' and 'Overcoats' in their entirety a bargain, a revelation, or both.

John Tobler, 2006


john hiatt

"one night, we went up to this observatory where once a month people are allowed to come in and view the stars. It was way up on top of a hill out in the country. on the way up, i got the feeling i was going to visit a mad scientist's house."


bruce harris

if mad scientists didn't fritter away their lives on futile efforts like trying to make monsters, or turn iron into gold, or get from here to pluto and back in 24 hours, and instead took up music, one of them (if he were really good) might get to be a little bit like john hiatt. "i feel like i'm an observer" he says. "i'm not really here: i'm watching".

John hiatt's songs (all the bizarre, and yet tender and moving songs on this, his first album) are his observations. Each of us is the subject of his music, as much as he himself is. John is a master of many sounds and styles. His music is whatever it needs to be to express the wild range of his feelings and moods. he does not present a tunnel vision of life; he's been hanging around the observatory, after all, and he's observed it all from the sky with amazing clarity through the telescope we call music.

without ever losing its central distinctiveness. John hiatt's music can be heavy or it can be lyrical. It can be metal or it can be magical. always, it is a music filled with spirit, energy, humor, and excitement. and of course, john's strangely compelling voice is the perfect match for the curious music and more curious lyrics. hiatt's not just strange, these days, it's easy to be weird. hiatt takes it all one step beyond: like the truth, he is stranger than fiction.

but for all this music (and to us) the ultimate joy that grows out of the pain of seeing. his music is vibrant and vital and real, and you can be sure that when john and his friends cut this session in nashville, there was a ton of laughter and just plain fun going down. just listen. it's all there.



England's Beat Goes On repackages John Hiatt's first two offerings from 1974 and 1975 respectively. There are clues in these albums as to what Hiatt would become at his peak with A&M: the excess in his verbiage and exaggeration of his singing dynamic that would make him a caricature of himself on later records (as on the truly awful Randy Newman rip-off album Living a Little, Laughing a Little in 1996, where it seemed like he was caricaturing Newman but he only really made fun of himself. These records waiver between trying a Van Morrison workout on the former and a James Taylor saccharine on the latter. Only Hiatt diehards will even contemplate this, the rest of his more casual fans should be forewarned.