This piece is part of the Detours series. Detours are deep dives, because music deserves time and context. Listen, breathe deep, take the scenic route.
“Well, I'm down with my face on the floor” is quite a way to make an introduction. It conveys embarrassment, hurt, but also comedy—falling flat on one’s face. “Well, the moment she stepped through that door, I was down with my face on the floor.” Smitten, floored—literally. A rush and sweep of emotion. There may be some pain, but as the singer commented, “The song makes fun of being down….I can't play it without smiling.”
“With My Face On the Floor” pairs these self-deprecating lyrics with a power pop sound, and floored me when I stumbled across it one night in college. The song opens Emitt Rhodes’ self-titled 1970 solo debut. Rhodes had previously played with The Merry-Go-Round, who had a few modest hits, including “Live” and “Time Will Show the Wiser” (later covered by Fairport Convention). Despite having been in the music business long enough to go solo, Rhodes was only 20 years old in 1970. He started playing drums when he was 11, joined his first band at 14, and signed a record contract at 16. By that point he had switched to guitar, and continued to learn all the instruments necessary to play his own music. “I didn’t have to argue with the bass player...I didn’t have to argue with anybody.”
Along with Todd Rundgren and Paul McCartney, Emitt Rhodes was one of the first rock musicians to play all the instruments himself and record at home. Though he wanted to call the album Homecooking, its home recording violated union rules, so the fact had to be sneakily inscribed in the run-out groove. And given the timing of Emitt Rhodes—which he started recording two months before McCartney’s famously home-recorded solo album—it’s likely that Rhodes was just marching to the beat of his own drum. After playing music and recording for a few years, he knew exactly what he wanted his first solo record to sound like.
Emitt Rhodes is often called the One-Man Beatles since his style and songwriting is so heavily indebted to them. In fact, there were rumors that his self-titled debut was actually a Beatles recording, though as one listener observed, “he has too much of an English accent to be McCartney.” From the tenor of his voice and the tight back-up vocals, Ring-esque drum fills and fuzzed-out lead guitar, and arrangements that fit together like jigsaw puzzles, Emitt Rhodes in many ways sounds like what many people were hoping for Paul McCartney’s solo album to sound like.
The Beatles comparison attests to another quality of Emitt Rhodes — it’s that good. There are a few songs that I’m liable to skip, but others are so phenomenal that it’s hard to pick a favorite. After the fun and cheeky opener, “Somebody Made For Me” coasts on an easy groove anchored by maracas (a secret ingredient on a few Emitt Rhodes tracks). The gentle acoustic “Lullaby” helped grow and sustain the Emitt Rhodes cult when it was used in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tennenbaums. If I had to pick the best track, I might go with “Promises I’ve Made.” Everything — instrument, melody, and rhythm — fits together so well it’s like a perfectly built machine. But the meticulous construction of the songs doesn’t feel mechanical — it actually adds to the heart and soul underpinning the album.
There's a melancholic streak running through Emitt Rhodes. Reflecting on his childhood, Rhodes once said, “Of course I never fitted in like everybody else either. I always tried to, but just couldn't.” But the album also shows the growth and confidence that comes with self reflection (which must come naturally when recording an entire album by oneself in their garage). “I started writing about myself and what I felt directly and I was saying what I wanted to say. I was getting closer to that and that's what I've always been searching for.”
Emitt Rhodes isn’t the only great achievement—his work with The Merry-Go-Round and his other two solo albums (and 2016 comeback record) are worth checking out and include some fantastic songs. But the self-titled debut is his masterpiece, and after many years it's still one of my most listened to albums. On July 19 the world lost a special musician, whose artistry and talent for writing touching, relatable pop songs will be sorely missed. I hope he found what he'd been searching for.
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