Desert Island Singles: “I’m On Fire” by Dwight Twilley Band (1975)Posted: May 16, 2012
A sidebar to Desert Island Discs. Sometimes a single stands on its own as an essential must-own song. Sometimes it was never included on an album or CD. And frankly, sometimes an artist or band catches lightning in a bottle with one single; and try as they might, none of the rest of their catalog rises to that level again. This last applies to the inaugural Desert Island Single, “I’m On Fire” by the Dwight Twilley Band.
This song was all over the radio in the summer of ’75, and I was completely floored the first time I heard it. Don’t focus on the lyrics. Don’t try to figure out what the hell “Though your friends are ninety-nine” means. The lyrics are irrelevant, not necessary for enjoyment of the song, like an early Michael Stipe vocal. Just let them wash over you with the rest of the music. “Well-a you ain’t, you ain’t, you ain’t got no love” is all you need to understand.
Dwight Twilley and Phil Seymour met in Tulsa in 1967 while waiting in line to see “A Hard Day’s Night,” and bonded over a shared love of power pop. They moved to LA, began playing and recording under the name Oister, and eventually scored a record deal back in Tulsa with Shelter Records. Co-founder Denny Cordell promptly changed the group’s name to the Dwight Twilley Band, though Seymour’s anonymity pissed him off more than somewhat. But in late ’74, at the studio owned by the other co-founder Leon Russell, they banged out this single and enough other songs for an album. (“Produced by Oister.”) Twilley played guitar and keyboards, Seymour bass and drums, both sang, and their friend Bill Pitcock IV provided the searing lead guitar hook.
The timing sucked. That year Shelter Records went through one of the most stunning, Hindenburg-like crash-and-burns in the history of recorded music. Oh, the humanity. Shelter went out of business for a year. The company had a bona fide hit on their hands and no way to promote it. Despite that, “I’m On Fire” cracked the Billboard Top 20 in the summer of ’75.
Their album “Sincerely” didn’t get released till the summer of ’76. Critics loved it; record buyers were tepid. Subsequently the Shelter artists bounced from label to label. Twilley and Seymour recorded follow-up efforts; those that got released didn’t have the impact of “I’m On Fire.” Presently Seymour got tired of being John Oates, and went solo in ’78 to critical if not commercial acclaim. In ’84 Seymour was diagnosed with lymphoma, and in ’93 he passed away. Twilley wrote this about his former partner:
“I’ll never forget the cold November night at the Church Studios in Tulsa. Phil and I had just signed our first recording contract. We had been instructed by the record company to get acquainted with working in a ‘real’ 16-track studio and not to record a ‘real’ record. In the confusion of a pivotal moment, it was Phil who pulled me into a secluded hallway and said, ‘Dwight, let’s make a hit record right now.’ That night we recorded ‘I’m On Fire’.”
Twilley carried on as a solo artist, had a minor hit or two, contributed songs to a movie soundtrack or two, wrote a book, and continues to perform and release songs on digital audio. Times have changed, and a major label contract has become less of a priority. But even if he never has another hit, he and Phil Seymour created one of the great power pop songs of all time.