Allee Willis thinks big. Unencumbered by limiting beliefs and stifling bottom-line thinking, she created a prototype for the first social network in the early '90s. Now, she's changing the way we as listeners interact with music as she explores non-linear songwriting.
Working with Earth, Wind & Fire is a great way to open your mind, and she wrote some of their classics, including "September" and "Boogie Wonderland." Allee also wrote one of the whitest songs of all time, but let's start with EWF.
Working with Earth, Wind & Fire is a great way to open your mind, and she wrote some of their classics, including "September" and "Boogie Wonderland." Allee also wrote one of the whitest songs of all time, but let's start with EWF.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): I'm trying to find out how you ended up writing songs for Earth, Wind & Fire.
Allee Willis: Well, that was pretty great. At the beginning of 1978 Patti Labelle heard some songs of mine, and flew me up to San Francisco where she was recording to come and make demos of them, because I had no money to really get these things down on tape right. She then introduced me to Herbie Hancock, who was also recording at this studio in San Francisco. And I think between Patti, Herbie - who I ended up writing quite a lot with - and a friend of mine who was dating Verdine White, who was the bass player of Earth, Wind & Fire, between those three people Maurice White heard about me, and then one day I got a phone call: "Is this Allee Willis?" "Yeah." "This is Maurice White. I want you to come write the next Earth, Wind & Fire album." The next day we wrote "September" for the Greatest Hits album. I absolutely loved them. I always loved them, they were my favorite group, and remain so. And we just kept writing. I co-wrote all but two of the songs on the next album I Am, which was the album that really crossed them over to a white audience.
Songfacts: Allee, tell me about writing "September."
Allee: Here was a group that had a very particular point of view, which, at that point, I was not largely familiar with. Their stuff was very much based on Eastern philosophies, an incredibly positive outlook on life; the lyrical content of their songs was not typical of what would have been in soul music at that time. So when I left the studio that first day, Maurice gave me the name of a book, it was called The Greatest Salesman In The World, and he sent me to the Bodhi Tree, which is a very spiritual bookstore here in L.A. I got that and a bunch of other books that the saleswoman said was the philosophy. And what went from being a very simple experience turned into, for me, an incredibly complex experience. Because I dove into these books. And even the way they were written, the language they were written in, I kind of didn't understand anything. But Maurice told me right from the jump he thought I was a very spiritual person, and I was put here to communicate. And I thought, if Maurice was saying that to me, I need to hang with this. I was pouring through these books for a couple of months. Lyrics started being 25-30 pages long as I'm trying to figure all this stuff out. Reading all that stuff changed me forever. He lead me to a path I've stayed on. So "September" was fantastic and thrilling, and they had started the intro of it by the time I had walked into the studio to meet everyone. Just as I opened the door and I heard that little guitar intro, I thought, Oh God, please let this be what they want to work with me on. Because it was so obviously a hit. And I'm someone that absolutely loves writing very joyful music. And with everything else I've ever written, it's still that song that when people found out I'd written that, they just go, Oh my God. And then tell me in some form how happy that song makes them every time they hear it. For me… that's it.
Songfacts: Well, I'm glad I'm not the only one.
Allee: Yeah, I feel that way. When I hear it on the radio, I almost don't relate to it as my own song.
Songfacts: What is the significance of the 21st night of September?
Allee: There is none. And that kills every single person who I tell that to. Maurice had that very first line, and I said to him, "Why the 21st?" Because I'm someone who likes to tie up all the ends very neatly, so if I'm saying the 21st, I want to know during the song what's the significance. But he always told me there was no real significance. So whether that's true or not I can't say. But as far as I know, it's just something that sang really well. And I would say the main lesson I learned from Earth, Wind & Fire, especially Maurice White, was never let a lyric get in the way of a groove. Ultimately it's the feel that is the most important, and someone will feel what you're saying if those words fit in there right. I do remember us experimenting with other dates, but 21st just sang phonetically fantastic.
Songfacts: You were talking about how you don't let the lyrics get in the way. And there are some words in there that don't seem to be really words.
Allee: Oh, yeah. I absolutely could not deal with lyrics that were nonsensical, or lines that weren't complete sentences. And I'm exceedingly happy that I lost that attitude. I went, "You cannot leave bada-ya in the chorus, that has to mean something." He said, "No, that feels great. That's what people are going to remember. We're leaving it." We did try other stuff, and it always sounded clunky - thank God.
Songfacts: And I imagine people interpret it other than "bada-ya," anyway.
Allee: Oh, constantly, they think it's "party on."
Songfacts: What's the blue talk?
Allee: I think I said it, and I kind of meant like sexy talk, but I don't know if that's what it meant to him. He just liked how that sounded. You know, "September" was just meant to be a feel good song. And I literally have never been to a wedding, a bar mitzvah, you know, anything, where I have not heard that song play. So I know it's carrying on and doing what it was meant to do.
Songfacts: All right. So let's talk about "Boogie Wonderland."
Allee: Okay. "Boogie Wonderland" I co-wrote with Jon Lind, who was someone who had been writing with Earth, Wind & Fire previous to that. He co-wrote a song called "Sun Goddess," which I think was on a Ramsey Lewis album, which was the group that Maurice came from.
It was 1978, and every song had "boogie" in the title. And I was always someone who really wanted to be different. I was a journalism major in college, and I didn't like song lyrics that didn't hold up as kind of stories if you were to just happen to read them and didn't hear the music. And the series of "boogie" songs that were coming out lyrically were especially stupid to me, even though I loved and still love disco music more than any music that ever existed. So I really wanted to write a disco song, but I wanted it lyrically to be almost in a different genre than what the standard was. So we kept thinking of other ways that we could use the word "boogie" other than just to dance. And I had just seen the movie Looking For Mr. Goodbar, the Diane Keaton movie… did you see that by any chance?
Songfacts: That's one of the ones I've never seen.
Allee: An amazing film. You should see it. She's this very lost woman who would go to these clubs every night and dance to completely lose herself and forget how miserable she was. But she would end up literally bringing home serial killers. And my main thing with every song I write, especially in my later years, I'm really obsessed with music being the carrier of this whole self esteem message. So if you look at any of my hits, like "Neutron Dance," that's basically: if your life isn't working, get up off your ass and change it. Because it's really up to you. So when I saw Mr. Goodbar, I got kind of fascinated with people who did go to clubs every night, whose life was kind of falling apart, but they lived for the night life, though it didn't seem to be advancing them as humans in the end. So if you really look at the lyrics of "Boogie Wonderland," unlike "September," it's not a happy song at all. It's really about someone on the brink of self destruction who goes to these clubs to try and find more, but is at least aware of the fact that if there's something like true love, that is something that could kind of drag them out of the abyss. So for instance, the first verse is - and I never remember my lyrics, but I think I've said this one enough to remember it - "Midnight creeps so slowly into hearts of men who need more than they get. Daylight deals a bad hand to a women who's laid too many bets. The mirror looks you in the face and says, 'uh-uh baby, it don't work.' You say your prayers, though you don't care, you dance to shake the hurt." And then on this demo, it went right into the chorus, where with Earth, Wind & Fire it's more of a feel thing, and they do all the verses before they get to the chorus. And then the chorus is, "All the love in the world can't be gone, all the need to be loved can't be wrong, all the records are playing and my heart keeps saying 'Boogie Wonderland.'" So "Boogie Wonderland" for us was this state of mind that you entered when you were around music and when you danced, but hopefully it was an aware enough state of mind that you would want to feel as good during the day as you did at night. So that in a nutshell is that one.
Songfacts: Was Earth, Wind & Fire concerned about recording a song called "Boogie Wonderland"?
Allee: No… that's actually the first time I've ever heard that. And why do you say that?
Songfacts: I say that because Earth, Wind & Fire to me is the group that always kind of straddled the line between just really unbelievable soul music and disco music.
Songfacts: And I was born in 1971, so I couldn't always tell if Earth, Wind & Fire was fully embracing disco music, or if they were trying to kind of play whatever was hot at the time.
Allee: No. I can certainly accuse them of that in later years, stuff that I didn't have anything to do with. But at that time, disco was all you heard. And it was very positive sounding stuff. So I think their concern was more that they do it very distinctively. And "Boogie Wonderland" is a very different kind of disco song. It's much more heavily orchestrated, chord structure's different, lyrically it's certainly different. So I think they were happy to have something that could pass in that genre, but really wasn't of that genre. And the other thing that I should say about that song is originally when Jon and I took that to Maurice, he didn't take it for Earth, Wind & Fire. He was producing another group that was called Curtis the Brothers, and Earth, Wind & Fire cut the track, so it's the exact track that you're hearing on the Earth, Wind & Fire record, but someone else was singing it. And Jon and I were beside ourselves, because Earth, Wind & Fire were so cool, and this other group was an unknown group who did an OK job, but we knew what Maurice White was going to sound like singing the lead. So we spent quite a few nerve wracking weeks as we would beg him to keep the song for himself. And then finally he did. And then it was out in like two weeks, and that was it.
Songfacts: Wow. The song "In The Stone," you wrote that with David Foster, right?
Allee: David and Maurice.
Songfacts: Okay. Tell me about that one.
Allee: That's a real interesting one that I've really come to look at very differently over the last few years. The first day I ever met the cast of The Color Purple, when we had our very first read-through, I had these little Greatest Hits CDs that I was giving everyone, and it was "In The Stone," not "Boogie Wonderland," not "September," not any of the rest of them, that the black cast went, Oh my God, no you didn't. You didn't write that song. "September" and "Boogie Wonderland" are the favorites in the white community, black community all the props are for "In The Stone."
My biggest memory about that song was there was an original melody to it, and then when I heard the record itself, the background melody became the chorus, and the real melody is the background in parts, and I remember being very upset about it, because it went from being this unbelievable song to me to kind of being a feel.
But the thing I love about "In The Stone" is that I absolutely love marching bands, my two favorite types of music are marching band music and disco. Probably because they're very happy. But "In The Stone" just turned into this marching band classic. And with YouTube, I can hear all of these versions now - people doing my stuff. And I love bad versions of my stuff as well. So YouTube has just been like a treasure trove. But the amount of marching band versions of "In The Stone" is just completely crazy. It's fantastic.
Songfacts: Now, it was interesting, you were talking about "Neutron Dance" earlier and how that's a very joyful song. And I'm wondering how that ended up on Beverly Hills Cop, if it was written for the movie.
Allee: Oh, yeah, that's a good one, too. It was not written for Beverly Hills Cop. It was written for a movie called Streets of Fire. This was a movie that came and went. And we were told that there was a scene on a bus that was leaving town after there had been this nuclear holocaust, and that a '50s doo-wop black group was going to be at the back of the bus that the lead couple was escaping on. And so Danny Sembello and I just met that day, he was the younger brother of Michael Sembello who had a hit at that time called "Maniac." I was very disinterested in songwriting at that point, and I'm writing with this kid who's never had a record before, and I just wanted to get him in and out. He was a phenomenal keyboard player, and I just said, "Play the most common sounding old fashioned '50s black music bass line that you can think of." And he just started doing the (sings rhythm for "Neutron Dance"). And I'm someone who could write a melody to a spoon falling on the table. So I literally sang that melody down. First time down, he just kind of followed and went to the right places. And then I said, "Let's just write this quick lyric." Because I knew everyone in town was competing to be in this movie, so I didn't really have a lot of confidence we would get it. And it was a very autobiographical lyric for what was going on with me at the time. I was very dissatisfied with songwriting, really feeling like I wasn't able to fully express myself through it, because I'm writing for other people, ultimately you're saying what they want to say. And I was always so visual, so just doing the music, and worse yet in many cases just doing the lyric, it was very frustrating for me, who kind of saw ideas in multi layers and colors and shapes and stuff like that. So I really wanted to get through this fast. I said, "Look, we're taking a half an hour on the lyric, and this thing's gonna get done." And it was all this stuff going on in my life: "I don't want to take it anymore, I'll just stay here locked behind the door. Just no time to stop and get away, because I work so hard to make it every day." Really a lyric about all these things falling apart in your life, and you know what, just get it together and change your life. You know, this is a personal decision here. I used to have a little pink 1962 Corvair, and as we were writing this song, I look out the window, and there's someone out in front of my house trying to jimmy open the door of the Corvair. So I race out of the studio, and as I'm running out - and I tape everything - everything - so I have this, and I'm "Hey!" You hear me racing out of the room and screaming back at him, "Someone stole my brand new Chevrolet!" and that was that line. And when I saw that movie - I went to a pre-screening of it - it was mind boggling to me for many, many reasons, but the first one of which, "Neutron Dance," which is the song that opens the movie, on that line, "someone stole my brand new Chevrolet," this cigarette truck that Eddie Murphy is locked up in the back of, screaming through the streets of Detroit, slams into this Chevrolet. And "I'm just burning, doing the Neutron Dance," which to me meant someone could push the button tomorrow and we could all go up in smoke, so make your change now. On that line, a car explodes. I mean, I couldn't have written a better song for a movie scene if my life depended on it. But where to me the whole Beverly Hills Cop thing and "Neutron Dance" - and I did have one other song in there, "Stir It Up" by Patti LaBelle - gets really good, is that throughout the movie Eddie Murphy wears this T-shirt that says "Mumford" on it. And that was my high school in Detroit.
I was coming out of my first drought period with music where all of a sudden I was getting hundreds of songs cut, then I wasn't so interested anymore. And at first you pull out, but then eventually everyone pulls out of you if you're not present. So I never even thought I'd have a hit again, and then I end up having a hit where it's my high school that's so much a part of it. And then that song went on to become the official theme song at the high school. The Russian government named me as one of the most dangerous people living in the United States, because they mis-translated it as "neutron bomb." The first verse they translated as "a powerful nuclear explosion is approaching, it will annihilate everyone; who cares if you have no car, no job, no money, just dance, dance, dance." And this was a huge article in Pravda, and I was supposed to be going to Russia with BMI, and I wasn't let in the country. I mean, it was nuts. But the biggest thing is that tie-in to my high school without me knowing anything about it. And it ends up Jerry Bruckheimer went to the same school. I just went back about a month and a half ago, my first time since I graduated in 1965, and it was unbelievable. It was Allee Willis Day, I spent four hours at this school with the music department and the art department, all of them, all of these kids putting on these performances for me.
I've been against linear songwriting, kind of very outspoken about it since 1991 when I discovered the Internet. What do people think interactivity is? Downloading. Well, that's not interactivity. To me, if music's on the Internet, then anyone can impact it. They should have more choices than whether to buy it or not. So, I've always been obsessed with this idea of mass online collaboration. And the first one I'm actually going to do is with hundreds of students from Mumford, which is the biggest school in Detroit, 100% black, and I'm going to write the song, do the video, the promo campaign, anything that you would do in association with a song in this day and age, I'm going to collaborate with these kids online to do it. So I'm seriously pumped about that. But all of that came out of Beverly Hills Cop. So I can't imagine anything I do having a lifeline like that one's had.
Songfacts: It just led you from one place to another.
Allee: Yeah. I do a lot of different things, and it's never because I'm disinterested in the old one and want to do something completely new, I'm someone who just constantly takes the good stuff from what I've created and use it in some other fashion in something I might do, like, 30 years later. Do you know about the Bubbles and Cheesecake stuff?
Songfacts: I was reading about that on your site, yes.
Allee: I'm in heaven with this "Allee Willis presents Bubbles and…" concept of working with a variety of artists and finally being the one that sings my own songs, and that does the entire environment around it. You know, the video, the Web components, to me it needs to extend to designing clothes, designing cars, linking all existing linear/non-linear mediums together. I was funded in the '90s, it's finally being acknowledged. There was a piece on salon.com that finally acknowledged the first person who ever came up with the concept of a social network was me in 1992. And my idea then was, here's this network environment, like the Internet, which everyone thought was this completely dorky thing back then. And to me it was no, no, no, if you can create these great environments online and get people to come inside of them, then the possibilities of what you create, vis a vie music and art, that's what interactivity and digital mediums are all about, these kind of never ending forever branching things that just start from this little seed. And then I wanted to take things like shopping, games, e-mail, all these things that in the mid-'90s you would be doing in kind of the black hole of cyberspace, and then you would have to log off from where you were, if you were doing e-mail, and then go somewhere else to one of the two stores that had shopping. And I thought all this stuff could be combined in the middle of the song and the visuals, which were the environment, the portal that you'd be stepping into. And my partner at that time was Mark Cuban, you know Mark?
Songfacts: I remember I should have bought stock in broadcast.com, because I was working with it at the time.
Allee: Yeah. So Mark was my partner, as was Prudence Fenton, who was the animation and special effects director for all five years of Pee Wee's Playhouse, and she co-created and produced those early Peter Gabriel videos, and has a Grammy for "Steam." And the three of us starting in '93, went around to every record company under the sun and said, "You know, Tower Records isn't gonna be there, radio is not gonna have a significance, you guys need to take the Internet seriously." And my thing was I still wanted a publishing deal, but I didn't want to have to write 40 songs a year, because I wasn't interested in writing one linear song, let alone 40. But let me be your liaison, I understand this stuff, and you'll have three brains for the price of one. And literally we got laughed out of every place. So when I see this industry crumbling the way it has, it's like you guys were just too arrogant, and you were told. So screw you.
Songfacts: They were also greedy and short-sighted. I was doing radio at that time and trying to convince them that they needed to really do something with their Web site and it was just like running into a wall.
Allee: Oh yeah, it was completely crazy. This was all preventable stuff, but by that point the record companies had turned into the lawyers running them, no one really having imagination. I hate to be making these broad strokes, because God knows I've certainly loved a lot of artists who have had record releases in the last 15 years, but for the most part, you could tell this was something that was about to be stillborn, and I just thought people were so completely stupid for not getting it. And then to see everyone crying in their beer, it's like uh-uh. You had so many warnings. There's my sermon for the day.
Songfacts: Just a quick question. You were talking on "Neutron Dance" and about how with Danny Sembello, he was playing… you were singing the melody down?
Songfacts: What do you mean by that? Are you actually forming words at that point?
Allee: Well, in that particular case - and that was really one of the few times where the words just kind of spewed out with the music - but, you know, I don't read, write, or play music, so everything with me is humming and pounding on tabletops, and then slowly, through the wonder of electronics, I can get it all down on tape. So I play everything on all my stuff, but could never even sit down and play you the intro if I had to. So when I hear someone playing something that I think is great, I just immediately hear a melody, and I always have a tape recorder on, even when I'm just like walking around the house. I just record it, and then we figure out some way to get it on tape.
Songfacts: Okay. Wow, interesting.
Allee: Color Purple was very much written like that. I never ever, ever, ever, ever write a song before I go in to record. It's just turn everything on, whatever happens happens, If it happens, fantastic, if it doesn't, it doesn't. And just kind of work on sections as they interest you, and as you have ideas for them. If I work on five different sections at once, I don't even care whether they're actually going to relate to each other, it's just something will emerge as the one that's really it. And then if these other pieces fit, let's use them. And I don't like songs that are very straight ahead and I know exactly where they're going to go, especially in the old days. So a typical one of those for me would have been "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" My Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield record. Where it took a few years to record that song, because they didn't know which the chorus was, and that "what have I, what have I, what have I done to deserve this?" We had no way of connecting the bridge section of the song to the chorus, and I was always obsessed with trying to talk in records, which of course turned into rap. But back when we did that song, they were like, Oh, my God, we can't just leave that. And I was like, Yes, you can. There's the hook of the record. And then they embraced that, but if you read interviews with Pet Shop Boys about that song, they always talk about the fact it was very, very different for them because it's essentially parts that most people would have turned into four different songs. And then the fade was an entirely different thing. So really, five parts that normally people wouldn't have strung together, but to me made completely logical sense. Like when someone says to me, "We're in B. Where are going for the chorus?" It's like, "I don't give a fuck. I don't care if you're in Q. You just go where it feels good." So in that respect I feel like my lack of training gives me more freedom than a lot of people, and in other cases it's extremely frustrating, because I need to be communicating something to someone, and I can't. Like if they don't understand the way that I talk, and a lot of times I describe things very visually, if they can't go there, then it's like me throwing mud against the wall.
Songfacts: Some songwriters have a system where they can sit there for a couple of hours and they know they can create something. Whereas you have to be more free flowing, it sounds like.
Allee: Yeah. As soon as someone sits down, and it's like we're gonna write this whole song, I'm not interested. It's not what interests me about music. What interests me about music is that it's spontaneous and it affects people emotionally. I learned my process very, very well over the years. I know how to put myself in states of mind, or know when I'm not in the state of mind to create. So if I'm not with someone who has that same kind of life ethic, it's not very interesting for me to work with them.
Songfacts: I guess that helps explain why your songs sound so very different from each other in many cases.
Allee: Yeah, I'm very bored doing the same thing, it's why I do so many different things in my career. If I was still doing nothing but just writing songs, I would have shot myself. It's my favorite thing to do, but the thought of writing one after another after another, and your life is about trying to get onto one slot on the "blah blah blah" album. I mean, life is too short.
Songfacts: So tell me the story about how you ended up writing "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" with the Pet Shop Boys?
Allee: That was one of my favorite music publishers I was with at that point, Kathleen Carey, who now runs Sony, but at that point was at a small boutique company at MCA called Unicity. She loved this group named Pet Shop Boys who had this hit in Europe called "West End Girls." And their manager was coming to L.A. to get them a publishing deal. She felt that because they were really interesting guys - one was an architect, one was a writer - and they were much more intelligent than many musicians were at that point in terms of knowing something outside of the world of music. So she thought it was a great personality match. She was also a very big collector of my artwork, and I'd started painting just that year. And it was all around her office. And she said to me, "I'm gonna try and get this guy (Tom Watson, their manager), because I know he collects art, and once he comes over, I'm telling you, you're going to be on a plane to England to write with them." So he loved the artwork, he bought some stuff, he came over, and he said, "Can I fly you to England, and would you do the Pet Shop Boys' portrait? We need the portrait done for fan club stationery." So I went there as a painter, and as they were posing for me, they said, "Why haven't we seen your art before?" And I said, "Well, I'm mainly a songwriter. I just started painting," and you know, "What kind of music do you like?" And I didn't tell them what I had written. But we talked enough, and then Neil, the lead singer, went, "Oh, my god, you're not the A. Willis on all those Earth, Wind & Fire albums, are you?" And so that night we started "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" So I stayed like an extra week. And then it still took a couple of years because of their confusion at the structure of the record, and then convincing Dusty Springfield to sing, which from the very beginning they said they wanted to do it as a duet with her. I had written several things for her before and knew her, so I started on my end, and they started on their end, and eventually she said yes. And it became her second largest-selling single next to "Preacher Man." So I was real happy about that.
Songfacts: Do you remember what that song's about?
Allee: Yeah. Someone who's in this relationship that they know they shouldn't be in. It's this dysfunctional relationship, and they don't have the strength to get out. And "what have I, what have I, what have I done to deserve this?" - there's a real sense that they shouldn't be there, but they're basically a slave to this obsessive love. It's one of the few songs of mine that is about that but doesn't turn itself around and go, "I'm leaving here, screw you, go make someone else miserable." Usually I don't just leave it at "what have I done to deserve this," but it felt right for the group, so that's what it was.
Songfacts: And a song that you did with Maxine Nightengale, "Lead Me On," that almost has a similar theme.
Allee: Yeah, well that one I really was in one of those relationships. It wasn't a bad relationship, but it was one that obviously wasn't gonna work. It was someone that couldn't commit. And I really was a wreck. But I had just started having hits, so at least I was a wreck in a very exciting time in my life. David Lasley was one of the first people I ever collaborated with, and there was a song out at that time that the Bee Gees had written and produced. It was by an artist named Samantha Sang, "Emotion." (singing) "It's just emotion…" So we wanted to write a song that was in kind of that tempo that had that feel, and I don't remember if it was David or me that just said, "Lead me on." You know, tease me all night long. I don't care, I want to be in this relationship, you can give me shit, I'm staying here. It was a very mentally unhealthy state to be in.
That song was written very, very fast. That and "Neutron Dance" were both written in under an hour. But I think it was because in both those cases they were extremely autobiographical. And "Lead Me On" was the first record that I sang background on, so 100% of those backgrounds are me. I shied away from singing, which is what I really wanted to do, but it took me 32 years to get back to it - I'm finally doing it again now. But I was pretty excited about that record. It was a hit at the exact same time as "Boogie Wonderland." So they kind of chased each other up the charts.
Songfacts: So who sang on your demos, if you didn't do the singing?
Allee: I would sing on the demos, and sometimes I would get demo singers. But, you know, it wasn't getting me a record contract, which is what I really wanted when I started in 1972 through '85, right around when "Neutron Dance" came around. Because I was starting to get interested in other things, like painting, and I started doing sets. So I just needed to be able to express myself more than just writing something.
Songfacts: You did "Who Let In The Rain" with Cyndi Lauper. Can you tell me about that song?
Allee: We worked together on and off for about three years. And a lot of the time when she would come out here and stay at my house and I would go back to Connecticut and stay at hers, and we wrote I think 4 or 5 things that were on Hat Full of Stars. That was one of those songs that I really did love on that record, and it didn't kind of quite make it. But it's amazing to me how many people still ask me about that song, because it wasn't one of the bigger hits for her or for me.
Songfacts: Can you tell me about the song "I'll Be There For You"? That seems to have a very interesting history behind it.
Allee: Well, you don't even know the half of it. It was 1994, my publishing deal was almost over, this was the time I was going around with Mark Cuban and Prudence to these record companies and saying, "It's non-linear songwriting. You guys, you have to embrace this, you have to understand about the Internet." Because no one was biting on that, I realized I had to get out of my publishing deal, because it wasn't even fair to who I was co-writing with at that point - I wouldn't even hang around for the demo. I was so uninterested in that form of music. I was signed to Warner/Chappell at that time, who incidentally were the company that listened the least, because they had me right under their nose. And every time I thought I had written the number of songs for my quota, they kept saying, "Well, you may have only written the song with two people, but there are nine people's names on the label." Because that would happen a lot when you wrote with groups. So I owed a seventh of a song. And they said, "There's this TV show, it's on the air in 3 weeks, they just decided they want a theme song, if you write this theme song we will let you out of the deal." Kevin Bright, who was one of the producers of Friends had been a mentor of mine when I started directing in the early '90s, which I didn't do a lot of. But he was the one who kind of shepherded my career. He said to them, "We need someone who's very kooky, but commercial." And as soon as someone said the word "kooky" I would get the gig. So I co-wrote that song, I wrote it very, very fast, most of the music was there but it was only a 60-second piece at that point. I got out of the deal, and the song exploded. And it was never, ever to this day released as a single. It was just DJs who made a cassette of the song and just started playing it. And it became the #1 airplay record of the year, but the Rembrandts never wanted it out as a single because they didn't write the song. So they kind of bit off their nose to spite their face.
It was the last thing I ever thought would be a hit, the whitest song I ever wrote. I'm very, very grateful for it, and when they were promoting The Color Purple, all of these newspaper reviews, I mean, here I've written for Earth, Wind & Fire, I've written with James Brown. And the only song they would ever mention that I wrote is this Friends theme. Could any song prepare you less to write The Color Purple? But I actually loved it, because it's that incongruity that I cherish the most in what I do.
Songfacts: Had you seen the show?
Allee: Yeah, I had seen the pilot, and that one line had been given to me by Michael Skloff, who had started on the music, and it was just supposed to be about the loyalty of friends. That no matter how screwed up your life was, I'll be there for you.
Songfacts: So you had instructions… it was almost like a homework assignment.
Allee: Yeah, yeah.
Songfacts: Then at some point this 60-second TV theme needs to be turned into a full song.
Allee: Yeah, at that point, the only way they could get the Rembrandts - who were the only act on Warner Brothers who was available at that time - the only way they could get them to do the record was if they got songwriting credit. So the song needed a bridge, and it needed a second verse lyric, and they wrote that.
Songfacts: Which gave them their songwriting credit…
Songfacts: Which is what they wanted all along.
Allee: Yeah. They don't have credit on the theme, but they have it on the record.
Songfacts: Were there other groups that wanted to record this besides the Rembrandts?
Allee: No. I mean, literally, that was the only Warner Brothers group that was available at that point in time, because the show was on in a few weeks, and it had to be a Warner's writer, which I was.
Songfacts: Oh, I didn't know they were all connected like that. Interesting.
Allee: That's what broke Hollywood. All that packaging crap.
Songfacts: Oh, very interesting. Is that the first TV theme that you've done?
Allee: I had had stuff, but it was more that people took my songs and made themes out of them. I'm doing another one right now, though, for a VH1 show for my absolute favorite reality stars, who are on their third spinoff show - Chance and Rio from I Love New York. They have a group called the Stallionaires from I Love New York. They're back with I Love Money now, and they have their own show.
Songfacts: After "I'll Be There For You," I would think there'd be all kinds of TV theme songs then that would try to replicate this success. But really they just kind of went away. After that you didn't see any theme songs for TV shows.
Allee: Stupidity of the industry once again. I mean, how much proof do we need that this was an industry that was self destructing? That was all about money. That was, Why are we cutting someone else into the profits? Let's just license a song. Or, We don't really need a theme. We'll do 15 seconds of source music. A theme song was also a very handy way to promote a show, but it was all about bottom line, with television following suit from records almost immediately. The same kind of foolish mistakes based on purely financial reasons.
Songfacts: Okay. Were the handclaps in that song always handclaps?
Allee: It wasn't on the demo when I first started. I still constantly get people doing six claps in my face. It's like, you know what, I didn't write that part of it.
Songfacts: The last thing I have for you, Allee, I'm just hoping you might be able to give me your definition of non-linear songwriting.
Allee: So far, when an artist finishes an entire song, then they present it to you, and your choice is either to listen to it or not, to buy it or not. And so that song is written as one linear piece. It's supposed to start at the intro, it's supposed to end at the fade. To me, once you're in a digital environment, where the sequence of something not only doesn't matter, it should only matter to the individual that's experiencing it. So therefore a song to me in the digital age isn't this whole thing that I as the artist have determined is what it is. I should just give you the starting point. You should throw something back at me, I should throw something back at you, and therefore the song is this never ending live musical and visual piece that just constantly grows. And non-linear meaning anyone should be able to experience it in any order that they want.
Songfacts: Well, is it different if you're a musician versus if you are just a listener? Because I'm wondering if you're talking about making it a collaborative thing among musicians.
Allee: No, I'm so not interested in that I can't even tell you.
Songfacts: So you're talking about a schmoe like me who can't even make a lick of music.
Allee: That's who I'm interested in. All of these songs that you've mentioned to me have meant something to you, you probably hummed them at some time. I'm interested in the emotional effect my art has on people. I'm not as interested in the art itself. I'm way more interested in seeing what I would come up with you than I am in most songwriters I've written with. You know what I mean?
Songfacts: Yeah. I'm just wondering how somebody like me would be able to feed back on a piece of music.
Allee: It works basically the same way a social network does. You see something, you comment back. You may not be doing it via words, but you could still draw a line on a page, or you could still go, "Ahh…" I mean, that's enough of a starting point for me. But that's up to me as kind of the leader of the experience, to figure out the best way to get that out of you, or maybe you're someone who just observes and has opinions about it. That's still gonna influence how it's written.
Songfacts: Wow, really interesting.
Allee: All I can tell you are theories that I've had now, like it started in '91. But at least we're at the point where I can start experimenting with them, and now I have a high school to experiment with. It's like perfect.
Songfacts: As listeners we're so used to just being the passive observer.
Allee: Right. And you can still be the passive whatever. But I think you should have the option to be involved if you want to be involved.
Learn more at alleewillis.com.
We spoke with Allee on August 14, 2008.