Artist/Writer: Dean Friedman
Album: Dean Friedman
Chart Position: #26 (US)
That Dean Friedman's charmingly wistful and specific tale of the post-hippie "Ariel," from Paramus, NJ, was able to crash the Top 30 in 1977 was regarded by those who heard it as a funky, quirky, fluke of nature, amidst the moldy classic rock and disco artifacts dominating the radio waves at the time and the incendiary punk anthems roiling underground. But, according to Friedman, a lot of folks at the major labels thought it could have made the Top 10 and beyond had he not been signed to a small independent label, unprepared for its success. Similarly, when "Lucky Stars," a single from his next album hit Top 3 in England, establishing him there ever since as a major singer/songwriter, perhaps a savvier management team could have translated that into more than a just a smattering of American success.
After all this time, is he still bitter? Hell, yes. "I am not a one hit wonder," Friedman wanted America to know. "I'm proud of 'Ariel.' It's a good song. But I did not stop writing in 1977."
Although he would go on to achieve the ultimate revenge of living well and prospering, if "Ariel" is all you know him by, it's a good bet that song's been stuck in your head for more than 30 years. But after reading his story, you may never hear it in the same way again.
Way on the other side of the Hudson
Deep in the bosom of suburbia
I met a young girl
she sang mighty fine
'Tears on My Pillow' and 'Ave Maria'
I really think it was the opening line that launched the song. I wrote it while I was living in the Bronx, but most of my family was in Paramus, New Jersey, and a lot of my friends still lived there. And so you're conscious that there are two sides to the Hudson. I was also conscious that where I grew up was very much this side, supposedly idyllic suburbia, the home of shopping centers, the Garden State Plaza, and the Bergen Mall. The specific details were pretty common to life growing up in the bosom of suburbia. As far as the reference to 'sitting by the waterfall in Paramus Park collecting quarters for the friends of BAI,' my brother used to listen to the radio and he was a friend of the radio station WBAI. My roommate in college had a VW van. I certainly played gigs in the American Legion Hall. In terms of Ariel herself, it was really an amalgamation of all these cute teenage girls in peasant blouses I had a crush on growing up in Paramus.
I wrote the song as my record deal was being consummated. The deal itself took a long time to resolve. It started with demos and options for singles and then options for an album. They really dragged it out for a long time. "Ariel" was written at the beginning of that process, before I actually had a deal. It was one of the last tunes that I showed them. There was already plenty of material for the album and they liked the song, but after I delivered it, I was called in for a very serious meeting where they warned me that stations in the South would not play it because of the line "She was a Jewish girl/I fell in love with her." So when they released the single version they had me change that line. The replacement line was, "Her name was Ariel/I fell in love with her." It was my first single off my first album. I had no influence or leverage. One regret I have is that I let them change the single. In any case, stations in the South refused to play the edited version and they played the full album cut with "Jewish girl" in it.
After it was released I got complaints from WNEW-FM. They called my managers and said, 'Look, guys, you've got to tell Dean to stop asking his friends to call and request the record.' I said to my managers, 'My friends are not calling in to play the record. People just like the record.' It turned out to be the #1 requested song that whole summer on WNEW-FM, the #1 FM station in the state. That's when the label realized they had a potential hit. I realized it when it started going up in the charts with a bullet. And just as quickly, that's how long it took me to realize that the record company did not have any way of capitalizing on that momentum. They just couldn't print up enough copies, so it kept losing its bullet and then dropping and then getting a bullet again in another territory and then dropping. It was sort of the typical scenario for a small independent label with not very good distribution.
It did result in a modest little media flurry. I did Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, The Merv Griffin Show. I did some other TV and radio appearances, but not much touring. The agent who was supposed to put me on a big national tour never got the job done. As a result, I never consolidated my touring situation in the States the way I have in the UK. Over there "Ariel" was more of a turntable hit. But "Lucky Stars," from my next album, was a #3 record and the album went gold and it's still a classic record. This was the followup album, by the way, which the label yelled at me for making, because they thought I had abandoned my roots, I wasn't listening to anybody, and they were very disappointed with it. I knew how good it was and so whatever respect I had had for them at any point I totally lost. About three weeks later they got a Telex that it had entered the charts in the UK and within a few weeks it was a #3 record. Instead of acknowledging that they were wrong, they just said, 'Well, you know what, it's just a different market.'
As a result of that second album, Well, Well, Said the Rocking Chair, people in England have approached me about doing a jukebox musical based on it and some additional material. That would be very feasible if I controlled the copyrights. Right now I would need the permission of the copyright owner to do a musical of my own songs. I got a call from a TV news show in the UK, the equivalent of Good Morning America, asking for permission to use my tunes in a segment. Technically, I'm not able to give them permission. I've had numerous queries from rap acts and hip-hop acts asking to utilize samples from my stuff. I can't give them permission. They have to go to the original publisher for permission. And usually they don't give it. So, that's just a warning to any songwriter to learn the value of your copyrights. It's a lesson that was not imparted to me starting out.
If you look at a record deals from that era, a recording artist just does not make money. I was borrowing money to get to the studio to record the album. The label gave me what they considered sufficient to my circumstances. Which just barely paid the rent. The only money I ever made in this business was through performing rights societies. The record label consistently sued me for nonperformance, for not being in the studio constantly, withholding those funds as a result, as part of their bogus lawsuits. I had to use my first royalty check as a buyout to get out of my management contract. The first money I made in the music business went into my manager's pocket. People should know by now that that's the reality of the music business.
I've been touring in the UK for 30 years. While I did support acts for a couple of dates in the United States, I did a small theater headline tour in the UK just as "Lucky Stars" was breaking. I was on Top of the Pops with the Boomtown Rats and the Buzzcocks. What I was doing was very much the opposite to punk and new wave. But it didn't stop me from selling records over there. In some ways it exaggerated what I was doing in contrast to them and some rock groups perceived it as a little more soft rock than what I was actually doing. I think my stuff is every bit as perverse and angry as punk, it's just a little more subtle.
It was exciting for a very brief period of time, being treated like a pop star. But I was still in business with these small minded guys at my original label and management company. And I knew there was a limit to what they were in a position to do. So I never kidded myself into thinking that I had made it and that I was going to be rich and famous. I knew it was a process and there were steps that needed to be taken and I recognized that there were all these mistakes being made. So it was frustrating. There were other singles on the first album that should have come out in England. But the guy who ran the UK label was insistent on trying to break "Ariel." It was well received. It still gets cheers whenever I start playing that tune in the UK. Even the media in the UK think it was a hit record, though it was, for all practical purposes, only a turntable hit. "Lydia" was Top 40 over there, but my American label was unwilling to put up any more money for promotion or marketing. So their subsidiary in the UK just said, "Well, we've done as much as we can. If you're not going to share in the cost of continuing to break this artist, there's not much more we can do." And at that point I just decided that I needed to part with the label. I had delivered four successive chart records around the world. (Dean's second single, "Woman of Mine," made #52 in the UK.) Sold at least a million units. And I was still borrowing money to get to the studio. I was always very aware that I was on small labels that were not in a position to maximize the opportunity. So I was grateful for any kind of media exposure that resulted from the hits that I was getting. But I was also aware that they were just nickel and diming me every step of the way and that I wasn't getting paid. It just was untenable and I was forced into declaring bankruptcy to get off the label.
I still tour in the UK about two months every year. In 1998 I packed up my wife and kids and moved over there when I released Songs For Grownups, which came out after a 17 year gap. But ultimately we came back home. Since then I've recorded about three other albums which were financed through my website. They were all fan funded. I probably have the same number of fans in the US as I do in the UK, but because of the higher media profile I enjoy in the UK, and because I actively consolidated the touring circuit when I was getting airplay, the bookers at all the venues know who I am and they know I sell tickets. I only play rarely in my own backyard.
In terms of "Ariel" itself, it was an exciting feeling having real world confirmation of what I had believed as a teenager growing up, which is that I could write hit songs. I'd been writing since I was nine years old and sending out demos since I was 15. I had a wall full of rejection letters from every major label in the United States. When "Ariel" became a hit, it was something that I'd been working toward for many years and it was kind of like, well, all right, it took long enough. But it just exacerbated the frustration of working with a lot of idiots.
A case in point is my song "McDonald's Girl" from my third album, Rumpled Romeo, which came out after I parted ways with my record company. I thought "McDonald's Girl" was a surefire hit. It was released by CBS Records in the UK. But it was immediately banned by the BBC. Because the BBC, up until very recently, had a very strict policy against mentioning anything with commercial connotations. So, for example, the Kinks' "Lola," instead of drinking Coca Cola, had to drink "cherry cola." So my song, "McDonald's Girl," because it mentioned a commercial trade name, was officially banned by the BBC. It was frustrating, because I believed in it just the way I'd believed in "Ariel."
A few years after that it was covered by a then unknown Canadian group called Barenaked Ladies. It became their first airplay hit on the Toronto radio station CFNY. And it ultimately led to their first record deal. A few years after that, a band called the Blenders on Universal Records covered it and had a #1 record with it in Norway. A few years after that, YouTube came about, and suddenly I started getting emails from friends all over the world that people were doing cover versions of "McDonald's Girl." There were colleges and high schools, a cappella groups, all over the world all doing different versions and acting out the song. It became a viral phenomena. The punch line of the story is that last year McDonald's called me up to license it for a national TV and radio campaign. So if you go to my YouTube channel or the home page of my Web site, you'll see a link to the McDonald's commercial that aired last year all over the United States.
It took 30 years to confirm what I always knew to be the case, which is that I wrote another pure pop hit.
For more on Dean Friedman, check out deanfriedman.com.
October 31, 2012.