Alan Merrill: That was a knee-jerk response to the Rolling Stones' "It's Only Rock 'N' Roll." I remember watching it on Top of the Pops. I'd met Mick Jagger socially a few times, and I knew he was hanging around with Prince Rupert Lowenstein and people like that - jet setters. I almost felt like "It's Only Rock and Roll" was an apology to those jet-set princes and princesses that he was hanging around with - the aristocracy, you know. That was my interpretation as a young man: Okay, I love rock and roll.
And then, where do you go with that? You have to write a three-chord song with a lick that people remember, and it has to build. So I had the chorus, which to me sounded like a hit. And I thought, I'll do something really unusual. I'll write it that this is a song separate from the verse. So the actual chorus is something that's coming out of a jukebox, and the two kids in the disco who are flirting are hearing this song that's a hit. It felt like the Twilight Zone. I was so sure "I Love Rock and Roll" was gonna be a hit for The Arrows that I thought, Well, when we have a hit with it, it's gonna be a hit within a hit. A fictional hit coming out of the chorus with the kids singing it as their favorite song in the verse of the song. Follow?
Merrill: Okay. So when it actually became a huge hit for Joan Jett, my Twilight Zone concept came true. And I don't think too many people get that about the song. They just like the melody, and it's catchy. But it was actually a pretty clever stroke, one that I'm proud of.
Songfacts: You thought this song was a hit, but clearly somebody didn't because it was a B-side.
Merrill: Well, you have to consider that Mickie Most (The Arrows' producer and head of RAK Records) had also produced in the same week "You Sexy Thing" by Hot Chocolate, and he put that on a B-side with "Blue Night" on an A-side. So clearly it was his blue period, where he was really into ballads.
He put "Broken Down Heart" out as our A-side, and "I Love Rock and Roll" as a B-side. But his wife coaxed him to flip our record to an A-side, which was very lucky for us - the song would not have had the life it did if it wasn't for Christina Hayes, Mickie Most's wife.
We got one TV show with the 1975 A-side version of "I Love Rock and Roll." We did a TV show called 45, which ITV icon Muriel Young was producing. And Muriel thought we were so good that we should have our own TV show. As it happened, the Bay City Rollers were giving up their Shang-a-Lang show, and they were going to target the United States. So Muriel said, "You guys are the ones who are going to take over the Bay City Rollers' show." So "I Love Rock and Roll" got that for us. And in 1976 when Joan Jett was touring with The Runaways for the first time in England, she saw us do it on our TV show, and either she went out and got the record, or she got a roadie to get her the record, and she cut a version with the Sex Pistols a few years after we did in 1979. Didn't happen - she put it on a B-side. And then what are the odds of someone re-cutting a song? Very slim. She re-cut it in 1981 as Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and it went #1. So the song has had an odd journey, to say the least. I was in the studio doing the Runner album when she was in with Cook and Jones from The Sex Pistols in the next room. And I didn't even know she was cutting "I Love Rock and Roll."
Around 1975 The Arrows changed gears. We had put three singles out, two were hits, and we were feeling our oats. That came across in the way we strutted into the office, and Mickie did not like that. He liked humility. He liked people being one of the lads. Jake Hooker [Arrows guitarist] was starting to date Lorna Luft, so he was going to all the trendy show-biz film premieres and stuff. And then Paul Varley [Arrows drummer] started dating June Bolan, Mark Bolan's ex-wife. And she started sort of a glaring war with Lorna Luft.
The vibe was horrible in the band. You know, every time we'd go on the road or go and do our TV show, the two women would be on either side of the room pitching darts at each other with their eyes. I was single, just dating around, and I thought, This really is unnecessary. But that is what put Mickie off of the band, the pomposity. We thought our management could force his hand to put records out, but the management [The late Ian Wright, of MAM artists management] was cowed by Mickie and his partner, Peter Grant. Our manager was impotent against Mickie, and as a result we had a TV series with no records out. People would go, "They had their own TV series and they didn't have any hits." Well, you can't have any hit records if you don't have anything out. That was how Mickie told off the band for disrespecting him and taking on management when he said we shouldn't.
Songfacts: So you managed to become a pop star in Japan and in England.
Songfacts: How do the musical tastes and the cultural tastes in Japan, England, and the United States compare?
Merrill: The first thing that struck me about Japan is how almost every song was in a minor key. And the melodies were just Japanese-ish. And if you didn't adhere to that, you would probably not have a hit. I actually had a couple of hit singles there in major keys, which is very unusual. But I think the visual of the band had a lot to do with that. The visual was very important in Japan.
Songfacts: For a non-musician, what's a minor key versus a major key?
Merrill: Minor key would be a sad sound, major key would be more uplifting. "All Day And All Of The Night," The Kinks, is major. "Play With Fire," The Rolling Stones, is a minor key, as opposed to "Honky Tonk Women" which is a major key. There's that stark difference, which just sets a mood. And the Japanese mood is one of melancholy.
The British mood is sort of uplifting, singalong. And in Japan, clapping on records is considered a joke - it would be a comedy record. But in England, in order to have hits, you usually have to bring in the handclaps, at least for the chorus on an up-tempo song. The cultural differences took some adapting.
Songfacts: What about the visuals?
Merrill: Because I'd lived in Japan and in England, I saw this whole glam thing develop. I was with Rick Derringer's band in the early '80s, and in America I saw a lot of snarling men with lipstick and eye makeup on without the camp aspect that made it work in England - you know, the tongue-in-cheek. Bands like Poison were actually trying to look tough with makeup on, and there was something lost in the translation to me. I thought, It's working for them, God bless them, but they're getting it wrong.
And the first time I'd seen a band like New Kids On The Block was a band called the Four Leaves in Japan. The Four Leaves were a boy band, choreographed and managed Svengali-like by Johnny's Productions. So I've seen a lot of similarities, but a lot of amusing differences. Like white kids like New Kids On The Block, wanting to be black, or a famous Japanese band called Carol trying to look like the early Anglo-Saxon Beatles.
Songfacts: How did you end up in Japan?
Merrill: My mother had married the vice president of UPI, Don Brydon. It was during the Vietnam/Cambodia era, and they needed a heavyweight journalist over there to get the news over to the States. I stayed in New York and was getting a little wild, being a teenager alone with my own apartment, so my grandpa wrote my mother a letter and said, "You should get your kid over to Japan so you can keep an eye on him."
And at around the same time I had auditioned for The Left Banke. I got the job, and you can't imagine - there were 60 people, it was a cattle call, and I got it. Only problem was they decided to go on as a vocal trio. So I rehearsed - I learned every Left Banke song, which is probably good training for a teenager, because those guys were a little older than I was and they could teach me stuff. But it didn't happen. So I got disgusted, and my mother said, "Why don't you come to Japan?" I was like, "Yeah, I think I could do that."
I got to Japan and started dating a go-go dancer named Michi Nakao, who is now living in London. She was mainly a dancer at the legendary top Tokyo disco Mugen, their main featured dancer in fact, but she was working at the Pasha Club that night, lucky for me!
She had quite a startling look. She was dancing at the Pasha Club, where a group called The Lead was playing. Their guitarist Mark Elder had been busted and deported. They were looking for another guitarist, so I slid right in - I arrived in July, 1968, and I literally had a band that I was in by September. I was gigging, but then the bass player got busted and he was gone, and I got signed as a solo act to Atlantic Records in Japan. I was the first signing of Japan Atlantic, the domestic label.
Songfacts: When did you start writing songs?
Merrill: I can remember the first song I wrote was called "Where I'll Go," and I was 14. The melody needed help, it was pretty monotonous. It was a lot of one-note stuff. I had just got my first guitar and learned a few chords. I was taking lessons with Van Moretti, who writes books on guitar theory. I took about 14 lessons, but my parents didn't pay them. So he said, "You're my best student, I love you, but I gotta let you go because your parents aren't paying your lessons." So I taught myself from then on.
Armed with Van's technique, I was able to start a band within six months of playing guitar. I started playing down in Greenwich Village, places like the Cafe Wha?, the kids shows, the day shows. And because my parents weren't around, I had long hair, so it was perfect. I'd make $200 a gig at the Westchester and Connecticut teen party dance gigs. It was a lot of money back in the mid-'60s.
Songfacts: So how do you go about writing a song?
Merrill: Both of my parents are in jazz, so I had a good basis, knowing most of the standards by osmosis. Sarah Vaughan used to rock me to sleep while my mother was on stage with Earl Hines. I grew up in jazz clubs, so I was absorbing melodies while I was napping on the side of the stage at Birdland. So I guess when I picked up a guitar, it just seemed natural to write. I heard The Beatles were writing and The Kinks were writing, and I thought, Well, I can too. Some of them were good. I'd perform mostly Byrds songs at the Cafe Wha?, but I also mixed in about three or four of my originals in like a 12-song set. They always went down as well as the Byrds songs, so that was a good sign.
Merrill: It's usually a title, or some thought process. For example, I wrote a song called "Movies" on my Merrill 1 album back in 1970, '71. I was on a subway in Japan, and I started thinking about how my grandfather says, "Oh, new movies aren't any good, they're all sleazy." This was the late '60s. He said, "I love the old movies." I was remembering what he said, and I was on the subway in Tokyo, and I took out an envelope and started scrawling lyrics. Lucky I had a pen and an envelope to write on.
But my songs could come from anywhere. "Jacqueline" was about a girl that I dated who ultimately rejected me, and she actually died of a botched abortion - it wasn't me who impregnated her, it was someone after we split up. But it was really painful, 'cause she looked like Liz Taylor in National Velvet, it's that kind of a face that inspires songs. I could be inspired by anything though, even the news on TV.
Songfacts: Are there any examples of how your background has come into play in your music?
Merrill: Oh yeah. Apart from an unusual childhood with parents in jazz music, I have been influenced by the melodic sense of everywhere that I've worked. I think it makes my palette of colors very big. It's better for me to have traveled and worked in all these different territories. Although I think I was like a moving target. I never was able to establish myself internationally from any one of these territories, unfortunately, because I'd get bored, move to a different continent and start all over.
But the experience of living in these places would naturally color your songwriting. For example, the Pink Soup album for Vodka Collins, I literally arrived, straight off the plane in Japan in 1997, and they said, "We want to try a concept. We want you to go into the studio and write the entire album in the studio in three days." I did it, and I drew on my experiences living in the Tokyo scene, just being there, and drawing on all those situations that I'd been in. But it's a helluva thing getting that kind of pressure, to come up with an entire album in three days, as a songwriter. It was a fun challenge.
Songfacts: You talked about glam rock before. Can you give me your take on being part of that whole scene, and what you think about it?
Merrill: I got into it organically, for want of a better word, because in 1969 I did a commercial for Nissan cars, and they wanted to make me up like a chick, which I didn't really like at first. But I didn't have any problems with my sexuality. A lot of guys would have balked in 1969. No way, you're not putting false eyelashes on me and making my hair silver, and putting lipstick on me.
But the whole point of the ad was, is it a boy or a girl? And I noticed that Marc Bolan was coming out in England, and David Bowie, with this sort of ambiguous sexuality. And I said, You know, this could work for me. This seems to be something that's not so unusual over in England, at least. In America people would be mortified to do that. But I did it, and it was on Japanese television 200 times a day. There were eight different commercials. And through that, I thought, You know what? I look pretty good like this. And I'm getting a lot of fan mail from young women. So it was like, Okay, I can do this. And I started writing glam songs.
I wrote new songs based on a book I read about Bob Dylan while I was on a ferry going from mainland Japan up to Hokkaido. He said in the book, "Don't worry about what you write, just write anything. And later on you can fix it. It looks ridiculous, but write anything." And I thought, That's great. That's a great concept. And that's what Bolan was doing. It was like, "Stars in her eyes and rainbows in her hair, Mars circling my left arm." You could write anything, and it just creates a visual. So I started writing these songs.
I went on an exploratory month-long trip from Japan to London around 1970, cut a demo with Michael Aldred [Ready Steady Go TV host and Decca records producer] until I ran out of money. Then I ran back to Japan where I was already established and started Vodka Collins, which was the first Japanese glam rock band. Hiroshi Oguchi, the drummer, was totally clued into it. He got it. He was a very cool conceptual artist. I like to surround myself with people who are artistically strong and have good concepts, and this was a good guy to hook up with. But Dylan was the one who freed up my mind that I could just write anything, and then perhaps fix it later.
Songfacts: How did you end up in a room with Laura Nyro while she's writing her songs?
Merrill: My Aunt Dorothy married her Uncle Gary, so her mom's brother married my mother's sister in the early 1950s. So from the time I was born, Laura was known to me as Cousin Laura.
I grew up with Laura. She had a crib, I got the crib. When I outgrew the crib, her brother Jan got the crib. When we were in high school and she was just starting out, Laura was running these songs by me. We went to summer camp together, and I was like her pet project, her confidante. She would talk to me about girls and what I should do, and she was a great big sister to have.
My high school, Taft High School in the Bronx, was literally across the street from where she lived on Sheridan Avenue. So I'd finish school, and because my mom was in Japan, I didn't want to go home. There was no one home. So I'd go over to Laura's. I was like a feral child, and Laura would look after me. We'd go up on the roof and smoke some joints, and she'd go downstairs with me and play me her new songs, and ask me what I thought. I didn't realize I was watching musical history. It was totally lost on me, which is terrible, because I'm sure there are Laura Nyro fans who would like to vomit on me for that. But I was yawning and reading magazines while she was writing.
After she put out her first album, she gave me the first copy that she got from the record company, and she signed it on the back, "To Cousin Alan, who I love." And she crossed out, "More than a new discovery." She made it, "More than a discovery." She crossed out the "new." She said, "That's what it should be, it should be 'More than a discovery.' I don't like that 'More than a new discovery.'" So on the album I have, she crossed that out with a Magic Marker. I said, "Are you sure you want to give me this album? It's the only one you have." And she said, "I'll get more." [laughs] I thought they'd just pressed out one album for her and that was gonna be it. That's how naive I was.
And I was there after she put the album out, and Peter, Paul and Mary had done "And When I Die." She got a call from John Phillips, and I happened to be in the living room, because it was around the time after school when I'd go over to her house. She said, "You'll never guess who that was." And I said, "Who?" She said, "John Phillips from the Mamas and the Papas, they want me to do the Monterey Festival." I was like, "Oh, that's great, isn't it?" She said, "No, I've never done a gig. All I've ever done is recording."
Now she thinks she has to put a band together, she's worried about her stage act - she doesn't know how to act on stage. She knows how to write a song, she knows how to record, but she doesn't have an act together. But I think historically the Monterey experience was a fine line. I think now if you look back on it, it's a great performance. She was really ripped by the critics back then, because it was almost like show tunes to them, during an era when Jimi Hendrix was coming to the fore. But she was just a miracle. As a talent, she was great.
To show how close we were, when Geffen was asking her to go with Asylum Records, and she didn't want to do it, she ran to my house in Tokyo. Geffen was calling, she said, "I'm not here, I'm not here." So I'm telling David Geffen, "She's not here, I don't know where she is," and she was standing right in front of me. "She went out for a walk," I'd say. And Laura was like, "Whew."
But I was there when she actually decided to reject the offer. I remember her saying, "Why don't you start Asylum Records with Jackson" - meaning Jackson Browne - "and if it works out, then I'll sign with your label. But don't make me leave Columbia. Dylan's with Columbia. It was always my dream to be with Columbia Records." Geffen was like, "Either you're with me, or you're history." So she decided to stay with Columbia. She and Geffen parted ways, and I think it broke her heart. She was never the same artist. But I saw it go down in my house in Tokyo where she stayed. She was in sanctuary there. She couldn't have gotten further away from New York. She had to come to Tokyo. And she came to see me do the teenybop shows in Japan, which was fun for her, because we grew up together as little children, and there I am with a couple of thousand Japanese girls screaming at me on stage. I loved that. That was great.
Songfacts: That must have been fun. Who's the most interesting person you've worked with?
Merrill: Steve Winwood. As a musician. As a polished talent, Winwood was just amazing. A perfectionist. Fantastic instincts. Unbelievable voice.
He played on my track "Always Another Train," and he said, "Go to the pub, lads, I have to work." It was a Moog synthesizer, and he wanted to get it triggering exactly and pan it in stereo. It was "doogadoogadoogadooga" and he did it, and we came back from the pub and said, "Perfect." But most days it took a long time to program a synth, really an uphill battle. And then he played the piano on the track. And Mick Taylor played slide. I think it's the only time that those two guys have ever been on a track together.
Bill Wyman was fun to work with because he turns everything into sounding like a Rolling Stones song. We wrote a song called "At The Candy Shop" together back in 1977 when I went down to his house in the south of France. It's basically a song about a whorehouse, and he put his bass on, and it sounded just like the Rolling Stones when he did it. Just amazing. Dallas Taylor was on drums. Another great talent.
Songfacts: Can you tell me about your British hit, "Touch Too Much"?
I think we'd been together a couple of months, and we cut "Touch Too Much." So within six months of my being in Britain from Japan I was in the Top 10, which just blew my mind. It was like, Okay, this guy Mickie Most is pretty cool. He knows a hit. And, you know, I've had hits in Japan, and now I've had a hit in England. So no one can take that away from me.
I loved the English market when I was in Japan, and when I was a kid growing up in New York it was like that was the Everest: if you could have a hit in England, you'd arrived. That was a good feeling. So Mickie Most had proved his point to David Cassidy. Suzi Quatro was also offered the song, she turned it down. Sweet were offered the song, they turned it down after the Cassidy thing. So Mickie just wanted to prove to David Cassidy that it was a hit song.
But now he didn't know what to do with us. He was looking for another song, and Chapman and Chinn were too busy with Quatro, Mud, Sweet, all those other people they were writing for. They didn't have another song for us. And of course we were writing like mad. I came up with a song called "Wake Up," which was almost The Arrows' second single. Mickie didn't think it was any good. To show how discerning he was, David Hayes changed the lyrics and put it out with Coco in 1976, two years after we presented it to Mickie, and it almost won Eurovision. Came in #2, by Coco. Exactly the same melody, same arrangement, same chorus, only Dave changed some of the lyrics. My name is nowhere on the credits, but there is an Arrows video of "Wake Up" on YouTube, and there is one of Coco, you can see. Ours is in 1974, theirs is in 1976. We were clearly first, and that's the dirty music business.
But we were writing hit songs, Mickie wasn't necessarily biting. To be fair to us, if we had gotten a Top of the Pops TV appearance with our second single "Toughen Up," it would have been a hit. It would have been Top 30. But we had minimal TV exposure and radio exposure on that record.
The next one was written by Roger Ferris, who was the Beatles' engineer at Abbey Road. It was called "My Last Night With You," and that was a hit, which was totally unexpected. The record company just wasn't prepared. They had a record out with Suzi Quatro called "Your Mama Won't Like Me," which didn't make the cut. And we were all on tour together, it was Quatro, Arrows, and Cozy Powell's Hammer, and we got into the Top 30, got a Top of the Pops and stayed in the Top 30 for I think seven weeks, which is not bad with the record company not really being behind you. And then the next record we put out was "I Love Rock and Roll."
We were lucky to have met Mickie Most, but at the same time, we met him at the wrong time in his career, when he was in his blue period, where he was really into ballads, and we should have been putting out uptempo rock songs. And we were certainly writing them, especially when Terry Taylor joined the band. He was with the Bill Wyman-produced band Tucky Buzzard for a long time [Terry Taylor became the musical director of Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings band]. The songs we wrote with Terry were terrific, but we had taken management on, and Mickie had already decided not to put any records out. So those songs only came out in 2005 on the Arrows A's, B's and Rarities. But a good song will always come out.
Merrill: I think so. They're like little worms in the apple. They have to poke their head out sometime. As long as they're there, as long as you've recorded them and you put them out, people will find them. I'm as proud of my Lou Rawls cover with "When The Night Comes" as I am of "I Love Rock and Roll." It was the first song taken into outer space. It was the first song played out of Earth's orbit by Guion Bluford, the first black astronaut.
Songfacts: Are you telling me that he brought a record player into outer space with him?
Merrill: I think it may have been a Walkman. [laughs] I don't think it was a stylus. But they played it back to Earth.
Songfacts: Oh, okay.
Merrill: Yeah, "When The Night Comes" was a Lou Rawls title track, Epic Records, 1983. It had previously been recorded on Arista by Catherine Howe, and produced by Pip Williams, who produced the Moody Blues. So the song had some life in it, like "I Love Rock and Roll" it just kept going. And when Lou Rawls cut it, it was my good luck that the song was taken up into space. But it was originally recorded by just me and Dave Dowle, the drummer from my group Runner.
Dave and I were in the studio and I was writing songs for Runner's second album, which never happened. So that demo is what Lou Rawls heard, and he liked it enough to cut the song. It's a good career oddity, and I'm proud of that. It started out as a Runner demo, made its way to Catherine Howe, Pip Williams liked it, and then it got to Lou Rawls.
Merrill: It was a romantic song that I wrote about when you fall in love with somebody, where you'd like to take them, and your favorite places. So I thought about Paris, and I thought about Kyoto, because I'd had romantic experiences in both cities, and I thought about that first spark of relationship. It was really just a simple love song. I mentioned the Kamogawa River, which is the one that runs through Kyoto. And, you know, I've always enjoyed kissing on the Pont des Arts in Paris. It's a great place at like 3 a.m., after going to the bar and having some champagne. It's just such a romantic view. You have the Ile Saint Louis, if you're crossing from the left bank to the right bank, it's on the right. These are the two romantic places that I imagined I'd like to take somebody.
Songfacts: Talk about some of your other songs.
Merrill: "Pink Soup" was about cunnilingus. "Pink Soup" was like tongue-in-cheek [sic] in other areas, about giving head, basically. The middle is, "I'm a true connoisseur, I'm a gourmand for the stuff, I can never get enough. I always eat a lot, so keep it coming hot, I must salute the chef, I'll eat 'til nothing's left." I have fun with it, and I hope that translates to the listener as light hearted and not too perverse.
There's a song called "Theo" on that album. This composition details the relationship between brothers Vincent and Theo Van Gogh, and is an example of how it's essential for creative artists to have good management to become well known. In the case of Vincent Van Gogh, Theo was an integral part of his success in so many ways, and this has been well documented in the books The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, a trilogy upon which this song is based. I found the books in my compactor [trash] room, as it was being thrown out by another tenant in the same building. Lucky for me I found it, or I wouldn't have written the song! The metaphor was, "Every artist needs a brother like Theo Van Gogh." It's so true, without a good liaison, great artists are usually crazy, and without a good manager the works don't often get out to the public. I've seen some great talent playing, for example, in Greenwich Village, they're just too crazy to do anything.
You know who Laura hooked me up with? You'll never believe this. Paul Clayton, who wrote "Feel Like I've Gotta Travel On." I played on one of his records when I was 14, because Laura said, "Go on, go on, you can do it." It was bass, and I'd never played bass before. But I did all right. "Gingerbread Mind by the Gingerbread Kind," was the name of the project, and it was Paul Clayton trying to get into folk rock. This was mid-'60s.
The Lovin' Spoonful were starting, and Laura said, "Why don't you audition for the Lovin' Spoonful? Now you know how to play bass, they're looking for a bass player. But you'd have to quit school." And I said, "I don't want to quit school." So I went over to her house after school one day, and she put this record on, and it was "Do You Believe In Magic?" She just looked at me and said, "This is what you didn't go to do." And I was like, "Oh, shit, it's gonna be a #1 record. I blew it. I could have been the 14-year-old bass player in the Lovin' Spoonful."
August 1, 2009
Get more Alan, including amazing photos from some very interesting places, at alanmerrill.com
Here's our interview with Suzi Quatro, and classic interview with Laura Nyro from 1984
More Songwriter Interviews