"Fool (If You Think It's Over)" got Chris Rea out of debt, but it put him in a kind of musical prison that took seven years to escape. Rea's first album, Whatever Happened to Benny Santini?, was produced by Gus Dudgeon of Elton John fame, who put "Fool" through the star-on machine, giving it a synthy sheen but stripping its soul. In Rea's native England, the album stiffed. He was going to lose his house when he got a surprise royalty check: "Fool (If You Think It's Over)" was a hit in America, reaching #12 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart.
Over the next several years, Rea made music he'd rather forget in an effort to stay in the black, charting a few minor hits along the way. In 1985, he made the first album he really liked: Shamrock Diaries. This true Chris Rea was what UK listeners were after all along. With his sublime slide guitar and sandpaper vocals pushed up in the mix, his songs became musical journeys, making deep emotional connections.
Some of his best songwriting was done sitting in London traffic, where he composed his masterwork, The Road to Hell, his first #1 album in that territory. His next album, Auberge, also topped the UK chart, providing the funds to feed his amateur auto racing habit and buy a Ferrari or two.
His 2017 album Road Songs For Lovers is again inspired by the motorway. The songs are weathered with character, telling more stories of the particular personalities that inhabit the English roadways. We spoke with Rea to discuss the album and glean insights into his songwriting.
Chris Rea: They're very personal in terms of observation. The reason for the album is that we go in and out of town in England very slowly these days - lots and lots of traffic jams - and, because I'm always writing in my head, I started to notice as I looked to the left in the traffic jams all the different couples each day that I would see, and I started to think, Are they man and wife, are they lovers, should they not be together?
Each car has a story. That's what gave me the idea for all of the songs. They're all like mini film stories of two people while they're in a car together.
Songfacts: Where do you live in England?
Rea: Near Heathrow. When I first moved here it was 15 minutes and my kids could go to a nice school. Now it can take up to three hours.
Songfacts: Is this the same place you were living that took you on the "Road To Hell"?
Rea: Oh yes, same place.
Songfacts: I'm surprised you still subject yourself to these traffic jams after going through that whole experience.
Rea: We can't do anything about it in England. Last week, I had to do a top breakfast TV show in Manchester and never once did I ever get near the speed limit in the whole journey. That's the way England is, you know, and a lot of Europe also.
Songfacts: I can picture you seeing some of these people and dreaming up these stories. "Angel Of Love" is a really interesting one with that "distant dream of a good life" lyric. Can you talk about that song?
Rea: Yeah. I stayed in a motel, to do with my passion, which is motor racing - we always use these cheap motels near the circuit. And I saw this guy, sat at the bar, and I just knew his story without even talking to him. He started talking to the waitress and it was very much a "bartender, this drink's on me" kind of feel. He was obviously a traveling salesman and now he's just keeping going instead of having fantastic dreams. And so, she becomes the "Angel Of Love."
Songfacts: Some of the songs sound like they fit your personality, like "Happy On The Road."
Songfacts: Well, you are happy on a racetrack, certainly.
Rea: Yes, definitely.
Songfacts: But perhaps not so much when you're in traffic on that kind of road.
Rea: Well, in Europe there are two types of driving now. There's driving for pleasure, where you feel the car, you love the car and you think about your driving. But for everybody else, which is the majority now, you're actually, psychologically, not driving. You're in your kitchen. That's what seems to have happened with telephones in the car and TV systems in cars. I've started to notice lately that people aren't driving, they're just in their kitchen and they get there.
I've had some quite scary moments when you see a lady with three kids, she's late to take the kids to a dance class or whatever and she's obviously running late and she's on the phone to her mother or her husband. And they are quite frightening when they're coming towards you, especially in the big four-wheel drives.
Songfacts: Well, a lot of your songs deal with isolation and a sense of loss of community. Technology is a big part of it, but you were writing about that long before iPhones or the internet.
Rea: I saw the culture. I saw where it was going. Everybody wants a BMW, everybody wants a better kitchen, everyone wants a swimming pool. In England, everybody wants an indoor swimming pool, and you've got hire purchase and credit. That's how England operates now, on credit.
Songfacts: Your relationship with money is an interesting one. You have a song called "Money" on this latest album where "the Devil is the price to pay." Can you talk about that?
Rea: As in the same traffic jam, that's what all the guys and girls are doing: They're on their way into the city. We have a joke, and it nearly got into the song: The only way you can explain something to people, sometimes, is 12 percent. They get out of bed in the morning and they see 12 percent. They get in the bathroom, they have a shower, they see 12 percent. You can explain the whole world just with the phrase 12 percent.
We've become obsessed with it in England, and we actually don't do anything. We don't walk, we don't sit in forests and think this is a beautiful day. From my point of view, England is in a bad way in that respect. Everybody is just material, material, material.
Songfacts: What does the 12 percent represent?
Rea: Profit. It's pure and simple. Why is this man phoning you? Because he's looking for his 12 percent. Why is this man smiling and shaking? Watch your pocket, he's after 12 percent. I've actually half-finished a song called "Twelve Percent."
Songfacts: There was a time when you did not have much money at all.
Rea: Yeah, same for you, huh?
Songfacts: Yes. And for many people. But for some people it's devastating when you don't have any money, and for others, having too much money can be a problem. What was it like for you?
Rea: I know a lot of people say, "Oh, it's easy for you to say this, Chris, because you've been successful," but when I couldn't have a Ferrari, it never kept me awake at night. I love them - I love the shape and everything about them - but I didn't have to own one. And for many years, when I'm racing, I don't own the racing cars - somebody else owns the racing cars. I never needed to say to myself, "I own this."
And that's been lucky for me because my career goes up and down commercially, because I'm not a rock star. So, I've always had this idea in the back of my head, if I ever get some small amount of money, I'm going to keep it.
I remember when I used to take the bottle of wine off the airplane. I'd be doing a TV in Germany, and I would take that bottle home and my wife and I would have one glass each. Sometimes the air hostesses would give me two bottles. So, I never needed to have this thing about showing off about how wealthy I am. I know a lot of people have that.
Rea: I didn't like it. I was from the north. I was from the sticks, you would say, and I didn't know much about the business, obviously, because that business isn't out in the sticks. But, I thought if I was going to get nominated for a Grammy that I would meet Joe Walsh, or I would land somewhere in town and I would go to a place where Ry Cooder was playing. Or, I know it's naïve, but Randy Newman would be singing in the corner of a place. And I was very surprised to see none of them were at the Grammys and I felt as if I'd come to the wrong place. Plus, I was never happy with that record.
Songfacts: With "Fool (If You Think It's Over)"?
Songfacts: You play keyboards on that.
Rea: Yeah, kind of. But mainly I did as I was told by a huge producer, and he'd been told by the record company to turn me into the next Elton John, which couldn't be further away from what I was. But they had decided that's what he was going to do. They didn't want me to sing low because that wasn't commercial. That is all, thankfully, just gone now, which is great.
I've still got a piece of paper and on the original lyrics it says: "'Fool (If You Think It's Over).' Song for Al Green. 96 beats per minute. Al Jackson, drums." And that's what "Fool" was always meant to be. So, I don't know where that rhythm box came from. But we survived that.
Songfacts: But the song itself is very sweet. It sounds like it's just the production and the presentation you had a problem with.
Rea: I did, but in those days, when you're a newcomer with no name, that's all it is. I fully understand why people like Bruce Springsteen didn't do singles in the beginning and didn't do videos in the beginning, but I was never as powerful as somebody like Bruce Springsteen.
One of the problems with the Chris Rea thing is, you're taking away your power as a rock star, so the record company is frightened of you, for obvious 12 percent reasons. [Rea sometimes refers to himself in the third person - it comes off as objective reality rather than pretention.] I didn't have that because I didn't have an image - I wasn't from New Jersey. Springsteen songs don't work if you're from the north of England. It's just not poetic. We've always laughed at that.
When Rea got his record deal, the label asked him to use a stage name. He mockingly suggested "Benjamin Santini," but at least one executive at the label took it seriously. Thus the title track to his first album, a song about a pop star groomed for success. As you can guess, it does not end well for Benny Santini.
Rea: That's right, yeah. I had a terrible job with that during the Grammy week because I was in this top radio station and I was thinking, I don't know why I'm here. This guy asked me what the song was about. Now, in the north of England you have a phrase, if somebody leaves you, they "blow you out." Now, in America that can mean something else.
Songfacts: Oh, yes. [Especially if you leave off "out".]
Rea: The guy told me to get out the studio. He phoned security. It seemed Chris Rea was determined not to be a success, which wasn't the case, it's just that's how it went for me. I should never have used that term.
Songfacts: You spent the next six or seven years writing more hit singles, working under this environment. What was that like for you?
Rea: It was hard. I've no reason not to be honest anymore. So, to be honest, I needed the breaks. I took what I could get. If there was a certain kind of song that was in fashion in Germany, for example, I would do that kind of song and I'd look for a break. The break eventually came, but there was an awful lot of bad stuff left on the floor.
But, I had no choice. I had to just take whatever breaks I could see coming.
Songfacts: What was the first single or album you made that you felt was really you and was really something you were proud of?
Rea: It was an album called Shamrock Diaries . The steel town I came from was very, very heavily populated with Irish, and that's where my grandmother came from - she married an Italian. Sounds a bit like New York. So, I went over to Ireland to do some gigs and I started to see the streets were so much like the streets I came from. Of course, it was because Ireland was there first and when they went to Middlesbrough they took Ireland with them, and the heavy priest, Catholic religion presence.
So, I did an album called Shamrock Diaries. I'd then been dropped in terms of priority in the record company because I was never going to be the pop star they wanted, but suddenly, that record started to sell a lot in Holland, Germany, obviously Ireland, and we went from there. So, without the Irish and Shamrock Diaries there would have been no Road To Hell.
Songfacts: Is there a track on that album that really stands out to you?
We'd reached the point where we'd bought a house, I had a child, we were happy. We'd kept the wolf from the door and things were okay. I was in this place called Chisel Hill, which is in the Yorkshire Dales near a place called Whitby, and I remember being happy that day and wrote that song all in one quick go, like you do sometimes. And now when I listen to the lyrics it can be very, very emotional because we all get caught up in life and yet, whoever wrote that song back then, he must have been a really happy guy. Yeah, that song gets me.
Songfacts: Your songs can be kind of a diary of your life, taking you back to certain time periods. Are there other songs that do that for you, where you hear them and they bring back certain memories?
Rea: Oh, yeah, definitely. When I'm on stage, I kind of shut my eyes when I'm singing and I'm always where I wrote the song. With "Josephine," the song, which was a huge hit over in Europe, I'm always on the third floor of the Intercontinental Hotel in Dusseldorf in Germany and it's raining. That's where I am when I sing that song, every time.
Songfacts: You're in that hotel, and you're on the road, and your daughter was probably very young.
Rea: Yeah, and I was missing her. It was the third floor and it was pouring with rain. That's how all the songs are with me.
Some of them are in cars, you see. A lot of guys in England, they get the wrong end of the idea about the car thing because, yeah, it's a coincidence that I like cars but it's about people in cars, it's not about the car itself.
Songfacts: What about the song "On The Beach"?
Rea: That was Formentera, a little island off Ibiza in Spain. That's where me and my wife became me and my wife. That's what it's about. Yeah, I was "between the eyes of love." It's a lovely island if ever you're in Europe.
Songfacts: Is that where you actually got married?
Rea: We didn't get married there but we consummated.
Rea: We've been joined together since 1968.
Songfacts: How meticulous are you when it comes to lyrics?
Rea: I drive myself insane. I always consider the best songs are the ones where the idea comes out of your mouth with the tune. It doesn't always happen. It used to happen a lot to that Jewish show writer back in the '30s [Irving Berlin?] - he used to say the same thing. And if you sing what you're thinking about, you've got a very strong song. If you have to work on it, sometimes you can work forever and not get it right.
And my problem, in terms of the commercial side of rock, is I don't have a voice like Bob Dylan or Mick Jagger. I don't have an Americana rock voice. So, if I've got a word that's a bit clumsy or a word that's a bit uncomfortable, my voice will show that up more than it will with a small voice. Half the time I never know what Van Morrison is singing, but it's great, and you hear the bits you want to hear. But, their kind of voices don't interfere with the band and the groove. Mine is like a huge treacle, and it drives me crazy in studios trying to get the voice not to interrupt the vibe.
So, if I've got a duff word, my voice will tell you, in large volumes, you've got a duff word. So, I drive myself crazy. Most of the song's fine but it'll just be one word and it'll hold up the rest of the song sometimes for years and years and years because I couldn't sing that in front of people because I'd be embarrassed when I got to that word.
Songfacts: So, you could write the song on paper, it would be fine, and then you go to the studio and there's a word that just isn't there when you sing it.
Rea: Yeah, it bothers me, so I'll ditch the whole song.
Songfacts: Can you tell me what led to the song "Breaking Point" on this album?
Rea: A little bit of self-experience with pressure. It's about the way people carry a quiet burden. And nobody is aware of how unhappy that person is because they never show it and they're very good at hiding it. And then, all of a sudden, you get a phone call saying something's happened to somebody and everybody is shocked because they never knew he was feeling that way.
Songfacts: What was the quiet burden that you carried?
Rea: Ooh, I've got a lot. Music is a big burden. I never managed to get the band that I wanted and I tried and failed and tried and failed. I think I set my aims too high. I once saw a video of the Montreux Jazz Festival. It was 1976, and it was a band called Stuff. Do you know Stuff?
Songfacts: No, I don't.
I saw them come into the jazz festival. They got diverted at Chicago. They were running 32 hours late, they arrived on stage half an hour after they should have been on, and they'd been traveling all that time. They just started to play, like telepathy, and I cried and cried and cried, and every time I watch it now I still cry. I think, Wow, these boys are so fucking good. And, of course, that was a bit of a high sight to set for myself.
I now hear from Gordon Edwards. One of my biggest things in my studio is a framed message from Gordon Edwards, who was the ultimate bass player I've ever known of. And, unfortunately, I never got that kind of band. They're not easy to find, guys like that.
Songfacts: As burdens go, that is nothing like what many rock stars would tell you. Joe Walsh would have a very different answer.
Rea: Of course. Whatever you're into really. And I think one of the commercial problems with Chris Rea was his love for R&B. The idea of R&B with slide guitar would be very unique, except you could never get it past the record company. In those days, R&B was black men and country was white men. It seems like such a long time ago now but that's how it was then.
Right now, we're at the end of rehearsals for the tour. The guys go into some Stuff kind of grooves on the end of some of the songs and that's a happy moment for us on stage.
Check out Stuff, Live in Montreux, and you'll hear the best grooves without any hard discs, without any cheating, just the men themselves. They do a version of "Signed, Sealed, Delivered." It's half like a cotton-blues Memphis song. It's almost like a tribal African thing but it's got that American ingredient, which is the Irish side of European music, and the combination is just volatile. I ended up doing the sleeve notes for them. They call me Little Chris, the little white boy.
Most of them have gone now. I think there's only Steve Gadd, the drummer, left. He works a lot with Paul Simon. A lot of Paul Simon's famous recordings were with Stuff in the background.
Songfacts: It's great being able to discover music like that.
Rea: There are things I learn now that I think are brand new and find out that they're 40 years old. I have a good friend in a music journalist called Richard Williams and he's written many books about Miles Davis and people like that, and it's like going back to school again.
I constantly come across things that I think are new and they're not. I saw a guy two weeks ago at the Royal Albert Hall called Leo Pellegrino. He's a bass saxophone player. You think, You can't be a star playing a bass saxophone. He did a concert about Mingus - some of Charlie Mingus' songs. He's got bright red hair and a pink suit, and he looks like he's brand new. This kid was absolutely on fire. Yet, I'd only heard it two weeks ago and Mingus's song that he was doing was 40 years old.
Songfacts: What's interesting hearing you talk about that is there are generations doing the same thing with you, learning about Chris Rea and getting into your whole discography.
Rea: Well, there is an interesting story in there. When I got very, very ill it changed my life. I lost my pancreas and I nearly died. Things were never going to be the same. I went down to eight stone and my poor wife had to bring me back. She said, "Why don't you make a record imagining it would have been your first record and what you would have done if you'd had the chance to just do what you like and love?"
And so, I made the album, which was then called Stony Road. The record companies all went mental. The promotors didn't want to book me for a gig because they said, "Blues? That's the end. If you want to play blues I can book you in a little club somewhere outside Hamburg or something like that." And yet, with the blues side of what I did, the emergence of the real Chris Rea, now I've got people who come just to hear me play slide guitar. Just like I would go to see B.B. King. He was an older guy but his guitar work goes straight across genres.
And that's started to happen to me now in Europe with young kids asking me what kind of plectrums I use or what kind of amplifier. That's what is great about the guitar: It's pure. It's not hard disc, it's not digital, and kids feel it. You can't stop young kids from feeling something on a guitar. So, yeah, that's kind of happened to me, I'm glad to say.
Songfacts: I'm happy to hear that you found a gift out of your illness, which sounds devastating. How is your health these days, Chris?
Rea: It's still bad. I've had a stroke. We lost the pancreas in 2001 and we always knew that I would be lucky to survive, but eventually there would be side effects. And there are a lot of side effects because your pancreas is so important and they still haven't worked out how to build a pancreas or transplant a pancreas. But it controls everything. It controls your life every bit as much as your heart.
But I do keep fit. I work hard in the gym for an old guy, and we just go on. Sometimes it's tough, sometimes it's not. The stroke left me with a balance problem, which I work hard to get rid of, but as long as there's music I can keep going.
September 19, 2017
More at chrisrea.com.
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