Ellen Foley

On "Paradise By The Dashboard Light," her Clash connection, and her album Fighting Words.

When they thought up the term "hyphenate," they must have had someone like Ellen Foley in mind. As an actress, she has appeared in some impressive productions on stage and screen, with perhaps her most notable role coming on the NBC sitcom Night Court from 1984-1985. That was also about the time she was involved in a relationship with Mick Jones of The Clash; she both performed with the band and (perhaps) inspired one of their most iconic songs: "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" Years earlier she made a major impact in the midst of the Jim Steinman/Meat Loaf partnership; that's her volleying Meat's come-ons right back at him in "Paradise By The Dashboard Light."

Along the way, Foley has carved out an impressive, if sporadic, catalog of solo music, during which she has both written or co-written much of her material and been an enthusiastic interpreter of songs written by others. Foley is back in that mode on Fighting Words, her first new album in eight years. It finds her in stunning vocal form and, like the title suggests, not backing down. This is no quiet rumination on past times, but instead an invigorating set of mostly uptempo, rocking material, Foley in the middle of it all sounding like she's just getting warmed up. "I'm Just Happy To Be Here," she sings in a duet on the album with Karla DeVito, who subbed for Foley in the "Dashboard Light" video, and she certainly sounds like she means it.

In our Songfacts interview, Foley hit on a lot of subjects, including her songwriting collaboration with Paul Foglino, her most notable recordings as both a solo and guest artist, and her album-closing tribute to Steinman, who passed away earlier this year.
Jim Beviglia (Songfacts): What was the impetus behind recording again after a pretty good amount of time had passed since your last album?

Ellen Foley: My partnership with Paul Foglino has been in place since 2008. I did a show that was written by my friend Mary Fulham called Hercules in High Suburbia, which was a modernization of the Greek myth. Paul wrote the music and lyrics. The score was really successful. Paul actually won Best Music & Lyrics at the prestigious New York Fringe Festival.

We formed a mutual admiration society and he proposed getting together and doing something. We didn't know what form it would take. At first, we were going to be a Rolling Stones cover band. But then he woke up and said, "Wait a minute, I'm a songwriter. I'll write some songs!" It was like Judy and Mickey in the barn.

We started writing songs and playing shows with our band Ellen Foley and the Dirty Old Men, which was later changed to Ellen Foley and the Worried Men at the band's request. During these years, Paul was writing songs for me and we were playing them with the band and it evolved into an album, About Time, in 2013. I did some touring for a couple of years, and then in 2016, Paul started bringing me more songs. I would say that the impetus for this new album, Fighting Words, was those new songs and our continuing creative relationship.

Songfacts: How does that process work in terms of him translating your ideas, and how did you come to trust him to be responsible for that?

Foley: Paul and I have spent a lot of time together. So much that I call him my weird little brother. So, for the last 15 years he's been around my life. Both of us are rather taciturn people, but we tend, rather surprisingly, to open up with each other.

Songfacts: This is very much a rock album, with a lot of energy. Was that important to you to rely on the genre that sort of brought you to this point?

Foley: Absolutely. Somebody recently said to me that when rock and roll performers return after many years of not recording, they show up in different genres, like jazz or American Songbook, and they were impressed that this is such a rock and roll album. I wouldn't say it was a choice, it's just what we do.

Songfacts: You co-wrote "This Won't Last Forever," which is one of my favorite tracks on the album. It sounds like someone giving notice on a relationship about to end. Tell me about the lines "I remember death or glory/It was mostly purgatory." Is that an Easter egg of sorts hinting at a former relationship? (Foley dated Mick Jones of The Clash, who once recorded the track "Death Or Glory.")

Foley: The song is really about endurance and surviving your mistakes. We hid that line in there, as you say, as an Easter egg for those who get the reference.

Songfacts: That relationship with Mick Jones indirectly led to some great music. First of all, there was the track "Hitsville UK" where you essentially sang lead with The Clash backing you. What do you remember about recording that song?

Foley: That stands out as the most fun and relaxed part of the whole thing and it was fun to multi-track my vocals on that one. It was a super lighthearted song that spoke to an experience that I understood, being an American and a fan of the original Hitsville. It also reminds me of the song "Torchlight," from my second solo album, Spirit of St. Louis, which was my favorite track on that record.

Both "Hitsville UK" and "Torchlight" have a joyous feel. The marimba on "Torchlight" hits me right in the heart. It was a duet but not a love song. It was about hope and friendship. For me, "Hitsville UK" is about the history of The Clash and the beginnings of British punk rock. How it was by kids for kids. The lyric goes, "I know the boys and girls are not alone now that Hitsville hit UK."

Motown was really an early soundtrack of my youth. I loved the Miracles because of Smokey Robinson's voice and songwriting. Smokey is the consummate artist and songwriter. The Four Tops and the Temptations - that was like a battle of the bands in my mind. Having these male singing groups with the amazing harmonies and choreography was something new to me.

Songfacts: Is "Should I Stay Or Should I Go?" about your relationship with Mick Jones?

Foley: I really don't know if it's about me. It's a very good song though, whomever it's about.

Songfacts: You had a hit overseas in the late '70s with "We Belong To The Night," which you wrote as well as performed. What was the inspiration behind your writing that song, and what stood out about that recording, which still sounds fantastic?

Foley: I wrote that with a guy named Fred Goodman. We were in a room in my apartment that faced Broadway. New York was pretty gritty then. I was always inspired by Aretha Franklin's version of "Spanish Harlem," which really evoked the romance of the city.

"We Belong To The Night" was produced by Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson, and they completely jumped into the Phil Spector girl group vibe and encouraged me to really go for it vocally. And, of course, the Ronson guitar solo really puts the thing over the top.

I did a lot of European promotion for "We Belong To The Night" - made the rounds of all the music television shows at the time. The early 1980s was the first time I had spent any time in England. It was during the Thatcher years and the country was in a pretty dark place. Certainly economically. It was very different than the New York City I had come from. Even though everybody says that the '70s were bad in New York, I arrived there from St. Louis at the age of 21 and I thought it was the Magic Kingdom.

Songfacts: Back to the new album, you get to sing with Karla DeVito, with whom you've been inextricably linked due to your dual associations with Meat Loaf and "Paradise By The Dashboard Light." What was it about the track "I'm Just Happy To Be Here" that made it a fitting song for you to sing with Karla?

Foley: For me, singing with Karla made me "just happy to be here" because it felt like sweet revenge for the way in which the men who were in charge back in the day created this false enmity between Karla and I - they made it seem like we were engaged in some sort of catfight when in reality we didn't know one another.

Both Karla and I were a part of a Steinman tribute a few years ago, and we started talking. We talked about our families, our experiences with the Bat Out Of Hell characters, and our similarities and differences. Since then, we've stayed in touch and we even recorded together with Meat Loaf for his album Braver Than We Are. There's a kind of intimacy that comes with sharing a history like that.

Songfacts: Going back to "Paradise," when that song was first brought to your attention, what did you think of it, because it certainly wasn't the typical rock track.

Foley: In the mid-'70s, Jim Steinman, Meat Loaf and I toured as performers in The National Lampoon Show.1 Jim was working with Meat Loaf on all the songs that would appear on Bat Out Of Hell. Some of them were already written and had been around for a while, and some were being created at that time. Jim was developing this idea about two kids in a car - a quintessentially American experience - which he loved. He was writing the song on the pianos at the college auditoriums at which we were performing. He recruited me to work on "Paradise" with them. It evolved into a real friendship with me singing many of the parts.

Songfacts: Was that chemistry between you and Meat Loaf there from the beginning, or did that take a lot of work in the studio to get to that point?

Foley: I had known him and been on tour with him and we did crazy irreverent things that broke down any barriers. There was a sketch where I was a blind girl and he was my boyfriend and at one point he was humping my leg pretending to be my dog. All the crew and actors drove around the country in a blue van, so there was very little we didn't know about each other. It wasn't like we walked in the studio and said, "Hi, I'm Ellen," "Hi, I'm Meat Loaf."

Songfacts: Did it take a while to make your peace with the fact that some people may not have realized it was you singing the track because of Karla being seen in the video?

Foley: It did take a while. There were a few years where I was pretty pissed off. Then I came to the point where I felt that if anybody cared enough to know that I sang on the record, that was good enough for me. And I also had a pretty high profile with my career in recording, touring, television, film, and Broadway, so my resumé has been out there.

Songfacts: That brings us back around to the new album, which ends with a gorgeous cover of "Heaven Can Wait."2 It was recorded a few years ago, well before Jim Steinman's death. As someone who is an expert interpreter of material, what did you hear in those lyrics that you wanted to bring to the fore in your performance?

Foley: What I heard first was a gorgeous, intense melody, which I think you have to have in a ballad even before you look at the lyrics. But the lyrics of that song are extraordinary and I think different than anything Jim had written up to that point. They deal with mortality, loneliness, and hope.

Songfacts: Do you know if Jim had heard your version and, if so, what did he think?

Foley: Jim had known my version since 1977 because I performed it before Bat Out Of Hell came out when I played the character Wendy in his theatrical show Neverland. Since then, I have sung it with every band in every show I've ever done.

Four years ago, two guys who were friends of Jim's - Pat Cesaro and Barry Keating - thought it would be fitting to stage a tribute concert for Jim, and get him there to experience it. Jim had already been sick for a pretty long time. We did it at a place called Feinstein's Below 54 in Manhattan. It's a club in the downstairs of what used to be Studio 54. I think it was the room where all the movie stars and celebrities used to go to do illicit things. I sang "Heaven Can Wait" at that event, which Jim loved, and that's when I started having conversations with Karla DeVito, so it was a great night in many respects.

Jim always told me that my version of "Heaven Can Wait" was his favorite, and that I was the Maria Callas of rock and roll (Jim tended to exaggerate a little bit).

Songfacts: I can't think of a better tribute to him than your performance. How special is it for you to have this song on the album and to know that Jim's fans will get to hear it as a touching farewell?

Foley: We put it at the very end of the record. It's different from the other songs and it works as a kind of coda and tribute. Hopefully it's something that Jim's fans will appreciate.

Songfacts: Fighting Words is filled with resilience and hard-earned wisdom. Do you feel like it's only an album you could have made at this point in your career, as a kind of snapshot of where you are in your life and your art?

Foley: When you're a kid, you only think about yourself, and you're having a blast being a rock and roller and getting attention. But now, performing a song like "Fill Your Cup," I feel it represents me as somebody who cares about home and family and making sure everybody is safe. At this point in my life, I'm happy playing rock and roll, knowing that it is the indigenous music of aging baby boomers.

July 27, 2021

Fighting Words is set for release on August 6; more info at ellenfoley.com

Meat Loaf Songfacts
Interview with Jennifer Warnes

Photos: Gregg Delman (1), Bruno Cornil (2)

Footnotes:

  • 1] Before it expanded into movies like Animal House and Vacation, National Lampoon was a humor magazine. Founded in 1970, it launched an off-Broadway show called Lemmings in 1973 starring pre-SNL John Belushi and Chevy Chase. When that production toured, Meat Loaf and Ellen Foley joined the cast, and Jim Steinman came on board as a piano player. In one segment, Meat Loaf would take the stage and insult the audience for about 15 minutes. (back)
  • 2] Written by Jim Steinman, "Heaven Can Wait" appeared on Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of Hell album in 1977. Karla DeVito covered it in 1981. (back)

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Comments: 1

  • Charlie J from London EnglandLovely chat with a very talented lady - supreme voice - but no mention of her excellent debut solo album 'Night Out' from 1979!
see more comments

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