Like Turner, Knight's career ended up in a very different place than it started. Holly was an ace keyboard player who formed a band called Spider in the late '70s. She turned to songwriting out of necessity: Everybody else in the band was writing songs, but they weren't very good. A few of the songs Knight wrote for the band charted in the early '80s (including "New Romance (It's A Mystery)" and "It Didn't Take Long"), and one that didn't, "Better Be Good To Me," became a hit for Turner a few years later.
When she left Spider, Knight quickly found her groove as a hitmaker for other artists. "Love Is A Battlefield," "The Warrior," "Obsession" - all her co-writes. She wrote with Aerosmith ("Rag Doll"), Kiss ("Hide Your Heart") and Bon Jovi ("Stick To Your Guns"). She wrote with Heart ("Never"), Rod Stewart ("Love Touch") and Lou Gramm ("Just Between You And Me").
Here, Knight tells the stories behind many of these songs and goes into detail on her songwriting process, explaining master class concepts like how to honor the bassline and when to use a bridge. So many stories to tell, but we'll start with Tina Turner and how they're bonded through the songs.
Holly Knight: I loved it. I found out things about Tina that I didn't know. I thought it was very honest and raw. At first, I was wondering if she should be in a documentary because she's got the musical and she has the movie and her book. Like, what's left to tell? But there was a lot of honesty in it and I found it very empowering to watch her go from this one person's life to another.
Having more detail about the past just made her success all the more real to me, and then it occurred to me that I've made more songs for her than anybody other than Terry Britten.1 The opening song for that documentary was also mine by the way.
Songfacts: Yeah, "Ask Me How I Feel." You bookended it.
Knight: Yeah, she bookended it with my songs, which I felt was really powerful and made me feel like, God, we really had some impact on each other. She could have picked anybody's songs but she picked a lot of mine, and that means something. You know how many writers were trying to write for her?
Even though we were from completely different backgrounds, we had some commonalities, some that she didn't know about with me, because I had some abuse from my background too. Not from a husband, but from one of my parents. I left home when I was 15 because of it. It's not the same as running across the freeway from a man that is beating on you, but it was very similar as far as the PTSD.
Songfacts: Yeah, I would think so. Did that inform any of the songs that you wrote for her?
Knight: Absolutely, 100%. I talked to an interviewer who said, "All your songs have titles about fighting and that sort of stuff, what's up with that?" I didn't know how to answer that, so I went home and I looked at the titles of some of the songs: "The Warrior," "Invincible," "Better Be Good To Me," "Love Is A Battlefield"... I thought, he's right, and I realized that as a songwriter, I was sort of venting and things were coming out of me. I mean, you write what you know!
So these things were coming out of me, and the first song that she covered, which was "Better Be Good To Me," I had already written it for my own band and we cut it. But I think she resonated immediately with the positivity of the lyrics because of what she was going through, and I had written about stuff that I was feeling. Then by the time I got to the next song, I actually sat down and wrote a song for her. This one was for a movie - she was in the movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, so I wrote a song that was relevant to that but was also about survival. It was called "One Of The Living."
Then I kept trying to write things that I thought were relevant to her and also were relevant to me. We were tethered in that way, in a really sort of magical way, and I guess that's why she kept picking these songs.
Songfacts: There was certainly something in your songs that she connected with, and it's interesting to hear how it then created this feedback loop where she then impacted you. That's quite a connection to have, Holly.
Knight: Exactly. When I was watching the film I looked at what I did for her and what she did for me, and it was a lot of reciprocity, even if she's not aware of it.
Songfacts: I read something she wrote where she said that she always sang to her female fans. I think her quote was something like, "I didn't want them to think I was trying to steal their boyfriends." And when I listen to your songs, they're not girly, but they are songs that Tina Turner can sing to her female fans and be a rock singer doing it. Is that something you set out to do?
Knight: That was just part of my makeup and who I was. When I first saw the video of Pat Benatar doing "You Better Run"2 and she was just full of piss and vinegar and she wasn't taking shit from anybody. I thought that was cool. So, when you say girly, I totally get what you mean because there's a lot of that on the radio right now, and I chose these rock singers, which also makes them sound more aggressive. I wrote for a lot of rock singers - female rock singers especially - and it was just an empowering thing.
Each decade we try to move forward as women, and I think in a lot of ways we've gone backward in the music world as far as real empowerment, but we've gone forward in other ways as far as politics and other facets.
Knight: Yeah, absolutely. It can be so many things, and that's why it has taken on a life of its own. It can be a love song, it can be love for anything, as Tina said. She said, "It's just a great song and it can be about anything" - a car, a thing, a horse - that's why she used a horse in the video. I couldn't figure that out at the time.
But it also is very marketable and it has different trajectories depending on who is singing it and why they are singing it. A lot of people have covered it, and it means something different to different people. Wynonna Judd did it and I think it means empowerment to her. James Bay did it and maybe it means romance to him. T-Mobile just placed it, so there you go.
I think we need the positivity of something like that. The last couple of decades have been so negative and blah. The '80s were so much fun, then the '90s came and I guess we were paying for all the consequences of the excess that we had in the '80s.
Songfacts: What did the song mean to you when you wrote it?
Knight: I think when you find something, like Tina said, whether it's a thing or a person, when you've finally found something that's the masterpiece of whatever it is, "The Best" really describes that.
Part of me was writing it as a love song because I had someone in mind that I was writing it for, but we had no clue it was going to be a song that made the kind of impact that it did, because it was a slow and steady rise. When the record came out, it didn't do that great on the charts. Now it's one of the biggest songs out there and it's an evergreen, but that happened over time. It went to #15 in the United States - it did a lot better in the rest of the world. It makes me think of Jennifer Hudson. She did not win American Idol but she went on after that and won an Oscar and carved out a whole career for herself. So, this was one of those slow and steady things.
Songfacts: You talked about "One Of The Living," which is a great song from Beyond Thunderdome. I don't know if that line was even in the film. How did you get that title and start writing that?
Knight: That's like asking how you write songs. You just sit down and let your mind go where it goes. I know I'm being very vague but it's hard to describe that dimension. I'm not sure what made me come up with that title except they sent me some footage that I watched, and then there was this line from a Carl Sagan book. He is a scientist, the one who wrote Contact that became a movie. He said that if there is a nuclear bomb, the living are going to envy the dead, so I had that line, "They always said the living would envy the dead," and that's how "one of the living" came out of it.3
Songfacts: When Survivor wrote "Eye Of The Tiger," that line was in the movie, it was right there for them. But your title wasn't in the movie.
Knight: Yeah. Unless they specifically say they want the title to be something from the movie, like the title of the movie, I try not to because it's very limiting. If they don't use it then I'm stuck with the name of a movie that I can't use.
Songfacts: So if you write the song "Ghostbusters" it can only be used in Ghostbusters, that's it.
Songfacts: Let's talk about the song that opened the Tina Turner movie with her singing the hell out of it. Tell me about "Ask Me How I Feel."
Knight: Since the last tribute, she put out a book. Not the I, Tina book, the one that came out a few years ago [My Love Story]. It's a longer epilogue about what happened after all that success and everything, and she named each chapter after lyrics of a song that she recorded depending on what was relevant to the chapter, so she had "Ask Me How I Feel" in there and it struck me as interesting because it wasn't a single. Not everybody knows that song, but she chose it. Then when she put it at the beginning of the film, I said, "Wow, this song obviously resonated more than I realized with her." If you look at the title "Ask Me How I Feel," I think she was denied that for so long, so it's obviously close to her heart.
In the musical I have three songs: "Better Be Good To Me" and "The Best," but the other one is called "Be Tender With Me Baby," and again, that was not a single but it's a song she performs a lot. Those songs, at that point I knew what her story was, so "Be Tender With Me" is very much directed specifically for her, like custom-made for her.
But back to your question, I co-wrote that song with Albert Hammond, who had that hit "It Never Rains In Southern California," and he's also in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. We got together and wrote a whole slew of tunes in the time period of about a month. I wrote "Be Tender With Me" and I wrote "Ask Me How I Feel," and also another one, "You Can't Stop Me Loving You." So I had four songs on the Foreign Affair record because there was "The Best" and then the three I wrote with Albert.
Songfacts: One of the more unusual Tina Turner songs I came across that has your name on it is "In Your Wildest Dreams," which is spoken word, really. Can you talk about that song?
So, Oprah heard that song and she got a big bus and wrapped it with something that said "The Wildest Dreams Tour" and she took the bus on the road with Tina. They went around the country and Tina would be doing concerts and sometimes Oprah would come on the stage and be wearing the wig that Tina wore. I read somewhere that she didn't want to take it off and it made her head really itchy, but she just wanted to be in Tina's light. They went around the country granting dreams to people, granting their wishes and giving them money and stuff, which I thought was pretty cool.
But going back to your original question, when we gave her the demo we were completely talking. It was narrative on the verses because we thought that would be kind of sexy, and then she breaks into the melodies on the chorus. But she did it as a duet with Barry White, and Barry White had a very, very low voice. When he spoke it was like the floor rumbled. So, he did some of the talking parts with her, and she also did another version with Antonio Banderas where he was doing this sexy Latin talking.
Songfacts: Let's talk about the song "The Warrior." I can't think of a better pre-chorus to any song. I looked up the lyrics on your site to make sure I was hearing it correctly, and it really is "follow me stereo jungle child." Please tell me about this pre-chorus.
Knight: [Singing lyrics]
Follow me stereo jungle child
You won't be caged in the call of the wild
They are just a bunch of words that sing well and sound good. They are singable but you can't take them literally to mean anything. It's sort of expunged out of you when you're writing.
"The call of the wild" was obvious, and we were trying to think of something that rhymes with wild. I co-wrote that song with Nick Gilder, so maybe he has a different take on it, but I just liked the way it sounded.
Songfacts: In the first section, the line is, "Love is the kill and your heart's still wild."
Knight: Yeah. And then later in the song, it totally makes sense:
I don't wanna tame your animal style
You won't be caged in the call of the wild
It's funny, I just got a puppy recently and she's growing really, really fast. She's part wolf... actually she's a Siberian husky but she might as well be a wolf, she is the closest thing to a wolf, and she's amazing. But you have to train them, and they're not really domesticated animals.
But there's a fine line that you walk between trying to get somebody to behave and tame them for the right things, and not breaking their wild spirit. So "I don't wanna tame your animal style," when you're young and you're innocent you don't really have any regard for rules, but it's a double-edged sword. You want to retain that, but once you lose innocence, it's a fine line that you walk.
Songfacts: Yeah, and it doesn't have to be a romantic thing. If your son is growing up and the teachers are telling you he's got to calm down, you might not want to tame him.
Knight: When you collaborate with other people, you walk in there with your own life story so you interpret things differently, and when a song is really good it can cover many different viewpoints. Some songs are so literal that that's just what it is. But for me, rather than a love song or a fighting song, it was more empowerment. I never realized before I wrote that song how much the warrior spirit is inside of me, and it means a lot to me - which I'm writing about in my memoirs - to stand up for the things that you believe in and to follow through believing that those dreams can come true. Basically not taking shit from people but still trying to have some class and be open-minded and listen. It's all part and parcel for me. Maybe for Patty Smyth,4 she will have a different interpretation of it.
Songfacts: What was really funny to me was that Patty Smyth married John McEnroe, who is known for being untamed.
Knight: He is known for fighting.
Songfacts: Right. It's too perfect.
That song was the theme to Glow wasn't it? If you're looking for a theme for Glow, you can't hire somebody to write a song called "Glow" because it would sound ridiculous, but "The Warrior" ended up being the perfect theme song.
Knight: It really did. That show was literally about fighting, but also fighting for identity. It is also about individuality, because all the girls had to take on an alter ego persona and dress a certain way, and they all picked people that to them were empowering.
Songfacts: Let's talk about the song "Never" that you wrote with Heart. This is a very interesting song when you really look at it. The chorus is just one word really.
Knight: Well, actually I don't look at it that way. I look at "never" as the refrain. I write a lot of songs where there is a chorus and then I have the refrain, and for me, the refrain is sometimes the hook of the song and the part that people really latch on to.
But the chorus really starts with:
We can't go on just running away
If we stay any longer we will surely never get away
And then there is:
Anything you want we can make it happen
Stand up and turn around
Never let them shoot us down
Never, never, never
But it's interesting you said that. Whatever you want to call it, that's the part that everybody rallies to. As far as writing the song, I was putting together my band Device and I had a guitarist [Gene Black] who played this very funky riff on the guitar that became sort of the foundation of the verses [Sings riff. Play below to listen].
So, I said to Ann and Nancy, "Do you mind if I play this riff, and if you like it, I'd like to include my guitarist, who came up with it." They loved it, and then I sang the melody to them.
I guess I was being redundant as far as the subject matter but having different points of view and different titles, but it feels like that was my theme, and I think it all came out of the fact that I was not going to take shit from anybody after what I'd been through in the early part of my life.5
Songfacts: Yeah, it fit really well with Heart.
Knight: I became really friendly with them. We had a lot in common and there weren't many women doing rock that were being successful, so it was almost like a club.
Songfacts: They were also remarkable songwriters. Can you speak on their strengths as songwriters?
Knight: Well, it's funny that I would say this since I was on what I would call their "comeback" record, but - and the same thing happened with Aerosmith - I think their best work was their first couple of records. When you listen to songs like "Barracuda" and "Magic Man," that's where they shined, and I think being on the road and everything else that happened to them, they lost some of that.
For me, it's different because I stay home and I write all the time, but the first record is always when you've had plenty of time to write the songs. Then if the record takes off, you have less time to write and it's not that conducive to write on the road, so it starts to dwindle. But I'm not on the road, so I can maintain that focus because that's all I do - I'm an independent songwriter.
Songfacts: Tell me about another song you wrote for them: "There's The Girl."
Knight: Yeah, that I co-wrote with Nancy. We were trying to give her another hit song to sing because ironically the first #1 they ever had was with her vocal on "These Dreams" - that was also on the same record as "Never." That was a massively big record with a lot of singles.
I had the melody and the chorus, and it took us a while to write those lyrics because we'd write a little bit and then we'd get distracted and she'd go on the road, so it was written over time. Sometimes, something gets lost in translation when it's written over time, and I'm very surprised and happy to say that the song ended up being really popular. I see some of the comments on YouTube, and people love that song. I get asked about it all the time.
I recently heard a story of what it meant to Nancy. It was my title but she had a personal experience with a friend that went through it, that had been in love with somebody and saw them with another girl. We really didn't talk about that, so when I read it I was like, "OK, that's interesting."
Even today, I don't really sit and analyze it, talk about it. I just start to write it and put it down on paper and I either like it or I don't. And then I hone it, and sometimes it can write itself and other times it takes weeks to finish.
Songfacts: You told me about the song "Pleasure And Pain" a while back, which is one of your favorites. The song came on the radio a few weeks ago, and I was listening to the line where Chrissy Amphlett is singing, "Break my body with the back of your hand." What's going on there?
Knight: That's a Mike Chapman line:
Break my body with the back of your hand
Doesn't make sense from where I stand
There was some brutality in there - it is a very brutal line. A lot of the lines in it are pretty brutal, but I don't know if he was being literal when he came up with that line. I just liked the way it sounded and I didn't really analyze it.
When we wrote "Love Is A Battlefield," I remember saying to him, "I don't know what it means," and he said, "We'll figure it out as we're writing it." I write a lot of songs that start from just titles.
Songfacts: "Love Touch" by Rod Stewart, when I found out that you wrote it, I thought it was great because it's so Rod Stewart, the whole idea of, "Hey let me give you my 'love touch.'" This is the guy who sang, "Don't be there in the morning when I wake up."
Knight: Well it's really ironic because when he did his greatest hits record, he had to put that on there because it was a hit. He loved the song when I sent him the finished version and he thanked me and sent me flowers. It was a hit all over the world and it was in a movie called Legal Eagles. And he said, "It's one of the most embarrassing songs that I've ever had."
I was heartbroken and stricken. Like, This is news to me. If you want to talk about a song that is embarrassing lyrically, I would say "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" falls in that area.
But, here is the thing: I never meant "I want to give you my love touch" literally. Imagine if you're on the phone and your sweetheart is far away somewhere. You haven't seen them for weeks, and before you hang up, you send them a little love... a heart... a love touch.
It wasn't meant to be literally like, "I'm the greatest lover in the world and I am the best that you ever had," but he took it literally that way, which I thought was really funny when he made that comment.
Then I ran into him several times. In fact, I saw him at the Tina Turner premiere on the West End in London a few years ago - he was sitting right behind me. He was so friendly - it was like it never occurred to him. There was no negativity at all, so I don't know. I still think he's funny and adorable, and he loved the song when we did it.
I'm singing all the backgrounds. He wouldn't do his vocals until I did all the backgrounds and then he sang to the background. I played that steel drum band sound. In those days, you could reproduce that on a Fairlight and I had one of them - that was just the greatest.
To this day that's one of my favorite songs. I think there are some beautiful lines in there. There's one that has this double entendre: "I want to feel the breathless end you come to every night." There are some really well-written, beautiful lyrics in there. The fact that he said that, I thought, You just missed the whole point because you're shallow.
Songfacts: Well, he sings it with a bit of a swinging dick.
Knight: That's Rod, right!
Songfacts: That's Rod Stewart, that's what he does.
Knight: You know, I was going to go on tour with him to the Far East as a keyboard player - I play on a lot of records doing keyboards and singing - and his band hated me. They wanted to be writing the singles with him, and it was not only that I was an outsider, but a chick. So they were really mean to me. I didn't have many experiences like that at the time - I just got the respect that I always do. I don't have any #MeToo stories really.
Songfacts: Did you tour with him?
Knight: No, the tour never happened. They cancelled the tour and I was gravely disappointed because that would have been such an amazing experience. I love to perform live.
It was going to be a short tour, and to do that as a diversion and then go back to songwriting, that would have been fantastic. I wish I could've done that with a number of bands.
Songfacts: Did you ever tour with a band that wasn't your own?
Knight: No. Not that wasn't my own. I almost toured with Hall & Oates when I was 18, but then I decided I was too young to start doing that and I was trying to start a band so I could get a record deal of my own.
But it's funny because when I met Daryl, he remembered that an 18-year-old girl was going to come in and audition and he was waiting for me to come in and to see if I was any good. Isn't that funny?
Songfacts: That is. But Hall & Oates also has a keyboard player.
Knight: Well, he plays keyboard, but he's told me - which is true - I'm a better keyboard player than him. He just plays what's needed, but I'm classically trained.
My other biggest regret was that he wanted to do a song I had written called "Heart Don't Fail Me Now," and I didn't want to give it to him because I had just signed a solo deal with Columbia Records and I thought it was my first single, which it was, but it was ridiculous - they would have done it so much better and it would've been a hit. I'm not really a singer, you know. I was kind of talked into making a solo record as a singer because the concept was good and I was good enough to sing background vocals, but he ended up singing backgrounds on my record, which is a bit silly. They should have cut that song. I should have let them have it.
Songfacts: Yeah, it would have helped if someone had set you straight. If there was a manager that could have given you the correct advice, which would be, let Hall & Oates have this song.
Knight: Actually, my manager at the time was Tommy Mottola, and he was the reason the record never really made a blip on the radar. The week that my record was about to come out, he called me into his office and he said, "I've just been promoted to run Columbia Records / Sony Records. This could mean one of two things for you: It's either going to be really good or really bad. It could be really good because you'll have a straight in with the president of this company and I can make things happen, or it could be really bad because I'll be too busy to pay attention to your record." And it was the latter.
It's funny because he was managing Hall & Oates, and he should have said, "Give it to Hall & Oates, they'll have a smash with it."
Songfacts: I didn't know that you wrote this one but it used to get a huge reaction on the radio: the Riff song "My Heart Is Failing Me." Tell me about writing that song.
Knight: Remember I told you that there was a time period of about a month and a half when I wrote a bunch of songs with Albert Hammond? Well, we wrote that song together.
We met each other in Russia. I went on a trip with about 50 songwriters to write with Russians in Saint Petersburg - it was called Leningrad at the time - and I met Albert on that trip. When we came back we really got along - we had the same sense of humor and his style reminded me of a Chapman style, sort of old-school, romantic. So we wrote, and other things came into our lives so we didn't continue, but during that time we wrote "My Heart Is Failing Me" and a bunch of songs that Tina cut. We wrote three songs for Heart and there were some others.
Songfacts: How did you get into the emotion, the mindset of that song, which is very much despondent R&B: My heart is not just breaking, but failing me.
Knight: My first single was called "Heart Don't Fail Me Now," and I don't know why, but I wrote a lot of songs with the word "heart" in my titles. When I was in Device, our first single was called "Hanging On A Heart Attack." Maybe I should have been a cardiologist.
Songfacts: When you say "my heart is failing me" that almost does sound like a literal heart attack even though it's clearly metaphorical.
Knight: Well, your heart gets weak, you know. Everything with matters of the heart, it hurts. It actually physically hurts and tingles when it comes to matters of love when things aren't working out the way you want.
That's the whole point behind "Pleasure And Pain" - it can be so good and it can be so bad at the same time. If you're going to go for the good then you better expect that the bad is going to be just as strong if it happens. That's something I use a lot in my songs, that dichotomy.
There were a lot of amazing things about the band. We were very sophisticated musically. The guitarist and I were pretty much the musicians in that band. I was the bass player and wrote all the stuff either with him or Mike Chapman, and the music was just very sophisticated because we were great players. The biggest problem for me was the singer.
Songfacts: You shared vocals with the singer didn't you?
Knight: A lot, yeah. I spent years looking for a singer and I got so tired of looking and not finding what I thought I was looking for, so I picked him because he was technically good, but rock and roll is all about attitude, and he was from an environment that was very different. I'm from New York, and he was from Utah and came from a family of Mormons. He was just not the singer that I was looking for. I was looking for The Struts. Check out a song on YouTube called "It Could Have Been Me." Look at the video and look at this guy and you'll see what I was looking for, and I just could not find it.
I had to make the record, so Mike Chapman, who was the producer, did all the vocals, and then we just basically had the singer copy everything, but it didn't feel genuine to me. I wanted someone that would walk in and bring something that we didn't have. For that reason, I disbanded them. Then I got busy with other stuff.
Songfacts: I thought of another "heart" song you did, which is a song you wrote with Kiss called "Hide Your Heart." That song is a little different because there's a murder in it, and it's a whole story with names and all that. This is different for you.
Knight: Yeah, it is a departure from what I normally do and here's why: That was the first song I wrote with Paul Stanley. I've written four now but that was the first. He came over to my apartment where my studio was and he wanted to write something with me. We were just jamming. He had a guitar and I had a keyboard and I started playing the melody, which became the chorus, including the refrain which basically goes [sings, play clip]:
So that's the chorus melody and it had the chords on it and everything. He taped it and then he left. Our plan was to finish writing it at another time. He ended up writing it and finishing it with Desmond Child, so I have nothing to do with the lyrics. Those lyrics are not mine. The music, the melody, and the hook are mine, but the lyrics aren't.
The funny thing was that Paul called me up and said, "You remember when we got together and recorded some things on tape? I liked it and I ended up writing it with Desmond. I want to send it to you because I want to see if you think you should get a writing credit."
I said, "OK." I heard it, and the whole song was written around this idea that I had. I was surprised he would have the audacity to ask me that, so I said, "Yes, I want credit."
The lyrics are typical Desmond Child. I like Desmond, we're friends. He used to open up for my band Spider in the late 1970s when he had this group called Desmond Child & Rouge. If you look at the songs he's written, Desmond is really into Jim Steinman and Jim Steinman is all this storytelling. "Livin' On A Prayer" [co-written by Child] is like that. If you look at the verses, there's names of people and they're telling a story. That's Desmond's style, not mine. I don't think I could do that, so it's interesting you picked up on that. But if you look into the music and the hook, it's very me. It's quintessential Holly Knight.
Songfacts: So that's one of your hallmarks, that kind of music on a hook. Desmond is big, crazy chorus and Steinman-like lyrics. Are there other hallmarks to your writing that you can identify?
Knight: I've been told that people think of my stuff as anthemic, that it's cinematic, the lyrics that I write. There are certain songs that are anthemic that have "we"s in them, like "we are young," "we can't afford to be innocent." But I think the hooks are where I shine. That and basslines. Mike Chapman told me that I wrote great basslines, and I write a lot of stuff around basslines and the title, then I fill in the dots.
Songfacts: So you play bass in addition to keyboards. Do you play other instruments as well?
Knight: I play guitar, but I purposely have not allowed myself to learn how to play guitar well because I play keyboard well and wanted to have an instrument where I could just go there with no preconceived notions, and I thought the guitar is good for that because all great rock and roll songs are not that complicated as far as the guitar. I always thought that if you have a simpler bed, you can write more with the vocals. If you have a song that has very specific chords that move around a lot, which I tend to do more on a keyboard because I've played it for so long, then the vocal is confined, it has to follow those chords. With rock and roll, it's all about, does the melody hold up?
So I've written a lot of songs on guitar but I kind of cheat. Like I take the E string and tune it down to a D, and then I just play the top strings and their fifths - you can write any rock tune with fifths in them. I don't even know what the notes are on the fret. I could sit there and in two minutes figure it out, but I don't want to know.
Songfacts: So for you, the guitar is just a vessel for your songwriting.
Knight: Absolutely. I can't get up and play a solo but I write a lot of songs on guitar, and I'm not a performance guitarist but I am actually a pretty good guitarist in as much as I can play the right feel and rhythm, which I think is very, very important - the blues and stuff. I don't even play bar chords because I'm so used to my fingers being on keyboards, so I play my own version of guitar and it works.
I've taught that in my master class. There are people that want to write that don't play an instrument, so I've given them the tools that I have developed to put them in a place where they can actually write music. People if they write lyrics, they think it's frustrating if they can't write music, but I don't think it's the other way around. I think there are a lot of writers that call themselves writers and they've never written any lyrics, they just write the musical parts, and I think it's really important to write lyrics. Although there are great tunes, like if you look at Burt Bacharach and Hal David, or Elton John and Bernie Taupin, they just have this magic where they work well together where one just does the lyrics and one does the music.
Songfacts: How would you integrate a bassline into a song? That's one of your strengths but very often that's where it goes horribly wrong.
Knight: Well I always get annoyed if someone gets one of my songs and they change the bassline, because that's usually the best part musically for me. When they do that, they change the style.
I'll give you a perfect example. Todd Rundgren is one of my biggest influences. He has this style that I figured out. Let's say he's playing a G chord on the keyboards and he's got a G triad in his right hand. In the left hand, most people would play a G in the bass because that's the root note. He would always move it up a key. So, in other words, if you play G on the top and play A in the bass, you've got the Todd Rundgren sound. Immediately you know it's him.
So it's the same thing with me - my basslines often do that. They either go up a step or they go to the least obvious place, like maybe the third of the chord. I think if you have a great bed of the bassline you can sing along with that and you'll have all the elements to the song. The chords will sort of fall into place.
If you write a song and you're just playing chords and you are not being daring in the bass, you'll tend to have a more ordinary song. I think that the bass is powerful in that way. If you play chess, everybody says how the pawn is the weakest piece, but it's actually the most powerful piece, it's just that it's hidden. You have to have the right situation, but it can make or break something. I think it's the same with basslines. Even when I was younger I would listen to Bootsy Collins and other great bass players and think it's an underrated instrument. The guitarist and the lead singer get all the credit and all the attention, but any time I go to see a band play, when it's a great bass player I'm always blown away.
Songfacts: Do your songs ever start with a chorus?
Knight: Oh yeah, sure. "Love Is A Battlefield" is one of them. It's dangerous though, because record people hate it because they think you're already giving the chorus away and that's going to ruin it from being a hit, but that's not true at all. It's just whatever is right for the song. If it serves the song, do it. If it doesn't, don't do it, there's no point to it. If you write a bridge, it's got to have a reason to be there or you don't need a bridge.
Songfacts: So not every song you write is going to have a bridge in it.
Knight: Exactly. Some songs are more riffy so they're not designed to have a bridge. I call the bridge "And Furthermore." You set up the story in the verse, you get to the chorus, and the chorus has got to be what the song is all about, and it's got to be simpler. The verse can have more of the lyrical, literary, vague stuff, and then if there is even more that you need to say, it's "And Furthermore," and that's what the bridge is.
When I wrote "The Best" and it came out with Bonnie Tyler, Tina called me up. She was sent the song and it didn't really do much with Bonnie Tyler. She said, "I love this song and I'm going to cut it, but I want you to write a bridge. It is missing a bridge and I want the key to go up after that, then I'll cut the song." And she was right, that's when it became a hit.
Songfacts: Wow. You'd think that Tina Turner, if she decided she was going to be a songwriter and not a singer, she would have been equally as good. That's really amazing how she pulled that off.
Knight: She wrote "Nutbush City Limits," which is a fantastic song. I guess she just wasn't interested in writing.
Songfacts: Yeah, I think she considered herself a singer and that was going to be her calling. Let other people do the production and songwriting.
Knight: Well, she actually co-produced "The Best," so I think at that point, she knew what she wanted and she did try to get into that arena. She probably was doing it all along and then just decided to take credit for it and get acknowledged for it after all that time because she earned it.
But there are people like Tony Bennett who are iconic singers and that's good enough. Sometimes I think performers want to be thought of as the songwriters because it gives them more cred, but a great actor doesn't have to be a great screenwriter. Sometimes the two meet and somebody is brilliant at both, but it's OK if they're not.
But it's been a drag for me because a lot of times, these artists that I've written for talk about the song like they were there and they wrote it. No, you didn't write it, I wrote it, and it doesn't belong to you, it belongs to me. Even though you made it a hit and brought something to it that I never could. It's a team effort, but every now and then it gets weird when they try to cover it up. If you look on the Divinyls record, you won't see my name anywhere as the writer, and that sucks because that's my business card, that's my calling card. When I look at a song, I want to see who wrote it, and I might want to work with that person.
Songfacts: What's the song by another writer that had the biggest influence on you?
Knight: There's quite a few. I'm a huge Stones fan - more The Stones than The Beatles. I like The Stones because I thought they were great songwriters that wrote about things that were very profound and simple. Songs like "Beast Of Burden" and "Wild Horses" and "Waiting On A Friend" and "Can't Get No Satisfaction." That had a really big influence on me.
The Doors did musically as far as vocals - not so much the band - and I always felt like the keyboards were a bit too much and cheesy, but I was very influenced by them.
And then Todd Rundgren. He was a huge influence because there is something so quirky with him. Also, early Hal David and Burt Bacharach tunes. I didn't look up writers until I was in my 20s, but it's like, "I like this song and I like this song," and I'd have no idea it was the same writer, but then when I looked at the style and what I liked about it, it made sense. That happened a lot with those two writers. I was influenced by groups like Aerosmith and Heart, so that's why it was exciting when I had a chance to work with them.
June 17, 2021
We recommend following Holly on Twitter.
For the stories behind "Love Is A Battlefield," "Obsession," and other hits, check out our interview with Holly from 2008 (you can peg the date because she talks about her MySpace page).
And here's a great interview with Todd Rundgren, and another with Daryl Hall.
- 1] Terry Britten's most famous Tina Turner song is "What's Love Got To Do With It," which Turner's manager convinced her to record over her objections. (back)
- 2] Benatar's "You Better Run" video was the second one aired on MTV, following "Video Killed The Radio Star." (back)
- 3] The quote "the living will envy the dead" is attributed to Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev, but Sagan also warned of nuclear war. One of his famous quotes on the subject is, "The nuclear arms race is like two sworn enemies standing waist deep in gasoline, one with three matches, the other with five." (back)
- 4] Patty Smyth was the lead singer for Scandal. Not to be confused with Patti Smith of Horses fame. (back)
- 5] Ann and Nancy Wilson took a combined writing credit on "Never," listing themselves as "Connie." This meant the other writers, Knight and Gene Black, would each get a third of the song instead of a quarter. "I thought that was very humble of them to do that," says Knight. "Because these days, you can have 10 names on a song. Some guy will walk in and deliver lunch, and then he happens to know the producer, and he says, 'Oh man, you should do this,' and then all of a sudden he's a writer." (back)
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