Songwriter Interviews

John Parr

by Carl Wiser

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"St. Elmo's Fire (Man In Motion)" is one of the most intriguing songs we've encountered. Written for the 1985 film starring Rob Lowe, Demi Moore and the rest of the Brat Pack, the song is not about the movie - it's about a Canadian wheelchair athlete named Rick Hansen, who after losing use of his legs in a car accident, set out on his "Man In Motion" tour to raise money for spinal cord research. After David Foster, who was in charge of music for the film, tapped John Parr to sing and co-write the title song, they came up with a tribute to Hansen but played it off to the film company as inspired by events in the movie, claiming that "this pair of wheels" refers to Demi Moore's jeep, not Hansen's wheelchair.

The song shot to #1 in America, where it became a cultural touchstone along with the movie. Parr, an Englishman who had a hit with "Naughty Naughty" from his 1984 debut album, followed up in 1986 with Running The Endless Mile, which only mustered one chart entry: "Blame It On The Radio" (#88). He released albums in 1992 and 1996, then vanished until 2011, when he returned with Letter To America.

His famous song has found a new audience thanks to an Android commercial that debuted during the 2016 Oscars. In the animated spot, rock, paper and scissors learn to set aside their differences. In this interview, John talks about writing the inspirational anthem, what he thinks about the commercial, and why he disappeared for so long.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): You had a very challenging songwriting assignment: getting the phrase "St. Elmo's Fire" into a chorus. How did you approach that?

John Parr: A lot easier than finding a rhyme for Gillette when I was writing the long version of the commercial.

Actually I never thought about fitting St. Elmo's Fire in to the song... it just came. That whole song was a gift.

Songfacts: Did you see the film before you composed the song?

John: Fortunately I didn't see the film, specifically because the phenomenal force of nature known as St. Elmo's Fire was a metaphor. To me it was the embodiment of a dream, a focus to strive towards as it glows in the sky.

In the movie Rob Lowe pulls out a gas canister and tells Demi Moore not to get too hung up about her problems. He lights the gas and as it ignites he dismisses her plight as no big deal just like St. Elmo's Fire. That would have killed it for me.

When Rick Hansen's "Man In Motion" tour started in March 1985, donations and media coverage were hard to come by, but as this song rose up the charts that summer, it became his anthem and drew attention to his journey, which lasted over two years, covered 34 countries, and raised millions for spinal cord research.
Songfacts: How did it work with your scenes in the video where you appear with the actors?

John Parr: Embarrassingly. I was fresh out of England. I had no idea who Demi or Rob or any of them were. I thought they were just kids. When we were shooting it seemed like they weren't doing anything, so I was stupid enough to offer them the benefit of my experience. After all, I had done a few school plays.

In the end we got on great. I did a few shows with Rob... fairly impromptu but we once did a great duet together in front of a big crowd - we sang "Money." I seem to remember Demi getting on stage with us one night at some club or other, but that was many moons ago when we were young and foolish. Wonderful!

Songfacts: You were on the rise after your first album, but "St. Elmo's Fire" was a #1 hit and also made you a video star. How did things change for you after that happened, and how did you handle the sudden success?

John Parr: In truth "Naughty Naughty" was the record that opened the door for me. MTV was newborn and they really supported the video, and on the radio the song really did the job of an album for me.

But you are right Carl, St. Elmo's put me on the global map. As regards handling it... I had been a giggling musician for 20 years prior. I started when I was a kid, so I had already seen and done it, but this time I was in the fast lane. When I got my shot I just carried on working hard, practicing, trying to get better. I had my moments but for me I love what I do and would never compromise the gift.

Songfacts: How did the song end up in the Android commercial, and how do you feel about its use in the spot?

John Parr: Google to me are a very blue-sky, forward-thinking company. I don't know for sure but I reckon they checked me out before investing so heavily in the "together but different" campaign. They wouldn't want some guy with skeletons ruining the message.

But of course it's the song at the end of the day. Because it was written and performed in such a short, incredible moment of time for me. I had just seen a short video of Rick Hansen setting out to circumnavigate the globe in his wheelchair. I was charged, truly inspired. I was him as I sang it, wheeling up the mountainside towards St. Elmo's Fire burning in the sky. Even when people don't know the story they usually get the feeling when they hear the song. I think Google maybe felt it too.

Songfacts: The song is incredibly inspirational, but because it was a movie theme and features the title in the chorus, that makes it hard to repurpose (the Android edit deftly works around it). Did you ever record a more generic version without the phrase "St. Elmo's Fire"?

John Parr: Strangely yes. I was doing the song on ESPN live in 2012, and as I was singing I saw this football player on the video screens. It said "Tebow" across the back, so for fun I sang "Tim Tebow's Fire." I had no idea who he was or the incredible story that broke later that year.

In addition to "St. Elmo's Fire" and "Naughty Naughty," John also charted with "Magical" (#73), "Blame It On The Radio," (#88) and "Love Grammar" (#89). He co-wrote "Night Moves," Marilyn Martin's follow-up to "Separate Lives," and co-wrote a Keith Moon tribute called "Under A Raging Moon" that Roger Daltrey made the title track to his sixth solo album.
Songfacts: How do you typically write a song?

John Parr: Great songs are given to you. Yeah you can craft them, but the great ones are gifted. As soon as you start thinking it's you... it's over.

Songfacts: How did you create the bassline that opens "Naughty Naughty" and plays throughout?

John Parr: I had my band at Criteria studio in Florida over from England to record my first album. I had all the songs written but we would start each day with a warm-up jam. I had the riff and it would develop each day until "Naughty Naughty" was born. The keyboard player tried to copy what I was doing on guitar, so did the bass player. They couldn't get it but out of the effort came that hooky riff. A happy accident.

Songfacts: "Love Grammar" is a very interesting take on infidelity. How did you come up with that song?

John Parr: I love wordplay. English grammar. I before E except after C. I thought of a fun twist on a lovers' relationship where the girl always puts me first until she realizes she has me. "I Before he except after she knows I'll always be there."

Songfacts: Some of your early songs, including "Naughty Naughty" and "Magical," are quite feral and provocative. Was this an image you were going for?

John Parr: Ahmet Ertegun signed me to Atlantic. He was a great mentor and although he recognized I was quite diverse as an artiste, he saw me as a rocker. "Sex sells" he would say, hence "Naughty Naughty."

"Magical" was a collaboration with Meat Loaf and the lyric was mainly his. Inspired by the movie Cat People. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis clearly liked it - check the similarity with their Janet Jackson 6 million-selling hit single "Black Cat." Anyone know a good lawyer?

Songfacts: What was it like making the videos for those two songs?

John Parr: Twenty years trying to get a deal and suddenly it all happened: San Francisco, cars, girls. What's a man to do?

"Magical" was shot on a set in London. The crazy director Tim Pope built a club "The Beaver Club." Say no more.

We actually shot an X-rated version of the video, and Atlantic went crazy - we were spending double the budget. I told em', "Sex sells."

Songfacts: Please tell us about co-writing the Marilyn Martin hit "Night Moves."

John Parr: I worked with the lovely Marilyn writing and producing songs for her album. We had a session at the Record Plant in New York. I seem to recall we were working on another track and during the break we were just running a few ideas and out came that song. Jon Astley later came aboard as producer and gave it a far more generic '80s vibe. John's a great producer but personally I think it dates the song when you listen now.

Songfacts: What's the story behind your American-flag guitar?

John Parr: Throughout my life I dreamed of America, Hollywood. It seemed like it was as far from me as the moon. I grew up with English music - the Beatles were the reason I do what I try to do - but the classic music of America, the iconic artistes, were what I tried so hard to measure up to, so America was always the place for me to try to make it.

An old school friend of mine made fairings for racing motorcycles out of fiberglass. He made a fiberglass mask for my Les Paul in the '70s. I thought it would be great to have the flag of every country I performed in made into a guitar mask. I have a bunch of them but the Stars and Stripes has remained on that guitar since then. It's the one country that gave someone like me a chance.

Songfacts: "Under A Raging Moon" really captures the essence of Keith Moon and his era with The Who. Please tell us about writing that song for Roger Daltrey.

John Parr: My friend Julia Downes and I wrote it for Roger. My former manager was with The Who since they began. He started out as Keith's driver and was their tour manger for over 20 years. During the many journeys we shared he would regale me with stories of Keith's exploits. It was as if I was there and I knew him.

Again my love of wordplay came into effect. I imagined a moonlit night as The Who hit the stage at Woodstock, Keith with his crazy driving rhythm controlling the band and the crowd, all under his spell, all "Under A Raging Moon." I got to sing it with Roger at Madison Square Garden alongside The Ox [John Entwistle]. The stuff of dreams.

Songfacts: Why did you take a hiatus from music, and what did you do in that time?

John Parr: Someone in my team betrayed me. I brought a legal action against them but they were very cunning and kept the case running for almost 18 years until I got justice. During that time no label could sign me as I was in litigation and therefore unsignable.

During that time my wife and I raised our two boys. I never missed a day of their childhood. Those terrible years career-wise were the greatest gift of my life.

Songfacts: What are you up to these days?

John Parr: My sons are grown and are my pals, as is my long-suffering wife. I rebuilt my beloved studio that I lost in the lies of the court case - I knew I had to rebuild it when I won. The studio is called Somewhere In Yorkshire, and it's my baby.

I write, record and tour, but I try to write songs that really mean something. That being said, I have just begun the new album and although there are many meaningful tracks, it's still a tad edgy, dangerous even... Naughty one might say.

March 10, 2016. Get more at johnparr.net.
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