Taupin, who is best known as Elton John's wordsmith, tapped Martin to compose music for two of his lyrics: an apocalyptic song about Los Angeles called "We Built This City," and a mystical tune aimed at Stevie Nicks called "Boys In The Mist." "We Built This City" went to Starship, kickstarting their chart revival and getting Grace Slick back on the air; "Boys In The Mist," reworked as "These Dreams," found its way to Heart and became their first #1 hit.
Martin's sound kept outpacing the trends. He came up with the rhythms for Go West's biggest hits, "King of Wishful Thinking" and "Faithful," and in 1994 released his first solo album, In the House of Stone and Light. The title track, a mesmerizing melange of beats and breaks with a lyric inspired by the earth's natural wonders, spent four weeks on top of the Adult Contemporary chart, displacing Madonna's "Take a Bow" and ceding to another Bernie Taupin joint: "Believe" by Elton John.
Martin Page: You know, Bernie writes in such a musical way. I found it so easy to jam to the way he wrote his lyrics - it was so rhythmic. He used to tell me that certain phrases he would write would be influenced by records he'd heard. For some reason, I found it really easy to sit down and read his words and jam on a keyboard or a guitar and just flow with it.
"We Built This City" and "These Dreams" were actually the first two songs that Bernie gave me. It was really a tester from him to see if we could work well together. And just like he does with Elton, the lyrics come first. I'd just arrived from England with my band, Q-Feel, and he'd heard Q-Feel because we were being played on KROQ. "Dancing in Heaven," our first single, had become quite successful in Los Angeles. Bernie wanted to move on a little bit into what at that time was more modern music. That was the time, really, in the '80s when Thomas Dolby, Thompson Twins, Ultravox were changing the landscape. So he wrote two lyrics, "We Built This City," and "These Dreams," that he felt were quite contemporary and quite edgy.
The demo was very different from the way Starship actually recorded the record. My demo is much darker, more of a "Shock the Monkey" Peter Gabriel vibe. I'd even recorded from the radio a police report of a riot going down in LA, which they turned into a DJ in San Francisco saying, "What a sunny day."
So I finished this demo on an 8-track really trying to impress Bernie more than anybody else, and hoping that we could work together in the future. The demo was quite high-energy techno, because that was the sound of the band I was in. It was just very fortunate that I enjoyed writing to Bernie's lyrics straightaway. It was a magical experience.
Songfacts: Was it your idea to break the song for that police report?
Page: Well, my band Q-Feel was very experimental, and we were very much into synthesizers and experimental music. So I thought this would be a great place in the song to just turn on the radio.
The way it was back then was experimentation. I literally turned this little radio on and the first thing I recorded was a police report of a riot going down in Los Angeles. It just seemed to taste very good with the darkness, although now nobody would really think of "We Built This City" as a dark song. Bernie spoke about it in Rolling Stone, that the original demo was very different to the record. "We Built This City" got a lot of stick because Starship had become commercial. But, as Bernie said in the interview, the demo is a different animal. It was my concept to let this radio break through on the song.
I saw the words as almost like a rebellion lyric: it was like live music has been taken away from the city. So my demo, it was a little more edgy. And I'm very pleased with what Starship did with it, because they made it a universally appealing song.
But, yeah, the actual breakthrough of what you hear the DJ speaking about on the record came from the concept of my demo.
Songfacts: The song also has another very interesting element, which is the open where it starts with just the vocals. Where did that come from?
Page: Came from my brain, Carl. It really came from outer space. It's very hard for me to express how songs appear to me. It really literally appeared. The reference point, really, is me working with my band, Q-Feel, and although I'd suddenly come to America and was writing with other people, it was experimental.
I wanted primarily to excite Bernie and get him going. Have him see that there's an angle of writing he could do with me that he might not do with Elton.
Recently, I was playing the demo at UCLA for some of the kids who wanted to hear it. And even for me now looking back, I'm like, Where did that come from? It's hard to explain. It popped out of the air. But I think it's because I absorbed so many records as a kid. That was my education: listening to thousands and thousands of 45s. I've always collected records, and when I sit down to write a song, it's almost like something in the back of my brain remembers something that I've heard and off I go. In my mind, it's not too technical, it's more spiritual. So it comes from a place which I think is from your heritage, in a way.
Songfacts: And you had the leeway to change the structure of the song?
Page: Absolutely. Bernie was very good that way. In fact, I can jump across to the other song, "These Dreams," which when it came to me was called "Boys in the Mist." Bernie had written it for Stevie Nicks. She hadn't gone for it, so he passed it on to me as a song called "Boys in the Mist." I didn't quite vibe off of that title, and although I'd only just started with Bernie, the bridge was the chorus to me - it said "these dreams" was the bridge. I moved the bridge into the chorus and used "boys in the mist" in a verse setting.
Songfacts: Would you change any of the actual words?
Page: It's an interesting question, really. Not in general, no. I would do very much like Elton did. And even Bernie said, when I started to work with him, "You've got the same enthusiasm as Elton in the early years."
I would try to make the music fit his words, but every now and then, I would sort of bend a lyric, make it double-length or I would drop a word here or there. He was really an open lyricist to that. Many other lyricists I've worked with are very, very determined, saying, "Don't change it." But with Bernie, he flowed and he let the colors appear.
The great thing about our collaboration is he really trusted me, and I trusted him. So once the music went into my hands, even if I didn't get really a great result on some of the songs that were written in the future, he wasn't one to say, "You failed on that." He was one to say, "That's the way it turned out. We move on."
Songfacts: Does it change the way you write when you get an unusual lyric like, "Marconi plays the mamba"?
Page: Yeah, it does. He's extraordinary. I feel that I really have written with what I would class the greatest contemporary pop writer of recent years. I grew up to Tumbleweed Connection and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, so to work with Bernie was one of those magical things.
But the great thing about Bernie is he never repeats himself. I've got folders and folders of his lyrics, and he is always original. Always. It really helped me, and it was luxury. I find lyrics, when I write songs myself, the hardest place to reach for.
But, Bernie was always inspiring with the lyrics he gave me. When you see, "Marconi plays the mamba," you know we're dealing with something here which is slightly electric, slightly outside the normality. It's got an energy to it. It's got a reference to radio, and that's why I turned on the radio to get this report.
Elton has said, "You read Bernie's lyrics, but you may not know exactly what you're into straightaway." And that's why sometimes the music appears without being too dictated. It gives you a color - his lyrics give you a map where to go.
But just like Elton, I felt like a lot of times I didn't know what these songs were about. I had the color and the taste of where he was, and I just let the melody happen. I felt like you have to just go with the flow and not overanalyze. You have to respect that this man knows what he's doing, so let's try and now find melodies and make a song. It was already crafted very well, so he made my job easy. We were very prolific, because half of the song was done, and I trusted it.
Songfacts: You mention that both of those songs had completely different lyrics. They also have completely different tracks that you wrote. I find it really interesting how you were able to then write "These Dreams" without using the elements that you wrote on "We Built This City." In fact, you made it very ethereal. The song does sound like a dream.
Page: Thank you, very much, Carl. I appreciate that. Yes, that's really been one of my things, which allowed me to have success in Los Angeles. I was a bit of a chameleon. I grew up with a huge record collection and I absorbed everything from the Kinks to Genesis to Jethro Tull to Toto to classical. I just took it all in.
Bernie also, if you look at his lyrics, goes from one place to another. It's easy for him to be influenced by the Rolling Stones and then jump over to something very ethereal. And you can see with "These Dreams" that he was writing a lyric that Stevie Nicks could have done: dreamlike, quite magical, quite medieval in its sense of going to a forest and a dream sense. That's why we did so well together, because I could look at a lyric that he'd give me and I'd say, "This is rock & roll, this is experimental, this is a kind of ballad."
And with "These Dreams," you could see it was such a beautiful, ethereal lyric, which touched on elements of "Candle in the Wind." It had that sense of absolute beauty about it. When I sat down to write it, I wrote it as an electric hymn. I tried to do a demo which sounded like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark doing "Candle in the Wind." To have an "Enola Gay" feeling about it, so you had a feeling of a hymn.
I love English choral music, so it's interesting that on "These Dreams," I wanted to make it modern. The demo is much more, shall we say, experimental and more like the Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark kind of thing, yet Heart broke it down to its essence and made it very simplistic. I think in a way that's what really made it such a successful record.
And, of course, those two songs went to #1, which was just bewildering to me and Bernie. So we started off in a very, very good place.
But getting to your question again, Carl, I loved the Beatles, I loved American funk, I loved the Staples singers, I loved Parliament, I loved it all. So whenever I got a lyric from him I was able to say, "Oh, this is an Aretha Franklin song" or "This is going to be a song sung by a crooner." I could really get the vibe for it.
And if we really look at Elton John's work over many years, you can see that he jumped from many different styles. But I've been known for that, and it was natural to me. I think a lot of people are suspicious that I could fit into so many different places, from Robbie Robertson to Josh Groban, actually. And even Robbie Williams recently. To me, it's very natural, but to some people, it's like, How can that guy work in so many different colors? I put it down to that I'm an absolute addict for all kinds of music.
Songfacts: Did you write lyrics when you were in Q-Feel?
Page: Yes, I did. I wouldn't say very well, but yeah, I did. Well, Brian Fairweather, my Scottish partner in the back, we both knocked out the lyrics together. I've never felt it was my strength until possibly in the last five years, when I've felt like I've come to grips with it because I was lucky enough to be around Bernie, Hal David I did some stuff with, and Robbie Robertson. So I was a sponge around these guys who were great, great, lyricists.
But I did write in Q-Feel, and some of it came off okay. Some of it was like, "We don't know what the hell we're doing." But in a way I felt like I was thrown into a lucky space. When I came to L.A., a lot of people had heard my music. The A&R people. And they all said, "We love your chordal sense and the unusual progressions of your chords. Let's put you with somebody who wants to write the words." I was labeled that way for a long time, but slowly and surely, I came out of my own cocoon and tried a bit myself.
I was actually pushed on to do it myself by Robbie Robertson. When I was working with him, he'd heard some of my demos, and I would always do phonetic vocals. I would make sounds that sounded like words, and Robbie would play off of that. And he said, "You should do your own record. You've got that strength." And even Bernie, when he heard my first solo record, said, "Great. I wouldn't touch any of that." Particularly a song called "Shape the Invisible," he just patted me on the back and said, "That's really great."
So I got more and more confident from the rag-and-bone days of Q-Feel where we just went for it. I've become a little bit more astute in how to get my emotions across.
Page: There was this A&R man, a very famous A&R man at EMI America, called Gary Gersh. When I first came into LA, Brian and myself, who were in Q-Feel, we went around all the record companies like maniacs. We really naively wanted to play our songs to everybody. Because although everybody saw us as quite an interesting '80s-sounding band that was in LA at the right time, beneath that, we were very influenced by American bands and American writers. We really liked the Doobie Brothers. We really liked Toto. We really liked the Tubes.
So when we went in and saw these A&R departments in LA, which were very turned on that "Dancing in Heaven" was doing well on KROQ, we suddenly pulled out of our pockets demos that sounded like the Doobie Brothers, or sounded like it was an American R&B ballad. And Gary Gersh said, "Some of these other songs you're playing me are wonderful for different artists. You're not just one thing." And Gary Gersh, particularly, saw Brian and myself like the guys who wrote for Squeeze. He said, "You guys are all-rounders. You can be writing hits for everybody."
He heard a song I wrote with Brian called "I Pretend," and he picked up the phone and called Kim Carnes and played it down the phone to her, and she said, "I love it."
So Gary sent Brian and myself across to meet Kim Carnes. We wrote with her a few songs that became singles and developed a relationship with her. Then Gary sent me on to Robbie Robertson to work on his first solo album - I wrote "Fallen Angel" with him.
But most of the A&R men in LA, although they wanted their artists to sound more modern, when they heard the other songs that we were writing, they said, "Oh, we've got artists that could do this." So again, it was being a chameleon and we could change colors at any time, Brian and myself. So whenever we were put into rooms with anybody or any artists, we were able to fit into their colors. Behind our band we were writing songs that could have been recorded by Frank Sinatra, could have been recorded by Earth, Wind & Fire, which eventually the wonderful thing happened where I was able to get with Earth, Wind & Fire, which were my heroes.
We were fanatics for our trade. One day we were Toto, one day we were Creedence Clearwater Revival. We were everything. It's not like that today, but in the '80s, in LA, A&R men thought we were the blessing that came through the door. We were English, we had a techno sense about us, we understood technology. But we also seemed to have this American thing. We were two English guys that were listening to Parliament, Todd Rundgren and Hall & Oates. So we arrived with this strange mixture. We were English techno kids, but we weren't just the Thompson Twins or any one thing. There was another layer underneath us where we were trying to be very skillful songwriters, and we thought the American songwriters, people like James Taylor and Michael McDonald, were the epitome of great craftsmanship.
Songfacts: You mentioned writing the song "I Pretend," which is a true heartbreaker. I mean, that's the kind of thing Smokey Robinson would write. Do you write that song from personal experience, or are you able to put yourself in some kind of position?
Page: In those days, Carl, I didn't really write from a personal place. I just wanted to write songs that everybody liked. I just wanted songs to appeal to people, because you're young, you're a puppy, and you suddenly learn that people seem to like what you do.
It's only been over I would say the last 10 years that my songs are very personal. I got into a situation where I was very fortunate to be able to put my own records out and to be that brave and say, "This hasn't got to be ultimately commercial, I want to get a message across," something which I didn't think people had heard from me. And my personal experiences were very real on my own albums.
But "I Pretend" was a ripoff of me listening to the Pointer Sisters. If you really listen to "I Pretend," it's me listening to the era of the Pointer Sisters. And, in fact, I took it to Planet Records where the Pointer Sisters were. There was an interest in it, but it didn't sell any seats. But that's how I used to write. I used to hear a record I loved, and as you say, Smokey Robinson, Motown I absolutely adored. When I wrote for Go West, "King of Wishful Thinking" and "Faithful," I was thinking of Smokey Robinson meeting Prince. I heard Go West working with Prince, and that's how I made both songs.
But "I Pretend" is me trying to be the Pointer Sisters with a slight American feel. It was not from a personal point of view.
Songfacts: Tell me about writing the song "Invisible Hands."
So "Invisible Hands" was written as a potential Q-Feel song. And when we're talking about Kim Carnes, she was quite adventurous. Before I'd left England to come across, she'd had a hit with "Bette Davis Eyes," which Brian and I thought was very unusual for an American record. It had drum machines, it was a little ethereal, it was not what you usually expected an American artist to do.
I was a big fan of Kim Carnes because of that song, and when Gary Gersh heard "I Pretend," he said, "Play me some other stuff." So we said, "Well, we've got these Q-Feel jammers, but they're a little bit modern and a little bit strange, they're a little bit outside the box." And he said, "Kim's going to love these."
So we went to meet with Kim Carnes. "I Pretend" was kind of standard song which we thought could work with her, but as soon as she heard, "Invisible Hands," she said, "I'm really into that. That's my kind of thing, as well." She loved experimental English music, so we had a great bond with her that way.
And an aside story to this is I played her "These Dreams," and she loved it. But when she went to do the demo, she thought it was too scale-y and went too far melodically, so she passed on it. When it became #1, she told me, "I always pass on #1 songs, I'm very frustrated about that."
Songfacts: "Invisible Hands," how do you come up with that kind of imagery to go with your tracks?
Page: At that period, was very influenced by the first solo album by Thomas Dolby, The Golden Age of Wireless. He had some tracks on there that had a great emotion, interesting lyrics, and used synthesizers very well.
"Invisible Hands" has the influences of funk. If you listen to "Dancing in Heaven," you'll hear our funk concept, really. It's quite funky and it swings. A lot of the English techno bands didn't really swing - they were very metallic and straight and very European. Ultravox in particular, very much like a German Kraftwerk.
But we swung. So with "Invisible Hands," you can hear that it's got an underlying funk synth bass line. Then on top of it I was influenced by Thomas Dolby's European outlook and strange lyrics. His lyrics like "Windpower" and "One of Our Submarines" - that album meant a lot to me and Brian. We thought that that was an extraordinary breakthrough album. That was the Sergeant Pepper of what was new wave music. He had a great groove underneath him. Dolby had great funk.
So I saw Q-Feel in a lot of ways, having that kind of instinct. And really, Q-Feel would have recorded that song. "Invisible Hands" to me had a kind of psychic spiritual poltergeist feel about it in the way I wrote the words. I didn't think too much about great lyrics, I just thought that I could see this kind of longing reaching out. These invisible hands are trying to come through a wall and touch somebody.
And Kim really caught onto it. I think she caught onto the mystery. We wanted it to feel like you couldn't grasp everything: what was invisible hands? It could be anything. We weren't great lyricists at that time, but we tried to conjure up great mystery in a three-minute single.
Songfacts: You wrote for Earth, Wind & Fire. I didn't know they ever let somebody write without one of them there.
Page: And you were right, as well.
Songfacts: But one of the things that Allee Willis once told me about writing with them is that Maurice White once handed her a lyric that just said, "Badaya, Dance until September," and she was horrified. You can't just put "Badaya" in there. And Maurice White had to explain to her, "Yes, you can. Because you can't let a lyric get in the way of a groove."
And when I was listening to your song "Magnetic," I was thinking about how that came into play. Can you talk about writing that song?
Now, Maurice White had heard my song, "Dancing in Heaven," on KROQ, and he thought that Earth, Wind & Fire needed to change their sound into more of an electric place. So I had a meeting with him at the studio and we really hit it off. He was very much into the spiritual side of music and UFOs, as you can tell from the pyramids on the album covers. My father worked for NASA over here in America, so I was able to talk to Maurice about what the astronauts saw when they were in space. We sort of bonded, and it really worked.
He said, "Why don't you go away and try to write a couple of things for my band that has that style." I quickly ran down the road to a little electrical shop and bought a Fostex 8-track. I tried to emulate the groove of "Dancing in Heaven," because I knew that appealed to him. And I wanted to create something that had a mysterious lyric to it, but sounded very contemporary. But as you pointed out, they have a real rhythmic sense of vocals. I intrinsically felt that Maurice White and Earth, Wind & Fire had this magical sense of rhythmic vocals. You didn't have to know what they were singing about, you just had to feel where their syncopations happened. They were majestic at that.
So "Magnetic" had that in the demo that I did. The demo was very much a techno Q-Feel kind of record, and in reflection, I think Maurice was very brave to actually say, "Let's cut this and do it," because he was taking a drastic left turn for the band.
Brian and myself came in to work with Earth, Wind & Fire when they were unfortunately breaking apart. Maurice was becoming a little bit more individual and was about to do a solo record and different things. I think "Magnetic" was something where he just wanted to say, "Let's change the sound." Although I loved Earth, Wind & Fire's original sound, and I was about to put real horns on the record.
But, he was very turned on that we were coming from a different place, and "Magnetic" really tapped into the new spirit and energy that he was looking for at that time.
But it's groove. And I feel very proud that as an English white boy I grew up on their records and understood the pulse and the groove. Maurice was always very, very encouraging in where Brian and I were coming from as writers. I would have to say that Maurice White, Bernie Taupin, and Robbie Robertson were really my three biggest teachers when I came to America.
Maurice then said to me, "I'd like to work with you a great deal on lyrics," and he brought me into a world where I was writing with Michel Colombier and all of the Earth, Wind & Fire writers. But I had to get into an instinct of writing R&B lyrics. I followed a little bit after Allee Willis, and Maurice gave me great, great freedom and worked off of my lyric. He'd send me away with tracks and I would start the lyric. Then I would sit with him and he would mold them.
This is a great thing I learned, Carl, and I've used a great deal also in my songwriting career, more in the later years: The phonetic sound of your voice is so important, particularly in R&B music. You want to get across punctuation and feel more than, shall we say, an intellectual point of view. If you're going to go, "Let's groove tonight," it's to do with where the notes fall and the way the voice sounds. The words can be second-rate and you can still love the record, but you can't let go of a great melody. The melody and the punctuation of notes - and particularly in R&B and black music - is really, really important.
Maurice is a great one to say, "Let's just go 'da da da da' here." He was more into the musical sound and the flow of a lyric. And we all know there are certain words you don't find too easy to sing - they don't sound right. You can write them on paper and say, "That really does make sense," but when you sing it, it doesn't work well with the throat. It was more to do with sound and feel. That was the big word with Earth, Wind & Fire, how does it feel?
Songfacts: You mentioned earlier "King of Wishful Thinking." That song has an interesting lyrical dissonance. It's a very heartbreaking lyric, but the beat has a lot of positive energy. It makes you happy.
Page: Well, I became known around that time as the songwriter people came to to get the hits - everything was coming out and doing very well.
I loved Go West, particularly Pete Cox' vocals. "We Close Our Eyes," when that single came out, I was knocked out with his vocals. England produces some extraordinary R&B singers: Paul Young, Robert Palmer, Paul Carrack. These are great, feel R&B singers. And Pete Cox is one of those, so I wanted to work with Go West.
They were in a bit of a slump and they hadn't broken America. They'd been sent to LA to write with the normal round of songwriters, and they weren't getting on too well with them. They thought it was a bit too cosmetic and a bit too factory-oriented. When they met me, they felt that I was sort of in the band. I knew their songs. I wanted to sit down with them and have a cup of tea and have some fun. We got on as mates.
But I did write the backing track for "King of Wishful Thinking" ahead of time for them. What I used to do with artists, I'd say, "Yes, I'll write with you, but give me three weeks on my own. Then when you come across I'll play you a bunch of ideas on cassette and you can see which one you think is worth pursuing."
I thought, "How would I break Go West?" Wouldn't it be great with Pete Cox' vocals to think of the groove Go West has, but going to Minneapolis and mix him with Prince and Smokey Robinson. And I truly believe "King of Wishful Thinking" will stand the test of time, like a Smokey Robinson song. It could have been a Motown track.
I wanted them to have a hit, so my job was to bring them into the Top 10. I wrote a lot of the music and I had the feel, and they were just brilliant to work with. Pete Cox and Richard Drummie would take my demo and sit outside while I was in the studio doing the music, and they would build up the words.
Now, Richard Drummie had in his little black book of lyrics the title "King of Wishful Thinking." He walked in from outside and said, "What do you think?" I said, "It sounds good to me." The lyrics were written by those two boys. I was more the music and the concept and melodic content on that song, and the groove. It was mainly getting the groove.
I'm giving away secrets here, but there was a song by the Fine Young Cannibals at that time called "She Drives Me Crazy." It had a really attractive tempo and feel to it, so I used that a little bit as a template for building a song for them.
In those days, you sat down and you listened a great deal to the charts, as I know they do now, and you'd think, "Well, what do I really like and what would really work with this?" I could hear that Fine Young Cannibals track, and I thought, "I could hear Go West killing a song like that." And even that song had a kind of Prince feel about it.
I wanted to make Go West have a little bit of an edge for America. America, I thought, would accept a little bit of funky soul from them. And with Pete Cox' vocals, you can't go wrong. He's an extraordinary vocalist, and when you've got a singer like that getting on the mic and playing with your melodies, you're pretty fortunate.
Songfacts: Do you know how that song ended up in Pretty Woman?
Page: Actually, that wasn't written for Pretty Woman. We wrote the song, they put the demo into EMI music and everybody jumped up and down. They said, "This is it! You've done it!" And then I think the film appeared just after we delivered the demo, and everybody said, "Why don't we release this with Pretty Woman?" So I think the film people came just after we did the demo. It was not written for the film, but it did greatly help us.
Songfacts: You talked about how you didn't get into really personal songwriting until years later. What led you to write the song "In the House of Stone and Light"?
Page: My experience of working on Robbie Robertson's solo album. I was with him for about two years, and I watched the way he worked. This was a very interesting thing to me, because I'd come to Earth, Wind & Fire, I'd come to the commerciality of many songs of different people. And here I was in the Village Recorder with Daniel Lanois, Robbie Robertson, and Peter Gabriel was involved. This was really where I wanted to be. At that same time I was working with Earth, Wind & Fire, so it was a great university education.
With Robbie, you were really dealing with a song craftsman who would take as long as it took to piece a great piece of music together with great, great atmosphere. Obviously, his time with Bob Dylan had influenced him. I felt this was the arena I needed to be in, because it was great art. The two songs I'm most proud of, the way they turned out harmonically and with emotion, are "These Dreams" and "Fallen Angel."
My period with Robbie Robertson was very, very long. I'd bring in ideas and he'd mull over it and we'd experiment and experiment and experiment. But he would encourage me in the way I would sing these demos for him and I would guide him with the demo, then leave him alone. And he said, "One day you have to make your own record. You really should."
And my manager, Diane Poncher, who's been with me for over 30 years, had always been saying to me, "I know you had Q-Feel and then you went and wrote for everybody else and went to university to learn, but there's going to be a time when you want to make a solo record." So this was beginning to brew up, and I felt it needed to be done.
I love that Robbie is trying to get under the skin in his songs. He's trying to get a tremendous amount of humanity out, his own emotions. I'd learned the trade of writing a commercial song, but I believed in my voice a bit more, I believed in my vocals more.
So it just clicked in me that I should make a record that I really cared about. Now, interesting enough, Robbie Robertson being half Indian, had a great amount of spirituality in the way he was writing his lyrics. And I thought, "I've been in LA working for such a long period of time, I'm a bit done out. I'm going to go to the Grand Canyon and have a break."
Well, I went there and I was spiritually moved at that place. I went down into the bottom of the canyon where the Havasupai Indians were, and I took a lot of literature away from the Grand Canyon. The timing was just right, because I'd worked my butt off to get to certain places in songwriting. I was known as a commercial writer, but I knew inside me, from working with Bernie Taupin on his solo record, there were a few songs, like "Desperation Train" on his Tribe record, and "Fallen Angel" and "Hell's Half Acre" for Robbie, that there was another side of me that nobody'd ever seen. I have a beat-folk element in me, which nobody really believes. But I came from the south of England, so I understood folk music, and I was seeing a little bit of this with Robbie Robertson.
The timing was just right. I was mature enough to say, I'm going to sit at home and make a record. And Bob Skoro, an A&R man who'd put me with Bernie Taupin years and years ago when he started us off together with Chappell Publishing, said, "Whenever you want to make a solo record, Martin, call me." Well, I did, about 10 years after. And I think he went, "Oh, dear. Well, I did promise this." So I played him some demos, and he said, "I'm into this. I want you to make a solo record."
I was at that age where I thought, Well, I'm not going to do a Q-Feel record, I've done that. And I'm not going to just try to have hits. I'm making a record at a late stage in my career, and I want to enjoy it. I'm singing the best I've ever sung, so this is the time to make a record. I'm mature enough.
I didn't see it as a quick thing, and I didn't think that there may ever be another solo record. I was signed to Mercury Records.
So I wrote songs that related to my life. "House of Stone and Light" was influenced a great deal by going to the Grand Canyon. The Indians there called the canyon The House of Stone and Light, and I saw that, really, as a reference to my own body and my own soul. I saw the house as my body and building something inside yourself to be strong. I'd worn myself out and really didn't know which direction to take, so as soon as I saw that title, "In the House of Stone and Light," I saw it as a spiritual gospel song. I saw it as my house is my body and I've got to pull myself together. I turned it into a treaty - a hymn to myself to say, Keep this together, stay strong, don't get tempted by all the wrong things in life, and let's do some music we really, really believe in.
I'd put a 24-track studio in my house. I had the opportunity to spend a year or so trying to do something that I felt proud of and said a lot about who I was, which is what I'd seen Robbie Robertson do. The songs that I've put out on my solo albums may not be the most commercial, but they are something I needed to do and they seem to have stood the test of time.
I was surprised when "In the House of Stone and Light" became a hit, because it was quite unusual to have a record do that. But it must have connected with a lot of people spiritually. On YouTube now, you can see kids' groups sing that a cappella, like it's a hymn. So I got something right with it.
Songfacts: Well, I think there's a universal spirituality about that song. It doesn't matter what your faith is, you're going to hear something in that song.
Page: Thank you. You saying that, Carl, is probably one of the greatest compliments. This is going to sound strange, but I grew up loving reggae. So I wrote "House of Stone and Light" with this kind of gospel Jimmy Cliff, Paul Simon "Mother and Child Reunion" feel to it. When I'm writing songs, all the 45s I grew up with, they swirl around in my head. And although "House of Stone and Light" has this kind of universal appeal, it's also, to me, a reggae song. It could have been done by Jimmy Cliff. And yet it goes into a bridge section which sounds like it's Jethro Tull. So it's a very strange mixture of folk, reggae, progressive rock, and gospel.
Songfacts: Were you ever planning to fill in that breakdown section with actual words?
Page: Oh, yeah. What you hear on the record is the demo vocals of that part. I just went [sings onomatopoeia - play the clip to hear].And I started to put harmonies on it like Jethro Tull, and I thought, "There's going to be words here." And then as time went on, just like you said about with Earth, Wind & Fire, you start to go, "This is just magically happening." And when I tried to write words to it - "Here's a man..." - you go, "This is just terrible. This is just not going to work."
So it became a jig. It became a spiritual jig. And my manager, Diane, the more she listened to it, she said, "You're crazy, leave it. It's got a vibe to it." But I did take it in to the band to record with those vocals on it, and I was telling the band, "Don't worry, this is just a guide. This is just like Paul McCartney doing, 'scrambled eggs.' It's going to change." And the band would look at me and go, "Why? It has its own thing. It just sounds like it's meant to be."
So it stayed where it was. I did try to put words on it, but I wouldn't want you to hear the words to it, Carl, it would make you vomit.
Songfacts: That's what happened with Bill Withers with "I know, I know, I know."
Page: I read that, actually. I went to look at your Web site. And I love Bill Withers and I read that, and I thought, "That's the same story I had when I was doing it." Because all of his peers around him said, "Leave it."
Songfacts: Booker T. told him, "No, we're not changing that."
Page: You're going to agree with what he says.
Songfacts: So, Martin, is "Fallen Angel" about a specific person?
But Robbie was playing with lyrical ideas for a huge period of time and every time I would go back to the Village to work with him, it was quite frustrating, because I thought we were doing very well and he'd say, "I've changed the words." He would sing it and ask me, "What do you think?" And I'd say, "Well, I think it's all good, Rob. Really good." Everything he did I thought was fine.
But then one special day he called me and he said, "I really have what this song's about." At first it was going to be called "War of Angels," and it was going to be the idea of fallen angels actually falling out of heaven and touching hell. He was really getting into this kind of biblical place. But all of a sudden, very emotionally he said to me, "It's about Richard." And I could see in his face that he'd nailed it. It was his special song to Richard Manuel. I had really nothing to do with the lyrics on that song except for him asking me if I liked things, and it was my phrasing. So he would make me sing the demo for him at the Village and I would leave him. He would form around what I sang - he would make it work for himself.
It was a fantastic idea to have Peter Gabriel sing the chorus, another one of my heroes. But it was a very personal lyric from Robbie. Everything was written by him for Richard, and I think it was a great testament to his undying friendship for his friend who left a little too early.
Page: That came, again, from phonetic sounds. I would do a demo and go:And it's the same with "House of Stone and Light." If you listen to the first verse, I go, "O, Mount Kailas." When I first sang it, it was "O maryias." And then I think, I can't change that sound. That sound is intrinsic to the feel, just like I mentioned about Earth, Wind & Fire. It's the sound. So I got to open books up and go, "Oh, Mount Kailas. That sings well, that's rather Buddhist." And it's a great place - Mount Kailas is a mountain where people would walk around and strip pieces of clothing off and leave them around the mountain to say, "I'm stripping some of my past off and some of my sins." And I thought, "Yep." But it's to do with the sound.
So on "Mi Morena," I'd had this beautiful song harmonically, but I was going (singing onomatopoeia), and it was the "aaa," the sound "aaa." You can't change that. You can't go, "Oh, Freddy, boy," it's not going to work.
And I love to read. I'm hugely into books. They influence a lot of my songs. And I love the poetry of Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet. I was reading some of his poetry, and it had on the left side the Spanish version, and on the right side of the page, the English version. I saw "Mi Morena" written, and I thought, "What a beautiful sound," and I sang it to the song. I thought, "This sounds good, but I don't know what it means." I could be saying, "There's dung in the streets." I don't know what it means. But my manager, Diane, had an understanding of Spanish, so she had a vibe that it meant, "My dark one." And then we looked a little deeper, and that's what it meant, "My dark one."
It's such a romantic song, and I love brunette ladies, so I thought, "This is going to be a Pablo Neruda song." The whole song is influenced by reading all of his love poetry and just feeling how Neruda gets so under the skin with his love songs. It's not corny; it's rusty and deep and dark and bloody. And as soon as I knew that "Mi Morena" meant "My dark one," I wrote it as an ode to a brunette and somebody watching somebody from afar dance.
But it was really influenced by the great emotions that Neruda brings up in his love poetry, and by the mechanical need to keep the sound the same. The original demo has, "Voy ay aaa." And that turned into, "Mi Morena."
Songfacts: What's another one of your songs that was inspired by a book?
Page: On my solo records, most of them are. "The Door" on The House of Stone and Light album, the end is written from reading the book about Treblinka, the concentration camp in Poland where the Jews rebelled and escaped for the first time. 600 Jews actually got out of the camp. And by reading the book Treblinka, I saw the door to freedom. The door became the door to freedom: these people had to chose either the door into the gas chamber, or the door into the forest, which they did. They broke through and ran into the forest.
"Shape the Invisible" is from reading a lot about the Irish troubles - I mention that in the first verse. And also from reading about Leonardo da Vinci, who said, "When I'm painting, I'm shaping the invisible."
Most of the songs on my recent solo records came from reading. There's historical backgrounds to a lot of the songs.
But my earlier hits have allowed me to do some things that are more, I would say, a solo artist's work. I was really determined to have somebody listen to my solo records and think: there's one color through this, we can get it. My reading of books has helped me formulate a lot of my songs and given me courage to think that I'm writing something that's going to last and is a little more meaningful.
Songfacts: Did anybody ever hire you on as a backup singer or a session musician?
Page: Oh, yeah. That's really what I did in England. I was at Jive Records when I first started to write with my partner, Brian. Although we had a band, Q-Feel, we were on the early pop records of the group Tight Fit. I worked for Tim Friese-Greene, the producer that did Talk Talk and was in Talk Talk. I was doing a lot of bass playing for him in London.
And when I came to America with Brian, we were the musicians on "Ghostbusters" for Ray Parker. We went to meet Raydio - we loved Raydio, and loved Ray Parker. He used me on the keyboards for "Ghostbusters" and he used Brian on guitar.
Then on the Kim Carnes records, everything you mentioned, "Invisible Hands," and "I Pretend," it's Brian and me doing the backing vocals and playing instruments. On Robbie Robertson's "Fallen Angel," I'm doing the drum programming. On Maurice White's first solo record, I'm playing the bass on "Switch On Your Radio." I did all the keyboards with Larry Dunn on "Magnetic."
So everything we went into, Brian and I, as writers, we were asked to go and do our parts. Even with Starship, some of the background vocals were done by Brian and myself. So everything we touched we were involved in. And if you look at all the vinyl records and see our names popping up, it's not only as just associate producers, but we were playing the parts, as well.
Songfacts: That occurred to me when you were talking, because you mentioned Thomas Dolby, and I know he was a keyboard whiz that Mutt Lange would sometimes bring into a Def Leppard session to make the thing sound really good.
Songfacts: And it sounds like that's one of your particular talents - you'd be a guy they'd want in there.
He wanted the same feel. Kim Carnes wanted that. She said, "I want you and Brian to do what you do, because there's something in the demos." I always had that. People would take our songs and then call us up and say, "Do you mind playing keyboards?" I even played keyboards for Ray Parker on a Teddy Pendergrass record. I mean, very nervously, because I couldn't believe I was becoming a keyboard session player. I'm a bass player. But yeah, we were just used like crazy.
And it was a great, great learning experience. I mean, the biggest thing in my life was Earth, Wind & Fire. They had Brian and myself in the studios with them, and they were notorious for not allowing anybody near them, ever. And we were in the studio, two white boys, playing with them. I was playing keyboards and Brian was playing guitar with Earth, Wind & Fire. There's not a greater experience in the world.
And Maurice White was actually playing drums on "Magnetic." His brother moved off the drum kit and he played drums. I'm in the room with Earth, Wind & Fire playing. I mean, I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven. It was unreal.
But people liked the demos. Even the A&R men would say, "Would you be there when they do this?" And it wasn't like we were technically trained - we learned from records. I learned from the ear. And it was very strange thing that everybody wanted us in the studios to be with them doing it, because we did it by ear. I learned everything from vinyl records. I never read music. I only learned a little bit about reading music later on, but my thing was to copy records.
In that time of the '80s and the '90s, we were English who played keyboards. We understood the Fairlight, we understood the Oberheim, we understood the Jupiter-80. And for Americans who were a little bit behind at that time with technology, they welcomed anybody who understood the electric side of music that was beginning to encroach into music at that time.
Songfacts: So just to get this correct, the Josh Groban version and your version of "Mi Morena," the only difference is the vocals?
Page: The vocals, and I brought Brian in, my Q-Feel partner from the past, to come in and play some more nylon guitar live on top of it. And it was re-mixed by Mike Shipley on top of my version, which I always mix at home. We finished it off with another nylon guitar.
But even when Josh plays it live, it's over the scans of me at home. Everything you hear live, except for the players he's got on top, it's the scans of what I did at home. And yes, the Josh Groban version is mine. And Robbie Williams' version of "The Long Walk Home" on his In and Out of Consciousness record is exactly my record. It's just his voice on it and remixed.
It taught me as a young boy that sometimes the demos are ultimately sometimes just so magically better than the records. I've experienced it so much in my career that people would take my songs, redo them, and they weren't as good. Very rare when they had something else in them.
So all my albums, including House of Stone and Light, were all done in my garage - all of that record was done at home. And I still do that now. When I build a demo, I know it's the record. It's usually the record. It's only the phonetic vocals that I'm doing that may turn into something. But I'll also use all the animal vocals and the phonetic, subconscious vocals right up to the last minute, because within those subconscious noises that I'm making, I would also comp those into the lead vocal. I will comp my grunts and groans into the lead vocal. On "House of Stone and Light," I kept that, because that's just a scat that you don't want to lose.
But I learned quite early on that you can be too sophisticated and lose the plot. The magic often is the first vocal you ever do. I always keep the very first vocal. However rotten it is, you'll be surprised at the end that the first vocal has something, when you're not thinking too much.
Songfacts: The last thing I have for you, Martin, what's one of your lesser-known songs either that you've written or performed that you're really proud of?
Page: That's a good question. Everything I've written is brilliant [Laughing]. There's a song on Bernie Taupin's solo record when Bernie one day wanted to say to me, "I want to sing again." So we did an album called Tribe, which nobody really knows about. And yet we had a Top 40 AC song for him. It was a challenge, because Bernie trusted me to write all the songs and he let me produce it and he sang it.
But there's a song on that album called "Desperation Train." It's hidden away. Nobody really knows about it. It's the last track. I think it's an exquisite lyric by Bernie. A fantastic lyric, and one of my favorite songs that I've ever written with him. Sometimes I have a great desire to record it myself and do a new version of it.
But "Desperation Train" I think is a very special track that always sticks in my mind. And also on that album a song called "Citizen Jane." The two of those songs. Although there was no marker made by this record and it sort of faded away very quickly into history, those two songs remain in my mind as having something quite special in the writing. Not necessarily in the production, but his lyrics and the melodic content I feel very proud of.
March 21, 2014. Get more at Martin's Facebook page.
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