Songwriter Interviews

Right Said Fred

by Greg Prato

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Most Americans passed off Right Said Fred as a one-hit novelty act after their debut single, "I'm Too Sexy," shot to #1 in 1992. We understand if you didn't take these guys seriously, especially after seeing the buff Fairbrass brothers - Fred and Richard - preening it up in the video. But as the guys explain, comedy belongs in pop music just like sitcoms belong on TV, and doing it well isn't easy.

Fred and Richard were an acoustic duo when they teamed with guitarist Rob Manzoli and switched their medium to dance music, with beats courtesy of producer TommyD. In their native UK, they had a host of hits, including a #1 in "Deeply Dippy," but their stateside success stopped at "Sexy."

In this talk with Fred and Richard, they discuss their one-hit wonder status, deconstruct that hit and a few others, and provide an astute songwriting analysis you might not expect from the guys who were "so sexy it hurts."
Greg Prato (Songfacts): It seemed like in the US, the media began calling Right Said Fred a "one-hit wonder" almost immediately after "I'm Too Sexy" hit, but yet you followed up the song with several other hits in the UK. Why do you think the US in particular was so quick not to give the band a second chance after that song?

Fred Fairbrass: I think it's probably the song. We broke sort of under the radar, because it broke through an American DJ just hearing the track over here, and going back and playing it on his station, which happened to be a taste-making station, so it was quite influential. But all the labels had turned us down with "I'm Too Sexy," so we got the feeling that they just didn't want us around. And because of the nature of the video and the track, people liked to assume that we were a bit stupid, and that we couldn't play, none of which is true.

If you've got worthy songs and a serious image, people tend to think that you must be much more proficient than if you write songs with a tongue in cheek. So I think it's a mixture of things, really.

Songfacts: People didn't even realize at that point that both of you had previously played with Bob Dylan, David Bowie, and Mick Jagger [Fred played as part of Dylan's band for the film Hearts of Fire, Richard appeared in a few Bowie videos, while both were in Jagger's home video, Running Out of Luck]. So that's actually kind of funny that they were passing the band off as a one‑hit wonder, meanwhile you guys played with some of the biggest names of rock & roll.

Richard Fairbrass: With pop music, it's weird, because writing a really simple pop tune is actually really difficult. If we could do it on a regular basis, we would, and so would everybody else. It's actually an incredibly demanding art form.

People tend to think that if it's not about pain, it's not serious. I remember years ago Dustin Hoffman talking about Tootsie, and he was saying that there were no Oscars awarded for comic roles because people thought that comedy, by its very nature, was less worthy. And I think that was the problem with "Sexy": It was seen as being silly. And also we didn't help. I mean, you know...

Fred: We took our shirts off. [Laughs]

Richard: We took our shirts off. We went down to the gym and people thought we were both really thick. But it's life. You do what feels good at the time, and we were just having a laugh.
The group's name comes from the title of a 1962 song by Bernard Cribbins.
Songfacts: And something that I've always found interesting is that it seems like some artists, if they have a gimmick, it's a good thing and they can make a pretty long career out of that. But then some other artists, if there's a gimmick, sometimes it prevents them from having a long career.

Fred: Yeah, it's something you can't control. Obviously, a band like KISS, talk about image and gimmicks, they went from rock to a rock ballad to disco, and it didn't seem to effect their support that much, although they had their critics.

Some bands have an image and they stick with it and it works, and other bands don't. I'm not sure why that is. I'm not sure if there's anything conspiratorial. I think it's just luck. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I don't know.

We've been very, very lucky. We've had a very enjoyable and successful career over two decades. So although in some territories we've struggled, in the majority of territories, we didn't. We had some pretty big hits. In the US, it's been with remixes. We've had a lot of remixes recently for our own label, and they've been very successful with America. So we have to look at the upside.

Songfacts: I always thought that the song "Deeply Dippy" could have been a pretty big hit Stateside. And I know it was a pretty big hit elsewhere.

Richard: Well, you won't believe this, but we'd made the video in the UK for "Deeply Dippy," and it was shown to the American label, and they had us re-shoot the video on the QE2, I think it was. Do you remember?

Fred: Yes.

Richard: Because the UK version was "too gay," apparently. So maybe that was a problem, and also the fact that "Deeply Dippy" wasn't a dance track. It's a swing track. Maybe we should have followed it up with a track that was much closer to "Sexy." To be honest with you, we didn't analyze it too much. We weren't terribly motivated by that. It was disappointing, but we just kind of got on with it. We didn't harbor any grudges or anything. We just kind of got on with new stuff and went where that stuff took us.

Songfacts: I did a book about the band Faith No More [The Faith No More & Mr. Bungle Companion], and when I was doing research, I learned that in 1992 there was talk of Faith No More and Right Said Fred doing a tour together in the States, but that the tour promoter nixed that idea.

Fred: It's true. We liked them and they liked us. I think what got in the way was management, and some found it hard to imagine us touring with Faith No More. But at the time we were speaking to our American agent, and I think they call it "cross roster touring," where you mix bands up. You have a rapper touring with a rock band and they have two, three, or four different genres together.

The guys in the band were quite keen with it. We liked them and they liked us. There was a humor in what they did. We thought it was quite a good idea, but management probably got in the way.

Songfacts: If you think back to 1992, that was when Lollapalooza was very popular here in America and that had a pretty broad section of bands. So I'm surprised they couldn't see that.
By the early '90s, multi-band festivals had been popular (and occurring on a regular basis) throughout Europe and other parts of the world - but surprisingly, not so in America. This all changed in 1991 when Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell came up with the idea to put together a traveling multi-band festival as a "farewell tour" for Jane's (although they've reunited several times since then). Between 1991-1997, Lollapalooza was a traveling outdoor tour, with performances by artists that covered a wide ground stylistically (Siouxsie and the Banshees, Pearl Jam, Ice Cube, Ministry, Primus, Metallica, Devo, Korn, Julian Marley and Damian Marley, G. Love & Special Sauce, etc.). Since 2005, Lollapalooza has become a "stationary" event, occurring annually at Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois. Also, there are now Lollapalooza festivals that take place outside of the US of A, as well.
Fred: Yes, I know. Well, quite often management and record companies have a very fixed idea of what they're likely to like and, of course, they're more narrow-minded than the artists themselves. I think that just got in the way of many other things. But Faith No More were a really good band, and that was a shame it couldn't happen.

Songfacts: I also recall listening to The Howard Stern Show back in 1992 and you guys were on. I believe Richard said that Michael Jackson wanted Right Said Fred to tour with him, but the band turned it down because after seeing the Freddie Mercury tribute concert, it was very apparent that some bands could play a stadium and some bands couldn't, and that you were afraid that Right Said Fred wasn't up to playing big stadiums at that point.

Richard: No, it wasn't that. It wasn't anything to do with Jackson himself, but people around him at the time were very controlling, and we were told in no uncertain terms that we weren't allowed even backstage to talk directly to him. We had to talk through an intermediary the whole time. The whole thing was just so controlling, and life's too short for all that rubbish, so we turned it down.

We just didn't want to do it. I thought if we'd spent the next few months in that kind of environment it wouldn't be good for us.

And also, we're not more motivated by audience size. If there's 10,000 or 10 people, it doesn't matter, to be honest with you. It's a show. Doing a big stage or a big tour wasn't the thing for us. It was, Would we have a good time doing it?

Fred: Yeah, we'd done some pretty big shows around the world at that point, so that may have been the thing we agreed to say at the time. I don't think it was the truth. I certainly remember seeing the conditions of being the support act, of being the special guests, and they were very controlling. There were problems: there were limitations with our sound guy, our access to certain things, our crew, and there was quite a lot of stuff we didn't like, so we just said no.

Songfacts: Let's discuss a few songs, starting with "I'm Too Sexy." What was the inspiration behind writing that?

Richard: A bass line.

Fred: A bass line. A little bit of marijuana. And it was a very, very hot day in a very, very non-air conditioned basement studio. It was those things, that perfect storm. And lyrically, the whole "supermodel thing" was huge at the time. So lyrically, it's making fun of that whole sort of narcissism that came with that.

Richard: And it made us laugh. It wasn't written with any kind of aim. We just liked it. That's all it really was. We didn't apply any kind of intellectual analytical thing to it. It just made us smile. We just thought it was quite funny. Working on the lyrics made us smile.

Fred: Richard took his shirt off and said, "I'm too sexy," and that was funny.

Richard: Yeah, it was just funny. [Laughs] I mean, what can you say? We enjoyed doing it.

Songfacts: Who came up with the idea to insert a bit of Jimi Hendrix' "Third Stone From the Sun" in the song?

Richard: That was Rob [Manzoli, the band's guitarist at the time]. But we didn't know it. We had no idea it was Jimi Hendrix, I've got to be honest with you. We only found out it was Jimi Hendrix some time later.

Fred: When the Jimi Hendrix Estate called...

Richard: When the Jimi Hendrix Estate contacted us and said, "Hey, you, that's a bit of Jimi Hendrix." And Fred and I, because we didn't listen to Jimi Hendrix, we had absolutely no clue that it was him.

Fred: Apart from the singles, we didn't know any Hendrix.

Richard: If they'd put "The Wind Cries Mary" in there, I would have spotted that. That was about it.

Songfacts: What are some memories of filming the video?

Richard: Well, the key memory with filming that was the power going off. The reason we shot a lot of it outdoors was because originally we were going to do the whole thing indoors. And then for some reason, we blew the main fuse in the building - the generator or something - and they couldn't get it fixed. So the second day of the video shoot was all done outside in Notting Hill, which is in northwest London. We just rode around in that red sports car and that was it.

James LeBon was the director and he previously had been a photographer of supermodels and fashion shows, so some of the black-and-white inserts were from his personal shoot catalogue.

I think it was about 5,000 quid or something. It's a pretty cheap video.

And for people outside, you don't realize what it's like, but for us at the time it was just exciting to do a video. We had no clue whether it was going to be successful or whether people would like it or anything. It's just fun to do. Everybody was making videos, and we were one of the bands making videos - it made us look famous for about two days. It was just good fun.

But that's why the shoot was outdoors, because we blew the power in the studio.

Songfacts: What inspired the song "Deeply Dippy"?

Fred: It was the title. We just liked the repetition. We liked each verse starting with the title of the song. That was it, really. Nothing more than that. We just liked the nursery rhyme nature of it.

Richard: We got very lucky with the brass section, because they were really on it that day.

Fred: Yeah, the Average White Band's brass section, they were fantastic. So yeah, in terms of that song, it was just inspired by the title. We just liked it.

Richard: When the record company released "Deeply Dippy" in America, I think it got the worst radio reaction of any record in the history of that record label. [Laughs] And I think it's purely because it was not what people expected. That's all. I mean, in the UK we had "Don't Talk Just Kiss," which was kind of a bridging single. But in the US, "Don't Talk Just Kiss" didn't really work. So when the stations did "Deeply Dippy," I think it was just too much of a shift.

And also, "Sexy" just wouldn't stop. Radio stations were still playing it. So for us to introduce another single was almost pointless.

Fred: Very difficult.

Richard: Yeah, it just kept on and on and on and on. So nobody wanted to hear anything more from us at that time.

Songfacts: And what inspired "Don't Talk Just Kiss"?

Richard: My brother's girlfriend.

Fred: Yeah. At the time I was seeing this girl, and she actually said to me, "Don't talk, just kiss." We were arguing.

Richard: We haven't given her any publishing, by the way! [Laughs]

Fred: Can't publish a song title.

Richard: You can't publish a song title.

Fred: So I had a girlfriend, Vicki. We were arguing, and she actually said to me, "Don't talk, just kiss." We liked the title, and then Rob had this neat guitar line. Rich and I wrote the verse, and the little acoustic thing was mine. So we pieced it together with bits and pieces that we had hanging around and it got built around the title.

Richard: If your girlfriend had said, "Don't talk, let's go out for pizza."

Fred: That would have been it!

Songfacts: And what inspired the song "Stick It Out"?

Fred: It's an expression, "Stick It Out." Which is sort of like hanging there through thick and thin. That's what the idea of the song is about.

The song was a record for a charity in the UK that's huge here [Comic Relief], and people do lots and lots of challenges to raise money. So the thing is to be successful at your challenge. That's the idea of the song. "Stick It Out" was the title that could work for that.

Richard: And again, we thought it was a double entendre, we thought it's funny. If we're not laughing, then we know it's usually not very good.

Songfacts: How does the songwriting work in the band?

Fred: Quite often we have titles, and we have lyrics we like. Bass lines are very important - Richard will play a lot of stuff on bass. And we sort of piece it together bit by bit. The lyric and the melody quite often come together, and we tend to take it in the studio. We'll sit there with a programmer, and we'll discuss what we like and don't like. We'll put it away for a while, work with it, and then we go back. We get that we're not particularly prolific. We like to take our time.

Richard: I think we're much better at spotting sections now than we were. We're better at spotting hooks. And I think we're better at crafting it. In the early days it was very scattergun approach: we just trounced around and kept our fingers crossed. Now we can tell early on if we think something is working and we bin it fairly quickly. In the old days we used to persevere with a song and try to put it right, but sometimes songs just can't be rescued. They turn really bad and you just have to let it go. We're better at that now than we were.

It varies. Sometimes it's the bass lines, sometimes the title, sometimes the lyric or chorus or verse. It's just very, very, very unpredictable.

Songfacts: Who would you say are some of your favorite all-time songwriters?

Richard: We were talking about that the other day, actually. And to tell you two that I've only just discovered, it's the Sherman Brothers, who wrote all the Mary Poppins stuff and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

I've got a friend with two kids. They were watching Mary Poppins, and singing along to "Let's Go Fly A Kite," which is the last song in that movie. And that is an absolutely brilliant song. And because it's in a film, and because it's a kiddie kind of song, some will say that it's not a really good song.

A lot of the stuff that we like tends to be show songs. I mean, Fred's a big Dylan fan.
In 1958, the Sherman Brothers - Robert and Richard - scored their first Top 10 hit, "Tall Paul," which led to Walt Disney himself hiring the duo as staff songwriters for Walt Disney Studios. From there, the Shermans penned some of the most beloved tunes in the Disney canon, including "It's A Small World," "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," and "Chim Chim Cher-ee." They also wrote the film scores for many Disney films, including Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, and Charlotte's Web. Robert passed away in 2012 at the age of 86.
Fred: Lou Reed.

Richard: Bacharach and David.

Fred: Yep. Cat Stevens.

Richard: Dolly Parton. There's country writers out there that write some really good stuff. There's a whole pile of them. The craft of songwriting is not something that's highly regarded these days. People are too obsessed with the singer and not obsessed enough with the song.

Fred: ABBA.

Richard: Fantastic songwriting, yeah. And arrangers, too. Great arranging.

Songfacts: What are your thoughts on modern-day pop and dance music?

Fred: I really like the EDM stuff. We've always liked a lot of four-on-the floor, a little dance music. There's some really good stuff out there. I think Skrillex is particularly gifted at programming. I'm not a big fan of some of his stuff, but I can tell it's really well crafted.

I think pop music's a bit in the doldrums. That's why Pharrell's "Happy" did so well: because a lot of stuff is very homogenized, very generic. There's not a lot of quirkiness or character or personality. I thought "Happy" had a lot of personality about it.

I don't think it's a great time for a lot of pop music, but I think there's some really good stuff out there. I really like the "Riptide" track by Vance Joy and I thought in terms of character, "Gangnam Style" was great.

I just don't think, in terms of pure pop music, it's particularly fruitful at the moment. But there is some good stuff out there if you care to look.

Richard: And it's also funny with songwriting, when it's just the purity of the top mind, when you come across something that is just really clean and natural in a funny kind of way, then it just takes you in. That's why I think "Happy" worked, because it was so simple. A one-word title, people just got it straightaway. Sometimes the harder you work, the less people like it. It's quite a trick to be able to harness that simplicity with good pop music. That's why pop music is so absolutely brilliant. Pop music is great. It's just a real challenge every single time.

Songfacts: Are you pleased or agitated when people say that Right Said Fred and "I'm Too Sexy" are one-hit wonders?

Richard: Anybody that says that who hasn't been #1 in America can shove off. It's better a one-hit wonder than a no-hit wonder. It's not true in America anymore, because we've had quite a lot of success with dance remixes.

Some one-hit wonders are fabulous. Norman Greenbaum with "Spirit In The Sky" - that track is as good as anything the Beatles ever did. It just happens to be the case that it was one track, and the Beatles had a catalogue. But if you take that one track and compare it to anything the Beatles did, it's just as good. So I'm never quite sure whether it's the amount or the quality of the track that counts. I don't think having a great catalogue of okay songs is better than having one really great song.

Fred: I get slightly more annoyed.

Richard: It doesn't bother me.

Fred: I'm not annoyed about it, but it's just so inaccurate, because we've written some really big records. And I think the market is so global now, I don't really entertain it. In fact, we had a meeting today with a publisher, because we've been offered a new deal. And when you actually go through the chart positions and see some of the songs that have achieved longevity, you'll see that it's just inaccurate. A song like "Stand Up (For Champions)," its usage is huge. So it's just wrong.

Richard: When anybody says it to us, we normally say, "Google."

Fred: Yes. Just go on Google... and leave us alone. [Laughs].

Here are the results:
US Hot 100
"I'm Too Sexy" - #1 (for 3 weeks)
"Don't Talk Just Kiss" - #76

UK Singles
"Deeply Dippy" - #1
"I'm Too Sexy" - #2
"Don't Talk Just Kiss" - #3
"Stick It Out" - #4
"You're My Mate" - #18
Six more in the top 100, also hits in Australia and throughout Europe.
Songfacts: It's kind of strange in the States. For instance, the band T. Rex is considered a one-hit wonder by some, because the only single that they really had a hit with was "Bang A Gong (Get It On)." But I know in England they had a whole string of really huge hits.

Fred: It's very territorial. I think there was a time when you could excuse it, but now certainly, with YouTube, with Spotify, with the use of sychronizations through movies, it's not really acceptable anymore. There are some one-hit wonders, but much bigger than people imagine. We toured not so long ago with Nena [of "99 Luftballons" fame] in Germany. And Nena was bigger than Madonna in Germany! She does these ridiculously huge tours, and we were touring with her. So that label is just not accurate, really. It's just wrong.

Richard: A friend of ours has just signed a sync deal for an advert for a car. The song won't chart, but he will make a lot of money out of that one sync. Nobody will know, but his bank balance will improve enormously overnight.

Artists have had to wake up to the new reality of the way the industry works. Of course, some punters are still in the old model, still looking at charts and looking for major deals, but there's more to it now. That's not the whole story - by any means.

December 11, 2014.
For more Right Said Fred, visit the band's official site.
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