Song Writing

Alan Merrill Radio Zero Track By Track

by Carl Wiser

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In 2019 Alan Merrill, who with his glam-rock group The Arrows wrote and recorded the original version of "I Love Rock And Roll," released a new solo album, Radio Zero, which you can hear on Spotify. Here, he talks about the album and takes us through it track by track.
My main reason for recording Radio Zero was to write and record some songs mainly in a folk-rock vein, getting back to my roots as a teenager playing in Greenwich Village. I do miss the 1960s and that creative time frame in rock music history. I still love it and I can write it so I thought, why not? I could have done the predictable for my age group and recorded a blues album, as so many of my 1970s contemporaries have done. I do have a couple of songs on the album that have a blues flavor but it's mainly a pop-rock album. Catchy tunes with simple solos and a clean production style I learned working with producers like Mickie Most, James Guthrie, Alex Sadkin and Phil Coulter. The title track, "Radio Zero," is 12-string heavy with me giving my electric Rickenbacker and acoustic Taylor 12-string guitars a workout as I had done in Greenwich Village in my teens.

I enjoy singing harmonies with myself and I usually overdub six or nine of my voices in three-part harmony on my records. I learned to track my harmonies from Laura Nyro, who got me started with my song "Knot Tier" on my Merrill 1 1971 album when she was staying in my house in Tokyo all those years ago. I had trouble figuring out what to do with the minor seventh changes I had written for the harmony parts. She showed me what she would do, and I asked her to sing it with me on my album. She said, "No, do what I do, sing all the parts yourself!" After she arranged the parts for me, I did it myself and it worked. Ever since then I've pretty much done all my own backing vocals. I do most of the vocal harmony parts on Radio Zero myself except for three tracks where my New York-based bass player Amy Madden sings with me. I also play all the instruments except for having the great Jon Gordon guest on guitar on two tracks.

The album Radio Zero is another part of the musically diverse jigsaw puzzle that makes up my career. I'm very happy with the way it turned out.

1) "Across The Pond"

I wrote "Across The Pond" as a theme song for the new indie MyJam Music Network show of that name featuring new acts from the UK. I was asked to host the show and I did do that for a few episodes. It was fun!

The song expresses my love for the music that came out of the UK with the British Invasion of the USA starting in 1964 and the terrific new acts still coming out of the British Isles.

2) "Equalizer"

This is a song I wrote for a friend, the UK artist John Rossall, '70s Bell Records solo star and founding member of the chart hit Glitter Band. He's already recorded it on his new album coming out soon! On my own album the track is pretty much the polished demo I sent him. I've heard his cut and it's fantastic.

3) "Sun On The Hill"

A song I wrote in the studio based on a rough idea that had been rolling around for a while. Sort of R&B feel. Simple lyrics, simple chords. I wanted to convey a primitive scenario.

4) "Love Just Happens"

Every one of my albums has a love ballad on it. A really stripped-down track. Pretty much just voice, guitar, bass and drums with an organ part coming in later in the song for a lift. I could have put a horn section on it and gone all Stax with a sax solo, backing singers. I opted for a basic approach with just a straight-ahead rock guitar solo so the song could shine.

Main influence here is probably Arthur Alexander as far as song structure goes, maybe a little Otis Redding too in the mix.

5) "Stella, Stella"

A rock song about a girl I dated for a few months in 1975-'76. It's a true story. She's pretty well known in certain circles now, so I'll keep her a secret.

6) "Hard Enough"

Harkens back to my old band Runner, structurally. I guess it sounds very 1979-'80. I was aiming for that.

7) "Lady Sloane"

A song that's an amalgam of characters, rich entitled women I've known with too much money who enjoy abusing their (usually inherited) power. That sort of woman has always been appealing to me and they always seem to end up breaking my heart with giddy glee!

8) "December 7° In The Shade"

Probably pretty depressing. The lyrics are not uplifting. Overall mood, depressed.

I put a three-part harmony on the chorus to lift it and there it sounds sort of '60s Brit pop, unintentionally. I like the guitars on the track. My folk-rock guitar background on display.

9) "Radio Zero"

The title track. Inspired in an abstract way by the book and film Less Than Zero, the song a 12-string jangle-guitar fest. The reason I put the Rickenbacker 12-string on the album cover is because it seemed to be my instrument of choice on this album. Where my last album, Blue Avenue, was keyboard based, this album was 12-string heavy.

10) "Dark Music"

Inspired by Arthur Alexander and the early Rolling Stones records, once again the 12-string dominates the track. I put what I thought was a George Martin-production-style solo with keyboard and guitars playing a melodic line ensemble. I like the middle 8 (who writes middle 8s any more? I do!) and I added the surprise three-part harmony at the end of the record on the fade with the very Arthur Alexander-style asides answering them. I loved doing those parts as they were written in the studio.

11) "Don Quixote Absolutely"

The story of my old band The Arrows, who bit the dust too soon and had a very rough ride after our first three singles charted in the UK. Our record label simply lost interest right around the time we recorded "I Love Rock N Roll" in 1975. Our very bad luck. The situation was horrible. We all ended up hating each other.

12) "A Brand New Day"

I wanted to write a song like a Laura Nyro song, complete with Bronx references. Laura was a deep influence since we grew up together and I watched her write her first songs that became huge hits. I think in the end after the final mix it sounds a bit like a Three Dog Night cover of a Laura song. That's what my engineer on the record Jon Gordon (lead guitarist on "Luka" by Suzanne Vega) said when the parts were all done and we were mixing. I liked that he picked up on the Laura influence.

13) "Goodbye, Rock 'N Roll Heroes"

This song was inspired by so many of my friends who along the way have died as a result of drugs, alcohol, pills, powders. Sadly, in the music business death sells. The songs tells the story.

14) "Before My Eyes"

I wrote this song when I was 15 and my bands The Kaleidoscope and The Water Tower West played it at the Café Wha? in Greenwich Village from 1966-'68. It was as well received as the covers we played. I have to thank my friend, the late Tom Feher of the Left Banke camp ("Desiree"), for getting me writing songs in 1965 the very first day I met him. He was a very positive "can do" person. I recorded it for anyone who wanted to know what my band back then sounded like, in the psychedelic '60s.

15) "Avalanche"

Falling in love is often overwhelming, especially when it goes bad. That's the theme of the song. Snowed under.

16) "Long Road Home"

A song I covered in Japan in 1972 and the only co-write on my new album. I wrote the song with the late Monsieur Kamayatsu (The Spiders, Vodka Collins) for a duet Monsieur was recording with his dad Tib Kamayatsu. Tib and Monsieur are both legends in Japan.

The song originally appeared on the Father & Mad Son album (with my friend Tetsu Yamauchi on bass) in 1972. I co-wrote four songs on the album with Monsieur, but this was, for me, the stand-out composition of the four. I like that it strays into smooth jazz territory, a departure for me but I love exploring all sorts of music.

March 18, 2019
For more Alan, check out his 2009 Songfacts interview where he tells the story of "I Love Rock And Roll" - a hit within a hit.

Here are the lyrics to these Radio Zero tracks.
Photos: Rie Mukai

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Comments: 3

  • Louise Hunter from EnglandThanks, this is a great read about a truly wonderful album, an instant classic. There are no weak tracks and the whole thing is a testament to the extraordinary songwriting talent of Alan Merrill. There is a track here for every taste. It's a record that deserves to be widely heard. Most of the songs have real hit potential and would set any radio show alight. Thanks SONGFACTS for this, and for your extremely informative other interview with the amazing Alan Merrill xxx
  • Amy Madden from New York CityHaving stood side by side onstage with Alan Merrill for years, I should be disqualified from reviewing his album. But the way I see it, no one is more qualified. I am not a purveyor of pop; I am a rock girl. Alan’s broad and deep musicality makes my job a true pleasure. He is a rock and roll warrior, happy to come out in small and large venues to perform for any audience. He rocks my onstage world and he always delivers.
    As a recording artist, lest anyone see Alan as a one-hit wonder, this album should set them straight. These are good, solid songs—yes, rooted in pop sensibility, with familiar hooks and enchanting arrangements. And he gives us a taste of rock and roll; I was thrilled and honored to be asked to put some backgrounds on, and the tracks rocked the studio.
    But there is more here than meets the ear. By the 4th track, you realize you are listening to some soul-rooted vocal that is worthy of an Otis Redding fan. There is truth and there is experience. He gives us a full album’s worth of hooks… but it is the last third of the record that really got me. More than a half-century of performance begins to permeate the tracks—some dark regrets, some pain and some resonant poetry in the lyrics. Among them are the rare best work of not just a talented tunesmith but a mature artist.
    Normally I don’t buy cds like this—I like my home-listening dark, alt-rock, arty/melodic and outside-the-box. I am blunt, critical and tough. But I also know my roots, and somewhere between my love of music and my heart, this album reels me in. Try it—stay with it, through all 16 tracks. Then listen again. You will not be sorry. Hat’s off.

    Amy Madden – March 18, 2019
  • Babara Houles from Paris, FranceThank you for this enjoyable interview Songfacts and the link to the lyric page is great to have. I love singing along to the album, all the choruses have a strong melody!
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