Great interview !!
Mitch Lafon interviews the prolific songwriter who wrote and first performed I Love Rock n Roll, Alan Merrill who headed the RAK Records group Arrows. Alan’s story is unique and compelling as well as incredibly entertaining.
Rock N Roll’s Greatest Hidden Treasure..
At this point, many people will already be saying “Who is Alan Merrill?” Let’s start here…
I remember the very first time I saw this You Tube video, the familiar Granada TV logo coming on screen and then the title music for The Arrows show.
I recognized it at once as a show I had been glued to every week when I was a kid. Bright sunny pop band, great lookers, strong tunes, about a million times better than the average cheesy show-bands that were so prevalent at the time. They wrote some of their own songs which they showcased on the 28 week run of their eponymous show in 1976. Almost 40 years on, the lyrics came back to me instantly. How could I have even forgotten about this band? They were really going places, big time.
In 1982 Joan Jett took her cover of the Alan Merrill composition I LOVE ROCK N ROLL to #1 in the Billboard chart in the USA. She had seen the song on the Arrows show when she was in the UK on tour with the Runaways and knew it had hit potential.
The big problem for the Arrows was the times they were operating in. When the Punk explosion hit London, a great tide of bands working in other genres were just swept away overnight. Additionally, the Arrows, as a maturing band were seeking to break out of the RAK hit factory cookie cutter sameness that had spawned many long forgotten bands, but also such luminaries as Mud, Hot Chocolate and Suzi Quatro.
They wanted to do more of their own, more R&B and rock inspired material, they took on management to help them get a better deal and found themselves frozen out by hit maker Svengali, their producer Mickie Most. Despite snagging themselves a golden TV opportunity, in a fit of stubborn pique, Most failed to promote their music and they were in the unenviable position of being very famous on the TV but with no more records in the shops. Their faces were on the covers of every magazine, but without any new releases to build on that fame, at the end of their very successful run on TV they had simply run out of road and the band fragmented in acrimony.
Alan formed a band with Steve Gould of Rare Bird and produced the classic Runner album, it was intelligent, melodic adult-oriented music that found a keen audience in the US and Europe but the other band members were resistant to touring and again, opportunities were missed. Alan married around this time, and his wife, supermodel Cathee Dahmen wanted to relocate back to the USA.
Back in his hometown of New York, and with a young family to support, Alan took gigs as a sideman for Derringer and Meat Loaf through the 80s, and was a mainstay of the touring bands of both for a number of years. The 90s got a bit tougher and saw him returning to Japan to reanimate his early 70s successes there. .
Yes. Alan’s story is a unique one. I started in the middle, and need to return to the beginning.
The son of two jazz professionals, Aaron Sachs and Helen Merrill, Alan was raised with music in his blood. His aunt was married to Laura Nyro’s uncle, so Laura and Alan were neighbors, step-cousins and best friends. They lived in the same building and hung out together all the time. He was with her while she wrote all those iconic songs on her first album, acting as her first critical audience while she developed her unique talent.
Alan had a disrupted home life. His father had left when he was still a pre-schooler and his mother’s singing career took her all over the world. He had a spell in London, and another in a Swiss boarding school, and when that was over he was sent back to graduate from a high school in the Bronx. All this gave him a very unusual and creative outlook. He learned guitar and piano by ear, facilitated by being surrounded by music and musicians all the time. He was soon playing in bands with schoolfellows, graduating to paid gigs in the suburbs and in Greenwich Village at the height of the music scene there, playing the same clubs as Jimi Hendrix and the Lovin Spoonful; Bruce Springsteen was another young guy on the scene at that time. Alan very nearly joined the “Baroque N Roll” cult folk/mod/pop band The Left Banke, he passed the audition and learned all the songs, but at the last minute, a management decision decided against bringing in a new member of the band.
Alan, still a young teen, living alone and rather wild in his mother’s west side apartment was becoming a concern to his family. His mother was living in Japan and it was decided that he should go to join her there.
Within days of arriving he was dating a go-go dancer in a popular club who put him in touch with a band called The Lead that needed a replacement guitarist when their original member got deported.
He found great success in Japan, becoming the first westerner to be considered a star of Japanese home grown pop music and the first act signed to Atlantic Records Japan division. A solo album in Japanese,
and another in English (the amazingly brilliant “Merrill 1”) followed
and the next step was the first Japanese Glam Rock band, Vodka Collins. It was a highly successful collaboration between Alan and cult drummer and scene face the late Hiroshi Oguchi, the drummer of the Japanese equivalent of the Rolling Stones,
The band, originally a duo, were augmented by the late Hiroshi “Monsieur” Kamayatsu on rhythm guitar, and Take Yokouchi on bass. Vodka Collins easily dominated the rock n roll world of Japan in the early 1970s, and their vinyl debut LP “Tokyo New York” on EMI / Toshiba Records is a milestone that is still in demand.
It is considered a ground breaking LP in the domestic Japan rock scene.
Alan was additionally an in-demand player in Japan, honing his musical chops on dozens of sessions for other artists, which paid well, but as his band became more successful there was less time for this lucrative activity, and he found he could no longer afford to pay the rent. There he was, at the top of the tree in the domestic J-rock scene, but management wasn’t even paying him enough to make the rent. The assumption was that he didn’t need the money, that his mother would bail him out, but that was not the case at all. By this time Helen Merrill was back in the USA and advised Alan to make a stand against the management for the pay he should have had. She advised him to leave. At the same time, Jake Hooker called to ask him to come to London, and offered the cost of the ticket. Alan had worked with Jake before in the USA, and Hooker knew that Alan was his sure-fire ticket to success.
Eventually the pair hooked up with drummer Paul Varley and the classic Arrows line-up was born. Signed to fashionable RAK records the Arrows were regarded by Mickie Most as just the latest disposable nine-days-wonder, he really did not realize that he had such a formidable and prodigious musical talent in Alan Merrill. He used the band as a vehicle for Chinn & Chapman, and similar songwriters who were having hit after hit with various different acts. Merrill’s own compositions were relegated to b-sides, and Alan, mindful of owing Hooker for the plane ticket, allowed Hooker to put down his name as a co-writer, figuring that it was a way to repay him without too much of a stretch…
This was a good plan until the slow Roger Ferris song “Broken Down Heart” was slated to be the Arrows fifth single, with Merrill’s own “I Love Rock n Roll” as the b-side. Mickie Most’s wife spoke up and said that the prospective b-side was the better song and should be the a-side. The decision to flip the song set in motion a series of events. The song was re-recorded at Abbey Road, and got the Arrows a place on a show called “45”, with David “Kid” Jensen where they met and impressed the TV producer Muriel Young who was sufficiently impressed to offer the Arrows a show of their own, even after the fall-out with RAK. The song was performed many times on the Arrows show and that is how Joan Jett found it..
Aside from Alan’s 1990s reboot of the Japanese band Vodka Collins , which produced several amazing albums, Alan has released almost one new album every year since the turn of the millennium, most of which can be obtained from CD-Baby
Alan Merrill toured in the UK in the second week of October 2016
On 15th September Alan released a new album and it is an instant classic.. “Demo Graphic” is a collection of previously unreleased tracks full of raw energy. review from Demo Graphic by Alan Merrill at CDBaby
Hidden treasure comes to light….
Alan Merrill wrote one of the most well known, most widely recognized songs in the history of rock music. As the writer and original artist of worldwide smash “I Love Rock n Roll” one could say this CD needs no other recommendation.
Alan is not just a wonderful soulful, bluesy singer and multi-instrumentalist, but that big hit was not a one-off. He has hundreds of catchy commercial songs under his belt and this collection is an example of the strength in depth of his skill.
Most of these songs have not been released before. It is a very strong selection that far outstrips one’s expectations of the subtitle “Home demos”. Any one of these songs would not sound out of place high in the music charts, on nationwide TV and radio. It makes you wonder what more hidden gems he still has tucked away.
Despite these being essentially raw home tape recordings, this is an impressive collection. You will soon find yourself singing along. It is music that invites us in and includes us right from the start. Masterful in all senses, this is a must have for anyone who loves the music of the 1970s-1980s. If you like Hall and Oates and Robert Palmer, you will certainly like this, but there is so much more to Merrill than that statement implies . Alan Merrill has been music’s best kept secret for far too long. He really deserves to be considered as one of the greatest of them all.
On 14th February 2017 Alan Merrill released Cupid Deranged Redux, also available on CD Baby and reviewed elswhere on this blog
Buy Cupid Deranged Redux by Alan Merrill at CDBaby.com
Music the way it was meant to be….
The first track is Merrill’s signature piece. Alan Merrill wrote “I Love Rock N Roll” in 1975 and performed it weekly with his band Arrows on their fondly remembered eponymous pop/rock showcase, screened by UK’s Granada Independent TV channel. It was here that Joan Jett first heard the song that she later covered as her breakthrough hit.
This relaunched album has a warm, mellow and organic feel with the new mix centered on Merrill’s rich vocal talent, which adapts so well to every style. Alan moves effortlessly from full tilt rock, blues rock, and rock n roll, to soulful rhythm n blues, pure pop and gentle ballads with dazzling ease and professional flair, but always with feeling. I think it is that feeling that comes across so powerfully in this charismatic, more personal re-imagining of Cupid Deranged. Every song is strong and the performances full of verve and character. This album is a “must-have” for the collection and I recommend it.