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
Yesterday I attended the funeral of a friend. It was a good funeral in a lot of ways; a few people spoke, my friend’s favourite songs were played. There was no religious element at all, which was exactly what he would have wanted, but it made me understand better why most funerals have hymns. I think hymns serve as a cohesive element that bonds the mourners together. Singing together breaks down barriers between people, and nobody understood that better than Roger. Music was the force that drove him most of his life. Listening to Roger’s favourite songs piped over the crematorium’s PA system made me sadder than I can even say. The room was full of musicians. I can’t help but wonder if something played live would have brought us more together?
Thirty years ago Roger and I and a whole bunch of other people, mainly lads in their late teens to early 20s hung out together all the time. We lived in a few squats, drank together, had lots of funny adventures and escapades. He was a natural comedian, but it was never for effect. He was rarely bothered about what anyone thought of him. He was himself, for himself, and everyone else could take it or leave it.
I always felt at the time that there was a strong bond there between all of us in that group, something tribal. Roger had been kind to me at a time in my life when nobody else was, but it was never a boy/girl thing, we were just friends, and made each other laugh so much. He drew me into his group of friends and included me, though I was a bit of an ill fitting oddball. Maybe that’s what he liked about me. Roger was always for the underdog and a befriender of outcasts. Possibly he felt that way himself. It was hard to tell with Roger, it was hard to know what was going on under that ever cheery, affable exterior. He certainly was unlike any other person I have known, highly intelligent, but largely self-taught, he was a mine of odd and slightly arcane information. I always suspected that his depths were so deep even he didn’t want to examine them too closely, preferring to be gliding effortlessly on the surface like a swan rather than focussing on the maelstrom of self-propulsion beneath the surface. I liked his cheeky independence, his extraordinary “gung-ho, Let’s Go!” fearlessness and his philosophical acceptance of the consequences of whatever scrape he got himself (or all of us) into.
That happened quite a lot. It was hard to get angry with him. He’d listen to what you said, and then grin and carry on doing whatever the hell he liked. Completely infuriating, but a quality I think we all envied in so many ways
Roger had been the hub of a lot of other friend groups in his time, but I didn’t have much overlap with many of those other people. I hadn’t seen all that much of Roger since the 1980s, and time has moved on of course. Perhaps that is less true for me than for others. Yesterday there were only a few of my old crew there, surprisingly few. It was a weekday of course, and people have to work, also funerals are never fun, but Roger was such a huge figure in my personal story, that I couldn’t help but be surprised at who was not there as much as I was delighted to see those who were. Perhaps I am the one who is malfunctioning here, but if I haven’t seen someone I care about in a long time, I make a point of telling them how good it is to see them, despite the awful tragic circumstances.
I don’t know what I expected really. Too much I suppose. There was a sense of disconnection, the main thing that we had in common was Roger, and he was not there. I’m not great at social situations at the best of times, but for all my love for Roger, I felt like I perhaps should not have gone after all.
If Roger had been there he would have brought a guitar, he would have got wild and crazy, he would have mocked the stiff, awkward formality of this disparate bunch of socially awkward people and everyone would have had an amazing time instead of feeling, as I did, rather like a fish out of water. Funerals are not the best place to reconnect with people. Roger was not there
Roger was the net that held the many and various social balloons together. Those of us who had not seen him too recently perhaps felt his absence on a very different level from his family and more current social circle. I was not there to witness him in his illness, although I did try to reach out to him. I sent someone over to his place with a message for him to call me whenever he wanted to. But it was too little and much too late of course. He didn’t need me, why would he? I was part of the past, long past when he was that crazy golden college boy with dreams of playing in a band. I lost Roger a long time ago.
Roger was not really a cliquey person, he was alright with you if you were alright with him, whoever you were. He was incapable of being any other way. That sense of being a part of his tribe was something I brought with me, part of my insecurities, wishful thinking on my part to have the sense of belonging to a group, having friends. That was something that was important to me.
I think I learned something about myself at Roger’s funeral. I think he had just one more lesson for me.
Since the 1990s I have always missed him being in my daily life, but now is the time to let go.