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.
Alan Merrill interview with Beatleg magazine, Tokyo Japan.
Reproduced with kind permission of Beatleg magazine
Alan Merrill Interview with Tokyo resident British journalist Glenn Williams, translated from Japanese to English as appeared in Beatleg magazine, February 2015 edition.
November 15th, 2014, Tokyo Japan.
Q: You have an extensive website with a wealth of information…
AM: Yeah there are a couple of them. My son made that; he’s a web designer.
Q: I tried to find some stuff you hadn’t been asked before but it’s pretty difficult but obviously I want to talk about I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll and other stuff you’ve been interviewed about before.
AM: Yeah sure.
I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll
Q: Let’s get I Love Rock And Roll out of the way first; do you recall where you were and what you were doing when you first heard Joan’s version?
AM: The first cover version I heard was the Sex Pistols version, 1979 – Joan Jett and the Sex Pistols and I thought it was very good but I also know that it was only regionally released in Germany and Holland so I didn’t think it had much of a chance but I knew when she recorded it and it was released on Boardwalk Entertainment in ’81 under the tutelage of Neil Bogart who had established Kiss and Donna Summer, it had a chance. As fate would have it, he knew he was dying and he literally wanted to go out with a big bang and it was all of our good luck that he put all of his effort and expertise into promoting it. It was one of the biggest records of all time, the most played record on American radio since I want To Hold Your Hand by The Beatles: Seven weeks at No.1 in Billboard and eight weeks at No.1 in Cashbox.
Q: That song is one of the great Rock anthems ever written. It will be played long after me and you have left the planet. When you wrote it, you obviously couldn’t know it would be that big.
AM: No –you’re wrong. You have to consider that at that time Arrows had only had three singles released. Touch Too Much was Top 10. Toughen Up wasn’t one of Chinnichap’s best songs (British songwriters Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn) – I didn’t like the herky-jerky chorus because it didn’t groove to me and I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be a hit, still it reached # 51 in the UK top 100 but My Last Night With You, that was a song I was sure about and it went Top 30; I think it got up to 22 in the British charts. So, given we had had two hits out of the first three singles we had released and I felt that I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll was the strongest song we had ever recorded, we all thought it had a good chance. It started out as a B-side recorded at Morgan Studios and if you look on YouTube you’ll see that there is a Mickie Most based documentary on the London Programm from Thames/ITV TV, a show recorded in the seventies – Dave Mount from Mud is interviewed – and the documentary is about how basically the groups would only write the B-sides and never make any money. Ironically, while we were recording that fifteen minute quick B-side, the TV cameras were on us and we were all singing I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll’ and they were intoning that “the song would never be a hit and that the group would never make money off of this B-side.”
Q: The irony is lovely isn’t it?
AM: It’s wonderful! You can’t make this stuff up! (laughs) Anyway, the original version was recorded with the BBC film crew recording us recording it and the second version at the behest of Mickie Most’s wife, Christina who said ‘Mick, you’re mad. I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll is the hit. You have to record it again’. At this point we had been on tour a lot and had changed the arrangement, doing the song a little bit different live. We went into Abbey Road with Mickie and cut the version that we performed on Muriel Young’s 45 TV show. That version got us the TV series and she told us ‘You guys are great. I want you to take over the Bay City Rollers show’. So she thought it was a good song but Mickie was embarrassed because it was his wife had called the single. We didn’t get Top Of The Pops with it which was very unusual because every band that had a hit got Top Of The Pops with their next release. We had a top 30 hit with My Last Night With You but no Top Of The Pops for I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll which was the death knell for any record in those days. We had no promotion but the song did serve us well in that it got us the TV series. Jackie Fox from The Runaways related the story to me and she’s a lawyer so I trust her word and she said that Joan was in the bathroom when the Arrows started playing I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll and said ‘Joan, you gotta come and hear this’.
Q: So let’s talk about the Arrows a little bit…
AM: Did you know Jake Hooker died?
Q: No I didn’t.
AM: Yeah he passed away this year (Aug 4th 2014) and Paul Varley has gone too (summer of 2008) so I’m the only original Arrow left alive of the family unit. Terry Taylor who has been withBill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings forever was the last member to join but I don’t think most fans think of him as being in the Arrows because he never recorded with us on any official releases, although he’s on a lot of demos and TV tracks.
Arrows TV show
Q: You did two, 14 episode series in ‘76 and ’77.
AM: I was far more animated in the second series which is when Runaways Joan Jett and Jackie Fox saw us. The first weekly series we were timid and the second we realized we were not going to get any records out so we just went bananas doing the shows on champagne and speed. (laughs) Dee Harrington who was Rod Stewart’s girlfriend was designing our clothes…
Q: You had some outrageous clothes back then.
AM: Yeah we did.
Q: Do you still have them?
AM: Some of them but I don’t fit in them any more (laughs). If I go broke I can always sell them on ebay.
Q: It’s funny in some ways because the legacy of Arrows is much bigger than the band itself.
AM: True yes.
Q: Was the TV show done once a week or did you do them in a batch?
AM: It was every week. We went up to Granada TV, Quay Street in Manchester and stayed two days. We had a day of rehearsal and then a day of the show. We would record for the show as well so there is a lot of unique tracks in there. When Terry joined the band, we actually had a guy who could orchestrate Horn parts so we would bring in the Granada brass as well.
Q: That was the British Musician’s Union rules back then that you had to prove you could do it live.
AM: That’s right.
Q: Who chose the guests?
AM: Muriel. For example, I was friendly socially with Tim Hardin and Tim Rose, two Americans who were in London at the time and they both asked me if I could get them on the show and I asked Muriel if Tim Hardin could come on and do If I Were A Carpenter but she said ‘He doesn’t have a current single’ and it was all about the current single. Even when Gene Pitney came on, he had a current single and then he also did 24 Hours From Tulsa and Tim Rose was only known by the general public for Morning Dew so not having a current single he never got on the show. I tried.
Q: How come you never released any records off the back of it?
AM: Complicated story. Mickie Most had asked us not to take on management. Ian Wright offered three times as much as what Mickie was paying us for a retainer and we had a group meeting where I was outvoted 2-1. I didn’t want to go with Ian but Jake and Paul wanted the extra money. Jake was with Lorna Luft at the time who was Judy Garland’s daughter and Paul was with June Bolan (Marc Bolan’s ex-wife) who were two power-ladies. They said take the money and call Mickie’s bluff because he’s never, not going to put out singles with a TV series. I said we were going to have a problem because Mickie didn’t need the money and I was right. January 1976 was our last release which was Once Upon A Time. The records were in the shops and I was doing promotional interview tours all over England with Cozy Powell and Chris Norman from Smokie and none of the journalists were talking to me as if I were out the loop. I called my new manager, Ian, and said it was stupid for me to be on the tour and told him to take me off because I wanted to go home. We did the first TV series in March 1976 and at the end of the first series Bill Wyman said ‘I’ll produce you.’ We went into Island Records with him and did three songs which are the first three songs on the unofficial release, Tawny Tracks. They weren’t great because at that time we were really drunk and really high all the time. The tracks were unfocused but Bill sent them to Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic and he heard the potential. Ahmet knew I had already been signed to Atlantic once in Japan (1970) and was also friends with Helen Merrill – my Mother – the Jazz singer so he said to Bill, ‘Yes’. Now, Dave Dee was working at Atlantic and he was one of Mickie Most’s best friends. Dave told Mickie and Mickie told Ahmet ‘Please don’t sign this band’. So, we would have had records out for the second series with Bill Wyman producing but for the political…well Mickie would have lost face and you can’t have that. He was a God back then and that was really the end of the Arrows. I knew it was over. Muriel was already talking about a third series but the band was already imploding. June couldn’t get along with Lorna to the point where the band used to all hang out together after the shows but then Lorna and Jake would go off alone. It was fracturing badly. At the end of the second series we elbowed Jake and bought in Steve Gould from Rare Bird and we toured a bit with him and we sounded great but no one would touch us so we decided to split up.
Q: Do you know if those tapes are languishing somewhere or where they another victim of the great British tape-wipe that the BBC and ITV did some years back?
AM: About twenty of the twenty-eight shows survived: I have them. There are fragments all over YouTube. You pick an artist like Pilot doing Penny In My Pocket or Slade doing Let’s Call It Quits and do a search and you’ll find them. Touch Too Much was wiped – both the first and third appearances but the Mike Mansfield film survived.
Q: You were on Supersonic as well weren’t you?
AM: No. We were never asked on Supersonic. Mickie asked Mike not to invite us on. The only TV appearances we had from the time we took on MAM management (Ian Wright) on were Arrows shows. That management was the worst decision we ever made.
Q: So what happened next?
AM: For a little while I floundered. I auditioned for The Hollies…
Q: Did you!?
AM: Yeah. Allan Clarke had quit and I sang with them at the office. It was great except for The Air That I Breathe because I let out a lot of air when I sing and they sing very softly. I sat between Terry Sylvester and Tony Hicks and the harmonies were brilliant but the end result was that Allan bottled out of going solo and rejoined. Then I had Marty Christian and Paul Clayton from The New Seekers and we tried to put together a Crosby, Stills & Nash vocal thing but I said that no one would take us seriously: Arrows and The New Seekers? Sorry. That was the end of that. Marty bought my Teac 4 track reel to reel tape machine though! (laughs)
Japan in the ‘70’s
Q: Before we go further, we should talk a bit about your life in New York and Japan and how you got here.
AM: I started in Jazz through my parents. My father was a great musician and played on Sarah Vaughn’s first record; he played with Chet Baker and Stan Getz and my mother’s most famous song in Japan is You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To which was a Seiko watch commercial. In 1966, I was fifteen or sixteen, living alone in New York and playing down at the Café Wha?– the time Hendrix was there. I was just a kid and I was the guy who told Bruce Springsteen where to set up! He was going to move the back line (drums and amplifiers) and I told him ‘You move that back line and you’re never going to work here again.’ Then in 1968, I had auditioned for The Left Banke and got the gig over sixty other guitarists. They made me learn all their songs and then said they were going to go on as a trio and use session musicians rather than have another guitarist. I never even did a gig with them and I didn’t know what to do so my mother said come over to Tokyo.
Q: For a young man from New York, what was Japan and the music scene here like back in the ‘70’s when you arrived? It must have been mind blowing.
AM: It was! I was semi-pro in New York and almost pro with The Left Banke (they apologized to me profusely recently) and I wasn’t sure if there was a music scene here until I went to a stationary shop and I saw these little bobble-head dolls and it said ‘Tigers’. I then saw them on the TV and thought ‘Ok. There is a scene here’ and I asked my mother to hook me up with someone who was in the rock scene because she had a lot of music contacts and she hooked me up with Jimmy Oka who was the manager of The Dynamites. He asked me to come down and jam at the Shinjuku ACB club which I did and we did some Hendrix songs. Jimmy then got me a gig at the Space Capsule club in Akasaka which would have been the winter of ’68 and that’s where I started dating Michi Nakao who was a Go-Go dancer.
I did a two week residency there and I didn’t get paid so I said to Jimmy not to call me anymore. The problem was, drummer, Shiro Imai (ex-The Dynamites), had come to my house where my parents lived in Sendagaya. My step-father was the vice-president of UPI and had a huge house and so he thought he needed the money more than I didn’t get paid and I never worked with him again. Around Christmas time, Michi was dancing in the Pasha club in Akasaka and she told me there was a foreign band called The Lead whose guitarist had just been busted for marijuana. They were in the middle of recording an album and need a guitarist and I was asked to go to the club and finish the set with them. I took his place that night and finished the album.
Q: So there were quite a few foreign musicians here back then…
AM: Not really. The only other band who spent any time in Japan other than The Lead was The Clinic, with legends Roy Morris and Archie Leggett in the band. I must tell you this story which I’ve only just recently remembered. One night I was sitting in Byblos where all the foreign musicians and actors used to hang out in Akasaka and I was dressed like a British Pop star. It was 1969 and I was into The Small Faces, The Beatles and The Stones and I had all the trendy clothes and the hair style. Anyway, this guy walks in with very short hair, a suit and tie and he said ‘You look like a musician, are you English?’ and I said ‘No, I’m American’. He said, ‘Well my name is Syd, I’ve just quit The Pink Floyd. Do you think I can find myself in Kyoto?’ I said ‘I don’t know, it’s worth a shot.’ He then said that he had sold all his guitars and didn’t want to have anything to do with music and added ‘…so don’t ask me to jam.’ I replied by saying ‘Well give it a thought. There’s a cool scene happening here.’ Joel Larson (Grassroots) was living in Tokyo for a bit and I wanted to talk to Syd about coming over for a jam and said ‘I’ll just get us a couple of beers.’ He said ‘Ok, I’d love one.’ but when I looked back from the bar, he had gone. Just vanished. Five minutes with Syd Barrett in Tokyo! (laughs)
Q: What was the origin of Vodka Collins?
AM: I had a group called Godzilla which was with Haruo Chikada on keyboards and Jun Kanazawa on drums. Sadly, Jun committed suicide some thirty years ago; Haruo is still well known in Japan. In Godzilla I played guitar. There was Hiroshi Kato (Yellow Gypsy) as well. As Godzilla & Yellow Gypsy we did the Dai-Go-Go Party double album and the Popcorn song which is now a commercial in Japan, I usually played bass on these sessions. But back in 1971 our manager wasn’t very strong. He wasn’t hooked up with the necessary Japanese industry network so he couldn’t get a record deal for the band, although we recorded on a lot of sessions and did live shows as a unit. At the same time, Hiroshi Oguchi, the drummer who was with The Tempters was in short-lived bands called Orange, also PYG and we had been talking about starting a group since the Nichigekki Theater Western Carnival shows when I saw him play Honky Tonk Women: He had really good time and feel. Anyway, we got the chance to startVodka Collins and my concept was to form a Tokyo based band as a rival to the British band T.Rex – a percussionist and a singer/song writer. We rehearsed for two weeks with my songs just to see what would work and wouldn’t work and Oguchi asked who I wanted as a bass player and I said ‘The most musical kid on the scene who is young and adaptable is Take Yokouchi’ who was actually the guitarist for The Four Leaves (High Society) and played likePaul Kossoff so I figured he could play anything. I took my bass to the studio and gave it to him and he said ‘I don’t play bass’ and I said ‘Now you do.’ (laughs) He became like a lead bass player and he had the chops to make a trio sound big like Cream. Then Monsieur Kamayatsuasked us to back him up because he liked our sound and said we could play a few of our songs before he went on stage and that’s how he joined. On the Tokyo-New York album (EMI), the only thing he did was sing back-up vocals on Terminal City with Kazuhiko Kato. We recorded 14 songs and only 9 were finished when I left Japan – some of them that were used are rough guide vocals.
Q: Is it true you left Vodka Collins and Japan on the eve of a Budokan show?
Q: You must have been pretty angry about something to do that.
AM: My rent was ¥76,000 and my monthly salary was ¥70,000. I called my mother and said ‘Ma, please send me $300’ (about ¥80,000, 1973 exchange rate) and she said ‘What are you doing?’ and I said ‘Playing the Budokan.’ She said ‘You’re an idiot – leave Japan.’ At the same time, Jake Hooker told me that Decca would certainly give us a record deal and he said he’d send a ticket for me to fly from Tokyo to London, so I told him to send the ticket and he did. The truth was, he had sold a Marshall amp; There was no deal with Decca. There was in fact a meeting with Decca where Jake and I sat down with their A&R chief Dick Rowe and Dick said to me ‘I can’t see it happening for you but don’t mind me because I turned down The Beatles.’ (laughs) Six months later we were in the Top 10 with Touch Too Much. (laughs) Dick Rowe’s unique blessing was bestowed upon us.
The back story on my leaving Japan all those years ago is that before my band Vodka Collins became popular I made money playing sessions on other people’s records. I was one of producer Mickey Curtis’s preferred session men on bass and acoustic guitar. When Vodka Collins’ schedule became too busy I had to cancel my sessions, relying solely on the band’s earnings. The management mistakenly assumed I was a rich American kid who could just call home for money. It was a truly gross miscalculation. I left Japan and it was an unprecedented move for an artist from the Japanese scene.
Q: Was there a moment when you were on the plane wondering if you had done the right thing?
AM: I was very confllicted from the time I made the decision to leave Japan. Jake picked me up at the airport in a taxi and the first thing he said to me was ‘You look like shit.’ I replied ‘Excuse me!’ The cheap airlines he booked me on was a flight that took 3 days to get from Tokyo to London. I was exhausted. I had a band in Japan that were at the top of the rock scene but the management were paying me too little and a girlfriend who I loved and I didn’t want to leave her. But my girlfriend followed me a month later which pissed her parents off and they temporarily disowned her. (laughs)
Q: Well, no deal with Decca but you did get RAK.
AM: We had no money. We had to walk around to the Publishing houses because Jake said we should get a publishing deal first and then go for a record deal. Our original manager was Peter Meaden who used to be The Who’s manager and he told us a few places to go. When we signed with RAK we got on a retainer straight away. My money problems were solved.
Q: How did Pete Meaden get involved?
AM: Through a band called Streak. When I was in Japan, I used to come to New York for three weeks to get a new work visa and during that time I would get involved in music projects. Me, Jake and John Siomos, (who later played with Peter Frampton and did the Frampton Comes Alive album) did a demo which he got the deal in London with on A&M under the name of Streak and when A&M realized it was me singing and not Jake, they dropped them. (laughs) Then they got an American drummer, David Wesley and Ben Brierley on bass who was the future husband of Marianne Faithful. He was with the punk band The Vibrators in the late seventies and then Dave left, Paul Varley came in and briefly Rick Steel on guitar.
Q: Got it. Let’s get back to you and Jake traipsing around London.
AM: Finally we went to Rak Publishing. We played a few songs that I had written and Dave Most– Mickie’s brother – liked what he heard and called Mickie over from the next office to hear us. Mickie listened and said ‘I like you. I think you’re good and there’s a song I want you to record. I’ll give you the demo and you tell me if you want to record it or not.’ We go back to Jake’s flat and learned the demo which was Touch Too Much. Mickie told me that it was originally forDavid Cassidy who had turned it down as did The Sweet and Suzi Quatro. Actually, on the original demo I got, Brian Connolly was singing and Mickie told me to sing it as close to Brian as I could but I can’t sing like Brian so I put my own thing on it. The line ‘Oh Honey, you know what I want’ was my line an off the cuff aside. I went back the next day and sang it for Mickie and he said ‘Ok. Let’s get a drummer in and start routining this.’ Jake pulled in Paul Varley and we went into the Rak basement and started on that and We Can Make It Together. After a week or ten days, we went into Morgan Studios and cut them. It took a while before it came out. There was a kind of pre-bubble press of ‘The Arrows – The Next Big Thing’ sort of thing and we had good shots of us done by Gered Mankowitz so when it came out, the British public were primed and we got Top Of The Pops immediately. I remember looking up on the Rak Records board and seeing 30,000 copies sold every day. It was amazing! We were given a retainer and I got a place on the Nell Gwynn House on Sloane Avenue and we were also doing sessions. I did some bass on Cozy Powell recordings (The Man In Black/After Dark), Paul Burnett show BBC jingles, played bass on some Flintlock records with Lynton Guest of the Love Affair producing (Flintlock were a UK band) and then I had enough money to keep my girlfriend comfortable.
Q: Now we are back to the post-Arrows time and up to Runner. Not much is talked about this band; is Runner something you’d rather not talk about?
AM: No I do want to talk about it! At the end of Arrows in 1977, my relationship with Steve Gouldbecame very strong, we found that our voices blended very well so we started Runner and signed to Island Records. It was a big leap from RAK to Island and suddenly I was on £300 per week whereas with RAK when we had the hits I was on £35 retainer a week. During the TV series we (Arrows) were on £75 a week but that was only for the TV series unless we were on tour when we made more money on the road. That was across the board though; Dave Mountfrom the band Mud told me that they were also on £35 a week retainer. Anyway, Island Records thought that Runner were the new Traffic. The energy was just amazing but the problem was that Mick Feat and Steve didn’t want to tour. I wanted to tour, Dave Dowle wanted to tour (Dave was the original drummer with Whitesnake), Steve had just been touring with us as a utility man (bass and keyboards) in the Arrows live situation and Mick had just finished the Van Morrison Wavelength tour so we were all used to touring. Mick and Steve’s concept was ‘We don’t want to tour until we’re Top 10’ and Chris Blackwell at Island said ‘You won’t be Top 10 unless you tour.’ People stopped wanting to reason with Steve and were calling me. I got calls from heavyweight promoters Harvey Goldsmith and Bill Graham: they wanted us to open for theAllman Brothers. Frustrated, Dave left the band under duress, insuring that we actually had an excuse not to tour without first finding a replacement drummer– We tried two different drummers and did some demos. One was Tony Beard (Crosby, Stills & Nash, Bee Gees) who was great but Mick and Steve wanted somebody “better” so they bought in Pete Van Hook who was previously with the Van Morrison band. He came into the studio and I extended my hand to shake his and he looked away. I couldn’t work with that and said I would have to leave the band if he was going to be the drummer. He was a snob about pop groups and hated Arrows so he didn’t want to be involved with me on some twisted elitist principal. It was a moot point in fact as things turned out. The track he played on was the last Runner track we ever recorded, “Living In A Hard World.”
Q: Well then why would he want to join the band?
AM: He loved Mick Feat from working with him on the Van Morrison Wavelength album and tour, they were a tight rhythm section. He was a great drummer but I couldn’t possibly work with somebody who wouldn’t even shake my hand or recognize that I was in the room, so it was either him or me. It was the last few weeks of the band anyway. In the end, Chris Blackwell said ‘Enough dicking around. Goodbye – you’re cut off.’ Here’s the kicker and I discussed this with Dave Dowle years later; Mick and Steve wouldn’t tour with Runner but went off on the road with the Alvin Lee Band (Free Fall) and were on tour for a year! I went off on tour with Rick Derringer for nine months out of 1980 and Dave went off on tour with Maggie Bell and started Midnight Flyer. Before that though I was hoping to keep the interest of Island Records so I cut a six track demo in one day with Dave and me playing all the other instruments and one of those songs wasWhen The Night Comes which was covered in 1980 by a wonderful folk rock singer named Catherine Howe. I wrote that song for Runner but we never recorded it and then in 1983, Lou Rawls cut it as the title track of his album. That was the first album taken into outer space by a black astronaut (Guy Bluford) and broadcast back to earth. So how mad was the collective known as Runner? We had all this songwriting talent, vocal talent that was just squandered. It was insanity plus! (laughs)
Q: Having your song played in outer space almost tops I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll doesn’t it?
AM: It does! (laughs) Lou Rawls “When The Night Comes” is a cover I’m very proud of these days
Q: Let’s come up to date: what keeps you going and occupied these days Alan?
AM: I’ve been recorded lots of indie albums. They sell well. Just knowing that people are still interested in hearing me and the response I get when I do live shows. Being able to play a show with the songs I’ve written covered by Joan Jett, Lou Rawls, Freddie Scott, Rick Derringer, Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, Tiny Tim, Felix Cavaliere, Chuck Jackson… and more!
Q: Tiny Tim covered one of your songs?
AM: Yeah. He recorded Movies which was on my Merrill 1 album. It was in 1972 and at the peak of his popularity. I only found out about it thirty years later. The Tiny Tim Fan Club contacted me and I had no idea about it so they sent me the 45, which was on Sceptre Records and it was indeed my song. He also covered “I Love Rock N Roll” in 1996 so he covered two of my songs, decades apart.
AM: Yeah, that’s what keeps me going, that and I have a story to tell which is one of the more unusual stories.
Q: You do have a rather unique place in Rock and Pop history.
AM: Yeah but Rolling Stone have never written a story about me; Spin have never written a story about me. They’ve practically written about every other artist that has had a chart hit. I’m sort of proud of that. I’ve evaded the Rolling Stone / Spin corporate porkfest.
Q: How about when you have time off. What do you do?
AM: I like watching movies. I enjoy time with my dog. I’ve been writing a book about my career too. It’s a crazy story.
Q: It certainly is. Alan, thank you very much and please stay in touch.
AM: I will. Thank you very much.
* This interview was transcribed from a taped conversation at a cafe in Tokyo, Nov 2014. Interview Photos by Hiroko Yoshizaki
Many Thanks to Glenn Williams
Terrific E-zine “Indie Music Impact” has conducted an excellent new interview with Alan Merrill that for once concentrates on his career and not the usual boilerplate interview questions about Joan Jett’s cover version of his original self-penned song “I Love Rock’n’Roll. A wide ranging look at everything from growing up as a Jazz Brat in the Bronx to his start in Greenwich Village and opens with some in-depth questions about his early career in Japan and then going right through to talk about his talented children and how he perceives his own legacy as a songwriter and performer
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Kicking off with the title track. It’s an autobiographical cheeky-chappie number with the obvious double-entendre right out there. It has a very comedic British feel, although the story it tells is one of an early failure to make a career breakthrough.
Hard Road, which follows it, is an amazing rock song, much less cheerful about the tough life in the music business, but absolutely a hard rocking anthem, one of Merrill’s best
Hang on Sloopy, a cover of the popular old McCoys/Rick Derringer hit. This version is fantastic. Alan was part of Rick Derringer’s band in the early 1980s. On top of being a world-class songwriter, Alan Merrill is blessed with one of the top five voices in rock music in my opinion. Everything he sings is immediately better for his voice being there and there are a number of songs on this album that he did not write, but in every case, the version he provides stands on a par with, or higher than the original
Lesson Learned is another cautionary tale about the lure of fame with a thumping great bass-line provided by the excellent ex Brian Connolly’s Sweet and latterday Slade bass player Dave Glover. Great rock song with some great creepy audio effects giving a slightly ominous gravitas
White Heat is a lovely thing, a little reminiscent of mid 80s Robert Palmer, it has a similar hard rocking but melodic, sophisticated sheen.
The late-era Arrows Merrill-Taylor song Love Express is up next, it pulls no punches, the double-entendres are even less subtle here. Backed by Rick Derringer and his band it is transformed into a relentless unstoppable groove.
Alan ‘s version of Two out of Three Ain’t Bad, a Jim Steinman number, and a big hit for Meatloaf, is so tender and touching, a quality I don’t feel the original hit has to the same degree. Merrill played guitar for Meatloaf in the mid/late 80s and this inclusion reflects that period of his career.
Alan’s solo version of the Larry Williams classic song “Slow Down” rocks as hard as any version of this I have heard. I’ve heard him do this live, and it’s fantastic
Walk Away Renée, Pretty Ballerina and Desireé were songs originally written and performed by the “baroque’n’roll” New York band The Left Banke which Merrill came close to joining in the late 1960s, before he went to Japan. Alan provides really excellent versions of all of these, I have not heard The Left Banke originals.
Alan follows these with a completely unexpected cover of the beautiful “You” a Radiohead song, originally from Pablo Honey and fully orchestrated with strings. It’s a refreshing delight and really shows the range and versatility of that great voice stepping right out of the usual full tilt boogie and into a much more ethereal space.
Long Shot is a huge but moving power ballad of a man taking a chance on love, going against the voice of his experience.
Miles Away is a much more gentle, spacious tune about love and separation
Always another Train, another late-era Arrows composition with a driving Stones-y feel features an amazing line-up of people including Mick Taylor, Steve Winwood and (astonishingly) the heart-throb actor Oliver Tobias on backing vocals
Breathe on Me is a Ron Wood song, and joining Alan is the vocal talent of Antonique Smith in a breathtakingly beautiful duet that I’ve had to repeat over and over. The blend of voices is just that good.
Everytime She Comes Around is simply a catchy cheerful tune that gets right in your head, it has massive potential as a song for other bands to cover.
Theo, Alan’s tribute to Theo Van Gogh is next. It’s a slow-jam straightforward 12 bar blues; simply, but perfectly constructed, and one of my favourite songs. The words are less important than the feel, and this has plenty of feel- with blues harmonica and lots of opportunity to sing along. Great fun!
Rock On You is an upbeat pop song again perfect for singing along, another I’d like to see other bands picking up on
Only 19 is a stand alone acoustic ballad written to highlight the tragedy of anorexia and other eating disorders in young girls under societal pressure to conform to an impossible ideal. It’s a subject I’m sure he knows a lot about, having been once married to a top model and also has had a modeling career himself. Such a sad song, it has moved me to tears more than once.
Overall, this large collection has enormous depth and variety. It’s great value, and leaves me once again a little stunned that this wonderful artist is not as well known as he should be. I notice I haven’t even got around to mentioning here that he wrote “I Love Rock n Roll” and recorded it with his band The Arrows, back in 1975. This guy is a national treasure, and an international one as well. Buy his albums. There is literally something for everyone’s taste here.