Mark McStea ‘The following is the full transcription of an interview that I did with Alan Merrill about four years ago. A very truncated version appeared in Vive Le Rock in Nov 2016. Alan had been a lifelong hero for me – I loved The Arrows and all of his subsequent solo work. He was the first person that I ever got into print with, in the VLR piece. He was always really helpful and supportive. He gave me numerous contacts for interviews, feedback on my own songs and recorded intros for Arrows songs that I played on my Generating Steam Heat glam radio shows. He always had a great anecdote about anyone you could ever throw at him and his memory for detail was incredible. He was always extremely courteous and appreciative of his fans. He never lost his love of music and was gigging a couple of weeks before he contracted the virus. For music fans in general, he’ll always be remembered for writing the all-time rock anthem ‘I Love Rock’n’Roll’. For those who knew him he’ll be remembered simply as one of the nicest people you could ever meet. Apologies for any typos that survived into the following piece – I don’t really have the heart to pick through it – too sad a reminder of many great discussions.’
Arrows had two hits on RAK in 1974/75 – Touch Too Much and My Last Night With You, and four other singles that didn’t make the charts. That simple statistic doesn’t even scratch the surface of the impact that the band had at the time, and their main man, Alan Merrill, in particular was to have. Although the two hits that the band had were written by outside writers, Merrill himself wrote one of the all time anthems of rock – I Love Rock N Roll. Amongst the most covered songs in the history of rock – it’s generated sales that dwarf those for any other single song from the glam era – a conservative estimate would put it’s earnings at $35 million!
Merrill himself had a successful career both before and after his tenure with Arrows. Prior to joining up with fellow band members guitarist Jake Hooker and drummer Paul Varley he’d already had considerable success in Japan in his band Vodka Collins.
Subsequent to Arrows he has played in Meatloaf and Rick Derringer’s bands and has had continuing success both as a solo performer and also as a writer – including When The Night Comes – a hit song for Bill Withers that was the first song ever broadcast on an LP back to earth from space!
The Arrows story is that of amazing missed opportunities and conflict with legendary 70’s hit maker Mickie Most – owner of their label RAK Records. Most seemed perversely determined to squander every opportunity that presented itself to the band – name another band that could have two hit pop shows on TV- back in the days of three channels thus guaranteeing big audiences – and yet have no new music released!
Merrill still gigs regularly in New York and also in Japan where he maintains a strong following from his Vodka Collins days and in Europe. He has excellent recall of every detail from his career. The true story of the authorship of I Love Rock N Roll is discussed – with revelations and some light shone on the darker side of success and greed. Read on!
Quick pre-Arrows mini history! 1973 – you formed Arrows with guitarist Jake Hooker whom you’d known from playing together in Streak in the States. You’d moved to Japan, formed Vodka Collins ( the first Japanese glam band) and experienced success in ‘72 without the monetary benefits! Hooker contacts you to come to London, where he’s living, on a promise of a record deal. There was no deal. Much hustling later Mickie Most’s brother recommends you to Mickie – he likes you and gives you the opportunity to record the Chinn/Chapman song Touch Too Much. How did the Chinn/Chapman songs get presented to you?
The two Chinn & Chapman songs we got to record (Touch Too Much and Toughen Up) were in very rough demo form. Acoustic guitar and voice. I was told it was Mike Chapman singing the demos at the time but I found out from Brian’s post – Sweet bass player years later that Brian Connolly swore he sang all Mike’s demos for him. I still have those demos somewhere on cassette. It sounds like Brian. The songs were pretty formatted, so structurally there wasn’t much room to move from what the songs were. Mickie Most as producer would dominate how the songs would flesh out. He had a very specific and sharp focused vision.
Had they been offered to other acts?
Touch Too Much was offered to a few acts before us – Sweet, David Cassidy, Suzi Quatro, maybe more. I think Suzi Quatro might have passed on Toughen Up as well.
I’m trying to picture David Cassidy rocking out!
Mickie was furious that David Cassidy had turned him down for Touch Too Much and had to prove to him it was a hit song. Enter the Arrows. After he made his point to David, I think for him Arrows had accomplished their raison d’être. Much to his horror we became very popular very quickly in the teen press so he had created a Frankenstein, a beast which he soon put down, just as was the monster’s fate in the Shelley book.
What was the Chinn/Chapman relationship like with the bands that they wrote for – friendly/co-operative/dictatorial?
Our relationship with them was cordial and friendly but not close. We were an anomaly in that we weren’t produced by them, we were a Mickie Most produced act. They produced the other acts they wrote for, like Suzi Quatro, Mud, The Sweet, Smokie and others. They never produced us so I don’t know what they were like in the studio.
Did the band play on your own A sides or were you ‘session pressured’ to use hired hands?
We played on all our first three RAK singles, A and B sides. The only augmentation to the band to that point in time was on My Last Night With You which was with John Cameron of CCS arranging the horn parts. On our fourth single Broken Down Heart we did the usual vocals, guitar bass and drums ourselves as a band, augmented by Rabbit (John Bundrick) on keyboards and Chris Spedding who played guitar with Arrows’ Jake Hooker. Through the magic of overdubbing I was able to play piano and guitar parts on Arrows records as well, which I often did.
On our fifth single we played the instruments on the B-side My World Is Turning On Love as usual, but on the A-side Hard Hearted I was the only band member on the record, on bass guitar and lead vocals. On keyboards was Rabbit, guitar Chris Spedding, drums Clem Cattini. backing vocals Tony Burroughs, Stephanie DeSykes and PP Arnold. It was the last record Mickie Most produced with us. I guess he was just finding us hard, as a band, to make it work with his method. We later recorded a band self produced track for Hard Hearted for the Arrows weekly TV show that we played all the instruments on. It stands up to the single in my opinion, if not better.
You know, after signing with RAK, Arrows’ first assignment was to record jingles for Paul Burnett’s BBC1 show ‘All There Is To Hear’ We were the session players and wrote that jingle. So as a band we could play very well, especially in the studio where we could do overdubs. Mickie even hired me to play bass on Cozy Powell’s top 20 hit single the Man In Black. I played on both sides of that single.
I saw you live in ’75 supporting Showaddywaddy in Manchester and you were really tight musically – obviously musicianship was never an issue.
It was a good thing Mickie believed in a band playing their own instruments.
Was there a pecking order to get a chance at the songs?
Yes, the acts that Mike and Nicky produced got first shot at the best material. They really had a lot on their plate when the Arrows got to RAK in 1974, so we were not top of the list. I think Mike and Nicky picked which songs would suit certain artists after they were written. Or Mike would write a song with a specific artist in mind. The songs would then be presented to the artists, who, depending on their star status, could pick up on or pass on the songs.
What Chinn/Chapman songs did Arrows reject that were successful for others?
None, we were only presented two songs by them and we recorded both of them. Mike and Nicky proposed producing the Arrows, an offer Mickie Most declined. After that they said they were too busy to write for us.
What do you think the division of labour between Chinn and Chapman actually was?
All I will say is that Mike and Nicky’s relationship is ‘probably’ similar to my relationship with Jake in that Mike ‘appeared’ to do the heavy lifting. History bears this out. After Mike and Nicky parted ways Mike kept writing hits and producing. Nicky wasn’t involved in music very much after the Chinn-Chapman era, at least that I know of. I do know he wrote lyrics before his association with Mike. But they weren’t anything like Mike’s lyrics. Nicky was very similar to Jake Hooker in fact in that ‘songwriting’ dynamic. Nicky Chinn ran a lot of interference up at RAK trying to keep my songs away from Mickie Most. He was smart. I could do what they did as a songwriter. I proved it
I remember once I brought a song in to play for Mickie, it had all the earmarks of a hit, you know, you feel like you’ve heard it before but can’t say from where or what. Mickie loved it, his eyes lit up, but Nicky was in the room and said “that’s a nick, you can’t do that!” I replied “what song?” and he couldn’t answer. I said “pot calls kettle black, the two songs you wrote for us (Arrows), the riffs were direct nicks of “Summertime Blues” and “Not Fade Away.” Mickie Most, sensing the tension quickly dismissed me from the room and told me to go home and write some more original songs, not ‘nicks’. I was furious, defeated. Nicky was one of Mickie’s best friends so I couldn’t win that argument. To be fair that was the only time I had any tension with Nicky, but in hindsight I ‘get’ it, he was guarding his territory. He was going to be RAK’s main songwriting source and didn’t want any young American upstarts disturbing that pattern. “I Love Rock N Roll” proved his instincts were good. Given a chance I could have challenged him and Mike.
But Nicky was a wizard businessman. Jake not so much or he would have got us a better record/publishing deal when I came in from Tokyo in ’74. The “businessman” in these partnerships can be as important as the actual songwriter. A facilitator in fact. Nicky’s friendship with Mickie Most was the key to Mike Chapman’s success, at least in my opinion. So Nicky earned his share. It was very energetic and effective teamwork.
Richard Gower (singer with 70’s RAK act Racey) told me that it was mooted that he would form a writing partnership with Nicky Chinn after Chinnichap separated but it didn’t come to fruition. It suggests that Nicky definitely needed a partner.
Nicky Chinn had a Jake Hooker (passenger) vibe there going on in asking the guy from Racey to ‘write’ with him. Except Nicky could get the songs placed and in the charts. Jake was about as effective as a limp washcloth!
Was there any opportunity to use original material as an A side for Arrows?
I was writing a lot of songs at the time, hoping to write the A-side. Mickie liked a few of them and even cut a few but I think he was simply against the concept of a band writing their own material. Mickie Most’s modus operandum was to separate the act from the songwriter, using the Brill Building template for hit record success. His formula worked well for years, so I’m sure he was very confident in that sort of approach. The only anomaly there at RAK was Hot Chocolate where Errol Brown wrote the band’s material.
The song Bam Bam Battering Ram was me trying to give Mickie Most what he asked for. He wanted me to write a male Shangri-Las style song over the track we’d done for Johnny Burnette’s song Dreaming which was meant to be a potential follow up to Toughen Up. It didn’t pass Mickie’s song quality test. We had the speaking part at the intro, like Mary Weiss and the girls would do – the gang chorus like the Shangri-Las. Lots of unison vocals.
I wrote it with plenty of not-so subtle sexual innuendo and the title is my attempt at a Chapman/Chinn song title. I had fun writing it. It was rude fun.
An interesting trivia point – my 1974 composition Wake Up was recorded by the Arrows in 1974 and a few years later (and credited to Hayes/Denys) nearly won Eurovision, as recorded by the band Coco. The composer’s credits names were changed because “Americans couldn’t write songs for Britain in the Eurovision contest’ according to Mickie Most’s brother, David Hayes, who ran RAK publishing. It didn’t win so a moot point.
We did finally get an A-side in a roundabout way. We first released I Love Rock N Roll as a B-side but it was so briefly designated a B-side that the A-side Broken Down Heart never even got reviewed. We recorded the first quickie I Love Rock N Roll B-side at Morgan Studios and then the far superior A-side at Abbey Road studio, where Mickie Most took some time with the record and made it sound really good. The reason I Love Rock N Roll was designated an A-side was mainly Mickie Most’s wife Christina, who kept telling him that I Love Rock N Roll was the hit song. So his wife plays a large role in the song’s legacy. If she hadn’t persevered the song might have been stillborn.
How did you come to write I Love Rock N Roll?
Arrows needed a fourth single and we were experimenting with all sorts of ideas. Mickie Most asked for a custom order three chord song with a strong riff and rousing sing along chorus. I presented him with Shake Me – it was the song I wrote just before I Love Rock N Roll the same week – spring of 1975 – same structure – three chords, the riff stays steady and the chords move and a rousing chorus. Tailored to Mickie’s specs, but he didn’t go for it. Arrows did play Shake Me in our live show 1975. It went over very well.
After rejecting Shake Me! (later a hit single for Rick Derringer), I walked into his office and played him the chorus of I Love Rock N Roll on acoustic guitar. That’s all there was up until that point, a chorus. His face lit up. I asked him if it should be ‘coin’ or ‘dime’ in the juke box. He thought dime – “better for British people to hear American phrases from Americans” was his logic. He wanted a strong riff in the verse too so that night I wrote the verses and developed a hook guitar figure, and presented it to him in the RAK records attic with fellow band member Jake Hooker playing along with me – two acoustic guitars. The verses got the thumbs up, Mickie gave the song the green light – we could record it.
It seems like Mickie’s famous ear for a hit had deserted him at this point didn’t it?
Unfortunately, at around the same time, the songwriter who had written our previous single, the top 30 My Last Night With You (Roger Ferris) presented Mickie a song called Broken Down Heart, another ballad. A decent song, good melody, but I knew it was nowhere near as strong as I Love Rock N Roll as a song. Plus it was wandering further away from the audience we had picked up with our first hit single Touch Too Much, which was rock. Broken Down Heart wasn’t rock, it was sort of country and western in feel and it had an “over 30” mood to it age-wise. The reason I Love Rock N Roll was designated an A-side was mainly Mickie Most’s wife Christina, who kept telling him that I Love Rock N Roll was the hit song – she plays a large role in the song’s legacy. If she hadn’t persevered the song might have been stillborn.
How big a part did band member Jake Hooker actually play in the co-writing of I Love Rock N Roll?
When it came to songwriting sessions, Jake was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the most part. No more. Jake’s contribution to any songwriting session was usually limited to having the most expensive home recording gear, the biggest flat and the best wine. His mother sent him money and was very good to him, subsidising the meagre £35 a week we got from RAK as an off the road retainer. Conversely, my mother never sent me a dime. When I’d ask her to send me a few dollars she’d sing “God Bless The Child” (ie ‘whose got his own’) to me on the phone! She’s a jazz singer (Helen Merrill) and said if you want to be in the music business you have to sink or swim on your own.
I know that you had the chorus which was the essence of the whole thing anyway – was there any bit in particular that Jake came up with?
Jake has said in the press, and is quoted in Billboard Book of #1 Hits, as saying that it took him 15 minutes to write I Love Rock N Roll. That really pissed me off – he made these crazy claims and people believed him! It’s sad really. 15 minutes was the time it took me to teach him the song before presenting it to Mickie Most in the attic at RAK. Mickie Most’s wife will be glad to tell you that Jake didn’t write any part of I Love Rock N Roll. She was there and she saw the process unfolding.
Unlike the songs I wrote with Terry Taylor (later addition to the band) where Terry actually contributed and co-wrote with me – big difference. Why shouldn’t I claim credit for my own work? It’s mad not to!
How did he come to get his name credited as co-writer of ILRNR?
Reeling back, Jake paid for my plane ticket from Tokyo to London in 1974 (where I’d already had significant success with my band Vodka Collins), with the instinct that if I was involved in a band with him in the UK he’d have a shot at being successful. His bet paid off. My way of paying him back for air fare was to give him half of the B-sides of Arrows records, contingent on my name being first, not alphabetical in the credits, as is standard. I had a meeting with Jake and Brenda Brooker, head of publishing at RAK about this when the Arrows’ first single came out. She ignored me and only put my name on the B-side! (We Can Make It Together).
On all future Arrows singles my name would be first but Jake’s would be included. “To make it look like the great bands, like Jagger-Richards and Lennon McCartney” Jake said.
So that’s why it was always Merrill – Hooker in the credits?
Yeah – I was writing the songs, 100%. Given the band’s debt for recording expenses, retainers, etc. I thought we would never see any money, it all went to the debt anyway. Remember I Love Rock N Roll was initially a B-side so I gave half to Jake as usual. As I said, it only became the A side after Mickie Most’s wife convinced him that it was a far stronger song than the original A-side!
The world’s most expensive air fare! How much was that plane ticket?
The plane ticket was about $1,000. (There were approximately $4 to the £ in the early 70s). He sold a Marshall 100 Watt amp and a Fender Telecaster guitar to buy the ticket, but he told me Dick Rowe of Decca bought the ticket and we had a deal with Decca. When I got to the UK there was no deal. I lived at Jake’s flat in Beaufort Street SW3 for a couple of months until we signed with RAK and got on a retainer. We had to hustle around London. Peter Meaden (early Who manager and mod ace face) wanted to be our manager but given Mickie Most’s partnership with the notorious Peter Grant, Meaden was worried about being able to manage the band effectively without the potential for confrontation.
That’s right, Most shared an office with Peter Grant in his early days! When you think about how many millions of dollars it’s earned…
Yeah, that 1974 air plane ticket was Jake’s best investment!!! Like a Lotto win! This became an ironic dark cosmic joke in my life, the way it panned out. Jake and I lost touch in 1997. He proposed an Arrows reunion to me which fell through in ’97. I never spoke to him again.
With regard to The Joan Jett cover of ILRNR, the way she played it – and what has since become the template for all other covers, she starts the song with the chord riff pattern. That isn’t how you played it on the version that appears on all of the official Arrows/glam era etc compilations where you open up with the chorus. If the one with the chorus start was the single, how did JJ hear the other version which is clearly the one she based hers on?
Simple. Rather than be embarrassed at not promoting the better version of I Love Rock N Roll Mickie Most only allowed the B-side version to go on compilations. It was deliberate sabotage of the Arrows legacy. He made caustic comments about the band, mocking us in liner notes on comps as well. The knives were out. This way nobody could look at him and say WTF were you thinking? But Joan Jett got a copy of the DJ copy of the A-side version through EMI. Her Runaways roadie got it for her, so goes the legend.
There were so few of them pressed Mickie Most even only had one copy. He sent his only one to Britney Spears. He told me that in his office in 2002 when I was in England recording.
Arrows only released one album – First Hit – during their lifetime – were you happy with it?
That came out in January 1976. RAK didn’t really promote the LP with any gusto. The RAK promotional main man had changed from Terry Walker to Dave Crowe. Terry loved the Arrows and we loved him. Dave Crowe hated the Arrows even before we were with RAK so we were out of luck there with the album promotion. He wasn’t going to lift a finger to help us out. By the recording of the album and our 6th single Mickie Most had dropped out of being involved with the band as producer, handing us over to Phil Coulter, famous for The Bay City Rollers, Slik, Cliff Richard and more.
Before we recorded the Arrows First Hit album Phil asked me to play some of the songs for him that I’d like to record. I played him some of my new songs, which were R&B flavoured, and he said “you can’t record those, they’re too good, they’re above your audience’s head.” I knew right then we were screwed. We had to be not as good as we were capable of being. It blew my mind. But, I presented him the more poppy teen oriented songs I had and away we went. The album was quickly put together. Then I was in the USA over Christmas when the album was mixed, I wasn’t there for the mix. I got back and heard the record for the first time. It was not terribly exciting but not bad either. It wasn’t a rock n roll album, it was middle of the road pop. Even the rock oriented songs like Don’t Worry ‘Bout Love I wrote that we recorded were declawed and defanged so as to sound less hard rock.
How would you rank the singles in order of your favourites– Touch/Toughen/Last Night/ ILR’N’R
I Love Rock N Roll, Touch Too Much, My Last Night With You then Toughen Up – you know, I always felt the staggered staccato bits in the chorus of Toughen Up interfered with the song’s groove. You know, just as you want the song to rock out it sputters. That’s how I do it live now in the new millennium and it works much better.
Was there a rivalry with the UK bands of the time – particularly as Arrows were American in a UK marketplace?
No, not really. We got along with most of the bands, all genres. We were a friendly band and knew everybody on the London scene. If there was any rivalry I wasn’t paying attention to it.
Where was your biggest success?
For the Arrows we won the best new band in Belgium, the Golden Lion award in 1974. We did a TV show and accepted the award. Touch Too Much was Number 1 in South Africa in 1974 as well – that’s a fun factoid! For a band that only last 19 months as an act with released material I think we did remarkably well. 6 singles, most of them made a bit of a ripple. The only two territories where “I Love Rock N Roll” was released by the Arrows was England and Belgium.
My favourite time personally was in June of 1974 I was on two records in the top 20 in the UK, with Arrows Touch Too Much and Cozy Powell’s Man In Black (I played electric bass on that hit and the B-side).
Getting the TV series based on our performance of I Love Rock N Roll on Muriel Young’s TV show ‘45’ in 1975 was a big moment. It was the only TV appearance we did with that single and only Radio Luxembourg played it. So it was amazing that it got us a weekly TV show in 1976.
Remember the paperback Arrows bio – did the band have any input or was it just cut and paste job?
The book was written by Mersey beat’s Bill Harry. It was Bill’s first book, coming out in 1975. He interviewed us extensively. On the last page of his Arrows book I say something about how I Love Rock N Roll got us a TV series from producer Muriel Young so the future is bright. It should have been, given the opportunity of a weekly TV show.
We could have never known we’d be the only band in history to have a weekly TV series (two full 14 week series in fact for a full year) and no records released during the run of both TV series because of a legal wrangle between our band’s management MAM and our label RAK. It was quite an unpleasant experience to live through, surreal in a way.
Were there ever any live recordings made?
Not that I know of. A fan sent me a lap held cassette player recording of our Rainbow Theatre Finsbury Park London show in March 1975, ‘RAK Rocks Britain’ that I still have. All you can hear is lots of girls screaming and some distant thudding drums, faint instruments and vocals and me mumbling between songs with girls screaming our names. I’ve done a few live albums with other bands I’ve been with, three with Derringer, one with Meat Loaf, one with Vodka Collins. No Arrows live recordings though.
Do you collect/archive material on Arrows – sheet music/foreign releases etc
Yes, I have an extensive collection of all the phases of my career from all over the world in fact. Posters, tour dates, photos, magazines, etc. Going all the way back to my semi pro days in 1965 to present day. When I travel and change to a new continent I always ship everything in steamer trunks, so I have massive archives that follow me around (months later by sea) to wherever I move.
What did drummer Paul Varley and Jake Hooker do after the band’s demise – did Jake move straight into the business side?
Jake became his wife Lorna Luft’s manager (Judy Garland’s daughter) and Paul, who married Marc Bolan’s former wife June, played with the band Darling. Sadly, Paul died of pneumonia in 2008 and I found out from Jake’s daughter that he committed suicide in 2014.
I hadn’t realized that Jake had committed suicide – were you in touch with him over the years? I’ve seen stuff here and there on the internet that implies that there was a bit of acrimony.
When the Arrows show ended and Bill Wyman got involved in producing the band, he flew us to the South of France to record. Jake was asked to leave the band. It was felt that, whilst he was a great pop star, he wasn’t keeping up as a musician. By that time – 1977 – we’d expanded the line-up to include Terry Taylor (who has played with Bill Wyman in his Rhythm Kings since the 70s), Steve Gould (ex Rare Bird) and Mick Feat (Van Morrison band). So was Jake jealous? He was livid. He sent me a death threat in a telegram. I still have the telegram.
I called him and asked him if he was mad! I explained that now, should I get hit by a car in an accident, he would be first on the list of suspects. Not to mention threats are illegal in the UK and carry jail sentences. I gave my lawyer the telegram. He made a copy and that was that. Jake lived in South Kensington. Even though he didn’t have the balls to sign it I knew it was him of course, given the circumstances of his having just been fired from the band.
Did you know the intro guitar on Touch Too Much is me? First thing you hear on the record – that ‘screee’ sound, a glissando down. Jake couldn’t get the timing on the overdub intro so Mickie asked me to do it.
On our TV theme Boogiest Band In Town I’m playing bass and two guitar parts on the riff. Jake only hits the chord smashes, one per bar. He couldn’t get the syncopation right so Phil Coulter (producer) asked me to do it. As a result the riff and the bass are very tight because it’s the same feel. Phil Coulter played piano, Paul Varley drums.
But then you wound up working with him again didn’t you?
Roll forwards five years and Jake was my manager (or ‘damager’ as I remember it), purely by coincidence, when Joan Jett’s cover of “I Love Rock N Roll” went to number one. This was because I was with Rick Derringer’s band and Jake took over managing Derringer in 1981 – I’d joined in 1980 which was before Jett’s release. Coincidence or horrific fate? Before Jake, Rick was with CBS/Epic. Jake got him away from Steve Paul/Teddy Slatus (Blue Sky) management and then couldn’t get Rick a proper record deal so we released the album Good Dirty Fun on an indie label, Passport. They weren’t up to promoting an artist of Rick’s stature. I left the band winter of 1982. Things were going downhill fast.
Let’s say Jake mismanaged my career deliberately and took all the bows himself when the song was top of the charts. What should have been a happy time for me was really a nightmare. It’s 1982 – Joan Jett’s at number one in the US charts. Jake’s secretary tipped me off that he (my ‘manager’) was getting calls from labels interested in signing me for recording deals and publishing deals, and he would say I was unreachable. He “didn’t know where I was.” A lie. I was at home. I had an answering machine. No excuses.
What did you do when you realised what had been going on?
When I found out about this I called my lawyer and immediately started to petition to get out of my management deal with Jake. It took four months in the courts and cost me $6,000 in legal fees. Of course the first phone call I made (to Polydor, myself) I got a solo record deal, without a manager. Jake lied to me. It was in fact easy for me to get a record deal.
Obviously there was a lot of unspoken resentment on Jakes part..
I was Jake’s guitar teacher when he was 14. I brought him into the semi pro music scene in Greenwich Village in my band when my original guitarist, Jimmy Reilly became a junkie. Jake always resented my ‘big brother’ status of course. I was always older and better at music than he was. Psych 101, textbook stuff. He was a great pop star. He knew how to play the role. But imagine how he felt on TV ‘singing’ the high harmony on Once Upon A Time for example. He was miming to my overdubbed vocal part – he had to feel a bit of a phony. I’m sure, looking back, the resentment was building up on his part.
Jake’s post – Arrows sociopathic greed and narcissism was pretty much the end of our relationship in this lifetime. Look on Youtube, see if you can find one video of Jake singing I Love Rock N Roll – there’s nothing. He couldn’t sing it if his life had depended on it.
Knowing the facts, it must have been frustrating to see all the ‘co writer of I Love Rock N Roll’ mentions in the various obituaries.
Know this, if you look at the Arrows from a musical standpoint, it was very similar to the setup of Wham, with me as the George Michael and Jake as the Andrew Ridgeley. We were a ‘team’ but I did all the heavy lifting. That applied to I Love Rock N Roll and all the other Arrows ‘co-writes.’ This is all the truth. I was quiet for many years about this.
I’m too old for this polite political correctness now. You know I don’t really care about Jake’s obits. I’m comfy knowing the truth. So much in life is based on lies and wild variations on a theme.
Do you know why he sold his publishing rights to ILRNR about 6 years ago?
I don’t know. Why does anybody sell valuable property? I’m guessing things weren’t going well for him.
Any idea how many versions are out there?
There’s a whole Facebook page dedicated to covers of the song. A conservative estimate would be around 250. The last figure I heard was the song has earned well over 30,000,000 quid. That’s probably conservative considering all the films and TV shows it’s been on. It’s impossible to know exact sales figures because there are just so many covers. The good news is, since Britney Spears’ cover I started to make some serious money from the song, she opened the floodgates for commercial covers. Her version was more palatable for corporate sponsorship. Jett’s was a bit too edgy for that.
Which is your favourite cover version (royalties aside)!?
I like Hello’s cover and LA Guns. I’m biased. Both singers are friends of mine, Bob and Phil.
Who do you wish – dead or alive could cover it? – (I’d pick Elvis or Eddie Cochran).
Elvis for sure. More current artists? I think Pink would kill it. Christina Aguilera was great with it on The Voice, I like to hear her do a full version.
As is often noted about Arrows, amazingly you had two TV series without getting any records released during that time! Did you re-record tracks specifically for the show?
As far as The Arrows TV show goes, Muriel Young picked the songs we did
on the shows. We had no say in that. We had full access to Phil Coulter backing tracks but no Mickie Most produced tracks were allowed to be used except the B-side version of I Love Rock N Roll, (presumably because I wrote it), which was simply mean.
We never did Toughen Up on the show for example and we had to make our own backing tracks for Touch Too Much, My Last Night With You, Hard Hearted and anything else Mickie produced like the B-sides, and he wouldn’t even give us the tracks for those. It aggravated Muriel because she
had to ask Granada for extra budget to get us into the studio every time to make a track.
Miming to the records would have been easier but we couldn’t access the tracks and Mickie forbade a straight lip synch of his productions of the band. It was war waged in a subtle way, hoping that we’d sink in our own (perceived) musical production incompetence. In fact a lot of the TV tracks we were allowed to re-record were better than the records that Mickie produced. So we made it past that small hurdle. This must have infuriated him.
Arrows sometimes recorded at Strawberry Studios (costly for Granada though), and when it wasn’t busy we also used the very rudimentary 4 track at Granada with a 9-5 jobsworth engineer. He was good though – he got the sounds. Poor Muriel Young, when she embraced the Arrows she had no idea the insane political sh*t storm she had walked into. Still, our ratings were so good even though we had no records released we got a second series. It was madness, still is on reflection.
We asked Muriel if we could re-record I Love Rock N Roll for the show to update it to the A side version but she said it was too costly and we already had a track, after all. It was frustrating. It’s really maddening looking back at this. We did the best we could with what we had to work with. We had extremely limited control of the music we played on the show. Terry Taylor on guitar was a big lift as he could orchestrate horn parts and our utility man Steve Gould of Rare Bird (who was always off camera) contributed to the unique TV tracks we did on bass, keyboards and backing vocals.
So a few of the rushed tracks we made for the show were pretty damned good given our quick hit and run studio time allotted us.
You had a lot of big names from the era as guests on the show – what was Marc Bolan like?
Bolan and I rode the train back from Manchester to London together
and we talked and drank champagne (Moet) the whole way back.
He was great fun, we talked about a lot of things, it’s a long train ride
and we were sat side by side. I got to know the guy. His roadie Mick O’Halloran had a drinks cooler with him on wheels! We must have drank three or four bottles of Moet on that train. It was enlightening. He was fascinated that I’d recorded glam in Japanese. Marc advised me I was with the wrong record label and I should make some band personnel changes. It was a moot point. Arrows were nearly over and punk would sweep the UK the next year anyway -but sweet of him to give me career advice.
Oh, and factor in at this time our drummer Paul was living in Marc’s house in Fulham and Bolan’s wife, June, was pregnant with Paul’s baby. Marc and June had separated and June was living in the house with Paul. Paul took another train back for that reason. He didn’t want a potential confrontation for June’s sake. Paul was quick with the fisticuffs and had a short fuse. I saw him deck a few guys with one punch. Drummers can do that sort of thing. It was smart of him to keep a distance.
What brought about the end of the band?
The RAK promotional main man had changed from Terry Walker to Dave Crowe. Terry loved the Arrows, Dave hated the Arrows. This was from before we were even with RAK, so we were out of luck there. Before we recorded the Arrows’ First Hit album our newly assigned producer asked me to play some of the songs for him that I’d like to record. I played him some of my new songs, which were R&B flavoured, and he said “you can’t record those, they’re too good, they’re above your audience’s head.” I knew right then we were screwed. We had to be not as good as we were capable of being. It blew my mind.
Didn’t Mickie Most start to make things difficult for the band?
By this time the Arrows had taken on a manager – against Mickie Most’s strongest warnings of catastrophic consequences for Arrows if we did. Mickie Most was our manager, record company and publisher. It was an affront to him that we went out of the RAK orbit and got a new manager. We were hoping we could coax the label into letting us record our own material, with Bill Wyman producing. Bill loved the band and our songs. He recorded some demos with us – acting as producer. By this time we’d already done our first weekly TV series, but we hadn’t had any new records released for about 6 months. Bill said he could get us away from RAK to Atlantic records. We met with Ahmet Ertegun (Atlantic president) at Atlantic’s London offices and Ahmet loved the demos Bill had produced. He wanted to sign the band right away until he found out what a mess the band was in politically with Mickie Most, and then he passed on signing us, not wanting to get involved in a legal tug of war.
When it became clear that no form of Arrows was ever going to get a deal, even with a Rolling Stone involved – Bill Wyman as producer – we split up.
Any reflections on Mickie Most? At times he often came across on TV – as a judge on ‘70s UK talent show New Faces for example – as a bit of a ‘tool’ for want of a better word!
Mickie Most was a man I loved and feared at the same time. Unlike many of his artists I have a grip on what good things he did for my career, whether he backed the Arrows fully or not. He was a necessary conduit in to the mainstream music industry. There aren’t many facilitators like him. Even though he wasn’t crazy about the song I Love Rock N Roll, without his sort of formidable clout the song wouldn’t have stood a chance. Even though the song’s start in life was shaky, it got our band a TV series. and without that the song wouldn’t have been heard as often and by as many as it did.
Yes, Mickie Most was flash arrogant and flippant, but it wasn’t front. He backed it up with plenty of success. Oh yes, he could be a tool. He was sharp and quick with deflating quips for any musician on his label that he felt was getting too cocky. Unfortunately though he was steering us into MOR territory at the end of the band.
There is a clip on Youtube from an old news programme on Mickie and his hit making prowess, filmed in the studio with us recording the first quickly done B-side version of ILRNR with TV cameras up our noses. The TV presenter intoning seriously that bands like us will never make any money on our B -sides! It’s almost dark comedy. While we were recording a TV crew were filming and Mickie was paying more attention to pontificating and holding court than producing the record. The B-side version had no chance. It took all of 45 minutes to record, tops.
Mickie Most hated the Arrows with a passion by 1976 and was going to do whatever he could to make us go away. He did that very well. It’s no fun having a genius working against you! They’re very effective.
Where the Arrows are concerned? We should never have taken on management when Mickie Most told us not to. That was the moment the Arrows train derailed, when we signed with MAM management. We had two runs of our series on TV and never had a record released! It was a fatal error – the end of the band – getting a new manager involved without Mickie Most’s approval.
But maybe even sooner. Arrows probably ended on the day that RAK didn’t promote I Love Rock N Roll. We were following up a hit single with that release, which was My Last Night With You. We should have had a Top Of The Pops with I Love Rock N Roll just because our previous record had charted. They did it for other bands. When we didn’t get Top Of The Pops, BBC1 airplay or any label promotion for R&R, we all knew the game was over. It’s important to note that Dave Crowe was at RAK as promo man when ILRNR was a single in 1975. Had Terry Walker been the RAK promo man he
would have made sure we got a Top Of The Pops and BBC Radio One
air play. Bad luck, bad timing.
What was your next move after Arrows? I’ve read some stuff on the internet that you auditioned for The Hollies before Allan Clarke decided to return to the band and that members of The New Seekers had mooted the idea of forming a CSNY kind of thing although nothing came of that idea.
After Arrows I started the band Runner with Steve Gould (Rare Bird), Mick Feat (Van Morrison Band) and Dave Dowle (Whitesnake) on Island records. I was ecstatic to get away from the teen scene at that point in time, 1978. It was time to make a move anyway, I was over 25 by then. My pinup days were numbered.
As I mentioned above, my tenure with Rick Derringer covered the years 1980 – 82. I got a half way decent cheque for Jett’s I Love Rock N Roll cover around 1983 and decided to make an album of old UK demos ands other odds and ends, I polished them up and Polygram put them out in 1985 (Polydor). It did OK. It cost me under $5,000 to make the LP. I got an offer to join Meat Loaf in 1986 and as I was running low on funds again I jumped at the work. The I Love Rock N Roll money was drying up fast, very slim royalty cheques – not enough to pay the rent. I needed a paying gig (the meagre royalty situation in the 80’s and 90s for that song is a book in length, I can’t get into it here, too many complex variables, it’s exhausting).
During the few years I was with the Derringer band we did a lot of work.
Studio albums, live albums and a Sony film on release. Also, Meat Loaf has said on VH1 the time I was with his band late ‘80s he was the busiest he’s ever been on the road so I was rarely home. Again, I needed the money. I was happy we were busy. I had three kids and a wife to support at this point in my life.
What is coming up for Arrows – if anything?
I’m the only one of the Arrows still alive. I guess now I am the Arrows. In 2014 I released a solo re-recording of the Arrows hits ‘Alan Merrill / Arrows 40th Anniversary Edition’ including some of our never released TV tracks from 1976. For that project I used Dave Glover (Brian Connolly’s bass player post-Sweet) and Pete Phipps (Glitterband) as drummer.
The closest anyone is going to get seeing any semblance of Arrows on stage is to come to one of my shows. I still do the Arrows hit songs. And as I was the lead singer too so it’ll sound pretty much like the records. I have backing bands in the UK, Japan and the USA who all know my songs, they know lots of Arrows material of course. I still get around.
When you re-recorded Arrows tracks for the 40th anniversary CD why didn’t you include Toughen Up?
It was just an oversight. I work quickly in the studio, bashing stuff out. I don’t agonize over things. I thought an 8 song EP was good enough. Any more and it’s an album. I do Toughen Up in the UK but not in the USA. If I do a Bo Diddley beat song in the States it’ll be my Les Animaux De Partay (Vodka Collins). It’s more age appropriate at this stage in my life.
I’ve watched recent gigs where you tag Gary Glitter’s Rock n Roll onto the end of your Vodka Collins track Automatic Pilot – I’m assuming the whole Gary Glitter saga hasn’t really made much of a ripple in the States?
Yes, I tag R&R Part 2 on the end of Automatic Pilot to extend the song and engage the audience. I don’t do that in England though, I cut it for the UK. Nobody knows who Gary Glitter is in the USA so there’s no stigma attached to the song here, which in reality is a Mike Leander instrumental with bunch of guys yelling ‘Hey! It works here, crowds react, I get the desired effect and nobody says “why do a Gary Glitter song?” He’s really unknown here.
The scandal never made the press across the pond. The song is a sports stadium staple here in the USA.
You mentioned earlier that your mother – Helen Merrill – was a well-known jazz singer. Have you ever played/recorded with her? I could imagine her doing a cool Julie London style take on My Last Night With You!
I have played with my mum live at the Blue Note in Tokyo and at Fat Tuesday’s in New York, just a few songs. My mother thinks the Arrows were beneath me musically and hates the records we made! She thinks I sold out. Maybe I did, but everybody needs rent money. She would never sing My Last Night With You – she thinks all rock music is kid’s stuff. She hates rock n roll! She did an album of Beatles songs because her record (JVC Japan) company asked her to. I helped her pick the more melodic songs they have that could be adapted to a jazz motif. The LP was a commercial success in Japan and was reissued on CD recently.
I think it’s fair to say that ILRNR is every much a standard in its field as Night And Day or something in the so called great American songbook! – I don’t think you sold out – you wrote a song that people will still be covering as long as we have anything that passes itself as rock and roll!
Britney’s recent version at the Billboard Music Awards puts it right back in the spotlight.
I love that Brit did it on the Billboard Music Awards, because Joan Jett skipped it at the Rock N Roll Hall Of fame induction and my song is probably the reason she got in! Never mind – you’re right, the song is a classic now. I’m very happy with that!
What is coming up for Alan Merrill in terms of new releases?
I’ve released lots of recordings since the Arrows of course. It’s easy to see a complete listing of my solo output on the Discogs website. My next release will be a collection of home demos I did in the ‘80s which should be really good, I like the raw energy of them. Then I’m going to do a proper studio album before the end of the year. I’m always writing and recording new material. I’m also writing an autobiography, which should (I hope) be a fun read.
One of your best solo albums was Cupid Deranged – do you still do some of the songs live? I’m thinking When The Night Comes (nice Van Morrison vibe on that one for me), Radio – (insanely catchy) – in particular.
I’m about to go in and remix and remaster Cupid Deranged for February 2017 release. I like a lot of the songs. The basic tracks were recorded in England (Portsmouth) then overdubs in Paris and finally mixes in New York.
They’re mixes I’ve never been happy with. My engineer at Studio 900 was chronically depressed as his studio was going down and his mind was elsewhere. With hindsight I should have taken the tapes elsewhere, but I’m stubborn.
I’ll be taking the 2002 Cupid Deranged off the market and replacing it with the new revamped version. I do When The Night Comes in my solo acoustic set. I wrote Radio as an homage to Joe Meek. The lead guitar is very sort of ‘Telstar’. I do TNTeenager with my bands in the UK and the USA. People love it!
Coming right up to date – how did your collaboration with Hello’s Bob Bradbury – ‘Brothers In Rock’ come about?
Bob sent me a song he wrote and asked if I’d duet with him. I said, OK, let me hear it. He sent it to me. I loved it. I took it into the studio and added a few of my guitars and vocal parts to Bob’s and I felt more a part of the tune. Our voices and guitars work well together. Now I can’t get the song out of my head! I don’t know what’s going to happen with it but I know if Dick Leahy (Bell) were alive today and it was the mid-1970s Bob and I would be getting a huge advance for this project.
I did some interviews with Bob recently and he noted that one of his regrets was that Hello didn’t get their original version of New York Groove released in America – bearing in mind how big a hit Ace Frehley’s virtually identical version was.
Yeah, very similar story to I Love Rock N Roll – hence we’re ‘brothers in rock’. We came up with the goods. our labels let us down! I’m not sure what Bob has in mind for this collaboration thing. Might be a one off. I know he’s doing another solo album now. I go by my gut. If it feels good, go for it. I heard the song. I thought, I can beef this up and add a bit of me to it. It worked. Everybody’s happy. The track is powerful. Our vocals mesh well.
40 years later who could have imagined a RAK-Bell records combination like this? Two top teen scream pinups together? A Number one record for sure if we got TOTPs! There ain’t no time machine and no record business now.
It’s all for fun and legacy now!
It’s never what you imagine it is, this show business thing. So much smoke and mirrors. I try to be as real as possible. That way I can look in the mirror everyday and be pleased with myself. I’m not perfect, nobody is, but I was never a fake at anything. As I’ve said, I’m happy with myself, I’m the real thing. The press can embrace me or ignore me. It’s all the same to me. I’m happy in my own skin.
Arrows are 40 years ago and much has been done by many to erase the band from history. I’m alone fighting back, I’m pretty effective and it’s probably annoying to the myth makers who would prefer Jett to be perceived of having written the song and the Arrows to be forgotten. In the American press they still refer to the Arrows as ‘an obscure band from England who had I Love Rock N Roll on a B-side.’ How obscure were we with a weekly TV series, a paperback book written about us by Bill Harry, our own magazine, a weekly
comic strip and hit singles with minimal label backing? A lot of bands would like that sort of anonymity.
The fact is, had I been paid properly by my band Vodka Collins in 1973 I would have never made the leap of faith, completely skint, to go to
England to start the Arrows. I Love Rock N Roll wouldn’t exist and Joan Jett would have a very different career right now. But people never consider this.
When we’re talking legacy, it doesn’t get much bigger than I Love Rock N Roll. Undoubtedly Merrill sensed it had hit potential, but no-one would ever have imagined that 40 years later it would have become one of the true timeless classics of the rock era. ‘Last laugh’ doesn’t come close!
Even so, however, Alan has never rested on his laurels and has no intention of doing so for the foreseeable future – the worldwide gig schedules are testament to that and the ongoing releases of top notch new albums demonstrate clearly that although the music business is a pale imitation of its former self, the drive to keep on working doesn’t diminish for those who truly bleed rock n roll.
Mark McStea – June 2016 firstname.lastname@example.org