Interview: Alan Merrill
Alan Merril - Photo by Len DeLessio
David Bowie unleashed the understated beauty 'Where Are We Now?' to celebrate his 66th birthday this week (January 8th 2013), and his posed question could not be more apt for the musical outlook of 2013.
Already proving itself an exciting year for musical comebacks, 90s children might be celebrating the fact their musical pop icons (Honeyz, Atomic Kitten, Five, B*Witched, 911 and Liberty X) are all reuniting for ITV2's The Big Reunion and children of the 70s are set to scream and shout as The Arrows take to the road later this month.
While Joan Jett may be best celebrated for her hit 'I Love Rock 'N' Roll', it was the American fronted British rock troupe The Arrows who first scored success with the number penned by members Jake Hooker and Alan Merrill.
While Hooker may no longer be part of the line-up, Merrill is a happy chappy about the prospect of hitting the road once again. With The Arrows popping by York's The Duchess on January 25, we decided it was the perfect opportunity to take a walk down memory lane with the lovely Alan Merrill...
Over the years you have had more than your fair share of success - what would you say is the secret behind it?
I try to stay true to the music that I feel best represents me and how I fit into the mood of the times. Every five years or so music popular changes dramatically and I try to adapt. I've been a professional now for 44 years and before that, semi-pro for 3 years. It's been an interesting navigation. I'd say the secret is, to quote Winston Churchill "never, never, never give up!" That's my credo. Straight ahead!
Though you had success in Japan prior to The Arrows, they were the group that really broke you worldwide. What was the winning formula?
A lot of credit has to go to my mentor and producer Mickie Most, who I feel put my career with Arrows on the world stage. Before that I'd only had success in Japan, as you've noted. I think the winning formula for the Arrows was Mickie's RAK records team. Mickie's production was certainly a major factor in our records sounding good. I think Arrows looked good, a matched set, much like the Beatles. At first glance we all looked sort of alike. Our publicist Bill Harry worked very hard and successfully at getting us a lot of print press and his first published book was about the Arrows (Everest books, 1975). I like to think my singing had something to do with it as well!
As part of The Arrows you wrote and released 'I Love Rock And Roll', would you deem the song a career high?
"I Love Rock N Roll" was a life changer and certainly the peak of all my accomplishments. It narrowly beats out the album title track I wrote for R&B legend Lou Rawls in 1983 ("When The Night Comes" - Epic records) which was the first album taken into space in '83 and broadcast back
to earth by astronaut Guy Bluford. Being the first westerner in history to break into the domestic Japanese market as a teenager in 1968 was another milestone that I'm very proud of. My first solo album was entirely in Japanese and I was the first male artist signed to Atlantic records Japan in 1969.
The success of your version lead to your television show - was television ever one of your ambitions? Would you ever return to the medium?
I had a TV series in Japan prior to the Arrows show called "Young 720" (TBS) with a weekly Alan Merrill Corner segment in 1970-'71 and also I'd appeared on dozens of Japanese pop shows from 1968-'73. I also acted in the popular TV series "Jikan Desu Yo" in Japan. So when I got to the UK I'd already had hundreds of TV performances under my belt and was ready and fully prepared for any TV work I might get in the UK. So when Arrows got a turn on Top Of The Pops with "Touch Too Much" I was very ready to perform without any nervousness at all. I went out there and sold the song, as I had done so many times before in Japan. I returned to television in the USA with "Encyclopaedia Brown, Boy Detective" on HBO acting as Casey Sparkz in the series in 1989 (after I left the Meat Loaf band, who I played guitar with from 1986-'88) and wrote the concert scene song for the production titled "Who Done It?" which I performed on the show as well in the grand finale scene of the debut show.
Recently I've done extensive TV interviews in Germany (Die Ultimative Chart Show) and Holland (Pop 2000 / A Go Go) that aired this past New Year's Eve. I've also been back to Japan often and done quite a bit of TV there in the 1990s and the new millennium, with three trips there in 2010. In the UK I appeared on "Nevermind The Buzzcocks" in the mystery line up a few years ago, which was a bit of silly fun and a free plane trip (and hotel) to the UK. I don't really consider that a TV appearance. I did record an album ("Aleecat") quickly while I was in the UK on that trip which was recorded in one day in London, with all the basic tracks recorded at Stone Room Studio. I mixed it in New York, so the free BBC TV paid trip was very useful. I got an album out of it.
Many artists from the 70s have re-made their name on reality television - is that something that would tempt you?
Yes, I think I'd be a valuable addition to any reality show.
'I Love Rock And Roll' became Joan Jett's signature song - do you ever feel frustrated that her version is better remembered than your own?
No, I'm glad the song has had a long life with many artists. It's telling that Jett's version only peaked at # 4 in 1982 in the UK. It wasn't the huge hit in the UK that it was in the USA where it was # 1 for two months, largely because people knew it was an Arrows cover in England and it wasn't new to British audiences. Joan Jett's label did an amazing job promoting her record in 1982 and in this business hits come from promotion, not magic.
Conversely, our version of "I Love Rock N Roll" in 1975 was the least promoted Arrows single of all the 6 singles we released as a band because it was originally a b-side and was later flipped to an a-side, with no real plan for promotion. The BBC didn't play our record, and in spite of our pervious single "My Last Night With You" making the top 30, Top Of The Pops didn't give us a turn on the show with the follow up "I Love Rock N Roll." I truly believe if we'd had a TOTPs performance and had some BBC radio play we would have had a top 3 chart record in England in 1975 with the song. The reality is, you can't have a hit without promotion.
The song still served the Arrows well in spite of that factor. Our performance of "I Love Rock N Roll" on Muriel Young's show "45" was our one and only TV appearance with the song on television. Muriel was so impressed that she thought we should have our own TV series and she produced the Arrows TV show the following year.
We did 28 shows and it ran for two seasons, with repeats 56 airings if the Arrows show. Joan Jett saw us do "I Love Rock N Roll" on the Arrows show in 1976 when she was on tour with The Runaways and got a copy of our record. She recorded a version with Sex Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones in 1979 which was released and not a hit for the same reason the Arrows version wasn't a hit. No promotion. Hit records require aggressive promotion.
The song has of course gone on to be covered by everyone from Britney to The Dresden Dolls - what is your all time favourite version?
The Arrows of course! After that I like all covers, especially Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand's cover in the "Rock Of Ages" film, 2012.
Otis Redding admitted that Aretha Franklin owned 'Respect', have you ever felt another artist owned 'I Love Rock and Roll'?
No, I Love Rock N Roll" belongs to the whole world. I created it. After that it was universal.
You are all set for a comeback tour with The Arrows - what prompted the reunion?
I was asked to do some shows featuring Arrows material and as I was the front man and lead singer of the Arrows records I thought it was time. I had never looked back or done "oldies" shows before. I though it might be fun to revisit my musical past. A lot of the Arrows fans were asking for a tour so I thought, why not? It'll be fun. Since the Arrows drummer Paul Varley passed away in 2008 and guitarist Jake Hooker retired permanently from music in 1977 there will never be an actual Arrows reunion. It's my voice on the Arrows records and that's what people will hear live. I have a great band in the UK and they play the songs as well if not better than the original band did!
Can you tell us a little bit about the band's current line-up?
The new Arrows are bassist Dave Glover (formerly and for years with the late Brian Connolly of The Sweet after that band split up), virtuoso guitarist Geoff Lea and young drummer Kyle Fenton, who wasn't yet born when the Arrows were on telly in the mid seventies. A fabulous group and I'm pleased to have them with me.
Is the reunion tour a hint that new material might be on the horizon?
Yes! I have a new solo album out titled "Songer Singwriter" set for release at the end of January 2013. It's already done and should be available any week now. I'll have review copies this week in fact. Steve Holley (formerly of Paul McCartney's Wings) plays drums on most of the album. I pretty much play and sing the rest of the parts myself.
You have always been celebrated for your live prowess, what is the key to live performance?
I always go on stage thinking it might be the last time I ever perform, with the excitement as if it's the first time I've ever performed. I go out there and give 110% at every show. I also personalize my performances with stories about the songs, which audiences seem to enjoy.
With so many ambitions already realised, what ambitions do you have left to conquer?
I'm working on an autobiography, which has been an ongoing project. I want to write my book and then my goal is for someone to make the story into a film. Now that would be a great rock n roll movie!