Not dazzled by the Headlights

No-one ever sets out to be a one hit wonder.

When I was first offered a record deal Car 67 hadn’t even been conceived, let alone written.

The song everyone thought was going to be the first hit was Headlights. I certainly did. So did several record companies, the music publisher and all the musicians who played on it.

Headlights was part of a package of songs that Pete Zorn and I had amassed over a three year period. There wasn’t a novelty song among them.

We were what the industry back then regarded as  an ‘album act’. Pete Zorn wrote seriously complex and brilliant songs about creeping urbanisation, friendship and the American desert.

I tended to the more commercial – songs about love, heartbreak and longing. It’s very rare for me to write a song about something that has nothing to do with my life, or the way I feel.

But Headlights is a straight up story. It came to me in a dream and was in my head when I woke up in the middle of the night. I always kept pen and paper by the bed, and I quickly scribbled down the words that appeared to be on a radio playing in my head. Then I fell groggily back to sleep.

A test of a song’s strength is when it takes up residence in your head. When I woke up next day, it was still there.

Also there in my head was the atmosphere and feel of it: moody and threatening, set on one of those mysterious back roads in American horror films that start nowhere and go nowhere. The sides of the road are thick with trees, and the full moon occasionally spills through to illuminate the tarmac.

For some reason, a girl is stranded on the road and is picked up by a truck driver. As the song progresses, he decides she’s easy prey; she tells him to back off and show some respect. He persists in his advances.

Somehow – I didn’t even try to resolve the means – the girl escapes from the truck and the rest of the song has the asshole driver following her and menacing her: “I can see your fright in the dead of the night. I can pick you up in my headlights”.

I think it took no more than 20 minutes after picking up a guitar to write the whole thing down and figure out how the guitar could set the mood: kind of JJ Cale style. The process was thrilling – I was convinced this was a top 10 song in the making. When we recorded the version I’m posting here, guitarist Mart Jenner said that in all the sessions he had done and in all the bands he had ever played with, he was never more sure that he was playing on a hit.

The original deal I negotiated with Logo Records was for me and Pete Zorn as the mainstays of a project we called Tax Loss. Headlights was the jewel in its crown.

But while the album deal was being negotiated, I wrote and demo’d Car 67 and the record company wanted it right here, right now!

I knew they were right. I knew it would be a hit. But I had no idea what the consequences would be for my future.

Oh dear. If we could take back time…

Barely stopping for breath after the success of Car 67, in May 1979 we released Headlights in a special sleeve on luminous vinyl. Once again Radio One demonstrated its awesome power.

One play on the station drove Headlights straight into the Top 75.

But that was the only play it got. Here’s what happened.

The dj introduced the record by saying, “If you thought Driver 67 was a one hit wonder, think again. Listen to this and see if you agree with me that we’ll be hearing a lot more from him”.

At the end of the record, the dj came back on and said, “Ah, it appears we won’t be hearing that record again”.

And that was that. No explanation, no intervention by the record company. My own interpretation was that the brass at Radio One had decreed that Car 67 was a novelty record, and as such constituted a one hit wonder. This dj hadn’t got the memo, but his producer had intervened while the record was on air.

Others thought differently – that Headlights was unsuitable for a teenage audience; that they couldn’t play a record in which the protagonist appeared to be threatening rape.

I really want that to be true, and it is credible. Terry by Twinkle had been banned because it was about a boyfriend dying; similarly Leader Of The Pack by the Shangri-Las.

I’m not going to post-rationalise Headlights. It’s a horror film in three minutes. It’s not a pleasant subject. But then neither was They’re Coming To Take Me Away Aha, or Midnight Rambler, or Cold Turkey. What it was was a bloody good record.

I’d put money on it being played on Radio One if it had been by Eric Clapton (I Shot The Sheriff), or the Stones (Brown Sugar), or Gary Puckett (Young Girl). And all of these songs predated Headlights by between five to ten years. So it’s not like I was carving out a new frontier.

Whatever the reason, Headlights was stopped in its tracks, and the record company didn’t have the clout or the gumption to challenge the decision. Shame. If one play could put it in the top 75, imagine what 10 plays would have done. And then I’d have had a very different career.

Apart from my home demo version, I recorded Headlights three times with different musicians. I was never completely satisfied, but the closest we came to what was in my head was the version that was eventually released in May 1979. That was in large part due to Mart Jenner’s playing. There’s real menace in his guitar parts.

Listening to it 35 years later, it still sounds like a hit to me. Judge for yourself and check your answer here: 

5 Comments

    • I deliberately excluded Spotify from my outlets because artists get nothing from it. The four major record companies invested for 12.5% each and then gave the family silver away. If anything has changed recently, I’d like to hear from someone how it works now. Several artists have demanded their material be taken down, and – last I heard – the Beatles, Led Zep and Pink Floyd have never let theirs be put up there, which tells you something.

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  1. I like Headlights. When the Chorus/ bridge (whatever it is, I never studied song structure) comes in at 30 secs, I think it needs to be at least twice as long. Same when it comes in later, 1.52. It’s a nice, dirty little riff and it finishes about the time you realise you’re tapping your feet. Also, brass would sound brilliant in there, naturally (JJ ref). The fuzz on Mart Jenner’s guitar on the intro and throughout is kind of “horny” already. JJ did it brilliantly on Woman I Love but I see it more like that on Bringing It Back. Just my opinion, not that it counts for anything! I’m only saying how I would tailor your already great song to suit my particular taste, not claiming it is inadequate or inferior etc, you understand….

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    • Well, nice to get that input 35 years late!

      Honestly, never occurred to me to have brass. The original demo (just me on an acoustic) was quite JJ Cale, and that was what I was searching for when I kept recording it with different people.

      Never did get it quite how I heard it in my head. Should’ve looked in your head, instead!

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  2. I remember when you played Headlights to us in Stuart’s office just before it was released, Paul. He was certain it would be a hit. It still sounds strong, I always liked your hint of ‘Tobacco Road’ by The Nashville Teens in there.
    I wonder if the lyric had been from a third party point of view rather than the driver’s, and if the girl had in the end been triumphant in catching HIM in HER headlights, giving it a sense of the hunted becomes the hunter, and we could all go “Hurray!” for her, whether that would have appealed more to R1? Who knows? R1 worked in strange ways as we know back then.

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