Sound of the 80s: Look Ma, No Musicians!

I’d love to think that my post two weeks ago was responsible for ending almost a year of torture for Paul Gambaccini.

The news that, after an 11 month ‘investigation’, no charges were to be brought followed hot on the heels of my post.

Subsequently, other journalists picked up my themes – asking when we might next hear from Cliff Richard, and comparing Yewtree to the Salem Witch Trials.

I jest, of course. This blog is neither widely read by meeja types, nor influential in any way whatsoever.

And I don’t read daily newspapers. For all I know, people have been saying for months what I finally put together just two weeks ago.

But I’m relieved to get back to business as usual, and this week I am able to say: I was one of the first artists in the UK – and therefore the world – to record using a Fairlight.

Does anyone remember the Fairlight? By the mid-80s it was all over pop, from Peter Gabriel to Frankie Goes To Hollywood and the entire Hounds Of Love album by Kate Bush

This isn’t me bragging because a) I never laid hands on the Fairlight myself, and b) I’d forgotten about the experience until last week when I unearthed a bunch of demos and unreleased material.

Among them is a song called I’m Losing, which I had thought was lost forever. I remembered writing it. More importantly, I remembered why I wrote it.

I even remembered the session when I put the vocal on the track. But I had totally forgotten the lyrics and the melody, and even the title.

So basically, I forgot the song. How hopeless is that?

I’m really glad it’s turned up, and I hope you have a listen and enjoy it, after I tell you the story.

Now – not many people know this…..

In fact, I’m pretty sure that only three people ever knew that after the failure to follow up Car 67, and the miserable response to the Tax Loss album, there was a brief attempt to rebrand me as a solo artist under the name Ipso Facto.

This was the genius plan of the legendary Oliver Smallman. Ollie had been responsible for securing Car 67 as Kid Jensen’s Record Of The Week on Radio 1, thus ensuring its subsequent success.

At the time, he was the top plugger in London, which meant he was the best in the country.

So I took Ollie a recording of the first non-Driver 67 single, The Secret. As he listened he got up to open a window. “Just to let the money in,” he grinned. By which he meant The Secret was going to be Top 10. I thought so too.

It wasn’t, of course. But Ollie was convinced the song had a future in the charts. When I was free of my recording contract, he came up with the idea of Ipso Facto, and picked two songs he thought were hits. One, of course, was The Secret. The other was The Date, which I’ll write about in a later post.

The icing on the cake for Ollie, who was also a music publisher, was that I had just written I’m Losing, which meant the publishing was still available. He snapped up the rights and decided it would be the B-side to my first single as Ipso Facto.

By this point, I had been a producer for nearly ten years. I had always taken complete control of sessions I produced. Not a note was played without my approval.

As Ipso Facto, I was to be a ‘product’. The producer – (Brian something, I think; we’ll call him Brian) – put together tracks for my first two singles. All I had to do was sing.

So I’m at the studio, and I see this weird-looking equipment sitting there. That was the Fairlight.

Apparently, you would spend hours programming it to produce a few seconds of music. Then you had to programme again, and again, and splice all the music together into one track.

I would never have had the patience. Nor, as it turned out, would I have had the will. I didn’t like the tracks for my songs. They were big and brash, and sounded quite soulless to me.

How was I to know this would be the sound of the 80s?

Still, for one of the few times in my life, I played the good soldier, did my vocals and said nothing.

A few weeks later I was asked to attend a studio in London’s West End where I would add the vocal for I’m Losing.

I sang it once for ‘level’ (volume).

We’ll-call-him-Brian said, “OK, let’s do a take.”

So I sang it again. Then he said, “Let’s do another.”

So I sang it again. And then he said, “Next time, why don’t you just mail it in?”

Ouch! In music industry parlance, ‘mailing it in’ is a way of describing a performance you could do standing on your head. It’s not a compliment for a job well done; it’s saying you did the least you needed to.

The truth is that I sang this song the way I’d written it, with a lot of emotion. It was written after I became somewhat fixated on a girl who led me a right old dance (no touching!), and then found herself in love with someone who did the same to her.

That’s what the song’s about. You’ll hear it towards the end: “It’s not your love, that I want. I’m crying for somebody else.”

We’ll-call-him-Brian apparently wanted me to sing it differently each time. To him that denoted feeling.

But the feeling was already there. You could have put my three takes together and you’d barely hear a difference. Doesn’t mean it’s sung without emotion.

I hope you will listen. Having not heard it in 30 years, I’m happy to say it’s easily the best vocal performance of mine on record.

That may not be saying much, but for me it’s comforting to hear that I once had the voice and the range to be a pop singer. What I lacked was staying power.

I don’t think Ipso Facto ever appeared on a record, and frankly, I could scarcely have cared less. By 1983, I was on my way out the door. It was 25 years till I looked back and started caring again.

The record industry will do that to you.



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: