I had only been living in England 6 months when my new band Arrows charted with our RAK Records, Mickie Most produced debut single “Touch Too Much,” with the record peaking in June 1974 at #6 in both the UK Disc and NME charts. I was the lead singer of the band, and played bass guitar.
The song was written by the then red hot team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, who seemed to be the Midas duo of hit songwriters at the time. So it came to pass that our band were given another Chinn and Chapman song to record as the follow up, a song that Suzi Quatro and also The Sweet had already passed up on recording titled “Toughen Up.”
As a rule, bands were given a Top Of The Pops (a very influential BBC pop music show) follow-up performance with their second record release if their debut single was a hit. It’s a courtesy, almost always a given. In the Arrows case this was not so. It was the beginning of what would become a chain reaction of recurring nightmare scenarios for the band.
The reason? Another act (a new band with their debut single) who were also signed to RAK records got what was supposed to be our Top Of The Pops appearance. When the Arrows “Toughen Up” Top Of The Pops TV turn came around, RAK records instead gave the Arrows slot on the show to the new act, who failed to reach the charts.
Mickie Most’s brother Dave assured us not to worry, that they would get a TV performance for us the following weeks with our single. It never happened. The Arrows record floundered around the top 50 on the momentum of our previous hit and popularity in the teen press, but the record never entered the top 30 without that crucial TV appearance.
In fact, Arrows had no significant UK TV appearances with the “Toughen Up” single at all. Just a few short interviews on a show called Saturday Scene, and a quick, poorly lit, bare bones Mike Mansfield produced promotion film that was shown a bit in Europe. We had after all won the prestigious Belgian “Golden Lion” award for Best New Band of 1974, and performed “Touch Too Much” at the televised awards ceremonies in Brusells. There was a lot of interest in the group Arrows in Europe.
Factor in that later on in the year 1974 Chinn and Chapman were busy writing for Smokie, The Sweet, Mud, Suzi Quatro and others. They had no material to spare for Arrows.
So, in the winter of 1974 Mickie Most tried recording a cover version of Johnny Burnette’s hit “Dreamin’” with Arrows, and also we wrote a new tune titled “Wake Up,” a song later borrowed by Dave Most in 1976 for the Eurovision song contest and performed by the band Coco, oddly crediting our song’s composition on the Coco disc to himself and Phil Denys. We also wrote and recorded a song called “Bam Bam Battering Ram.” (1974’s “Wake Up,” “Dreamin’,” and “Bam Bam Battering Ram” were all finally, after decades, issued on EMI’s Arrows retrospective CD “A’s B’s and Rarites” in 2005). At the time all of the new songs were scrapped by Mickie Most, who felt although good recordings, they didn’t sound quite like hits to him.
The band Arrows were capable of writing their own self contained material (I had already written hit singles for my band Vodka Collins in Japan, prior to Arrows) but this was not the way our producer (and RAK records owner) Mickie Most worked, generally preferring to separate songwriters and artists. It’s the Brill Building method of artist production, one that was tried and true for Mr. Most, who was already a legend at this point in time for producing hit after hit single for The Animals, Herman’s Hermits, Lulu, Jeff Beck Group, Hot Chocolate, Donovan, Yardbirds and the like.
The Arrows third single, the ballad “My Last Night With You” was in fact written by Roger Ferris, best known as an engineer on Beatles recordings, but also a fine songwriter. The song was released in February of 1975 to coincide with the RAK Rocks Britain Tour of the UK. The tour comprised of Arrows, Suzi Quatro, and Cozy Powell’s Hammer.
Both Suzi Quatro and Arrows had singles out during the tour. Quatro with “Your Mama Won’t Like Me” and us with “My Last Night With You.” To everyone on the tour’s amazement, and the record company, the opening act Arrows record was outselling Quatro’s record! In spite of this Suzi Quatro got a Top Of The Pops TV appearance first, before Arrows. Given her seniority and superstar status in the UK it wasn’t surprising and we fully understood that.
The following week during the tour, we finally got our Top Of The Pops TV Appearance, and like a scene from the film “Rocky,” my underdog band Arrows made it into the top 30, peaking at #24 in the UK charts during the tour. Suzi Quatro didn’t crack the top 30 in the charts with her record at all, stalling out at #31. A shock to everyone at RAK records.
Since Roger Ferris had written the hit “My Last Night With You,” it was no surprise that he presented more demos of his songs in the summer of ‘75 to Mickie Most for Arrows to record. They all were mid to slow tempo songs however, and the band were worried about following a hit ballad with yet another ballad. We were a rock band being led further and further into middle of the road territory with each record release it seemed.
At about the same time Roger Ferris was presenting him new demos, Mickie Most had us writing our own songs in the RAK Records attic on the fourth floor of the label’s building on Charles Street in London, just above the RAK publishing offices run by Brenda Brooker. A barren room with no furniture and windows that didn’t open, we would hammer out songs and play them for Mickie, who would pop his head in the room every few hours to monitor our progress.
Arrows 1975- Alan Paul, Jake (below photo)
What Mickie Most asked for specifically was a three chord song with a recurring riff and a melody that would rise to a rousing chorus section. The verse had to be melodic, so that it could be “whistled by people walking down the street” he’d say. Most also wanted American-isms, U.S. slang. It seemed like mission impossible for us, a complicated request, but he pointed out that hit songs like “Summertime Blues,” “Wild Thing” and “Louie Louie” had only been three chords and had those qualities.
We came up with a song called “Shake Me!” (later recorded and released by Rick Derringer in 1983 on his “Good Dirty Fun” album) that Mickie Most nearly liked. He said it wasn’t quite there, and he wasn’t sure it was a hit, but that we should stay on that theme. He felt it was very close to what he was looking for.
We went back to the Chelsea area of London where we all lived only a few blocks from each other, and had some wine at our guitarist Jake’s flat near the Sloane Square station.
We then started to discuss how our label RAK Records was going to be leading us into ballad territory if we didn’t write an upbeat rock ‘n roll type of single ourselves, and we knew that we had to have another up tempo song as the next record or we would probably lose our fan base, meaning the teenagers who liked the energy of our debut single “Touch Too Much,” the biggest hit of our three singles. The Rolling Stones recent hit record came up in conversation, titled “It’s Only Rock N Roll.” We started talking about how much we “loved rock n roll,” and asked each other “how could the Stones apologize for rock music in that way?”
Guitars were grabbed instinctively, strumming started, and the chorus then came tumbling out. In the key of E, we started to sing a very rudimentary gang chorus version of “I Love Rock N Roll.”
At first it was a one note melody line. Then, remembering how Mickie Most had asked for a real melody, a melody line was crafted that “could be whistled,” as Most had requested.
The American-isms Mickie Most had asked for were there as well in the “put another dime in the juke box, baby” line. That was all that was written that day, the chorus lyric and melody over the three chords, E-A-B. It was actually like working backwards, because the song had it’s peak now, a big chorus, but no verses.
I went home and started to play a riff over three chords for a verse, with a riff that would stay the same even though the chords moved. It was also the method I used the same week for the song “Shake Me!”
I was so convinced that the song “I Love Rock N Roll” would be a hit on that very night, just based on the catchy chorus, that I got a brainstorm straight out of a Rod Serling “Twilight Zone” plot.
It would be a song about a fictional hit song!
The song “I Love Rock N Roll” would be a fictional hit song that exists inside the song, as a hit of the day. The verse then had to be about the kids in the disco who were singing the song “I love rock ‘n roll,” which was their favorite song on the juke box, or also singing it together on the way home after the dance.
In this private joke with myself, I had made the song a (fictional) hit within the song lyric, even before it actually was a hit record. So, I surmised, that when it actually became a hit for Arrows, it would be a sort of double hit. The hit record, and the fictional hit that existed in the lyric in the chorus.
Sitting in my tiny flat by candlelight with my Japanese girlfriend Yoshiko sleeping only a few feet away, I softly sang the draught into the condensor mic of a tiny Sony cassette machine, and the first verses of “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” were born.
The next day I ran the new concept by my business partner and bandmate Jake Hooker, and we finessed the song in the RAK attic, rehearsing it, going over it again and again so that it would be presentable for Mickie Most when he finally poked his head in the door to hear new material.
Much to our relief, Mickie Most liked the song, and wanted to record it. We went in to Manno’s rehearsal room on the New King’s Road in London and rehearsed the tune to prepare it for recording. It was then that I got the idea for the unusual time signature on “I Love Rock N Roll” at the end of the chorus.
At first our drummer Paul Varley said “hey, you can’t do that,” but I knew it would work because I’d already used the same method on the end of the chorus of my song “Billy Mars.” (This was with my group Vodka Collins in Japan on our 1973 “Tokyo-New York” EMI records album). After some protests, Paul finally listened to my logic and changed the beat after the end of the chorus line “come on take your time and dance with me.” The unusual time signature worked a charm, as I knew it would.
In this same week Mickie Most then played us another song on reel to reel tape, a demo by Roger Ferris called “Broken Down Heart.” It was a pretty good song, but without the instant energy of “I Love Rock N Roll.” Most took our band into Morgan Studios and cut both tracks, spending only a cursory 20 minutes on “I Love Rock N Roll.” They were all fast first takes on “I Love Rock ‘N Roll,” and predictably the version turned out ragged. Then we spent three long gruelling days on the meticulous recording of “Broken Down Heart.”
John Rabbit Bundrick was brought in to play keyboards on “Broken Down Heart” and Chris Spedding played acoustic guitar. These signs told us that the single was obviously going to be “Broken Down Heart.”
Below is a link to the Arrows recording the first quick b-side version of I Love Rock N Roll” by total coincidence captured on film in 1975 in a BBC documentary. Trying to sing with a film crew’s cameras at close range in my face while I was singing and making a record was very distracting. (click on the link to see the clip)-
The first pressing of the Arrows fourth single in April of 1975 had “Broken Down Heart” on the a-side and “I Love Rock N Roll” on the b-side. Christina, Mickie Most’s wife protested the decision to put the record out with “Broken Down Heart” as an a-side. She loved the song “I love rock n roll,” and wasn’t shy to tell her husband how she felt about it. Ultimately she got her way, thus playing a big part in the story of the song.
To be fair, a genius artist, Mickie Most seemed to be going through a “blue period” as a producer, preferring to work on dark slow moody romantic ballads. Case in point, another Most produced act Hot Chocolate had, in the same week as Arrows recorded “I Love Rock ‘N Roll”, cut “You Sexy Thing” (I Believe in Miracles) and “Blue Night,” with producer Most originally putting the slow emotional ballad “Blue Night” on the a-side, and with the up-tempo disco dance blockbuster “You Sexy Thing” oddly on the b-side.
Both records were re-cut and flipped to a-side. Arrows recorded a new and far better “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” track at Abbey Road, and Hot Chocolate re-recorded “You Sexy Thing” at Morgan Studios. The second time out, the a-side “You Sexy Thing” was a big hit for Hot Chocolate, with them getting the all so important Top Of The Pops TV appearance, propelling the song up to the top of the charts.
Once again the Arrows had followed up their hit single “My Last Night With You” without the generally guaranteed Top Of The Pops TV show appearance. This time it went to a new RAK records group called Kenny and their second single, a follow up to their hit dance record “The Bump.”
It was a heartbreaker for Arrows, but for us, disappointment following elation was becoming routine.
In spite of Arrows getting our way and having the song “I Love Rock N Roll” flipped to an a-side, and really positive reviews in the press, sadly there was no plan for promotion. In fact we only got one TV appearance with the record, and the disc careened around the lower regions of the Music Week/BBC charts just under the top 50 for weeks.
The TV show we did do would be an important one for the band though, within the context of the story of “I Love Rock ‘N Roll”. We went up to Manchester England and did a spot on Muriel Young’s Granada/ITV show called “Pop 45,” and did our sole 1975 TV appearance of “I Love Rock N Roll.”
Muriel Young was so impressed with our band’s appearance that day that she offered us our own TV series, which would start filming in March 1976. The Arrows as a unit were smiling again, but as usual with the band, that happy expression would be short lived.
The Arrows released only two more single records. Picked by Mickie Most, still in his “blue period,” both songs were low energy ballads. A Roger Ferris song titled “Hard Hearted” in the winter of 1975 (which I described denigratingly at the time as an “Elvis after the army” tune) and an even slower ballad written by Phil Coulter, 1976’s “Once Upon A Time,” our last single ever, released a month before the first show of our new TV series debut.
The Arrows weekly TV show, season two, 1976- L-R: Terry Taylor, Paul Varley, Alan Merrill, Jake Hooker.
Due to a misjudgement of tragic proportions, the band signed to a bungling manager, and Arrows fell into a political and contractual situation which prevented us from releasing any new records, and placed virtually “in Coventry,” grey listed in the British music business. History shows Arrows to be the only band in the history of the music business ever to have a weekly pop music TV series (we had two 14 week series, 28 shows in all, 56 airings with repeats in 1976 and ‘77) and no records released during the run of ether series.
In spite of the unbearable situation of having our own TV series and no records released, one very good thing came out of the shows. In the UK in 1976 with her band The Runaways, Joan Jett was already aware of the Arrows from our earlier energetic hits, liked the band, and watched our TV series. As luck would have it, she saw us do the song “I Love Rock N Roll” on our TV show, and liked the song so much she vowed to some day record it, and she did. First in 1979 with Sex Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones, then another version in 1981 as Joan Jett and The Blackhearts.
The first female vinyl 45 rpm release version of “I Love Rock N Roll” was by a solo Joan Jett (the Jett fronted -“Blackhearts” backing band didn’t exist yet) with Sex Pistols members Steve Jones and Paul Cook on guitars, bass and drums, which was released in 1979 as a single on Vertigo records. Three years before Joan Jett (and the Blackhearts) would have a huge hit with the song on Boardwalk records in 1982. (photo of the 45 record sleeve below)-
At last in 1982, with the Joan Jett cover of the song at #1 for two months in the US charts, my original Rod Serling-esque vision for the song came true, with it being a huge hit, and with many people singing the fictional hit in the chorus out loud in dance clubs. It became a legendary song on juke boxes all over the world, as well as in the chorus of the song.
The song’s journey is remarkable story right from the start with the Arrows, and apart from the obvious attention given the huge Joan Jett hit version, the song continues to be successfully recorded in various styles and permutations over four decades by artists such as Britney Spears, Five, CJ Jr., Showaddywaddy, Joe Piscopo, Girl Authority, Queen Of Japan, DJ Niko, Hello, Weird Al Yankovic, Reverend Run, Kathy X, Forever Young, Miley Cyrus, Alvin Stardust, Melanie C. (Spice Girls), Smashing Pumpkins, Alec Baldwin - Russell Brand (Rock of Ages film) and many more.
- Alan Merrill
Reproduced by kind permission of Bill Harry’s ”Rock And Pop Shop” Merseybeat online magazine.
The Arrows and Bill Harry, 1975-
left -right : Paul, Bill, Jake, Alan- (above photo)