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An Interview with Master Singer-Songwriter Alan Merrill

Posted by: yetheart, September 22, 2015 3:16 pm
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Alan Merrill

Alan Merrill is the legendary singer and songwriter of the original, 1975 version of the rock classic "I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”, which he recorded and performed with his band the Arrows. The song has since been covered by Joan Jett, Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, and many others. Over a fifty-year career, Merrill has performed extensively in Japan and London and also written songs for artists such as Lou Rawls, Rick Derringer, Freddie Scott, Felix Cavaliere, Chuck Jackson, Runner, and Five.

We’re excited that Alan will be joining us at Central Library on Saturday, September 26 to perform unplugged acoustic versions of some of his greatest songs, followed by a Q&A with the audience. He also answered a few questions in advance for us about his career, the music industry, and what advice he has for young musicians.

 

Even though you’ve lived in several places throughout the world, you were born in the Bronx and currently live in New York City. What role have NYC libraries played in your life?
That's a fun question I've never been asked! I went to school in the Bronx until I was eight, then we moved to Manhattan until I was nine, then I was off to a Swiss boarding school. My parents' finances took a hit in my early teens and I came back to the Bronx to graduate from Taft High School. It was a most enlightening childhood from a cultural perspective. That cultural shift in itself was an education. My experience with libraries came from my obsession with words. In my teens, I would play hooky from high school and go to a library a short walk uptown. Having studied Latin and French in Switzerland, I would sit and read the dictionary for hours, learning words and understanding their roots from my language studies. I learned more at the library than I would have in my classes. While I don't recommend or condone this sort of behavior, it worked for me. You know, I still have my library card from when I was 6!

You moved to Japan when you were 17 and had a long and interesting musical and acting career there. How did living and working in Japan compare to the U.S. and London?
When I got to Japan in 1968, there were very few foreigners, especially teenagers, who I could be friendly with. I didn't speak Japanese yet, at all. I went to Sofia University International Division (classes in English) for a while and soon I found myself working with a musical group of foreigners called The Lead. We recorded on RCA Victor Records and we were sort of a "B list" band—known but not quite famous. We didn't do TV or any of the big venue shows. That would come later for me, starting in 1970, as a solo act on Atlantic Records managed by the very powerful Watanabe Productions.

When I got to England in 1974, I found the music business to be similar to Japan in that artists were very controlled by managers and record labels in the pop music market. However, in the niche category of rock music, there was a lot more musical freedom and money, at least from my experience. In the USA, playing and recording with bands like (Rick) Derringer and Meat Loaf in the 1980s was an eye opener. The music business in the U.S. is very slick and professional; in England, Europe, and Japan it was looser and friendlier, less polished and less corporate, in my opinion.

“I Love Rock 'n' Roll” is such a well-known song—when did you know that it had gone from being a hit single to an all-time classic?
Easy answer—when Britney Spears covered the song in 2002, it opened the floodgates. Her cover showed there was more depth to the song than just a hard rock approach. Most Americans don't know that she released the song as a single and had a hit with it everywhere except the U.S., where the song is so indelibly associated with Joan Jett that Britney didn't bother releasing her version. Now, thanks to Britney, there are all sorts of versions of the song, from country & western to sexy chanson, all over the world. I think Britney's 2002 cover was a turning point, a step up for the song in terms of showing its diverse and flexible nature. That said, I have great respect for Joan Jett's 1982 hard rock cover, which gave the song a very healthy life in the U.S. Before that, it had only been heard in the U.K.—my original 1975 version was released just in England and Belgium.

Your parents are both jazz legends; did you always want to pursue a career in music? What made you choose rock music instead of jazz?
Yes, I knew from about age five that I wanted to be in music. It's what I saw my parents do for work. Natural for me. In the late 1950s, my parents repeatedly said that "rock music is taking over, that's where the money is," and I was listening!

After a 50-year career, what do you think about how the music industry has changed? Do you find it easier or harder to be a professional musician now?
I started in the late 1960s. The music industry was very organic, and back then artists would present their songs with just an acoustic guitar and vocals. Now, most of the music I hear is made by machines and it's abrasive to my ears. I don't listen to much new music, to be honest. I try but nothing grabs me. Today, an artist is as good as his or her publicist and it's all about hyping a name and product. The music I hear is synthetic and formulaic. Even MTV and VH1 don't have many shows about music or bands now.

It's not hard for me to be a professional musician in 2015. I've cultivated an international fan base over the decades, and in some ways it's easier thanks to the Internet. I wouldn't know what to tell a young artist coming up now. "Get an MTV reality show, or go on a contest like The Voice," would be my best advice, I guess. That seems to be the route to stardom today.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to write a song as enduring as “I Love Rock 'n' Roll”?
There is no music industry now for that to happen, I'm sad to say. When I released the 1975 version of "I Love Rock 'n' Roll", the Arrows played the song on a British TV show called 45. That appearance got us a weekly TV series the following year, which is where Joan Jett saw us do the song. The music world was set up with good platforms to present new music, like pop and rock variety shows and radio. That's gone now, unfortunately. Most pop radio stations play classic rock and ignore new music. Where are the pop and rock TV shows?

On reflection, I suppose a young songwriter could have a big hit today writing for feature films or TV shows. And of course young people will write great new songs. That's going to happen! Let's hope the industry keeps changing and goes back to a place where talent matters more that public relations.


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This is going to be a Rocking Good Time. Alan is not only a great singer and songwriter, he loves to tell the back stories as well. Check out Alan Merrill this Saturday!


This is going to be a Rocking Good Time. Alan is not only a great singer and songwriter, he loves to tell the back stories as well. Check out Alan Merrill this Saturday!