He's a composer. He's a songwriter, He's a producer. He's an arranger. He's famous. He's worked with Petula Clark, The Searchers and David Bowie. He wrote many of Petula Clark's hit songs, including "I Know A Place", "You're The One", "I Couldn't Live Without Your Love", "Don't Sleep In The Subway", "A Sign Of The Times" and of course "Downtown". His name is Tony Hatch.
Q - Mr. Hatch, where do you think this ability to write songs comes from? Is this a God-given gift?
A - I'm sure it must be. I did have fairly talented parents, although they weren't professionals, both of them could play the piano quite well. And they had an enthusiasm about music and records long before I was born. So when I came along, I must have inherited something. I'm the only one in the family that's actually achieved anything in the music industry. In fact, I've been in it my whole life. I've never known anything else. It's not as if I did some other kind of job like brick-laying or gas-fitter. No, I've been making music since I was about eight years of age.
Q - Does it follow that if you can write one hit song, you can continue to write hit songs? You started writing songs for Petula Clark in the '60s, correct?
A - Correct. In fact, I started writing my first songs while I was still at school. I was in Choir School, so my first compositions were naturally anthems and tunes of songs. I had no idea that I was gonna go into the Pop music world. At that time I was strictly a classical musician, but also more a church musician.
Q - Do you ever have dry periods where you can't come up any song ideas?
A - Well, I think that the dry periods come a bit later in your life because always behind you there is somebody else. There are generations behind me now, doing the things I was doing, but in different ways of course. The technology has changed and the format for writing and producing is vastly different now to what it was when I was in the studio.
Q - When you were at Pye Records, were you hearing about groups like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones that were trying to get record deals?
A - Well of course, not so much The Stones, but certainly The Beatles were a source of great inspiration to me. In fact, when they first came on the scene, I had a girls vocal backing group called The Breakaways that I used a tremendous amount. They came from Liverpool. As Brian Epstein signed up more and more artists from Liverpool, don't forget it wasn't just The Beatles, he had Gerry And The Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer. As he sort of expanded his musical empire, those girls said to me "You gotta come out to Liverpool because there's lots more bands out there. He can't sign them all." On my very first visit up there, I discovered a band playing in a club. The band was called The Searchers. They'd named themselves after the film. They were quite remarkable. They didn't write their own material, which was a bit of a problem to me throughout their recording career. But they were tremendous and did a lot of The Coasters songs. That's the first thing I heard them play, "Sweets For My Sweet". It was so ready to go on the market that I'd just gotten down to London straight away and we recorded it almost 'live' and had it out and within a few weeks we're at number one.
Q - Would all of the songs you wrote for Petula Clark have become as popular if a guy had been singing them? You thought of Ben E. King for "Downtown".
A - I think my career would've taken a different turn altogether. But it's all hypothesis isn't it? There's no guarantee that anybody else would have done "Downtown" as differently. I remember when Joe Smith from Warner Brothers first heard the record in my office in London, he just flipped. He said "This is fantastic. I've got to have this." At that time, Pye Records was still deciding what to do with it. There's no doubt they would have released it, but his enthusiasm burned a new kind of enthusiasm into the Pye executives and so we got behind it as strongly as Warner Brothers did in America.
Q - That song "Downtown" is such a universal subject matter.
A - Well, it is. It's very, very much an American origin, the word is. It's been taken up by so many people. It doesn't always mean the same thing 'cause Downtown New York is not Times Square. I was standing in Times Square when I thought about the song called "Downtown". I was quite innocent at the time and naively thought that was Downtown. Of course many cities throughout America have a Downtown area where the movie shows are, where the restaurants are, where the bars are, where the action is. That is why the song worked so well, because people don't relate it to Downtown New York. They relate it to their own Downtown. I mean, you can go to Downtown Los Angeles and it's hardly the center, it's getting better, but for years it was never the place where you'd go to hang out and have a lot of fun.
Q - How long did it take you to write "Downtown"? Was that an easy song to put together?
A - It had a long gestation period because I first thought of the idea when I was in New York making a visit to various music publishers and record companies, generally just on a week's research there. I came up with the idea, but I didn't have a tune. I got back to London and I was just playing around on the piano. So I said well, I'll try and see what I can get out of it. So, I then had a tune. I didn't have a lyric, but I just knew where the word Downtown would appear in the song. Then I put it on the back burner again and forgot about it. Then I went to see Petula Clark in Paris where she was living at the time. I played her three or four songs that I brought back from America. I could see that she wasn't too excited about any of them. We already knew that we had to make a record. I had a studio booked with an orchestra ready to do a new recording session with her. And she said "Aren't you working on anything yourself?" Reluctantly I played her the idea of "Downtown", because I'm always reluctant to play half-finished songs. She immediately saw tremendous potential in it. She was the one who said "Get that finished. Get a good lyric in it. Get a great arrangement and I think we'll at least have a song we're proud to record even if it isn't a hit." And of course we recorded it. I remember when I first played it to Joe Smith, the one thing that worried me about it was her very, very English accent on it. I said to him surely this is an American word, this lyric that uses lots of American sayings such as the sidewalk. In England it's the pavement. In America it's the sidewalk. Here we have cinemas. America has movie shows. I wrote it very much from an American point of view. I was frankly just a little concerned. He was so excited about it. He said that is the secret of the record, that this very, very British approach to something which is so American. A lot of people say the reason why nobody ever thought of writing a song called "Downtown" was they're all too close to it. It took somebody from outside to see the possibilities. There had been an "Uptown", not "Uptown Girl" by Billy Joel, but another "Uptown", I think by Jackie De Shannon. But "Downtown" was the word that related more to Americans than any other.
Q - I just saw the group The Vogues in concert. They did a song called "You're The One" that you and Petula wrote. How long did it take the two of you to write that?
A - I remember Petula bringing the tune along either to one or our meetings or when I went to see her. I often used to go to Paris to work with her. She came up with this and said "I need a lyric for it." I said "I can hear a lyric coming already." So we did it together and put it on an album. We've always had very, very good music publishing in America. Universal is my publisher now. Even in those days they would pick up an album that I'd made with Petula Clark and immediately go out and try and get covers on all the album material, not covers of the singles of course. That's how we came to get "Call Me" by Chris Montez. But that was my publisher in America working the songs. And they did the same with "You're The One". They went out and got covers on it.
Q - Who had the bigger hit with "You're The One", Petula Clark or The Vogues?
A - Petula had a moderate hit with it in the UK, but I think The Vogues had the hit with it certainly in America.
Q - What kind of a feeling did you get when say Frank Sinatra would sing one of your songs?
A - Well, the biggest thrill in the world for any songwriter is when one of the legends, and by that time he was a legend, when a legend says I'm not going to record just one of your songs, but three of your songs. That is a tremendous honor. Not that he handled "Downtown" very well. He was having a joke at the song's expense. But when he went on to do "Call Me" and "Don't Sleep In The Subway", those two versions of the song are just excellent. Pure Sinatra. I'm very proud of them.
Q - What does "Don't Sleep In The Subway" mean?
A - Well, I think if you look at the lyrics of it, it's a very adult song. It's two adult people and they've had a row. As the man often does, he said "Oh I'm going. I'm leaving." You walk out the door and you're not sure what you're doing or why you're doing it. You know it would be so easy to make up. But the way I got the title was, there was a musical on Broadway, which didn't do very well, called Subways Are For Sleeping. And the mental picture I had when I dreamt up the title "Don't Sleep In The Subway" was you leave the comfort of your apartment and the only place you've got to go is to sit on a bench in the subway, which presumably will run all night. So, you can stay there in a bit of warmth and come out later. That was what the song was saying. It was just a euphemism for don't wander around. Don't hang around in the rain. C'mon home. Our future is together really.
Q - I take it that you are as enthusiastic about your life's work as when you first started.
A - Absolutely. I just love the music business. I love being part of it. I love the challenge. I love working with musicians and I love working in the recording studio. I've had a great year this year. (2009) in the UK because I've reached my 70th birthday and the BBC arranged a huge concert for me with the BBC concert orchestra, which they also recorded. They've broadcast that twice. Don't forget, we still have here a national radio system unlike anything in the world. Huge listening figures for music on radio. The BBC also did a three part series on my life which they titled Colour My World: The Tony Hatch Story, which was another great honor.