Gary James' Interview With Songwriter
You may not know his name, but you know the songs he's written. Songs like "Build Me Up Buttercup", "(Last Night) I Didn't Get To Sleep At All", and "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes") to name just a few. His songs have sold more than 52 million records and CDs worldwide. Thirty-eight of his songs have made the Top 20 in the UK, eight reaching the number one spot. Sixteen of his songs have been hits in the US, three making it all the way to number one. The people that have recorded his songs reads like a Who's Who List of popular music. We're talking Elvis Presley, Tom Jones, Sonny and Cher, The Fifth Dimension, The Hollies, Glen Campbell, Frank Sinatra, Olivia Newton-John, Gladys Knight, Engelbert Humperdinck, and the list goes on. The man we are speaking of is Mr. Tony Macaulay.
Q - Tony, before you started writing songs, were you a part of a band?
A - (Laughs). Only kind of at a college level. We had a band called Saracons. What happened was I was the bass player but I was going to make my own, which doesn't quite work out. The band threw me out before we even did a gig. I was so resentful I thought well, I'll be a band on my own. I'll make them all sorry. Becoming a songwriter was kind of a revenge tactic. Sometime later, after having written a few songs, we did a few local gigs but we never amounted to anything. So, in a sense the first thing I told you was really important.
Q - How does a person develop this talent for not only writing songs, but "hit" songs? This is not something you can be taught in school, is it?
A - I think probably it's genetic in the sense that my mother was a very good pianist. My father was incredibly creative. I inherited most of his talents really. My mother was a novelist and I have written three hit novels. My father was an extremely good carpenter and I'm a passionate carpenter. I do a lot of antique work and always have. It was a combination of the musician's side and the practical side. To be a songwriter you need to be a very practical musician. You need to turn a little music into a lot of money. Songwriting is a commercial art. What I'm trying to say is, if you are gonna go on the concert platform and play a lot of dead musician's music, which I love, and that's all it is, is dead musician's music, that's fine. But if you're going to be a songwriter, you have to have a real understanding of how to do what you do commercially and make it appeal. The good thing was I just wrote what I liked and everybody else liked at the time.
Q - As you looked around in Britain in the early 1960s and saw what was going on in the music business, did you ever think the music was going to be a worldwide phenomenon?
A - It already had. Of course when I first hit, it was 1967 and it had been three years or so. Four years of British music making it an America. But all my idols weren't British. They were all American. I worshiped other songwriters like Burt Bacharach and Hal David and Holland - Dozier - Holland. All my favorite artists were Americans, mainly Black, the Motown artists. So, all my models were American. In a sense I loved Bacharach because it was so melodic. I loved Motown because it's so rhythmic. In my first records I kind of put Bacharach in my version of Holland - Dozier - Holland and the Motown thing. The first hits I produced were kind of clones of that world.
Q - You worked as a song plugger in the early '60s for Essex Publishing?
A - Yes.
Q - This was before 1964 or after?
A - I joined the music industry in March, 1965. So, I was a song plugger for a couple of years. I was the world's worst song plugger. The company I worked for had The Rolling Stones and The Who, so how much plugging does that need? I spent half the time in the pub and the rest of the time in the cinema at the back, asleep. But I did get to know all the key people. So when I became a record producer, I was the only record producer in the industry that knew all the producers, radio producers, disc jockeys. That was a huge help.
Q - I guess so! Did you see new talent coming up through the ranks?
A - Yeah. The day I joined, they signed up Joe Cocker and another British artist you may not know in America, also the day I joined the industry, David Essex, who was about 17. He went on to become a big star here who I saw the other day actually. The first two records had been out for a month and done nothing. Amongst all that crap the were pushing I found that one record and went 'round and got it played. So, the first two records I got off the ground. But I wasn't a very good plugger. If I'd liked it, I worked on it. If I didn't, I didn't. I was really trying to become a record producer. In those days there were only about twelve. There were three record companies that mattered or four and they had three record producers each. And a couple of independents, Mickie Most and
Andrew Oldham. That was the entire industry in England. So there was no such thing as independent production as such. So, to try to be one of those twelve, which I became, was the key aim, you know.
Q - As a song plugger, you were trying to do what for those people?
A - Records played on the radio, or on TV.
Q - In America we call it Independent Promotion.
A - Yeah. That's the polite word for it. (Laughs).
Q - As a song plugger for Essex, you went on to Pye Records as a record producer. Where did the experience come in to do that?
A - The very first day I was in the industry I met a much older guy, a guy in my father's generation. He was a first-class musician. A first-class arranger. A first-class conductor. I could play ten chords on the guitar. I couldn't play the piano at all. So, we basically started writing together. Every time I stayed behind. I got locked in the office a number of times because the cleaners went and I couldn't get out, but I stayed behind and taught myself the piano. I wasn't then, but I'm quite a reasonable pianist now. It's taken a whole life to be one. He was a first-class musician. So, I learned a huge amount of harmony and counterpoint from him. I started drinking in the pubs with people who owned studios and allowed me to go in there at all times when no one else was there. I called in loads of favors. I knew dozens of musicians who came to play for nothing. Made some demonstration records. A few records came out and did nothing. Went and saw the head of production at Pye Records and told a lot of lies and got a job as a record producer.
Q - And that's how it's done!
A - That's how I did it. Then about six months went by and I had no hits. They said "You've got six months to have a hit." I had no faith in my own songs because nothing had happened with them. They just flopped. The first two songs I produced on my own were both number ones and the second one, not the first, one-off number one, which is the only time it happened in history, is when a songwriter knocked his own number one song off the division. (Laughs).
Q - How long did it take you to write "Build Me Up Buttercup"?
A - A guy who became the lead singer of Manfred Mann, Mike D'Abo, who was a friend of mine, I met him the first week I was in the industry too. He lived a few doors from me and I went 'round for dinner with my then girlfriend. She and his wife went into the kitchen. He said, "I got this bit of melody." By the time dinner was served we had it pretty much together. I said, "It's absolutely an impossible title. It's ludicrous." I was producing The Foundations in England. I think we'd had two big hits. In America we had one. I said, "I want to do it with The Foundations. We'll change the title between now and the recording session." Come the day, none of us had come up with anything. So we just did it like that with a view to sort of maybe re-dubbing the chorus. We never did and put it out and that's what happened.
Q - Did you come up with this title of the song, "Build Me Up Buttercup"?
A - No. That was that dummy title. It's just a stupid title. I've just written a new musical called Build Me Up Buttercup. It just played in Florida. It did absolute sellout business. Tickets were on eBay for six times the original price. It was a 600 seat house and they did three weeks of it. It was the biggest hit they had in 83 years. The producers of Wicked and Billy Elliott in London all flew in to see the show and it's optioned. We just got the big industrial showcase of it two months ago and we are going to do it as a tour next year (2014) here (England) and it will all probably bounce back to America eventually.
Q - Did you contribute both lyrics and music to that song?
A - Yes. I did with every hit I ever wrote.
Q - "(Last Night) I Couldn't Get To Sleep At All". How long did it take you to write that?
A - I'd done a lot of hits by then. I went to the Tokyo Song Festival and I hung out with The Carpenters. They'd just recorded "It's Only Just Begun". I liked the feel of that, the shuffle feel of it. The time change completely screwed me. I don't know what it is. It must be ten hours. I don't know what it is. I know I was awake all night and sleeping all day. So, I just got up in the night and I wrote it. I had it for a while, that melody. I just thought it needs a hook. Maybe it didn't. That was the melody. It just needed a bridge. I wrote the lyric in a taxi, stuck in a traffic jam in London, in about an hour, going from one side of London to another. I did a demo of it and gave it to Karen and Richard. They said they loved it and they'd do it. I got a phone call about 2 o'clock in the morning that woke me up and they hadn't figured out the time change between here and America. They said, "Oh, we can't record it because it mentions sleeping pills and they are drugs and we don't mention drugs." So, I got up in the middle of the night and rewrote the last verse without the sleeping pills. I was angry. Bones Howe, who produced The Fifth Dimension, got in touch with me the following week. I said, "Yes, I've got a song for The Fifth," and they did it with the original lyric. But a lot of my hits are in this show, plus twelve new songs. I also wrote the play as well. In the show, both lyrics are in the show. It's set in the '60s and '70s.
Q - "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)". Where did you come up with that one?
A - I'd just signed with Bell Records for 1 million (dollars) in 1970. It was a lot of money. I was writing a ballad with Barry Mason. He wrote the lyrics to "Delilah" and a lot of Tom Jones' hits. I said, "It's just a ballad, man. I haven't got the artists with this new label. We should really do something nursery rhyme. Simple. Absolutely unchallenging, so I can establish some kind of credibility with these people." So we wrote that thing in about an hour and a half. When I did demos then, I didn't dis around with the rhythm section. I had twenty-six guys in it. Just did five demos in three hours in good keys. No artists. I just wanted to prove to myself the songs worked. I kind of sang along. The guy there in the previous session, Tony Barrows, just as he was finishing his session up, I said, "Can you sing through your nose?" He said, "What do you mean?" I showed him. I sounded like I came from the Bronx. And we did the track in twenty minutes, with the rest of the beginning I came up with while I was shaving. I have a beard most of the time these days, but I didn't then. I came up with the famous riff and we just wrote it quickly. We did only two takes of it. This is just tracks without voices and I said, "My God, this is such a hit. It's so infectious." So, we dubbed him on and a couple of girls. The two girls that worked with Joe Cocker on "A Little Bit Of Help From My Friends", Sue and Sunny. They sang on virtually every hit I had. And I sang along and we did one mix of it and that was it. It went from nowhere to number one.
Q - You never know what's going to be a hit, do you?
A - When I was certain, I was wrong four times in my life. The trouble is, most times I'm not certain. (Laughs).
Q - Some guys will treat songwriting as a job. They'll get up every day and go to an office.
A - We did too. I wrote with all the best, biggest songwriters of my generation and this country (England) including Elton John and Tim Rice. I wrote with a lot of the big ones in America. You just sit down with a pot of coffee and a pad of paper and a guitar. It's kind of different now. Everybody sits down immediately with four bars they think that works and they produce the entire track. I'd rather get the whole song finished and believe in it before I start doing that. I just had two young guys a fraction of my age, one is a producer at Warner Brothers in England. I'd just been involved with Warner Brothers. They called up and said, "That bit of a melody you played us a few months ago, why don't you continue coming in. We'd like to do something with that with this new artist we've got." I said, "I'm finished. I've just done this massive production in an English showcase." I did a show twice this year. I did it in Florida, fifteen piece orchestra in a theater. I just came from doing this showcase. I'd only just finished it with all the top Western people in it in London. (Laughs). I said, "Listen, if you want to do something, come down to where I live here on the coast." So, they came down and brought the studio with them, which these days is no big deal. It's a few boxes. We started writing the song. Immediately they wanted to produce a complete track of the whole thing. I said, "No. Let's finish it. Let's polish it. Let's make it good instead of running away with it. Let's do something completely finished."
Q - These days a song will consist of the same phrase being repeated over and over again. No one tells a story anymore.
A - When I stop songwriting because I got too old for it, I had a number of hit novels and I taught a post graduate course at the University in the city here for people who already had M.A.s (Master Of Arts) and PhDs and had written books in their own special subjects, non-fiction, and wanted to write fiction. So, I used to teach them. I said sometimes the simplest is the best. Don't always work with a computer. Don't always work with a laptop. Sometimes on a sunny day take a pad of paper and a pencil and sit out in the park and write. I think that's very true of songwriting. If the song's really got it, just a voice and the guitar will make it work or just a voice and a keyboard, a pad of paper and a pencil. There's twelve new songs in the musical I've written, all of which were written dead simply with just guitar or piano. I really believe a song shines, a song's got what it takes that it should really shine in that simple form. Without boring you to death, when I sold the show to those serious money people, these big, big producers, I sat in this $28 million apartment in London on Tower Bridge. It was over 100 feet long. I performed the entire show to the industry here, the musical which is gonna cost 5½, $6 million. It was just me, a guitar, a piano and the script. They all had scripts they could see. So when I did the dialogue they could all see who was talking. I had my elder son turn the pages for me. I did the entire project on my own. I wouldn't do it again. (Laughs). But it's taken my whole life to have the confidence to say if it works for me with a guitar and piano, then it will work. When I was younger, my demos sounded like finished records, you know? (Laughs)
Q - There are some people who believe you can just walk into a recording studio, have the producer turn a few knobs and you will walk out with a hit.
A - The trick is to please the public and please yourself. The more developed you become, the more it will sound organic. You should still be able to sing them in the shower, but underneath there is also a hell of a lot going on. There's lots of modulations and wonderful chord sequences and baselines that give you a kick and give the song freshness. I think what tends to happen to a lot of people is the more music they learn, the less commercial the songs become and you tend to write these very esoteric albums that no one gives a shit about. I've always been very careful to keep my finger on the pulse.
Q - Would you be referring to someone like Emerson, Lake And Palmer?
A - Well they were pretty esoteric in the first place. (Laughs).
Q - Or Yes?
A - It's a different world. These are bands that toured America, played all the big colleges and they created an audience for their music by playing 'live', not the same as I do in the sense what has been called a bespoke songwriter and record producer. I never went on the road in my life. It's only people like yourself within the industry that know what one has done, and the public has no clue. I've done a few 'live' shows. In fact, I did a show in Orlando, the Kings Center, 2600 seats. I'm involved with the theater and they wanted to raise some money. I said no one is going to come and see me. They know the songs, but they don't know me. So Florida Today, the daily newspaper which covers 15 million people in a 600 mile long state, really did a job on me. They were going to charge $100 a seat. This was about three years ago, and do a buffet with champagne and all that. When they started they sold 500 seats out of 2600. They blitzed it. Florida Today put me on the front cover. We sold every seat. So I went on and I've never been so shit scared in my life. I have done one man shows with a band and singers and all that. I've done a medley of 38 hits. To go on there and do that was the most terrifying thing. It went incredibly well. Sold it out. I raised $50,000 for the theater in one night. But I'll never do it again.
Q - People want to come out and see the guy who wrote the songs.
A - Yeah, but I don't enjoy doing it much. I sing pretty good and I play fine. Singing and playing for me was just something I do to be a successful writer.
Q - Did you ever write a hit song with Elton John?
A - No. The first one he ever had recorded, I wrote with him. I did some other stuff with him.
Q - How did you feel when Elvis recorded one of your songs?
A - He recorded three of my songs. When he recorded the second song, they decided they were going to do this thing in Vietnam for the troops. It was at the end of the Vietnam War, about '75. They all wanted to see an Elvis Special at Christmas. They wanted to include some extra footage in of Elvis singing some new stuff. The first song he did of mine was "I Get Home On Christmas Day", which was an enormous album. They wanted me to rewrite the lyrics to make it more personal for the Vietnam thing. To make a long story short, I ended up going to Memphis. Felton Jarvis was producing Elvis at the time. I went out to see Elvis in the studio and back to Graceland and watched a movie with him and the Memphis Mafia and I was in LA a few months later. I can't remember the order of events. I went to a nightclub with Elvis and no one even recognized him. They said "There's a guy who looks like Elvis." No one could believe it was really him.
Q - Did you like spending time with Elvis?
A - I think Joe Esposito was his bodyguard.
Q - His Road Manager.
A - Road Manager. Joe said, "Talk to him about guns and motorbikes. You'll be fine." I didn't know anything about contemporary guns, but at the time I had quite a collection of antique guns. But I knew nothing about motorbikes. (Laughs). He said, "Am I big over there?" I said, "Yeah, you're pretty big." (Laughs). He was incredibly ill-informed about his own success, which is actually how Col. Tom (Parker) wanted it. Before I actually knew Elvis, they tried to get me involved in bringing Elvis over to England. A big consortium of bankers. I think it must've been around '73, '74. They wanted to bring Elvis to England and do it at Wembley. Pay him fifteen million. Can you believe in '74 how much money that was?
Q - That was a lot of money.
A - They wanted to take over this football ground and put screens up and beam it 'live' from the football grounds. That's how they were going to make their money. It's a long story, but actually true, trying to get a hold of Col. Parker was like a nightmare. They had to use conference calls and all these bankers sitting around. Finally I got Col. Tom on the phone, put him over to my manager and he said, "Have you seen the contract?" Yup. "What do you think?" Fine. Then complete silence in the room. So where do we go from here? Col. Tom says, "Well, I guess we still gotta talk about what my boy is gonna get." It was bullshit. He had no intention of letting Elvis go 'cause he was an illegal Polish immigrant, wasn't he?
Q - Danish.
A - Danish. Right. He owed a fortune to the IRS, didn't he?
Q - I know he died owing the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas millions of dollars in gambling debts.
A - Well, he was a noxious individual. Kind of a nice wife. Didn't he take 50% of Presley?
Q - I've been told 80% towards the end.
A - Well, okay. 80%. He took a large percent. Did you meet Elvis?
Q - I haven't met him yet, but I've been told he's still out there!
A - (Laughs). Well, he was 6' 2" an had these big Nudie cowboy boots, these built up boots. So he was about 7' tall and he had this dyed black hair, which by today's standards was ludicrous. And this tremendous tan. If you got talking to him, he was really so ill-informed about everything. They kept him in such a cocoon. He wanted to be in The Waterfront 'cause they stomped on him so heavily and wanted him to do his shitty films. He never matured in any way. The art and that fucking house. Have you been to the house (Graceland)?
Q - I have not.
A - It's not big to start. It's much smaller than you imagine. I sat in the living room watching the film Vanishing Point. Have you ever seen that film?
Q - Can't say that I have.
A - It's a car chase thing. I sat there with all the guys there. Elvis had started to eat a lot. He was with a showgirl. I thought I was going to have some function there. Anyway, I'd eaten during the day. The cook came out with this big tray of burgers, enough for ten or twelve people. Nobody ate much. They had me in The Holiday Inn in fucking Memphis.
Q - I take it you didn't like The Holiday Inn?
A - If I was gonna see Elvis Presley, I would do better than stay at The Holiday Inn. So, the food was served and nobody took any. Elvis went to bed. I thought I'm actually hungry. I started to worry if I'm going to get any food. So, I went into the kitchen of Graceland. One of the guy said to me, "Are you looking for the burgers?" I said, "Yeah. I was looking for one." He said, "The man took 'em all to bed." (Laughs). He took about ten burgers to bed.
Q - Did the Memphis Mafia guys act like servants around Elvis?
A - No. I couldn't understand what they were saying. It was all about girls. And all about sport. They spoke very fast in a strong dialect. They had their own code, their own way of talking. It was all references to girls and sports that I couldn't follow. They were just falling on the floor laughing. Elvis laughed with them. It was all so fake. They were like seven or eight court jesters around him.
Q - Who was the showgirl with Elvis?
A - I don't know. I know I met him with Ginger at one point. Ginger I think. She was kind of pretty.
Q - Did you have a falling out with your publishing company at one point?
A - (Laughs). You could call it that. It was the biggest case in British show business history. The only court case to go to the House, the Supreme Court.
Q - I take it you were ripped off?
A - Yeah. I worked it out once years ago, if I got paid on any kind of basis, and if the government in this country had an 83% income tax, which they were on the high end. Can you imagine that? I was actually shortchanged by about £30,000,000.
Q - How much money is that in dollars?
A - In American dollars, it's kind of hard to know 'cause the dollar has been all over. Call it $18 million. But I did pretty good.
Q - Do you own your songs now?
A - No. My songs from 1970 onward were in my own publishing company and I sold them to what is now Universal.
Q - When did that happen?
A - Most songwriter sell their publishing rights, or did then. I don't think it's as much now. I sold them in 1988.
Q - I almost forgot to ask you, when you were coming up in the music business, did you see The Beatles and The Stones?
A - Everybody. The Stones were our local band. They played every Wednesday night I think it was, and we went to see them for a year. There was a lot of noise about them. I remember them announcing from the stage they were going to play The Cavern. But they just did Drifters covers. Coasters covers and R&B stuff. They did none of their own songs in those days.
Q - Did the audience like them?
A - Oh God, yes. They were much more rough and ready than The Beatles. They were a cover band at that point, where The Beatles never were, not by the time they reached The Cavern they weren't. I was working for EMI before I went to Pye (Records). I was laughingly called and assistant producer, but I just organized taxes and copies. So, I was around The Beatles right up until "Sgt. Pepper".
Q - Did you like The Beatles?
A - Let me rephrase that: I was around them, The Beatles albums from '65 to '66. They just started what turned out to be "Sgt. Pepper".
Q - Was Brian Jones murdered?
A - God, no. People who can't swim should probably never buy a house with pools. He probably fell into the pool and drowned. End of story. Oscar Wilde's great statement was "There's less here than meets the eye." A lot of the Pop stars who die, die because they were dope heads. There's no mystery to it. I lived in Hollywood for quite a long time and the biggest disease of Hollywood is boredom. You take people that have no real education, no intellect, who are born pretty with a good voice and you give 'em lots of money and they buy a big house and all the stuff. The biggest problem is, what do they do with themselves when they're not working? They don't have enough intelligence to read a book or learn another skill. People become bored and they just want to blot out the time when they're not doing anything. So they take drugs, drink and fuck stupid women. They mess their lives up. It's not complicated.
Q - Not all of the Pop stars end up that way. Some actually do hold onto their money.
A - The world's changed. Artists today have built-in managers and built-in tax advisors. It should have been in my day, but it wasn't. I also had managers and tax advisors, but they still fucked it up.