DENNIS DEYOUNG & THE MUSIC OF STYX'S "GRAND ILLUSION"
Before we go into the interview, check out this exclusive video...
A Conversation with Dennis DeYoung
Mike Ragogna: Sorry, I'm having some issues with my recording software.
Dennis DeYoung: [singing] "The problem's plain to see, too much technology."
MR: Yeah, looks like that helped, Mister Roboto!
DD: Little did I know technology would ruin the entire music business.
MR: Hey, dude, it's time to get into "Dennis DeYoung And The Music Of Styx Live In Los Angeles." Woo-hoo!
DD: Let's go there! Everyone come on down to LA, we'll have some fun! Oh, we already did it, didn't we.
MR: Dennis, what were some of your favorite moments from that night?
DD: When I said, "Thank you, good night!" and it was over and nobody had fallen off the front of the stage and no blood was let.
MR: Ahem...any musical moments?
DD: Oh, musical moments! Here's the thing: When you're on that stage and the camera's zooming in on you and you're recording live and you know that it counts, what you're really doing is you're in the moment but you're praying that every note you sing and every note you play is going to be the best of your lifetime and through it all you have to smile and look like you're having a good time. I know McCartney said in an interview recently what I've said for years when they ask you that question, "What's it like when thousands of people are screaming and applauding and you're on that stage?" I'm thinking about the next note so I don't screw it up. If you're really worth your salt as a performer you really care desperately about every performance. It's like an attempt to be the very best you can be in that moment. So when you're doing it for a camera that thought in the back of your mind that's always there is, "Don't screw up, goofball!"
MR: I imagine that's something many, maybe every entertainer feels.
DD: I've said for a long time that performers are fifty percent unabashed ego and fifty percent total insecurity. Those two things are clashing all the time. You can't get anywhere in show business without a distorted belief that you're really good. You hear this all the time from all performers, somehow in the back of your mind, you're certain you'll be found out. That's really the makeup of people who are willing to go in front of others and say, "Hey folks, here I am, judge me," right? That's what we do.
MR: The other part of that is that whoever all of the people are in the band, they have a certain amount of creativity where they can't do anything else. Ego may be involved in how successful the band becomes, but it still seems like there's no choice in the matter. It's either this or nothing. No?
DD: Here's how I'd explain it to you. There's a piece of opera--and I could use examples from rock music but I use this one because it's in a foreign language, Italian. My mother spoke Italian, but I don't speak Italian. It's an aria by Puccini called "Nessun Dorma." Every time I hear it, I have to control myself from weeping openly and I have no idea what the words are literally. I have some idea. But somehow, those notes with the human voice against those chords elicit an organic response in me that is undeniable, and that is why I do what I do. Because music moves me in such a way that I have to be part of that. It's been that way ever since I can remember. So if you're asking me what sets me on this course, it's "Nessun Dorma." It could be something else, but I choose that because it's not even in English, for God's sake.
MR: I've never interviewed you, so let's go back to your musical roots. Who were your influences and what put you on a path either as a solo artist or with a band when you were younger?
DD: Now remember, I'm sixty-seven, so when I started taking musical lessons in 1953--God forbid--there wasn't even any rock 'n' roll. I played accordion because my mother was Italian and it was the law. So I had the accordion, my nextdoor neighbor Giorgio Rudzinski who turned out to be my confirmation Godfather who was like twelve and I was seven, he was Polish and he had the same problem. His mother made him play accordion, so I just thought it was the coolest thing. Listen, if you're a kid and you look at an accordion and you don't know a thing about rock 'n' roll and everything that follows and the coolness factor, the accordion looks pretty cool. It's shiny, it's got a bunch of buttons, it's moving, the bellows go in and out, it's a thing! You know? So I started on accordion and of course I spent a lot of years perfecting my talents only to have the electric guitar come in and ruin everything and make accordion players not only obsolete but also the center of ridicule. So this is how my life began.
What I did was eventually, I taught myself to play electronic organ. But what happened in 1962 was I was walking down the street in my neighborhood, it was hot, it was in August I think and everybody's windows were open because nobody had air conditioning in our neighborhood in 1962 and I heard music coming from the Ponazzo brothers' house. So I went up on the front porch and there was John and Chuck Panozzo, they were twelve and I was fourteen and they were sitting there playing with another kid, an accordion player. They weren't a band, they were just three kids that were forming around, and the accordion player had only been playing like six months, but I was intrigued primarily by John the drummer. So the next day I said, "You guys bring your stuff over to my basement, I play accordion but I haven't played in about a year, but I'll drag it out." I had played for about eight years so I was pretty good. We went down to my basement and that day we formed the nucleus of Styx.
The three of us stayed together really until 1999. Of course John died in '96. But that's how the band was formed, and we were just playing out of fake books, standards from the thirties, forties and fifties, not rock 'n' roll--remember we hadn't even seen the Beatles yet--so we were just playing weddings and birthday parties and anniversaries and that kind of stuff. Then we saw the Beatles. And I saw them like so many other people that first night and my life was changed forever. I said, "That's it guys, we're going to do that. That's what we're going to do." And that's when we started to replace guitar players and go toward a rock 'n' roll band. But right around 1968 was when J.C. officially joined the band and then James Young joined in 1970 and the original nucleus of Styx was formed in 1970. That's when the original five members came together for the first time. Now four of us--the Panozzo brothers, myself and J.C.--all ended up at Chicago State University in Chicago and that's how the band got together. The three of us were still in a band and then we met J.C. in college and then we added J.Y. in '70.
MR: Now, let's talk about the hits since that's basically what your new project is all about. Dennis, there are two groups now--the group called "Styx," and there's Dennis DeYoung's band doing Styx. If you're a Styx fan, what are you supposed to make of that?
DD: Go see Journey.
MR: [laughs] Nice.
DD: If you want to hear all of the hits from A to Z, which is what this DVD is about, get the DVD. I purposely set out to make a DVD that in my mind played every worthwhile Styx hit that not only the diehard but the casual Styx fan would want to hear in a concert. If I was going to a concert and I was a fan I would want to know all the songs that I've come to know and really appreciate. That's what I do. What the other guys do is a little different, but that's what I do.
Listen, if you went on the blogs, the fan base was fractured in 1999, that's obvious. People took sides, and that's a very unfortunate thing. That, to me, is the worst part of all of this. I never thought for a minute that the fan base would ever have to line up in one camp or another. It just never occurred to me. That's really the disappointing part because I never viewed the band as separate camps and I know the audience didn't either. When people hear songs on the radio, most of them don't go, "Okay, who wrote that one? Who sang it? Who has the nicest pants?" They're just listening to the songs. They like them or they don't. What I do is try to play all the songs that I feel were so meaningful not only to the fan base, but to me as well.
MR: You wrote most everything here, right?
DD: Five of those songs were written by Tommy--"Blue Collar," "Renegade," "Too Much Time On My Hands," "Fooling Yourself" and "Crystal Ball." There are seventeen songs and twelve of them are mine. That was a really terrific band. What I liked about it was the variety, and I think the vast majority of Styx fans enjoyed the variety that we provided. I just did an interview with a Dutch guy because, obviously, this is being released worldwide, which I believe includes Rancho Cucamonga. He was talking about Styx and Queen and a million different things and the thing he said he enjoyed about Styx was the variety, and that's the thing that I enjoyed about it. I based everything about us on the Beatles. Not that we were going to be them or be like them but the fact that they felt that they could write a great song and put it on an album and it didn't matter what style it was. That was always my theory. To the band I always preached, "Song, song, song, it doesn't matter, it's the song that counts." You come down the road forty years later, Michael, and the thing that matters, the reason guys like me and all the old farts from the sixties and seventies still can play is not because they look at us and we look the same ad we have the same-type pants. It's because they love those songs. That's it. They love the songs. So that's why I love Styx and that's why I like this DVD, because with the minor exception of "Boat On The River"--which is a big hit outside of the US--we've got all the big ones down there, the ones that really mattered.
MR: What do you think about your contribution to music history? As Dennis DeYoung and with Styx.
DD: I absolutely know what I contributed: After 1975, after "Lady" became a hit I was really the captain on the ship. I always tell people, "If you never liked Styx, you blame me." If you liked them, you've got to give me some credit, because I was the guy who was essentially mixing the albums and I was kind of like the shadow producer. If you look at the theme albums--Grand Illusion, Pieces Of Eight, Paradise Theatre, Kilroy Was Here--those are all my concepts. If you like those records, they were because I was involved in it to that degree. I didn't write those other songs that we played in the show that Tommy wrote. Those are great songs. I didn't write them. He wrote them. But I was very instrumental. For instance, "Renegade" was not a rock song when Tommy brought it in. It was an acoustic song sung in three part harmony, not with one lead singer. I suggested to Tommy, "Tommy, that should be you by yourself singing that song and it should be a rock song. How would it go if it was a rock song?" and he started thinking and he just started playing that riff to "Renegade." That's what I meant to the band. That's what I did. "Crystal Ball," same thing, it was an all-acoustic song with three part harmony because Tommy's brilliant at that and I said, "Tommy, you've got to sing that song." So if you like the Styx albums, if I'm responsible for a lot of it. If you didn't like it, blame me.
MR: People look at your albums from that era and tend to call what you did "progressive rock," or "prog rock." Was that the intention?
DD: I don't think we were prog rock. I've seen some prog rock blogs and people who like prog rock are more happy with Gentle Giant. I mean, we're not that. We were stealing from all sorts of genres. That's what we did. We were an amalgam. If you looked at "Lady," for instance, I wrote that in '72 and people talk about the ballads, Michael. What is the first minute of "Lady?" If you just heard the first minute, Michael, it's a ballad, isn't it? That's the song that made us famous. It wasn't like we came to ballads late in life. It was the first hit we had. It was the thing that identified us, but what we did was turn it into a rock song. Some people have speculated that that was one of the first power ballads, but I don't know. All I know is it started as a ballad and ended as a rock song.
Because that was a hit, that style that I think we happened on quite by accident became signature to what we would do throughout our career. And whether it was a straight love ballad like "Babe" or "Lady" or "Best Of Times," or it was more progressive like "Sweet Madame Blue" or "Man In The Wilderness," or things that start acoustically and soft and build into something, this was just signature to what we do. We were not a prog rock band. We certainly had prog overtones to a lot of things we did. We formed in 1970 and I was a keyboard player and I listened to Keith Emerson and the new Yes record and we liked them a lot so there was some of that in our music. But really, we were a song-driven band and so many prog rock bands are not song-driven. They concentrate on the complexity of their time signatures, their key changes, and what I would call their technical dexterity. We had some technical dexterity but we are not those guys. The song was the song was the song. By the way, Michael, is there a penalty for saying "song" too much in one interview? Because if there is I'll take a few away.
MR: [laughs] I'll count them up later. It seemed like there was a major transition for the band between Crystal Ball and The Grand Illusion. What happened?
DD: I think it started with Equinox. I'm going to tell you what it was right now. "Lady" was supposed to be on the first album. Our producer kept it off. It was on the second album and it was a total failure when it first came out. "Lady" was a hit two and a half years later after it was released. It became a hit record by accident. If in 1972 we were able to make the reocrd we wanted we would've had a different trajectory to our career, but it didn't happen that way. As soon as "Lady" was a hit I knew what we should be doing. I wrote "Lady" for an album called Styx II. Of the seven songs on the record, five of them were mine and Michael, it was the biggest flop of all time. So for the next two albums, I was certain people hated what I did and I tried to be somebody else, anybody else. When "Lady" was a hit I said, "Oh, okay. They liked what I thought they would like," because that's what I do. And from that point forward, I knew where we should be going.
Crystal Ball brought in Tommy for the first record we ever did. We didn't know each other. We were thrown together and we made an album and it was a pretty good album, but we toured for a year with Tommy, we got to know each other as writers and performers and Grand Illusion was the result of that year spent together with a new principal songwriter. When we did Crystal Ball Tommy and I collaborated on "Mademoiselle" and "Ballerina." We tried to incorporate a new band member, a new songwriter, a new singer, everything was new. So obviously we didn't have much chance. I think we started recording Crystal Ball only like two or three months after he joined the band. So by the time we got to Grand Illusion, we knew who we were. Grand Illusion is the best Styx album. All cylinders were firing and everything was going in the right direction.
MR: Do you have a favorite Styx song?
DD: I'm asked that a lot, and I don't. It's funny, I don't have a favorite Styx song. I could tell you my favorite Tommy Shaw song, I could probably tell you my favorite Dennis DeYoung song of the bunch, but I don't really have a favorite one. I guess my favorite would have to be "Come Sail Away," by what I do. But by Tommy, I love "Fooling Yourself." I love that song. It's just beyond my capabilities to judge that properly. Here's the thing about "Come Sail Away"... It is the hardest song I have to sing all night. If you go to YouTube and just put "Come Sail Away" in and see how many people have tried to sing it, you'll understand. Nobody sings it well. It's really a tricky song to sing. I would probably say that hands down. Night after night I say to myself, "Why did I write this melody?" "Come Sail Away" is what I think is the quintessential Styx song because if you brought a martian down and he said, "What was Styx?" and you played that, it probably cover the ballad, the prog thing and the just the pure rock 'n' roll with the chorus, it covers all three things.
MR: What was your favorite song to at least sing or perform from this latest live album?
DD: I think "Sweet Madame Blue," which is a song that missed by the record company in the US at the time. "Sweet Madame Blue" is rather grandiose. They may say pompous and pretentious, but you know what I say to people who say that? "Of course! That's what we intended. What's wrong with you?" That was the whole point! We're not Muddy Waters. I love Muddy, I could listen to "Mannish Boy" forever. That's not what we're doing! Hey Michael, this is show business over here! It was supposed to be big! That's the whole point. I know there's people who say, "Oh, blah blah blah," and I say, "Okay, well like something else then! I don't care, but this is what we're doing." We're supposed to be heart on the sleeve, you know what I mean? Bigger than life. I'm Italian! What do you want from me?
MR: [laughs] Speaking of grandiose, there was this little thing called Kilroy Was Here and that whole "Mr. Roboto" thing.
DD: Yeah, and listen, I'm going to take full credit for it! You can blame me again! Here it is, are you ready? I'm going to say something to you: Domo arigato! Finish it!
MR: Mister Roboto! There, you happy?
DD: [laughs] I think the Japanese should reach out and send me some Sony products because I made "Domo arigato" popular in the United States! Is it part of our culture? I know it is. Did I know it would be? Hell no. Here's the joke of it. It was never supposed to be a single. Never! It was just a transitional piece. I wrote it to go from the movie that started our concert to the live stage action. It was a transitional narrative piece to tie the story together. When the record company said, "That could be the single!" I said, "A single?" At the end when I'm yelling "I am Kilroy," what the hell does that mean?" I had no idea.
So here's what I'm going to say... People call these things guilty pleasures, don't they, Michael? You know what that means to me? If you've got a guilty pleasure, that means some snooty elitist has told you what you like is not cool. That's all it says. A guilty pleasure means you're not allowed to like that by some group of people who have deemed that not appropriate and cool for you to like and I say that's like an acquired taste. You know what I say about acquired tastes? They're idiotic. Life's too short. I either like it or I don't. I'm not going to practice eating food. You know what I'm saying? Acquired taste. Stop me! Somebody please cut the bullshit off my shoulder blades, I can't stand it! A guilty pleasure. Michael, if you like something, don't apologize. You like it.
MR: Your last laugh with that recording was how many movies, how many TV shows, and just how often it comes up in entertainment-speak.
DD: Here's the deal: If you go to YouTube and type in "Mr. Roboto," no Styx songs comes close to the number of hits that "Mr. Roboto" has generated in every imaginable country. Every kid who had tinfoil and a wand will do "Mr. Roboto." I don't know how that happened. Honest to God. I know it has something to do with me allowing Volkswagen to put it into a commercial about ten years ago. You know who Tony Hale is? He's from Arrested Development and now he's on Veep. He's the guy in the Volkswagen commercial who's doing the robot.
MR: [laughs] I forgot that, that's right!
DD: Back in 1983, it sold a million singles. We were not a band who sold singles, we sold albums. But we sold a million singles on that because eleven year-old boys loved that song. You want to know what's happening right now in 2014? Eleven year-old boys love that song. Honest to God, I'll look out at the audience and you'll see eleven or twelve year old girls and boys with their parents and the minute that we play that song, their eyes light up. I don't know what that is, but I wish I'd have done it about five more times.
MR: I think maybe Daft Punk beat you to the punch with Random Access Memories.
DD: I know. I looked at the helmet and I said, "Put that on Roboto!" I should've thought of that. Then when I perform, I wouldn't ever have to comb my hair.
MR: Well, what about Dennis DeYoung meets Daft Punk?
DD: Yeah! We'll meet them over at a pizza parlor. I'm buying.
MR: I have a question I ask everyone. Dennis, what is your advice for new artists?
DD: Stay out of the business for Christ's sake. Who needs the competition?
MR: [laughs] Any other advice?
DD: Obviously, I'm kidding and here's what I'm going to tell you. Kids, the dream I had, that dream is over. I was lucky by birth, I lived at the greatest time in the history of mankind to be a musician. Never before and never after I believe will so many musicians have the opportunities and the fruitful careers that I have had. I was lucky by birth. You young guys and gals have got a much tougher road to haul than we did. Music is seen as disposable. The audience I had didn't view music that way. It was vital to their lives. I would say you've still got the dream but please keep your eyes wide open because it's going to be a tougher world for you to exist in.
MR: Do you feel like you would've done anything differently than what you did?
DD: Anybody who gets to my age and says they never would have done anything differently is either on drugs or is a liar. I think even Mother Teresa would've corrected a few things herself. Maybe Jesus really said, "Maybe I should not have destroyed the temple." People should have regrets. If you don't have regrets, you're implying you're perfect.
MR: Dennis, what do you want to do in the future?
DD: I'd like to see the Bears win the Super Bowl and White Socks win another World Series. Beyond that, Frontiers has been kind enough to offer me the opportunity to make another studio album, so there you go.
MR: And you're continuing to tour?
DD: I am. I don't have a tour, so to speak. I play about fifty shows every year all over the place, so it's kind of continual. It's not like we go out for three months and then go home for three. We play weekends and that kind of thing.
MR: I have to ask you, how do you keep your voice in shape?
DD: Thong underwear three sizes too small. And wet them some time. It really makes a difference. I don't know, I respected it. I respected the nature of singing, I didn't do drugs, I didn't drink, I didn't smoke, that helps. And I hired somebody to yell at my kids. It was a very large Ukranian man. Scared the hell out of them.
MR: On to your solo album, Desert Moon. When you started your solo career, were you coming at music the same way you were with Styx?
DD: Absolutely not. Tommy quit the band unexpectedly in '83 to pursue a solo career. It shocked me. I never wanted to have a solo career, I loved being in a band, but when he left J.Y. John and Chuck wanted me to replace Tommy and go on and I didn't want to do it because I thought he and I were vital to what we were as Styx. I only recorded Desert Moon and the other solo albums because I was waiting for Tommy to come back to the band. But when I did Desert Moon, I did not want to do a Styx record because I thought that was sacred and that was really reserved for the guys in the band, so I made more of a pop-sounding AC record and that's what I did for the first three albums in my solo career. Every night I play the song "Desert Moon," I say, "This should've been a Styx song. If we'd have stayed together and Tommy hadn't left, it would've been a Styx song." Then I would just say, ultimately, you tell the fans, "Forget about all the nonsense that you've heard, enjoy the music."
I loved being in that band. Don't believe all the negativity because nobody stays in a band together for ten years like that the way it's been portrayed. There's a video, go to YouTube, it's Styx and we're lip-synching to "Rockin' The Paradise" at a photo session. If you watch that video, you'll know who Styx was--a bunch of clowny goofballs. You know, I have a sense of humor, Michael, and John Panozzo was the funniest guy I ever knew in my life. We were funny guys, but everybody always viewed us as serious. We really were not serious people at all. Serious about our music but not serious about ourselves. I would say go to dennisdeyoung.com or go to my Facebook page if you want to learn more about me. You can buy this record, you can preorder it on Amazon.com or just wait until it comes out and steal it...
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
TIM FITE'S Big MAC
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A Conversation with RJ Gibb
Mike Ragogna: RJ, 50 St. Catherine's Drive is the last project your dad was working on before he passed away, so that must have been an incredibly challenging task for you to complete because of the emotional bond you had as father and son.
RJ Gibb: Yeah. He had started work on this project in 2006 to 2008, that's when the recordings had taken place. I had at that time also composed a couple of popular songs with him. We composed the Titanic requiem together with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. That was later, we started that in 2010 and finished it in 2012 with the debut at Westminster Hall. But we had actually been working on some popular songs before that and we had planned to after the requieum as well. We had songs like "Instant Love," "One-Way Love," "Syndey," about his brothers, which I actually did the production on after he wrote it himself. There's another one that we had actually written for the Titanic requiem that was added later, "Don't Cry Alone." So there are four songs that we wrote together that will be on the album, but apart from that I did the final production. Pete Vettese and him started the production back in 2008 and then I started a couple of years ago and we just finished last year. Number 50, Saint Catherine's Drive in the Isle of Mann was the first house my father lived in. It was actually the house he was brought back to from the hospital immediately following his birth. This was a project he wanted to do because he wanted to team back up with Barry. Barry wasn't feeling well at the time but when he was feeling a bit better, they were going to get back together, so he shelved the album. So for about four years, it just lay dormant and then when it came back up that Warner wanted to put it out, we went into the studio and finished the production.
MR: Can you tell us more about that Titanic requiem, like how that came together and what everybody's part was?
RG: Sure. My father and I had alwasy wanted to come out with an album together, we were working on popular stuff as I said but the thing is I was classically trained. When I started I was playing violin, trumpet, I then went on to play guitar and keyboards and that's what I use to compose now, but my father had always adored classical music, we both loved Mozart and Schubert, so we teamed up with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. We decided to do a requiem because it was the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic and we decided to do it as a tribute to the fallen of the Titanic. It debuted at Westminster Hall, sadly he never made the opening as he'd fallen into a coma and this was after going into remission about four times, so this was after a long, hard battle. I think the requiem kept him going for a long time as well because he had something to strive for. Although he did come out of the coma after the debut...we played the confutatis from the Titanic requiem and he woke up. He actually said to me he could hear the song playing, it was actually incredible. We thought we weren't going to see him again, they'd pretty much written him off. He had been expected to sing that night at the debut, he was going to sing "Don't Cry Alone," but as he sadly couldn't attend, they played a recording of the vocals and the Royal Philharmonic played along. It was the first time I'd ever seen at a purely classical concert people giving a standing ovation for a recorded vocal. But, of course, I think that's the last time they thought they were going to hear him.
MR: How did that experience leave you? You must have been riding high.
RG: Yeah, of course. I didn't know if that was the last time I would hear his voice played in a musical hall or at a venue. We always had hope for him, as I said he had gone through four remissions already, it was a hard battle and he was a hard fighter. As a realist, I knew what could happen and of course I think he also knew as well--he didn't write himself off but he knew what could happen and I think that's what made him strive to do so many things in the last few years. He knew he had cancer for about two and a half years. We accomplished a lot, after the requiem we wrote a lot of popular music together as well, those will be coming out at some point as well, he was making films as well in the garden, it was unbelievable. He's made a few comedy sketches, he was always into the Goons--Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. He had a sharp wit, a very dry sense of humor, a very admirable sense of humor. I don't think I'll ever meet anyone like that again.
MR: To me, The Bee Gees seemed like they were Australia's most popular export. Is that how Australia saw them?
RG: Well, yeah. He was born on the Isle of Mann and his parents were from Manchester. He went back to Manchester and they grew up the first part of their childhood there, but then they moved to Australia when they were about nine or ten. That's when they started--my father said, "We've sung in some of the best toilets in Australia,"--because they used to go to the toilets to hear the echo for harmonies. Then they started playing for pennies at the race track and they were picked up by a DJ over there who backed them up. That's when they had their first number one, "Spicks & Specks." When they came back to England their father had gotten in touch with Robert Stigwood and the rest is history, really. They've always had a strong connection with Australia, even now. Their sister stayed in Australia and she very much considers herself Australian. A part of them always, I guess, considered themselves British but another part considered themselves Australian.
MR: Ambassadors, maybe.
MR: I think when you looked at the three of them I think even if Barry was the overt ladies man, Robin seemed to really pop out as the backbone of the band. How did the brothers function together as far as laying out responsibilities?
RG: I think Barry had the image as the ladies' man and I think my father had the boyish, angelic vocals and Maurice was the tech man, very good with music. When my father even did a solo album it was Maurice who helped with the music as well. You know, "Juliet." I just think Maurice was the music mastermind, my father was the vocalist and Barry could work the crowds and had a great voice when it came to some of the more modern stuff they got into at that time, which was sort of the start of modern house music, the disco era.
MR: Yes, a lot of people forget that. Were they as surprised as everyone else that they conquered the world in that format?
RG: It started in France, really. They had written these blue-eyed soul tracks, which is what they were calling it at the time. They had delved into the new dance music and they tried their hand at it and just came up with these tracks. Basically, they had taken one of their engineers at the time, Blue Weaver, put a heartbeat monitor on him and were listening to the beat and then they made one of the first drumloops by splicing together the tapes around the room. This was the way they created these dance tracks with the "thump thump thump," the four beat that you hear in a lot of modern house. They didn't know what to do with it really, they were just experimenting. Then Robert Stigwood said, "Look, I've got this new film coming out, it's got no backing, no advertisement, do you guys have anything to put on it?" They said, "Well funny enough we've just been playing around with dance music if you want to hear what we've done in France." I think the cows outside this small chalet were the first ones to hear "Stayin' Alive."
RG: They sent it over to him and he said, "Wow, this is great." They took about nine of the tracks and put them on and without any advertising, just word of mouth, it got around. Disco was already around but I think this completely revolutionized the way it was done.
MR: Yeah. A lot of the older disco records had the emphasis on repetetive parts, extended dance mixes and all that, whereas The Bee Gees had a more lyrical, traditional song-like structure that they really deeply understood.
RG: Yes, and they applied that to the four beat dance feel. I agree. We were talking about some of the older tracks and coming out of Australia and "Spicks & Specks." On 50 St. Catherine's Drive there are three potential singles and one of them is actually, "I Am The World," which was the B-side of "Spicks & Specks." The original version of the song was released in 1966 as the B-side of the hit. My dad decided to record a new version for the new album, he wrote a new middle eight for it. He loved the song because it was one of the first songs he actually wrote. There's another one, "Days Of Wine & Roses," where the song itself is actually a reverse. He played it backwards from a song, "Broken Wings." He played that song backwards and he came up with "Days Of Wine & Roses," which is another potential single for this album. But the third potential single is the song we wrote together, "Instant Love," which is quite poignant because it's the last time we actually sang together. It's father and son together, sing a verse each and then duetting on the chorus. "I Am The World" is definitely coming out as a single but the other two are the ones people should look for as singles promoting the album.
MR: "Days Of Wine & Roses" is an Oscar Wilde reference. How did that particular inspiration come about?
RG: My father and I both had a lot of respect for Oscar Wilde because he's one of the best wits of the nineteenth century. He didn't have many plays, but I think what he was actually remembered for in society and what people wrote about him was what he would actually say to people. My father always respected great witty comedy and I think that's probably what drew him to Oscar. A lot of his plays are not as witty as I would say he was in his private life and what people have written about him and their experiences with him as a person. I love his plays though, I love him as a literary giant definitely. It was Ernest Dowson, the poet who had originally penned the phrase, "They are not long, the days of wine of wine and roses." Oscar Wilde used the quote when his literary peer Ernest Dowson died. My dad did admire him for his wit as we were just saying, but I think when he found the phrase as an ode to his friend it kind of reminded him of Maurice and of others he'd lost. I think it was kind of poignant thing because it also talks about the days when they were young and coming up in the world and remembering all the beautiful things in the past. I think it struck a note with him.
MR: "Wherever You Go" was originally called "Wing & A Prayer" and there's a story behind that. The title originally came from the World War II patriotic song?
RG: Yes. "Wing & A Prayer" was actually a song that The Bee Gees wrote together. My father realized that people would remember it a lot easier if it had an original title, so "Wherever You Go" was the new title. It was changed to avoid confusion, basically. The original title came from the famous American second world war patriotic song by Harold Adamson and Jim McHugh. They wrote a song about a plane struggling home from combat, "Comin' In On A Wing And A Prayer." My father and myself have always loved military history, my father started helping the Bomber Command Memorial Fund which I still support now as well because Bomber Command here was the outfit that lost more troops than any other outfit. God, there were over fifty five thousand killed and they never put a monument up for them, they tried to distance themselves from them. They didn't realize the strategic importance. It wasn't just retaliation bombing that they were doing. Even Churchill, before he distanced himself, said, "It's the bombers that will win the war," because they brought one million Wehrmacht off the frontlines, brought them into the cities, and also brought all of the 88-millimeter flak guns into the cities to protect them. It took them off the frontlines and allowed the allies to advance. They also took out the entire Wolfpack in dock--the U-boats. But they were never recognized. He campaigned, it was one of the last things he did--and we did it as a family, really, as well. We campaigned to get the monument put up in Green Park, it's now one of the most visited monuments in London.
MR: What's the backstory on "Alan Freeman Days"?
RG: Well he was an Australian, he was a celebrated radio disc jockey in the United Kingdom in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. He's someone that my father truly kept in his heart and admired and he loved the man over a long period of time because he had a special memory of Alan dating back to the late 1960s when The Bee Gees had temporarily split up. Soon after the split my dad released his first solo album called Robin's Reign. Probably, the most famous solo song that my father wrote was "Saved By The Bell." Alan Freeman, who was known as Fluff, told my father that there were certain entities who wanted the Bee Gees to get back together. My father did want to get back together as well with The Bee Gees but a lot of people didn't realize this was the case.
When my father came out with a solo album because he wanted to keep working they thought it was going to stop The Bee Gees from getting back together. My dad just wanted to work in the mean time until The Bee Gees got back together. What they did was they tried to put spanners in the works and they asked the DJs--or tried to backhand the DJs not to play my dad's song thereby reducing the chances of it becoming successful. But Alan Freeman was the only DJ who said no. He wouldn't take any backhands and he stood up against these entitites and decided that "Saved By The Bell" was a number one hit, it should be out and it should be heard and he was going to play it regardless of the pressure. It went on to become a hit. It didn't become a number one hit in England, it reached number two, but it's still remembered as a classic.
My father never forgot what Alan did for him and he frequently communicated with Alan and visited him when he was sick and being cared for him at Brinsworth House which was a home for retired actors and others in the entertainment industry. So as president of the Heritage Foundation, which was where support of the whole Bomber Command Memorial came about he decided that Alan should have a blue plaque. Anyone who's alive gets a green plaque if they're being honored, say outside the building where they used to work, but they get a blue plaque if they've passed away. After Alan passed away he pushed and insured for Alan to have his blue plaque at Brinsworth house acknowledging Alan's contributions, not just to him but to music in general. He was one of the great DJs of the sixties to the eighties. My dad wrote the song in honor of Mister Alan Freeman.
MR: What do you think your dad's legacy is going to be? And what do you think the legacy of The Bee Gees is going to be?
RG: Well I think they've already proved themselves as one of the greatest acts of the twentieth century, they have one of the most extensive and most successful catalogs out there. There are people like Mozart who was basically honored for his accomplishments long after his death and there are people like my father who were honored during their lifetime. I think their legacy doesn't matter either way. If you write amazing music, whether you're honored during your lifetime or not these contributions to music will stick and people will try to emulate them and people will always be compared to people like The Bee Gees or to entities like them. They set the standard, really.
MR: Well, during the lifespan of the group, they contributed so much that it already mattered a lot.
RG: That's right. I also think that what we all do is make something eternal, something that lasts long beyond our deaths. That's why I said it didn't matter if they were recognized after or during because that's what we all strive to do is make our stamp on the world and to make something that people will love and cherish and to make people feel happier about themselves through music and just to make something eternal. That's the only way we live forever is through our work and what we leave behind.
MR: That's so true. What are you personally working as an artist now?
RG: Myself? I will continue to make classical works but at the same time I'm producing my own album at the moment which is a popular music album. I'm also working on house music and trance music for Ibiza. You'll see not only this dance music that's going to Ibiza but I'll also be coming out with an actual popular album that I've been working on for the last year and a half. Apart from that I'm also a mentalist, a psychological magician really. I've been doing this kind of work since I was fifteen but I've really just decided to push it forward into the professional scene in the last two years. I've known quite a few mentalists during my lifetime including Uri Geller, he's a close friend of the family. I've always been interested in this type of magic, psychological ideomotor response using hypnotics and neurolinguistic programming. It's used to bring about effects that either make peope do what you want to do or make it seem like they're happening. Basically, you could call it a type of magician or illusionist. But I'm doing Children In Need at The Savoy Hotel this October, which is being hosted by Terry Wogan. That's the first big gig I'm doing as a mentalist. But apart from that I'm coming out with my popular music album and I'm doing another project in Ibiza as I said with dance music. And I studied for seven years under Andy Hinds at Classic Stage Ireland, so I'm also an actor. I'm currently in that sphere, I have an agent for acting. I've always been interested in the performing arts, which is where mentalism comes into it as well, because it is a performance art. That's really where I am right now.
MR: RJ, what advice do you have for new artists?
RG: I would say never let anyone bring you down or tell you that what you're doing isn't good enough, believe in yourself, learn from your mistakes and always make music that you would buy. Don't try and emulate everyone, don't try and be another clone, there's so many of the same out there but there's only one you. The world hasn't seen you yet, so who knows if you could be accepted or not as another entity in that field. Also, a lot of people have a lot of material hanging around for a while and to them it gets old, but no one's heard it before. To everyone else, it's new material.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne