A Conversation with Andy McCluskey of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark
Mike Ragogna: Hey, rumor has it that Junk Culture has been expanded to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary.
Andy McCluskey: Yeah, there is, although it took us so long to expand it and remaster it that we're actually now celebrating its thirty-first year rather than its thirtieth.
MR: Andy, how did the original album come together? What's the storyline to that?
AM: It's an interesting album in the OMD timeline because its immediate predecessor, whilst now being considered to be our ultimate artistic conceptual masterpiece, managed to lose us ninety percent of our record buying audience at the time. Both consciously and unconsciously we kind of veered away from the precipice of the really experimental stuff. We had always been experimental, we started out as a group that had no intention of trying to be a popular music group. We were a conceptual art project in the form of two guys who made noises. We were very surprised when the things we'd been writing since the age of sixteen were, three or four years later, considered to be the future of pop music by Anthony Wilson who was starting Factory Records. We thought he was nuts but we accepted his offer of a contract to make a single. True to his word he got us onto a major label and onto Top Of The Pops. He saw something in us that we hadn't seen ourselves.
So we proceeded our career of doing whatever the hell we felt like and selling millions of records. But yeah, we went perhaps a little too sharply radical on the Dazzle Ships album in 1983. So Junk Culture, we were old men of twenty three or twenty four making our fifth album--this is how telescoped our career was--and we decided that we were going to take time and we were going to have some hits. The album is a really amazing collection of really bright and well-crafted pop songs. There's still a few interesting and unusual tracks in there, but we were definitely leaning towards a slightly more cautious approach. However I think it's possibly the tipping point of our career in terms of the quality of our music. It is the catchiest, poppiest album we've ever made, and it's the last one we made where we were in complete control and we had time to do it. Thereafter we were running out of time to make albums. It's an interesting marker in our career.
MR: When you were making the album, did you ever say, "Okay, this song could be popped up a bit more"? If you did, which songs were most affected by that?
AM: Actually, this new deluxe album that's being released, the second CD has five tracks on it which clearly show the developmental process, taking what were still some fairly abstract ideas, but this time we were absolutely going to polish them until they sounded like pop songs. To be honest, in hindsight I think that is actually the hardest balancing act in the world to do: To take a conceptual idea and actually turn it into a bit of listenable pop music. I'm very proud of our ability to have done that over the years, right from songs like "Electricity" or "Enola Gay" or the Joan of Arc song, we have throughout most of our talent actually tried to make listenable music ideas very often. Yeah, there's tracks on the album like "White Trash" and "Tesla Girls," about the inventor Nikola Tesla who's effectively the father of electricity. If you don't know who Nikola Tesla was, you listen to "Tesla Girls" and it just sounds like a slamming piece of mid-eighties electro pop, but the lyrics are actually very carefully crafted. I actually researched this as though it was a research process for a university thesis!
MR: Tesla is one of the more fascinating historical figures. "Talking Loud And Clear" and "Locomotion" were of course a couple of other big hits from the record. Did having these successful singles and general success with the album give you a paradigm for moving forward?
AM: Yeah. "Locomotion" is a fairly easy-to-digest single and was in fact our first top forty hit in the US. We'd previously been on Epic records in the US, who were making so much money off of Michael Jackson that they really couldn't be bothered with us. Their idea of releasing an OMD album was to hide it under the office carpet and see if anyone found it, I think. And they didn't. So we remained in college radio obscurity and alternative land whilst we were selling millions of records in the rest of the world. So bless A&M, they took us on and they had a hit with locomotion. "Talking Loud And Clear" actually is one of those songs where in hindsight you go, "Oh yeah, that's a very pretty, beautiful, bright pop song, but if you sit down and analyze it it's quite a dysfunctional song. It's made out of all sorts of weird bits of acoustic bass samples and backwards sleigh bells.
Actually it was our demo of a fantastic machine we bought called a Fairlight CMI. It was the first programmable computer for making music. When we bought it in 1983 it cost twenty three thousand pounds which at the time in dollars was probably forty five thousand dollars. That's what my parents' house was valued at at the time. It was a fairly extraordinary device, but we just loaded up a bunch of random sounds into the computer to demo it and we wrote "Talking Loud And Clear." That's how that came about. But you know, the success of Junk Culture in America, in some respects, sewed the seeds of the demise of OMD because it was the relentless touring around the US for the next three years that ended up with us being so exhausted and short of time to write albums.
MR: Was there a career plan for the band?
AM: Well, unfortunately, there wasn't really a long-term plan. We were living largely from hand to mouth. We had signed a record deal when we were teenagers in 1979 to a subsidiary of Virgin Records. The record royalty was so appallingly low that despite the millions of records we'd sold we were earning pennies. I'm not complaining, because were were happy to make records. We didn't make records to become millionaire pop stars, but the impact was that we were constantly short of money. Once we started touring America, which cost us a fortune, because we were losing money on tour trying to break America, we got into this vicious circle where we'd be on tour for nine months, spent more than we earned, the record company would say, "Hey, we'd love a new record for Christmas" and our manager would say, "Yeah, and you need to take the advance because you've got no money." We began chasing our tails. Friends of ours like Depeche Mode and Erasure who had deals on Mute Records were on fifty/fifty deals. When they sold millions of records, after the recording costs and the video costs were paid for, they split the profit fifty/fifty, whereas we were on a percentage that was just massively lower than that out of which we incurred all of the recording costs and the costs of touring. That's why Depeche Mode are all multimillionaires and we're not. [laughs]
MR: Well, that's not a nice story!
AM: That's just what happens. You sign a record deal when you're nineteen and you can repent at leisure for the rest of your life. As I said, we didn't sign a deal in order to be rich or pop stars, we just wanted to be able to take our music to people. And for a while we were afforded that opportunity, it's just that in the end the business kind of bit us in the backside. Because of the pressures of trying to stay alive financially, I think we ended up becoming the sort of band we never wanted to, who were making records because we had to make records to pay the bills, rather than making records because we had something we really wanted to say. It's very different now.
MR: Things are very different now because the kids are taking back the publishing and promotion duties, and it seems healthier. In some ways it feels like they don't need mommy and daddy anymore.
AM: You can certainly approach the music industry from a position of more control. Because you can make records more cheaply with the technology that's available now you don't need to go to a record company effectively for a loan, which is what it was, to borrow their money to get started and then to use their machinery to publicize yourself. It can be done in different ways, unless you're the absolute fully-marketed manufactured pop artist who needs somebody to find them a song and make them a video and get them a look or you're the top end of the rock world. The rest of the music industry, quite frankly, doesn't have a functioning business model. It's quite interesting to see everybody casting around and trying to find a way to do it.
MR: When I was at the labels, I used to see contracts with five-to-ten percent artist royalties. For a while, that wasn't uncommon.
AM: Yeah, absolutely. Obviously, the labels were in the business of being a business and making money, and the profits that they made allowed them to have bands in the middle ground, where the label was maybe making a recovery but the band wasn't making any profits. But the label kept them alive, bands who everybody's heard of but never really made a lot of money, but had several albums in them because, eh, the books just about balanced and the music industry could afford to lose money on creative and daring propositions. They will never ever take a chance on bands like that now because nobody's prepared to lose money so nobody will touch anything they consider a risk or too experimental or is not going to sell.
MR: I want to ask about your reformation. What is that story?
AM: The original band split up at the end of the eighties, I carried on for a short while in the nineties. By the mid nineties, the heights of Brit pop and grunge had come along in the US and a band that was perceived as an eighties synth band was considered to be past its sell-by date and nobody was interested. It was a bit disappointing for us, having adopted synthesizers as a way of doing music for the future. Once we got to the post modern line everybody realized that there was nothing new, there was no "new" as in future new, it was all going to become remakes, remodels, and rehashes. Pop in every sense, not just music but fashion, architecture, film, art, was going to start eating itself. That's what it's been doing for the last twenty-odd years. We didn't realize it at the time so we were a bit freaked out. "Hang on, we started to play synth because we thought guitars were cliché. You mean guitars are now the future again? How the hell does that happen?" [laughs] So that was interesting.
We just thought, "Bah, this isn't working, we'll go and do something else," so we stopped. Then the new millennium came along and people started to ask us, "Hey, electronic's coming back in, would you play live? Would you produce this album?" Some new bands started to name check us as being influential and seminal and nice words like that. We figured we had a bit of unfinished business and we'd like to play some gigs. We got offered to play on this German TV show and just for a laugh we said, "Let's go and do a TV show." We had so much fun being a band together for the first time in seventeen years we thought we'd do some gigs. They sold out. The trouble was, then, that it was nice to play the concerts, but we sort of thought, "Oh here we go, are we just going to pick up where we left off? We don't just want to be another eighties pop group. We don't want to be part of the eighties revival, we're not doing this for our pensions. And, frankly, if all we're going to do is tour and play our old catalog effectively we're being a tribute band to ourselves."
So we dared to do the dangerous and stupid thing and write some new music. Actually, the first new album we did was very well-received and the last album, English Electric, people seem to be putting up there along with the first five albums we ever made, saying, "This is as good as you ever were, because you're being daring, you're taking risks, you're asking questions again, and you're the only band of your generation who actually seem to be doing that." That's been really exciting for us.
MR: Many bands and artists have said they were inspired by you. Do you feel any responsibility to be innovative these days?
AM: We are constantly looking for new ways to use found sounds. We've often used found sounds. People who know us for our full catalog and not just the singles on the radio know that we could craft a beautiful pop song, but we also did some pretty funky musique concrète pieces, things that ask questions musically. Our record company used to say, "Are you ABBA or Stockhausen?" and we'd say, "We're both." It made sense to us. The problem is that it's a bit of a balancing act. It goes back to what I was saying about trying to make something intellectual but to wrap it in such musical craftsmanship that it bears repeated listening. We've all heard stuff that's experimental and you listen to it and go, "Oh, that's interesting. Do I want to listen to it again? Nah," because it has no musical merit. It doesn't have any beauty or anything to it. We're particularly trying to find ways to import glitch music into our sound. We're getting there slowly. There's a guy who makes music under the name Atom™, he did an album a couple of years ago called HD, which I think was the first really musical glitch album I've ever heard. We're still trying to do something interesting, we're working on a new album we're excited about.
MR: Nice, when is that due?
AM: Some time next year. We're not going to put any pressure on it. This is the thing that Paul Humphries and I are really enjoying these days. It's like being kids again. We're not making records for money, we don't have to pay the bill snow with the record sales. We're fortunate that sufficient of our songs going on compilations and going on films and the radio we can actually live off of our royalties. The records now are just like the old days, when we could do what the hell we wanted. The trick is to not be some disassociated middle-aged loser in his ivory tower who's deluding himself that he still has something to say when actually he doesn't. But fortunately we're still conceited enough to believe we do still have something to say. Even more fortunately the people who have been hearing our records seem to agree. [laughs]
MR: You of your more significant recordings in the nineties was "Dream Of Me" that, in my opinion, could have been a huge record. It was influenced by Barry White's "Love Theme" but got caught up in a legal tug because of the sampling and interpolation. Could you tell that story?
AM: Yeah. We had a problem. I talked to Barry White who said he liked the idea and we could share credit, but his publishers claimed it was a full cover version and they wanted a hundred percent. Then the people who owned the copyright on The Mamas & The Papas' "Dream A Little Dream Of Me" wanted fifty percent just for the Mama Cass sample. I was like, "Hang on, I can't give you a hundred and fifty percent of a song!" [laughs] So the original really beautiful version that had all of the samples in had to get hacked back to a recreation. It never was quite as beautiful as it should have been. I got really shafted on that one.
MR: Andy, what advice do you have for new artists?
AM: I think it really depends on what they're trying to do. If you just want to do it because you love music and you just want to have an outlet for it and want people to hear what you do and to express yourself creatively or intellectually, just do it. We are in a strange place at the moment, I keep seeing all these new acts coming through that win all these Grammys and I'm sure that these people do truly believe that what they're doing is art and they put their heart and soul into it, but to me, because we are in this post modern era, it doesn't resonate particularly strongly with me. It's really just not new, it's all a rehash. I know they genuinely believe they're pouring their heart and their soul and their lives into their heart, but to me it just seems like a pastiche of something that's been done before. I don't like to criticize people, but I find myself consistently unmoved by the majority of music. I don't want to sound like some grumpy old man, there is still new and exciting music and there's still new and exciting ways to use the old clichéd rock 'n' roll instruments that we were fighting against thirty five years ago, but my advice would be, be clear in your goals and stick to your principles.
AM: But don't expect to make any money these days. [laughs]
MR: Ha! You know, it is interesting, when you look at the history of the business of music, I think the huge amounts of money companies and some artists or music entities made at the time of their hits were an anomaly, only sustainable for a certain period only. Back in the day when the industry was booming, it was because music was our cultural pastime. That's where the money went, to stereos, records, etc.. Now there are so many other things to entertain ourselves with that the industry has a much more crowded playing field.
AM: It's an interesting point, that. For the longest time, most musicians were just itinerant and lived from hand to mouth. Then in the mid to late twentieth century there was a coming together of the technology, TV and radio and record player, media technology suddenly allowed millions of people to listen to things and all tune into the same thing at the same time. There was a crashing wave and the people who were riding the top of it suddenly became international superstars, from Glenn Miller and Sinatra and Elvis and The Beatles right through to the seventies and eighties, and now it's dissipating and going back to a little more like it always was and always should have been.
MR: Getting back to Junk Culture, when you were putting together the deluxe addition together, were there any surprises or particular memories stirred up?
AM: Oh absolutely. It reminded us that we left our own recording studio, stupidly. We had our own place in Liverpool and we thought the little en passe that we were in was because were were going to the same place every day. No, we were just having writers' block. But we became nomadic and wandered the world, we went to the highlands of Scotland, London, Montserrat in the Caribbean to George Martin's studio, hence a few of the reggae and calypso things that snuck in. Our mission was to always do something new, even if it meant abandoning the synthesizers that we'd started with.
One of the other things that's patently obvious when you see the clothes we were wearing at the time, after five or six years of being told we were the boring bank clerks of pop because we didn't want to be Spandau Ballet or Culture Club--we didn't want to be pop stars, we didn't want to look like pop stars, we wanted to be the antithesis of pop stars--we got so fed up with people going, "Oh, still wearing the white shirts and the ties, are you?" "You want us to be pop stars? Okay. We're going to wear your grandmother's chintz curtains with plaid and tartan trousers and electric blue ties and we are going to look such a horrible clash of clothing. We'll do pop star clothing irony, okay?" If you see photos of us from 1984, we look like an explosion in a fashion factory, it's hilarious. We were constantly doing it just to say, "F*ck off!" to people, basically.
MR: What about that hairstyle?
AM: Well, unfortunately, Paul Humphries does now deeply regret his mid-eighties mullet. I don't deeply regret my short back and sides with my massive back-combed top that came cascading down, I just wish I had enough hair to recreate it now. [laughs] We consciously decided we wanted to go and see what we could unearth, so we asked the record company to go dig out all of the multi track tapes. They baked them and sent them to us and we found a track called "All Or Nothing" that we don't even remember recording. That is on disc two. There's a really early version of "Tesla Girls" there which is literally just, "Okay, I want to write a song called Nikola Tesla, we're going to use the samples of no, no, no and this xyz xyz," we were just loading stuff in using samplers and computers and trying shit out. We could have put an entire disc together of just versions of "Tesla Girls" as it mutated from a very simple nursery rhyme melody with bits of samples to a completed actual song. It's been quite fascinating to actually look back through our sketchbook. For the really die-hard fans, we could've made a full CD album that literally was the artists' sketchbook, where you get the finished version and all of the sketches. That's the way it goes, you know?
MR: Still, there's a lot on this package. What is your thought about that whole period of music?
AM: I'll be honest with you, I think that the mid-eighties was, as I've already described it, a tipping point. As it happened in the decade before and the decade before that, it seems that the decade starts with a purity and a youthful, naïve angst where a new generation is pushing forward and breaking the boundaries and then it tends to lose its way and gets a little bit bloated and all the followers come in and jump on the bandwagon and you get all these bands that just want to sound like electropop because that's in the charts but they don't have anything to say, they're not trying anything new, but even the bands who were doing it themselves get a little bit verbose and lost and we were one of those bands, I admit it. Americans hate when we say this because our two biggest-selling albums in America were the two that followed Junk Culture, and they sold well in America because we were touring there and doing TV and radio, selling our souls to the music industry devil. We whored ourselves around America.
Unfortunately, some of the songs on the album are not good enough. It's as simple as that. We would do nine months touring, we'd go home and the record company would say, "Can you give us another album for Christmas?" and we were like, "So, write another album in two months?" You would go into a well for ideas and it was empty. I apologize to Americans if I'm dissing their favorite OMD albums but after Junk Culture we weren't as good as we had previously been and it's taken us twenty five years to get back to having the clarity of vision that we had in those days. I have to share with you before we go, we have just experienced the most amazing weekend we've had in a considerable amount of time. Four years ago, we played in the city of Dresden for the first time. We know about our military history, we've always been fascinated in a horrified way about what people will do in war. We wrote "Enola Gay" and "Bunker Soldiers," et cetera. We wrote a song about Dresden, and the people of Dresden invited us to come and play at their peace prize ceremony on the seventieth anniversary of the bombing of their city. It was a great honor, but somewhat intimidating for these musicians to be in with all of the royalty and religious and political leaders who were commemorating and reconciliating. And yet actually our humble presentation and my speech, which started by saying, "We come from Liverpool, The Beatles were born in the second world war and yet they went to Hamburg, a city that we fire bombed, to learn how to be a rock band. We come from Liverpool, but The Beatles didn't influence us, we took our influence from Kraftwerk, in Düsseldorf. Isn't it beautiful that just a few years after our fathers were trying to kill each other, the new generation who haven't grown up in fear and pain were actually inspired musically by each other?"
We were honored to be there. We had possibly the most surreal experience in our lives, we played in the Semperoper in Dresden, which had been bombed, to a full house of people who accepted our songs. We played Enola Gay, with the bombing of Hiroshima behind us. It was moving. It was amazing. As I said in my speech, "We can't change the world. We can mirror the changes, and we can celebrate the sense of joy and hope." The surreal icing on the cake was the recipient of the Dresden peace prize this year was the Queen's cousin, the Duke of Kent, who has done a lot in reconciliation between England and Germany. To see him, the seventy-nine-year-old Duke of Kent standing and clapping along to one of our pop songs and the Bishop of Coventry and the Archbishop of Canterbury dancing to OMD was one of the most surreal highlights of my crazy life.
MR: I think when "Enola Gay" came out, it motivated young people to look further into its history and get a little more educated about those events.
AM: Thank you! We hoped it would. "Enola Gay" sold five-million copies. It did open peoples' eyes. A lot of people said, "What's the song about? Oh really? Wow!" Over the weekend we talked with these political and religious leaders about Enola Gay and about Dresden and I said, "Okay, do you want my opinion?" The bombing of Dresden and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? People have a million theories about it, but do you know why it happened? They were the first acts of the cold war. If you think about that, it makes sense. It's incredible that we have been gifted the opportunity to write songs about things that move us. We hope that if we sugar the medicine--and people do complain that sometimes we over sugar the medicine, "How can you write a song about Enola Gay with such a cheesy melody?" I'm coating the pill. It works. We get to people. It's taken us thirty years, but we seem to be getting there.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
MICHAEL DES BARRES BRINGS THE KEY TO THE UNIVERSE EXCLUSIVE
The British singer/songwriter/musician, actor will be releasing his new full-length album The Key To The Universe this April 7th on FOD Records. The album is a return to rock music with heavy guitars and lyrics about life lived to the fullest. Produced by Robert Rose (who's worked on albums by Julian Lennon, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and Des Barres' 1986 album Somebody Up There Likes Me), The Key To The Universe was recorded at Forum Music Village in Rome.
The album once more reunites Des Barres, with Nigel Harrison (former bassist of Blondie and Silverhead) on bass and guitar in addition to showcasing the talents of Clive Deamer (Portishead, Robert Plant) on drums and the ace Dani Robinson on guitar. The album's co-singles include the Linda Perry-penned "Can't Get You Off My Mind," and "I Want Love To Punch Me In The Face," co-written with Nigel Harrison (former bassist of Blondie and Silverhead), which arrive at radio on March 10th.
In conjunction with the release of new album The Key To The Universe, FOD Records and Michael Des Barres supplied an exclusive EPK during which the artist talks about his new album, influences and the path he's taken to get to this point.
For more information, visit http://michaeldesbarres.com.
A Conversation with The Crests' JT Carter
Mike Ragogna: Your group is a very important part of history as the first racially integrated music group of the fifties. Tell me how the group came together.
JT Carter: Well, I'll tell you, it was pretty easy. we're from the lower east side of Manhattan, there's a street down there named Orchard Street, everybody knows it. That's the neighborhood that we come from. That neighborhood was definitely a melting pot for a lot of different races. Predominantly my friends are Jewish and Italian, I spoke a little Yiddish. It wasn't hard to meet other people and other races, we took that for granted. There was never anything strange about that. We all observed the high holy days and then when it came time for Christmas we did that. It was a great mix and that's how we all came together. All different, each one of us, but the same nonetheless.
MR: What was creatively getting together like at first?
JT: The first time I heard the other guys that would be The Crests, Johnny Maestro was not there. One guy in the group, Talmoudge Gough, he was related to Marvin Gaye, he could really sing. He sounded like a singer named Clyde McPhatter, high tenor beautiful voice, he used to always try to get me to come sing with the guys, but I wasn't that interested, I was more interested in sports and lifting weights and hanging out with my Italian friends down by the monkey bars, climbing up on roofs and swinging like Tarzan. That was my interest, I wasn't really interested in music. But then I heard Nat King Cole, I heard Ella Fitzgerald, and when I saw the guys singing one day they came over to me and said, "Come on, we need a note." I didn't like the sound of the music because those guys didn't know harmony and I'd always taken it for granted.
Harmony was the easiest thing to me. I could harmonize with any note. They finally came over and persuaded me to sing and the group started sounding better. We used to meet in the school bathroom, and the group started sounding a little better, then the girls started chasing so we knew it sounded good. Then at some point Patricia Vandross, Luther Vandross' sister, Talmoudge Gough, Harold Torres--Puerto Rican, beautiful guy, looked like Sal Mineo--and myself, they heard Johnny Maestro singing with a group of all Italian guys and they said, "You should really pair up with this guy." This one older gentleman who had more knowledge about music, he brought Johnny down to meet us. We met in the hallway and from the beginning the harmony sounded good, Johnny liked it, and we got together.
MR: How did you choose your material?
JT: There wasn't a whole lot of material to sing, because during the time we started there was harmony, but there wasn't a group on every corner. The songs that you sang harmony with, especially if you couldn't hear harmony that well, were a little limited. That's why these guys made up their own songs, they made up the simple progressions, we mostly chose it from the stuff we wrote.
MR: How did you get discovered?
JT: We were singing on the subway. We used to jump the turnstile because we had no money and we'd go from station to station singing and people would throw money at us and underwear and stuff. The people got to like us and when they saw this group of different people--to us we were all the same, but to them we were different races and everything, it was like the rainbow. A woman walked up to us and said, "My husband's a bandleader," his name was Al Brown, he was a well-known bandleader in Brooklyn, out there ahead of that Eastern Parkway area. He played weddings, he played all that stuff. He heard us and he said, "Man, I like you guys." He took us and brought us into his studio to start recording.
MR: Do you remember the very first song you recorded?
JT: Oh God. The first song that we ever did that I can remember--and I don't know why I remember this song--was "Red Sails In The Sunset."
MR: I think Nat King Cole recorded it pre-Doo-Wop.
JT: Yeah, and the Platters did it, too. I think I heard Louis Armstrong and a few others do it, too. That song to us was beautiful. We liked the sound of it, Johnny's voice sounded well and I could put all the harmonies together. It was a difficult song to do, but I fought with the guys and the harmony came together.
MR: "Sweetest One" was your first charting single. Do you remember making that record and what it was like?
JT: We didn't even believe we were going into a recording session. During that time a recording session was not a recording session like we know it now. This guy owned a comic book store and it was in the back room of his thing. All the studios we'd ever seen were like down in studios in the basement or back in the back and there'd be cobwebs hanging all around. That was how we got with him. After we recorded "Sweetest One" and the other side, which is "My Juanita," which was the side we really wanted to go because it had a nice feeling to it. [hums bass line]
MR: And eventually came "Sixteen Candles."
JT: Yeah We also did a thing called "Pretty Little Angel." It's a song where everybody is singing the whole thing all the way through. Our writers could only think of angels. They liked them.
MR: How did "Sixteen Candles" come about?
JT: It was really a nightmare. At the time, as you were recording everything was done straight away. That meant you didn't get a chance to go back and overdub, you didn't get a chance to go back and fix nothing, it was a straightaway session. That meant that every musician on board had to play the song all the way through from beginning to end. It was a nightmare because we had twenty eight takes. The musicians hated us. But the other side of sixteen candles was "Beside You." That was supposed to be the big hit. Then some smart alek disc jockey turned it over and said, "Oh, 'Sixteen Candles,' I like that better." We were trapped. The B-side turned out to be the A-side.
MR: That happened to a lot of groups at the time.
JT: Yeah, especially because disk jockeys wanted to be unique, they wanted to have their own style. They figured if they flipped things over it worked. They would flip things over and gain their popularity because they would play a lot of the B-sides.
MR: Thank God for B-sides!
JT: Yeah, that was where the best stuff was hiding! Outta sight.
MR: So "Sixteen Candles" becomes the hit. How did the group react? How did you celebrate?
JT: I'll tell you, we were shocked out of our minds, of course. Our group would go up against other groups, we'd go to other neighborhoods and they wouldn't beat us up because we sounded good. Things would happen very well for us. Plus we were very unique in our look and our sound. Wherever we went the gangs wouldn't attack us, the girls were after us, we were almost popular before we were popular. The hit was a followup to the notoriety we had gained. We didn't know what we were doing, we were just doing what we thought everybody else was doing. We didn't recognize it as being anything special. People liked us very much from the very beginning.
MR: And you guys were like heroes of your neighborhood?
JT: Yes we were! We carried the banner for the neighborhood. If you were anybody else beside us and came out and they said, "Where are they from? Oh, they're from DeLancey street," you'd get beaten up right away.
MR: What was the scene like growing up in New York in those days?
JT: It was like being raised by the yentas. You know what they are, right? My mother was the head of the yentas. She'd sit on the soda crates in the summer time almost all night long listening to us playing stickball and singing, we were all friends, we didn't know there was a difference between us at all, we loved each other, we sang together, we played together, we looked out for each other, it was a heaven sent childhood.
MR: What are some of the band's performance highlights?
JT: Oh yeah, we did all of that. We were there the day Hawaii became a state, we were there with the presidents, we were there with kings, we did Vegas, we did all of the large Dick Clark tours where he'd have twenty one groups on one show, all that stuff, Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, Connie Francis, Ritchie Valens, Sam Cook, Johnny Mathis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, all these people became my friends. The Coasters, The Cadillacs, The Drifters... I was in The Drifters at one point, too. Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers were the most important. If you weren't there, you probably didn't know this: The Teenagers were what every group wanted to be. We listened to them and we took their lead because they came on earlier. Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers and The Flamingos were the most important thing that ever happened to rock 'n' roll because they're the ones we all copied. All of us.
MR: And I imagine more cues were taken from The Inkspots and later vocal groups?
JT: Oh yeah, The Inkspots, The Clovers, The Harptones, we all got that harmony from the barbershop quartets and they mixed it in with a little bit of rockabilly, a little bit of soul music, gospel music, it all came together.
MR: Then John Hughes comes along in 1984 and makes Sixteen Candles, one of his many coming-of age movies. The Stray Cats re-recorded "Sixteen Candles" for it, what did you think of their rendition?
JT: I thought it was terrible! [laughs] This is what I'm trying to say: They didn't know the goal that they really had. I really don't believe that the people on top knew how good what they had was. Being Americans, like Americans can be, first, they love it and then they hate it. The money was the most important thing to them, but they could've made so much more money keeping us intact. Instead of that they played us down and let the British Invasion start. The Beatles were backed by a country, we were back by nobody. We had to look out to get a hit.
MR: There are so many hits and classics from that era, but nobody remembers they were all on small labels. When they hit it was like wildfire.
JT: Yes it was. It came out of nowhere. No one knew it and no one recognized that it would still be there. In some places it is as popular right now as it ever was.
MR: Kids now are learning how to harmonize from acts who learned from acts who learned from you guys.
JT: And I'll tell you, some of them are quite good at it, too. Their fathers and their fathers' fathers were singing that music. It's just like "In The Still Of The Night." When that came back, I understand that [writer] Fred Parris picked up like five or six-millions dollars. What I wanted to say is that music is coming back around. It may not be quite as simple as it was, but they've done everything else they can do. The only smart thing to do is go back and take some of this music and do it again. Bring back that flavor. That's the only way they can go at this point.
MR: You guys lived for the music. It was bigger for you than the money, right?
JT: Yes it was, it was a lot bigger than the money. The money will never amount up to what that is.
MR: You've gotten so many great awards, too. You got the award in Pennsylvania, you got an award for being the first African-American to form an inter-racial group.
JT: I had them all singing "My Girl."
MR: What a great moment.
JT: When people look at somebody like me, they see somebody who's been there. I started singing in 1947 and I'm still doing splits and turns and things like that, they look at me like either I'm crazy or I'm going to die before the show is over. It's really entertaining to me, I get more of a kick out of it than they do.
MR: JT, what's going on with your American Classics: Stars, Music & Cars project?
JT: When I was a little kid my father used to get in the old Cadillac on the weekends and we'd go and see Grandma out in the country and take road trips to visit other relatives in Connecticut. Families were families at that time, and the thing that brought them together as far as I'm concerned, was the automobile. If you were climbing on a horse or jumping in a wagon that would be a different thing, but you're getting into this big Cadillac, the whole family, and you take this trip out. That was very important in the American style of life. As the cars changed the music changed and you could look at the car and identify how things were. The clothes changed and the music changed and the artists changed and the cars changed, if you just look at history you can see the changes in everything. It all goes together.
MR: It's true. Are you having a good time still?
JT: I'll tell you like this: I have never not had a good time. When I had the wherewithal, I gave a lot to kids, I stood in at The Metropolitan Opera, I've done things that other people have it, and I'm not finished yet. I still have some good times to come.
MR: What advice do you have for new or emerging artists?
JT: Well, to be emerging you have to be pretty smart. I would say study a little law. If they intend to do anything about it, take a short course in business law and learn what the rules are. At this time we were not fortunate enough, all the rules hadn't been written pertaining to show business, so the reason why we didn't get a lot was because we didn't know anything. All the laws hadn't been written. Show business had always been emerging, but show business was a small little nothing business at that time. It got to be where people could have a billion dollars, but that didn't happen when we were around. A billion dollars could've probably paid everybody from the fifties, sixties and seventies. Now one person can have that. I would say the best thing to do is be wise enough, stay in school, get a lawyer, if you can't afford it, study some law. Know what you're stepping into.
MR: Nicely said, JT. You must be very proud of having one of the greatest hits of the fifties.
JT: And we also had the greatest lead singer, I want you to know that. I can sing, but there's nobody I've ever met in my life that could ousting Johnny Maestro. He's the best there ever was, I know there are people out there who want to portray him, but you will never see a person who could stand up to Johnny Maestro.
MR: Now since "Sixteen Candles" was one of the biggest hits of the era, that should have opened the door for you in a huge way. But that's not how it went. What happened after that?
JT: Let me tell you, it comes down to the ripoff. We had a lot of really good records, and had the record company pushed them they would've gone all the way. The people who were managing us didn't really expect this thing to last. They didn't expect it to go on and on forever, so what they did was they disbanded us. They didn't want to pay us, so they caused dissent in the group and tried to act like we weren't who we were just to part us.
MR: When Johnny went off to do his own thing, how did you feel about that period?
JT: I hated it. I hated it worse than anything else. I had chosen my place, this was it with me. I'm not saying I was a better lead singer than Johnny but there was some things I used to sing that gave Johnny goosebumps. When it came down to it they wanted to rob us so they parted us. Johnny didn't get almost anything. I wound up getting some money, they buttered me up a little bit just to keep my quiet. I thought it was silly that he left because we already had a head start. Johnny chose The Brooklyn Bridge and they took him away from us so that they didn't have to pay up any royalties. I just thought it was ugly, I thought it was evil. I want you to know that Johnny did come back and get me, I re-recorded "The Worst That Could Happen" with them and I did some stuff with The Brooklyn Bridge, too. They used to call me to do sessions, they used to call me to do shows, but Johnny already had his course set.
Inside, Johnny always wanted to be a soloist. He just didn't have enough pop to really, really be out there on his own. He probably should've sacrificed everything and made sure that they recognized him, but they never recognized him as a solo artist. He was disheartened by that. We had enough hits that if we'd kept going with The Crests we would've been the most popular thing around ever. We had seven or eight hits. If he'd taken what he did with The Brooklyn Bridge and put that together with what we did with The Crests we probably would've been one of the most sought after groups of that era.
MR: What do you think The Crests contributed to music and pop culture?
JT: As far as I'm concerned we were the rainbow. We were the door openers. They saw us as being different, but we never were different. We were always more the same than anything. People didn't understand it, they thought we'd be arguing and fighting over this and that, but we were the best of friends. We loved each other. We showed the world that things that appear to be different aren't necessarily that way at all and what looks to be different could be the same internally. That's what we were. When Johnny left the group I got a deal with Decca Records. Did you know that?
MR: Yes, I was over there. I saw your master recordings.
JT: Jerry Moss was with us, you know. He was our guy. He got with Herb Alpert and they did their thing, but he was our road manager at first. He was almost our valet. He used to take us on the road and drive the car and bring us ham sandwiches and all that stuff.
MR: Are you still in touch with him?
JT: No, I talk more to Larry Klein from Dick Clark productions. They're going to be part of this thing we're going to do with ...Cars, Music & Stars.
MR: You also will be getting a little gift from The Lee High Valley Music Awards.
JT: Yep! I was awarded the lifetime achievement award and I'm going to be there with them this year. It's their sixteenth year, so I'm singing "Sixteen Candles" for the awards. It's going to be great, I hope we can get Chubby there and a couple of other people.
MR: I hope the crowds are as big for you there as they were at Cousin Bruce's First Annual Pallisades Park Reunion!
JT: There won't quite be the space for that! [laughs] Geography has a lot to do with it. We're in Pennsylvania, if we were closer to New York, we could pull in more people like Cousin Brucie.
MR: What's next?
JT: We wrote a play, there's a bunch of things I want to do. They talk about the Jersey Boys, I love The Jersey Boys, they got it all beautiful, no problem, but the guy to be admired, really, as I saw it in the very beginning was "The Boy From New York City."
MR: Ah, The Ad Libs!
JT: The guys from New York always had it a little over the guys from New Jersey. You lived in New York, you were on the subway, the clothes were better, the girls would come from New Jersey to see us. That's what my play's going to be about. The New York guys.
MR: So there was a big rivalry there?
JT: Oh, definitely. There was a borderline. You had to come across the border. The good thing about New York was the clubs stayed open until four o'clock in the morning. They shut down at one in New Jersey! The girls from New Jersey married guys from New York. It wasn't a rivalry, they just wanted to be us. You could stand on Broadway and watch John Wayne walk down the street, or Muhammad Ali. You can still do it!
MR: I don't want to keep you much longer, but I want to end with a completely ridiculous question: Any words of wisdom?
JT: I can't even spell that word. [laughs] I would really, really highly advise people to keep their kids in tune with some of our music. The reason I say that, the way the culture is now, you're singing about making love. In our culture it was about being in love. That's a completely different thing. You're thinking about doing it, we're thinking about being in love and having a family. It's about people being together. If people can let their kids know that, they'll research it and Google it and find that the world wasn't made just for them, it started a long time ago and people used to not fight and hate and kill each other like they're doing now.
MR: That's beautiful.
JT: So you remember that. It's being in love, not making love.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
GLOOM BALOON'S "PRETTIEST GIRL" EXCLUSIVE
According to Gloom Baloon's Patrick Tape Fleming...
"Every song I have ever wrote, I hoped would be the 'Prettiest Song,' that people had ever heard. But soon you realize that even if you could write the Prettiest Song ever, most people would not give two sh*ts! The video shows that. That's what this Gloom Balloon release is, it's the songs that I didn't think were worth two sh*ts. But Every time you write a song, you hope the best for it. And you love it with all your heart So you throw it into the pool and hope it can swim with the rest of the songs out there in the world. Some of the songs arms and legs are not strong enough to survive and they drowned. These are the songs that couldn't swim with the rest of them, so they are presented here as dead artifacts that once were loved--The Songs That Couldn't Swim."
As the question and song title go, "So You Wanna Be A Rock And Roll Star?" Well, though it's a little late for Valentine's Day, ahem, here is a partial immersion with relationship councilor Todd Valentine that might help you in the self-confidence arena.
A Conversation with Todd Valentine
Mike Ragogna: Hey Todd, what is this "Total Immersion Training Program? And what are the mastermind group boot camps?
Todd Valentine: After years of teaching guys to be good with girls, it became obvious that simply teaching a few techniques was less effective than making fundamental changes in people's outlooks and lifestyles. I always wanted to have the kind of time with clients to work with them more deeply and work with them on things like their health, their money, their style, as well as, of course, their game. The Immersion program allows us to do that. Basically, dozens of guys live with me and my staff, and we coach them on an ongoing basis. We also just hang out and have an amazing time. And we bring in outside coaches, like an improv comedy coach and a personal trainer, to round out the package.
The mastermind aspect of the program exists because many of our long-term alumni, as well as our staff, come to the Immersion program. And most people credit a lot of their growth and learning to being around those people on an ongoing basis. When you're in an environment where everyone is trying to improve themselves, it very easily becomes a habit. And actually, many people in the program have gone on to do business or life ventures together as a result.
MR: What first got you interested in assisting with relationships? Do you have any formal training? What's your background in this field?
TV: As much as I would like to appear like I'm an altruistic angel, I have to admit that my early interest in this field came from the fact that I liked girls and I wanted a better dating life for myself. So, at the start, coaching was a way for me to practice more and learn faster. However, over the last twelve years of working with clients, I've found their growth and change to be deeply rewarding, and I've been consistently amazed at what is possible with the right encouragement and information.
TV: I don't have a degree or formal training in this area (what would be formal training, anyway?), but I do have fifteen years of experience trying anything and everything, and twelve years of coaching and seeing what the best ways are to motivate positive change in others.
MR: Your program has an international dating community of something north of 47,000 participants in 70 countries. How did the word spread about the program, through a huge marketing campaign or word of mouth? Maybe both?
TV: It's been mostly word of mouth. Believe it or not, as early as 2000, there were Internet forums in which people were discussing ideas for how to meet women. And our ideas emerged as the ones that were most liked and most effective, so people started soliciting us to teach. Since then, our reputation has only grown. We do market extensively, though, especially through YouTube, and we've also been cited as experts in bestselling dating products, as well as featured in a bestselling book.
TV: How does your approach to relationship building differ from other existing programs?
MR: I believe that the way to have the best relationship is to start off as a great person, rather than focusing on techniques or "moves" you can do. Many dating companies market how to find "the one" and get that one girl to like you. But in my experience, that doesn't work. The key is to be the kind of man who's good with women in general and who has enough confidence in his ability not to obsess about one interaction with one girl. So when he talks to women, he's confident and shows his true personality, which enables him to get the girl he really wants. Obviously, though, we do teach a lot of techniques as well.
MR: What are a couple of your favorite success stories?
TV: Last year we had a thirty-nine-year-old virgin in the Immersion program, and he ended up losing his virginity while he was with us. The fact that he lost his virginity on our program was great, but what was actually more important and more gratifying was the growth in his confidence during the few months he stayed with us. Another example is a student I had whose father first bought him a seat at one of our programs when the kid was fifteen. His dad wanted his son to have more confidence and be resistant to peer pressure. At eighteen, because he liked the results, the father bought another program for him. Then, at age twenty-one, the son bought a program for himself. He went from being a shy, unconfident kid to being the kind of person who has it all together. I don't usually get to see someone grow over a period of years, and it was great to witness the long-term influence of our ideas.
But my best success story would be myself. From age eighteen until now, through studying social dynamics and putting myself through the rigors of constantly striving, I've grown from a very shy, awkward teenager to someone who I'm very proud to be.
MR: I imagine you're not batting 1000 since there's the human factor, so what have you found is the main problem when arrangements don't work?
TV: As I became more confident and better with women, attracting girls was no longer the issue, but life does tend to get in the way. Girls have friends, jobs (and occasionally boyfriends and husbands), and my travel schedule is not conducive to dating a lot of the girls I meet, so I have to resign myself to occasionally just having adventures that don't always end up as something more. Also, no matter how good you are at attracting women, there are some whose company you just won't enjoy--and vice versa. That said, I'm certainly not complaining about the relationships I have had.
MR: Not to put you on the spot, but what is your own relationship history like and how did it play into the design of the programs? Tell us a little about what sparked the ideas for ValentineLife.com, 3GirlsADay and Valentine University as well.
TV: My relationship history has been unique and quite good, to say the least. I've dated amazing women, multiple women at the same time, and even girls who would pick up girls with me, but that wasn't always the case. When I was nineteen, I was a virgin who had never had a girlfriend and had only been kissed once. And, maybe worse, I didn't understand how girls thought or how relationships worked. Whenever I create a product, I try to create something I would have wanted during that learning process, whether it is general life advice, online dating techniques, or ongoing coaching.
MR: Since life coaching and motivational speaking workshops seem to have peaked (at least visibly in the culture), how do you get over the challenge of you and your various programs being stereotyped?
TV: Not all life coaches are created equal. And fortunately, not all life-coaching clients are created equal. People want someone they can relate to and admire. So while Oprah will probably always crush me in the middle-age housewives market, I have a leg up with twenty-something guys and recent divorcees. Just as with game, it's not about having everybody like you. It's about having some people buy into you enough and actually take action with what you're teaching.
MR: You have videos, books, etc. How do you envision your relationship and confidence building programs growing over the next few years and is there an ultimate, personal goal for you?
TV: The goal is to spread my message and teach as many people as possible without diluting that message. I think what people respect about the way I teach is that there is verifiable proof of my successes in the real world, and I don't teach conjecture--I teach experimentally proven truth. For some people, that's all too hardcore, but because what I teach is verifiable, my fans really buy in. So I'm not just able to sell them a product or show them a video, I'm actually able to get them to make positive, lasting changes in their lives.
MR: What is some simple advice for someone who hasn't been successful with relationships or who has low self-confidence beyond, of course, taking your workshops and seminars?
TV: First, take action. The single biggest reason for not having a dating life is a lack of interactions with women. So leave the house and talk to a girl, or put a profile up online. Do something! Second, though, and this is related to not taking action: get rid of your ego. Most guys don't make a move or are nervous because they view their success with women as a reflection on themselves. It's not; it's a set of skills, and you aren't supposed to be naturally good with women. You had to fall to learn to walk. You have to get rejected to get good with girls.
MR: Todd, how fortunate your last name is "Valentine" and you're involved with relationship programs. Would one be right in assuming your last name might be a teensy bit different?
TV: Wow, I guess I am lucky! [laughs] But seriously, because my real last name gets spelled wrong so often, I didn't think it was very good for marketing; the US government has accidentally given me two extra legal names through typos. Valentine is more memorable--and spell-able--and it allows more people to easily find me and get to work on their lives.