Leo Sayer’s Orchard Road and the best known (ie hit) version of a-Ha’s Take On Me are both classic examples of the work of writer-producer Alan Tarney, hence my decision to yoke them together (Take On Me will be at 99); yet they showcase his skills in different ways. We’ll encounter Tarney many more times as we count down to my Number One favourite record of all time. But this is probably the best place for some potted biog, Tarney being less well-known than he deserves.
Briefly: Tarney began his career in a band called Quartet alongside Trevor Spencer and Terry Britten, friends he’d made in Adelaide after he moved there from Cumberland in the late 1960s. Quartet signed to Decca in the UK and put out a couple of singles, but their album was never released. After the band split in 1970, they farmed themselves out as a rhythm unit and songwriters-for-hire, most notably to Olivia Newton-John and Cliff Richard. Tarney and Spencer also worked as a duo from 1975 onwards as the Tarney-Spencer Band, enjoying mild success in the UK with the 1976 single I’m Your Man Rock ’n’ Roll, an attempt (seemingly) to work out what the Bo Diddley strut of The Who’s Magic Bus would sound like if you welded on a disco middle section. Pleasingly, it earned them a Top Of The Pops appearance.
In America, on the other hand, they hit biggish in 1979 with the Boston-influenced drivetime favourite No Time To Lose and its host album Run For Your Life, produced by David Kerschenbaum, the man who not only signed Joe Jackson to A&M but remixed Duran Duran’s Rio album for the American market, giving us in the process the celebrated (by me, at least) Carnival EP.
Right from the start, Tarney’s preference was to work alone and do as much as possible himself. ‘While I started off as a session musician, I also had a publishing contract with ATV Music,’ he explained to Sound On Sound in 2011, ‘and in those days the publisher would give you £150 to go and record the demo. That budget was supposed to pay for the musicians, but I found a studio that would give me a whole day for £150 and, being self-taught, I played all the instruments myself. I did that every day and I eventually became very adept at making records. As a result, on the records that I subsequently produced I played all the instruments. You don’t have to be great, you just have to know the right things to do.’
Britten’s songwriting breakthrough came in 1976 when he wrote Devil Woman for Richard’s comeback album I’m Nearly Famous – ‘comeback’ in the sense that it restored him to mainstream respectability after a string of flops. Tarney would have to wait until 1979 for his big moment: We Don’t Talk Anymore, Richard’s first UK Number One since Congratulations.
Shadow Bruce Welch had produced much of Richard’s ’70s output. Tarney had joined The Shadows on bass between 1973 and 1977 and contributed songs to Welch’s albums with Richard. His first actual production job – with Welch – was Charlie Dore’s awesome 1979 single Pilot Of The Airwaves: the pair were drafted in by Island boss Chris Blackwell after he decided Joe Boyd’s mix of the album he had sent Dore to, er, Nashville to record was ‘too country’.
Tarney assumed sole production duties for the 1980 Richard album I’m No Hero and contributed the Top Ten hit Dreamin’, a co-write with… Leo Sayer.
Interviewed in 2008, Richard remembered the sessions for Dreamin’ as ‘an unusual way of recording because the song was too high for me. But Alan Tarney, who co-wrote it, told me it was fantastic and asked me to try to sing it in this key. It’s got a fantastic intro that lasts about 45 seconds. Leo Sayer helped write the lyrics. I got the first verse done. He wrote the second verse. I recorded it a verse at a time, which I’ve never done before or since.’
Leo Sayer’s first taste of success had been as a songwriter – he and his songwriting partner Dave Courtney wrote Roger Daltrey’s one big solo success, the 1973 single Giving It All Away. (Aside: why was this pleasant but unremarkable song such a big hit when The Who were struggling to break the Top 20 with singles as strong as Relay and 5:15?) But although Sayer had gone on to become a massive star – appearing-on-The-Muppet-Show massive – his own contributions to his biggest albums were swamped by the forced involvement of a mass of hired-in help.
Sayer’s 1976 move to LA and alignment with the American über-producer Richard Perry (Harry Nilsson, Barbra Streisand, Art Garfunkel, Diana Ross) would give him two US Number Ones – You Make Me Feel Like Dancing and When I Need You – and a huge album in Endless Flight. But Perry, regarded as a ‘singer’s producer’, was more interested in stretching Sayer’s voice by getting him to record standards than in encouraging him as a writer.
‘When I first started working with Leo, he came with a cassette of 12 new songs, none of which got recorded,’ Perry admitted to Rolling Stone. ‘That’s a pretty heavy blow for an artist to be told that none of these songs are of any interest to me.’ Sayer’s four co-writes on Endless Flight (out of ten tracks) are all with tried and tested professional songwriters like Barry Mann, Vini Poncia, Frank Furrell, Tom Snow, Albert Hammond and Carole Bayer Sager. Compare that with Sayer’s first three albums (Silverbird, Just A Boy and Another Boy) where he’s credited as full or co-writer on every track.
Any suspicion that Sayer felt cut out of the process is rebutted by Tom Snow on his blog: ‘Writing with Leo was always a blast. He was always so quick, bursting with ideas and wonderfully funny. If we had as many hits together as we had laughs…. Anyway, I came up with the piano riff that starts [It’s Over, from Sayer’s 1977 album Thunder In My Heart] while we were looking for ideas one sunny afternoon at his rented house in Laurel Canyon. Or maybe I had the riff in my pocket and started playing it to see what Leo would do. Whatever. Leo went into creative overdrive and I went along for the ride. It remains one of my favourites of the five co-writes he and I did for the album.’
Still, you can’t really (or couldn’t in those days – it happens routinely now) call yourself a ‘singer-songwriter’ if you’ve only been involved in writing a third of the material on your albums – the situation Sayer had been in since 1976. And for all their virtues, Sayer’s Perry albums have an overpowering, late-70s air of excessive complexity.
1978’s softer, more countrified Leo Sayer, Sayer’s final album with Perry, has some lovely stuff on it. But it also has a Bryan Ferry-esque, what-the-hell-were-they-all-doing-making-the-tea? 32 musicians credited on the sleeve: regulars like Ray Parker, Jr (whose co-write with Sayer, the Chic-like Frankie Lee, is a highlight) but also Lindsey Buckingham, Jackson Browne, Andy Fairweather-Low and the band who would shortly become Toto (and who would, coincidentally, back Charlie Dore on her second album Listen). Connections, connections.
So, yes. To cut a long story short: by 1979 Sayer was back in the UK and looking for a new sound. He hired Alan Tarney to devise it.
For the most part it was the sound of Pilot Of The Airwaves – warm, plangent AOR with tight harmonies and soft, damp drums; synths used to augment ‘real’ instruments by creating a halo around them, pulling them into focus but also teasing the ear with barely perceptible flourishes, curlicues half-concealed on the edge of the mix. The best example of this is Sayer/Tarney’s take on More Than I Can Say, a minor hit for its writers Sonny Curtis and Jerry Allison of The Crickets in 1960; a moderate one for Bobby Vee the following year; but a massive one for Sayer in 1980.
(Lengthy aside: Tarney’s occasional habit of recycling songs across different artists is revealing about what makes a song ‘work’. Once In A While is one of the high points of Cliff Richard’s Wired For Sound (1981). But the ‘original’ version on the album Tarney produced for Sayer the year before, Living In A Fantasy, is markedly inferior – less propulsive, less suited to Sayer’s voice than Richard’s and lacking the mattress of lush backing vocals onto which the chorus collapses in Richard’s version. Still, it’s better than David Cassidy’s dirge of a comeback single The Last Kiss – the same tune as Young Love from Wired For Sound but slowed down to hiking-through-treacle ballad pace.)
On, then, to Orchard Road. Finally! But you know, context is all.
Orchard Road turned up on the album Have You Ever Been In Love (1983) and represents the antithesis of the Richard Perry approach. It’s stark but warm, uncluttered but ample in a way that stops an essentially sentimental song from being cloying. Tarney played a Fairlight and programmed the Linn drum machine. And that’s it. The vocal is rough around the edges (cf ‘I think I can see it now…’) because it was a guide vocal kept on account of its feel.
Tarney wrote the music, up to a point: Orchard Road uses as scaffolding Pachelbel’s Canon – see also The Farm’s Altogether Now, Rain And Tears by Aphrodite’s Child, et al. Its moments of Tarney genius are the lurch up to G sharp major for ‘It’s twelve o’clock and the curtains are drawn…’, which you don’t expect at all, and the rumbling zap of an A sharp (or is it B flat? – I’m not sure what the key is and it’s to do with that, isn’t it? To do with whether it’s functioning as a diatonic note for that key?) he holds in the background as Sayer finishes ‘painting his picture’ and belts out ‘And I wish I could be…’ in a voice both plaintive and possessed; an A sharp (or B flat) that sounds to me more like a Yamaha CS-80 (as used by, say, Vangelis) than a Fairlight, but I don’t know, maybe the Fairlight had a preset that sounded like a CS-80. My synth knowledge is basic.
Anyway. It’s yet another reminder of the extraordinary power of early synths to produce warm, rich, beautiful, human-scale sounds. Even the Fairlight’s digital sounds went beyond mere emulation when used in the right way. Would John Farnham’s You’re The Voice be as affecting if it had proper strings on it rather than fake Fairlight ones? (If you don’t think John Farnham’s You’re The Voice is affecting, you’re reading the wrong blog.)
The lyrical thrust of Orchard Road is that Sayer has been kicked out of the marital home (Churchfield Road in Acton, apparently) and is begging to be be allowed to return. He knows he’s guilty of whatever it is he’s done (‘Will I have the nerve to say…?’) but then starts complaining about how he’s been ‘struck by such bad luck’, which frankly, if I was Leo’s wife, wouldn’t wash with me, the ‘bad luck’ infidelity defence being at best implausible and at worst sociopathic.
The memorable bit occurs after Leo has finished telling Mrs Leo about his improved employment prospects (‘I think I’ve got a job, they’re gonna call me next week’), hinting that whatever the job is it’s going to take him ‘out of town’.
It has a dramatic effect. Suddenly, Mrs Leo capitulates! He can pop round after all! Leo can hardly believe his ears. ‘What’s that? Tomorrow at two? You’re kidding me, no. Is it all right with you?’
(The only other mundane-phone-conversation-as-lyric that I can think of off the top of my head is Lady Gaga’s Telephone. But there must be others.)
The last verse – ‘It’s eight o’clock and the dawn’s arrived/ Orchard Road it’s breakfast time/ I climb in my car and I turn the key and I’m gone/ I am coming home to Orchard Road’ – raises an interesting question. Mrs Leo doesn’t want to see him until 2pm. So if it’s 8am now, he’s got six hours to wait. Now, that’s not a problem if he’s six hours’ drive away from Acton – Minehead, say, if the traffic is bad on the A303. But I don’t think he’s that far away. I think he’s on the other side of London, maybe Brixton or even Crystal Palace. So what I’m saying is, Leo mustn’t make the mistake of getting to Orchard Road too early. Because Mrs Leo might not be ready for him. I’ll say no more.
Orchard Road got to number 16 in April 1983.