The feelgood anthem that became a hit in two decades for two different bands was inspired by Cliff Richard
Since You’ve Been Gone, You Can Do Magic, New York Groove, So You Win Again, No More The Fool, Liar… Russ Ballard’s songs are on permanent heavy rotation the world over. The Hertfordshire-born musician’s outstanding back catalogue has been mined and recorded by everyone from Rainbow to Hot Chocolate to America to Elkie Brooks to Three Dog Night and many, many more.
But his own first hit record was 1973’s God Gave Rock And Roll To You with Argent, the British rock group he founded with the former Zombies keyboardist Rod Argent. It was their third UK Top 40 single, but the song also reached the Top 10 in 1991 when it was covered by the American hard rock band Kiss, after featuring on the soundtrack to the movie Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
Over to Russ to explain how the power ballad resulted from a period of optimism and a recurring love of minor keys…
“The strange thing is, when Rod Argent was in The Zombies, he was writing at 17 years old and coming up with She’s Not There, which was No 1 in America and Top 20 here. That was a very sophisticated song, chords, mood, production, arrangement… everything. So when he asked me to be in the band, it gave me a profile and Rod asked, ‘Have you got any songs?’
“I knew we had an album to do – it was going to be on In Deep – so I was writing a lot about my thoughts at the time and feeling optimistic. With the title, I got the buzz because I had the idea – I was feeling so good at the time. I used to write everything in a minor key, I just used to feel for minor keys. Even when it’s in a major key I try to make it sound like it’s in a minor! That reflected my moods at the time. I remember, in 1973, when I wrote God Gave Rock And Roll To You, I felt so happy, so good and life was like spring. So I thought, ‘Love your friend, love your neighbour / Love your life and love your labours / Never too late to change your mind / Don’t step on snails, don’t climb in trees / Love Cliff Richard but please don’t tease…’
“But from the end, you can tell I’d been through a rough time and was coming out the other side – I wrote: ‘Do you want to be a singer or play guitar? / Man, you’ve got to sweat or you don’t get far / It’s never too late to work nine-to-five / If you’re young, then you’ll never be old / Music can make your dreams unfold / How good it feels to be alive…’ We’ve all been through that. I mean, we are all attached. I’m not a scientist or an expert but I believe that, as human beings, we are attached. Somebody says a joke and you laugh at it, or somebody says something pertinent, or people can upset you… And when it comes to songs, I think you get the same feelings.
“I try to work in different ways. All those songs like God Gave Rock And Roll To You and Since You’ve Been Gone, sound like guitar songs but I wrote them on piano. I was in my house down in Newlands, in Huddlestone, I had a big music room upstairs and I had a Steinway grand piano… Actually, it was before I had the Steinway – I had an upright piano that my mother bought me for my 21st birthday. I just remember [coming up with] the chords, writing down the lyrics and feeling that I wanted to make it an anthem. And it sounded more of an anthem when we finished it because we gave it a big, orchestral arrangement. I thought that was strong and I thought the idea of making the Cliff Richard thing was quite funny because he had a hit called Please Don’t Tease.
“I was always using those chords [with a descending sequence], they give me a buzz – they’ve been on thousands of No 1s and always seem to work, like A Whiter Shade Of Pale. Now, I use it less. In the 60s it was E, A and B7 – Summer Lovin’, Twist And Shout. But I think the key is in the lyric, I believe it’s the soul of the song. If you haven’t got the right lyrics, it ain’t gonna be a hit anyway, so say something in a different way and use the same chords.
“Kiss changed the first verse but I think they got it right. I mean, ‘Put your faith in a loud guitar…’ is more rock ‘n’ roll. I was trying to be, what I am, very loving and funny – I was trying to express my feelings more than anything. But they got it right because they made it a real rock song and they sped it up. I always thought ours was too slow and while we were rehearsing it I said it should be more ‘up’. I think Kiss spent time getting that tempo absolutely spot on.”