The latest songwriting podcast features the playwright, lyricist and composer best-known for creating Shirley Valentine, Educating Rita and Blood Brothers
Joining Sodajerker on the podcast this time is Willy Russell – a celebrated Liverpudlian playwright, screenwriter, composer and musician who gave us, among others, such enduring shows as Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine and Blood Brothers. However, Willy’s first love was music, initially inspired by witnessing The Beatles in action at The Cavern in his early teens. He was later turned on to folk music, especially Bob Dylan, and formed his own folk group, The Kirby Town Three, and eventually ran his own folk night.
In 1974 a production of Willy’s Beatles-inspired play, John, Paul, George, Ringo … and Burt became his biggest success to date, followed a few years later by the TV play Our Day Out. Educating Rita premiered in 1980 and was adapted for the big screen a couple of years later, starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine. Willy conjured another female character for the ages in Shirley Valentine, which was first produced in 1986, its screen adaptation following three years later and earning him a BAFTA nomination. He also composed the score for that film, as he did for 1990’s Dancin’ Thru The Dark.
In a career littered with achievements, perhaps the most towering of them all is Blood Brothers – a tear-jerking tale of twin boys separated at birth. It was first performed in 1981 at a Liverpool comprehensive school before its author developed it into a musical, revising the book and composing all the music and lyrics himself. It was revived in 1987 and ran until 2012, and enjoyed a three-year stretch on Broadway in the early 90s, boasting the likes of Carole King amongst its cast and receiving several Tony nominations.
Willy’s songwriting chops came to the fore once again in 2004, with the release of his album Hoovering The Moon, and later toured with fellow writer Tim Firth as The Singing Playwrights, performing music from the record. And it’s a question about this album that our highlights of the podcast starts with…
We were listening to China, from Hoovering The Moon… it sounds like you’re writing about people you know. Is that just the skill of the dramatist at work, or is there an autobiographical element?
“Nobody in the song is actually someone I could point to and say it’s based on them, but I know all the people in that song! It’s the same as writing a play: there’s no one person I could point to and say, that was Rita of Educating Rita. But there’s lots of people who’ve got elements of that; I know loads of Ritas. It’s the same with the song. Well, I think there’s one character, Radical Rose – it’s not her, but there’s a Rose I always think of when I sing that song.”
As a writer, you probably capture potential ideas all the time, do you? Are you always writing down song titles and so on?
“Very, very rarely. I’ve always been of the opinion that I’ve heard other writers express, that if the idea’s not good enough to stick, then it’s probably not worth pursuing anyway. The poet Adrian Henri is a very good friend of mine and he always used to keep a notebook, and he was astounded that I didn’t. But often Adrian’s notebooks were full of little watercolours rather than lines of poetry anyway!
“So no, I don’t keep a notebook – and I don’t consciously look out for things while I’m out conducting my ordinary life, either. But I think as I’ve got older, maybe I should keep a notebook by the side of the bed, because I think the brain doesn’t retain things as well.”
Do you usually write lyrics first, or does the process vary?
“99.9 per cent of the time it’s from melody, actually. The melody suggests the lyric, the mood, the atmosphere… listening to your shows I’ve heard so many people say that, and then others astound me, saying they begin with a lyric. Glenn Tilbrook, for example, and Chris Difford – I was astounded by their working method.
“People have given me lyrics sometimes, and I’ve done it to satisfy someone who wants me to set a lyric to music, but I become melodically restricted when I look at lyrics first. I don’t seem to have the ability to see the melody in a set of lyrics. Whereas others do – the lyric will lead them on into a certain melodic area, but for me it just doesn’t work. But if I’m sitting around with a guitar or a banjo or at the piano and something strikes, I’ll just sort of file that away, and then one day it’ll come out and suggest the mood that it should be.”
When did you actually start writing songs?
“Well, I’d messed around with bits of writing… it was the one thing I could do at school, I loved it when we had English and it was composition. The rest of the kids in the D-stream of my secondary school in St Helens hated it, but I loved it! So I messed around with bits of writing, and my mum had always written bits of poetry and verse, so it wasn’t an alien thing to me. But the idea of being a writer… y’know, I was 14, and a writer was someone who wore tweed jackets, smoked a pipe and went somewhere called Oxford or Cambridge!
“Coming from my background, you wouldn’t know what a writer was. If I said to my father ‘I want to be a writer,’ he’d go, ‘Well I want to be the King of England, now what are you gonna do for work?’. So I put the idea away again, as being a nonsense. I was in the D-stream at school, headed for the bottle factory. But I’d always been precocious musically and I was a huge Buddy Holly fan. And one of my closest friends in my early teens was Tom Evans, who later on was in Badfinger and co-wrote Without You, and he was a big Everly Brothers fan.
“Well, we weren’t really Shadows fans, certainly not Cliff Richard fans, but we both went to see The Shadows at The Empire, and it was the first live music we’d seen. And even though it wasn’t really our cup of tea, just to see real Fender Strats, and the way the lights ricocheted off the pick-ups, it was just fantastic. Then we were out messing around one day and we bumped into this older lad Melvin. And we told him about this Shadows gig and he was like, ‘Oh, I go to the Cave,’ real snotty like. So we said, ‘What’s the Cave?’ and he said, ‘The Cavern, y’know… I go on the lunchtime sessions’.
“And then we found out The Cavern did nights as well. We were only 14, but we told our parents we were going… somewhere, certainly not The Cavern, and it was all, ‘Make sure you’re home by 10’. So we went down to Matthew Street, which was still a fruit market, and we walked through that fermented fruit smell, then down the stairs and there was the infamous disinfectant smell, and then the cheap perfume… we were terrified we were going to be kicked out, but just being in this place and seeing Shane Fenton, I think it was… now we were seeing Strats right up close!
“So it got to 9.15, and we needed to leave because it was a long way home to Knowsley. But then we saw these black AC30s come on stage… and then four men in black, with their hair combed forward! It was like the Martians had landed: nobody you ever saw in Britain wore their hair like that. We had to stay, of course. And then The Beatles kicked in with Some Other Guy, and life was never the same again.
“Within two weeks, I’d gone out and bought what I thought was a guitar. It was a plank with wires on, basically! And I didn’t see Tommy for a couple of weeks, but by the time I did he’d got himself an F-hole Hofner. And immediately you could see how gifted he was. Tom quickly went on to greater and greater things, and I was left lagging behind. But then the folk thing happened, and I became aware of Dylan. And once I became aware of Dylan, I realised that I could write songs.”
We really need to ask you about Blood Brothers. Do you ever start a musical with the songs, or is it more a case of writing a play and then thinking about the music?
“Blood Brothers came about because of music. It was one of those rare ideas that come fully made. I was walking along one day, I lifted up my right foot and by the time I’d put it down and lifted up my left, the whole story was there. I was still a hairdresser at the time, and I used to go and cut the hair of a Mrs Walker. She always had the telly on, and Top Of The Pops was on, and I saw Hendrix for the first time, doing Hey Joe. And if you think of the end of Blood Brothers, there’s a madman with a gun… that level of violence and anger was something that was sparked by seeing Hendrix on TOTP.
“And then I had this image of woman with a gaggle of children like a mother hen, walking along the East Lancs Road. Well I mean, you don’t walk along the East Lancs Road, it’s an arterial road between Manchester and Liverpool. But I had this image in my head, like a film high shot of that, and I knew that was the twins, and I knew they wouldn’t survive. And I knew it was a musical.
“I was terrified of the idea! I was terrified of its bleakness. Sometimes if you have an idea in its entirety, you’re frightened of it, because the only thing you can do now is get it wrong. But then I’d lie there in bed at night and keep thinking of new scenes. So I had the idea for a long time before I actually start to write it.
“I’d discounted myself as a composer, because when I first went into the theatre I’d sort of played down my songwriting. I wanted to be taken seriously in drama, and I stupidly, snobbishly thought if they find out I’m just a singer-songwriter, they won’t take me seriously. So I approached various people to write the music over the years. I’d worked with Paul McCartney trying to come up with a movie for Wings, and I wrote to him and asked if he fancied collaborating on it, because he’d once said ‘When John and I stop writing pop songs, we’ll go into composing musicals’. So it wasn’t such a crazy idea, but I never heard back from him, of course!
“My folk-singing days were over by then, but I was still good friends with the folk singer Nic Jones. He was staying with me once because he had a gig in Chester, and I remember telling him about this Blood Brothers story, which by this time I’d realised was very like an English ballad. Ballad as in a story-song, not just as in a slow love song. And Nic was a great singer of ballads, so I talked to him about it, but he was in a terrible accident shortly after that, which more or less finished his career. So Nic was out of the scene, too.
“And then I’d written Educating Rita, and I was working on the movie script. My office at that time was at the Everyman Annexe, and a guy called Paul who ran the Merseyside Young People’s Theatre was just across the way. He was always asking me to write something for them, and just to get him off my back I said, ‘Okay, I’ll write something once I’ve finished this movie script.’
“But when I came to fulfil this commission, I couldn’t think of anything. So then I remembered the Blood Brothers idea. It was for schools, it had to be 70 minutes, and I thought he said we was going to hire an actor who could double on piano. So I wrote it as a mini-musical, and presented it to Paul and he was like, ‘No, you must’ve dreamt that!’. So I cut all the songs, apart from the Marilyn Monroe song, which they did a capella.
“It was five actors with minimal lighting, in front of 150 truculent schoolkids who’d been dragged there reluctantly, but they’d do the Marilyn Monroe song and – silence. And then laughter… laughing at actors being 14-year-olds, saying dirty stuff and doing all those embarrassing boy-girl things. And then at the end, even just with a mimed gun, these kids were blown away.
“So buoyed by the effectiveness of that version, I immediately set about writing the full musical. And I thought, I’m just going to have to write the music myself.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have over 80 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Lamont Dozier, Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 83-minute interview with Willy Russell – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.