The songwriter and former East 17 member recalls the deeply personal tragedy behind his band’s unlikely and enduring Christmas smash
The pop world of the early to mid-90s was rich with the exposed torsos and hook-laden tunes of boybands. East 17 offered their fans a grittier, urban-inflected style of music to most, which made them the UK’s heirs to New Kids On The Block’s parent-terrifying throne. Their 1992 debut single House Of Love, as well as hits such as Steam, Let It Rain and Thunder embodied a sound as indebted to hip hop and R&B as it was to chart pop, and made the East London foursome of Tony Mortimer, Brian Harvey, John Hendy and Terry Coldwell the dangerous poster boys of the era.
As the band’s chief songwriter, Tony was responsible for much of their creative output and achieved his greatest success with the 1994 ballad Stay Another Day, a tune at odds with their typical urban sound. That year’s Christmas chart-topper, its success couldn’t even be matched by their fiercest rivals, Take That and remains a staple of the festive season.
Here Tony opens up about the tragedy at the heart of this least Christmasy of songs…
“Like most of my songs back then, it started off with chord progressions. There was always pressure from the record company to write, so I used to look through old songs to see how they were written. I needed to write two ballads for the album and I settled on this one, it’s just a simple I-V-IV chord progression. It’s technically a I-V-IV, I-V-IV-IV and it looped around on itself. It’s a classic progression and if there are people who want to write a song, that is a great place to start.
“It started off with this I-V-IV progression and I needed a melody for it, so I wrote the little string line. I remember doing the verse and I couldn’t think of another half, so I repeated it and it worked again. It was kind of rough and I thought ‘do you know what, I’m going to repeat it again!’ I wrote the string-line for the chorus as well, which had a melody to it, and it fitted in straight away. I went and made some spaghetti on toast in my little flat in Walthamstow and left it looping. I’d eaten and was chilling out and it had been running for 20 minutes and I thought ‘I’m not bored of that so people aren’t going to be bored if it’s only three minutes, and they might even want to hear it again.’
“I had the melody and the chords and I was looking for a story to go on top of it. It was based on my brother’s suicide and losing someone. What would you do if you had one more day with a loved one? Over time I started to put together the story and I wrote it in a different way to any song I’d written before. It’s a different way of writing because they were just sections of statements, rather than a verse being a story from beginning to end. If you take the first verse, it was just sections like ‘Don’t you know we’ve come too far now just to go and try to throw it all away’ and ‘I’ve only just begun to know you, all I can say is won’t you stay another day.’ It was all based on conversations I’d had with my brother and I was trying to change it into a love song about the end of a relationship.
“Once people connect with a line in a song, that’s what makes a hit”
“I wanted to write in an ambiguous way that would mean a lot to a lot of people. It was a bit of a risk as I didn’t know how well it was going to go down, but I wanted the lines to mean something to everyone. Yes, there’s my story in there but, more importantly, I wanted it to reach people. Once people connect with a line in a song, that’s what makes a hit.
“It was recorded in August with Rob Kean and Dominic Hawken, who I gave a percentage of the writing as well. We started playing it to people and everyone really liked it, but I didn’t want it to be a single as it was a very personal song. The record company and management said, ‘That’s a Christmas No 1,’ and I was like, ‘What are you talking about, it’s nothing to do with Christmas?’ In the end, there was such a big thing that I said, ‘Okay then, we’ll put it out and we’ll see what happens.’ We went to the producers, Harding and Curnow, and I was sitting outside the Strongroom with Ian Curnow and he asked, ‘How do you see this sounding?’ I said, ‘I hear it like an orchestra: it starts off quite sparse before crescendoing at the end.’ I’d always wanted to do that with a song and then he turned around and went, ‘Well that’s my forte, that’s what I love doing. We’ll chuck everything in it.’ That’s why it built into such a massive track towards the end.
“I never really thought it was an East 17 song, we were a very rowdy group with chanty stuff and raps. Brian didn’t like it and there was some to-ing and fro-ing. There was a bit of a set-to in the studio over the recording of it. The vocal coach said to me, ‘You go home and don’t worry about it and I’ll get the vocals out of him,’ he put down a good track and the rest is history after that. They all loved the fact that it was a huge hit and we had a lot of fun off the back of it, we started touring properly.
“We’d usually get a mid-week call to tell us what position our songs were in the chart but nobody rang me and nobody answered my calls and I felt a bit bad. I thought it must have really stiffed so I listened to the radio to hear where my song was, and if it was at No 20 I would have to apologise to some people. I listened to it and I remember sitting there like I was a kid listening to the countdown. Everyone else knew that it was a number 1 by mid-week but they just weren’t telling me so that I’d listen to it on the radio. For the first time in our career, we actually had a No 1 record and it was a really emotional moment and I loved them all for giving me the blanket treatment. It went to No 1 which was fantastic and then it was No 1 the next week, and that was me made up, and then it stayed there again and again.
“It’s an honour to be a Christmas songwriter”
“It was a massive thing, we couldn’t achieve anything more. Take That would go to No 1 for one week and then they’d be out the next week. We went there and we stayed there. It was just unsurpassable and I remember someone saying, ‘You’ve written a classic,’ and I didn’t know what he meant, but time tells all and it’s still hanging around and it still gets played at Christmas. Every year, from October, I get inundated with people wanting to record it. Kylie’s covered it this year, which is really strange. She’s covered a song about my brother and it’s lovely.
“I was nominated for two Ivor Novello awards but I didn’t know what an Ivor Novello was. I hadn’t set out to win awards, that wasn’t what it was about but I was really happy. I went to collect it and there was a bottle of champagne on the table. I got absolutely hammered which was really bad, but that was the pressure of boy bands at the time. Ironically, I was in handwriting classes at school. I was born left-handed but my mum changed me to right-handed, which gave me horrific handwriting when I was younger. It’s very strange that you can be someone who needs handwriting classes and can then win writing awards later in life. It gives people a little bit of hope.
“I wish I could enjoy it a bit more but I always find it very emotional. Sometimes it comes on the radio and I’ve got to turn it off, or I’ll be in Tesco’s down the food aisle and it’ll be playing in the background. I get emotional when I sing it and the crowd sings it back, that’s always really tough. I’ll tell myself that’s the last time I’m ever going to perform it, but I always seem to do one more. I’ve done a lot of things in my life but that’s the one thing I’m most famous for and that’s fine. It’s an honour to be a Christmas songwriter and in another three years it will have lasted a quarter of a century, not bad for a little boy from Walthamstow.”