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Interview: JOHN PARR

Rock Stars...  

John Parr was born in Worksop, England and had a major world hit with 'St Elmo's Fire' in 1985.  He has written for many artists and also acted as co-producer with Mutt Lange for Romeo's Daughter's debut in 1988.

John Parr, photo by Leslie Linyard

Hi John, you've just completed a UK tour with Richard Marx ending with a wonderful evening at the Royal Albert Hall, how was it for you?

It was a dream come true for me. When I was a kid my dad managed me. He used to say " You don't need a band, just sit on a stool with your guitar, tell em' a few stories and just play". I wasn't having any of it back then - I was just rocking out with the band.

All these years later I still love kicking it with the band but sitting up there at the Albert Hall my dad's words came flooding back. Just before I started to play my last song "St Elmo's" I tried to say" this is for you dad" but the words just wouldn't come out. I actually started playing the wrong song. I have played most of the big gigs around the world but this place really got to me.

You became a household name on both sides of the pond with the smash hit 'St.Elmo's Fire'; Can you tell us the story behind that?

David Foster told me he was writing with McCartney, trying to rip my tune "Naughty Naughty" (allegedly). Foster's wife came in the room and say's "there's a guy on the radio singing your song!" Needless to say it freaked me out when he relayed the story. But he swears its true and say' s that' s what led him to make contact with me.

He was doing the soundtrack for the movie and had a bunch of songs with other artistes recorded. He asked if I' d come to the studio and write a tune with him.

I got there and he was really fried. He wasn' t interested in writing he just wanted me to sing one of the tunes he had recorded. I persuaded him to just give us a couple of hours to write a new tune. He eventually submitted.

We actually wrote 3 songs. I would have settled at song 2 but he saw our potential and I learned a lot that day. Our 3rd song was the one and I knew it there and then. Written and recorded in two days it was the most magical time for me - all those incredible players that came through the studio doors - Michael Landau in and out in 3 hours - Jerry Hey and his incredible horn section the same - Richard Page on BV' s - Humberto Gatica on the board - man it just doesn' t get any better than that.

John Parr, photo by Leslie Linyard

The video which accompanied St.Elmo's Fire at the Albert Hall also made my hairs on my back stand on end. Any chance of the song being re-released maybe with an acoustic version too, as that song now has another meaning.

Yeah the Rick Hansen story is the true inspiration for the song. Though David and I wrote the tune real quick, I was struggling to find the lyric. He say' s this is nothing to do with the movie but take a look at this… He pushes a video cassette into the machine and up comes this great looking young guy on screen, Rick Hansen…

He says 2 years ago I was fishing with my buddy just outside Vancouver - we had a great day and were thumbing a lift home. A pick up truck stops and his buddy Don Alder jumps in the cab and Rick Hops in the open back. A mile down the road the truck crashes. Don walks away without a scratch but the tool box in the back smacks into Rick' s back and breaks his spine.

As I watch the screen I realize that Rick is in a wheelchair… he continues, "You break your arm or your leg and you' re in a cast for 6 weeks - you break your back and you' re in a chair for the rest of your life - this can' t be right! I' m gonna get in this chair and wheel it around the world and raise money just to make people take notice and maybe in the end we can fix things".

I am glued to the screen as I watch Rick wheel out of a deserted shopping mall car park. A small camper van follows him with Don at the wheel; on the side it says "Man in motion world tour". And in that moment I knew …. My life was not about trying to be rock star or writing a hit, it was about this. I had to help; I had to write the song about Rick and his impossible dream. The rest as they say is history.

Two years, two months and two days after he wheeled out of that deserted car park - he wheeled back in to Vancouver. A million people lined the street - brass bands playing the tune…. People singing, crying… Rick had wheeled 50 miles a day for every day of those 2 years.

Across deserts, mountain ranges - even across the Great Wall of China. St Elmo' s (Man in Motion) had been number one in almost every country he wheeled through. David and I played our tune that incredible day of Rick Hansen' s triumphant return. - Yes it was Rick' s song and every man woman and child sang it with us.

So it is a long winded answer but it's a story I never tire of telling - to sit just with an acoustic and play the song as a soundtrack to Rick's incredible story is privilege. And yes I think I will always keep doing different arrangements of the song - the acoustic version on Letter to America was very emotional to record.

John Parr, Letter To America

You have a new album coming out on July 4th (Independence Day) 'Letter To America. Can you tell us more about that., is it all new songs or a mixture of old and new?

Letter to America is a double album - a rock album with around 17 tracks and an acoustic/ unplugged album with around 12 or so tracks on it.

I would say it reflects me completely as an artiste. In the past I have been criticised for being too diverse and so by doing two separate records in one box it frees me - to be balls to the wall rockin, or up close and personal.

The record has just about all the songs I am known for on it but either with a new take or a different angle. In essence I would say it' s a marker for me - it celebrates my past and is a signpost to where I am right now and where I' m heading. Having been unable to make records for so long I really wanted to make up for lost time.

John Parr, photo by Leslie Linyard

You're orignally from Doncaster, tell us about your early days playing in the workingman's club scene.

Actually I was born just outside Sherwood Forest. I only moved to Doncaster in the late 70' s. Me coming from Worksop and my wife coming from Castleford, Donny seemed like the bright lights to us.

I had played the clubs since I was a kid. My first paid show was with my school buddies "The Silence" we were all around 12 when we played Worksop Miners Welfare for Six Guineas ( £6.30 in new money) a S**t load of cash back then - especially for a kid.

Dad managed us and drove the truck - an ex-army ambulance. We did 150,000 miles gigging around England before we turned 16. Every year we felt we would make it but as our teens turned into our twenties the clock just kept ticking, we were heading nowhere fast.

The boys packed it all in when the umpteenth truck finally gave up the ghost. I kept plugging away writing but I stopped doing the clubs in 1979 - it was a pretty sad day as I had done it since 1964.

You eventually signed a publishing deal with Carlin' Music, but one of your first songs to be recorded by another artist was 'Danger In Paradise' by the Tygers Of Pan Tang for 'The Cage' album in '82, but you weren't too happy with the finished product?

Hey I was thrilled anybody would record one of my tunes - but it is a bit disappointing when after it had all that dough spent on it, it comes out barely better than your 8 track demo. I am sure the Tyger' s feel the same.

What other songs have you written for other artists we may not know about?

I wrote with Romeo's Daughter, Marilyn Martin, Richard Marx, Bobby Whitlock, Bernie Marsden, and Jim Cregan - man come to think of it I have done a lot of collaborations - I love to be in a good team.

It was a big thrill to write for Tom Jones but again I wish I could have worked on the track with him - logistics didn' t allow and I just feel there was so much more that could have been in that record.

He is one of my all time favourite singers and the track comes off a bit cabaret. Tom is a true soul rocker and I missed my chance to work with one of the greats.

John Parr, photo Ian Pollard
Photo: Ian Pollard/GRTR!

How did the boy from Yorkshire end up in the USA?

The Who had just broken up (for the first time) and John Wolff was looking for a new outlet - he went to my publishers and sifted through tapes and came across mine. He was loud, brash and in your face - everything that I am not (off stage) a perfect combination - we were unstoppable - I loved him then.

Wolff started out as a driver for Keith Moon in the sixties and was with him and the band from beginning to end of The Who - every story and happening he witnessed first hand.

During the endless flights and road trips that Wolff and I shared I got the history of rock and roll. Although I knew John Entwistle and Roger a little, Keith unfortunately was raising hell on another plain by then.

Wolff and I set our company up in 85 Bogus Global in memory of Keith. On a drunken flight he and Wolff had decided the whole world was Bogus and a company should be created to reflect it - I mean any body who would deal with a company called Bogus Global should have their bumps read…right! Any how BG is thriving as it has been for the past 25 years and is a living testament to the great man.

Is that how you ended up writing the title track for Roger Daltrey's 'Under A Raging Moon'?

I was writing with Julia Downs one day, laughing about a Keith story when she started to play the riff on the piano - the song came in a blinding flash - I wish I still had the demo but can' t find it for the life of me… we played it for Roger and he loved it. It became the title track of his most successful album to date.

I performed it as a duet at Madison Square Garden with him - Yoko, The Ox and a bunch of faces got up for what was an incredible night.

You worked on the 'Bad Attitude' album with Meat Loaf, but only two of your songs ended up on that album. Why? And how was Meat when you first met him.

Meat Loaf heard a demo tape of mine and a meeting was set up at Newcastle City Hall where he was doing a show. This would be around 83/84. I came prepared; I wrote some new songs for him and demoed them with my best Meatloaf impression… We hit it off and within a month I was living with him and his family in Connecticut.

I was in the studio with him and the band in the day and we would just hang out together out of hours. Meat and I became close - he had a fearful reputation but I have never seen a bad side to him. He has an immense talent that I feel is actually overshadowed by the billboard perception we all have of him and of course he plays it to the hilt.

He is a great writer that deserves far more credit than he has received. As to why only a few tunes of mine got on the record - I would just say it' s like an old movie… only the names change. There' s a lot of politics - keeping people sweet…. Things always suffer because of that. Or maybe they felt my other songs were S**t!

Did you feel you were stepping into big shoes considering Meat Loaf principal songwriter before was Jim Steinman?

Meatloaf used to introduce me as Jim' s successor - the new Steinman. I had studied Jim' s work very closely and have to say he is very original in his song construction. When I wrote specifically for Meat I would never be afraid to go over the top - for instance most writers will repeat a line once or twice - Jim will sometimes go 3 or 4 and just when you think it' s too much it somehow feels just right - the same goes for some of the musical sections of his classics. That' s not to say I was ripping him - I just wanted to keep the tone. Meat is like Wagner, Beethoven, Shakespeare and Seeger all rolled into one. He needs something to get his teeth into.

John Parr, photo by Leslie Linyard

Your relationship with Meat Loaf did continue as you both had a hit record with the single 'Rock 'n Roll Merceneries' from his 'Blind Before I Stop' album.

I loved our time together making Mercenaries - from recording out in Germany with Frank Farin, to shooting the video with Terry Donavan. We promoted that tune all over the world - just him and me - picking up TV bands along the way. Our friendship deepened and we just loved it - well I loved it. You' ll have to ask meat for his take on it.

You worked with Mutt Lange on production for the debut Romeo's Daughter album?

Mutt Lange is the king for me, both as a man and as a record producer. I was inspired by him before we met and then getting to do a record together was a privilege very few have had.

The way he nurtured Romeo' s Daughter and helped them develop a style - it was great to be part of that team. I will always remember … Mutt and Craig Joiner were coming in the next day to do BV' s, which meant I was in charge for the day… " What time do you want us boss?" now Mutt Lange saying that doesn' t get much better… but the next day I am pinching myself as I am directing the recording… "Can we go again, it was a little flat" … "FLAT, " said Mutt - not in a loud voice, he never raises his voice…I stood my ground - I reckon it was Craig who was out of tune but to give Mutt his due he never challenged me the rest of the day.

I learned three things from being around Mutt. Alterica coffee (instant but tastes like ground), Chocolate Hobnobs (man they are just great but because he is a veggie he can eat a box) - me, I just got fat. And the final thing I learned…. that he is The Best. I heard it in his records before we met and I witnessed him in the chair making them. What a life I have had.

It was shortly after working with Mutt I began a legal action against someone who shall remain nameless. I thought it would be over real quick and justice would be done. I was wrong. I was finally free December 29th 2010. When you are in litigation no major label will touch you. I had no outlet for my music so everything was just put on ice - it nearly killed me.

With Mutt there is a Def Leppard connection - they were riding a massive wave Stateside with Pyromania and Hysteria albums...Did you guys ever meet up at the time being fellow Yorkshire lads?

Joe and the boys go right back to a studio I had in the early 80' s. They recorded some of their demo' s there. Steve used to come to my working men' s club gigs - he was only a little kid then - his dad used to sneak him in. His loss hit us all very hard.

I have done a few shows with Joe and Rick and jammed on stage together. They are lovely lads who have never forgotten where they came from and will always go the extra mile for their home town and its community.

On the recent tour you have been playing 'A Best A Man Can Get' popularised by the Gillette advert, although i don't believe you actually sang it on the original commercial?

No I never sang any commercials. My role was stretching the 30 second jingle into a full blown song. A tough gig - can you think of a rhyme for Gillette…?

In the end I wrote it about kids - my kids your kids - they are in truth The Best a man can get.

During the Rick Hansen campaign we did a rewrite of St Elmo' s for McDonalds. And before you think "Oh he sold out" in return they gave a dollar to the campaign for every burger sold - in that six month period we raised over $23,000,000 for spinal research.

Your last studio album was 'Under Parr' in 96, then we didn't hear anything from you in over a decade, why was that?...

I was dead in the water long before Under Parr. From the nineties onwards I was locked in the litigation. I was ducking and diving doing little deals here and there to try and stay afloat. All my income was frozen for almost twenty years so I had to really bob and weave.

Man With A Vision was really a bunch of demos but as there were no deals on the table I was forced to release it through Blue Martin a small label in Switzerland- it was the only game in town - on the up side the owner of that company Martin Scheiss and AR Sue Beherendt became lifelong friends.

Even though we had very little exposure due to the court case - they invested in Under Parr. I told them not to unless they could afford to promote it properly. In the end they spent a ton of money making the record and had little left to promote it. I walked away from music for the next ten years. It broke my heart.

I was making records that only my family and friends heard - some of my best work I think, that no body was going to hear. The guitar stayed untouched in the box for ten years and I never sang a note.

John Parr, photo by Ian Pollard
Photo: Ian Pollard/GRTR!

What kept you going?

I never give in. I can' t be beaten. It' s just in me and in truth it can be a curse. When it would be far easier and less painful to just roll over and submit - I just can' t.

I threw myself into a ton of different things but always applied myself to it in the same way I had my music - always trying for the magic - reaching for perfection (no one ever reaches it) but I keep on reaching.

I bred dogs and won Crufts. I learned martial arts, became an instructor and with the guidance and friendship of Kenny Walton our coach - I helped steer my eldest son to 8 world titles and my youngest to 9 British titles and 1 world.

I went into movies became a screenwriter and produced a short that just missed an Oscar nomination by 2 places in 2006. So yeah I kept busy. I' m not bragging -You asked me… so I spilled the beans.

You've kept your roots in Doncaster and even got to record a song for your football team Doncaster Rovers with the rather nifty 'Out Of The Darkness' in 2007?

A few short years ago Donny Rovers were about to be relegated from the conference league. They were playing in Belle Vue, a rusting old ground that really summed up the team. Somehow they dragged themselves up by their bootstraps and clawed their way back up the divisions and finally into the Championship. They now have an 18,000 seater stadium, The Keepmoat, and the town has something to believe in once again. I just wanted to write a little tribute to their story. "Walking Out of The Darkness".

That must off really made you proud to hear that song being blasted out over the PA to the terraces?

It was great to hear the team come out to the song but the high point was when they played in the final at the Millennium Stadium - the whole ground was rockin' .

Do you ever think we will see the day when Doncaster Rovers can make it as a Premiership team? They only got one league to go..?

I actually felt it was going to be the fairytale leap straight into the Premiership. But I know the reality all too well. My dear Friend Gerry Francis is a testament to the realities of football. He has incredible knowledge passion and skill, but in this high finance game you need the dollars as well I am afraid to say. It can be done though - his work with Stoke proves it. Doncaster can be a Premiership team. Anything is possible with desire belief, commitment and investment…

You've done some acting before in the Rock Opera 'Paris' in '89?

I am very proud of Paris. As soon as I heard the demos I committed to it. I started training, running a lot to build up my stamina - I was going to be singing live with the LSO on the record so no chances of a second take.

It' s a huge record with some 400 musicians playing - it' s the story of the Trojan wars and I got to play the ill fated Paris.

I worked with some amazing talents on that record from right across the board. Harry Nillson  Barry Humphries, Demis Roussos, Francis Rossi. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life and through it I met my dear friend David Mackay (The co-author with Jon English) our families have become as one over these past 20 years. Check Paris out, it truly is remarkable. Hey I' m only in it - I didn' t write it so I can be somewhat objective… I can… I can…

Your son Ben has taken up the acting bug, I believe he can be seen almost daily on our screens?

Yeah Ben was in Hollyoaks for a while. Nothing to do with me - he got himself an agent and got the gig out of the box - no use of family name… he is an amazing chap- very dedicated as I said… 8 times World Tae Kwon Do champion - I think they just recognized that this was a young man with real potential - I apologize - a very proud dad…

Obviously your first acting role was in the video for your first hit single 'Naughty Naughty' which was a top 40 hit in the US . In that video you have three woman doing their best to rip your clothes off in one scene....Do you still have that effect on the women John?

Yes I never leave the house without wearing two sets of boxers. I was living every young man's dream back then. The cars, the girls, the adulation but I was still yearning for Donny…. YEAH RIGHT!

When can we can we here in the UK expect to see you live again with a full electric band again?  What about Firefest?

I leave for the States in a couple of days to put the band together. I am out there touring for the summer. We have some shows booked for Sept/Oct in the UK which in the main are up close and personal stuff.

I love playing with the band so I hope it pans out that we can bring them over at that same time. I guess it all hinges on how things go over the next few months with Letter to America.

I have been to a couple of Firefest shows - my buddy Gary Brandon was there a couple of year ago with his band White Sister - I think the last show I saw there was Romeo's Daughter. It' s a great festival and I would love to be a part of it - Twist their arm guys…

So that' s me chapter and verse. Any of the above is possible if you apply your self. My son had no natural talent as an athlete - in fact he was kinda awkward.

Through dedication and nurturing he hit the heights as a world class martial artiste. I did the same in my chosen profession.

You are as good as your next gig - reputation is great - but I am looking to the future. I practice harder than at any time in my life. My desire to comeback and prove myself beats as strong in my heart as it did when I took the stage at Worksop Miners welfare in 64. "If you know what you want you better come out fighting" and I' m just waiting for the bell…


Interview © June 2011 Mark Taylor

Photos by Leslie Linyard, except where stated.

Gig review (May 2011)

Artist website


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