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Here is a duo that had a lot of success writing hit songs for Sweet, Suzi Quatro, Smokie and Mud to name the most important.
They had a fantastic run of hit singles from 1973 until 1978. Then their well run dry. This interview is done at a time when I guess they were pretty high on themselves. I am a little flabbergasted by how immature they seem and I wonder if it is their own fault or the journalist making them seem that way. Make up your own mind.
Inside the hit factory
Sweet, Mud, Suzi Quatro – just three bands who owe their success to the team of Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn. They talk to MM`s Jeff Ward.
Chapman: “Really, I wake up some mornings and think `I just don`t want to write a hit today.`”
Chinn: “I make him!”
Up on the sixth floor of an exclusive apartment block in London`s Mayfair – a building where you can`t get in until a uniformed caretaker comes and unlocks the plate-glass doors – resides the hit factory.
Glide up in the small lift and you should find a door with a nameplate bearing the legend “Hits Ltd.” But you don`t. There`s just an ordinary door, which is somehow a let-down.
It`s the home of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, arguably Britain`s top pop songwriting team of the moment, whose songs for Sweet, Mud and Suzi Quatro have been blitzing the charts for some time. Guitars, microphones, amps, tape recorders, a film projector and screen stand among the trendy items of furniture, new and out of “Habitat” or “Biba`s.” The production line starts here…
Morever, Chinn and Chapman believe they have just created a “first.” It seems that numbers one and two in the British charts have never before been achieved by the same songwriters at the same time. Looking at Chinn and Chapman`s successes, particularly over the last year, it seems a natural culmination.
Consider this: in the past twelve months, January to January, they`ve had twelve major hit records with the three groups for whom they write and produce.
That`s one a month. Over the past three years, all together they`ve had three number ones, four number two`s, one number three, three number fours, and one single each at five, nine and ten.
And of course, several other singles in the lower half of the top twenty.
Going by the music trade points system – 50 points scored for a number one record sliding to one point for a number 50 record – the dynamic duo have already notched up 417 points in 1974. “We`re the biggest little publishing company in the world,” laughs Mike.
Australian-born and a singer before he started writing songs seriously, that`s Mike. And Nicky, a former public school boy of wealthy parentage; they`re a personable pair.
Working and living in their flat, where their gold discs adorn the walls alongside contemporary prints and sheet music of their songs in frames, they look on themselves as perfectionists, craftsmen. Yet they play only rudimentary guitar and piano.
They are capable of working like Stakhanovites to get a song completed right. No half measures will do. Indeed, it is rigorous, demanding self-appraisal that has helped to put them where they are today – coupled with their vision of “teenage revolution.”
Of similar and compatible minds, they feel powerful enough to say they can dictate teenage fashion though up to now to the mass of kids they`ve been faceless. Oh, and they ain`t as mean an` moody as they`d have their publicity shots suggest.
There often seems to be one team of songwriters at the top in any given period who come to be labelled as a “conveyor belt” of hits, or such like.
Says Nicky: “We`re regarded by a lot of people as the Sausage Factory, a hit a month…” Before he`s got underway Mike, who`s obviously been thinking up his own flip jingles, chips in: “You can`t go wrong with a Chinn and a Chapman song! There ain`t no crap, there ain`t no chaff in Chinn and Chap!”
Nicky continues: “We do have a hit a month and the reason we have a hit a month is that we work bloody hard, we think about our songs a great deal. It doesn`t take a lot of intelligence to make a few sausages and knock `em out on a conveyor belt but it takes a lot of intelligence and a lot of thought, creativity and everything else to write songs.
“When Cat Stevens puts out an album with twelve tracks on it no one says he`s churned out twelve tracks, but he`s done as much churning out as we have.”
“Funny, that`s exactly what I was going to say,” said Mike, slumped right down in an armchair, leaning against the body of an electric guitar.
“As far as I`m concerned there`s nobody better in the world than we are. We are the best, that`s obvious to anybody. That`s not being conceited; that`s an answer to saying that we are a hit factory. Of course we`re a hit factory, we can`t help it.
“It`s our business, we`re the best at it, we`re gonna get better still. One of these days we`ll write fifty hits in one year and everybody`ll fall over backwards and give up, and say well let`s leave it to them.
“We may fall on our faces one day but really it doesn`t bother us. If we do we`ll get out of the business and do something else.
“But when you`re knocking out that many hits you`ve gotta be termed as something and I suppose hit factory is as good as anything.
“But the kids give us credit because they buy the records. They`re buying them because they like them. You put a bad record out by the Sweet and they won`t buy it, or with Suzi Quatro. We`ve proved it; with Suzi we put out `Daytona Demon,` it got to number 14.
“But her image and her song could only get her to number 14 so obviously the song wasn`t good enough. Kids are not stupid you know, they`re very clever and they only want the best.”
Sweet, however, are prone to believe – and Mike and Nicky are aware of the group`s feeling – that they could put out any record and it would be a success on the name of Sweet alone.
Of course, many groups reckon the same when they get to a certain point in their careers.
But Mike and Nicky are adamant; Mike says it`s an “unfortunate” attitude to have and that he feels sorry for Sweet if they really think like that.
Nicky says: “I`ve got an answer which I think is valid. They`re right and they`re wrong. At this moment in time they could release anything and they could have a hit purely on advance orders.
“They knock out 150,000 in the first week and they`ll go straight into the top ten. Then the kids start to hear the record and, assuming for the sake of this argument that it`s not that good, they`re not going to like it.
“And there`s a lot of difference between 150,000 and half a million which is what we generally sell with Sweet in this country. Not nearly so many kids are going to go out and buy the single in the second, third and fourth weeks.
“I will admit the Sweet could release anything and have a hit – what happens with the follow-up? Deadsville!
“No, that is a logical argument. The first was a smash because it was the Sweet, a lot of kids would have gone out and bought it without even hearing it…”
Suddenly, a cool female voice drops out of thin air.
“Twelve forty-nine” it says. Mike had switched on his speaking clock: “just checking my watch” he says apologetically. “Well, just another rich man`s toy,” he continues.
“I know they have this attitude and if it`s their attitude that they can release anything then they`ll never be hit songwriters. If we were to say to the Sweet, look, you fellers can have a hit with anything, we`ll release anything, they`d be the first ones to come to us and say `how dare you do that, it`s not good enough.`
“This is why they`d never be hit songwriters. They`re great at what they`re doing but as soon as they start talking about that sort of thing they`re out of their depth, they do not know.
“But they`ve got us around so fortunately they`ll never be allowed to do it.”
Nicky: “It`s a dangerous attitude, a pop business death. Sweet talk a lot but they don`t do quite as much as they talk. They`d love to write their own singles, I know they would.
“But if you actually asked them `OK fellers, will you write the next single `cause we ain`t got the time?` there`d be flat bloody panic. I`m serious.`
Mike said Sweet became hypocritical when they talked out of their depth. He and Nicky didn`t tell them what to do on stage, that was their business.
But every group, not just Sweet, had the attitude that once they`d made it they`d always be at the top. “We know better,” assured Mike, “We`re aware of the market, we know of the kids far better than the Sweet do.
“They may think that by being on the road they`re closer to the kids – honestly, we`re two steps ahead of the kids out there all the time, that`s why we have such big records.
“We are the people who give the kids what they want.” Nicky: “This `anything` attitude is bloody unprofessional.
“Top artists have tried to have a hit with anything. Gilbert O`Sullivan tried it with `Ooh Baby` – bloody awful – he came to his senses and wrote the next one which was `Why,` a big hit for him. He tried to have a hit with anything and he flopped.
“If the artist is enormous enough he can have one hit, then the kids will find out they`ve been conned and the follow-up will be death.”
Half a million records, said Mike, were not sold of every single to half a million kids who loved Sweet, Suzi, Mud, Slade or Gary Glitter. There were not that number of ardent fans. To sell half a million every time the imagination of an extra 400,000 kids had to be captured: “To do that is terribly difficult. Lewis Carroll did with `Alice in Wonderland,` and I defy anybody to capture a kid`s imagination like he did with that book.
“It`s not easy, kids are very clever and they need things that get their senses going. We are capable of giving them those things because we`ve learned how.”
Compare “Blockbuster” with “Hellraiser”; the former made number one and sold nearly 800,000 – but no way were there that number of Sweet fans. “Hellraiser” sold only 350,000, was a number two and the smallest record they`d had with Sweet for a long time. But what happened to the other 450,000?
The failure to catch the imagination, the dreams, of kids was the reason that so many other pop records failed.
“This is why we sweat so hard on songs sometimes and really work,” Nicky went on.
“When you think of the whole concept of a pop record, the melody, the lyrics, the production, the performance, we`ll sit for a whole day on one bloody line because we say it won`t do, it`s not good enough.
“I bet you really and truly if we bunged it in we`d get away with it, but we won`t, because we`re perfectionists. We don`t say anything will do.”
Said Mike: “Or the melodic structure might be a little bit wrong; we think it`s good but it needs a note in there that`s going to click in the kids` minds, something they`re gonna like quicker than the note that`s there at the moment.
“We`ve sweated for weeks on one note just to change a melody. And if you listen to the original concepts of the songs and the finished products you see how much our ideas have formulated and changed during the writing and how much extra thought we`ve put into it.”
Hit factory – Chinnichap!
However, it took them just a day to write “Teenage Rampage” because they were under pressure. It was unusually quick for them. Sweet had to be in the studios imminently and both Mike and Nicky were due to go abroad on business. Afterwards, Mike said, he slept for two days being so mentally exhausted. “As I say, it`s all down to the kids` imaginations,” Mike continues.
“Kids haven`t changed that much. Instead of reading Lewis Carroll now they listen to Sweet or Slade. But they still have imagination; remember when you were a kid, what did you want to be or want to do? People have to do something special to make an impression.”
So then, how do Mike and Nicky gauge what kids, teenagers, are thinking, feeling, what they want?
Mike: “I don`t think we do it consciously, at the moment anyway, I don`t know how long it`ll last. It`s weird really, you can`t put it into words. We are ahead of the kids at the moment, we won`t always be like it, we`ve gotta make the most of it.
“We`re on a streak. We know what the kids want and will want to hear. We listen to other people`s stuff an awful lot so we know we`ve got to be that much further advanced. We have to change the style of our acts progressively so they`ll continue to appeal to the kids.”
And by saying that they`re ahead of the kids, Chinn and Chapman imply that they know where they (the kids) are now. Where are they?
“`Teenage Rampage` really sums it all up. From the age of two they`re buying records. Believe it or not, two-year-olds are thinking like ten-year-olds now.
“Kids are learning a lot quicker and the whole feeling in the country at the moment is aggression/tension and it`s having an effect on the kids. By making aggressive records you can get the feelings out of kids, they can express themselves by dancing, they all dance now.”
Nicky: “It`s aggression but fortunately it doesn`t seem to be too violent an aggression. It`s not like the days of the teddy boys with flick knives.
“It`s a different aggression. I think kids want to get their tensions out by going to concerts and screaming, going to ballrooms and discotheques and dancing non-stop for three hours, by going home and imagining tomorrow night`s date is with Brian Connolly! The teddy boy era was violent in a different way; now it`s hysterical aggression, but not violent.
“The football scene is far more violent than the pop scene. They`re always beating each other up at football grounds, they`re not in ballrooms.”
It distressed Mike to hear people knocking kids getting rid of their emotions because kids from the age of two to 22 didn`t have much of an opportunity to do so in this country.
“What do you do – commit suicide, beat somebody up, drive a car fast? There are a few ways of doing it, all of which are bad. But there`s another way: by buying loud aggressive records, or even soft aggressive records, and listening and dancing to them.
“Certain people who knock it really are led astray I think because if the kids aren`t doing that they`re gonna be doing something a lot worse.
“Mary Whitehouse for instance is constantly knocking hit records and pop records for being violent and rude. She`s entitled to her opinion but personally I think she`s wrong.
“She`s trying to stop kids having the one form of entertainment that gives them the opportunity to unleash.
“Mike Leander and Gary, and Slade and Chas Chandler, not just us, know what the kids are all about at the moment, know what they need to get rid of their feelings and they put it all into records. And with all these crises happening in this country they`re buying more and more records.”
Nicky: “God alone knows the kids need what people like us are giving them because if they`re old enough to think and read the bloody papers and look at the country, God knows they need something to lift them up, if this is the country they`ve gotta grow up in.”
Mike had a thought that conjured up a marvellous picture: “It`s a pity the coal miners wouldn`t go and buy a few records and go dancing every night.
“Maybe then they wouldn`t be so dissatisfied. I wish they were all like that couple of miners in the charts, because they wouldn`t be trying to get more money all the time.”
Nicky joined in: “Maybe they should pipe music down the mines.”
Mike: “It could lead to their downfall, it could all fall in on them and they`d get buried! Good luck to `em!” Much hilarity. Things were getting frivolous. “They should put `Hellraiser` on and with that explosion at the beginning they`d think it was all over!”
Mike carried on: “It`s very unfortunate that grown up people are like this. I mean, we still let our feelings out. There`s a lot of people our age and Jesus, he`s 28 and I`m 26 or something, and we`re still bopping around every night, going down to Tramp`s (West End disco) and leaping about and making fools of ourselves.
“But my God it ain`t `alf good for you. You wake up the next morning feeling that much better for it because there`s no other way to get rid of your expression, feelings.
“The only other way is for me to get on the motorway in my car and drive at 150 mph.” Wasn`t their songwriting in any way a release though.
“Well, it is, but it`s not complete.” Nicky: “Because it`s a pressure in the first place to write.” Mike: “It gives us a lot of pleasure but it doesn`t give us full satisfaction, that comes after the records are made – and going to discotheques and jumping about, we`re mad keen about going to Tramp`s as a lot of people our age are.”
Nicky took a lot of his emotions out playing tennis: “I really whack that ball! I really do. Nervous energy.” Mike: “So many people have no outlet, the older people, so when they do they go on strike.
“That`s the way they get rid of their feelings. Most of them don`t want more money; somebody tells them they should have it and it`s one way to get rid of feelings. They can make themselves heard.
Mike: `Teenage Rampage` is exactly where the kids are. They are on a rampage and it is a revolutionary movement. It`s not politically revolutionary, it`s just a revolution of feelings. At last the kids can go and do what they`ve always wanted to do.
“Even in the Beatles days there weren`t half as many kids screaming as there are now.”
Wasn`t there a chicken and egg situation here though? Were the songs being written and the kids reacting, or were Mike and Nicky getting vibes from the kids and then writing?
The two know they are capitalising on a situation but at the same time they think they are part of what helped to start it all.
“Up until we came along in 1971 the music since 1967 was dead, there was nothing. It was all Engelbert Humperdinck, there was nothing for the kids. Bubblegum, what did that do? It had no feeling.
“Didn`t make you emote in any way. Then we, Slade, Gary, T. Rex, Bowie came along and all of us changed the whole pattern of the business. All the kids found out that we had something to offer them that they could laugh and express themselves with.
“Now we know it`s there and we`re leading them, we`re pulling them in, we`re getting more and more kids at it.”
Also there`s a new generation rising within the “ten year cycle” of pop fashions.
“Exactly,” agreed Nicky. “It`s strange that ten years after the Beatles really got going it`s all happening again. The difference is that opposed to there being one phenomena there seems to be about five or six.”
Mike rejoined: “1957 and 1967 were my favourite years for music and they were the last of each era. Really, 1957 started the great cavalcade of rock`n`rollers.
“Everybody was doing it. But from `53 to `57 it was the innovators, the people who made rock`n`roll music. From `63 to `67 it was the Beatles, flower power and people continued on.
“From `73 to `77 it`s gonna be excitement all the way – and `77 to `83 or `84 will be another dull period. God knows what`ll happen in `84 – Mr Thingummybob wrote all about it, I hope that doesn`t come true. 1984!”
But right now, in the present, there seemed to be a resurgence of the “teenage” syndrome.
There were currently “Teenage Rampage,” “Teenage Dream” by T. Rex, “Teenage Lament” from Alice Cooper, and latest, “Teenage Love Affair” by Rick Derringer. Ringo Starr, Clifford T. Ward, Cockney Rebel, Nazareth (with “Teenage Nervous Breakdown”), were other artists using similar imagery. What did Mike and Nicky, who had had the first “teenage” single out, think had set it rolling?
Their first reaction was that the others were copyists jumping on the Chinn-Chapman bandwagon. But Nicky added: “It implies immense recognition of the teenagers. I attribute it to the fact that there is a teenage movement.
“Teenagers are more to the forefront than they have been for many years and also they`ve got a lot more money than they`ve had for a long time. Maybe next there`ll be “Weenage Wampagne.`
“Some of them are a lot younger now. But the thing is they are making an impact, they`re doing things that are noticed and I think it is being recognised by writers and acts. But I think they`re jumping on the bandwagon a bit now.
“We didn`t know about Alice Cooper`s `Teenage Lament` and he didn`t know about our `Teenage Rampage` but the ones that have followed I`ve a feeling may have known about both.”
Mike expanded: “Each of the songs that we`ve mentioned concerns a teenage emotion. There`s a rampage, a lament, a dream, nervous breakdown and a love affair.
“So we`re dealing with teenage feelings and we the writers concerned are just pulling out different aspects and giving the kids the chance to recognise themselves in the songs, what they`re really all about.
“We`re just putting up a mirror where they can see themselves. Maybe we`re crediting the kids with something they haven`t been given credit for for a long time, like a love affair.
“They say `he can`t be in love at 15,` but maybe he can be. You can have a nervous breakdown when you`re a teenager – nobody thinks you can but you can – you can lament when you`re a teenager.”
And Nicky: “You can certainly rampage and you can certainly dream. Bolan`s saying `what ever happened to the teenage dream` but it`s very live and very real. Everyone`s saying what teenagers can do. You haven`t got to be 25 to do all that.”
“What a wonderful world it would be,” mused Mike, “If everybody acted like teenagers, if everybody had the attitude of teenagers. I don`t mean the minority, I mean the majority of them, not the ones that go around beating people up, the mugs and fools.
“I mean the ones who are expressing themselves in discotheques, the ones who are doing their bit at school, and going on to be a welder or a panel beater or whatever.
“If everybody could have all that over again…I mean, I still think like a teenager and so does Nick, you know, we live in a fantasy world, everybody in the pop business lives in one.” Nicky: “I love fantasy, it`s my whole life.”
Mike: “If everybody had the attitude of a lot of the teenagers then I think we`d all be a lot better off. Probably the country would go to rack and ruin financially but we`d be very happy wouldn`t we?”
“We`re unfortunately so involved in fighting the bloody government, going on strike,” Mike continued, `and the kids, what`re they doing? Dancing.
“And they`ve got the right idea, they`re the happiest people in the country. Without music they wouldn`t be, because they`d have no escape or outlet.
“So maybe we should all become teenagers again. I`ll write a letter to Ted Heath: `Dear Ted, I think you should be a teenager! “Well, even he plays the organ. Perhaps Chinn and Chapman should produce him.
“Oh yes you`d get a vast amount of sales among the Tory backbenchers. We could call it the Ted Heath Conspiracy.”
Mike added: “God knows what we`ll be thinking in a year`s time but I`m sure our outlook will be completely different. We keep changing all the time, things influence us.
“In a year`s time we won`t be the same people we are now, we`ll be making totally different records. Let`s hope we`ve got another 12 or 15 hits under our belts.
“What we need desperately now is another super group. We need a group to come along to us who are just so unbelievable and knock us out. That`s what we`re looking for and we`ll keep looking until we find them.
“And if they write, all the better, because our commitments writing-wise are pretty high. But if we could find the next Beatles, the next Elvis Presley, the next Bing Crosby…
Nicky: “Or the next Cole Porter. We get an awful lot of the wrong things, like someone phoned me up this morning and said he was in a group and could we go and see them and write for them? I asked what sort of group they were and he said they were like Mud.
“Well I said, on that basis, no matter how good you are, no disrespect, we cannot handle you. Cannot! We`d be fighting ourselves.
“If they`re like Mud that`s unfortunate. Maybe someone else will find them and make them stars. But at least then we`ll be fighting that someone, not ourselves.
“We`re looking, but it`s difficult to find that right thing. It`s not easy, it really isn`t. They only come along now and again.”
Deep Purple was still one of the leading rock bands at the time.
This number of Melody Maker also contains articles/interviews with these people: The Who, Maggie Bell, 10CC, YES, Gregg Allman, Blue Öyster Cult, Roger McGuinn, Jim Croce, Carpenters, Dr. Moog, David Ackles, Bert Kaempfert, John Ford, Zoot Sims, Peter Bellamy.
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