Follow the Arrow: an Interview with Alan Merrill

“Top row, left to right: Aaron Sachs (my-father); my Aunt Margaret; Aunt Dorothy; my mother Helen Merrill; Grandfather Frank. Below on guitar is my Aunt Anna. Photo taken around 1950 @1378 College Ave, 5th-floor.” – Alan Merrill. Photo courtesy of the artist. Copyright 2012.

The son of famed Jazz musicians Aaron Sachs (saxophone/clarinet player) and Helen Merrill (singer), Alan Merrill was born Allan Preston Sachs on February 19, 1951 in The Bronx in New York City.

Alan started his musical career in his mid teens, playing in Greenwich Village’s “Cafe Wha?” with the bands The Kaleidoscope, The Rayne, and Watertower West. The groups played the club during the 1966-1968 period, and Alan’s strong, crystal -clear voice, combined with his striking good looks, quickly won him a devoted following.

A teenage Alan Merrill performing at “Cafe Wha?” in Greenwich Village in New York City in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the artist. Copyright 2012.

In 1968, he moved from New York to Japan while still a teenager, becoming the first foreign pop star residing in Japan to break out in that country both as a solo artist and with his group Vodka Collins.

He recorded one album with Atlantic Records, Alone In Tokyo, which yielded one hit single, “Namida” (Teardrops), and he became the first foreign domestic market pop star in the Japanese Group Sounds.

Merrill acted on the popular TV soap opera “Ji Kan Desu Yo”, and had his own corner as a regular on the TBS ”Young 720,” a morning show for teens. He also was the featured principal as a model in ads for Nissan cars, Jun clothing, and GT Jeans.

1970 Nissan car campaign ad featuring Alan Merrill.
Alan was the company’s official image for its TV commercials, posters and print media in the early 1970s. Poster courtesy of the artist. Copyright 2012.

Moving to England, he formed The Arrows, who wrote and recorded the timeless classic “I Love Rock and Roll,” got their own TV show, and are still revered in the U.K. today.

I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” (1975) composed by Alan Merrill and Arrows bandmate Jake Hooker, as a knee-jerk response to The Rolling Stones’ “It’s Only Rock & Roll” started out as the b-side to the 45 rpm Arrows single “Broken Down Heart.” The song was later flipped to a-side status, and the band got only one TV performance with the song.

The show’s producer was so impressed with The Arrows that she made a pitch to Granada ITV for them to get their own television series. The Arrows got their own weekly TV series Arrows in 1976, taking over the Bay City Rollers Granada TV series Shang-a-Lang.

The Arrows then signed with MAM Management, at which point their producer Mickie Most became so infuriated at the band for signing the management deal that he vowed to never release another Arrows record. As a sad result, the band had  no new records released during that time, even though they had their own weekly TV series and its ratings were so good that they got a second weekly series.  However, with no new recordings being released it put a creative strain on the band. The Arrows disbanded shortly after the end of the second series

After disbanding, Merrill married fashion model Cathee Dahmen and soon after formed Runner, with Steve Gould, Mick Feat, and Dave Dowle (later of Whitesnake fame). The Runner album charted in Billboard’s Top 100 in the U.S. Later, in 1980. Merrill joined forces with Rick Derringer as a guitarist/vocalist in New York City. They recorded three albums: Good Dirty Fun, Live At The Ritz and Rick Derringer and Friends. A film, “The Rick Derringer Rock Spectacular” was also released to critical acclaim.

In 1982, Joan Jett released the Arrows song “I Love Rock ‘N Roll.” It went straight to number one in the U.S. charts for 8 weeks. Soul/R&B singer Lou Rawls recorded Alan Merrill’s song “When The Night Comes” as the title track of his 1983 Epic Records album. Interestingly, The Rawls’ version of the song was taken into space by astronaut Guion Bluford, becoming the very first music taken to and played in outer space!

Alan Merrill in concert today. Photo courtesy of Steve Mann. Copyright 2012.

Today, Alan Merrill does live solo concerts internationally, both with various backing bands and solo acoustic. In recent years, Alan Merrill has released the solo albums Never Pet A Burning Dog (1998), Cupid Deranged (2002), A Merrilly Christmas (2001), Double Shot Rocks (2003), Aleecat (2004),  At The Candy Shop (2006) and Rive Gauche (2007) – a tribute to The Left Banke. Among his latest releases, the most recent is Snakes and Ladders (2012). Currently he is recording his upcoming album The Collections, Vol. # 4.

On a chilly Fall morning, following the recent exit of Hurricane Sandy from New York, Alan sat with the Los Angeles Beat, his devoted “gal” Bella the Belle at his side, while he shared his thoughts on life in New York, his continuing passion for music and love, and  the secret to his successful pursuit of life’s “interesting, unique journey”:

What with Hurricane Sandy’s recent descent upon the East Coast, how did you do there in New York City ?

A lot of my friends lost power and some experienced flooding. Some were displaced and had to move elsewhere until living conditions stabilized. The damage was significant in the lower part of the city below 34th street, but in my neighborhood up on a hill I was reasonably safe on the upper east side in the 90s. Yes, my windows were nearly blown in and my building swayed like in an earthquake. I could have used some Dramamine, but otherwise it was just scary, not dangerous in my part of the city.

After living all over the world, what is it about living in New York City that you find especially appealing? Are there any particular challenges that come with living in New York City?

Down by the seashore:a young Alan Merrill looks out across the eastern shore in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the artist. Copyright 2012.

I was born in New York City, so as much as I like living in the rest of the world (Paris, London, and Tokyo have all been places I’ve called home) my family are here in NYC so I always gravitate back. I probably will move out of New York City eventually. There’s a lot of good, creative energy here right now.

Of your many accomplishments over the years, which remains the one you are proudest of, and why?

Being able to just pick up and leave a country and a project and start all over again with a new project in another country and have some success, I think. It’s a good challenge. Musically, I’m proudest of being the first westerner to break into the Japanese market at the highest level of their music scene. That was a Jackie Robinson / Larry Doby (baseball reference) sort of achievement.

I heard that you recently suffered some broken ribs! When/how did that happen, and how are you doing now?

It was a silly tragi-comic moment. I was looking for guitar effects in the upper half of my closet and was on a very tall stepladder. I took a misstep and fell off onto the floor along with a pile of metal guitar effect pedals, and fractured three ribs on the lower right side (floating ribs) from the edges of the effect pedals. There was some internal bleeding and it’s almost healed up now. I’ve been singing in the studio without any pain on the loud notes, so all is well now. Thanks for asking!

Poster for the 2012 Halloween concert at The Knitting Factory. Poster courtesy of The Knitting Factory. Copyright 2012.

I heard that your recent Halloween Costume party/concert (Oct. 27) at Brooklyn ‘s The Knitting Factory had an unexpected dilemma: a leaky roof caused some flooding problems! How did the management deal with the problem, and did it present any challenges for you and the other artists who performed that night?

My band was supposed to go on at midnight, but we went on at about 2:45 a.m. which was a bit annoying. The flooding on the stage was the most irritating thing, since there was a hum coming from my guitar amp indicating that it wasn’t properly grounded and I was standing in a large puddle of water. The recipe for an electrocution. Apart from that, it was slippery so I couldn’t really move safely. I think my band got the worst of the water problems since we went on last. I’d rather not comment on how the club handled it

I was very sorry to hear of the recent passing of noted musician/actor Masahiro Kuwana from respiratory failure. He was only 59. I understand that you two were close, old friends.

Yes, we’d known each other since early 1972, when he had his band the Funny’s Company and we were playing shows together all over Japan (I was with my band Vodka Collins). I saw him as recently as two years ago in Tokyo. It’s shocking and terribly sad. I’m close to his ex-wife Anne (a singer who I’ve known since 1969) and their son Julian/Myuji.

Let’s talk about your upcoming new album (“The Collections, Vol. # 4). How are the studio recording sessions coming along, and when can your fans expect your new album’s release?

Shelter Island studio in Manhattan: L – R: Steve Holley, Alan Merrill, Jon Gordon. Photo courtesy of the artist. Copyright 2012.

I just finished 11 tracks with Steve Holley (ex-Wings, currently with the Ian Hunter band) drumming, on November 19th. I play almost everything else except for a couple of tasty guitar solos by Jon Gordon (he played the solo on “Luka” by Suzanne Vega). They’re both amazing musicians and I’m very pleased with the results. The album is very much what I had envisioned with the blueprint of the songs I had heard in my head before we started the sessions. I’m delighted.

Tell our readers about your current band line-up (names, etc.) and how did you all get together? How does working with your current band compare with your past bands?

I have three bands strategically located! Right now my live line up in the USA is a trio: Amy Madden on bass and Mark Brotter on drums. I play guitar. They’re a great band. In Japan I play backed by the band Tensaw, which is Grico Tomioka (drums) Michiaki Suzuki (bass) and Take Yokouchi (guitar), and they’re great. In England and Europe my band is  Dave Glover (bass), Geoff Lea (guitar) and Kyle Fenton (drums); also great. All these musicians in each territory are top notch. They all play the songs differently, which keeps me happy and artistically stimulated.

 

The Arrows in Piccadilly, London in 1975. Left to right: Alan, Paul, Jake. From “Follow the Arrows” magazine. Photo courtesy of the artist. Copyright 2012.

Over your long and distinguished career you have been in various successful, important bands (The Arrows, Vodka Collins, etc.)and were among the first non-Asian artists to become hugely successful in Japan, as well as one of the very first American artists to have their own television program in the UK…and a very popular one at that.

Yet despite all of these impressive credentials, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inexplicably continue to pass you by for nomination/induction into the Hall. How do you feel about that? Would receiving induction into the Hall even be of any interest to you at this time in your life?

Monsieur Kamayatsu and Alan Merrill radio interview Tokyo (Nishi Azabu) 1990s. Photo courtesy of the artist. Copyright 2012.

I think those sort of “clubs” like the Hall Of Fame are an example of the corporate music industry patting themselves on their collective backs and as such they don’t really interest me. I don’t expect to be inducted, and consider myself at best a very very long shot for such things, since I’m a committed indie artist.

Your weekly Youtube ‘rants’ (with your dog ‘Bella the Belle’) are wildly popular with the Youtube community! How long have you been doing them, and what made you decide to start doing them on a weekly basis. Speaking for myself, I really look forward to seeing you and Bella the Belle every week!

“Lunching on a lazy Sunday afternoon with Bella the Belle on Nov 11th, 2012 @ 2 p.m. Upper east side of New York City. A gorgeous day.” – Alan Merrill. Photo courtesy of the artist. Copyright 2012.

A couple of years ago, my friend Ida Langsam (a New York publicist) showed me some You Tube clips of Kasim Sultan (ex of Utopia) doing some personal clips: phone camera stuff. I thought it looked like a good idea, so I tried it  at her suggestion, and it seemed to be a fun thing to do. Now there’s a small following of our escapades, which makes me happy.

I heard that you recently received some wonderful news regarding Bella’s past battle with cancer. 

According to her vet Dr. Susan Ettinger (author and dog cancer expert) Bella is the longest living dog to have been diagnosed with Hermangiosarcoma and survive! Diagnosed at age 4 and she’s 7 3/4 years old now, and healthy and happy. Her current health is 100% cancer free!! I am so happy!

The cancer was localized in the one leg. I spent $170,000 trying to save the leg and we nearly did it. In the end the cancer won and we had to stop it from spreading by amputating the leg. But she still runs like a champion – faster than I do – especially when the target is the local pet shop!

If there was anything you could go back into your past and change, what would it be and why?

I’m very happy with my life, and wouldn’t change it for anything or anyone else’s! I’ve have a very interesting, unique journey. Everybody has regrets. It’s an important part of the journey.

How would you like future generations to remember you as an artist and a man?

“At the end of my interview with Dutch National Television, showing about 70 albums I have been on and some music industry awards of mine” – Alan Merrill. Photo courtesy of the artist. Copyright 2012.

Arrows cartoon. Image courtesy of the artist. Copyright 2012.

As an artist: someone who was dedicated to music for the right reasons. As a man: I will certainly be remembered as a man who loved women; maybe too much. A variety of women over the years have given me inspiration for my songs. My lovely bouquet of muses. All of my ex- girlfriends are still close and friendly with me. Unusual, I think.

 

Shirley Pena

About Shirley Pena

A native of Southern California, Shirley Pena began her career as a music journalist over a decade ago, writing for her websites "Stars In My Eyes:the Girlhowdy Website" and "La Raza Rock!" and progressed to creating various fan sites on Yahoo, including the first for New Zealand singer/songwriter Tim Finn. From there, she became a free agent, arranging online interviews for Yahoo fan clubs with various music artists (Andy White, John Crawford, Debora Iyall, John Easdale, etc.). She also lent her support in creating and moderating a number of Yahoo fan clubs for various music artists from the 1990s-today. As a music journalist, Shirley Pena has contributed to a number of magazines (both hard copy and online), among them:Goldmine, American Songwriter, the Fresno Examiner, The Blacklisted Journalist and UK-based Keyboard Player (where she was a principal journalist). A self-confessed "fanatic" of 1960s "British Invasion" bands, Classic Rock and nostalgic "Old Hollywood ", she also keeps her finger on the pulse of current trends in music, with a keen eye for up and coming artists of special merit. Shirley Pena loves Los Angeles, and is thrilled to join the writing staff of The Los Angeles Beat!
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3 Responses to Follow the Arrow: an Interview with Alan Merrill

  1. Minna Kanervo says:

    Hello! My name is Minna and I’m from Finland. This interview is really great. I just wanted to tell, that we in Finland, didn’t know nothing about this excellent singer/songwriter. Which is quite annoing and I really wanted to hear his music in Finland too. It’s such a shame, that other Finn’s can’t listen his wonderful songs. I found his music from YouTube. I was so happily surprised of his great music and fabulous voice. His lyrics are fantastic and those are so timeless. I really respect Alan Merril’s career. Also, this man is truly kind and so funny. He always have time to share his memories with us. That is true too, that his lovely dog, Bella is now the legend. We always waiting Alan Merrill’s Bella up-datings. Sincerely: Minna

  2. Shirley Pena Shirley Pena says:

    THANK YOU so much for your lovely reply, Minna! I have forwarded it onto Alan Merrill for him to read too! I just added an exciting update about Bella The Belle to my article about Alan! Please read again my interview with Alan to hear the exciting news about Bella The Belle!

    Shirley P. :)

  3. Michael says:

    Thank you for writing about one of my favorite singer songwriters! It’s a great interview – Michael

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