This is part two of the transcript of my talk with songsmith and recording artist Alan O’Day. You can find part one here. In this final part, O’Day talks about his musical influences, and we discuss the slickness of the westcoast sound.
How do you feel about your musical output from back then?
You know, Undercover Angel is kind of a corny song, and it’s kind of a sexy song, and it’s kind of an infantile song, and it sold two million copies. I think it’s a good song, and I am proud of its success. It was banned in Peoria, Illinois, as being too sexual, and I’ve always worn that as a badge of pride [laughs]. I had no illusions that I was creating great art, I’ve just always loved the idea of the little three-minute movie.
That can be art in its own way, you know?
Yeah, it’s kind of like people’s art, like street art. As the technology enabled us to do more and more things, it seemed like it got a little less honest. I haven’t really thought much about it, but back then, you were working with a fairly limited palette, and then you had your ideas and your desire to excite people, to keep them enthralled for the length of a record. That’s always just thrilled me to do, to try to create something that would keep people’s attention and give them a great little ride on a roller coaster for three minutes.
Yeah, that’s definitely an art unto itself.
I’ve watched how Diane [Warren] has talked about her own stuff, and how she’ll say that something she wrote was crap, and something she wrote was good. Sometimes the muse was with me, and sometimes it wasn’t, and some of the stuff is kind of ordinary. But Angie Baby I think is some of my best work, and I think the muse was with me. I worked three months on that song constructing the lyric, and I kind of wondered why I was working so hard on this song – I even took it to a psychologist, you know – I just wanted to make sure that I was writing an authentic thing of what this ‘touched’ person would be doing.
You did the research.
Yeah! But when the song became number one, suddenly the three months didn’t seem like such a hard thing, you know.
I can see that! That song hit number one quite unexpectedly for you, didn’t it?
Well, any number one was unexpected, that was my first. I think it sold nearly two million also, like Undercover Angel. I’d only met Helen Reddy briefly, and I was not that impressed. But I had a chance to meet her more recently, and my perception was different, and she’s different, and she’s wonderful. She’s a fantastic person. She’s very involved in political viewpoints, and helping the cause of women, and just full of spark. Some health problems, and she doesn’t really sing professionally, but I was blown away, and she was so kind to me. If we get to stick around, you know, sometimes we grow up.
Seems you guys have a lot to be proud of, you know, through a long life of music.
I’m really blessed, and I get to walk the line between anonymity and fame. It’s not like my face is well known, so I just go and do my life, and enjoy that. We don’t live high, we just live normal, and we deal with the normal stuff that comes with aging with and being ordinary in between playing the game of [radio announcer voice] “here’s Alan O’Day!”
Many LA artists from the period have been criticized by the music press for making “conveyor-belt music” with nothing but the bottom line in mind. Have you ever dealt with that kind of stuff?
As far as conveyor-belt music, I’m hearing a lot more of that now, because it seems like the function of a lot of music is to hypnotize you and lull you instead of entertain you. I take my little iPhone to bed with me and put on ambient stuff and go to sleep with it, you know. But I can tell you something about country music. Country music has kinda picked up where pop music left off. A lot of the country music now is like rock ‘n’ roll Americana pop music was back 20-30 years ago, and that’s why a lot of people are gravitating toward it – me included. I don’t have a list of successes of writing country songs, but I enjoy the process of trying to write an authentic country song, which is more complex than it seems. I spend a lot of time in Nashville, in fact I produced my new album there, co-produced it it with a friend of mine who, oddly enough, was in a band with me in the sixties. That’s an interesting turn of events. You can hear a lot of stuff that sounds like pop, you may hear a little steel guitar or fiddle in it, but there’s some pop stuff going on in country music.
From a musicians perspective as well, it seems like country music is an arena where you’re still allowed to be good at what you do.
Again, it’s that limited palette. You’re taking simpler chords and yet creating something that stands tall. You don’t have a symphony orchestra at your command, you’re not using diminished flat 13ths over 9ths or whatever, and yet you’re creating something that has heart and is real to a lot of people. There are some wonderful story songs going on in Nashville and country music, but you don’t hear many story songs on the pop scene today.
One thing I noticed, I was listening to Brad Paisley…
Oh, what a talent.
Oh yeah, fantastic talent. I was kinda taken aback a little bit by the humorous narrative, ’cause that’s something I’m used to hearing on records from the seventies and earlier, and not so much these days.
See, I grew up with Spike Jones and Stan Freberg, and the only person doing that kind of stuff is Weird Al. The country stuff has that whimsy to it, I’m glad something does.
From a young musician’s perspective here, especially in Norway, I don’t know how that is over in the US, but there are gigs that I don’t get because I play too cleanly, because I don’t do the plectrum-strumming eight notes thing exclusively, and then there are bands that make it because they’re… not great.
Yeah, isn’t that interesting. Kind of a garage band, “let’s not be too intellectual” kind of thing.
Yeah, and I’ve talked to people about bands that I like, like Toto or Pages and stuff like that, and they’ve got nothing but bad feelings towards them, you know. “Those guys are too good at what they do, and there’s no soul in the music,” and they keep regurgitating those old arguments about there being no soul in music that’s well crafted. I think that’s what I was getting at with the “conveyor-belt” comment.
There was a slickness to the pop music production of that era, and I think it’s fair to criticize the slickness.
But it was an authentic slickness, though. It was played the way you hear it on the record. Not like these days when you tune everything and sync everything up with Pro Tools. When Jeff Porcaro grooves on a record, that’s what the engineer was hearing as he was recording it.
It was what was happening then. And, you know, Undercover Angel, those songs, nobody was using click tracks. So one could make a case that the click track was instrumental in the destruction of a human factor in pop music, you know. I mean, I played to a click on my new CD, and the guys are playing to a click track because you can edit so easily and work with it, but every once in a while you get the feeling like somethings’s lost. I think it’s really easy to look back from the next era at the previous era and see more clearly and criticize it than when you’re in the middle of it. And I think that rock ‘n’ roll has always got that thing that’s out of control and things that are done wrong on purpose, people who are doing the wrong thing and getting a kick out of it and sneering and laughing. There’s always that edge that whatever generation has just been through it, they’re gonna be appalled, you know. My parents – this whole rock ‘n’ roll thing, “what the heck’s going on, this isn’t music like we understand it,” and of course that just feeds kids to want to do it more, because it’s becoming their own kind of comment on the world, I get that.
What artists were your main inspirations?
Yeah. Okay. I grew up listening to my dad’s 78’s, and so I have a little bit of Errol Garner, influences of the 40’s music. Then I started hearing early rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm ‘n’ blues and started buying some stuff like that. Hank Ballard and the Midnighters was one of my first favorites when I was a sophomore in high school. Little Richard, Fats Domino, and during high school all the pop stuff, Patience and Prudence. Certainly Elvis, with that tape echo thing. The other side of “Heartbreak Hotel” was called “I Was The One”, and I had just been through – you know how romance and angst over love affairs in high school. I’d just been through something where I had had a little romance going with a girl, and then she went on with somebody else. So this song “I was the one who taught her to cry”, I mean, that just spoke for me one hundred percent, I could just feel it. And the fact that it was put into a song, I think that’s one of the things that got me to want to write songs. To put those feelings into a song, you were making poetry, rather than just being a victim of a feeling. I mean, it was major pain to be rejected in high school! And when you were in love with somebody it was like a drug.
The connection to that kind of music was so strong, so I was definitely an Elvis fan. Oddly enough, he seemed like one of the more polished ones. I loved Buddy Holly, I loved Richie Valens. I was down in the Coachella Valley where there was a large Mexican population, and besides the pop station, there was R’n’B stuff going on down there, a lot of the black artists.
I would try to figure out on the piano, my aunt had purchased a piano for me, and that was a big deal. It was a used piano, we didn’t have a lot of money. And I played everything in the key of C for the first two or three years, because that’s where all the white notes lined up nicely with the major chords and everything. And then I graduated to F, but I never figured all that out until later. I was trying to play what I hear on the records note for note, and trying to figure out how they did it, because it was so exciting to me. Like I say, Little Richard stuff, you know.
There was no YouTube back then either, so you had to listen to the music, not just watch some guy teach you how to do it.
Absolutely. I can enjoy videos of music and listen to the music at the same time, but my heart is with just listening. My heart is in my ears to just listen. Those people just turned me on through high school, and I got out of high school and I went for a year of junior college up in Pasadena, which was closer to LA, it’s really part of LA, and I met a guy who played guitar. He introduced me to this whole world of blues and BB King and a lot of these people came in, like John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williams. At first I remember thinking, “God, this is too ignorant and too rough” and then my taste started changing to like it, you know. Bo Diddley, all that stuff – and he was totally into this stuff, but he was also into jazz, which scared me, because I was just using three fingers on my right hand and not my thumb. Nobody talked to me about technique, you know. At some point, someone said “you should use your thumb” and I said “oh, OK” and I started incorporating my thumb. This opened up a whole world to me, and the guitar thing, ’cause you could do things with the guitar that you couldn’t do with a piano, so that broadened my listening then. I still have these albums, these 33’s. I could pull out a Muddy Waters album, and I can show you where he autographed it to me, but he didn’t write it, he printed “Muddy Waters – to you.” I saw him at the Veteran’s Center in Indio, and asked him to autograph my album. It was still the blues connection to the rock ‘n’ roll stuff back then.
[End of transcript]
Thanks to Alan O’Day for an interesting and informative conversation. Don’t forget to check out Alan’s website at alanoday.com.