I recently had the great pleasure of talking to songwriter Alan O’Day about the music he made in LA in the Seventies. Having written number one hits such as his own “Undercover Angel” and Helen Reddy’s “Angie Baby,” O’Day continues to write and perform his own material. He still resides in his native Los Angeles, and in the first part of this interview, he talks about his formative years in an ethnically diverse neighborhood, as well as his relationship with fellow luminaries such as Jeff Porcaro of Toto, who he was briefly in a band with, and songwriter Diane Warren, who he helped mentor at a crucial time in her career.
(Interviewer’s comments and questions in italics.)
What about LA made it such fertile ground for pop music in the 1970s?
Well, I didn’t see that in comparison to any other place, so that comparison never crossed my mind. But it was just a vibrant situation here. I myself played in night clubs in the Los Angeles area in the 60’s and was burning out of doing that in the late 60’s, but my constant companion was pop music – both AM and FM stations. It felt like it was the glue that held things together, the sense that you’re listening to the radio and you know a lot of people are listening to it, and there’s an implicit camaraderie.
There was kind of a reaction against the war, or war mentality, and that was like us against them a little bit. Music was making political and love statements that were kind of galvanizing to millions of people, actually a bit younger than me, I was 30 years old in 1970. But I was watching what was happening.
The playing in night clubs, which was my support, was kind of falling away like a cocoon, and I remember writing songs between sets. Working on an idea, coming home to my funky little apartment and working on song ideas, kind of like a revolt or a yin/yang against what I was doing in the clubs.
And then I was working in a recording studio after that, getting minimum wage but learning a lot, and I remember that I went on days when I could come home, just part day, I would rebel against the fact that I was working by throwing myself into my music. And my output, because of that frame of my mind, was pretty large. And then I got lucky and actually got a royalty check and didn’t work anymore, and I found that when writing became my main gig, it was a little harder (laughs) to revolt against anything, because I had what I wanted, you know?
Well, that happens a lot, doesn’t it? When music becomes your main source of income, when you rely on that for rent and stuff, then it gets a little harder finding the right motivation to write.
Yeah, that’s it excactly. But what was going on around here was bands playing in LA and the Hollywood scene on the Sunset Strip, and quite often you’d be able to go see a band that had a recording out, and there was a connection among people and music, and I think it was based on radio and the local club scene. It was a commonality, that’s what I remember. And it was feeding me, it was nurturing me to want to write.
I never studied music formally, but I learned to play other people’s songs by ear, and that’s how I played gigs in night clubs. I didn’t realise it at the time, but that was teaching me lyrics and melody and chords and stuff on a hands-on basis, and that’s what propelled me into writing my own stuff.
Learning by doing, then, huh?
Yeah, and I got to really dislike playing in clubs at that time, ’cause we were kind of background music. With God’s grace, I get to play now, in songwriting venues or oldies concerts, or in Nashville at the Bluebird Cafe, just situations where people come because they remember my hits, and suddenly I’ve got an audience that’s so accepting, you know? Where were those people then [laughs]…
(Long anectode about early night club gig experiences.)
Yes, it’s very easy to get mad at “them”.
Your statement about people moving to the area and the TV boom, I don’t have a clue about that. It’s an interesting proposition. I just know that there were a lot of young people here that were connected, and there was a look and a dress, with the mustaches and beards and semi-hippie stuff going on still, it was just vital.
Now, the disco scene started coming in, and I didn’t really consider myself a part of that at all. Some people refer to “Undercover Angel” in kind of a disco context, and I don’t get that. I thought I was writing some pop stuff.
(I explain my outsider’s perspective. “I’m trying to get the sociology of it. Such a lot of talents in the same place at the same time.”)
Yes. Well, you know, another way to look at it is, there was probably talent other places too, but because this was a recording hub and a music business hub, the people who were here had more of a shot.
I’ve thought about that, You know, with the Porcaro guys, they were sons of TV business, movie business people, and they were trying to be the best in their local area, and just by chance, at that time, their local area was on top of the world.
Yes. You could probably find someone asking the same question about Nashville or New York, but I like the LA question better, because it’s tasty to me to think back. There was a feeling about it that I was involved in something. It sizzled for me, it had buzz.
I took my songs to a publisher who gave me a reality check by saying that they weren’t ready to be hit records at all, and that I needed to learn more of the craft. His name was Sidney Goldstein with a company called EH Morris. He ended up signing me as a writer, and he would gently prod me to work on the craft of things and put [my songs] together, and kind of by osmosis, I picked up what he was talking about. I was already doing it organically, but he helped me focus on that, and got me my first cut. Now, he was from New York, he was the LA arm of this company based in New York, and I’m the only writer that he ever signed out here.
Was he a songwriter himself, or was he just really good a recognizing great songs?
I don’t believe he was a songwriter. He was a publisher, a business man and very sincere and serious about his work – and very loyal to the company. It was like being taken under somebody’s wing. An older man, he is no longer with us. Very gentle, it was almost like a fatherly kind of relationship. Eventually he shared my publishing rights with the company that became Warner Bros, which is how I got connected to Warner Bros, which is now Warner Chappell. Those were good years, I would go out and play in clubs sometimes, or sit in or, you know, go listen to stuff. I was not at all well to do, but there was a richness in my existence – so much so that when I had hits under my belt, I would have wistful dreams about the funky apartment I lived in the early seventies, because it was where I really found myself.
Have you had a chance to mentor anybody the way mr. Goldstein mentored you?
Well, not to that extent, but I’ve been a positive force for some songwriters, most notably Diane Warren.
She’s a great songwriter.
Yeah. She came to me early in her career, in kind of an obtuse way – because there was another young lady in her late teens who had come with her father to have me listen to her songs, and there was nothing really spectacular there. She just needed a little more life under her belt to see if she really wanted to pursue writing. So they thanked me and said goodbye, and a couple weeks later I got a letter in the mail, ostensibly from this young lady, saying “I have a friend who’s a really good songwriter, and she’d like to come and see you. Her name is Diane.” And I wrote back and said “sure, no problem!” It was just very informal stuff. ‘Cause I liked talking about music, and, you know, I liked girls. [laughs] What a concept! So, Diane showed up at my doorstep, looking hippie-ish, with a guitar – she wasn’t really playing piano at that point – and played me some of her stuff, which had some potential, but was very folky, it was like “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, kind of Jimmy Webb-ish. And I found out later that that letter from the girl was actually written by Diane to get herself to come and see me. She didn’t need to do that – she didn’t know she didn’t need to do it, I would have seen her anyway. But she had that business knack and that little edge to try to make things happen, and she still does.
I think I know her mostly through Chicago and her work with David Foster. And also, she wrote that Celine Dion song “Because You Loved Me”, which is a fantastic song.
Yeah, she’s done some wonderful stuff. She has no illusions about her own writing, she really is motivated to try to write the very best song she can, and that’s something that I try to keep in my mind that I learned from her. But I was trying to help her get her stuff a little more polished, more mainstream, and we hung out for a while in those days, and who knew what was going to happen. She still acknowledges me as a friend who helped her.
That brings me to another thing. I mentioned Celine Dion, and she’s an artist that obviously hasn’t got a lot of credibility for the hardcore music press guy. Which is horrible, you know, ’cause she’s a fantastic talent, but somehow sincere songs about love, you know, ballads in major keys, don’t go over well with the hip crowd these days. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, I’m sort of piecing it together. I think you’re talking about a certain climate in a certain time. I did a radio interview last night, and the guy was talking about how back in the sixties and early seventies, you could turn on the radio and hear such a variety of music. You’d hear something by Frank Sinatra and then something by James Brown, you know. And then it all got parcelled out into little sections. The top 40, I don’t listen to it anymore. I don’t think there is a top 40, there’s a top 40 for certain kinds of people who like certain kinds of stuff, and it’s all sectioned out into little pieces. What I miss about the music business is that camaraderie of hearing something – I’m sure that among young people, that’s probably still going on, you know – “ooh, did you listen to KK-whatever radio station, wasn’t that a hip song this morning?” It’s mostly within the hip hop thing, which is not very melodic usually.
No, it’s more like “did you download that last song illegally?”
Ha ha, yeah. That’s a whole other story.
People are sort of piecing together their own playlists. A song can be a great hit, but your neighbor might not have heard of it.
Yeah, it’s more “me, me, me” rather than “we, we, we.” At least that’s how it seems to me at my age. And I don’t have kids, so I’m not intimately connected with the music scene, but it is kind of an iPod generation, and there’s some good in that. On one hand, there’s more selections of stuff that you can find, on the other hand, most of it’s crap.
At least compared to a lot of the great songs of the seventies and eighties.
I know you mentioned Jeff Porcaro. I can’t say Jeff was a close friend, but he was great to me. Dean Parks played on one of my first albums, and I think I met Jeff through Dean or at a session with Dean, and Jeff liked my songs. This was pre-Toto. I remember going to see Jeff at an ASCAP awards thing where Toto received an award, and I came over to him in my rented tux, and he was just so genuine. He said, “let me know if you need me to play on any demos for free”, you know. He just loved doing the music and was so enthusiastic. I was invited over to his house on a street called Valley Heart, and for a few minutes I was in a band with Dean and Jeff and, I can’t remember who else. Musically, I wasn’t up to par, but they never said anything about it, I could just tell. ‘Cause they were just there to have fun. I think we called ourselves the Valley Heart Band, and we probably were in existence for about a week [chuckles].
Sounds like a pretty good band, though.
Oh God. I knew even then I was out of my league, but nobody was making me feel that way, it’s just, you know, I was more the songwriter type, self-taught and not using the right fingers on the keyboard, no technique. Those were great times, and there was an equanymity across the line, there wasn’t anybody looking arrogantly at anybody else, you know. Jeff’s passing was a surprise and a big loss, because he kind of symbolized that era of “hey, let’s just hang out and play, let’s jam. So-and-so’s got a song, let’s play it.” It was not all business, you know.
That’s what I’m getting, I think, from listening to the music. There’s this vibe that just leaps out at me. The songs are diverse, and some of the records that those guys you mentioned, Jeff and Deane and the session crew, some of them are geared towards soul, and some of them are more jazz-oriented, but there’s this playfulness, this “let’s have a good time” type vibe. That’s what makes this music so special to me, I think. It’s neat to hear you describe it like that.
Yeah. Some of that may have been slightly enhanced by drug use.
Were you into drugs at all?
No, I drank. I didn’t drink to excess, but that was my drug of choice, and that’s a drug. I’m not saying that I saw much of it, like when I described the Valley Heart Band situation – nobody was high that I knew about, but Jeff had a reputation, and I know that musicians would use a lot of marihuana and various versions there of. Some people I guess were into cocaine. I didn’t really pay that much attention ’cause I stayed away from it, but I remember at my first album, seeing some drug use going on while they were playing, and watching it kind of in a naïve way, going “oh, wow”, you know. I don’t want to go into details, because it’s no big deal that somebody did something back in the seventies. They’ve all come to terms with themselves, and they’re either here, or they’ve self destructed. But a lot of the rock ‘n’ roll stuff was sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, you know.
That continues to be a motivation for some people to this day, getting into music to get free drugs.
Yeah, but I certainly wouldn’t reduce it all to that, because you’re onto something that was legitimate, and it was about people’s attitudes and feelings, and I don’t want to lay it all at the feet of chemicals.
Well, that’s good to hear. By some accounts, coke was pretty prevalent in the session scene. (LE tells an anecdote from David Foster’s book about session contractors asking about drugs of choice)
I’m glad I wasn’t that hip, because I’m glad I’m still here. I got by with relatively little damage. I realized that alcohol was not as fun as it once was, and I was pissed about that, because I used to be able to have a couple of drinks and play the same old songs, and not feel that it was boring, you know. When I was playing other people’s songs. It got to be where it wasn’t getting me off like it used to, so I looked at my family history and got some information about the disease of alcoholism, and I just decided to stop, and I never started again. So that’s been about 30 years.
Good for you, man.
Well, it was. And at the same time, I’d been medicating myself with alcohol for depression, and I realized that I had a problem with depression, and I started figuring out how to deal with that. It wasn’t like “he quit drinking and everything was fine,” you know, it was “he quit drinking and got more in touch with himself and the reasons why he was drinking in the first place” [chuckles].