Interview with Hall of Fame Songwriter Holly Knight

(This interview was originally published February 8, 2015 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is Holly Knight. Holly Knight is an American songwriter, vocalist and musician. She is known for having co-written many hit songs of the '80s for some of the most successful artists in music, including Pat Benatar, Tina Turner, Heart, Rod Stewart, Lou Gramm and more. Find out a little more about her and those hit songs she wrote which garnered her 2013 induction into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame as we get on to some selections from my interview with Holly Knight...

Q: When and how did you get your own start in the music industry?
Holly: I knew when I was fourteen that I wanted to be a professional musician. One night I went to see The Beach Boys live. I was at the front of the stage jumping and slamming to the music like everyone else, and I kept signaling to Mike Love that I wanted to play keyboards. I never expected him to pull me up on the stage, but he did and he led me over to the keyboards. They were about to play "Good Vibrations". He was really nice and he kept shouting out the chord changes to me, but of course, I already knew them... who didn't? I remember looking out into the audience and seeing a blur of arms and hands and lights. The music was so full and loud, and everyone on stage was connecting through the music. It was so cool, I knew right then I wanted to be a professional musician, in fact long before I became a writer. I already knew probably by four that I was going to be a musician... but it was at this moment on stage that I thought I wanted to have a career in music. I wanted to be a rock star!

Q: Please tell us a little about your time with the band Spider earlier in your career.
Holly: I joined the band Spider which at the time [1977] had no name, no keyboard player (though they wanted one) and no bass player. We had met at a club which later we became the house band for, named Trax in New York City. Everyone who played in town, whether it was at The Garden or Max's Kansas City went to Trax afterwards, so it was a cool rock n roll scene. One night you'd see Robert Plant and the next night, Deborah Harry. Anyway I met Keith [Lentin], Anton [Fig] and Amanda [Blue] there and a few nights later around midnight they asked me if I wanted to come down to their loft in Soho and jam. Basically, it was an audition. I threw some clothes on (I had already gone to bed, LOL), went and played. They asked me to join, so then we became a band with original music from day one, and they were all writing. I thought, well their music is a bit lame, so I'll try writing (could I be any worse?), what the hell... and that's how I "became" a songwriter. I had dabbled in it before for years, but that's when it became serious. I was good at it. SO MUCH MORE HAPPENED... but that's how it started. And once we had Bill Aucoin as our manager, the next thing we set out to do was to get a record deal. So we made a demo of our best songs, continued writing and got a record deal. In those days, once you signed you record deal you were considered "professional". Now we were going to get our chance and play ball in the big leagues.

Q: So that's how you started writing your own songs, but when and how did you end up moving into a career of writing songs for other artists to perform? How did you meet Mike Chapman and what role did he play in the transition?
Holly: After two records, I left Spider and moved out to California at the urging of Mike Chapman. (Why I left the band is another story, not for now.) I had already written my first song with him for Spider's second record, "Better Be Good To Me", which is one of the first covers I got when Tina Turner recorded it for her Private Dancer album. Also John Waite recorded "Change", another tune that Spider first recorded (although I like his version better).

Q: Speaking of "Better Be Good To Me", how did Tina Turner end up recording and having a 1984 hit with that song which you co-wrote back in 1981 and recorded with Spider?
Holly: Who knew? I don't think anybody knew Tina was about to explode way beyond Ike Turner into her solo career like she did. I heard she was in a boardroom and they were listening back to a lot of tunes that her people had brought in to consider for the record she was about to do. And when she heard "Better Be Good To Me" she jumped up and walked around the table saying this lyrically was all about her. She had recently run across the freeway to get away from Ike who was abusing her, so this was an empowering message at the time for her, one that millions can relate to, I guess. It's a song about self-respect and dignity. She deserved it and she was gonna get it.

Co-written by Knight, Chapman and Nicky Chinn, "Better Be Good To Me" was originally released by Spider in 1981. It was made popular by Tina Turner when she released a cover version as a single from her multi-platinum Private Dancer album in 1984. Turner's version would peak at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and win her a Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. So even though it wasn't her first song to become a huge hit, it was the first one she wrote back in 1981. Here is the music video for "Better Be Good To Me" by Tina Turner...

Q: You wrote some amazing songs with Mike Chapman. What can you tell us about Chapman and your partnership working with him?
Holly: The chemistry with us as writers was very special. We would jam very loud and write... we were having fun, but it was pretty serious business, too. In those days, there was a four or five year period where we wrote some of the best tunes together and after that we spread out, I worked less and less with him. The rest, as they say, is history.

Q: You co-wrote the 1983 hit single "Love Is a Battlefield" with Chapman. Please take us back to when the song was written. What is the back story about how that song was conceived and written? Did you write it specifically for Pat Benatar to sing?
Holly: The first day I moved out to California, I went over to Chapman's place to write and the phone rang. Pat Benatar called Mike and asked, "Can you write me a hit? I'm doing a live record and I need a hit to promote and sell the record." The record ended up being Live from Earth. Mike had worked with her already on her first record, so he told her, "I have a writer I signed and we were planning to write today, so we'll write for you." And that day we wrote most of "Love Is A Battlefield". Talk about catching lightning in a bottle!

"Love is a Battlefield" was released in 1983 and has gone on to become one of Benatar's signature hits. It was one of the two studio tracks included on the platinum selling Live from Earth album. It peaked at #5 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100, but became an international hit charting highly in at least nine other countries. I have always felt the song featured some outstanding lyrics:

We are young
Heartache to heartache, we stand
No promises, no demands
Love is a battlefield

We are strong, no one can tell us we're wrong
Searchin' our hearts for so long
Both of us knowing
Love is a battlefield

You're beggin' me to go then makin' me stay
Why do you hurt me so bad
It would help me to know
Do I stand in your way, or am I the best thing you've had
Believe me, believe me, I can't tell you why
But I'm trapped by your love and I'm chained to your side

The song won Benatar a Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. Here is the music video for "Love Is a Battlefield" by Pat Benatar...

Q: Did you have any feeling that this song was going to be something special when you wrote it?
Holly: Yes, ABSOLUTELY... but I have songs even now that I feel the same about and it's some of my best work, but it's just that times have changed so much since those days. Everything is homogenized, it's less and less about the song. And because of Spotify and Pandora, it's harder to get covers, I won't lie... and I'm in the Songwriter's Hall of Fame! I can only imagine starting out in today's climate.

Q: What were your feelings when you heard the final recording of your song by Benatar?
Holly: Well, everyone including Pat knows we initially hated their recording. I loved her vocals, I just didn't love the production of the track which was a lot more frantic than the demo. But I've had many years to adjust and I've learned to love it... since it's probably my most iconic tune.

Q: You co-wrote the 1984 hit "Obsession" with Michael Des Barres. The two of you originally recorded it as a duet in 1983, but it became a hit for Animotion the following year. Please take us back to when the song was written. What is the back story about how that song came to be? How did Animotion end up recording it and did you like their version?
Holly: I wrote the music and melody and some lyrics, Michael wrote the bulk of the lyrics. Our version (the original) appeared in the movie A Night In Heaven [1983] about a stripper starring Cristopher Atkins and Lesley Ann Warren. That song has been in so many movies and TV shows since then (Hot Tub Time Machine, Dallas Buyers Club, The Following, Nip Tuck, MTV's House of Style... I can't even name them all). After our version came out, someone played it to Animotion and they cut it. You'd have to ask them how that came about because I don't know. Again, I thought their version was a little cheesy, ours was a little more edgy. We also had the electronic sequencer line which is how I started the tune. Again, no complaints now. They had a huge international hit with it, and the singer, Bill Wadham wrote me just the other day (oddly enough) and thanked me for being the catalyst in changing his life and career.

In my interview with Michael Des Barres, I asked him about working with Knight and he said, "Holly is a brilliant writer. Challenging and very gifted." You can find out more about what Des Barres remembered about creating "Obsession" in that interview . He said the song is a "poem of longing and addiction." Even though originally written and recorded by Knight and Des Barres, "Obsession" received very little attention until it was covered by Animotion and released in late 1984. The Animotion single was quite distinctive and would make it all the way to #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 as well as #3 on the dance chart in 1985. Knight mentioned many shows and movies it has appeared in, but I always fondly remember the song from its use as the theme for the WWF Saturday Night's Main Event. Here is the video for "Obsession" by Animotion...

Q: You teamed up with Nick Gilder to write "The Warrior" which was a 1984 hit for Scandal. What are your feelings regarding the final version that Patty Smyth and Scandal recorded?

Holly: Well, I loved Patty's version of it because Mike Chapman produced it, so we were in home base for this one. In 2013, when I was inducted into the Songwriter's Hall Of Fame, Patty inducted me, which was a thrill. She also performed "The Warrior" at the event.

"The Warrior" was released as a single by Scandal in the summer of 1984 as part of the band's debut album which was produced by Mike Chapman. Smyth has one of the iconic female rock voices and puts it to good use on this song which, once again, features some great lyrics:

You talk, talk, talk to me
Your eyes touch me physically
Stay with me we'll take the night
As passion takes another bite, oh

Who's the hunter, who's the game?
I feel the beat call your name
I hold you close in victory
I don't wanna tame your animal style
You won't be caged in the call of the wild

Shooting at the walls of heartache
Bang, bang, I am the warrior
Well, I am the warrior
And heart to heart you'll win
If you survive the warrior, the warrior

The single peaked at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100, but made it to #1 on the Mainstream Rock chart. Here is the music video for "The Warrior" by Scandal...

Q: In 1985, Heart released "Never" which you co-wrote with Ann & Nancy Wilson. How did you end up working with them on this great power ballad? What can you tell us about working with the Wilson sisters? What do you remember about how that song came together?
Holly: Trudy Green, who was part of HK Management (Irving Azoff) called me up and said I needed to meet the girls and I should be writing with them. So she invited me down to SIR, a rehearsal space where they were. Once we met, it was instant girl bonding. We had all been musicians and rocky, edgy ones all our lives, so there was an immediate connection. I brought in my guitarist friend from Device, Gene Black, to write with us. He had this great funky guitar riff which ended up being the beginning of "Never" and lyrically there I was AGAIN demanding some respect, but staying in the foray, never walking away, never backing down.

"Never" was released as a single by Heart in the Fall of 1985 and went on to become a big hit for them peaking at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and helping their self-titled eighth studio album to go 5x platinum. It really shows off the amazing vocal abilities of not only Ann, but Nancy Wilson as well. Here is the music video for "Never" by Heart...

Q: You then co-wrote another hit for Pat Benatar with 1985's "Invincible" which was featured in the film The Legend of Billie Jean. Please take us back to when you wrote the song. What is the back story about how it was inspired and written? Did you write this song specifically for Benatar and/or to be used in that film?

Holly: I specifically wrote that song for Benatar and the film. I had a script and I knew they wanted a strong female voice, especially because of the concept for the film. It was kind of a modern day Joan of Arc story, so all the lyrics really were written with being invincible in mind:
And with the power of conviction
There is no sacrifice
It's a do or die situation
We will be invincible.
I wrote "Invincible" in London with Simon Climie (Climie Fisher). It was his first cover and hit. It's probably my favorite of all the songs I wrote... certainly at the top of the list anyway.

"Invincible", co-written by Knight and Simon Climie, was recorded by Pat Benatar and released in 1985 on her Seven the Hard Way album and as part of the soundtrack for the film The Legend of Billie Jean. This was the second big hit for Benatar co-written by Holly Knight and, as she mentioned above, is her personal favorite song she has written so far. Here is the music video for "Invincible" by Pat Benatar...

Q: In 1986, you teamed with Mike Chapman again to co-write "Love Touch" for Rod Stewart which was used in the film Legal Eagles. What can you share with us about how that song came together and working with Stewart?
Holly: Rod Stewart's management called me up and invited me to meet him up at their office, so I showed up there with a cassette and all the basic ideas, the chorus and such for "Love Touch". He instantly loved it and said "Let's finish it!" I tried to finish it with him, but the few times we got together he was just being silly and useless and not contributing. So I told him I wanted to finish it with Mike Chapman instead and if he was smart, he'd cut it which he did and he had a big hit with it. And yes, it ended up in the movie Legal Eagles. The song was pretty much finished, except that in the end Gene Black came up with another one of his tasty classic guitar riffs, so I felt he should get a writer's credit. Often guitarists or musicians, for that matter, will come up with parts, but it doesn't really make a difference to the integrity or structure of the song. That's not really songwriting. I call that "doing your job as a musician and expressing your instrument". But then there are times when a riff is a signature of the song and without it the song would sound different. So then they might deserve a writer's credit.
"Love Touch" was released in 1986 and featured in the end credits of the Robert Redford/Debra Winger film Legal Eagles. Stewart has called it "one of the silliest songs I've ever recorded" which I find very hard to believe based on his catalog of work. I personally really like it and one of my favorite lyrics from the song is:

Because I wanna be good for you
I didn't mean to be bad
But darlin' I'm still the best
That you ever had

It became a big hit for Rod Stewart reaching #6 on the Billboard Hot 100. Here is the music video for "Love Touch" by Rod Stewart...

In 1986, Knight formed a band called Device with Paul Engemann and Gene Black. They only released one album, but they did have a minor hit with the single "Hanging on a Heart Attack" which made it to #35 on the Billboard Hot 100 and received heavy rotation on MTV. Device disbanded in 1987.

Q: You are listed as one of the co-writers for the 1987 Aerosmith hit "Rag Doll". How did you end up working with those guys and what roll did you play in writing this song? What else can you tell us about making this hit?
Holly: In this case, I was the doctor who came in to tighten a screw. Not my favorite way to write; I like to start at the inception of a tune. But I was excited to meet Steven [Tyler] and the band and get to work with them. At that time Aerosmith was a little dead in the water, they had just embarked on their recovery from addictions and their music sucked at that point. They were not the Aerosmith I knew and loved from the beginning, but I still loved them... so let's just say it was a big screw I tightened, LOL.

"Rag Doll" was co-written by Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Jim Vallance and Knight and released on Aerosmith's 1987 multi-platinum Permanent Vacation album. It was released as a single in 1988 and would peak at #17 on the Billboard Hot 100. In my interview with co-writer Jim Vallance , he confirmed that he thought it was Knight who suggested that the title and chorus be changed from "Rag Time" to "Rag Doll".

Q: In 1988, Bonnie Tyler recorded "The Best" which you co-wrote with Mike Chapman, but it really became a big hit for Tina Turner the following year. Was it difficult to write such a positive song yet keep from being too cheesy?
Holly: Yes, it can be very hard to write a positive song and have it not come out cheesy. This song came from the heart, from a very real place, so it's powerful without being cheesy.

"The Best" was included on Tina Turner's 1989 Foreign Affair album. It reached #15 on the Billboard Hot 100, but has gone on to be one of Turner's signature songs and the perfect anthem to celebrate greatness. Here is an example of the sincere lyrics:

Give me a lifetime of promises and a world of dreams
Speak a language of love like you know what it means
And it can't be wrong, take my heart and make it strong

Q: Then to wrap up the decade, you co-wrote "Just Between You and Me" with Lou Gramm. How did you end up working with Gramm and what can you tell us about that experience?
Holly: Lou called me up and said he was doing a solo record and wanted to write with me. I had most of the music to "Just Between You and Me" done and some of the melody as well as a few lyrics. We finished it together. He was such an amazing singer. I was thrilled and honored to work with him.

"Just Between You and Me" was released at the end of 1989 by Lou Gramm as a single from his second solo album, Long Hard Look. The single peaked at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has always been one of my favorites from that year. Here is the music video for "Just Between You and Me" by Lou Gramm...

Q: Is it difficult as a song-writer to relinquish your song to another artist who will undoubtedly take artistic liberties and/or put their own spin on you work?
Holly: Yes, but now I insist on producing. Otherwise I'm really not interested in writing and handing it over for someone else to either steal my ideas and not give credit where credit is due (as well as financial compensation) or they feel the need to change it just "because" and they end up turning a hit song into a shitty track.

Q: What do you remember best about the decade of 80s music?
Holly: The '80s were fun. It was the beginning of the MTV generation... there were a lot of beautiful and different songs that came out of that era, before everything started sounding the same.

With all of these hits (I've covered at least ten above), it's no surprise that Holly Knight was deservingly inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame in June of 2013. Inductees are honored for being responsible for captivating the world with their creativity and serving up a rich variety of songs for our global soundtrack. Knight's songs have won 13 ASCAP Songwriter Awards and have been a key component of the soundtrack of the '80s decade.

Q: What are some of your proudest professional accomplishments?
Holly: My songs have won three Grammys in the rock vocalist category. In total, my songs have sold something like half a billion records and stood the test of time. I was inducted into the Songwriter's Hall Of Fame in 2013. I've made it onto South Park, Oprah, movies, I've written two TV show themes [Angel and Still Standing]... anything else is gravy from here. Oh wait, I would like to win a Tony and an Oscar, too, LOL. I've just started getting going again. I think I'll have to die to stop doing something creative.

Q: What else is Holly Knight up to nowadays? Musically and otherwise? Hobbies?
Holly: I am really into Fine Art Photography. I travel all over the world with my camera and I have set up a really cool website: I'm working on two musicals at the moment. I've been working for a few years on one musical with all my hits in it that I am calling Battlefield.
I never stop writing songs. There's a new one that you're going to hopefully hear very soon. I am very excited about it and I hope the right artist cuts it. It's called "AMF YoYo" and you can all guess what the letters stand for [Adios Mother F***er, You're On Your Own].

Q: Any remaining ambitions or regrets?

Holly: No promises, no demands... No regrets! [nice!]

I am so honored that Holly was able to take some time to answer some questions so I could share them with you here. To find out more about Holly Knight and keep up with everything she has going on now, please visit her official website at and like her official Facebook page. I want to take this occasion to again thank Holly Knight for her contributions to '80s pop culture through her hit songwriting and, even more, for going back to that awesome decade with us here for a little while as well.

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