Interview with Jim Vallance, songwriting partner of Bryan Adams & more

(This interview was originally published December 9, 2012 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 Jim Vallance. You might not recognize the name, but he is a Canadian musician who is probably best known for his work as the songwriting partner of Bryan Adams. Vallance co-wrote almost all of Adams' big '80s hits and as well as several other hits for other artists during that decade and later. His songs have sold millions and millions of copies, have been played on the radio countless times and he has received the Juno award for Composer of the Year four times. Find out a little about him, his hits with Bryan Adams and much more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Jim Vallance...

Q: When and how did you get your own start in the music industry and later a career of writing songs for other artists to perform?
Jim: When I was young, age 10 or 11, I was into comic books and sports. I wasn't the least bit interested in music. Then, in February 1964 I saw the Beatles on television. That was it! At that very moment, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So I taught myself guitar and drums and I started writing songs, very simple and primitive at first. I had a cheap tape recorder and I loved experimenting. I'd move my drum kit from room to room in our house, trying different sounds. My parents put up with a lot!

I used to read all the "small print" on the album sleeves to see who was behind the music. Names like George Martin, Eddie Kramer, Andrew Loog Oldham. Years later I became friends with Andrew. Lovely fellow. He's very kind and patient, answering my endless questions about his work with the Rolling Stones. Same with Eddie. I had dinner with him a few years ago, and I asked lots of questions about Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

Q: Do you use a certain process every time when writing songs? Does the melody come first or the lyrics? Do you start with a song title or end with a song title? Where does inspiration come from?
Jim: It's never the same twice. Sometimes you start with a title, sometimes it's a fragment of lyric or a bit of melody. Songs grow from the smallest ideas. As far as inspiration, I'm very "deadline driven". If there's a project, like a film or an album, I'm on it! Give me a project and a deadline. That's all the inspiration I need.

Q: When and how did you meet Bryan Adams? How did you two end up forming a songwriting partnership?
Jim: I met Bryan in a music store in Vancouver, in January 1978. I was there with my friend Ali. She knew Bryan and she introduced us. Bryan was 18, living with his mom. Unemployed but definitely not unambitious! He had incredible energy and enthusiasm. We got together a week later and wrote a song the first day. And another song the next day, and another one the day after that. We "clicked" right from the start, and we didn't stop for eleven years.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

Over those next eleven years, the team of Jim Vallance and Byran Adams were quite productive releasing three platinum-selling albums featuring nine singles which reached the Top 15 of the Billboard Hot 100.

Q: Your first big hit (outside of Canada) was the title track to the 1983 album Cuts Like a Knife. Please take us back to when the song was written. What is the back story about how that song was conceived and written? What inspired it?
Jim: We were in my studio, playing our guitars, and we'd locked into a chord sequence that sounded interesting: a bar of D, half a bar of G and half a bar of C. We kept repeating that, over and over. Bryan was singing a "mumble", just nonsense syllables, which is what you do when you're fishing for ideas. At some point I stopped him and asked if he had just sang "cuts like a knife". He wasn't sure if he had, but we both agreed it was good. So Bryan started singing "it cuts like a knife", and I responded: "but it feels so right". And that was it, we had our chorus. The rest of the song grew from there.

Cuts Like a Knife was released in January of 1983 and generated three hit singles. The album was a big success in Canada, but it also enjoyed worldwide success including reaching Platinum in the U.S. The title track was the second single released from the album in May. It would peak at #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 later that summer and spend 14 weeks on the chart. Here is the music video for "Cuts Like a Knife" by Bryan Adams...

Q: Did you have any feeling that those songs were going to be something special when you wrote them?
Jim: Early in a song's development, when you've maybe got a bit of lyric and a bit of melody, sometimes you'll think, "Hey, we might be onto something". And when you finish the song there's a sense of accomplishment, but a bit of insecurity too. It's just the two of you in the room, and you're not really sure. Then you play the song for a few other people. My wife [Rachel Paiement] was usually the first one to hear our songs. She'd be upstairs and we'd bring her down to the studio for a listen. And if she liked it, that was always a good sign.

Then Keith Scott would come over and add a guitar solo to the demo, and eventually the other band members would hear the song, and then people at the record company, and you'd slowly get some feedback and gain some confidence. But never did we think, "Bingo, this'll sell a million". It's always a hesitant thing. You do your best work, then you hope everyone else likes it too!

Q: Then the following year, Reckless was released which featured six Top 15 singles. What memories do you have of the creative process when you and Adams were putting together that album?
Jim: There was a bit of success with Cuts Like a Knife, so we had some confidence and momentum when we started writing for Reckless. We got together every day, seven days a week, twelve hours a day. We worked really hard on that album. We wanted every song to be a single.

They almost achieved that goal when six of the ten tracks on the album became Top 15 hit singles on the Billboard Hot 100. This impressive feat had only been accomplished previously on Michael Jackson's 1982 Thriller album. Reckless was released in November of 1984 and ultimately sold over 12 million copies worldwide and has been certified 5x Platinum in the U.S. "Run to You" and "Somebody" were the first two singles released and reached #6 and #11 respectively on the Billboard Hot 100. It was the next two singles released in Spring of 1985 that really caused the album to skyrocket.

Q: "Heaven" has always been a particular favorite of mine. What can you tell us about how this song came to be? What inspired it? How long did it take to write? Any other interesting details about this song?
Jim: That was a request from our publisher. They needed a song for a film called 'A Night In Heaven' [1983 starring Christopher Atkins and Lesley Ann Warren]. They sent us a "rough cut" to watch, but the story-line didn't provide much inspiration for lyrics, so we pretty much grabbed the word "heaven" and ran with that.

If I recall, it took a few days to write the song, and maybe another day or two to fine-tune the lyric and record the demo. I remember being quite pleased with our chorus, the way it starts on the 4-chord and climbs to the 5 and minor-6. I'm sure it's been done before, but not that I'm aware of.

"Heaven" was released as the third single from Reckless in April of 1985 and became Adams' first #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 when it held the top spot for two weeks in June. Since the film A Night In Heaven and its soundtrack were relatively unsuccessful, the song had not received much previous exposure. It is reported that the ballad almost wasn't even included on the album because it was possibly considered too light. It is also reported that the song was influenced by Journey's "Faithfully" since Adams had been opening for them on tour in 1983 when it was written. Here is the music video for "Heaven" by Bryan Adams...

Q: "Summer of 69" has gone on to be the most recognized hit from Adams in the '80s. There are conflicting stories (even from Adams himself) on the meaning of the song. He has more recently come out and admitted that the 69 does symbolize making love. You co-wrote the song, what is your take on the song's meaning? What inspired it as far as you're concerned?
Jim: There were only two people in the room when "Summer of 69" was written: me and Bryan Adams. To be fair, it was nearly 30 years ago, so maybe that's why we have such different memories about writing it!

But here's the thing... the song wasn't called "Summer of 69" in the beginning. It was called "Best Days Of My Life". The phrase "summer of 69" happened only once, in the first verse. It wasn't the focus of the song at all, just one line of lyric. I still have a recording of that first draft and, if you listen to the words, clearly it's about friends, it's about school, forming a band, hanging out at the drive-in, meeting girls.

A week or two later we had second thoughts about the title. We decided "Summer Of '69" sounded better. So we forced that phrase into some of the gaps in the lyric. We literally "shoe-horned" it into the song. Other than that, the lyrics are the same as the first draft. We recorded a new demo and, right at the end, just before it fades, Bryan sang, "Me and my baby in a 69". It was a bit naughty and we had a laugh. I didn't think he'd use it on the final studio recording, but he did. If anyone noticed, they didn't mention it at the time. Not the fans, not the press.

It was 10 or 15 years later when Bryan started introducing the song "in concert', suggesting the lyric was about more than the summer of 1969. The audience reaction was predictable: gasps and giggles and "oh-my-gosh, really?". It's one of the basic rules of "show business". If you get a reaction, don't change the script. So Bryan has introduced the song that way ever since. But really, that's not what the song's about.

"Summer of 69" was released as the fourth single from Reckless in June of 1985. It is a fun, iconic anthem which surprisingly only peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in August, but would spend 17 total weeks on the chart. When I think of Bryan Adams even now, this is the first song I think of. Here is the music video for "Summer of 69" by Bryan Adams...

The fifth single released from Reckless was "One Night Love Affair" which reached #13 on the Hot 100 and was featured in the film Real Genius. The sixth and final hit single from the album was "It's Only Love" which was a duet with Tina Turner that peaked at #15 on the Hot 100 in January of 1986.

Q: I also want to ask about "It's Only Love". Was this written specifically as a duet? At what point did Tina Turner come on board to sing with Adams? What can you tell us about Tina Turner and your experience working with her on this song?
Jim: I love "All Along The Watchtower", the way Hendrix plays a guitar solo after every verse. I envisioned something similar for "It's Only Love", a way to feature Keith Scott's guitar, because he's such a great player. The song wasn't written as a duet, but when Bryan decided to sing with Tina, it's the one song we had that lent itself to that.

Tina was opening for Lionel Richie, that's why she was in Vancouver. She came to Little Mountain studio for a few hours one day. She was great to work with ... energetic, pleasant and very professional. "What's Love Got To Do With It" hadn't gone to the top of the charts yet -- that was still a few weeks away -- so we were really lucky to have that moment with her. The calm before the storm. Two weeks later she was a superstar.

Q: What are your feelings about Reckless and those hit songs now 28 years later?
Jim: Sonically, I think Bryan's records have stood the test of time. Bob Clearmountain deserves a lot of credit for that. He's a brilliant engineer.

During this same time in 1985, Adams and Vallance co-wrote and released a very successful Christmas single.

Q: What can you tell us about Bryan's Christmas hit "Christmas Time"?
Jim: "Christmas Time" was written in May 1985. That's summer in Vancouver, so I'm not sure why we were thinking about Christmas! Most of the track was recorded in my home studio. The drums were added in New York in October when Bob Clearmountain mixed the record. It was pressed on green vinyl and mailed to Bryan's fans in December of that year.

I have always loved this song's melody and the sentiment it delivers. The chorus, in particular, is quite poignant:

There's something about Christmas time

Something about Christmas time

That makes you wish it was Christmas every day

To see the joy in the children's eyes

The way that the old folks smile

Says that Christmas will never go away

It can't be said much better than that. Though some might not agree with me, I consider this to be one of the best original Christmas songs to be released during the last few decades. And over 25 years later, it still deservingly gets lots of radio airplay during the holiday season. In 2001, Adams even performed "Christmas Time" at the Vatican for Pope John-Paul II. Alas, they never made a music video for it back then, but here is a more recent video created for "Christmas Time" by Bryan Adams...

Q: What can you tell us about the B-side to "Christmas Time", a song called "Reggae Christmas" that had been recorded the year prior?
Jim: I actually wrote "Reggae Christmas" for Ringo Starr in 1979. He was in Vancouver recording with Harry Nilsson, and they were looking for a Christmas song. I ran home, wrote "Reggae Christmas", and delivered it to the studio the next morning. They said, "Wow, thanks!", and then they wrote their own song called "Ringo Reggae". Oh well. In 1984, Bryan and I added some extra bits to "Reggae Christmas" and he mailed it to his fan club members as a Christmas gift. The Beatles used to send Christmas singles to their fans. That might be where Bryan got the idea.

"Reggae Christmas" isn't remembered as often and doesn't get nearly the same radio airplay, but it does have a live music video which is pretty awesome! The video features some silliness from Pee-wee Herman in what turns out to be a dream sequence and was actually filmed at the original MTV studios in New York City in 1984. As an added bonus, it also includes original MTV VJs Martha Quinn, Alan Hunter, Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman and J.J. Jackson dancing, singing and having a good time. I wonder if anybody ever questioned a Canadian singing a song about Christmas in Jamaica. Here is that music video for "Reggae Christmas" by Bryan Adams...

Adams followed up Reckless with Into the Fire which was released in March of 1987. Expectations were high coming off the last album's incredible success. Into the Fire sold over two million copies worldwide and generated the hit single "Heat of the Night", but was still considered disappointing. I think most artists would love to have that kind of "disappointment". A couple years later, in September of 1989, the partnership of Jim Vallance and Bryan Adams came to a (temporary) end.

Q: After such huge success together, what lead you to end your partnership with Bryan Adams in 1989? Was it an amicable split? Did you remain friends and/or are you still close friends today?
Jim: After the success of 'Reckless' we wanted to try something different. U2, Peter Gabriel and Sting were writing socially conscious songs, and we felt we needed to be more relevant with our lyrics. So we wrote an album called 'Into the Fire', with songs about Native Americans and homeless people. I still get emails from people who love that album, but in 1987 it wasn't well received. Compared to 'Reckless', which had sold 12 million copies, 'Into The Fire' only did 1.5 million. So there was a lot of pressure to re-group and deliver a big album again.

To be honest, we needed a break, a bit of "down time". But instead, Bryan and I went right back to writing. We pushed ourselves to the point of exhaustion. Even worse, we started getting on each other's nerves. This was ten years into our partnership, and I reckon we'd spent 15 or 20 thousand hours together, most of it in a small room with no windows. You don't need Dr. Phil to tell you how that's going to turn out. We were arguing over the smallest things. The fun was gone. One day I rang Bryan and said I was done.

We hardly spoke for the next ten years, but I'm pleased to say we're the best of friends again. We're spending time together and writing songs. Like I said, we needed a break. We just hadn't planned on a ten-year break!

Q: Heart recorded and had a hit in 1985 with your song "What About Love" (originally written in 1982). What do you remember about when that song was originally written? How did it happen that Heart ended up recording it?
Jim: In 1982, I wrote with Brian Allen and Sheron Alton from the band "Toronto". I don't want to say it was easy, because writing songs is never easy, but "What About Love" came together very quickly. I thought it was quite a good song, but unfortunately they decided to leave it off their album. So the demo sat on a shelf for a few years, and then their record company went bankrupt.

ATV Publishing bought the catalog and Mike McCarty found "What About Love" on one of the tapes and sent it to Los Angeles. I didn't know about any of this until Don Grierson called from Capitol Records and said, "Congratulations, Heart just recorded your song".

Q: Please tell us about your involvement in co-writing "Tears Are Not Enough", how you were recruited to help and your experience working with David Foster on that charity project. What do you remember about writing the song and how it went down?
Jim: In the mid-80s, I was doing a lot of session work as a musician... records, radio commercials, that sort of thing. I was in the lobby of Little Mountain Sound one day when David Foster came out of the studio, looking panicked. Quincy Jones had just played him "We Are The World" over the phone. Then he'd asked David to record a Canadian song for Africa and deliver it in a week. I was the first person David saw when he got off the phone with Quincy. That's how I became involved!

We got together the next day and recorded the basic track, just me and David. He had the melody and I had a start on the lyrics. Bryan and my wife helped us finish the song. There was a tight deadline, so it all happened very quickly. Bryan's manager, Bruce Allen, assembled the talent: Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Geddy Lee, etc ... and even some unexpected guests like John Candy and Eugene Levy [for the recording on February 10, 1985].

"Tears Are Not Enough" was the Canadian version of "We Are the World" which was the American version of "Do They Know It's Christmas". It was released in March of 1985 and has raised over $3 million for famine relief in Africa. The collected group was called Northern Lights and included artists such as Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray, Joni Mitchell, Dan Hill, Neil Young, Geddy Lee, Paul Shaffer, Corey Hart and of course Bryan Adams among others. Here is the music video for "Tears Are Not Enough" by Northern Lights...

Q: How did you end up working with Glass Tiger as songwriter and producer? What can you tell us about Alan Frew and your experiences working with the band? What can you tell us about co-writing the hit songs "Don't Forget Me (When I'm Gone)" and "Someday"?
Jim: I got a call from Deane Cameron at Capitol Records. He'd just signed a young band from Newmarket, north of Toronto. Some of the members were still in their teens! They had some good songs, but they needed singles. I'd been thinking about finding a band to produce, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to write AND produce. So that's how it happened.

I met the band at a rehearsal space, and to be honest, I'm the one who was "on trial"... the band still hadn't decided if they wanted to work with me. So I put them through a "mock production" session. I was actually quite hard on them, making changes to their song arrangements, sitting behind the drum kit and showing the drummer what I wanted to hear, and doing the same on keyboards, bass and guitar. After that, I figured they'd either love me or hate me. It also helped that I'd just worked with Rod Stewart. Alan Frew is a big fan, so that bought me a few "points". Anyway, I got the job, and we wrote most of "Don't Forget Me" the first day. That song grew from a combination of influences, mostly "Tears For Fears" and "Simple Minds". "Someday" was partly inspired by Paul Young's track, "Every Time You Go Away", one of my favorite records at the time.

Glass Tiger's 1986 debut album The Thin Red Line included two hit singles both of which were co-written and produced by Jim Vallance. "Don't Forget Me (When I'm Gone)" even features backing vocals by Bryan Adams. It peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in October of 1986 while "Someday" would later reach #7. You can find out a little more about these singles and see the videos in my interview with Alan Frew from Glass Tiger. Here is the music video for "Don't Forget Me (When I'm Gone)" by Glass Tiger...

Q: You are credited with co-writing "Rag Doll" by Aerosmith. What role did you play in creating that hit song? Any interesting details or stories about writing "Rag Doll" that you can share? What were your feelings regarding the final version of the song after you first heard it?
Jim: I wrote "Rag Doll" with Steven [Tyler] and Joe [Perry] in March of 1987, on the day we met. Joe had the guitar riff, which was great, but it was a "one chord" thing, it didn't really go anywhere. So I added some bass notes under the riff, I think it was A-C-G, and that gave it some motion. The "middle eight" section followed, and by the end of the first day the song was nearly complete.

After that, Steven and I worked on lyrics for a couple of days. At first the song was called "Rag Time", a title that John Kalodner [A&R executive at Geffen Records] hated, so he flew [songwriter] Holly Knight up from Los Angeles and she suggested changing the title to "Rag Doll".

Aerosmith released "Rag Doll" in 1988 as the final single from Permanent Vacation which was their big comeback album following Run-DMC's "Walk This Way" cover. It reached #17 on the Billboard Hot 100. Here is the video for "Rag Doll" by Aerosmith...

Q: Of all the songs you've written, is there one or two that are your personal favorites?
Jim: I'm a huge fan of the Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys. When I listen to music at home, that's what's on the stereo. I never listen to my own songs, unless they come on the car radio.

Q: Is it difficult as a songwriter to relinquish your song to another artist who will undoubtedly take artistic liberties and/or put their own spin on you work?
Jim: I've had hundreds of songs recorded. Sometimes things turn out better than you expected, and other times it's a real disappointment. Joe Cocker did a great job on "When The Night Comes" [1989]. He stayed true to our demo, but then he took it to another level. I especially like the female backing vocals. Then I thought Ted Nugent butchered "Rag Doll" [1999 cover]. He missed the point of the song altogether. The track needs to "swing" and Ted just stomps through it, like a bull in a china shop.

Q: What do you remember best about the decade of '80s music?
Jim: The '80s were a mixed bag, some of it good, some of it not. Lots of forgettable "hair bands"... in fact, I may have been responsible for some of that music! Same for the synth-pop stuff, like Thomas Dolby. When you hear it on the radio today, it sounds terribly "dated".

U2 and the Police made brilliant records in the '80s. Same for Peter Gabriel. Very inspiring. Hall and Oates, Talking Heads, Prince, Van Halen. All good. ZZ Top made some fun records, and I still love Paul Simon's 'Graceland.' AC/DC, early Nirvana, The Clash, Level 42. It was quite a very fertile decade, actually.

Q: Please tell us a little about where your music career has taken you since the '80s.
Jim: I worked with loads of artists all through the '90s. I wish I'd been a bit more discriminating, because I basically said "yes" to everything. Not because I was greedy, but there's a lot of insecurity in the music business. You worry that every job will be your last, so "no" isn't part of your vocabulary. I like the work I did with Aerosmith, and I had a lot of fun with Ozzy. But there are a few things where I should have said "no thanks".

Q: What else is Jim Vallance up to nowadays? Musically and otherwise? Hobbies? Family? Any remaining ambitions or regrets?
Jim: It's nice to be writing songs with Bryan again. There's a level of comfort and trust there, more than I have with anyone else.

In terms of family... my son is 23. He's writing and producing and making a name for himself in New York and Berlin. He's very talented and very aware that it has to be fun first and business later. I admit I got that wrong on a few occasions, so if I have any regrets, that would be it.

For hobbies, I enjoy researching my family's history. I've been doing it for 30 or 40 years, traveling all over England, Ireland and Scotland. I've traced a few family lines back to the 1400's. I think it's important to know where you come from.

I am very honored and grateful that Jim was able to take some time to answer some questions so I could share them with you here. Among all of this great insight, it is especially cool to get confirmation on the long-debated "real" intended meaning of "Summer of 69".

I want to take this occasion to again thank Jim Vallance for his incredible contributions to '80s pop culture writing all of those hit songs and, even more, for going back to the '80s with us here for a little while as well.

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