(This interview was originally published September 23, 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 Martin Page. He is a wonderful singer, musician and songwriter who many might recognize best from his 1994 hit “In the House of Stone and Light”, but he made a big impact in the '80s as well with his band Q-Feel and as a songwriter partnering with the legendary Bernie Taupin. You will find out about all of that and much more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Martin Page…
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a professional musician? When and how did you get your own start in the music industry? Please tell us a little about what you did earlier in your career.
Martin: As a kid back in England, I was poised to be a professional soccer player with my home city team, Southampton, but around the age of 16, I discovered music seriously and fell deeply in love with this new obsession. I was lucky to grow up in the '60s during the Beatles’ era … and looking back now, it was their influence on me that started the ball rolling. I became an obsessive vinyl record collector/buyer, and I learned to play every record I bought – by ear, bass guitar being my weapon of choice. I traveled the country from around the age of 18, playing in various live bands. This was my first musical apprenticeship, which eventually lead me to London, where I formed the band, Q-Feel, with Scottish guitarist Brian Fairweather.
Q: Please tell us a little about when and how Q-Feel came to be. Who came up with the band’s name and what inspired it?
Martin: Q-Feel came about during the new wave/romantic music movement of the '80s. Brian Fairweather and I were the nucleus and songwriters of the band. We were heavily influenced by bands such as Ultravox, The Tubes and Tom Dolby, as well as U.S. funk bands such as Parliament, Rufus, Earth, Wind & Fire and Sly Stone – so we augmented synthesizer arrangements with rhythmic funk – at least that was our goal. Q-Feel is an aviation/aeronautical term that was suggested to me by my father, who worked for British Aerospace. “Q-Feel” is the force a pilot feels on the joystick of jet aircraft when turning and maneuvering; it’s an invisible force that helps the pilot feel and know his plane’s limitations. I liked the idea, as I saw our music as an “invisible force”!
Q: Q-Feel had its biggest hit with “Dancing In Heaven (Orbital Be-Bop)” which was originally released in 1982. Please take us back to when it was written and recorded. What can you tell us about back story about how that particular song was conceived? Where did the “Orbital Be-Bop” part come from?
Martin: Yes, “Dancing In Heaven” is a seminal song for Q-Feel. It was my band’s second single on the Jive Records label, and a big departure in style from our first release, “Doctor On The Radio”. It was conceived during the technology explosion and revolution of the 80s – when synthesizers, drum machines and computers (Fairlights) were making their mark. “Dancing In Heaven” was primarily written by me on a cheap old Casio keyboard in my small Islington bedsit. It was an inspirational moment – a naive, inspired creation. The time was right, the atmosphere was right – all the ingredients came together perfectly; I knew I had something special on my hands the moment the iconic bass line presented itself to me. Some things are meant to be written at a certain time – that was the case with “Dancing In Heaven”. We took my humble 4-track home-demo into the studio and used the newest technology available to showcase the mad “tongue in cheek” fun attitude of the track. “Orbital Be-Bop” was a rhythmic, lyrical catch phrase that just popped into my head like a horn riff. A funky staccato riff of syllables that just sounded damn unusual, weird and quirky!
Martin Page and Brian Fairweather formed Q-Feel and were joined by Trevor Thornton and Chris Richardson. “Dancing In Heaven (Orbital Be-Bop)” was a 1982 single from Q-Feel’s 1983 self-titled album. It did not chart well only peaking at #110 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1982, but it fared much better on the dance charts and became an underground hit. I always remember the song a couple years later for being featured on the soundtrack for 1985’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Helen Hunt. It was used for the big dance contest and the scene made it onto my Top Dancing Scenes from '80s Movies list. Here is a video from a live performance of “Dancing In Heaven (Orbital Be-Bop)” by Q-Feel…
Q: “Dancing In Heaven (Orbital Be-Bop)” was used in the 1985 film Girls Just Want to Have Fun for the big dance contest. Do you recall how the song ended up in that film?
Martin: “Dancing In Heaven” never became the national pop hit that many thought it was. It was played heavily on the influential L.A. underground radio station KROQ, and became a huge underground dance blockbuster. I think the fact that it had an almost “clandestine” underground aura about it attracted Hollywood to it. It had also become a huge favorite of aerobic exercise clubs during this time, and I think L.A. made it its own. That’s why I think the movie, Girls Just Want to Have Fun, found it to be a natural choice to express the atmosphere of those heady New-Wave times.
Q: When and why did Q-Feel come to an end? And then when and how did you end up moving into more of a mode of writing songs for other artists to perform?
\Martin: Q-Feel and “Dancing In Heaven” led me to America and was my ticket into the U.S. music business. Many U.S. artists of the time were looking to change their sound, to compete with this new wave of music, so record companies and artists welcomed Brian (Fairweather) and myself into their fold – asking us to write and produce for them … to give them the new wave sound that was invading their shores from Britain. I’m a songwriter first and foremost, so these new opportunities – working with my heroes such as Earth, Wind & Fire, Kim Carnes, The Commodores and Bernie Taupin – were too good to pass up. Both Brian and I put our energies into writing and producing U.S. acts, so Q-Feel was put on hold. Also, the fact that my management company made me aware that Q-Feel’s record contract with Jive was grossly unfair, influenced us to force our hand to retire Q-Feel.
Q: You co-wrote the 1985 hit single “We Built This City” for Starship with Bernie Taupin, Dennis Lambert and Peter Wolf. How did you end up working on this particular song with those gentlemen?
Martin: Bernie Taupin (Elton John’s lyricist) was taking a hiatus from working with Elton, when – after hearing the Q-Feel album – he decided to collaborate with me. One of the first lyrics Bernie presented me with was “We Built This City”. My demo of the song was dark, funky and mysterious, and I was surprised when rock band Starship wanted to cut it. Peter Wolf (Starship’s producer) with Dennis Lambert loved the song but wanted to extend the chorus to make it more commercially accessible. Both Bernie and I agreed to Peter and Dennis getting a small cut of the publishing & writers credits – after all, this was to be the first cut for me and Bernie as collaborators and we welcomed this quick result for our new material. I wrote “We Built This City” as if it were a Q-Feel song; the demo exhibits this – it is less AOR standard rock and more dark electric technology funk. Starship made it a rock anthem that crystallizes a moment in time – the '80s (as seen in the recent movie Rock of Ages, in which it is featured and sung by Russell Brand). This song has been very good to me.
“We Built This City” was released as a single by Starship in August of 1985. It featured the distinctive voices of Mickey Thomas and Grace Slick and it became one of the biggest hits of that year. “We Built This City” reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in November of 1985 and held the top spot for two weeks. The song also reached the top 10 in at least six other countries making it a worldwide success. For those wondering, it is former radio DJ and MTV executive Les Garland who provided the memorable DJ voice-over during the song’s bridge (“It’s your favorite radio station, in your favorite radio city. The city by the bay, the city that rocks, the city that never sleeps.”) Here is the video for “We Built This City” by Starship…
Q: Please take us back to when the song was written. What is the back story about how that song was conceived and written? How long did it take to write? What was your role within the creative process?
Martin: “We Built This City” was conceived quite quickly. Some songs can take ten minutes (like Heart’s “These Dreams”) or a whole year (as was the case with Robbie Robertson’s “Fallen Angel”), but “We Built This City” took about two days to write and demo. Bernie always writes the lyrics first, so I wrote the music and melody after receiving his lyrics. Although these days I write everything, back then I was thought mainly to be the music and melody side of a collaboration. You would have to speak to Bernie to get the true gist of the lyrical meaning behind the song, but for me, it has an air of anarchy about it: We won’t let the wrecking ball of corporate America knock down and crush the free spirit of live rock and roll. Well, that’s how it spoke to me. Initially, when the demo was shopped around the music industry, the Motels – with Martha Davis – were said to have taken an interest in it. It eventually became Starship’s and my first number one. It really did knock down the music business walls for me – I’m proud of its heritage.
Q: Did you have any feeling that this song was going to be something special when you wrote it? What were your feelings when you heard the final recording of your song by Starship?
Martin: I must admit, when I first heard Starship’s version of the song, I wasn’t exactly knocked out. It sounded a little too organized and safe and straight for me. As I mentioned before, I wrote the song as a Q-Feel track and my demo was more menacing and, to me, unique. But as the song scaled the national charts, I began to appreciate its merits much more. It was a hit record, and was communicating in a positive way to a massive audience. Commerciality is not necessarily a dirty word, and in this case, I began – over time – to recognize what a strong record it really was. It continues to make many people happy, and to remind them of possibly a happier time. In my book, that’s what a popular song should do. If it transcends eras, has lasting appeal through all fashion changes, well then you’ve created something a little special. When I finished the demo, I had an inkling that I had created something strong, but in no way could I have foreseen a worldwide smash hit. That’s the magic of songwriting and songs; it’s mysterious, and each song has a destiny of its very own.
Q: What are your feelings about “We Built This City” now 27 years later? How about the fact that it is often undeservingly included on lists of the worst songs of the '80s?
Martin: Though “We Built This City” is often judged in unfavorable terms, it holds a warm place in my heart for all the reasons I’ve previously mentioned. I think people like to knock it mainly because it’s thought of as a “Starship” song – at a time when Starship was perceived to be selling out to pop/commerciality. It’s linked to a group with a formidable underground rock heritage, and it’s hard for some critics to come to terms with “Jefferson Starship” having “pop” success. For me, all that sounds a bit snobbish, pompous and elitist. Lay back and let the people enjoy what they enjoy – pop music is what it says – POPULAR. At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s the song being judged, as much as it is the act that performed it – justified or not.
Q: You then co-wrote the 1986 hit song “These Dreams” again with Bernie Taupin which was recorded by Heart. Was that song written specifically for Heart to record? What is the back story about how that song was conceived and written? What are your feelings regarding the final version that Heart recorded? I thought it was interesting that Nancy Wilson sang lead on it instead of Ann.
Martin: “These Dreams” was also written with my band Q-Feel in mind. I visualized it as an electric hymn much in the style of a band such as Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark. Bernie again provided me with the lyrics up front. It was initially titled “Boys In The Mist” and Bernie had originally written the lyric for Stevie Nicks. When she passed on the lyric, Bernie gave it to me. The words “these dreams” appeared in the bridge section of the song, but I transported them into the chorus (with Bernie’s agreement, of course). The song literally took me ten minutes or so to write – probably the fastest song I’ve ever written – and I knew straight from the start that it was a very special piece.
The song demo was initially snapped up by Kim Carnes, but after she tried to sing it, she decided that it was melodically too rangy and high for her. Kim had a reputation for passing on songs that eventually went on to be number ones! Thank you, Kim!! Peter Wolf, who had produced my song “We Built This City” for Starship, had played my demo of the song to the Wilson sisters while they were traveling on a plane to their album’s recording studio, and they fell head over heels in love with it. Although their producer, Ron Nevison, was not convinced it was the right type of song for them, the sisters dug in their heels and demanded to cut the song. As the story or rumor goes, on the day that the lead vocal on “These Dreams” was to be recorded, Heart’s main lead singer Ann had a cold and couldn’t perform it, leaving Nancy to do the vocal chores. The rest is history. Again, when I heard Heart’s version, I thought it a little undone and under produced, but as the years have passed, I have recognized the minimalist strength of the production. The song shines through in its vulnerability and openness. I feel it’s one of the best songs I’ve written chordally and harmonically, and I feel particularly proud that the great songwriter, Jimmy Webb, named it in his top 10 of songs that he wished he’d written.
“These Dreams” was released as a single in January of 1986 and marked the first Heart single on which lead vocals were performed by Nancy Wilson instead of Ann. It proceeded to reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in March becoming the surprisingly first Heart single to reach #1 on that chart (“Alone” would also reach #1 the following year). That same month, it also became Heart’s first, and still only, #1 song on the Adult Contemporary chart. Here is the video for “These Dreams” by Heart…
Q: Since you teamed with him several times, what can you tell us about Bernie Taupin and your experience working with him?
Martin: I regard Bernie Taupin as one of the greatest popular lyricists of our time. He wrote with me the same way as he did with Elton – by providing me with the lyrics for a song up front, before the music was written. I enjoyed working this way. We were fortunate when we began writing together, in that our first two collaborations became number one hits (“We Built This City” and “These Dreams”), and I was privileged to write and produce Bernie’s solo album, Tribe. He made my job easy – he took care of the words while I honed in on the melody and music. We totally trusted each other, which is what a good collaboration is all about. He paid me the biggest compliment when he said that I reminded him of Elton in many ways – particularly in my work ethic, determination and enthusiasm, which reminded him of Elton during their early years.
Q: How did you begin working with Go West and please tell us about how the song “King of Wishful Thinking” came about. Was this song always intended to be on the Pretty Woman soundtrack? Please tell us about Go West and your experience working with Peter Cox and Richard Drummie.
Martin: Before I worked with Go West, I was already a fan of their blue-eyed soul. I owned their albums and I thought that Peter Cox was one of England’s great soul singers – much in the mold of Robert Palmer, Paul Young and Paul Carrack. So it was a thrill to work with the boys. “King of Wishful Thinking” was not written for Pretty Woman; we had come together to collaborate for their new album – to write hit songs that would break open the American market for them. They were on a mission to re-ignite their career, and I was brought in to help them achieve that. In many ways, I became the third member of Go West while we were working together; they trusted my intuition and followed my guidelines for the songs “King of Wishful Thinking” and “Faithful”, and “That’s What Love Can Do”. We became great friends in the process, and between the three of us, we had all the areas covered as musicians, singers and songwriters … we functioned as a great team. Both Richard Drummie and Peter Cox were a joy to work with. They are the real deal – skilled, sophisticated soul/R&B writers and performers – everything they touched had class about it, and I consider myself lucky to have been involved with them during a special and crucial time in their career. Being a bass player myself, and R&B/funk influenced, it felt damn sweet to be involved with these two soul boys at the height of their strengths. I believe “King of Wishful Thinking” to be a true classic soul pop song – that can be played in-between Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown” and Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours”, and still hold its own. That’s saying a lot!
I always remember Go West best for their 1985 debut single “We Close Our Eyes”, but I would expect most would remember them more for “King of Wishful Thinking” which was featured on the soundtrack to 1990 blockbuster film Pretty Woman starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts. The single reached #18 on the Billboard Hot 100, but was also a radio staple which even received an ASCAP award for being one of the most played songs in America that year.
Q: Did you ever find 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?
Martin: It’s a thrill when somebody else wants to record one of your songs, and yes, sometimes their version of your song may irk you a little, but the ultimate feeling I get is of gratitude and satisfaction when another professional wants to express his or her art through the medium of one of my songs. I believe I have the greatest job in the world – writing songs – and the fact that others find them good enough to put their name beside them is an honor in my book. It still, to this day, thrills me to the core when another artist decides to record one of my songs. It’s the biggest buzz ever!
Q: I read that you actually played keyboards for Ray Parker, Jr. on his hit song “Ghostbusters”. First, how did you end up working with Parker on that recording session? Second, did you have any idea that this silly song would go on to become such a huge hit back when you were recording it?
Martin: Yes, I did play keyboards on “Ghostbusters” and my Q-Feel partner, Brian, played guitar. It was the early days for Brian and I in L.A. when my manager, Diane Poncher, introduced me and my music to Ray Parker – she was part of the management company that managed Ray. Ray Parker was very intrigued by the new sounds coming from England at that time, and he enjoyed the Q-Feel album … so he asked Brian and I to add our “sound colors” to his “Ghostbusters” track. We had no idea then that this track would go on to be so massive. In fact, when we played on it, none of the vocals were on the track yet – we were just playing a bare rhythm track. I added crazy, weird space-like sounds to the track, which were also later utilized in the actual movie when the ghost hovers ominously (and rather sexily) over one of the characters lying on a bed. I used my cheap little Casio keyboard that I had brought over from England – the one on which I wrote “Dancing In Heaven”, and Ray just wanted me to freak out and add that “English” quirkiness to the track. I played some groove-oriented funk short-stab accents on the song, and Brian added revved up rock guitar parts. It was amazing for us both to hear our parts almost immediately on the radio on a smash #1 hit. We thought, “that was easy … we like AMERICA!!”
As most remember, Ghostbusters took the world by storm back in 1984 and the film’s theme song by Ray Parker, Jr. was no exception. The film was released in June and the single reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 by August and held the top spot on that chart for three weeks. “Ghostbusters” also reached the top 5 in at least eight other countries.
Q: What do you remember best about the decade of '80s music? What lasting impact do you feel music from the '80s has made?
Martin: I think you can still hear the influence of '80s music on pop radio today big time! From dance music to Lady Gaga, etc., you can hear the essence of '80s production techniques all over the place. The '80s signaled a revolution in musical technology – the extensive use of drum machines, computers and samplers, etc. This led to the New Wave/Romantic movement and bands like Soft Cell, The Thompson Twins, The Fixx, Ultravox, Berlin, Duran Duran, Devo, etc., starting to dominate the airwaves. The '80s music was fresh and vital and energized, and it brushed aside the old guard of tired rock bands. '80s music still sounds fresh to me today – primarily, I think, because it’s synthesizer-based and rooted, and that will always sound new and futuristic. We are still in a time of worshiping computers, so the 80s tastes of this forward, futuristic movement are still noticeable. I personally love all the eras of popular music – from the 40s Big Band, Swing/Bebop rockabilly to '60s flower power, the Beatles, and '70s funk and soul – it all speaks to me. The fact that my career began in the '80s makes that time particularly relevant and special to me. Tom Dolby and Peter Gabriel made exceptional records using new technology matched with great songs and emotions during this period, and this inspired and excited me. The '80s gets a lot of stick from critics, but for me it was a time of freedom for the songwriter and musician who was open to and aware of the wonderful breakthroughs appearing in technology… pop music during this time took on great atmosphere/mood and color… from Ultravox’s “Vienna” to Tom Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science” – something unique was happening, and you can still hear its huge influence in the popular groundbreaking bands of today.
Q: Please tell us a little about where your music career has taken you since the '80s.
Martin: Since the '80s, I’ve continued to follow the muse and develop my songwriting. Songs are my religion, so nothing has really changed since the '80s for me as a writer – I just continue to try and write a better song each time. I sit down at the piano or I pick up a guitar. The '80s also allowed me to develop my craft and to forge a solo career; it was the period that spring-boarded me on towards my own solo work, which has recently become very precious to me. In the mid-90s, I recorded and released a solo album, In The House of Stone and Light on Mercury Records. The title track was a #1 Adult/Contemporary and Top-10 Pop hit single in the mid-90s, and was distinguished as the longest charting single in Billboard’s A/C chart history at the time. In 2007, my manager Diane Poncher and I formed an indie label, IroningBoard Records, which has released two more of my solo records to date, In The Temple of The Muse, and just recently, A Temper of Peace. Songs from both of those albums have been recorded by other artists, including Robbie Williams, Josh Groban, Elaine Paige and The Osmonds. The '80s was a great time for songwriters, so I feel lucky to have served my apprenticeship and to have learned my “chops” during this heyday of creativity.
I am a big fan of “In the House of Stone and Light” which Page released as his own single in July of 1994. It peaked at #14 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1995, but held the top spot on the the Adult Contemporary chart for several weeks that year.
Q: Please tell us a little more about A Temper of Peace.
Martin: A Temper of Peace is my new solo album, which has just come out. As I mentioned, it’s my third solo album and I couldn’t be happier with it. It had been a long time desire of mine to record an album on which I played all the instruments, engineered and produced the whole thing myself, and this is what I have done on A Temper of Peace. I grew up listening to albums by Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and Todd Rundgren, on which they had played all the instruments themselves, and I felt that I gained from those albums a profound inner glimpse of the “true” artist at work, so it was a dream of mine to attempt the same. This new album allowed me to do that. It was a challenge that I relished, and judging by the early responses to the record we’ve received so far, it seems the challenge is paying off – with it reaching #1 on CD Baby’s Independent Pop/Rock Top Sellers chart within its first week of release.
In fact, there is a song on the new album called “The Washing of the Heart”, which harkens back to my '80s period – if Q-Feel were around today, they likely would sound like this! It’s a rip-roaring up-tempo, crazy jam with a spiritual lyric that promotes the idea that “it’s never too late to start over”. When I was writing, recording and producing “The Washing of The Heart”, I definitely had that '80s thing going on. It was lovely to step back into that vibe again! I feel that A Temper of Peace is my most balanced and satisfying album to date on many levels. It is a bridge between my first two solo albums and reveals an intimate, acoustic side of my creativity, as well as my upbeat electric rhythmic influences. All in all, I feel that it represents the essence of “me” very well, and after all, that’s what a solo album is supposed to do, isn’t it. The album took me in many directions – allowing me to present my love of reggae, folk, R&B and '80s old school. I use analog keyboards from the '80s on all the tracks, and the majority of the record is recorded on an analog Studer-24 tape machine, which I purchased – yes you’ve guessed it – back in the '80s! So, my new album proudly displays a gracious nod in the direction of good “old school” production techniques and song ethic.
You can stream A Temper of Peace onAmazon Prime of course on iTunes as well. Please check it out.
Q: What else is Martin Page up to nowadays? Musically and otherwise? Hobbies?
Martin: As I previously alluded to, I’m still obsessed with songwriting, so I’m usually doing that most days. I’ve recently been through a very productive and creative time when songs have just been falling out of me. I’m lucky that I’ve never had writer’s block (touch wood) and it seems that, in these later years, a well-spring of ideas has just re-opened. My job is to keep my energy and stamina up, my enthusiasm up and strong, to see these fresh revelations through to fruition. The fact that, since the age of 16, music came along to possess me and has since never failed to inspire and motivate me, is a blessing, and something I honor. In answer to your question about hobbies: Every Sunday afternoon, I break away from the studio to play soccer with my ex-patriot friends here in Los Angeles. Music and soccer… what could be better?!!
I feel very honored that Martin was able to take some time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. His official website is under construction right now, but you can keep up with him more on his Facebook page . I want to take this opportunity to again thank Martin Page for his contributions to '80s pop culture through his songwriting and with Q-Feel and, even more, for going back to the '80s with us here for a little while as well.