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I’m Still Standing: Leo Sayer Gets Back With New Album of Reinvented Beatles Songs
The 2021 documentary The Beatles: Get Back could not have come at a better time for Leo Sayer. The singer-songwriter often crossed paths with the group as a young performer in London, managed by singer Adam Faith. Sayer’s relationship with Faith went sour when Sayer discovered he’d been ripped off to the tune of millions of dollars. Faith died in 2003.
Rock Cellar last spoke with Sayer in 2016. In that conversation, he revealed the stories behind his many hits, including “Long Tall Glasses,” “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” and “When I Need You.” Sayer also discussed his early collaboration with Roger Daltrey and meeting Jimi Hendrix and Paul McCartney.
Sayer had been busy, recording a solo album, Selfie, in 2019 and touring Europe and his home base, Australia, until the pandemic hit.
In the interim, Sayer released two new singles, “My City in Lockdown” and “How Did We Get Here.” As restrictions begin to lift, Sayer has resumed touring and on January 28, 2022 released Northern Songs: Leo Sayer Sings the Beatles.
Sayer produced and performed all the instruments and vocals on the LP, a 19-track collection of songs composed by McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison.
Rock Cellar: If not for the pandemic, would you have had other musicians on the new album?
Leo Sayer: No. I’ll probably do the next album and involve a lot of musicians, but I’ve really been teaching myself to make records on my own. I made a record just before this, an album that I don’t think saw much light in America, called Selfie. It was called Selfie because I did it all myself.
I’ve always been interested in making music and computers. When Arif Mardin and Richard Perry were producing, they were always fighting to get my fingers off the board. I’ve always loved making records. That’s part of what I do.
So I’ve been teaching myself to make records all by myself, manipulating samples and using computers. I have a very limited skill of keyboard work, but basically I can do anything thanks to these DAW programs that sequence. It’s a lot easier than it looks from the outset. The only thing is it takes time. So I tend to work over a couple of years, or in the case of Northern Songs, it’s been 10 years I’ve been working on this.
But I love doing it by myself. Think of Van Gogh and Picasso. They didn’t get someone in to do the blues and the greens, then the yellows and the reds. I think a real artist should be able to do that. There’s been some great examples of this, like Todd Rundgren. Think of Gary Numan, who played just about everything on his records. And of course, the shining example is Prince.
So why not? If the artist is not distracted by, say a bass player turning around and saying, “Oh no, you can’t play it like that,” when the artist manipulates the bass sounds on the keyboard. “No, that would be technically impossible.” I think it’s really good if you’re able to describe your vision yourself.
Rock Cellar: The Beatles went through distinctly different eras: the early Beatles, the acoustic era, Sgt Pepper. What’s your favorite Beatles era?
Leo Sayer: Oh God, I love all of it. I’ve been absolutely entranced, like everybody else, with Get Back, because that finally shows us the process that they all went through. And in the end you do see that all four guys, even Ringo, are inputting so much into every song. And I think that that’s the magic of them. I don’t think that there’s one era that is better than another.
Of course, when Sgt. Pepper came out, we all felt that that was the culmination at the time in 1967 of what they were capable of.
But I think that we might have done that with the Beach Boys, and then been surprised afterwards that Brian Wilson still has more ideas. We do that all the time. The Beatles reached so many peaks in their career. Get Back looks like the final album but then comes Abbey Road, which is absolutely amazing. Abbey Road is the absolute culmination. There’s great recording skill, there’s Eric Clapton, there’s so many different elements in there that expand what their possibilities were as a four-piece band.
When you sing these songs, there’s so many echoes. I did something very deliberately. Every time I started to think of one of these songs and what I can do, I actually stopped listening to the original and just listened to the song that was in my head and my heart. And that’s why I’ve been very cheeky and taken liberties with a lot of the songs, to change the vibe.
“Hard Day’s Night” becomes almost like Van Morrison – I’ve been workin’. It takes a sort of early R&B-ish kind of feel to it. It could be Bobby Bland doing “Road of Brokenhearted Men.” It’s got all of those echoes.
Rock Cellar: What do you think was the secret of Lennon and McCartney being able to write so many great songs?
Leo Sayer: I think you see in Get Back that they fire each other up. I know that from all the songwriting partnerships that I’ve had. Every single time, when writing with David Courtney or Albert Hammond or Alan Tarney, Tom Snow, we always surprised ourselves with what we’d created. You create a third person in the room and some of the ideas that come out at first always are like pulling teeth. Two people in a room going, “What about this?” “No, I don’t like that. What about this?”
And all of a sudden, always in the last five minutes of a writing session, that’s when the magic happens. Because you’ve tried everything. You’ve thrown every idea at each other. And then you suddenly turn around and go “Yeah.” Something just comes out. It’s magical. And it’s built by the chemistry of the people.
I think that’s what John and Paul had. They were different characters, but they created an incredible chemistry. And I think those songs are that third person in the room.
Rock Cellar: Some people think it’s sacrilege to redo a Beatles song.
Leo Sayer: There’s lots of what I call karaoke versions, where they absolutely follow the record to the letter and just put a different voice on it. I don’t find those very valid because how can you beat the Beatles? That’s why I chose to go in this direction.
When I started, it was a fun project just for me. I wasn’t intending to release it. It was just a way of me using the studio and learning some techniques. The first songs that came out, “Eleanor Rigby,” the first version, “Girl” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” I did with my friend, the engineer John Hudson.
We did them ourselves just to work them up and just see what happens. He helped me finish them. We both sat back and he turned around and said, “I think you’ve got an album here.” And that was when I first thought, “Hmm, maybe I should release these.”
Rock Cellar: You’ve said the Beatles, Stones and other musicians were a lot more accessible in the swinging London days of the ’60s.
Leo Sayer: I was a commercial artist working for magazines around ’67 and ’68, ’69. You’d see them on the street all the time. You’d be in Soho and you’d walk into a bar and there’d be Mick Jagger and a couple of interesting people with him. ‘Cause those guys loved art and artists. Look at John getting together with Yoko. She was an artist working in London who’d come over to do some exhibitions.
You had people who were trying to look more sophisticated than they were. You’ve got all these street urchins in the Rolling Stones and the Beatles suddenly discovering that London was in the ’60s this potpourri of every kind of art. You’ve got David Bailey, Peter Blake, all of these artists getting involved with musicians.
I worked in a studio in this area of London called Marble Arch, near Hyde Park. Yoko had a flat in the building. One day I was having a smoke downstairs and this guy sidled up to me in a white suit and of course it was John Lennon. I didn’t want to say anything but he asked me for a light!
So I gave him a light for his ciggie and he says, “Nice day,” and I said, “Yes, very, very nice.” I didn’t want to say, “Oh, Mr. Lennon!” or anything like that. I thought that was a bit cheap. So I saw him a few times doing that.
In the end he asked me my name, I said, “Gerry.” I said, “What’s your name?” He said, “John.” A little bit later when I was making my first record Silverbird in 1973, we were going into the mastering process at Savile Row, the Beatles studio, where they’d made Get Back. We were in there and a guy brushes past me as I walked through the door and it’s John. And he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “It’s you!”
Rock Cellar: What was the worst show you ever played?
Leo Sayer: We did a huge gig with the Beach Boys in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1977. 40,000 people were there at this racetrack. It was ridiculous. We arrived in our bus and the emcee, he was the son of Dean Martin, Ricci Martin, came out and said, “Finally, here they are, the Leo Sayer Band! Show them what you think! They’re late, these guys! They should be on stage . . .” which was completely wrong, we were running to schedule. They stoned the bus! They wrecked the bus. All the windows were smashed and I owned that bus. It cost me a lot of money.
I was in Brian Wilson’s trailer, which was fantastic, with him and his missus. He said, “Look, I’ve seen your bus, why don’t you ride back with us on the plane to LA?” And I said, “You think so? We’ve got six people.” He said, “We can fit six in, don’t worry, it’s cool. We’ve got a big plane.” So that’s what we did, we rode back with him.
It was an awful experience that suddenly turned into this magical experience.
Rock Cellar: When we spoke in 2016 you said you were looking for an honest promoter for a US tour. What happened?
Leo Sayer: Of course COVID has thrown a spanner in the works with touring. I’m three years behind the tour that I’m supposed to be doing in the UK. We’ve just completed some gigs, there was a tour started in March here with a lot of Australian artists. We just completed it last week. So I’m a year late. I’ve got dates in Ireland and England next year.
When we talked in 2016, oh God, I went and gave an American lawyer 10 grand and then the next week he said, “I’ve spent all your money.” When you’re really independent and you’re on your own and you don’t have some good people behind you, you do get ripped off. And that’s what kept happening to me.
It’s been a hiccup, but I think now we’re able to put something together, so I reckon 2023 I’ll be in America and we’ll be doing some long tour. Maybe we’ll be doing Vegas or something with my British band.
I’m still singing exactly the same keys and doing the same kind of performance, even though I’m in my 70s. So we know it’s just all ready to be put together. We’ve just got to find the agent and do a little bit of groundwork to do it properly.
I’ve been offered all those tours where you tour with another old band like Peter Noone or someone like that from the ’70s. I don’t really want to do those because on those package tours you just dive into a small van and drive up and down the coast. I think I’m too old for that now. I want to do it properly. So let’s make some dynamic shows.
And if it means I’m coming back to do some clubs that’s great, it’s sort of like a return to the early days.
Rock Cellar: Adam Faith was another manager that ripped you off.
Leo Sayer: Oh yeah, though I have to say I learned so much from Adam. He really gave me my chutzpah. I was a very shy, quiet person, and I owe him a lot of my confidence. So even if he ripped me off, which he did, if I met him today I’d still thank him. I always felt that he gave me so much. And that’s often like that.
Look, I’ve worked with quite a few crooks in my life, and a few dodgy people. It’s inevitable, when you go out into the world it’s gonna happen. There’s one side of what everybody thinks of somebody, and then you know them personally and you spend time with them and they’re great to you. So it’s very unusual.
Rock Cellar: Let’s do a lightning round. If you were not a solo singer, what band could you have fronted?
Leo Sayer: I was invited to be the frontman in Toto. I could have taken that up, except I was contracted to Warner and they’d have freaked. But yeah, the boys wanted me to be the frontman in the band. I think there is a version somewhere of “Hold the Line” with me singing on it before they decided on Bob Kimball.
There was a band called Atomic Rooster. I won the audition, but the next day they found a guy that could play bass guitar and sing. So they dropped me. It’s a funny thing, because when I think back over the start of my career, I would always join the band and then end up sacking everybody and ending up running the band. So I was born to be a solo artist.
Rock Cellar: Favorite singer.
Leo Sayer: At the end of the day I have to say Bob Dylan. And I know he’s not one of the greatest singers in the world. I could have said Otis Redding, but something about Bob always floors me. He’s my hero.
Rock Cellar: An underrated song more people should have heard.
Leo Sayer: Oh, blimey, do you want a list? There’s hundreds of them. “Thunder in My Heart.” That one never saw the light of day in America. Richard Perry and I had just made Endless Flight and we really thought we’d made something quite incredible. I think that’s one of the best I wrote. And I didn’t understand why it didn’t hit the American charts when it was released as a single. I think Warner Bros. was reticent to push it. There was something strange going on, ’cause that should have been a hit.
I remember interviewing Richard to get some background on my albums. I asked him about “Thunder in My Heart” and he said, “Hey, I don’t remember the ones that weren’t hits.” People don’t remember the stuff that wasn’t successful.
We’re doing the anthology album next year with Demon Records. It’s going to be a 100-track album. There’s going to be live stuff, a lot of outtakes from the past, a lot of missing stuff. That may set the record straight.
Rock Cellar: The kind of music that gives you a headache to listen to.
Leo Sayer: Probably death metal. Have you heard the “Leotallica” mashup? It’s Metallica and Leo Sayer. They’ve got a song called “It’s Sad but True” mixed up with “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing,” and some clever guy has done a video and it’s me on the Midnight Special singing the song and then he breaks into Metallica. Everything works. It’s a weird one.
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