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Hot Rod

March 8, 2013

Over Christmas a pal on Facebook posted a video of Boogie Nights by Heatwave. With it’s super-slinky bass sound and below-the-bell-bottoms baritone “got to keep on dancin’, keep on dancin‘” backing vocal, it’s the sort of record that could have me Dad dancing for ages. (*Just to clarify – I’m not a Yorkshire man. I’m from further oop north than that – when I say me Dad dancing, I don’t mean it could get my own father on his feet. Although it probably could. I mean that Boogie Nights makes me dance in my own rhythmically-challenged Ayrshireman fashion. Like I said – just to clarify).

When the Heatwave video appeared I mentioned that the track was written by the same guy who wrote Thriller for Michael Jackson, Rod Temperton. I also rather glibly suggested he was now dead, when in fact it was pointed out that he’s very much alive and kicking and sleeping on a bed of crisp, fresh $100 bills every night in his Bel Air mansion. Probably. There’s nothing that unusual about songwriters who write one or two massive hits, but have a look at the picture below. You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and all that, but……

rod temperton

Rod Temperton, the man who re-invented slick dance floor disco and wrote just about the most recognisable track of the 80s and beyond is a skinny-arsed, geeky white man with a rubbish pencil moustache and pre-perm footballer’s haircut. All the way from Cleethorpes in the north of England. A town with about as much musical pedigree as a squeaky dog toy. Yet there he is – the not-quite-invisible man to the side, goofing and gurning his way through three minutes of proper 70s American black man funk. And he wrote it. On top of a pile of dirty washing in a tiny flat. No wonder he’s laughing. All the way to the bank, he’s laughing.

Rod’s story is perfect Plain Or Pan fodder. Here follows a brief catch-up if you’re new to his name.

Beginning his musical apprenticeship in the working mens’ clubs around Tyneside and the north east of England, by the early 70s Rod had left the glamour of the frozen food factory where he worked in Grimsby and sought out his chance on the German club circuit. Like most bands who did this tour, he played long-into-the-night sets and his playing improved ten-fold. Rod and his Hammond organ were much in demand. An ad in Melody Maker led to him joining Heatwave and it was from there that Rod’s talents took him to the toppermost of the poppermost. Not quite the token honky (Heatwave’s drummer looked out of place also), Rod was the driving force behind the multi-cultural group’s success – Stateside million sellers, the whole shebang, before his work brought him to the attention of Quincy Jones.  He’d go on to write three tracks for Michael Jackson’s debut Off The Wall LP and was retained by Jones and Jackson to work on the difficult-second-album follow-up, Thriller.

Originally, when I did my Thriller demo, I called it Starlight. Quincy said to me, ” You managed to come up with a title for the last album, see what you can do for this album”. I said, “Oh great,” so I went to the hotel, wrote two or three hundred titles, and came up with the title Midnight Man.  The next morning, I woke up, and I just said this word…Something in my head just said, this is the title. You could visualise it on the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page as Thriller.

Quick! Grab these! They’ll probably be gone faster than you can say Beat It!

StarlightMichael Jackson‘s demo of Thriller

Vincent Price spoken part for Thriller (first run-through)

Billie JeanMichael Jackson‘s demo

As well as the title track, Rod wrote Baby Be Mine and The Lady In My Life, both more derivative of the kind of smooth soul tracks that he can seemingly knock out in his spare time. Difficult second album? Thriller has since become The Biggest Selling Album…Ever!, selling in excess of 60 million copies along the way. But you knew that already. Buy maybe you didn’t know that the wee skinny guy from unfashionable Cleethorpes had a huge hand in it. He still makes me laugh whenever I see Boogie Nights on any of those old TOTP repeats:

 

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