Writing A Song •
The name Mike Read is synonymous with pop music, either playing it on national radio or quizzing about it on TV or in his books. He is also one of the founder editors of the "Guinness Book of British Hit Singles", the best-known UK chart reference book which topped the best-selling book chart.
The winner of many broadcaster of the year awards, he’s also notched up significant success over the years as a songwriter in his own right. In 1992, he and fellow composer Simon May won the TRIC (The Television and Radio Industries Club) TV Theme of the Year Award for their theme from the series “Trainer”.
Mike has also been responsible for six stage musicals including “Great Expectations” and “A Christmas Carol” and had songs covered by Cliff Richard, David Essex, Donovan, Don Maclean and Justin Hayward to mention just a few.
We know you best as a prime-time Radio 1 DJ, when did you first start writing music?
I first started writing when I was very young…just picking notes out on the piano and writing poetry. I got my first songs published just after I left school. I walked off the street into Carlin music and played my songs to Dave Most. You couldn’t just walk in off the street now!
What or who first inspired you to write?
I always looked for writers names on record labels. Obviously the Jagger/Richards songs and the Lennon/McCartney songs were an inspiration. I always thought American writers Roy Bennett and Sid Tepper were tremendous in that they wrote for so many artists and neither played an instrument. Buddy Holly was a great writer in the short time he had.
Childhood hymns inspired me as well….great melodies like "Glad That I Live Am I", "Non Nobis Domine", "Hills Of The North Rejoice" and "For All The Saints"…wonderfully inspirational. On the stage musical front Rodgers and Hart and Rodgers and Hammerstein combinations always thrilled me as did Lionel Bart’s "Oliver".
Do you set time aside for song writing, wait for inspiration or write to order, what‘s your process?
I don’t have a format for writing, but I never have a block. I feel that the reservoir is always full and when I want to turn the tap on something good will come out. Therefore whether it’s inspired or to order the source is the same.
How did you come to be a radio presenter and do you miss performing?
I was never really a performer going out night after night…although as a kid I’d often play in groups, duos or solo around Surrey. I still perform occasionally so don’t miss it as such. I acted on stage from the age of eight….and even toured and performed in the musical "Cliff". I was asked to be a radio presenter by a guy called Neil ffrench Blake who said he wanted me on his station as I was "Mildly Eccentric, Very English and A Bloody Good Opening Bowler!"
When you’re as well established as a presenter as you are, is it difficult to be taken seriously as a songwriter?
I don’t think you worry about that. All you can do is write to the best of your ability. No critic can take away the thrill of pursuing your passion. If you start asking to be taken seriously in this age of cynicism you’re asking for trouble!
You wrote the lyrics for the award winning “Trainer” TV theme (“More To Life” performed by Cliff Richard) with Simon May, how did this collaboration come about?
Simon was writing a lot of themes and over lunch with friends one day he discovered that I’d co-owned horses. He assumed that I might be able to write a better lyric than someone who had never owned horses! Of course he was spot on! I played the demo to Cliff and he liked it. He wore something resembling jockey’s silks when he sang it on Top Of The Pops.
Is there anyone else you would like to work with?
I’ve co-written with quite a few successful writers including Andrew Lloyd Webber, Albert Hammond and Guy Fletcher…and recently two songs which have had Cliff Richard and Donovan as co-writers. I write a lot of songs with talented young singer-songwriter Elliot Frisby.
In 2000 you made the album “Words and Music” where you put your melodies to Sir John Betjeman’s poems. With an eclectic range of artistes from Gene Pitney, Don Maclean through to Captain Sensible, how did you decide who should sing what, did you have people in mind when putting the tunes to the poems?
I wrote the songs as I felt them….I wanted a perfect marriage of words and music and for them to compliment each other absolutely. Then I’d think about artists that might be suitable. I’d never approach a singer with a song unless I thought it was completely right for them. Luckily most of them agreed! I’ve just been demoing a new album "The Dead Poets’ Society" on which I’ve collaborated with many literary greats including Byron, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Masefield, Kipling, Wordsworth, WH Auden and Rupert Brooke.
You’ve written music to accompany existing lyrics and poems and written lyrics to someone else’s melodies, what do you prefer?
I’m happy writing the whole song or just the lyrics, just the melody, working alone or with living or dead partners!
In 2005, your song “Grief Never Grows Old” (reached no. 4 in the singles chart) was recorded by a who’s who of stars including Cliff Richard, the Bee Gees and Brian Wilson in aid of the 2004 Tsunami Appeal. Although not specifically written for this project, it suited it perfectly, what was your original inspiration for the song and were you pleased with the final interpretation?
I was very pleased with all three interpretations, The main track, The Sri Lankan Choir and The Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain.
Who knows where inspiration comes from? I remember I’d been fiddling around on the guitar all day…writing odd bits and at around 9.00 pm I called it a day and decided to watch TV. My mind wasn’t really on the programme so I went back to the guitar and wrote "Grief Never Grows Old" in twenty minutes. Unusually for me I called one or two friends and played it down the phone to them!
More recently known for your literary publications, are you still song writing?
Oh yes, Elliott Frisby and I have written some thirty strong songs together. We’ve just finished a cracker called ‘Songs,’ for a TV series. I love writing and get ideas all the time.
Do you still follow the charts and who do you rate currently songwriter-wise?
I follow good new music rather than specifically following the chart. Springsteen is still coming up with the goods as are The Eagles. Duffy is great new writer and Gary Barlow keeps proving that he is a consistently good writer.
What are you up to at the moment?
Working on getting a new TV Channel up and running and writing formats for new TV shows. Doing a daily radio show and trying to finish my second novel "From Matthew To Revelation".
With all your insider knowledge from different sides of the music biz, what tips can you pass on to apprentice songwriters?
In terms of passion you’re already doing what you love so that’s good. On the selling of songs it’s a tough one, as songwriters have always been the lifeblood of the industry, but if you’re on the outside of it, aren’t the greatest singer, don’t have a group, aren’t a great musician you have a problem. Independent songwriters have almost been written out of the equation. On that front the industry needs a good kick up the B side!
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