Just How Many Rock Bands Used Outside Writers?

a judges gavel judge court

  • Twenty five years on from the peak of heavy rock’s commercial popularity in 1988, this series asks why heavy rockers no longer dominate the charts and seeks to highlight the crimes that Heavy Rock is accused of, and give you the cases for and against.
  • At the end of each debate, you will have the ability to vote either “guilty” or “not guilty”, according to the evidence. And because this is a democratic process, you may also introduce your own evidence, in the comments section at the foot of the page to sway the jury.
  • By the end of the process we should perhaps have a clearer view of what went wrong with those eighties rock bands, and the pitfalls new bands might do well to avoid…

It could be tempting to look back at poodle haired rockers now somewhat dismissively. Wasn’t it awful, you might tut, whilst leafing through your collection of Belle and Sebastian CDs. But if that is true, why was it the most popular type of rock? And why was it the sort of rock I liked the most?

It is a truth widely acknowledged that, in the vast majority of cases, the truly great rock acts of the last fifty years were auteurs. Even those that didn’t speak French still wrote their own songs. And the same is true for all the great eighties rock bands, right? That is what separated them from the pop acts of the day. Their music was real, honest and from the heart. When Jon Bon Jovi sang about Tommy and Gina and their financial problems when the union went on strike, that was all his own work, right?

Wrong. But I would guess you knew that already. What may be surprising is just how often “hit writers” were brought in to jazz up a few songs on an album and make something radio friendly.

Exhibits A, B and C: Desmond Child, Holly Knight and Jim Vallance.

The best known “song doctors” were Desmond Child, Holly Knight and Jim Vallance. Between them, they were responsible for co-writing a huge number of songs.

Here’s a few from Desmond Child (NB for brevity I have omitted many):

  • Aerosmith: “Heart’s Done Time”, “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)”, “Angel”, “What It Takes”, “Crazy”, “Hole in My Soul”;
  • Ricky Martin:Livin’ la Vida Loca“, “She Bangs”.;
  • Michael Bolton: “How Can We Be Lovers?”
  • Bon Jovi: “You Give Love a Bad Name”, “Livin’ on a Prayer”, “I’d Die For You”, “Without Love”, “Bad Medicine”, “Born to Be My Baby”, “Blood on Blood”, “Keep the Faith”, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”, “This Ain’t a Love Song”, “One Wild Night”
  • Cher: “Just Like Jesse James”, “We All Sleep Alone”
  • Alice Cooper: “Poison”, “Bed of Nails”, “This Maniac’s In Love With You”, “Trash”, “I’m Your Gun”
  • KISS: “I Was Made For Lovin’ You”, “Heaven’s on Fire”, “King of the Mountain“, “Who Wants to Be Lonely”, “Uh! All Night”, “Reason to Live”, “Let’s Put The X In Sex”, “(You Make Me) Rock Hard”, “Hide Your Heart“;
  • Ratt: “Lovin’ You’s a Dirty Job”, “Shame Shame Shame”, “Heads I Win, Tails You Lose”
  • Katy Perry: “Waking Up In Vegas”

That’s quite a list! So what are the likes of Aerosmith and Kiss doing mixing with someone who writes with pop acts such as Ricky Martin and Katy Perry? Isn’t this the very antithesis of what rock music should be about? And were there any songs that Bon Jovi didn’t use an outside songwriter on?

Next up: Jim Vallance.

Jim Vallance formed a songwriting partnership with Bryan Adams, writing many of the hits on ’85 album “Reckless” (“Summer of ’69”, “Run To You”). If we think of Vallance and Adams as John / Taupin** or Jagger/ Richards I think we can say that is fair enough. That Reckless album is something of a classic, even if I don’t play it much nowadays (no need – they play it constantly on Absolute Radio). Meanwhile, Vallance also offered his songwriting services to help inject some creativity or mainstream sound into an artists songs. In many cases, the artist was in trouble with the recording company over falling sales. Either the artist had lost their creative edge or needed to adopt a more mainstream sound to gain airplay and boost sales. One of Vallance’s first clients, and the best example, was (once again) Aerosmith.

Vallance himself dislikes the “song doctor” and  “consulting” monikers, which imply that he “fixes songs”. 98% of the time he sat in a room with one or two band members — guitar in hand and a blank note-pad nearby — and started writing “from scratch”. As he sees it, that makes him a “songwriter” rather than a “song doctor” or “consultant”. Vallance also co-wrote with Alice Cooper, Roger Daltrey, Europe, Ted Nugent, Quireboys, Rod Stewart, 38 Special and on the following specific songs:

  • Aerosmith – Magic Touch, The Other Side, Ragdoll, Get a Grip, Young Lust.
  • Jimmy Barnes – I’m Still on your Side, Lessons In Love
  • Kiss – War Machine
  • Scorpions – Restless Nights, Crazy World

Finally we have Holly Knight.

Knight helped with the resurgence of Heart, and wrote Pat Benatar‘s and Tina Turner‘s best known hits, including “(Simply) The Best”. Here’s what Holly wrote or co-wrote:

  • Ace Frehley / Kiss / a few others – “Hide Your Heart”
  • Aerosmith – “Rag Doll” (with Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, and Jim Vallance) Animotion – “Obsession” (with Michael Des Barres);
  • Jimmy Barnes – “Between Two Fires”
  • Pat Benatar – “Love Is a Battlefield”; “Invincible”; “Sometimes the Good Guys Finish First”; “Girl”
  • Bon Jovi – “Stick to Your Guns”
  • Heart – “Never”; “All Eyes”; “There’s the Girl”; “Tall. Dark, Handsome Stranger”; “I Love You”
  • KISS – “Hide Your Heart”; “I Pledge Allegiance to the State of Rock & Roll”; “Raise Your Glasses”
  • Tina Turner – “Better Be Good to Me”; “One of the Living”; “(Simply) The Best”.

The extent of this co-writing was vast, doubtless fuelled by record companies and compliant and ambitious bands. Was the public buying Bon Jovi or Desmond Child? I had wondered whether my preference for Aerosmith’s seventies output was some form of unconscious music snobbery, but it is now clear that isn’t the case. It’s because the songs were written by someone else. The problem with this approach is that the integrity of the music is more likely to be compromised. When Tyler sang on “Combination” from 1975’s Rocks album, “Walking on Gucci / Wearing Yves St Laurent / Barely stand up / ‘cos I’m so goddam gaunt” we knew this was his rather drug-addled story. It’s not pretty, but it’s real. When we hear “Rag doll / Living in a movie” we can safely assume we are not plundering the depths of Tyler’s soul. And that’s a shame, because there must be quite a few depths to plunder.

Perhaps the reason that hair metal’s popularity faded was because the public liked the pop songs written to Child, Knight and Vallance’s formula. When the formula got tired, the public moved on to something new, and the bands that had used outside writers were left stranded.

Exhibit D: Vinnie Vincent. When The Use Of Outside Writers Goes Wrong.

Vinnie Vincent Invasion

Vinnie Vincent was sued by little known former New England vocalist Hirsch Gardner over the rights to five songs on the first Vinnie Vincent Invasion LP which Gardner claimed he co-wrote whilst never being credited.* This is quite extraordinary. Quite why anyone would want to claim credit for these songs I’m not sure. I can only think the fight was to get the other to admit liability…

The Defence:

Exhibit E: Guns n Roses – Appetite For Destruction.

appetite-for-destruction guns-n-roses

One of the best and biggest selling albums of the eighties was Guns n Roses’ Appetite For Destruction. Did that feature Desmond Child? No. Is it any good? Of course it is.

It is worth asking just how many songs released by eighties rockers didn’t have outside writing expertise. When it comes to actual hit singles far from being widespread, the use of “hit makers” or “song doctors” appears to have been limited to just a few acts. I reckon there were about 94 hair metal singles that reached the top 40 in the UK between ’85 and ’92. (And when I say “I reckon”, I counted that many – so unless I forgot an act or two I think that’s on the money).

Of these, the vast majority (more than 80%) were not co-written by Vallance, Knight and Child. The bands most reliant upon outside writers were Bon Jovi, Aerosmith and Alice Cooper. But most of the bands that had top 40 hits, such as Guns n Roses, Poison, Def Leppard, Van Halen, et al wrote their own songs. Even Skid Row did.

Exhibit F: Aretha Franklin

Finally, who says you have to write your own songs? No-one ever said Aretha Franklin was no good because Goffin and King – or Otis Redding – wrote a song or two for her.

Aerosmith had already proven themselves in the seventies as songwriters – their seventies albums remain classics. The use of outside songwriters was a deliberate attempt to become more commercial in order to recoup some of the money they had snorted up their noses in the previous two decades. There’s still something of Aerosmith in those newer songs, and actually some of the output from Child, Vallance et al is pretty good.

In summary, whilst Bon Jovi relied upon outside songwriters, we can see that the vast majority of acts that subsequently charted wrote their own songs. We might judge Bon Jovi to have been over-reliant upon outside writers, but most heavy rockers – and even those who were most commercial and had hit singles – did not.

  • It’s Time To Vote!
  • Were Aerosmith and their ilk wrong to use outside “hit doctors” to commercialise their sound? Or is it simply a way to improve songs by collaborating with people who bring a fresh perspective to things?
  • Vote GUILTY if you think the use of outside writers was a crime and over-prevalent.
  • Vote NOT GUILTY if you think the majority of acts made up for the likes of Jovi and Aerosmith.
  • SWAY the jury by sharing your views below!

* Source: Raw Magazine issue 17

** Although Vallance wrote words and music, unlike Taupin, who is a lyricist solely.

Record #248: Aerosmith – Heart’s Done Time



Categories: Hard Rock

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

11 replies

  1. Great point! These were just “filler” in the great sausage of Rock music with the possible exception of the Bon Jovi ones which I do quite enjoy with a little Franks Red Hot sauce. It diluted the product and the kids would catch on and move on.

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  2. The irony with the involvement of Desmond Child, Holly Knight, Billy Steinberg/Tom Kelly, Jim Vallance etc is that they had all tried to achieve success as artists on their own before realising that their talents actually lay as songwriters and, thanks to working with publishers/producers/record company A&R men, they were able to achieve far more in that line of work helping other bands and singers hit it big than as artists themselves.

    Desmond Child had recorded two albums on Capitol with Desmond Child And Rouge. The first DC&R album actually contains a track (‘The Fight’) co-written with Paul Stanley that pre-dates ‘I Was Made For Loving You’. His first forays into writing wound up on albums by Teri De Sario, Novo Combo and Cher before he was hooked up with Bon Jovi. His later attempt at becoming an artist again with his ‘Discipline’ album wasn’t a success despite being a decent record. His pop songwriting success came much later than his rock success.

    Holly Knight’s recording debut was playing uncredited keyboards on Kiss’ ‘Unmasked’ album. At the time she was in the New York band Spider (Anton Fig was the drummer and he played drums uncredited on that album too). The group was managed by Kiss’ manager Bill Aucoin and signed to Mike Chapman’s record label. Chapman took Holly under his wing and was a huge champion of her as a songwriter. The hits kept coming and, like Child, she tried to branch out as an artist again with the hi-tech pop AOR outfit Device and then as a solo artist. The Device album is fantastic. The solo record too pop.

    Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly put together the studio project I-Ten and cut an album entitled ‘Taking A Cold Look’ that contains the original versions of ‘Alone’ (as covered by Heart) the title track (re-cut by Honeymoon Suite), ‘No Easy Way Out’ (Juice Newton) and ‘I Don’t Want To Lose You’ (REO Speedwagon). Steinberg had previously been in a band called Billy Thermal and Kelly in Fools Gold.

    Jim Vallance was the original drummer in the Canadian group Prism that he had co-founded with Bruce Fairbairn, the group having been borne out of the earlier band Seeds of Time.

    With bands like Bon Jovi and Aerosmith, it wasn’t the fact that the groups couldn’t write songs themselves but rather that in the ultra competitive, MTV influenced 80s record companies began to become far more of an influence on the songs that were being recorded; hence why the likes of Child, Knight, Steinberg/Kelly and Vallance were brought in, often to the annoyance of the bands themselves (at least, perhaps, at first). A case in point being Black N’ Blue who were told to take off a perfectly good original track (‘Promise Her The Moon’) on their third album ‘Nasty Nasty’ in order to record a pretty lame Jonathan Cain (Journey) penned ballad entitled ‘I’ll Be There For You’ that stood out like a sore thumb on the album.

    As for the Vinnie Vincent story, following the break up of New England in 1982 Hirsh Gardner (who was the drummer in that band), Jimmy Waldo (keys) and Gary Shea (bass) had teamed up with Vinnie Cusano in a heavy metal band called Warrior. The demo they produced was outstanding, but failed to net the group a deal and the group split. Waldo and Shea joined Alcatrazz (fronted by Graham Bonnet and also featuring Yngwie Malmsteen), Vinnie Cusano joined Kiss and Gardner returned to Boston to produce local groups. When the Invasion album came out several Warrior songs were resurrected…..

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  3. Also worth mentioning is that with these writers sometimes it was a case of “if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again”, usually at the expense of Bonnie Tyler. Let me explain. Both “The Best” and “Hide Your Heart” were first recorded by Bonnie Tyler. They were both featured on her “Hide Your Heart” album which was released in 1988. They were both flops, “The Best” actually reached #95 in the UK. When it was given to Tina Turner an extra verse (or “bridge”) was added. “Hide Your Heart” was of course later recorded by Kiss, but the interesting thing was that it was actually co-written by Paul Stanley! That album also features lots of other tracks that were later made hits by others. Poor Bonnie! But the best (or worst) case in point is a song from her previous album (“Secret Dreams And Forbidden Fire”) released in 1986. “If You Were A Woman (And I Was A Man) was a hit only in my country, Greece. (Well, we were always a bit strange). (Also by checking Wikioedia I see that it was #1 in Venezuela). So basically it was a flop. So what did they do? They kept the music of the chorus (which was actually quite good), changed its words from “If you were a woman and I was a man, would it be so hard to understand” to “Shot through the heart and you’re to blame, you give love a bad name”, added different verses and gave it, can you guess to who? That’s right, Bon Jovi! And you can’t accuse them of plagiarism, it’s their own song! If you don’t believe me, check out the chorus of “If You Were A Woman”, it’s on YouTube. Once again, poor Bonnie…

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  4. As a musician, a young one in the 80s I thumbed my nose at acts that didn’t write their own stuff. Aerosmith got a pass for me since they were a self made musicians band before the 80s.

    Even bands that write their own stuff often have to battle it out with their producers. George Martin the 5th Beatle. Van Halen suffered when they were self produced ie Van Halen 3.

    Most producers jobs are to make the sound marketable.

    All in all the late 80s/hair/glam metal were never my cup of tea.

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