November 7, 2023

FTV: Holly the Songsmith


     Holly Erlander was a struggling musician trying to catch a break with her band Siren.  The New York City music scene, much like its counterpart in Los Angeles, had a lot of bands trying to get noticed so her story isn’t exactly unique for the late 1970s.  Holly had a knack for getting to know people and Siren found a connection with party boy Ace Frehley from Kiss.  Frehley even put his art skills to work to produce a stylized ‘S’ logo for his friends much like he had done when he concocted the lightning bolt ‘SS’ in the Kiss logo.  Siren had also managed to snag Kiss manager Bill Aucoin from Rock Steady Productions to handle their affairs.  Right off the bat, Bill’s lawyers discovered there was another band already using the name Siren.   Holly suggested Spider instead, kind of a play off David Bowie’s band, The Spiders from Mars.

     Spider included future David Letterman Show band drummer Anton Fig and two other South African expats who had relocated to the United States to seek fame and fortune.  Erlander’s first experience jamming with her future bandmates went so well, they decided all they needed was a bass player to round out their ranks.  Working out of an old industrial building  (with no elevator) meant navigating  five long sets of wooden stairs to reach their living / rehearsal quarters.  They spent a lot of time humping equipment up and down.  Holly’s Hammond B-3 was the biggest burden, at least until they lost their grip on it and watched in horror as it tobogganed down to the first floor.  It knocked out the front door before it finally came to a stop.  They decided then and there the replacement would NOT be another B-3 behemoth.  There was little heat and no air conditioning so depending on the season, they either froze or baked for the sake of their art.

     About the same time that Siren was forced to change their name to Spider, Holly decided it was finally time to change her surname to something more rock ‘n’ roll.  In her 2022 biography, she states, “For months I put a lot of thought into it and came up empty handed until one night it came to me in a dream, cliche as that sounds.  In the dream, my name was Holly Knight.  Knight is actually a common surname in Britain, akin to Smith in the US.  It was short, memorable, and went well with Holly.  It was nobel sounding, too.  A knight is a warrior, and that felt strangely relevant to me.  When I awoke, I was Holly Knight from that moment on and never again thought of myself as anyone else.  I immediately had it legally changed.”

     How Holly Knight got to that point is a story in itself.  The child of parents who were both ‘only childs’ in their upbringing meant she had a small family unit.  She had her grandparents and brother, but no aunts or uncles.  Her father, Herbert, arrived from Germany at the age of eleven and eventually earned a medical degree in anesthesiology from the College of Physicians & Surgeons.  Holly’s maternal grandfather was from the Ukraine while her grandmother was a Boston native.  Holly’s mother graduated from Hunter College as a hematologist and worked at the same hospital as Herbert – that is how they met.  Musically gifted, young Holly would begin taking music lessons from a Julliard master’s student named Gordana.  Her lessons with Gordana lasted for seven years.  Holly even talked her parents into sending her to Camp Waseosa, a summer camp where Gordana was a music counselor.  After her mother determined Holly had the making of a future concert pianist, the pressure she put on her daughter, in Holly’s words, “Managed to turn something I loved with my entire being into a chore.”

     Holly grew up surrounded by music and in her biograph (I Am the Warrior – My Crazy Life Writing the Hits and Rocking the MTV Eighties – Permutted Press) she said, “For me, the seas parted once I discovered rock music,  I think the first time was on some kid’s transistor radio in the school yard, and it really made me sit up and pay attention.  I was nine.  I ran out and bought a couple of records with some money I’d saved.  One was The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and another one was the Rolling Stones’ December’s Children.”  The fact she had to keep the rock records a secret from her mother is a pretty good indication of trouble ahead.  For her eleventh birthday, her grandmother Alice and her father pooled their money and brought her to the Steinway showroom where she picked out a black satin five-foot-seven grand – her new soulmate.

     The same year she got her Steinway, her parents divorced.  They had always had a volatile and dramatic relationship that seemed to center on her mother’s unhappiness over just about everything.  For weeks after getting her birthday piano, her mother threatened Holly with an unwelcome haircut.  At 3:00 a.m. on the morning of her birthday, Holly’s mother burst into her room, commanded her to sit on a chair in front of a mirror and proceeded to hack off the majority of her long hair.  “There, that’s better!” her mother pronounced when she was done.  When Holly muttered, “Happy now?” under her breath, her mother proceeded to empty all of the dresser drawers and clothing hanging in the closet in a pile on the floor.  Though her mother was crying as she did it (as she always did when punishing Holly), she struck her hard on the back and said, “Don’t you ever talk back to me again, do you understand?  You’re a disgrace.  Now clean this mess up!”  A strange way to show a daughter motherly love one would say.

     Music was Holly’s refuge from the craziness and maternal abuse, something Knight sees as a connecting thread among creative women back in the 1960s.  It would not happen overnight, but Holly resolved to remove herself from the drama:  “It certainly ignited something fierce in me that said, ‘I will not be like you.  I will be the opposite of you, and I will be special.’”  The path to New York City and finding like minded souls in her band Spider was circuitous.  Along the way, Holly had her share of dalliances with other musicians, including three of Kiss’s founding members (oddly enough, not the drummer, even though she was romantically involved with Spider’s up and coming drummer and sought after session man, Anton Fig).  It was the 1970s and it was not uncommon to hear the likes of Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley boast about their conquests.  It isn’t all that shocking that Holly Knight gives an honest appraisal of these sexcapades from a woman’s viewpoint.  She didn’t write a ‘tell all’ book designed to sell more copies of her biography, she simply tells her tale of living the rock ‘n’ roll life style.  

     Spider was in the process of recording their second album in Los Angeles when Knight took it upon herself to get a hold of noted producer Mike Chapman.  Before their first album, Holly had given Chapman a copy of their demo tape at a party in NYC.  It took a while for him to get around to listening to it, but when he did, he invited the band to come to L.A. to record after  signing on with his new label, Dreamland Records..  The red carpet roll out for a new band was rather impressive – limos, champaign, first class digs – but as Holly notes, the record company would be deducting the extravagances from their future earnings.  Knight was disappointed that Chapman was too busy to produce their sessions, so she called him up while they were working on the second album.  She suggested they try writing a song together in the hope it would induce him to produce at least one track on the album. 

     Holly arrived at Chapman’s office with a kernel of an idea for a song:  “Okay, I have this title, Mike, ‘Be Good to Me’”.   Mike replied, “Yeah, I like that, but what if it was a little more direct, like ‘You Better Be Good to Me?’”  “Oh yeah, that’s stronger,” Holly agreed.  With his Roland CR-78 drum machine pumping (the same one used on Blondie’s Heart of Glass), they jammed on the idea for a while with  Mike on guitar and Holly on keyboards.  As they traded lines and tried out lyrics, they found they had a natural chemistry working together.  Within a couple of hours, they had written the whole song – and it was a good one.  Without her broaching the subject, Mike volunteered to come down to the studio and produce the track.  The rest of the Spiders liked it and Chapman was able to coax vocalist Amanda to sing with real attitude, even though she was mad at Holly for going out on her own to contact Mike.  “Burning a hole into my skull with her eyes,” is how Knight remembered the event.

     With their second album in the can, they returned to New York City to begin marketing their new album.  Unfortunately, they got caught up in the latest payola scandal as A&R guys were tagged for buying airplay with various bribes aimed at DJs.  The cash, drugs, or some other combination of instant kickbacks were offered to DJs to insure the A&R guy’s bands would get preferential treatment on their playlists.  When the house of cards began to fall, Spider’s new album got left in the dust;  DJs were afraid to play new bands for fear of being caught in the web of the payola investigations.  Established major acts were a safer bet but a slew of lesser known bands, like Spider, were left swinging in the wind.  

     Knight knew Amanda was upset about the whole Chapman affair but did not realize how much it had affected the band.   Holly stumbled into a band meeting that had been called without her being invited.  She had intended to take the singer out for drinks to try and find some common ground.  Instead, Knight realized Amanda was causing deep under the surface rumblings in the band and decided it was time to quit.  Holly promised she would finish the current tour but that was it – she was (again) removing herself from the drama much as she had when she left home to get away from her mother.

      Expecting the worst, she called Mike Chapman back in L.A. to break the news.  She was floored by his reaction.  She expected hostility but Mike simply said, “Listen, Holly.  I’m not upset at all.  I mostly signed the band because of the great songs, your songs.  I think the band is terrific and all, but if you’re leaving, that’s going to be a real problem for them.  They may not realize it yet, but they will.  I’ll tell you what I think you should do.  You should pursue a songwriting career full time, at least for now, and see what happens.  You’re going to find out that while being a musician in a band has its rewards, being a respected, hit songwriter is much more unique, and therefore revered by the industry.  Hit songwriters are considered royalty in the music business if you’re exceptionally good at it, which you are.”

     The future suddenly became crystal clear for Knight.  With a new publishing deal with Dreamland in hand, she moved to L.A., was put on a retainer, and given a chance to work with Chapman full time.  As her publisher, he was able to pitch her songs to his artists and arrange for her to collaborate with other songwriters.  The move solved another nagging problem – Knight and her boyfriend Jeff had been living a continent apart and the move to L.A. solved that problem as well.  Holly told herself, “Songwriter.  I’m going to be an independent, full-time songwriter.  I love the sound of that.”  Beginning her new career as a songwriter just as the entire MTV phenomenon started in 1981 positioned Knight to become a hot commodity in a hurry.

     There are so many songs that bear Knight’s imprint, we could hardly do justice to all of them in this limited space.  To give you a peak at the process, we will simply start with the song that kicked her world to another level.  Working in Chapman’s modest ‘studio’ (the living room of his spacious home in Beverly Hills) in 1983, she could only hear one side of the conversation.  When Mike got off the phone, he said it had been Pat Benatar on the other end of the line.  She and her guitar player / husband / producer were in the process of putting out a live record featuring her hits up to that point.  “They need something new, a hit to help sell the record,” Mike told her.  Though Knight had a thing about not taking orders from anybody else, she respected Chapman’s work enough to let him steer her toward every opportunity that came her way.

     They pair got right to work.  Jamming ideas at high volume through the giant Uri speakers that dominated the room, the set out a beat with the same Roland CR-78 drum machine they had used previously.  Again, Holly was on her keyboard and Mike had his small amp and Fender Stratocaster.  First she played him a bass line she had been saving for their next writing session.

Next, she added the chord progressions that went along with the bass line.  “I like that a lot,” he said.  They played around with the idea for a while (pun intended) until they had an arrangement in need of lyrics.  Mike said, “We need to come up with a really weird title, one that’s going to stand out and grap people’s attention.  I have no idea what, but something like this . . . ‘Love . . .

Is a battlefield.”  Holly described the moment the words came out of his mouth:  “I could feel something electric pass through the room, a crack in the ether.  ‘I love it.’  I don’t know what it means, but does that really matter?”

     This is how Holly described the rest of the afternoon:  “(HK) Okay, let’s call this the verse, how about we start with – You’re begging me go, then making me stay, why do you hurt me so bad?” “(MC) That’s good!”  “(HK) We kept going ‘til we wrote the first verse, ‘Let’s try going into the chorus with – Believe me – we could repeat that’.  Okay, ‘Believe me, believe me, I can’t tell you why, but I’m trapped.”  “(MC) What do you mean you’re trapped?”  “(HK) No, I’m not trapped, that’s the lyric.” “(MC) Oh!  I’m trapped by your . . . something, something.”  “(HK) Love?”  “(MC) Yeah!  That’s good, I’m trapped by your love.”  “(HK) I got it!  Listen to this – I’m chained to your side.”  “(MC) Nice, I likle that – what do you think about going straight into the chorus and foregoing the pre-chorus?”  “(HK) Yeah, that’s good. ‘We are young, heartache to heartache, we stand;  love is a battlefield.”  “(MC) That’s it right there, that’s the hook!”

     As they bantered back and forth about where to go next, they decided to do something unconventional (‘Unthinkable’ is how she described it):  “Let’s start the song with the chorus!”

Over the next week or so, they let what they had started simmer while each tried to find the elusive third line of the chorus.  They even tried scribbling ideas on sheets of paper that were folded into paper airplanes which they sailed back and forth to each other over his swimming pool.  The key lyric they were looking for turned out to be ‘No promises, no demands’ and the final edit of the chorus turned out to read:  “We are young, heartache to heartache we stand, no promises no demands – love is a battlefield.  We are strong, no one can tell us we’re wrong, searching our hearts for so long, both of us knowing love is a battlefield.”

     Although Benatar and her husband Neil Geraldo upped the tempo (which neither Chapman or Knight liked – at first), the song became a smash hit – one that went into heavy rotation on MTV and sold a lot of copies of 1983’s Live From Earth.  Pat Benatar no longer wishes to sing Love is a Battlefield with all the rancor in the world, but one can not deny the song set Holly the Songsmith on a long, very successful voyage of becoming a writer of hit songs!   In Part 2, we will examine the next phase of Holly the Songsmith’s career.


Top Piece Video:  The first biggie of Holly’s Knight’s career as a Songsemith: