November 7, 2023

FTV: Holly the Songsmith, Part 2


     Holly Knight’s rise from a wanna-be rock musician to a respected songwriter was addressed in this space in FTV:  Holly the Songsmith (11-8-23).  Telling her story only took us up to the first major hit she and her publisher, Mike Chapman, wrote for Pat Benatar in 1983, Love is a Battlefield.  Digging further into her resume from that point on, it seemed a gross injustice to simply cut readers off with a curt, “And you can do a web search for the hit songs she wrote for other artists during the heyday of MTV.”  Each time Knight was given the opportunity to write for or with a musical artist, she found herself on a journey of self-discovery.  The more successful she became at her art, the more she learned about herself.  With that subtext in mind, let us explore more of the music Holly Knight created that would become the soundtrack for the end of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st.

     As mentioned in Part 1, moving to Los Angeles to work for Dreamland Records owner / producer / publisher Mike Chapman was the first rung on Knight’s ladder of success as a songwriter.  With his contacts, Chapman was able to put Holly in touch with a diverse group of artists and songwriters, more than she would have been able to meet on her own.  One of the first collaborators Mike hooked her up with after the success she had writing for Pat Benatar was Michael Des Barres.  Formerly of the British glam rock band Silverhead, he was also Knight’s label-mate at Dreamland Records where he was signed as a solo artist.  Chapman suggested she and Des Barres might be able to write a hit for another British band named Smokie whom he was about to begin recording with.  The three of them put their heads together and came up with a song called Looking Daggers.  The band’s resume shows over twenty records in the can from 1975 to 2010, they didn’t make a big impact on this side of the pond.

     The collaboration with Des Barres went well so they made plans to get together to write again.  Des Barres told Holly he had an idea for a song he wanted to call Obsession.  Knight wondered (but didn’t ask) if it had to do with his love affair with sex and drugs, but she felt the lyrics were compelling.  As she recalled, “Immediately inspired, I sat down to write the music, starting with this infectious bass sequence I programmed on my synthesizer, and then added chords over it.  We finished the vocal melody and tweaked the rest of the lyrics together in a day.  After we recorded a simple demo, we played it to Chapman who said, ‘This is a bloody hit!.’”

     The Knight and Des Barres version of the song was pitched to a film company distributed by Twentieth Century Fox.  They in turn licensed it to a film called A Night in Heaven starring Christpher Atkikns (yes, the same actor who found fame starring opposite Brook Shields in The Blue Lagoon)A year later, an L.A. based band named Animotion heard the track and decided to cut a more up-beat, pop sounding version.  The song was akin to something like the Human League was peddling on MTV at the time.  Sure enough, Animotion’s Obsession became a staple on MTV and went to No 6 on the Billboard Hot 100.  It has since become one of Knight’s most licensed songs.  The Des Barres connection also led to Holly being introduced to Kathy Valentine, the bass player for the Go-Gos.  They became fast friends and Knight was happy to make an acquaintance in the music business who understood, as she put it, “the pitfalls and trappings”of the biz who also shared her sense of humor.

     Chapman next proposed Knight try writing with Nick Gilder, a Canadian singer who Mike had produced a number one for called Hot Child in the City.  Chapman told them he was going to be working with a New York band called Scandal and their feisty lead singer, Patty Smyth.  Mike told Holly and Nick Scandal had some good songs ready for their album but, “I need a hit for this record.”  Knight’s first thought on the project was, “We needed to write the kind of male-driven lyrics that men were known for, but that a woman could sing instead.  I felt that would be much more enticing.  I knew I wanted to write something with ‘Warrior’ in the title.”

     “What do you think of this?  Shooting at the walls of heartache… Nick asked.  ‘That’s great, now try I am the warrior,’ I said.  ‘Yeah, that’s great,’ he shot back, ‘Hey, let’s repeat that,’ and then I came up with heart to heart you win if you survive.  We got together one more time to finish the lyric, and that’s when Nick came up with my favorite part, the ‘bang bang’ after the first line of the chorus.  It was so hooky and iconic.  We demoed it with Nick’s vocals – he sounded great:  Shooting at the walls of heartache, bang bang, I am the warrior, well I am the warrior, Heart to Heart, you win if you survive, The warrior, The warrior.”

     As excited as she was about the song, she was disappointed when Mike’s response after he listened to it was a lukewarm, ‘It’s not bad.’  Gilder wasn’t as crushed because he figured if Chapman didn’t want it for Scandal, he would record it himself – he loved the track.  A week later, Mike asked her to resend the tune to him and after the cassette was dropped off (no file sharing across the internet back in 1984), he called her back:  “This song is a (expletive deleted) hit, and I’m going to going to record it with Patty.”  When Nick pleaded his case that the tune was just what he needed to resurrect his stagnant career, Chapman pulled out the big guns.

He told Gilder, “Look.  I am the publisher on this song,  You wrote it for an artist I’m producing because I asked you to, and if you don’t let me have it, I won’t grant the license to you or anyone else to record it.”  Chapman got his way and The Warrior was released as the first single off the album and it went to number one in Canada, number seven in the United States and number one on the US Rock Chart.

     As had become vogue, the video made for the song made no sense with the lyrics.   Knight now says, “The makeup artist should’ve been shot, although it was probably the director who told him (or her) to make Patty look like a multi-colored bolt of lightning had struck her in the face.  The band looked like extras from the Broadway production of Cats.  Did they really think she looked anything like a ninja warrior?”  The video went into heavy rotation and Holly often wondered what Patty thought about it.  It took nearly thirty years for them to actually have a conversation about it:  “We got together for lunch in New York and I learned she hated it as much as I did.  We shared a good laugh over it.”  MTV thought it newsworthy that a young woman was the songwriter behind the hit and the VJs took to talking about Holly Knight a lot during the newsbreaks they did every half hour.

     Knight had her share of success to be sure, but it wasn’t always smooth sailing.  Chapman had her pegged to work with an Australian band called the Divinyls on their second album What a Life!  She and Mike produced a couple of tunes for the album.  One called Pleasure and Pain was left unfinished so Holly and lead singer Chrissy Amphlett could finish it together.  This was a common thing to do so a band would feel more buy in on songs written by outside writers.  Knight remembers, “We laid some lines of cocaine out on the table (another common thing in the 1980s recording studio process) and started to have a pleasant enough conversation.  I asked her if she and Mark, the lead guitarist, were a couple, because it seems like they were a perfect fit and they were seen together a lot in photographs.  It seemed like an innocent enough question.  I’d been in a band and had a relationship with the drummer, so it was no big deal.  Instead of answering, Chrissy stood up and said, ‘I think I’m going to go for a walk,’ and she left…and never returned.”  The label got back to Holly the next day and told her she had upset the singer with her personal questions and Amphlett didn’t want to write with her any more.


     As Knight continued to climb the songwriter ladder of success, she found out exactly how far the support of a superstar could propel her career.  In 1984, the then forty-four year old Tina Turner was embarking on a solo career after coming up through the ranks performing with (and being abused by) her husband Ike Turner.  As her team was screening songs for her first solo album (Private Dancer), Tina jumped out of her seat when she heard Holly’s Spider song Better Be Good to Me.  “This is the perfect song for me!” she exclaimed.  She felt it had an empowering message and a lot of rock ‘n’ roll attitude. 

      It turned out to be a big record indeed.  Private Dancer sold twenty million copies, won the Grammy for Record of the Year, and Better Be Good to Me earned the Best Rock Vocal Performance award.  Of course, it was a huge win for Holly also, but one of the big things she remembers about it now is how she was invited into Tina’s inner circle during the writing of her next Turner song.  Tina had just wrapped up filming the second sequel in the Mad Max movie series (Beyond Thunderdome) and the director wanted a song written that would be tailor made  for the opening scene.  Mike called Holly and asked if she would like to take a stab at it.

     With a script and some movie footage in hand, Knight started to work up a song to capture the dystopian nature of the movie.  Having read Carl Sagan’s book Cosmos, she recalled his comments that said, “If there was a nuclear war, the living would envy the dead.”  She used this as inspiration and came up with No, you can’t stop the pain of your children crying out in your head . . .They always said that the living would envy the dead.  A week later, she had the track One of the Living crafted and demoed to share with Turner.  Tina happened to be touring in Europe so Holly messengered (as in ‘hand delivered’, not over the wire like it would be today) the tape to her manager who overnighted it to her overseas.  “I have great news! Tina’s Australian  manager Roger Davies said.  “Tina wants to record the song.  She absolutely loves it!”  

     Knight was thrilled and suggested that she and her guitarist Gene work up an arrangement with Mike Chapman producing.  When Tina returned from Europe, they would have it ready so she could drop in her vocals.  Roger thought it was a great idea and suggested they do demo  tracks in a couple of different keys that he could bring with him to London the next day.  Tina could pick out the one she felt the most comfortable with before they cut the final track.  Holly pointed out that differences in European power and how even playing the demos on different tape machines would not give them an accurate reading on the right key.  Davies agreed and solved the problem after thinking about it for a few minutes.  He asked, “Do you have a passport?  Pack your bags and your passport, you’re coming to London with me in the morning.”

     Such is the life of a hit making songwriter.  Knight found herself in a limo with Tina the next day as they were whisked off to a studio so they could try the song in different keys.  It turned out to be a five minute process.  Holly figured she had a few days to kill in England so she might as well make use of it and play tourist.  She had already gotten the mega star treatment (as in staying in a high class hotel with a personal butler to meet her very need) and it was going great, until Tina threw her a curve ball:  “How would you like to come on the road with us for a few days before you head back to LA?  You have a few free days don’t you?”  It was an offer she could hardly refuse.

     After bopping around the continent for a few days, Holly was back in LA with guitarist Gene Black and producer Mike Chapman laying down the basic tracks.   When Tina got back to LA, Holly let Mike run the vocal session with her.  Holly figured it would be better to not be looking over their shoulders so she planned to purposely arrive a little late.  By the time she got to the studio, Tina was packing.  Mike was obviously upset and it didn’t take a PhD in body language to figure out something was wrong.  Before she could even ask, Turner asked her to leave with her to another studio so they could finish the background vocals.  Holly couldn’t exactly say no to the request even if it put her old friend Mike’s nose a bit out of joint.  Eventually Knight pieced it all together:  Tina Turner wasn’t used to being told what to do in the studio and Mike Chapman was used to giving directions.  It quickly became a water and oil situation.

     At the new studio, Holly was settled in the control room when Tina pressed the talk-back button from the recording studio:  “Holly, I love the background vocals on the demo.  Is that you singing?”  When Knight nodded ‘yes’ Tina continued, “Well, get in here ‘cause I want you to sing them with me.  Humberto (Gatica – the engineer who was known for his work with Michael Jackson), let’s get another set of headphones in here please.”  After they were set up, Tina pulled Holly closer to her and instructed, “Roll the tape.”  Knight recalled, “The background vocals came out great.  We sang all the choruses together and all the ‘yeah, yeah, yahoos.’  Not only that, but we had fun doing it.  That day with Tina stands as the most memorable session I’ve ever done, and the quickest.  It is definitely a top ten moment in my life.”

     Holly Knight would meet up with Turner again in 1990 when Tina’s signature song The Best was recorded.  Between 1985 and then, she found her services in demand by a host of artists looking for the hit song that would revive their careers.  Never was co-written with the Wilson sisters of the band Heart and it gave their career a quick kick in the pants.  Rod Steward wasn’t much of a writing partner as his life was one big distracted moment at the time (even though he was a talented writer himself).  Not only did he eventually cut a hit song written by Holly, (Love Touch), he invited her into his inner circle of friends.  She wasn’t his type (dark hair and her legs were too short, according to Holly), but they did become friends.  

     A diverse group of artists like Elvira the Mistress of the Dark, Jon Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osbourne, Kiss, and Pat Benatar (again) would turn to Holly Knight to work her magic and produce hit songs for them.  The music video’s importance faded over time as MTV turned its attention to becoming a different kind of entertainment channel.  Holly Knight’s hit’s defined the MTV era and it is no surprise to find they are still staples of classic rock radio in the 2020s.


Top Piece Video:  Okay, neither songwriter or artist understood the video, but it still sold a lot of records!