Alan Merrill 1951-2020
Alan Merrill tasted success in many different territories of the globe. He was a star, but his stars didn't align in the way for him to become a household name. Big in Japan before such a reality was thought possible for a Western act. A success in the UK and Europe with a band that never saw their music released in his American homeland, apart from one single on Private Stock Records. A consistently active and productive musician and one who saw a song, written as a riposte to a Rolling Stones anthem in the making, become one of the best known songs of the '80s and today, despite being written in the mid-seventies and originally marooned on the flip-side of a flop single.
Born Allan Preston Sax in the Bronx February 19th 1951, his mother was the jazz singer Helen Merrill who was variously signed to Atco, Milestone, and Mercury Records, whilst his father Aaron Sachs was a clarinet and saxophone player who recorded with the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Stan Getz. In the mid sixties he played in a series of semi-pro bands in the Cafe Wha in Greenwich Village, and in 1968 he joined the dying embers of The Left Banke, but didn't record with them. By 1969 he was in Japan as the front man for The Lead a group of foreigners based in Tokyo who scored a No. 1 hit with "Blue Rose" and then promptly fell apart when two of their members were deported over irregularities with their visas. Merrill remained, secured a deal with Atlantic Records and released the album Alone In Tokyo and the single "Teardrops." To make his name more manageable for the Japanese market, and less risque than Sax, he adopted his mother's maiden name. In 1971 after starring in a jeans commercial, and a teen orientated soap opera he released Merrill 1 -- an album of self-composed songs that is rightly valued as a precursor of the power-pop genre. He next formed Vodka Collins, the first Japanese glam rock outfit who recorded the album Tokyo-New York and had a double A sided hit with "Sands Of Time/Automatic Pilot." One of Merrill's songs "Movies" from Merril 1 cropped up on the flip-side of a Tiny Tim single in 1972. Mr. Tim would once more return to Merrill's back catalogue in 1996 to record "I Love Rock 'N' Roll."
By 1974, Merrill had taken up residence in London. He formed a pop-glam outfit named Arrows who secured a deal with Mickie Most's RAK Records. Although the other members were English, Merrill's frontman status Arrows made a virtual trinity of American glam poseurs in London exile, the other two being Sparks and Milk 'n' Cookies. Caught between the label owner Mickie Most dominance, and the label's consistent success and endless thirst for hits, the band's own writing abilities were excluded from the forefront. Their first chart hit "A Touch Too Much" had fallen from the pens of Chinn & Chapman. Despite having their own national television series that ran for two series, fourteen shows in each, whose guests included chart acts of the day, including the likes of The Bay City Rollers, Marc Bolan, Slade, and Peter Noone. Amazingly whilst both series were being shown, the band had no new releases available to promote. The show aired in Europe and territories like Hong Kong, but with nothing to sell, they didn't benefit from their fame oy their ubiquity. When their single "Broken Down Heart" was released in 1975, a song on the b side was what captured the attention of the disc jockeys. Eventually "I Love Rock 'N' Roll" was made the official A side. It was the only piece of product that they performed in the series, but the single tanked.
The band's performance of it was watched by a young Joan Jett, then on tour in the UK with her band The Runaways. The song stuck in her head and in 1981 she turned it into the bona fide smash it had always deserved to be. Merrill had written it as a casual riposte to the Rolling Stones "It's Only Rock And Roll But I Like It." Since he owed some money to his band mate Jake Hooker he added him as co-author of it. It would prove an expensive act of kindness. Their debut and sole album First Hit is a fairly unsatisfactory affair because many of the band's own compositions were squeezed out in favour of less inspiring, but seemingly more commercial offerings by the hit writing team of Phil Martin and Phil Coulter Arrows limped into 1977 when punk effectively hastened their decline, and despite having several tracks produced by Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, these never were released at the time. It seems that RAK Records had little idea how to handle the band to achieve greater success. It is a major oversight that a producer like Mickie Most missed the potential in Alan Merrill's "I Love Rock 'N' Roll." It is a song that speaks for itself.
Merrill then joined forces with his friend the former Rare Bird singer and guitarist Steve Gould. They formed Runner a band who signed to Arista Records short lived Autograph label. Their excellent debut album saw the dent them US charts, and a second album was under way with Alex Sadkin at the production duties but tensions within the band meant they never completed the record. Their single "Run For Your Life" would eventually be covered by Sammy Hagar. The 1980s were kinder to Alan Merrill. He teamed up with Rick Derringer, a collaboration that saw three albums released and the movie The Rick Derringer Rock Spectacular. Merrill released a self-titled solo album on Polydor Reocords in 1983, and by the end of the decade he was part of Meatloaf's touring band, appearing on the Live At Wembley album from 1987. He returned to acting in the hit series Encyclopedia Brown on HBO to success and acclaim in the role of casey Sparkz. 1982 had seen "I Love Rock 'N' Roll" become a global smash and a US No. 1 for Joan Jett and her band the Blackhearts. It remains her signature song. In 1990 Alan Merrill successfully reformed Vodka Collins and they toured Japan when their debut LP was released on CD. It was a reunion that would spawn a further four successful albums.
In the new century Merrill continued to write and record. Britney Spears had a No. 1 in the UK and all across Europe with her version of "I Love Rock 'N' Roll." A song that seems impossible to contain, a little like Norman Greenbaum's perennial "Spirit In The Sky." Albums kept on appearing, his most recent being 2017's A Blue Avenue. Eminem sampled "I Love Rock 'N' Roll" on the song "Remind Me" from his album Revival which topped the American charts in the same year. Merrill's song that simply won't go away because of its brilliant encapsulation of attitude and ambition with a heart. Alan Merrill had the looks, the talent, and the charisma that is required for success. His is an astonishing back catalogue of continued effort and enterprise and it is a tragedy that like so many victims of Covid 19 that he died alone on 28th March 2020 in hospital in his native New York. He was the last surviving founding member of Arrows.
Paul Varley died in 2008 in London after living for years in LA. He fathered a daughter Iona. with Marc Bolan's former wife June. Jake Hooker married Judy Garland's daughter Lorna Luft, becoming her manager. He died in Malibu in 2014. Arrows' manager Peter Meaden, who had once handled The Who's affairs died in 1978 at the age of 38 after years of drug abuse.
Like the band itself, all theirs were stories ended before their allotted time.