Damn Yankees: Co-Writers Have Chemistry and Fun

Jack Blades says he thinks one of the reasons he and Tommy Shaw write so well together is that both are team players. Another reason that becomes apparent after talking to them is that both of them genuinely love what they do, and enjoy writing for the sake of writing and not only for the money they might make down the road.Jack Blades says he thinks one of the reasons he and Tommy Shaw write so well together is that both are team players. Another reason that becomes apparent after talking to them is that both of them genuinely love what they do, and enjoy writing for the sake of writing and not only for the money they might make down the road.

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They became writing partners after joining Damn Yankees with Ted Nugent and Michael Cartellone, but both were already prolific writers. As a member of Night Ranger, Blades had written with Kelly Keggy, and Shaw, a former Styx member, had contributed heavily to that band’s sound. Both had also been in other writing situations.

“When Tommy and I first got together, it (writing) was probably one of the easiest things that we did,” Blades says. “Lyric-wise, we approach the area the same, we felt very comfortable. It was one of those chemistry things that work.”

Shaw agrees. “It all comes from that. I think it comes from having a relaxed relationship with each other, and I guess the confidence to let somebody else write the whole thing if need be, or you write the whole thing if you need to do it, but never really keep score. We split everything 50/50.”

“Tommy always says, and I agree…I don’t think he felt good when he had a solo career (because) he is a team player, and I am that way too,” Blades says. “in fact, the most fun songs we’ve written were with outside people, and writing with an artist is even more fun.”

The two of them have written with Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Alice Cooper and Vince Neil, among others. With each singer, Blade says you have to know what they will and won’t do.

“With Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, we flew to Boston and wrote with them (“Shut Up and Dance” and “Can’t Stop Messin'”). But the most fun was with Alice Cooper – it was really cool to write with him. Again, the most fun we’ve had is when we co-write with them, as opposed to just handing them a song.”

But they’re not opposed to doing that. Blades and Shaw wrote “Can’t Change Me” for Vince Neil after they had written a couple of songs with him. “He told us to just write a song, he was busy, so Tommy and I just sat down and wrote it for him. I’ve known Vince for ten years, and then we had written a couple of things for Sister Of Pain (the single “Exposed”), so we kind of knew what he was looking for. So we came up and “Can’t Change Me.”

Shaw has another way of looking at things when he’s writing for someone else. “We pretend that we’re in their band, and we also kind of look at it as what if we were buying the new Vince Neil or Alice Cooper album, and try to figure out a great song that we’d like to hear. We want to write a song that we would hear as a fan and go ‘wow,’ and then we try to write that one,” Shaw explains.

“We also get together with them and hang out with them, and get a feel for what they’d be willing to say. Steven Tyler was saying, ‘I’m the one who’s got to say these words, so it’s got to be right.’ And we know that even Vince Neil was not comfortable saying some of the things I would write for him, but he has his standards of what he would say and not say, and it’s good to get to know what they will and won’t do.”

“Writing is fun, genuinely enjoyable and fun to do,” Blades says. “That’s what I’m in this business for – my idea of a good time is writing a song, writing with someone else, or being in the studio, or on the road and storing up ideas so I can write when I come off the road.”

Blades began writing when he was in the seventh grade. “We had a band, and we wrote this song called, “You You You, I Love You.” It was kind of neat, I was a big Beatles fan back in ’68. I just loved melodies, harmonies, the Beach Boys, things like that. But I really wrote for the first time when I was in that band.”

His influences were John Lennon and Paul McCartney – Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. “I loved the rawness, the nastiness, the realness of that sort of music. Cream, Eric Clapton…actually Sly and the Family Stone were a big influence on me. I was a black man trapped in a short white man’s body! I loved Larry Graham, the bass player for Sly – “Everyday People” was a brilliant song.

“I think Billy Joel is a great songwriter – Phil Collins is great – I like some of the Jagger/Richard stuff now, Lenny Kravitz writes decent songs, I like his melodies.”

“My influences? There have been so many,” Shaw replies in answer to the question that elicited the preceding response from Blades. “There are just too many to mention. Anytime I hear a great song I wish I’d written it.”

He also says there are “ton of people” he’d like to write with, and not all of them are in rock n’ roll. “Who knows if it will ever happen? I know we have people we are planning on writing with after we finish our (his and Blades) duet album.

“A lot of the writing we’ve done has come about through word of mouth. People who have heard songs we’ve written, songs they lot of doors. Vince Neil’s “You’re Invited But You’re Friend Can’t Come,” that happened because we were friends with Vince – that has helped. Word travels fast, it’s a small industry – it keeps you honest!!”

Shaw says he writes because “I just found it was always easier to communicate through songs. I could take my time and say what I wanted to say, and people were more attentive when hearing a song. I was writing songs before I started the first grade. By the time I was 11, I was appearing on local television shows in Montgomery, Ala.”

Many writers make appointments to write, or set aside certain times a week to work on their craft. Other are more spontaneous with their creative endeavors, stopping to write only when an idea comes along and won’t go away. But all writers train themselves to always be on the lookout for a good idea for that next hit song. Blades and Shaw are no different, but neither can explain an exact process by which they write.

“It happens in a strange way with me,” Blades says. “I’ll sit down at the piano or with an acoustic guitar and play a chord pattern, or sing along to a melody floating in my head. A lot of times the melody comes first, and I’ll go to the piano or guitar, and try to get a tape recorder and put it down.

“On the first album for Damn Yankees, High Enough, I was downstairs doing my laundry, and I was singing “I don’t want to hear about it anymore…” so Tommy heard me, and asked what it was. I says, ‘I dunno, that’s all there is,’ and within an hour we had a song. So then Ted came in and put his guitar spin on it, so we decided to split it three ways. So when those sort of things pop in your mind, you snatch them out of the sky.”

Shaw says he is always aware of the possibility of a song coming from anywhere. “I guess after you’ve written songs for so many years, you just sort of keep an open mind for an kind of idea or spark. You are always looking for a universal idea, or theme…when you say something to somebody, you can tell if it will ring a bell with them. We want attention, that’s why we’re in the music business, and the more bells you ring, the more applause you get…and the more attention you get. So writing is instinct; we look for an idea that ultimately translates into success, but what it’s all about is being appreciated for your songs.”

Blades believes that it is better to write a song with a specific reason in mind, rather than write a song and not have an avenue to pitch it. “Better to have a focus for what you’re doing, not just writing songs and have 18 laying around and putting them out (pitching them) and see what sticks,” he says. “It’s better if you know Alice Cooper needs a song. Like with Alice, we thought ‘let’s just get to be Alice Cooper, let’s do some wild and sick stuff. Then with Vince, we said let’s think Motley Crue. It’s easier to identify who we’re writing for; that way we get a feel for what the song should be.”

When they do write a song not geared toward a specific project, Blades says they go out and pitch their own material, instead of relying on Warner Chappell to do it for them.

“Tommy and I both know a lot of people, and everything we’ve had cut has come through us,” he says. “We’ve kind of done it that way…We might bring someone we know is looking for material on up to my studio and play him some stuff. Warner Chappell has some great ideas, but we’ve been so busy, and haven’t been able to do what they’ve suggested we do.”

Both men admit that it would be more difficult to be a writer if they were not already in a band. “That really helps out, at least if nothing gets going, you can get up on stage and play music,” Blades says. “If you are just a songwriter, you’re beating bushes, you will get passed a lot, so it’s much easier to sell an idea and song if you are a playing musician.”

The other alternative, he noted, is to meet someone who is in a band and team up with them. “What hinders anyone is thinking you can’t do something,” Blade pointed out. “There’s nothing I can’t do. Something I always wanted to do was write the outside songs. My whole thing in life is to write songs, write music, write a new album, get another record out, that’s what it’s all about.”

In offering advice to the up-and-coming writer, Blades says, “Be persistent – persistence pays off. Songwriting is one of those deals where the more you write, the better you get. I write song after song, and you should hear some of the crap I don’t show anybody! The more songs you write the better it gets and that’s what it’s all about.”

Shaw says even now, he’s not sure what makes a good song. “I think it needs to be simple in its melody, but needs a left turn in it somewhere, before it brings you back to that familiar refrain. The song has to be an easy journey for the listener – the best songs are the ones that pull you in without you realizing that you’ve been pulled.

“I’m still learning to be a songwriter! I guess to keep it as simple as I can – my favorite people to listen to are the ones who have an economy of words, people who can be concise, I tend to get excited and tend to run on when I’ve gone way past making my point.”

So how do you know when a song is finished? “It’s hard to say,” he replied. “I just know. It’s such a spiritual kind of thing, – it’s hard to talk about it – sometimes I make a choice to drag it on a little bit, just for dramatic effect – but that’s an arrangement. The way we write, we write arrangement as well as lyrics, and that just comes from being in a band.”

As for advice, he says “Don’t get discouraged. I’ve only done it my way, I’m sure you have to come up through different channels. You have to pay your dues, no matter how you come up. God knows I’ve paid mine and continue to pay mine. Doing it the way I’m doing, you come to expect dues just like rent. Well it’s never going to be totally easy, but it’s going to be fun, or I won’t do it.”

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