This song dates from 1981. I had quit as house producer at Neat Records. I had begun to realise that I was largely helping other people build careers whilst mine was on hold. I was becoming bogged down in Heavy Metal and whilst there’s no doubt I’m a bit of a rocker, I really wanted to pursue the path of a songwriter first and foremost. Production might come into it somewhere along the line but I wanted that to be a sideline, not my main gig.
So I walked away from Neat just as the buzz was growing. This may seem a little precipitous but I was young and it just seemed to be the right thing to do. What I didn’t realise at the time was that I had walked away with a pocket full of hit songs. That fact would emerge a little later. For now, I was penniless. More to the point I’d walked away from the facilities of a fully equipped recording studio. All I had now was a cassette recorder, a cheap Cassio keyboard and a very early and basic drum machine, a Roland DR 55 Dr Rhythm. I also had my red Cimar acoustic guitar (the one that appears in all my posters and social media stuff) and my 1970 Stratocaster which I still have to this day. However, the majority of my composing took place on that Cassio keyboard.
And so I set about composing the song that is the subject of this song story: Please Don’t Sympathise. I remember strumming the first 2 chords on acoustic sitting on the edge of the bed, humming a melody and thinking “nice, but the next chord has to go somewhere different”. I’ll talk a little about the song structure later. The collage at the foot of this story starts with my own doodlings with that primitive equipment in my flat in Tynemouth. As always apologies for my vocals. The next stage in this song’s development has become a missing link. A missing recording that so far I have been unable to find. To tell that part of the story I need to morph briefly back to Neat Records with a piece of Heavy Metal History that has evaded the books and blogs.
For a brief period, I joined the heavy metal band, FIST ! Singer and guitarist, Keith Satchfield had his eye on some of my songs as potential commercial material to help take the band to greater heights. I said fine and gave him 3 pop/rock songs. He said, “no man, you have to join the band before we can do your songs”. So I replaced Dave Irwin and we cut the three songs. Sadly I don’t have any of the recordings. Then Keith took it a stage further and brought in a vocalist called Glenn Coates who impressed me a great deal. I’ve no idea where these recordings are either. Anyway, I was impressed enough to ask Glenn to sing on my next demo session after I left Neat/Impulse. We recorded about 8 songs including Please Don’t Sympathise at Mortonsound in Newcastle. I am unable to locate those recordings and I fear they may be lost forever.
I had just cut a single with the Hollies. One of my songs called “I Don’t Understand You. Bruce Welch of the Shadows was in the production seat for that recording in Odyssey studios, London. One thing led to another and I eventually signed a publishing deal with Bruce. I signed the contract at Tyne Tees TV Studios in Newcastle and Hank Marvin signed as the witness. Bruce selected 4 songs from the 8 song demo session with Glenn and asked me to make some more advanced demos. I could have gone into Neat/Impulse but I still wanted to carve new territory and so I went to Guardian studios in Pity Me, County Durham. I played bass, keyboards and guitar on the session with Paul Smith on drums and I brought my old mate Dave Black in to do vocals. I spent two full days on those four song demos, Bruce Welch was paying and he really wanted me to go to town on the production. Maybe it doesn’t sound like it now when folks have state of the art facilities in their bedrooms but those demos were “hot”. Remember the fact that Guardian Studios were located in a County Durham village quaintly called “Pity Me”. That fact is going to pop up again later in the story in quite a spooky way.
Enter a producer called Chris Neil. Chris and I had just had a massive hit with his production of my song “Hurry Home”. Chris was by now having a bit of a love affair with my material and had asked Bruce to give him first dibs on any new songs that came in from me. Chris was a well known and highly successful producer working with Leo Sayer, Gerry Rafferty, A-Ha, Rod Stewart, Cher and others. He picked up on two of the songs from the four songs I’d just demo’d. One of them he sang himself under the band name of “Favoured Nations” but that’s another story. The recording pertinent to this story is his production of Sheena Easton’s new album “Madness Money And Music” and he recorded Please Don’t Sympathise for that album. The album came out and did very well. It went top 20 in the UK, peaking at 13. It also charted in several other countries and did particularly well in Japan. Sheena’s version follows Dave’s rendition in the video.
And so, you may think, job done, end of story.
But no, a year later another chapter was added. Have you heard the charming story of how Rene Angelil mortgaged his house to produce Celine Dion’s first album? Well, he did so armed with one of my songs. Please Don’t Sympathise to be precise. Celine recorded the song on for her “Les Chemins De Ma Maison” released in Canada. She then released the song as the second single from the album. The single was a massive hit in Canada earning a Gold Disk. Celine then recorded an extended version of the song for her album Du Soleil Au Cœur which was released in France and Switzerland. The albums featuring my song sold 400,000 copies in Canada and 700,000 copies in France.
At this time Celine was singing exclusively in French and so Rene’s longtime collaborator, Edi Marne did a French adaptation. This is not a translation nor a co-write, it’s called a local adaptation. I’ve done English adaptations of foreign songs myself for the UK market and you get a 12.5% cut for this. The trick is to get something that sings well and is very similar to the original in lyrical intent if not a literal translation. And so Celine’s version of Please Don’t Sympathise is Ne Me Plaignez Pas. Now, here’s the spooky fact: remember, I cut the demo about two years earlier in a studio in a village called Pity Me: Well, “Ne Me Plaignez Pas” means “Don’t PITY ME”. (Cue spooky music)
I guess you would agree that this is a pretty successful song. But cast your mind back to the start of the story and the first part of the video. I was using pretty rudimentary equipment. The success of this and other songs helped me change that situation and I eventually had my own recording studio. However, it may just be the case that my best work was produced when I had very little equipment. There may be a moral in that tale.
As to the construction of the song: This is really just a pop song, nothing deep about it at all. But it has a groove and feel to it that people seem to like. I often set the chorus to my songs in a higher key to the verses and this is the case with this particular song. I’m not talking about a “123 here we go” key hike. I use a more subtle approach that listeners may not notice at all except that they know the general vibe has “lifted”. To make this work subtly and avoid jarring shifts takes hours of exploration and experimentation and this applies to the modulation from the chorus back down to the verse too. I know all the theory to these modulations but in practice, it takes a lot of graft to make it seamless. So for this song, I set it in G for the verses and Bb for the choruses. But I took it a stage further. The Verses slip in and out of G and Bb quite a bit before finally settling into Bb for the choruses. One other thing perhaps noteworthy is the 3 note run up on the bass guitar at the very beginning. That was present in every demo I made and I do take pleasure to note that every recording of this song by far more accomplished bass players includes this motif.
You can hear my band perform our version of this song in our Songs Stories and Multimedia show. The next one is at The Georgian Theatre, Stockton – March 25th. Although the song has been cut by two pretty big time female recording artists, we do the male version. I chose to do this in memory of my friend Dave Black. It has been the passing of friends that has encouraged me to take this show on the road after all these years. So, Terry Slesser takes the lead vocal on this one. However, expect the unexpected when Jen Normandale steams in with a verse in French that would make Ms Dion proud.
I hope you enjoyed this song story. I will be delving into my memory bank for another one quite soon.