Photo courtesy of Cherry Red Records

Rupert Holmes Is So Much More Than the Piña Colada Man

With the release of Songs That Sound Like Movies, the acclaimed singer/songwriter, novelist, and Tony Award-winning writer of musicals reflects on a career in which that rum drink is but an aftertaste.

Songs That Sound Like Movies
Rupert Holmes
Cherry Red Records
23 Feb 2018 (UK) / 02 Mar 2018 (US)

When I let slip the fact that I would be talking to Rupert Holmes, singer/songwriter, novelist, Tony Award-winning writer of musicals and, by any estimation, Renaissance man, friends reminisced happily about their good fortune to have worked with him. I quickly discovered that he’s one of the most widely loved characters in entertainment, not just because of the fond regard with which people hold his work but because they adore him as a person, too. Kate Young, Assistant M.D. for the London production of Holmes’s hit 1986 musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, told me he was an “absolute delight”, adding, “I learnt more then about show-business and how to develop my craft than at almost any other time in my career”.

Still, I experience a tension when I’m poised to interview someone whose work I admire. It’s not that I need to click in a permanent and profound way with a subject, but simply that I don’t want my enjoyment of someone’s music to be tarnished by any perceived unpleasantness in the encounter. It’s a very amateurish affliction that probably never troubles Lynn Barber. In any event, by the time that I dialled Holmes’s number, my fears were vapour. No one has a bad or even ambivalent word to say about him. He’s possessed of an avuncular charm and an old world civility that makes itself apparent immediately. As he launched merrily into anecdotes, none of which outstayed their welcome, I realised he was doing all the work for me. I just had to sit back and enjoy the conversation.

In contrast to many an overrated raconteur, Holmes’s curiosity and adventurous spirit extend to subjects other than himself; there’s none of the egoism one might expect from someone who’s conquered pop, theatre, musical theatre, literature and TV. The occasion of our chat is prompted by the release of Songs That Sound Like Movies, a collection of Holmes’s first three albums, spanning 1974 to 1976, with various outtakes, live cuts and b-sides included. His music during the singer/songwriter stage of his career was an artful mingling of pre-rock pop, classical, jazz, soul, musical theatre and rock that still sounds sparkling and luscious today.

We live in an era in which the term singer/songwriter has been rendered nearly meaningless. Record companies blithely promote artists as self-contained auteurs, despite their songs being made by committee. An ‘artist’ may do little more than hum a melody fragment into a dictaphone and then let everyone else get on with the heavy lifting. And without naming names, we’ve all heard about ‘change a word/take a third’, whereby a hefty songwriting credit is bagged by simply sweeping in and loftily altering a pronoun or removing a conjunction.

Of course, it’s not as if sleights of hand and deceptive marketing strategies weren’t always part and parcel of the entertainment industry, but there was a time when a select group of singer/songwriters could turn their hand to almost any aspect of music-making and do it to an exceptional standard. Whether it was Carole King’s brilliant string and horn arrangements on Fantasy (1973) or Van Dyke Parks’ painstaking work on Song Cycle (1967), Janis Ian’s orchestral arrangements on Stars (1974) or Randy Newman’s on Sail Away (1972), these were people who did not need duplicitous promotional gambits to make them seem more talented than they actually were.

Holmes, who wrote every melody, harmony, counterpoint, chord progression, lyric and orchestral arrangement for his series of solo albums, was cut from that ennobled cloth. But only when pushed is he willing to be explicit about it. “I was aware I had an additional skill [to songwriting], one which most young songwriters of the time did not possess,” he says. “I had from the late sixties taught myself how to arrange, orchestrate and conduct, and could have earned a decent living as an arranger of other peoples records. Very few recording artists made albums with as much orchestration as I envisioned, and of those, only one or two successful artists did their own orchestral arrangements and conducted their own sessions.”

Anyone unfamiliar with the process of arranging music for multiple instruments should know that there’s arranging and then there’s arranging. “A few artists might take a co-arranging credit along with a professional orchestrator,” Holmes explains. “But that usually involved the artist saying to the pro, “And then I think strings here?” – which is not really arranging, since the real notes, counter-melodies and voicings were being written by an outsider.” This means that the job description ‘singer/songwriter’ is vague and misleading. David Essex or Robbie Williams, both from the ‘hum a tune’ school of songwriting, could simply not be said to be doing the same job as Holmes, even though they too lay claim to that job description.

I put my hands up as a relative newcomer to Holmes’s work. Notting Hill’s Music & Video Exchange, London’s famously unpleasant but convenient second-hand record shop, has been the site of many of my musical discoveries. Although the shop ruins album sleeves with awful stickers that never peel off without taking a precious slice of cover art with them, and although they’re renowned for their glowering, impassive staff, their presence in the capital, when so many other shops of their kind have fallen by the wayside, is to be appreciated. A little over ten years ago, Holmes’s second album jumped out at me. I have no memory of what I was searching for under ‘H’. Maybe Heart? Or Claire Hamill? Whatever the case, I came away with something better. Within a matter of weeks, I’d acquired Holmes’s entire solo output. What a journey. Song after wonderful song has emerged from this extraordinary, unassuming Anglo-American. As a melodist, his touch is every bit as sure as Paul McCartney’s. His grasp of music and music theory, some of it acquired conventionally and some via autodidacticism, has few equals in pop. He’s a multi-instrumentalist and singer of considerable depth and a writer of unusually keen emotional perspicacity.

Although it was his fifth album, Partners In Crime (1979), with which Holmes broke through to mainstream success, the recordings he made at Epic are among his finest. In 1974, many pop newcomers were using the Cat Stevens/James Taylor template, writing songs about their personal travails and inviting the listener into their confidence. Holmes threw that rulebook aside and did something completely different. Taking inspiration from the way in which radio plays allow listeners to create their own ‘movies of the mind’ – casts, sets, locations and props that only they can see – Holmes decided to work in his very own singer/songwriter sub-genre, which he dubbed ‘film rock’. He wrote a series of songs, including ‘Letters That Cross in the Mail’ (which would become a perennial after Barbra Streisand lifted it from obscurity), ‘Soap Opera’ and ‘Terminal’, all of which were like three/four-minute movies, with characters and self-contained stories.

Instead of working with a band, Holmes and his co-producer, Jeffrey Lesser, cast different musicians for different songs. Holmes played piano and keyboards throughout, as well as arranging and conducting the orchestra. The result was Widescreen (1974), not a sales hit at the time but now widely regarded as a landmark debut, able to hold its head up high and sit beside the best work from Randy Newman or Tom Waits. In hindsight, the album came out in the perfect era. Holmes’s concept could only have flourished in a pre-MTV world. No longer do pop listeners get quite the same freedom to enjoy their own personal movies of the mind – even if they try, their movies will inevitably be superimposed and sullied by the official promo videos.

“I’m proud of the album because I was given the chance to do what I like,” says Holmes, “and I chose to do something odd, quirky, and eyebrow-raising… but at all times deeply, passionately felt. In my career, whenever I’ve eschewed the smart choice and done the odd thing, it has always paid off for me in ways I never anticipated, whereas when I’ve done what any sensible person would do, I’ve usually done just fine but never more than what anyone expected. They only pressed ten thousand copies of Widescreen, so it was never really in the running to be a bestseller. And yet, in many ways, it was my most successful album, in that it landed me the attention of not only Barbra Streisand but numerous other talents in recording, film and television, and opened many previously locked doors for me.”

“When I recorded Widescreen, I realized that a major record label allowing me artistic carte blanche, with Jeffrey and myself the only overseeing producers, was a rare situation that might never happen again. In fact, I only had a deal to make this one album, with no guarantee of future ones; I felt this might be the only album I’d ever make, and realized I’d have to make every track count. So I’m reasonably happy after all these years with virtually all the cuts on the album, and it would be odd if I weren’t.

“To this day I’m not sure what ‘Bagdad’ is about—Death, I think, and the idea that Love can survive that. I wish I’d used more Arabian Nights orchestration and dreamy background voices, but my guess is we’d run out of money by then. ‘Second Saxophone’ alone and the actors and studio time spent creating ‘Psycho Drama’ probably ate up half the budget alone.”

Certainly, Widescreen sounds like an expensive album. It’s lavishly arranged and so sumptuously recorded that even a simple voice-and-piano track like ‘Letters…’ sounds somehow extravagant and expansive. Like much of Holmes’s early work, it emerged to a fond critical appraisal that didn’t translate into sales. Nevertheless, within a year, Holmes and Jeffrey were busy producing Streisand’s Lazy Afternoon (1975). That gold-selling record became a calling card that led to additional high-profile production jobs for Holmes including work with Sparks and John Miles.

Meanwhile, Holmes’s parallel career as a solo artist on Epic meant that one album a year was required. His second release, Rupert Holmes (1975), was another ‘film rock’ effort. This time, because the record label expected him to tour in support of the disc, Holmes worked with a band, The Laughing Dogs, many of whom would collaborate with him on and off for years to come. As with Widescreen, Rupert played the piano and wrote orchestral arrangements. With its sensual, soft-focus front cover portrait, it should have stood out on the racks, but, as with its predecessor, its lot was to be critically appreciated without selling in vast quantities. Since it wasn’t a hit, the promotional department at Epic stepped in and demanded that Holmes change course for his third album. No more ‘film rock’ – from now on, it had to be hit singles only. That’s why Holmes’s third and final Epic collection, the punningly-titled Singles (1976), had a more autobiographical singer/songwriter bent. This approach led to more cover versions, with Dionne Warwick and Englebert Humperdinck among those to interpret songs from the album.

Holmes then label-hopped to Private Stock (home of Blondie and Essra Mohawk) for the near-breakthrough, Pursuit of Happiness (1978) and its mini-hit ‘Let’s Get Crazy Tonight’. Then the unexpected happened. At his next home, Infinity Records, a song Holmes considered one of his less consequential efforts, the frivolous, fun, three-chord confection, ‘Escape’, was issued as a single, with an appended sub-title, ‘The Piña Colada Song’. Written in something similar to his ‘film rock’ style, with an overarching story and a punchline, it became the monster hit he could never live down. Holmes became the ‘Piña Colada’ man. All those years of solid, critically-acclaimed work couldn’t mitigate the novelty factor with which he was saddled, even though the album from which ‘Escape’ was excerpted, Partners In Crime, was one of his strongest. Two more hits in quick succession spared him from one-hit wonder status. ‘Him’ (US #4), with its luxuriant vocal harmonies, was notably stronger than ‘Escape’, but hasn’t lived on in the public imagination in quite the same way.

“It was an incredible period in my life,” Holmes recalls. “To say it felt as if I were living in a dream, with no way to completely get a handle on it, would be a massive understatement. ‘Escape’ was a number one record everywhere. I could be in a car and say, “I want to hear my record” and push the six buttons on the car radio, and odds were I’d hear it. I’d walk into stores in strange cities and hear a friendly voice overhead, and it was me. It had taken me ten years and five albums to be an overnight success, and now it was happening.”

Sudden fame was a mixed blessing for Holmes: “It was exhausting. I had a show business attorney for a manager who thought his job was to take every monetary offer I received. He had no sense of what would be good for my career long-term. I wasn’t a rock ‘n’ roller, so he booked me in nightclubs where I’d perform seven nights a week. He’d say, ‘You’re booked for a week in Dearborn, a week outside of Chicago, a week at the Fairmont, a week at the Diplomat, a week in Philly,” and I’d so, ‘No, you’ve booked me for 35 days without a break.’ I’d fly into a city on Monday, perform that evening, get up at 5AM to do ‘Good Morning, Milwaukee,’ do on-air with the morning drive-time disc jockeys, visit the local rack-jobbers and record distributors, have lunch with the local promo man and whatever station he was working on, do an interview with the local ‘This Week in Hartford’ handout, do an on-air with the afternoon drive time jockey, take a 20-minute nap, do the first show and sit in my dressing room greeting glad-handers and all the people I’d met during the course of the day, sign autographs and be TNGISB (The Nicest Guy in Show Biz), do a second show with some drunk yelling “Fuck you!” throughout the set, go back to the dressing room, greet some more people comp’d by the label, do more autographs, drink the first of several Jack Daniels and soda and collapse. I never used pharmaceuticals other than the occasional Valium for flying, but around the third week I thought, “No wonder everyone in this business does drugs… you really need them!”

‘Escape’ and ‘Him’ were followed by a third hit single from Partners In Crime, the jaunty ‘Answering Machine’ (shamelessly plagiarised a decade or so later by Curiosity Killed the Cat for their UK hit ‘Name and Number’) and Holmes’s schedule went from busy to busier. “Two days before Christmas, I opted to come home from Chicago in a sleeping compartment on the train. When asked why, I said honestly, “I just want to be somewhere for 24 hours where I don’t have to smile. One day I flew from Holland to England, gaining an hour by doing so. I then flew Concorde to New York, landing three hours earlier than I’d departed. I took a cab from JFK to my apartment, where I had 20-minutes to change my clothes, then went to my dentist for a temporary cap, took a taxi back to JFK and flew to L.A. to do a TV interview that evening, and finish the charts I’d written for the Tonight Show band to be copied the next morning for rehearsal the following afternoon. Someone said, “Isn’t it great how you keep gaining all this time by flying toward the west.” I replied, “No, my watch is gaining the time, I’m living all of it.”

Holmes stresses that he is by no means ungrateful for his ‘overnight’ success period. “It was a privilege to have two genuine hit records and a few contenders and it continues to mean a great deal to me. As for the “household name” of it, the star of the record were the words “piña coladas” and I was the piña colada guy. I did have my 15 months of fame, and there were delirious thrills and honors that went with that. But my manager viewed my income as half his, and so he kept me working more than was necessary or helpful to developing my career, often in circumstances that were profitable but embarrassing: shopping malls and amusement parks and tacky bars where I’d be singing and someone would ask me to sing “New York State of Mind”. One club was so cavernous and unsuitable for the low key evening I’d prepared that I ended up playing Chuck Berry songs all night. They loved me!

“One day, I was getting out of a taxi in Manhattan, and the driver recognized me from seeing me on the Merv Griffin Show the night before. As I left the cab, he said, “Wow, you’re the first semi-celebrity I’ve ever driven!” I said in mock chagrin, “Did you have to find the precise wording? You couldn’t let me have ‘celebrity’ unmodified?”

Adventure (MCA), the 1980 follow-up to Partners In Crime, should have kept Holmes’s name buoyant in the charts. Holmes experimented with a more synth-orientated sound. Despite its merits, the album failed to connect with its audience. After one more solo album (Full Circle, Elektra, 1981), the shutters came down on Holmes’s singer/songwriter career, although he briefly resumed it for a Japanese-only release in 1996. Holmes has proceeded to excel in every other field to which he’s extended his talents. The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a musical based on an incomplete Dickens novel, was a Broadway hit in 1986, with successful revivals there, in London and around the world ever since. Holmes became the first person in theatrical history ever to win simultaneous, un-shared Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Original Score, while the musical also bagged Best Musical along with two other Tonys.

The sweetness of such accomplishments was something Holmes could only savour briefly, however. That same year, his daughter Wendy died from a brain tumour. “I lost my beautiful and beloved daughter at age ten, and during much of her unforgivably brief life I was on the road somewhere, earning money for her college education and my manager, and not getting to be with her. Being with her was the best thing in my life. I thought all those years of deprivation would end when The Mystery of Edwin Drood won the Tony awards. I knew I would finally have time off to devote to her. A few months later, she died without warning. So I think of those years of semi-celebrity as miraculous and dreamlike, but I’d trade them in an instant for just another second with her.”

In the aftermath of that heartbreaking loss, Holmes has nevertheless soared in his creative endeavours. There’s been a well-loved, critically-favoured TV sitcom, Remember WENN (1996-19980, and a rip-roaring, elaborately plotted novel, Where the Truth Lies (2003), the cinematic adaptation of which starred Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth. More novels have followed (Swing, 2006), along with plays and musicals. Still, the Epic recordings have a special place in his affections. “These are all very personal to me, and I am never more than arms-length from the stories they tell,” he remarks.