Fringe interview: songwriter Bill Martin
The dapper Bill Martin MBE is an undersung Scottish pop legend. Along with his songwriting partner, Phil Coulter, he penned enduring bubblegum glam classics for the Bay City Rollers and was the first Brit to write a Eurovision winner, Puppet On A String, for Sandie Shaw. Rather sweetly, he uses his other big Eurovision hit, Cliff Richard’s Congratulations, as his ringtone. “My songs are household names, but not me,” he says.
Martin hopes to redress that balance a little with his forthcoming autobiography, Congratulations: Songwriter To The Stars, tracing his path from working class Glasgow to music business success, via a repertoire of industry anecdotes, many of which feature in his new Fringe show, Bill Martin: The Stories Behind The Songs. The challenge for this garrulous raconteur will be boiling down decades of experiences and escapades into an hour-long anatomy of his best-known songs, as performed by the likes of Elvis Presley, Van Morrison, Cilla Black and Billy Connolly.
Martin was born William Wylie MacPherson in the shadow of the Govan shipyards at a time when “the only way out of poverty was to play football, go in the forces or go into the arts, like acting”. His father encouraged him to play the family piano from the heart, instilling a lifelong love of the music of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart. He wrote his first song, called Angels In The Sky, aged eight but remembers “you couldn’t tell anybody in Govan you were writing songs”.
Instead, he spent a couple of years as an apprentice in the yards and tried out for Partick Thistle FC before making an abortive foray to London to seek out Tin Pan Alley – not realising in his naivety that this was the colloquial term borrowed from the US for the cluster of music publishing businesses along Denmark Street.
After a spell in South Africa playing for Johannesburg Rangers – “whenever my father was asked who I played for, he would say ‘the Rangers’ and nobody ever checked!” – he returned to London, where he finally became a fixture on Denmark Street.
“I was pushy to make it,” he says. “The atmosphere was magic, terrific characters – you were frightened to whistle a tune in case somebody would steal it.”
Martin and Coulter’s first No 1 hit was the eminently whistleable Puppet On A String, famously performed by a barefoot Sandie Shaw at the 1967 Eurovision Song Contest.
“To win it way back then was magic, then you did sell millions of records,” says Martin. “In a way, although he was a lovely guy, Terry Wogan was the worst thing that happened for Eurovision, because he treated it like a circus as opposed to a contest. It’s no longer a song contest, it’s a visual extravaganza, it’s the biggest gay club in the world.”
Right from the start of his career, Martin harboured ambitions to work with a band. In the 1960s, he failed to make it with Edinburgh rhythm’n’blues combo The Boston Dexters, fronted by Tam White, and with Glasgow’s Beatstalkers, but he found his band and his fortune with the Bay City Rollers, for whom he and Coulter penned the immortal Shang-A-Lang and their huge US hit Saturday Night.
“Phil was really the technician in the studio, he would be Mr Production. I’m an emotional guy, I write with my heart. It was a team effort. I was like a music editor – I would come in and say you’ve got to speed it up or slow it down [cue for a Eurovision song right there]. I had street ears, although I dress in a collar and tie all the time.
“The Rollers should have stayed with us because we would have given them The Bump and Forever And Ever [huge hits, respectively, for 70s boy bands Kenny and Slik, the latter featuring a young Midge Ure]. But they wanted to do it themselves. The Rollers were a real phenomenon. I wish we could have kept with them but they wanted us out.”
Martin’s favourite song in his canon is the Frankie Miller gem Darlin’ but he reckons the proudest moment of his career was writing and producing the chart-topping Back Home for the 1970 England World Cup squad, kicking off the noble tradition of the over-optimistic football record. Easy Easy, his song for the 1974 Scotland World Cup squad, fared less illustriously…
“It’s very hard to say to Scotland, but being a failed footballer, it was such a thrill for me to get the ’66 boys practically all still in the team in 1970 and persuade them to sing a song,” he says. “Alf Ramsey said: ‘My boys are athletes, they are not performers, how dare you take up my time.’ But I said to the team: ‘Look, you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren you were on Top Of The Pops’.
“They were selling 100,000 records a day – if they hadn’t taken Bobby Charlton off, it would have been the biggest record ever.”
Although the music industry is a different, somewhat chastened beast these days, the charts are once again the domain of the songwriter-producer. Of today’s crop of singer/songwriters, Martin rates Adele and Lady Gaga, but is less sold on Ed Sheeran.
At the age of 78, with three Ivor Novellos and a Tartan Clef Living Legend award under his belt, he is still hustling. The man who once tried to sell Amy Winehouse a slowed-down version of Puppet On A String is currently punting a song he hopes Celine Dion will want to record (she just doesn’t know it yet) and, returning to his childhood theme, has already offered a track called Angel On My Shoulder to Rod Stewart – and Michael Ball and Alfie Boe.
“I’m about to give it to a female singer, so let’s see what happens,” he says mischievously. “I’m very focused. You don’t get anything unless you fight for it. Anybody can write a song, the hardest thing is selling the song. This is why I like Nashville. They love their songwriters.”
Bill Martin: The Stories Behind the Songs, Pleasance Dome, 4-27 August