Ray Singer and Peter Sarstedt still on a high note with ‘Restless Heart’
- Credit: Nigel Sutton
The music producer and singer-songwriter who hit number one in 1969 have a new album out. Alex Bellotti tracks down their story
What makes a number one hit record? It’s a question that has and always will elude even the most industry-savvy music moguls. Some producers spend years revising time signatures and key changes, desperate to find a formula for success. For Ray Singer, success came on the first attempt.
“I feel a bit like that Woody Allen character Zelig,” says Singer, still a record producer in Highgate. “I worked hard as anyone, but just kept turning up in the right place at the right time.”
That time was 1969 and the place was London. The moment was when Singer stayed up until four in the morning in his apartment listening to travelling busker Peter Sarstedt play the future chart-topper Where Do You Go To, My Lovely. Forty-four years on, it is a relationship still bearing fruit as Singer prepares to release Sarstedt’s new album Restless Heart on his own label.
“I’ve loved music since I was 11 years old,” says Singer.
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“I’d press my nose against the window of a guitar shop, thinking that one day, I’ll own one of them. Then my dad got me a ukulele.”
This proved the beginning of Singer’s own career as, fittingly enough, a singer. Spotted by record label owner Jeffrey Kruger while playing a charity show, he was signed and went on to play for psychedelic Sixties rockers Nirvana, not to be confused with the band of later grunge fame. However, a meeting with Chris Blackwell, founder of Island records, to whom Nirvana were signed, soon cemented Singer’s producing ambitions.
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“Chris called me into his office and said, ‘I’ve been watching you in the studio, I think you should be doing what I’m doing, getting behind the desk.’ I reckon he just wanted me out of Nirvana to be honest. He said go out and find someone you want to produce and you can record him. I found Peter Sarstedt.”
Anglo-Indian Sarstedt until this point had lived an equally extraordinary life. At the age of 10, he left Calcutta with his mother and siblings to finally meet his estranged German father, only to arrive at a London dockyard to be told that Herr Sarstedt had died the previous night.
Raised by his mother in south London, Peter found success playing bass in the backing band of brother, Richard, who had become a popular artist himself under the stage name of Eden Kane. “Peter had taken a real risk by the time my friends heard him in Paris and told me about him,” adds Singer. “Eden was going to tour Australia, but Peter said. ‘No, I’m quitting the band.’ He’d written a few songs but no-one had heard them, so he decided to busk around the world on his own.”
Having already signed similar artists like Cat Stevens and John Martyn, Chris Blackwood wasn’t keen on what Singer brought back to him.
Singer says: “I went to Chris and said I’d found somebody whose songs I love, but he decided to sell the recordings to United artists, who had people like Creedence Clearwater Revival on their books. I told him I thought he was making a mistake. And it was.”
Where Do You Go To, My Lovely spent four weeks at the top of the UK charts, propelling both Singer and Sarstedt into a limelight they had never dared to imagine. Furthermore, it prompted ripe sales of follow-up single Frozen Orange Juice, which, Singer laughs, was a big hit in California. The pair continued to work together, before Singer was given the chance to produce the first two albums of a little known but aesthetically striking band called Japan.
“As a producer with any artist, you listen to their songs and have to become a fifth or sixth member of the band. You go everywhere with them.”
“Japan were influenced by people like the New York Dolls. You’d walk across the street with them and people would stop in their tracks. They got a lot of adverse reaction, it was great fun.”
By now, Singer had nearly 10 years experience as a producer and was able to draw particularly upon two influences he’d encountered during his own time as a musician.
“When I was first starting out, Jeffrey Kruger got Shel Talmy to produce me. He’d done songs like the Kinks’ You Really Got Me and The Who’s I Can’t Explain. He did so many things that are commonplace now, like helping bands play tighter by wearing headphones, so I learn a lot from him.
“The other was Jimmy Miller, the opposite of Shel, a nutcase who looked like Buffalo Bill. He’d take off his clothes in the studio and start playing maracas. It sounds crazy, but in an age where records were produced by people in white coats, it relaxed everyone. If you listen to The Stones’ Honky Tonk Women, you can hear him playing cowbell in the background. I play percussion like that now.”
Now, in fact, Singer has his own label, Singer Records, where his and Sarstedt’s paths have crossed again. Having enjoyed renewed sales following the use of Sarstedt’s songs in the movie The Darjeeling Limited, the pair released The Lost Album, a collection of Sarstedt master tapes which Singer found when he fell through the floor of his old Hampstead loft. Now they are hoping that Restless Heart can continue this recent revival.
“It’s a beautiful, lyrical record,” says Singer. “They are his most personal songs and, you know, sometimes real emotion makes the best music.
“The problem is that in this country they see him as someone who wrote ‘that song’. No-one actually wants to consider that he’s still a writer.”
So has Singer got a few tricks left make it a hit record?
The short answer, he says, is that there have never been any tricks, there are no formulas for success. Even when you make a number one, it can still crash.
“You know, when Where Do You Go To, My Lovely came out in France, they genuinely hated it. With all the accordion stuff, they thought we were taking the piss and it sold terribly there for a long time. You can never please everyone.
“Though actually, they fucking love it now.”
Restless Heart is now available on iTunes and Amazon, as well as at major music retailers.