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Interview: Desmond Child talks working with Bon Jovi, Meat Loaf, Ricky Martin and his upcoming autobiography

The iconic hitmaker chatted to us recently about his incredible career.

Desmond Child
Credit: Garrett Mills

Grammy-winning and Emmy-nominated songwriter/producer Desmond Child is one of the music industry’s most revered and prolific hitmakers.

With a career that spans over five decades, Desmond has been credited on more than 80 Billboard Top 40 hits including Bon Jovi’s Livin’ On A Prayer and You Give Love a Bad Name, Aerosmith’s Dude Looks Like A Lady and Ricky Martin’s Livin’ La Vida Loca. He has sold more than 500 million records worldwide.

Desmond was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and serves on its Board of Directors as well as the Board of ASCAP. In 2018, he received ASCAP’s prestigious Founders Award celebrating 40 years as a proud member of ASCAP.

I caught up with Desmond to talk about his work with some of the biggest artists in music, discuss his long relationship with Bon Jovi, and to find out more about his upcoming autobiography…

It’s an absolute pleasure to speak to you today. I hope we you staying safe in lockdown?

Thank you. I’m very good. We live on an eight and a half acre piece of a mountain over-looking Nashville so we are not feeling like we are trapped in our house like I imagine a lot of people are right now.

I’ve been listening to your songs for 35 years now. It’s hard to condense that amount of time into just 20 minutes but I’ll give it a go! Is it fair to say that it was your writing with Paul Stanley of KISS that opened you up to the rest of the rock world in the 80s?

Well, actually, my original band, Desmond Child & Rouge had a lot of rock elements in it, especially our second album, Runners in the Night. We are releasing the re-masters of those albums through BMG in October. We went from a more pop / soul style to an almost semi-punk, anthemic rock sound which was a pre-cursor to the work I did later with Bon Jovi, Aerosmith and KISS.

What was it like working with KISS in those days?

I only ever had a musical relationship with Paul Stanley. I’ve never co-written with Gene Simmons, even though we are very friendly and he has been wonderful. Paul came to see our group perform and came backstage after the show. We made friends and he came to a few more of our gigs and then suggested we try and write a song together. Paul and I met up at a studio during a lunch break whilst KISS were rehearsing for an upcoming tour and Paul and I sat down at a grand piano and we began to write I Was Made for Loving You, which went on to be a number one hit for them.

Desmond Child

Credit: Garrett Mills

I’m a rare breed of KISS fan that thinks the band’s best output came in those mid-80s ‘no-make-up’ days. Your co-write, Who Wants to Be Lonely, is easily the best song they have ever done…

Oh, I love that song. It’s really quite a sophisticated song for them considering the style they were known for. Also, the message was different for KISS at that time too. KISS had rules – like they would never be victims or never be sad about anything and Who Wants to Be Lonely had a kind of melancholy feel to it. It was a more mature sound for them.

It was the same thing when I co-wrote Livin on a Prayer with Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora. They were doing demos for what would become the Slippery When Wet’album and they did a demo of Prayer before they went to Vancouver to record the album. They had written 100 songs and Livin on a Prayer wasn’t on the final list consideration. Jon thought it was a bit sentimental and that wasn’t the type of hard rock sound he was looking for at that time. Richie and I got down on our hands and knees and begged him to at least try and record the song (laughing) and look what happened, they made a masterpiece!

You’ve had such a long writing relationship with Jon Bon Jovi across his whole career. What’s the key to the longevity and success with him?

We have chemistry and trust together. I haven’t written with him for a few years now though.

I noticed that you haven’t written with Jon, though, since Richie left the band. He seems to be using Billy Falcon more as a co-writer these days. Is that deliberate on your part or just happenstance?

No, I think that maybe Jon is more comfortable these days where he is. We have written some songs together, just he and I, but people shift and change as they get older. He’s written a lot with his producer (John Shanks) who is also now a semi-permanent member of the band too. There has been a natural evolution for him.

There are a couple of Bon Jovi songs like Wild is the Wind and Dirty Little Secret that you wrote with the band that could have been huge legacy songs for them but were overlooked and ignored. Is it difficult as a songwriter when you see a song you’ve written gathering dust at track 8 on an album and not fulfilling the potential you might have thought it had?

It is, yes! (laughing) There are so many ‘cooks’ around in the music industry. A song that nobody at the label thought was important might take on a different guise in the eyes of the fans. Especially now, with the availability of online communication between fans. You never know what people are going to like in advance and there are so many elements that have to come together to create a hit song that I don’t tend to worry about it. The artist has to like it, the manager has to like it, the label, the boyfriend, the girlfriend (laughing) – you know? Everybody weighs in every step of the way and one voice, one negative voice, can throw everything off course. The writer might see his song as the shining star on the album, the star of Bethlehem, you know, but if not everybody buys into it, that’s the way it is.

Sometimes you are also battling the way the world is at any given point, you know? Sometimes the perception might be, like it was back in the 80s sometimes, that the world wants ‘something silly’ or ‘something lighter’. Maybe Wild is the Wind didn’t fit those perceptions at the time. It’s like the way schools of fish swim together, no-one actually knows who is leading the school – they just move as a single body – and the record industry is a little like that at times and you just have to swim with the school! (laughing) You never know what little fish decides to go right or left at any one time but the rest of the industry just follows.

Bon Jovi’s New Jersey album was definitely jam-packed with hits and an industry leading work at the time of its release in 1988. I guess there was always going to be songs that were overlooked on there…

Sure. We had written a song for them at that time called We All Sleep Alone which was a little different to most of the other songs they were recording at the time. Jon felt that it wasn’t ‘hard rock’ enough for the band and the Bon Jovi brand. So, we gave it Cher and it became a big hit for her, which turned out to be a perfect fit, given that she was in the news falling in and out of love a lot at that time. It just goes to show that you don’t always know what is going to happen to any of your songs but you have to trust in serendipity! (laughing)

Desmond Child Live

Credit: BMG

You produced and co-wrote a lot of songs on Meat Loaf’s Bat out of Hell 3 album. Was it intimidating stepping into Jim Steinman’s shoes on that franchise? I feel you didn’t get enough credit for the work you did on that project…

No. (chuckling) Thank you for your kind comment. I personally think it is a masterpiece. I spent 9 months making that record. Meat Loaf was extremely difficult to work with and it was a very difficult journey. My children were toddlers at the time and I had to spend a lot of time away from them, and I felt like I sacrificed a lot for him and that project. In the end I was disappointed in it – as per my contract my name was supposed to be on the back cover and he left it off.

If you open the booklet that comes with the album, the back page has a huge thank you to Jim Steinman and then in very small writing at the bottom it says ‘produced by Desmond Child’. I’m not sure why he treated me that way and it was very sad for me because I gave so much to him. They also made me cut a lot of Jim Steinman’s songs for the album that were really not the quality of what should have been on that record. The songs that I did write that I was allowed to record, like Blind as a Bat and If God Could Talk, which I love, those are really great, great but songs but did we really have to record Land of the Pigs, you know? (laughing) That one came out of a musical, some sort of vampire musical or something… it was so corporate in that the label wanted to fill the record up with Steinman’s songs, most of which were already released in some form or another. I mean, It’s All Coming Back to Me was originally written for Meat Loaf by Jim Steinman but they were having a feud at the time and so he cut it with Celine Dion. I thought we did an amazing version with Marion Raven but there was so much politics around it that made it a really difficult project to be involved with.

The other difficult thing was that Meat Loaf had to cancel a lot of the promotion and the shows around the release of the album because of his health. He was collapsing on stage and he didn’t do the TV shows in Europe that were needed to make the project take off and so it didn’t perform in the way I thought it would. I recently went to Spotify and saw that the album isn’t even on there!! Bat out of Hell 3 isn’t even on Spotify and I don’t know why? It’s another diminishing experience for me about the project.

A further ‘diminishing experience’ must have been the advent of ‘grunge’ in the 90s. It stopped the hard rock movement in its tracks, ending its commercial success almost overnight. It must have had an effect on you too?

Absolutely, of course it did! From the moment Smells Like Teen Spirit first appeared on MTV it felt like a paradigm shift. Like when the Everly Brothers came along after Elvis Presley. Like watching The Beatles go on the Ed Sullivan show and change America in one show, you know? An era closed with Nirvana. It’s not like people didn’t continue writing songs or making records but suddenly all of those acts became what is called ‘legacy’ bands. Through the course of time, though, those bands like Bon Jovi and Aerosmith, have become bigger than any genre and have lifted themselves to heights and an esteem like our own version of the Rolling Stones – bands that have stood the test of time and have become timeless.

What is interesting to me is to ask, what happened to all those grunge bands? A lot of them were thrust into an industry and a place that they weren’t able to cope with. Those guys were often more about attitude: they could play three chords but most of them were arts students with a cool look and the right hair, you know? Shoe-gazers was a good term for them.

The music industry works a lot like that though. There was disco and then disco was dead. Then it sort of returned within R&B. Then Pop. Then urban music emerged and now we are in a time where urban music is actually the pop music of today. The cycles never stop and everybody has their time but then their time is up.

If it wasn’t for grunge you wouldn’t have ended up working with Ricky Martin though?

Exactly. After the North Ridge earthquake my husband and I moved to Miami Beach where I grew up. We started going to Salsa clubs and I got back into my Latin roots. My mother was Cuban, and around that time I got a call about this kid that was on the TV show, General Hospital. That was when I jumped on the Ricky Martin train!

We co-wrote some amazing songs together. I bought our house on the beach and it became like a Ricky Martin factory! (laughing).

After 9/11 Ricky had gone off to tour and but never really came back. He decided to quietly have his own children and quietly rejected the heart-throb thing as he matured. He wanted more out of life at that point and because of 9/11 people stopped coming down to Miami too so that phase finished but then American Idol started up and I started working with that show, which meant we needed to pack up and move to Beverly Hills! (laughing)

We sold up and moved to L.A. and I worked for a number of years under the direction of Clive Davis on various projects with Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken, Bo Bice and all of those Idol acts. One door closes and another door opens and I shifted back into rock again. That’s when I produced Bat out of Hell 3 and Humanity Hour 1 for the Scorpions. If ever there was a time for that album, it is just about now!! (laughing)

Desmond Child

Credit: Nadine Joy

Given you ended up living in Nashville did you ever think about writing with Country music artists in the way that someone like Dan Huff did?

Not really. I live here in Nashville now and I am writing the odd Country song here and there with friends and co-writers but I actually have two country artists that I have signed to publish. Levi Hummon and Drake Milligan, who played the young Elvis Presley in the CMT series, Sun Records. Drake is signed to Broken Bow Records and is currently working on his first album with them. I’m more like a publisher and manager with those guys right now.

Levi has been doing fantastically as an independent artist, we have a Zoom co-write set up for later today infact. Levi is just the right age and in the right place to become one of the big stars of Country music. He has a song he co-wrote for Tim McGraw coming out soon called, I’m Not from California and that song is one of the best I’ve ever heard, so I’m hoping that song becomes a single for Tim.

To finish, I hear you are publishing a book soon. That will be a fascinating read. Tell me all about it…

I’ve been working for four years with a biographer and co-writer called David Ritz. This will be something like his 58th or 59th book with musical personalities! (laughing) It’s kinda like the journey of my whole life, it will be very cinematic – Bon Jovi don’t even come into it until about halfway through!! (laughing)

The book is going to be called Livin’ on a Prayer: Big Songs Big Life. I finally have a book deal and am now moving forward putting together all the pictures, index, all that stuff that goes into it. It’s the story of a child of Cuban and Hungarian immigrants who grew up poor in the Projects and gay. There were a lot of things I had to overcome. It’s like a great American success story and a cautionary tale of mistakes I’ve made along the way too. We’re aiming for a first quarter 2021 release. Right now, the book industry has had a real renaissance so that’s exciting for me, who is just about to release a book, however I want to do book tours and maybe play some shows along the way too and it’s very difficult to do that right now and will continue to be so in the future so I want to wait until the time is right to be able to promote the book properly.

I released a live album recently, through BMG, called Desmond Child Live which I’m really proud of and I’m excited about some fun songs I’ve got coming out this summer with the likes of Countess Luann from the Real Housewives of New York called Viva La Diva, which is a lot of fun. I have another song coming out with Alice Cooper, too, which will be the first time we have worked together since the Trash album in the late 80’s. I’m going to continue doing these fun songs and singles with other artists rather than formal albums so it is going to be a busy year ahead.

It was a real pleasure to talk to such an influential songwriter whose work has shaped the sound and style of multiple generations. Google ‘The songs of Desmond Child’ and you’ll be shocked at just how many songs he has written. Be warned – your printer will need to be fully stocked with paper!!

Desmond Child’s album Desmond Child Live is available now from desmondchild.com. Watch the trailer for the album below:

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