WANG CHUNG'S career has been deceptively long. Their string of six domestic top 40 singles proves that this British duo was more than a few novelty hits from the Reagan years. Following a lengthy break for the band, Jack Hues discusses their early days, working with William Friedkin, and still living in the shadow of "Everybody Have Fun Tonight."
MERCURY: About a week ago you dropped a brand new song on your website called "Rent Free," how did that song come about?
JACK HUES: Well, it's Nick's [fellow Wang Chung member Nick Feldman] really, he came up with the idea. We were thinking, what would a new Wang Chung album sound like? We were thinking about, "What is the '80s?" And we decided that it was when synthesizers met guitars. Although, I think at the time guitars were about as unfashionable an instrument as you could play; everyone was playing synthesizers and drum machines. But he was working away, and he came up with these synth riffs and the way the song is. Along with its rock sensibilities as well, which is something that perhaps didn't come out as much in the '80s.
It has a Prince vibe to it.
Well it is, especially the way he sings the verses.
When you and Feldman are writing together, is one the chief lyricist and the other handles the music? How do you guys work that out?
There is one song where we actually sat down and did it together, a sort of ballad called "Overwhelming Feeling" which will be on one of the subsequent EPs. Our plan is to release a set of three EPs, a sort of collectible set, before going ahead and releasing the full album. I think the thinking behind that was really due to the fact that Nick and I really write quite differently. There's a sort of a united call to things, but we tend to embrace different styles, and I guess when you grow up listening to the Beatles that was quite normal. You know, when you knew an album like Revolver with "Taxman," followed by "Eleanor Rigby," followed by "I'm Only Sleeping," followed by the George sitar song ["Love You To"]... it's just so eclectic, that for us is quite normal, just dip our toes into things. So the thinking with the new Wang Chung album is that if we just put out the 16 or 17 songs that we've got, it would basically be pretty indigestible. But if we release things in small little doses people can really take their time with things and get into them.
You mention the Beatles, growing up and considering the age you guys are, were you more influenced by the Beatles and the British invasion or by punk music, which took over England a decade later?
Well my brief history is that I did get into the Beatles when I was about eight years old. I started having guitar lessons at that time, and my dad—he's a musician—told me to learn an instrument and he wanted me to do it properly. So he had me take classical guitar lessons and learn to read music. But I was listening to Sgt. Pepper's when I was about 12, and I was really into it even though I didn't really yet understand it—the literary sort of drug references, you know I didn't understand any of that at all. But the way it looked and the way it sounded really blew my mind even at that age and I still remember hearing it for the first time.
When I was 18 I went to music college and studied classical music and got a classical degree, then I came out of that in '77 and that was at the height of punk, and I was at my height of my rejection of the whole classical thing. So punk was really where I wanted to be, a real breath of fresh air; the Sex Pistols, the Stranglers, the Clash, were all really big influences. But I think I also loved bands like the Tubes and bands that were a little more musically extravagant. There were other sides to punk but I can get lost in the mix of it these days. There was this other sort of extravagant, decadent side to it where you have these musicians who really knew what they were doing. I'm not saying the Pistols didn't, because they obviously did as well, but there was a more defined pop genre that they were working in.
But there was a lot going on and it was a very inspiring time. Bowie's albums had a big influence on me... I think "Life on Mars?" is a challenging song to figure out, and his use of studio production on things like "John, I'm Only Dancing" is just amazing. But Station to Station and Young Americans were big albums for me as well, and they had that sort of funk element, and I think that was a big thing for Wang Chung.
Nick and I always had a big appreciation for the funk albums that Bowie put out, Sly and the Family Stone, Chic, and those sorts of bands
At the start of Wang Chung, you signed a two-record deal with Arista, but you only released the one self-titled album with the old spelling (Huang Chung) of the name. Then Geffen came along and snatched you up, how did that work?
Well, what happened was we met a new manager around at that time, David Massey, who went on to run Mercury Records. We met David at a time when we'd done that first Arista album and things hadn't really worked out either as we had hoped, or as Arista had hoped as well. We got the sense that they didn't really get us as a band. Like all labels, they're looking for a slot that they can put you into, and we didn't really fit easily into a slot, especially with the quite narrow English music scene. So David said to us, "Why don't you look at American labels, and consider signing directly to an American label?" He came over to LA and got real interest from Geffen and from Elektra at the time, principally through "Dance Hall Days," which I'd written at that time. We sort of started recording for Arista but I was very unhappy with where it was going. We worked with a guy called Tim Friese-Greene. He's a great producer and did a lot of work with Talk Talk—he did amazing work with them—but I feel he was sort of trying to impose his will on us, in a sort of counterproductive sort of way.
David, with all the power of personality he has, persuaded Arista that they should drop us and then he went to Geffen and said, "Hey, they are free now." It was quite a risky time and David had no real music business experience, but he was just a very bright guy and very passionate about the music and us. When I think back on it now, knowing the business as I do, I don't think I would be quite so, like, "yeah, okay" about that.
Did you get quite a bit of satisfaction then when "Dance Hall Days" did so well?
Well, you know it was amazing, and I think that as a songwriter and as a musician, which is what I am, you do what you do and it's kind of life. That's what it is, and when you get this amazing sort of reaction and all of the stuff that flows from that, its sort of mind-boggling, really.
How big of an influence was MTV putting that song in constant rotation?
MTV was just this sort of massive machine in the sense that it was pumping Wang Chung into people's living rooms. And because we didn't tour a lot, we had this sort of household name status over here that we certainly didn't in the UK because there was no MTV. So MTV was very, very important for Wang Chung
I'm sure the first time I heard a Wang Chung song was on MTV.
At the time it gave bands like us a real entry into people's consciousness because radio was, and still is, a little conservative. We had this sort of brave new world, and MTV really embraced the band, and we worked with great directors. Some videos we had a degree of input in, I'd say "Dance Hall Days" and "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" we were pretty involved in. Some, you know, the directors just came with ideas and we just said, "Sure, what time do you want us to show up?"
Your second album for Geffen, was the soundtrack to the film To Live and Die in L.A. William Friedkin handpicked you, which must have been pretty heady at the time.
He was a big music fan, a real encyclopedic sort of guy. He'd whip out all these stories about what he's done, and where's he's been; he's really amazing. I think he must have gotten hold of Points on the Curve and he was really into the track "Wait," which is a fast—at the time—tempo song off the album. He was using that as a sort of temp track to some of the scenes as he shot and I think he decided that he couldn't find anything else for the film, and he has a history of using odd music choices and not going for the Hollywood score sort of thing.
We were just really fortunate that he was in that space at that time. He called me up while I was at a friend's house in London and his secretary called up and said, "William Friedkin would like to speak to you in 20 minutes, are you available?" We just had this long chat where he talked about the movie and the music, and he's a master at motivating people. I just downloaded the information from him in some sort of strange unconscious way and went off and did the score without seeing the movie. Nick and I hired a studio for five or six days in London and busted out all that instrumental stuff and then Billy flew us over, because he was really pleased with it, to see the rough cut of the opening of the movie and I was just blown away by that.
He said to me, "I don't want you to write a title track for this song, I just want instrumental stuff." But when I saw the film the song just sort of came out and we sent that over to him and he re-shot the entire front section of the film to take that song onboard. And at that point, and rather reluctantly, Geffen said they would agree to put it out as our second album. They were really not into us doing that movie score. In those days it was like a top 40 band—which is what they wanted us to be—did top 40 records, and not a slow, brooding song like "Live and Die in L.A."
I imagine Geffen wanted three more "Dance Hall Days."
That's exactly the situation. I was really naively unaware of that at the time and I really believed people that said, "Your music's great, just keep doing your music and everything will be fine." I didn't realize that you should really take care of the bottom line. That choice came up when we did the next album, Mosaic. And then it was kind of like, well, we need that number one record and we need to deliver or that's the end of the deal. We decided to take that challenge on and I think that "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" was the result of that pressure and that line of thinking.
You seem to have a great sense of humor about "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" being in the lexicon of pop culture as a punch line. Were you always that way about the song?
I think it was an idea that Nick originally came up with that I really liked, and I saw it in this sort of whimsical way. Obviously it's not like that because it's a difficult world. But when we started working with Peter Wolf, he was like, "Come on, this is a party record." And he took that line "Everybody Wang Chung tonight," which is an adlibbed line in the original version, and said that should be the chorus. I was just like, "Oh god." It always had a life of its own.