Rod Temperton: the effortless orchestrator of the perfect pop illusion

The songwriter, who went from a Cleethorpes bedsit to writing Thriller for Michael Jackson, combined meticulous craft with a wide-eyed escapism which made his music irresistible

Like so many people of my generation, I was a fan of Rod Temperton before I even knew his name. I was a fan before I even knew what he looked like. Back in the late 70s, before I alighted upon his writing credits, scattered as they were across Michael Jacksons Off the Wall, his songs punctuated my earliest memories of Top of the Pops. The first was Heatwaves Boogie Nights. Released in 1976, when boogie was still a quaint byword for disco, it bore all the hallmarks that made Tempertons songwriting so impossible to resist. The groove was what got you moving and the hooks were what ensured you would want to come back for more. But really, it was the warmth of Tempertons arrangements that made you want to be a participant in the scenarios sketched out by his songs. I didnt know what club Boogie Nights was describing, but I dearly wanted to go there. It seemed like the happiest place in the world. Temperton had a way of perfecting this illusion over and over again.


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Rod Temperton and his wife Kathy attending a Teenage Cancer Trust concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2012. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Written almost 40 years ago, the Heatwave songs The Groove Line and Gangsters of the Groove are absolutely timeless productions, still fizzing with the purity of their original intent. With early songs like Too Hot to Handle and Aint No Half Steppin, Temperton had alighted on the method, but he needed to find a group to perform them. As an aspiring keyboard player in Cleethorpes, perhaps his single greatest piece of good fortune was finding Heatwave an American group formed by two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, based in Germany. Johnnie and Keith Wilder had everything but a reliable supply of decent songs. It was their small ad in Melody Maker that Temperton answered and, in doing so, secured his first full-time work as a professional musician. All Set to Burn Ya! trumpeted the headline of Heatwaves first music press feature, in Blues & Soul Magazine in November 1976, running at a relatively inauspicious half page.

Rod Temperton and his disco band Heatwave, February 1976. Left to right: guitarist Eric Johns (front), keyboard player Rod Temperton, singer Keith Wilder, bassist Mario Mantese, drummer Ernest Bilbo Berger and singer Johnnie Wilder Jr (19492006). Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty Images
To anyone but the few people who knew Tempertons background, Heatwave were a wholly American entity.
Quincy Jones, working with the Brothers Johnson, recognised the unshowy complexity of Tempertons arrangements most notably the counterintuitive harmonic twists of Always & Forever and reached out to Temperton. Years later, Temperton still seemed amusingly nonplussed by the notion that a ballad written in his Cleethorpes bedsit amid piles of washing should have made such waves amid the American songwriting fraternity. There was no hidden meaning, he said. It was purely an attempt to write a romantic ballad for the singer. Furthermore, he said, he absolutely hated writing lyrics and, to be honest, still do, to this day.

One sensed that he didnt rate his own lyrics especially highly, but there was a kind of genius in the Temperton lyrical method. Quite simply, he wrote about what he knew in a vernacular that was second nature to him, this being the vernacular of all the soul and R&B records that he and his mates used to spend Saturday afternoons listening to. While looking to catch a break, he worked in the offices of Ross frozen foods in Grimsby. He wrote about what he saw happening all around him. You worked in the week and you let your hair down at the weekend. And mercifully, it was a formula he didnt see fit to change when Jones fresh from having worked with Michael Jackson on The Wiz called him about contributing songs to a new album by Jackson.

The history of pop is littered with stories of artists who appear to enter some sort of visionary creative state and reel out a high concentration of classics in a surprisingly short amount of time. Johnny Marr wrote the foundations of How Soon Is Now?, William, It Was Really Nothing and Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I want on the same weekend. Harry Nilsson wrote Without Her, Dont Leave Me and 1941 in one overnight session. In what must surely count as an even greater achievement, within days of receiving the call from Jones, Temperton delivered Off The Wall, Rock With You and Burn This Disco Out. And his impact on Jackson went beyond individual songs. Tempertons work on Off the Wall and then Thriller in effect reinvented the Jackson brand.

The persona of the new grown-up, suit-and-tied Jackson that greeted the world with Off the Wall was built in no small part out of the songs that Temperton wrote for him. To those of us thousands of miles away, hoping that we might, in time, turn into the sort of cocksure young lothario that Jackson seemed to have become, this was a rock solid role model. Even those of us who looked at the songwriting credits didnt spend too long pondering where the line between author and performer was drawn. If, you asked us, as 12-year-olds, which pop star we thought reminded us of ourselves at that moment, we would have said Madness. If you asked us which pop star we wanted to be at 18, we would all have said Michael Jackson. Tempertons songs were key to that idolisation.

Thriller served to cement the existing perception of Jackson. Jones recalled leaning on Temperton to come up with a name for Jacksons 1983 album, since he had managed to do the same for Off the Wall. The song which would eventually become Thriller was originally called Starlight, before Temperton changed it to Midnight Man, before he arrived at Thriller. Temperton said he just woke up one morning and it was there, waiting for him: I could visualise it on the top of the Billboard charts. By the time the cab arrived to take him to the session where Vincent Price would be waiting to record his voiceover for the song, Temperton recalled having only written one verse. As the car pulled up to the studio, where Prices limo had already arrived, Temperton rushed in with the newly finished words, asked the secretary to photocopy Prices monologue, and placed it on the music stand. Price nailed it in two takes.

Between the two Jackson albums, Temperton had accrued a level of respect among the American R&B fraternity rarely accorded white British musicians. By this time, I knew his name, and knew a record with his name on it was almost always worth owning: Donna Summers Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger), Quincy Jones Razzamatazz, Rufus & Chaka Khans Live In Me, the Brothers Johnsons Stomp, Anita Bakers Mystery, George Bensons Love X Love and Michael McDonalds unsurpassable Sweet Freedom. Beyond the pages of Record Mirror and Blues & Soul, Temperton wasnt always accorded his due by the music press, but he never lost sight of the people for whom he was making records. In the late 70s and early 80s, the British charts were full of songs by emerging British artists who had clearly paid close attention to his writing style: Sade, Central Line, George Michael, Linx, Loose Ends, Paul Weller and Freeez, to name but three. Later on, Justin Timberlake would even launch his solo career with a sound based on the blueprint that Tempertons songs had created for Jackson, back in 1979.

Anyone in music who was serious about improving their songwriting game knew how much work Temperton put into making his songwriting seem so effortless. In a previously unpublished extract from her memoir Bedsit Disco Queen, Tracey Thorn recalled the time that Everything But the Girl turned to him for inspiration. We engineered a meeting with him, in the lounge of his London hotel suite. We sat down with a tape recorder and played him some songs and he was spectacularly gracious and helpful, saying nice things at appropriate moments, and pointing out where songs went a bit flat, or a bit weird, and how to structure things so that you held peoples attention beyond the intro.

The song he liked the most was the song that everyone was liking the most, and it was called Driving. Our indie/punk roots had often led us into a subconscious self-destruct mode when it came to the commercial potential of our songs. We balked at writing pay-off choruses, always opting to play down any such moments. Rod Temperton encouraged us to make more of this songs pop potential, and not shy away so much from stating the obvious, and we left his hotel room feeling that we had genuinely learnt something about songwriting. Rod Temperton may no longer be with us, but for anyone serious about the science of songwriting, these songs have countless more lessons to impart.

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