YOU can almost hear the relief in Simon Bates’ voice when he introduces the band’s first appearance on Top Of The Pops. He knew it was a great record and that it deserved to crack the charts. Radio 1’s star DJ wasn’t the only person who held that belief.
“Here’s one that was out for the first time 18 months ago, and that’s a long time for a single to make it, but they’ve done it,” he said, on April 21, 1988. “They’re at number 15 … this is Danny Wilson and Mary’s Prayer.”
The band’s performance was so memorable, co-host Peter Powell gushed: “Fantastic song and a future number 1, I think.”
He was only two places out.
The single – written by Gary Clark – was well worth the wait. For it was a game changer for the trio from Dundee.
“I wrote it about a girl I’d been dating who dumped me,” revealed Gary.
“I say it’s about her, and in a sense it is, but the song is really more about the bigger picture – having your heart broken and trying to heal from that. I knew it was good. Writing that song was a real breakthrough for me. But it was difficult to see Mary’s Prayer as a hit single from a squat in Battersea.”
Six years earlier, Clark and bass player Ged Grimes, who’d played together in a band at school, took the plunge and relocated to London to try their luck in the music industry.
“We were a four-piece band but virtually the minute we arrived the keyboard player left and went home. “So overnight we became a trio with Brian McDermott, who’d later join Del Amitri, on drums,” recalled Gary.
“Because of the limitations of that line-up we were more in the spiky guitars, Talking Heads-y world. But it was just all part of the search to find our own sound.”
In the capital, they survived by recording radio jingles at Inner City Sound Studios. They were also the session band for the West End musical, Time – conceived by Sixties’ pop legend Dave Clark – which starred Cliff Richard.
During quiet periods in the studio, they worked on demos of a growing collection of songs written by the prolific Clark.
But when their hand-to-mouth existence finally took its toll they returned to Dundee, not defeated but energised.
“It was a tough existence in London,” admitted Gary.
“But we’d played a lot of gigs and become really tight as a band.
“I’d also written four or five songs which would become the basis of the first Danny Wilson album. In the time we’d been away my brother Kit had his own band. He’d really grown up both as a songwriter and performer. So I thought he’d be a good addition.”
In 1984, the band – then known as Spencer Tracy – got a break. Music writer Bob Flynn reviewed their sparsely attended gig at La Sorbonne in Edinburgh for Melody Maker.
“He wrote a glowing review which got a lot of record companies interested,” recalled Gary. “The labels started calling him because they didn’t know how to get in touch with us. Ged and me were still only 23, while Kit was 17. But we were well prepared. The songs were ready to go.”
Virgin signed the band on July 26, 1985, and booked them into PUK Studios, near the village of Kaerby in Denmark.
They were paired with producer Howard Gray, who’d previously worked with Simple Minds, XTC, UB40, Scritti Politti and Terence Trent D’Arby.
“It was a brand new studio with state-of-the-art equipment and a beautiful piano,” recalled Gary. “But it was winter and we were in the middle of nowhere. You couldn’t really leave. We had a fridge full of Elephant beers to help us along.”
Clark’s songwriting had begun to reflect his true music influences.
One early composition, Davy, was inspired by their journey from Dundee to London.
“It was a key song. I thought, that sounds like us now,” revealed Gary. “It was written about our journey seen through the lens of the people we’d left behind. It was suddenly all coming together. I’d found not just my singing voice but my voice as a songwriter too.
“I was looking back at the music I’d loved while growing up … Tom Waits, Stevie Wonder, Bacharach and David and Steely Dan. It was very eclectic. A lot of stuff was going into the melting pot.
“There is a period in your teens when music becomes the most obsessive and important part of your life. And that’s when that DNA goes in there.”
The band recorded a string of songs including Aberdeen, Broken China, Steam Trains To The Milky Way and Five Friendly Aliens.
“Howard really encouraged our experimental, mad side,” he said. “The Danish National Orchestra had been recording there and all their equipment was still waiting to be picked up and taken away. So we started playing all these marimbas, tubular bells, timpani and glockenspiels, thinking … we’ve got to get some of this stuff on the record.
“In the process we lost a couple of tunes – Mary’s Prayer being one of them, Davy another – when they went off in a direction which wasn’t best for them. It tended to be the songs I’d written in London which we’d played a lot and become a little bored with. So we weren’t in the best head space on some of the tracks.”
During one session, producer Gray played I Only Have Eyes For You, the 1985 album by Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy, through the speakers.
“It sounded massive. We couldn’t believe it,” said Gary. “It turned out they were playing in Copenhagen a few weeks later. We asked if they’d be interested in being on our record.
“They ended up playing on Ruby’s Golden Wedding and I Won’t Be Here When You Get Home. What they did had a real loose Tom Waits-y kind of vibe which was a big part of the sound we’d created.”
The band then moved to London to complete the album. They recorded Mary’s Prayer, Davy, Lorraine Parade and A Girl I Used To Know with producer Dave Bascombe, best known for his work with Tears For Fears.
“When we got back from PUK we thought the album was finished. But it was clear we’d lost the radio factor on certain songs,” recalled Gary.
“So Dave was the perfect producer for that. We wanted to pull some songs back closer to the demos. He was a very calm, easy guy to work with. It was exactly what we needed at that time and he made it sound amazing.”
Gary added: “The two sessions I see quite separately because the producers were so different, and both equally valuable. I don’t think we had a problem with the continuity of the recording. It never felt jarring to me at all.”
Meet Danny Wilson was unveiled on April 6, 1987 in the UK. Mary’s Prayer was released on two occasions but failed to crack the UK charts.
But it was third time lucky when it peaked at No. 3 on the back of the single being a Top 40 hit in America.
“Virgin America were a brand new label who had hardly any other records to plug apart from Danny Wilson,” revealed Gary. “They were totally focused on our song and determined to have a hit. Until that point we’d seen ourselves more as an albums band. So when the song hit both charts that was a real bonus.”
Clark can’t remember when he last listened to Meet Danny Wilson. But that’s not false vanity.
“I never go back and listen to stuff. If I heard it on the radio I’d probably turn it off,” he admitted. “I think that comes from my art college background. For me, records were always like making a wee piece of art. Then you walk away from it to make another one.
“But in terms of the impact the album has made on my life … it’s massive.”
GARY Clark is a lifelong fan of the legendary Frank Sinatra. That’s why he turned to one of the singer’s most famous Hollywood films to help pull him out of a hole.
The band was originally called Spencer Tracy, taking the name of the Oscar winning US actor, who died in 1967.
But their album almost never reached record stores when Tracy’s estate objected and they faced a lawsuit.
“The album was all ready to go … the record pressed and the artwork printed,” recalled Gary.
“But Virgin were told they could be sued if we used his name without permission.
“Their legal people got in touch with his estate or whoever was running it – it was possibly the actress Katharine Hepburn, his former partner.
“But we were told it couldn’t go ahead. We had to pull the album at the very last minute.”
They re-named the band after the 1952 film, Meet Danny Wilson, which starred Sinatra and Shelley Winters.
In 1989, they released a follow-up album, Bebop Moptop, which featured hit single The Second Summer Of Love. But two years later, they split.
Since then, Clark has recorded as a solo artiste and written songs for a string of acts including Natalie Imbruglia, Demi Lovato, and Spice Girls, Mel C and Emma Bunton.
He’s worked with director John Carney on the movie, Sing Street, and Amazon TV series, Modern Love.
A stage musical of Sing Street was set to open on Broadway but was postponed due to the Covid outbreak.
He’s also written the songs for a stage production of the film, Nanny McPhee, which starred Emma Thompson. It has also been shelved until the pandemic is over.
“John used to listen to our album as a kid. That’s why he asked me to write for Sing Street. So the songs still have an effect even now,” revealed Gary.
“My dad was really into musicals like Guys And Dolls and On The Town, so I grew up with that stuff.
“It was something I always wanted to try but had no idea how you got into it.
“It seemed to be a whole different world. So I got in through the back door.
“It’s a completely different discipline writing songs for other artistes, films or shows … but equally as satisfying.”
THE Billy Sloan Show is on BBC Radio Scotland every Saturday at 10pm.