Freeez’s John Rocca talks us through the making of the electro-funk mega hit ‘IOU’
“It was the late 1970s when Freeez was conceived. When I first had the idea to record what would become our debut single, ‘Keep In Touch’, I was working for a soul, R&B and jazz funk importer called Disc Empire, based on the King’s Road in London. I’d met Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick in a record shop some time before, and had been sitting in on jam sessions that he organised in a basement below a barber’s shop in Dalston.
“There was this one track we were playing that I really loved. It had a groove that I thought I could sell if it was being distributed on my boss’ van. I put the idea of recording it to Bluey and a few of the overly large group of musicians we were working with, none of whom were positive about it. There was unanimous agreement that I was nuts and would lose all my money!
“Still, not one to be easily deterred, I pulled all my savings together, borrowed some extra cash from my nan, and somehow ﬁgured out how to make a record. Jean-Paul on guitar, Peter Maas on bass, Paul Morgan on drums, Jason Wright on keyboards, and me on percussion. We ended up shifting 5,000 copies. The subsequent album, ‘Southern Freeez’, got us on ‘Top Of The Pops’.
“Fast forward a couple of years, and Freeez had split and reformed, partly due to a musical tug of war between Peter and myself. To avoid more arguments, instead of me producing as I had done for our previous stuff, we pulled together a list of producers we’d like to work with.
“With just some names on a scrap of paper, we booked some ﬂights and a couple of rooms in a seedy hotel on West 44th Street and four naïve London boys arrived in New York City. The list of producers – in alphabetical order – had Arthur Baker at the top. We tracked him down and walked straight into his tiny, cluttered office without an appointment. But as surprised as Arthur was, we were even more surprised because he knew who we were. He even had a copy of the ‘Southern Freeez’ album!
“He accepted us straight away, so we ditched the list. I can’t even remember who else was on it. Everton McCalla had joined at this point, introduced via Peter. Pete pressed for the change as Everton was a straight 4/4 disco beat drummer, while Paul Morgan was more of a trad jazz guy. We’d also recruited Andy Stennett on keyboards. Peter, Everton, Andy and I had a lot of laughs in that seedy hotel with all the rats and cockroaches.
“I loved New York. What a place – the dirt, the grime, the sounds, smells and sights. There were con artists ripping off tourists in Times Square hustles with games of three-card monte, the streets and subway trains were totally covered in grafﬁti, and our free evening entertainment was hanging out downtown in Washington Square Park where breakdance crews would line up against each other. We were living poor, and apart from going to Studio 54 now and again, it was only after we had the hits that we ended up doing all the famous clubs.
“We rode the subway to Brooklyn and wrote tracks in a basement. We went jogging each evening round the lake in Central Park, being sure to get out just as it got too dark for safety. It was early autumn 1982 when we arrived. We’d expected to be there for a couple of weeks at most, but ended up staying three months. We ran out of warm clothes and ran out of money. By November, we were living off cornﬂakes, the odd portion of fries and strawberry milkshakes.
“As I recall, most of the songs, except ‘IOU’, were written in the Brooklyn basement, with probably one or two parts done at one of the New York studios. All of ‘IOU’ was written in the studio. Check the credits for who contributed to which song, but I usually did all the lyrics. So for example, ‘Pop Goes My Love’ was written by myself, Pete and Andy, with Arthur getting in there too. Arthur was a real pro when it came to ensuring he got credited, which was why I don’t think any of our demos we brought from London were used. We were still very naïve. The exception was ‘IOU’. To be fair, it was Arthur’s baby and he drove its sound and instrumentation.
“‘IOU’ was a summer hit in 1983 all over the world. It spent two weeks at Number One on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Charts, and three weeks at Number Two in the UK charts. It was a hit throughout Europe, and even as far as Hong Kong and Australia. Back in England, it was an experience to be so famous. I’m not sure if it was great or not.
“It was different from ‘Southern Freeez’ as I was now the frontman, which seemed to have nothing to do with music, but more to do with being a performer – and a performer I am not. I couldn’t travel on a tube train or walk down the street or eat in a restaurant without people around me pointing and whispering. Anyway… technology had taken its toll on the music. Behind digital sampling, the timeless 808 drum machine and that Moog bass, the jazz-funk band had been lost along the way. Eventually, no live elements were required and what was left of the ‘band’ was reduced to Pete and I. And so, unsurprisingly, what was left of Freeez split again.”