Synthpop legend Nik Kershaw talks us through his 1984 smash hit ‘I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’
“‘I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ went through various evolutions.
First of all, it was acoustic. Then I bought a Portastudio and I did a version in 1982 that was much more like a pop song, with most of the main elements of the finished track. It was one of six songs I wrote and demoed to hawk around record companies to try to get a deal – something which failed miserably.
“Eventually, I got picked up by MCA, and we went looking for a producer. The first name out of the hat was Rupert Hine, who was working with Howard Jones at the time. I remember going to Farmyard Studios and doing a version of ‘I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ with him. I loved it, and I thought he was going to produce what became ‘Human Racing’, my debut album. However, Charlie Eyre, my A&R at MCA absolutely hated Rupert’s mix.
After that, we hooked up with Peter Collins. We went into Sarm East Studios in 1983 and started recording the album. With ‘I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’, we basically just re-recorded the demo, part by part, but obviously
it sounded a lot better than it did on my Portastudio.
“We mixed that track so many times because Charlie was never happy with it. He didn’t think that the chorus exploded in your face enough or that the vocals were as loud as they should be. It wasn’t quite as much of a pop anthem as it ended up. I hated the mix that Charlie liked, but we went with it anyway. MCA released the song as a single in 1983, and it didn’t do well at all. No one knew who I was and we didn’t seem to be able to get any interest from anywhere. It was only when ‘Wouldn’t It Be Good’ came out that people noticed me, so we released it for a second time in the July of 1984, and that’s when it became a hit.
“Back then, I found it very difficult to write and sing pop lyrics, which are mostly about shagging, or your girlfriend leaving you. I didn‘t feel connected to that. ‘I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ is actually a protest song. If you can cast your mind back that far, CND was a big thing. We were all set to get obliterated, and mutually assured destruction was uppermost in our minds. That was the subject of the song. Originally, it was just me whingeing in a Dylan-esque way. We all wanted to change the world back in the 1980s, hence Live Aid and everything else, but now the song sounds a bit naive and up itself to me.
“I chose to make a lot of my lyrics at the time as ambiguous and cryptic as possible so that nobody found out that I was a fraud. I had terrible imposter syndrome, so all of my lyrics are veiled in words to point the listener in the opposite direction. Consequently, no one ever knew what ‘I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ was about. I didn’t go on Radio 1 and say, ‘Hey, this is about the end of the world!’. I was so swept away with being famous and the centre of attention that I forgot what it was supposed to be saying.
“Like a lot of artists, I have a love-hate relationship with my early hits. You’re defined by these songs, but they’re only three minutes of music that you did nearly 40 years ago. You want to be valued for what you’re doing or who you are now. I think every artist goes through a stage of resenting having to play them live, which is definitely where I was at the beginning of this century. Whenever I played ‘I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ live, I would completely change it. It became a totally different beast, and the audience would stand there going, ‘Huh?’.
“And then there was a point where I suddenly got it. I started doing
a couple of the 1980s tours, which I initially kicked and screamed against, but eventually did them because I saw my mates from back in the day having all the fun. Once I started doing those concerts, I figured out that all of us performing on them and those who come to watch are really sharing something together.
“Those people come to hear these songs. They’re probably reliving the time when they were 15 or 16 years old. They’re fed up with having
a mortgage and three kids screaming at them, and they just want to escape back to their past for a couple of hours. So I thought to myself, ‘If they want to hear that song, they almost certainly want to hear how it sounded when they first bought the record’. After that, I went back to doing it as close to the original as possible and giving them that moment.
“I’ve realised that ‘I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ and all my old songs have become like little stepping stones that get put in during a set. Even when you’re playing to your own audience, who’ve probably bought your more recent records, you’ve still got those safe areas you can go to if their eyes start glazing over when you say, ‘Here’s one from my new album’. Not to mention the fact that they’re responsible for my lifestyle and for putting my kids through university. I don’t have a problem at all playing any of those songs live now. My early hits have been really good to me, and I’ve found that respect for them.”
Nik Kershaw’s ‘Oxymoron’ album is out on Audio Network