Mapping Out the Perfect Sonic Blueprint With Stephen Bishop

It’s one of the Top 3 moments of smashed guitars in music history, right behind Jimi Hendrix at Monterey Pop and Pete Townshend at Woodstock. But this one happened in a movie — namely, in the 1978 comedy classic, National Lampoon’s Animal House. The scene: A man is sitting on the stairs in a fraternity house, strumming an acoustic guitar while singing to a few nearby admiring females. “I gave my love a cherry, that had no stone,” the singer begins, getting out a few more lines before being approached by a toga-clad John “Bluto” Blutarsky, played by John Belushi. Bluto grabs the guitar and proceeds to smash it to pieces on the wall next to him before handing what’s left of the headstock back to the clearly stunned singer. “Sorry,” Bluto blurts out apologetically.

That man on the stairs whose guitar was so violently gutted was in fact noted singer/songwriter Stephen Bishop. “It was quite frightening at the time. I mean, I look frightened,” Bishop admits. “And that was actually Belushi’s wife Judy who was on the stairs there with me.”

Undeterred by said shrapnel, Bishop has enjoyed a rich career, having penned such hits as “On and On” (his #11 Billboard Top 100 single from 1976 that was sampled by Beyoncé for “Ring Off,” a hit bonus track on 2014’s Beyoncé: Platinum Edition), “It Might Be You” (his #1 Adult Contemporary hit from 1982’s Tootsie soundtrack), and “Separate Lives” (a #1 Billboard Hot 100 duet between Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin from the 1985 White Nights soundtrack) among them.

Bishop recently returned to the album arena with Blueprint (General Records), a strongly personal and eclectic 13-track collection featuring the wink-nudge shuffle of “I’ll Sleep on the Plane,” the mournful “She’s Not Mine,” and “Holy Mother,” a spiritually uplifting version of a track he co-wrote with Eric Clapton in the ’80s.

“These songs were mostly chosen from demos I did years and years ago — some of them even 20 years ago,” Bishop reports. “I used the demos as a blueprint for the rest of the album to see where we were going, and we expanded on that. I’d ask my producer, Jon Gilutin, ‘What if we did this? What if we did that?’ And he’d go, ‘What is this — the ’70s? Do you want to do that?’ And I was like, “Nooo — let’s make it sound like now.’”

I called Bishop, 64, at his homestead in Los Angeles to discuss the literal sonic blueprint for Blueprint, the give and take of writing with Eric Clapton, and confirming some heretofore unrevealed tech specs about that infamous Animal House guitar.

Mike Mettler: So, Stephen, I’m calling you today from New Jersey, which you namechecked in one of my favorite songs on Blueprint, “I’ll Sleep on the Plane.”

Stephen Bishop: (chuckles) Yeah, that’s right! (sings): “Lost them in Jersey...” That’s funny. It’s kind of a little tribute to Steely Dan.

Mettler: That’s exactly what I thought — especially with the intro, which sounds a bit like “Josie” [from 1977’s Aja].

Bishop: Yeah, yeah! It’s a strange song. It’s about this guy who gets in a card game with all the deuces wild. He rips off these guys, and they chase him. He winds up going with his girlfriend to Rome, where she wears her white fake fur in the Vatican. (laughs)

Mettler: I feel like Donald Fagen and Walter Becker should cover that one. Have you ever worked with those guys at all?

Bishop: Are you kidding? I worship those guys. I’ve met both of them, but that’s about it, really.

Mettler: Well, maybe someday. Your vocal is very often upfront in the mix on Blueprint, which is something I’m guessing you and Jon Gilutin discussed in pre-production?

Bishop: We didn’t have a set plan, really; no. We’d record something and then I’d say, “I think the vocal needs to be louder.” (chuckles)

Mettler: Sometimes singer/songwriters choose to put their vocals further back in the mix and let the instrumentation take over, but because the songs on Blueprint are so personal — like “She’s Not Mine” — I think you made the right choices for the overall mix. We need to hear the inflection in your vocal more than not.

Bishop: It’s funny you mention that, because “She’s Not Mine” is one of my own favorites. That’s a song I wrote after my first divorce, so it’s really, really one of those ultra-personal ones, like “Separate Lives.” That’s the same genre.

Mettler: I like the way the piano starts that one off. Is that an actual string section that comes on near the end?

Bishop: Oh, I’ll never tell. (MM laughs) My producer, Jon Gilutin, did an amazing job. He “replaced” the jobs of a lot of other musicians on this album. In the old days, I would go in the studio and just record, and spend a fortune. My first album [1976’s Careless] cost $55 grand. My second album [1978’s Bish] cost $185 grand. My third album [1980’s Red Cab to Manhattan] cost $355 grand. It’s a different world now.

Mettler: It sure is. Will we be getting vinyl for Blueprint at some point?

Bishop: I do think vinyl is probably going to happen, yeah. I tried to do the kind of album that wasn’t just a couple of good songs, and then the rest is filler.

Mettler: Where would you put the side break? Would it be after “She’s Not Mine”? “Before Nightfall” would be a good starting point for Side 2.

Bishop: Oh right, right — what an incredible question! That is so true! I guess I would start Side 2 with “Before Nightfall,” probably. In the olden days of making albums, I remember that being one of the things: Where you start Side 2, and also how you tried to get as much dB on each side. The more songs and the more minutes you had per side, the more dB loss you had.

I really feel good about this album. I tried to start it off with an “expect the unexpected” vibe, with “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon.” That’s an old favorite of mine — it was a British hit from ’65. [“Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” was the debut single by Jonathan King, which reached #4 on the UK singles chart and #17 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in 1965. King later produced Genesis’ 1969 debut album, From Genesis to Revelation.]

Mettler: Did you cover it in your old high-school covers band, The Weeds?

Bishop: (laughs) Hah hah — no, no! In What did we do in The Weeds? We did Beatles and Stones songs back then in high school. I think the last time we played was at some Battle of the Bands, and we did “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)” [the #1 January 1968 hit by John Fred and His Playboys].

I was so young and so naïve at age 15 or 16. I was in the audience with my friend Mark, who was the bass player in the band, and they were reading off the names of the bands who won. Out of 10 bands, they go, “Number 10 — The Weeds!” I leapt up and went, “We won!! We’re 10!!” And it was like, “No, stupid...” My friend Mark went, “Sit down, you idiot!” (both laugh)

Mettler: You were Number 10 with a bullet...

Bishop: (laughs) Right? I don’t know why I thought that.

Mettler: Blueprint contains your version of “Holy Mother,” a song you co-wrote with Eric Clapton that first appeared on his August album [released on November 24, 1986]. “Holy Mother” is near the end of Side 2 on that LP, and I kept putting the needle down on that one endlessly. I loved the arrangement, I loved the sentiment, I loved everything about that song.

Bishop: Yeah, and he also wound up recording it with Pavarotti [for the 1996 charity release, Pavarotti & Friends: For War Child]. You can see the clip on YouTube. Not only am I hearing Eric Clapton on it, but there’s Pavarotti singing it — that’s pretty amazing.

Mettler: It is. How did you and Eric collaborate on that song?

Bishop: Well, we didn’t really sit down and write it together. I wrote some of it, he wrote some of it, I wrote some more, and then we put it all together. I went over there in ’84, and I was staying there in his “castle.” I just came down into the study one day and he said (affects British accent), “Hey, Bish — what do you think about writing a song?” I said, “Yeah, that sounds great. I’ve always wanted to write with you.” He said, “I have the title: ‘Holy Mother.’” And I was like, “Oh — that’s different. That’s interesting.” So then I went upstairs and started working on it, and then he worked on it, and then I worked on it. (laughs)

Mettler: You must have enjoyed the way the August version turned out, then.

Bishop: Oh yeah, I loved it. Loved it. I’m also really happy with how it turned out on the Blueprint album. At the end, we were going to have a guitar player play this incredible solo, but Eric already did the solo on his version — and it was definitive. So I didn’t want to attempt it.

Mettler: Good call there, I think. The August album was produced by another friend of yours — Phil Collins. Have you spoken with Phil at all recently? I sat down with him in New York back in February, and it seems like he’s on the mend.

Bishop: He lived in Switzerland for the longest time, and now he’s in Miami. We’ve been emailing. I sent him my album, so I hope he liked it. Maybe he’ll do a song from it.

Mettler: And if memory serves, you guys worked on your [1989] album Bowling in Paris together, right?

Bishop: Yeah, he produced four or five songs on that one. He also played drums on Bowling in Paris. It was great to work with Phil. It’s so sad he can’t play drums anymore — I mean, what a great, phenomenal drummer. He really liked my first couple of albums, and he also produced Frida back then, from ABBA. She wound up dong a song I wrote, “Tell Me It’s Over” [the first track on her Collins-produced solo album, 1982’s Something’s Going On]. It’s all interlocking stuff.

We’ve done different projects together. I sang on a couple of Phil’s albums too. I sang on [1981’s] Face Value [background vocals on “This Must Be Love”], and then I sang on “Do You Remember?”, one of his hits [from 1989’s ...But Seriously, which reached #4 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the U.S. Adult Contemporary chart].

Mettler: You did all the acoustic guitar work on Blueprint yourself, right?

Bishop: The acoustics are me, yeah. And there’s another great guitar player on there — Michael Thompson, who plays on “I’ll Sleep on the Plane” and the Tootsie song, “It Might Be You.” We did that one as a bonus track, just for fans. We wanted to do a different version of it, one that’s uptempo.

When they first brought me in for Tootsie, they had already done a temp score with all Kenny Loggins music — but they wanted me. So I went in there, and did two more songs for the movie. One of them is kind of embarrassing. They wanted me to say, “Go Tootsie Roll.” I said, “No, please — don’t make me!” But I had to do it.

Mettler: Sometimes you have to take one for the team, as they say. But overall, things have worked out between you and movie songs over the years.

Bishop: I’ve done a lot of them, yeah. I was actually working on one yesterday.

Mettler: Can you say what it is? Is it a Money Pit sequel?

Bishop: (laughs) No, it’s not that! But that’s right — I did [1986’s] The Money Pit [“The Heart Is So Willing”]. And I did [1984’s] Unfaithfully Yours, a song called “One Love.” So there’s been a fair amount. I’ve been thinking of doing another album of just movie songs (sings): “Animal House...”

Mettler: Do people often approach you about being the guy on the stairs in Animal House?

Bishop: A lot of people know it’s me. I always get approached about that.

Mettler: And you kept the remnants of the guitar Belushi smashed, is that correct?

Bishop: Yeah, I have it in a frame in my house.

Mettler: What model and year was it?

Bishop: Oh God, it was just a cheap, nylon-string Spanish guitar. The cast wrote on the back of it, so I have John Belushi, Karen Allen; all of the people who were in the movie.

Mettler: Was that a one-take scene, or did you do it a couple of times?

Bishop: It was two takes. And he really did that! It took a lot of strength to do that.

Mettler: What chords were you strumming there before he took the guitar out of your hands?

Bishop: Nobody’s ever asked me that question — that’s a great question! It’s F# minor. It was (sings), “I gave my love a cherry that had no stone/I gave my love a chicken that had no bone/I gave my love a story that had no end/I gave...” and then it ends right there.

Mettler: And then it got really sharp. One of those movie moments that lives in infamy.

Bishop: Oh yeah. You know what’s funny — Major League Baseball got in touch with me 6 or 7 years ago, maybe longer, and they wanted to use the clip from Animal House in baseball games to excite fans. So they paid me for it! Isn’t that weird? (laughs) You do stuff like that, and it lasts. Oddly enough, that movie was huge here, but it was never big in England or Japan.

Mettler: They don’t really have a fair equivalent to the fraternity system.

Bishop: It was wild being on that set, though, because I was hanging out with all these people who became big stars, like Tom Hulce [Amadeus] and Kevin Bacon. Kevin was really young, and he was asking me questions about the music business.

Mettler: Looks like he put that advice to good use with the music he makes with The Bacon Brothers. Most people are streaming music these days, and you have a number of your own tracks that have over a million listens on Spotify. As an artist, what do you think about streaming?

Bishop: To be honest, it’s less and less income for us songwriters. That’s how I look at it. I mean, even in movies, our credit is the last credit. We’re after the key grip and the guy who came by and gave everybody figs, or something.

Mettler: Or cherries... (both laugh)

Bishop: We’re always at the bottom. Songwriters are always the last credit. But songs are so important. If you took songs and music away, what would life be?

Mettler: I’ve said this often, but it’s quite true — the first thing you hear, even before you’re born, is your mother’s heartbeat, so rhythm is a part of your life before you’re even out of the womb. Music is the fabric of all of your life.

Bishop: That’s interesting. I like that. That’s really good. I mean, God, music has always been so important to me. When I was 4 or 5, I have memories of sweeping the walk in front of our apartment in San Diego and singing, “Three coins in a fountain...” And I loved the Davy Crockett theme. I played that like crazy.

Mettler: Was there any one particular album or song you’d consider being one of your earliest touchstones?

Bishop: My brother got really into folk music, so I heard early Smothers Brothers, The Limelighters, The Kingston Trio; all the kind of stuff. Wow, I’m really dating myself here. (laughs)

There was one song by Bobby Vinton that just blew my mind when I was 11. I played it over and over in my house. It was called, “There! I’ve Said It Again” [which reached #1 on the Hot 100 for 4 weeks in January 1964]. I played that like crazy.

We had a crummy little record player in the living room. My mother only had one album her whole life — and it was [1965’s] The Sound of Music! So I always knew songs from that album.

Mettler: And that all seeped into your DNA as a songwriter who inherently understands melody and structure.

Bishop: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, I’ve written over 650 songs by now — most of which are pretty lousy! (laughs) But this album is a special album for me because I got to do some songs I’ve been wanting to do for so long. “I’ll Sleep on the Plane” is one of them, and “Ultra Love” is another, which I wrote with my good buddy Jeff Jones.

Mettler: To me, one of the things that’s a lost art in the digital age is sequencing. On Blueprint, you take us through a number of different moods, movements, and styles just by the way you’ve sequenced the album’s 13 songs.

Bishop: Right — I sequenced it to be an experience, and I wanted it to be kind of a concept album. It starts out with all those sounds and effects on “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon,” then you get more emotion from “Someone Like You,” which has the lines, “Love is the sound of her tears falling on the ground/trying not to care.”

Mettler: That song comes after “Holy Mother,” and then you move into “Slippin’ Into Love,” which also has a different feel to it. By that point, as listeners, we’ve earned our way to the impact of “Blue Window.” As someone who grew up listening to albums, I like being taken on a journey like that from beginning to end.

Bishop: That’s good, that’s good. That’s what I wanted it to do. I’m going to use what you just told me in another interview! (both laugh)

I wrote “Blue Window” before 9/11. That line, “I saw the plane go down” — everybody thinks it’s about 9/11, but it’s not. It’s pretty heavy. Planes go down all the time, and I mention other stuff in that song too.

People look at me as a funny, weird guy, and yet I’m writing all these heavy songs. I’ve never figured it out myself. (chuckles) But I’m really happy I have a new studio album. I’ve been making albums now for 40 years; isn’t that amazing? I just hope people like this one. I worked really hard on it, and so did the producer, Jon Gilutin. I’m very proud of it.