“St. Elmo’s Fire,” the red-hot Top 10 single of the movie theme by British singer-songwriter John Parr, relentlessly generates sentiment and surging feelings of pride, determination and exhilaration.
“It has the feel of ‘Chariots of Fire,’ ” observed Parr, a fiery, straight-ahead rock singer. “It also has the feel of ‘Rocky.’ I can see Rocky climbing the steps with that playing in the background.”
He forgot to mention “Eye of the Tiger,” the theme from “Rocky III,” but “St. Elmo’s Fire,” a pounding rocker, is equally powerful.
Until recently, Parr was largely unknown. In late winter, “Naughty, Naughty,” a single from his first album, “John Parr"--released last fall on Atlantic Records--climbed to No. 23 on the Billboard magazine pop chart.
Though Parr got some recognition--mainly in the rock community--for the “Naughty, Naughty” single, he still had a low profile. Suddenly, because of the “St. Elmo’s Fire” single, he’s one of the year’s hottest new artists. Recently he landed a plum assignment--opening the show on the Tina Turner tour. He’ll be appearing with her at the Universal Amphitheater in October.
Famed producer-writer David Foster, who was assembling the “St. Elmo’s Fire” sound track, was impressed by “Naughty, Naughty” and hired Parr to sing on the sound track.
At first, Foster wanted him to sing the song originally chosen for the theme. Though Parr hated the song, he was going to sing it anyway. A struggling singer simply can’t pass up such an opportunity.
“That song sounded like ‘Fame II’ or “Flashdance II,’ Parr griped. “I thought the movie was supposed to have more class than that. It was a regurgitated song and I didn’t really want to sing it.”
Parr, who can be very persuasive, urged Foster to give him a shot at writing something better. Using that completed song would have been an easy way out for Foster, who was working frantically against a deadline. But he decided to try it Parr’s way.
“ ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’ was written very fast, between 2 and 4 on Friday afternoon,” Parr recalled. “We wrote it together, with David sitting at the piano.”
The film’s director Joel Schumacher gave Parr rough guidelines for the lyrics. “He wanted a song about determination,” Parr recalled. “He wanted a song about kids who are growing up and have to make decisions about what to do with their lives. That’s what the movie is about. “
One restriction was not using “St. Elmo’s Fire” in the lyrics. Parr did it anyway. “They didn’t like the idea, but I thought it fit in the song,” he explained. “In the movie, St. Elmo’s is a bar. But to me St. Elmo’s Fire is a magical thing glowing in the sky that holds destiny to someone. It’s mystical and sacred. It’s where paradise lies, like the end of the rainbow.”
The inspiration for the song didn’t come from the movie, which Parr didn’t see until two weeks ago, but from an unlikely source--a handicapped athlete, Rick Hanson, who’s going around the world in his racing wheelchair.
“He had been in to see David the week before,” Parr said. “David told me the guy’s tragic story and showed me a video of his tour. I was really moved. David suggested I use him as my inspiration for the song. So the lyrics are really about him.”
A few months ago, before “St. Elmo’s Fire,” Parr’s career, after suddenly blossoming with “Naughty, Naughty,” was sinking again. He needed a strong follow-up single but his try with “Magical” was dead after a few weeks. That didn’t surprise him:
“I never wanted it as a single. I knew it was wrong. It was the favorite of Doug Morris (the president of Atlantic Records). I had to fight to keep it from being the first single. I’m really glad he backed down on that.”
“Magical,” considerably tamer than “Naughty, Naughty,” “seriously damaged my status,” Parr complained. “It made me seem like a one-hit wonder.”
A third single, “Love Grammar,” from the “John Parr” album, followed. It wasn’t played much either, but for a different reason. All the stations were playing another Parr release--"St. Elmo’s Fire.”
Though he’s an 18-year-veteran of the music business, Parr, born seven miles from of England’s Sherwood Forest, is only 30. Until the last year, his career wasn’t much fun.
“Somehow I was always singing the wrong music,” he lamented. “I was never prepared to make my music fit whatever the record companies thought was trendy. The punk thing nearly killed me. Imagine what it was like being a West-Coast-type rocker when the Sex Pistols came out. But music isn’t about compromise. I kept going my own way.”
Since he was a youngster Parr has been driven by ambition, which he’s never considered a plus: “It was a curse--cruel and horrible--that I had so much ambition. So many times I regretted it. Ambition stopped me from giving up. If I had given up I might have had a more pleasant life.
“I would see people whose sights were lower than mine. Their goals were attainable. But I was in a business where most people fall by the wayside and don’t make it. The goals aren’t that attainable.
“I was determined. When I was 12 I was convinced I was going to make it at 15. Then I said I’d make it at 21, then 25. I went on blindly after 25. As I got older people who believed in me started telling me they didn’t think I’d make it. I had doubts too. But I couldn’t stop. I just couldn’t.”
Even before his record success, there were signs that Parr’s luck was changing. After deciding to concentrate on composing for a while, he finally got some breaks and wound up collaborating with Meat Loaf in 1983 and working on Roger Daltrey’s upcoming album early this year. The title song of Daltrey’s album, “Under a Raging Moon,” is a Parr composition.
“I finally started making some money this year,” Parr pointed out. “I never made much money all my life. My family supported me and then my manager (John Wolff) supported me.”
He met Wolff, who was the Who’s manager, under odd circumstances. Trampled during a crowd surge at a 1980 London concert, Parr suffered briefly from amnesia. Wolff, one of the people backstage who helped care for Parr, later befriended him.
“He put a lot of money into developing me,” Parr explained. “He believed in me. When the time was right he went for a deal with Atlantic Records. People treated me differently because of him. If it wasn’t for him I’d probably still be struggling away, looking for a break.”
Parr never gracefully accepted failure. “I’m a very volatile person,” he said. “It comes from frustration, years and years of it. It comes from seeing people with a modicum of talent getting the breaks and the major attention. It’s tough to take when you’re not getting anywhere. I was a very angry young man. I’m still angry but I’m angry in private.”
He has a unique way of dealing with frustration.
“I have very few outside interests but I do have my dogs--German shepherds,” explained Parr, who lives in the isolated countryside of Yorkshire, England. “I’m into showing them and obedience training. They’re great. They’re not like people. They don’t care how successful you are or if you’re a failure. I can bury myself in that. In that little world, when I was a failure, it didn’t matter so much.”