Interview with Michael Jay - Mind Over Matter

“Is MIND OVER MATTER the great lost Deborah Harry single?” Stephen Hill catches up with the songs writer Michael Jay to find out more…


What is it about Mind Over Matter that separates it from the half-a-dozen or so Deborah Harry obscurities that sound like they should have been hits? Rush Rush, Feel The Spin, Liar Liar, Command and Obey, Ghost Riders In The Sky all sound like they could have done well in the hit parade somewhere….

Until Michael Jay, writer of Mind Over Matter, put the SAW-produced song on his web-site the answer was straight forward enough: it was simply not in the public domain. However, after playing the track for the tenth time in a row the answer became clear: Mind Over Matter is the great-lost Deborah Harry single. It is the song fans dream about hearing on the radio: the one that, had it been released in 87 that would have plugged the gap between French Kissing and I Want That Man and given her the golden run of hits she desperately needed as a solo artist (lets not forget she still had Brite Side and Maybe For Sure up her sleeve!).

Fans of Ms Harry have, of course, come to treasure her prolific out-put. One Blondorah album every four years is obviously not enough for her or us. However, Deborah Harry’s determination to remain a major label artist has required patience as time and again her career has been put on ice while contractual issues are resolved. Consequently, the fans have learnt that keeping up to date also requires the acquisition of numerous sound tracks and left-field side-projects. In the past twenty years Deborah Harry has recorded several albums worth of material in collaborations ranging from The Ramones to The Gorillas, plus two LPs as featured vocalist with The Jazz Passengers. Fans have also learnt, therefore to distinguish between the ‘interesting’ and the genuinely ‘exciting’: particularly given Deborah’s determination to dabble in a miscellany of musical genres. Can I be the only one though who prefers Uncontrollable Love (Debbie’s electro-pop collaboration with Blow Up) to In Just Spring (her meeting with John Cage)? Deborah Harry is the definitive pop star and what she does best is pop music.

Not that I would have it any other way of course. Perhaps it’s the added anticipation of not knowing when the next killer pop tune will come along. Or just the kudos these extra-curricula activities confer upon her body of work as a whole. Either way, what is certain is that Deborah Harry’s avant-garde sensibility is an integral part of her mystic. That she has gained recognition as a jazz vocalist is obviously very important to her and is apparent in her note perfect live performance of all the Blondie classics. But there is nothing more satisfying than acquiring a hidden gem that does what she does best: which is making the mainstream of popular music sound vital and fresh. Now I truly believe that had they been promoted more vociferously tracks like Rush Rush or Liar Liar could have been hits. However, they do not do what Blondorah’s best songs do; which is hit you like truck with their intention to be hits (even if in some cases they are not)! From Denis to Good Boys, Deborah Harry has never had a hit with a record that doesn’t please the listener. And so we return to Mind Over Matter…

Deborah recorded the track in 1987 subsequent to her “Rockbird” album and inspired, one supposes, by the SAW remix of that album’s third single In Love With Love. Originally recorded by Nikki Leeger, Deborah’s version was supposed to be the hit single from the soundtrack to the movie Summer school. Contractual reasons prevented her version being released and the song was eventually re-recorded by E.G. Daily and went on to become a hit on the US Billboard dance club chart. However, that still doesn’t really answer what it is about Deborah’s version that makes it so satisfying. 

Perhaps it’s the production? It is certainly one of SAW’s better efforts. The track begins with the kind of raw Trevor Horn used to make Frankie Goes To Hollywood famous and is underpinned with a that hi-nrg Bobby O bass line New Order nicked. Elsewhere we get SAW’s trademark hand-claps and keyboard riffs, however, the track packs a far more satisfying rock punch than In Love With Love and has more in common with Call Me than Rush Rush ever did. Very Eighties, yes. But, one of the advantages of listening to pop music retrospectively is that you can join the dots. Undoubtedly, there is a lineage, between this track and Deborah’s other solo recordings: particularly I Can See Clearly, the Arthur Baker penned single from 93 or the various mixes of Sweet and Low in 1990. However, listening to the track for the first time in 2005 there is also striking similarity to her 2003 collaboration with Blow-Up on the very 80s sounding Uncontrollable Love. (Or should that be the other way round?)

Such is the circularity of pop that what would have at one point have sounded dated and cheesy now sounds bang up to date again. However, what distinguishes Mind Over Matter is not about production or even the way it fits in with Deborah’s existing body of work, but the song. Sure the combination of music and words is important; the alliterative quality of the hook line and title, as well as the singsong nursery rhyme of the underlying tune. You don’t have to be a musicologist to understand that the combination of innocence and sexuality is a key part of Deborah’s vocal appeal. However, Mind Over Matter is a great record because marked indelibly across its form and structure is the desire to be a hit: it works so hard to please. The record has both a verse within a verse and chorus within a chorus. It is heart wrenchingly plaintive: its subtle chord changes propel the listener from one section of the song into the next like the gearshift of an automatic transmission. Suddenly you are transported into the opening scene of American Gigolo; sunroof down, cruising along the open free-way…

And that’s what makes its stillbirth so sad…

Call Me saw Blondie risk their credibility and collaborate with hits for cash producer Giorgio Moroder. The consequence: the song was number one for six weeks in the States and Blondie were propelled to superstardom. Likewise, had it seen the light of day, Michael Jay’s composition in the hands of Stock, Aitkin and Waterman could have sent Deborah Harry’s solo career to the same stratospheric heights. Whatever some might think of the SAW team today, what is certain is that if Deborah had had a second period of consecutive chart success (say between 87 and 1993) it would have forced her record company to promote her releases more ardently and won her the artistic freedom she craved. While that of course might have meant we would be without the reformed Blondie, it might also mean that there would be less film soundtracks in my record collection and more Debbie Harry albums! And that, in my opinion would have definitely been a good thing!

So what is the story behind Mind Over Matter? What inspired the song and what does Michael Jay think of the SAW production?

Q&A with Michael Jay

Q: Tell us a bit about the musical influences you grew up with. Who were you listening to as a teenager and what made you want to be a songwriter?

A: I was a teenager in Chicago, Illinois in the early 70’s. At that time, Top 40 radio played everything. It wasn’t uncommon then to hear current singles by Led Zeppelin comfortably segue to Olivia Newton-John, or The O’Jays segue to The Bay City Rollers. I was exposed to every type of music. I owned every record by The Beatles AND The Partridge Family, and near the end of the decade I got my first job in the music business working for Curtis Mayfield. (That’s probably the first and last time you’ll ever see those names used in the same sentence!!!)

Q: What was the first song you wrote that ended up being professionally recorded?

A: It was called "More Than Enough" and it was recorded by The Buckinghams for their attempt at a comeback in 1985. The Buckinghams had a string of big U.S. hits in the 60's including "Kind Of A Drag," but their 1985 album came and went pretty much un-noticed. Most people don't even realize it exists, so when they see The Buckinghams on my discography they immediately think I must be about 20 years older than I really am.

Q: Tell us a bit about the process of writing songs for you. How do you begin? What instrument do you work with?

A: I’ve written songs in every conceivable way you could imagine. I have no definitive process. I’ve put music to lyrics and I’ve put lyrics to finished music. I’ve written songs 100% on my own and I’ve collaborated with composers and lyricists. As a composer, I’m primarily a keyboard player (piano AND computer keyboards!).

Q: When did you write Mind Over Matter and what else were you doing at the time?

A: “Mind Over Matter” was written in 1985. I was a staff writer at Famous Music, the music division of Paramount Pictures. I had just written a song called “Hot Summer Nights” which Gloria Estefan was recording for the soundtrack to the Tom Cruise movie “Top Gun.” At the same time, “Mind Over Matter” was being released as a UK single by Nikki Leeger on RCA. That record was produced by Christopher Neil who had produced hits for Sheena Easton and Mike + The Mechanics, so I was very excited about it. Even though the Nikki Leeger single failed to chart at all, it did allow me to create a new relationship with the A&R guy at RCA in London, Peter Robinson. That relationship led to my first-ever opportunity to produce my own records. My first two productions for RCA-UK were two of the hit singles by Five Star from their popular “Silk & Steel” album. They were “The Slightest Touch” and “If I Say Yes.”

Q: Which part of the song came first? Was the title always in you mind? Did you revise the lyrics over a period of time before you settled on the final version?

A: On the day Rick Palombi and I got together to write “Mind Over Matter,” neither of us had any ideas already begun. So we hooked up a beat on my drum machine, came up with some chord progressions for the musical sections, and built the backing track. At that point we sang ideas to create the song’s melody. Once we were settled on that, we attached lyrics to our melody. It’s a common method for writing commercial pop songs that’s still used very much today.

Q: The Deborah Harry version is very up beat and anthem like; was that your intention when writing it, because there certainly seems to be a plaintive quality to the title and hook line? The phrase Mind Over Matter suggests a degree of difficulty or pain?

A: That’s why the song works so well in the movie “Summer School.” It’s used in a scene where a group of the lowest-scoring high school students are forced to re-take their exams and their teacher, played by Mark Harmon, only knows how to teach gym class. It’s really a very funny movie! I’ve always been a big fan of anthem-like pop songs. Songs with larger-than-life choruses that say “we” instead of “you” or “I.” At the time, Pat Benatar was having a string of hits like that with “Love Is A Battlefield” and “We Belong.” One of the most successful songs I’ve written is Martika’s “Toy Soldiers” and that had a big anthem chorus.

Q: The song seems to have three parts, the opening verse (‘Run but don’t look back’ ) and a clear chorus (‘ We’re doing what can’t be done’), but what makes the song for me is that the bridge (People will talk, saying it’s not meant to be) recurs three times with two different sets of lyrics, was it obvious from the start that that was what the song needed to hang together?

A: It’s a very basic A-B-C pop song formula. There’s a verse, then what we call a B-Section and what Brits refer to as a “middle-eight,” and then there’s the chorus. A “Bridge” is a completely new musical section that comes after the second time you hear the chorus. In the traditional formulaic sense, “Mind Over Matter” does not have a bridge. After a short instrumental section, we return to a repeat of the B-Section and then choruses out. Very basic standard pop songwriting stuff.

Q: When you wrote the song and I assume you didn’t know who was going to record it, did you have a particular vocalist or vocal style in mind?

A: The demo of the song had a male lead vocal. My co-writer Rick Palombi sang it and he sounds very much like a cross between Daryl Hall and Sting.

Q: Mind Over Matter was originally recorded in 1986 by Nikki Leeger, can you tell us a bit more about how that first incarnation came about? Does it differ greatly from the SAW version?

A: Peter Robinson was the A&R guy at RCA-UK who found the song for his project with Nikki Leeger. Christopher Neil produced it and stayed quite faithful to our original demo. So, yes, Nikki’s version and our demo are greatly different from what Stock Aitken Waterman did with it. Our original demo version was much faster and had a kind of frenetic punk-ska feel to it. But I do love SAW’s version because it reminds me of the work they did with Dead Or Alive.

Q: How do you think history will judge the SAW production team? Will they be up there with Motown and the Brill Building?

A: I’ve always been a huge fan of Stock Aitken Waterman. Their records sounded so big that they would literally burst through the speakers and fill a room with energy. Their melodies are undeniably catchy. But, to me, it doesn’t seem as though they put as much effort into writing their lyrics as they did in the creation of their tracks. Perhaps that’s why they’ve only had limited success here in the United States where lyrics are extremely important in creating hit songs. When I produced “The World Still Turns” for Kylie Minogue, I remember asking her about this and she told me that there were times when a song’s lyrics were actually being written as she was standing in front of the microphone waiting to sing them. The songwriters of the Motown and Brill Building eras approached lyric-writing as an artistic craft, not as an afterthought.

Q: How come you don’t have a better quality version of the recording – it seems unfair given that its your song?!? Do you know who has the original master?

A: Remember it was 1986. Computers didn’t have CD burners. Offices didn’t have special CD burning equipment. If you knew of a recording studio in town that was capable of burning CDs, blank CDR discs cost around 30 dollars a piece. I probably could have asked for a copy on DAT at the time, but I didn’t own my first DAT player until 1989, and you cannot play DATs in your car. So giving music on cassette tapes was quite normal and it seemed very fair. The quality of my tape deteriorated through 20-years of poor storage on the floor of a dusty old clothes closet! Also, when I received the cassette I had no reason to believe that the Deborah Harry version would not be included on the “Summer School” soundtrack, so I assumed I would have it on CD after the movie opened. Regarding the original master tapes, I would have to guess they’re with Stock Aitken Waterman or somewhere in the Chrysalis/EMI vaults.

Q: Do you think the song works best when sung from a female perspective? Many of your compositions have been recorded by female artists, is that something that you think consciously about when writing?

A: For my taste, females look sexier in music videos than guys. Perhaps that’s why I like working more with the girls!!!

Q: Tell us a bit more about how Deborah came to record the song? Was it through SAW or a third party? Do you know when she actually went into the studio?

A: I don’t remember exact dates. I only know that the song was already selected to be used in the movie before Deborah was chosen to sing it.

Q: How did you feel about having Debbie record one of your compositions?

A: Up until that point in my career I hadn’t yet had a truly big star record one of my songs. Hearing someone who’s voice was so recognizable to me from other hit records singing a song that I wrote was a real thrill for me. I was devastated that Deborah’s version never got released. However, I do love E.G. Daily’s performance of it as well. I was already familiar with E.G. from an album she did for A&M of which I was a big fan. But, Deborah Harry is a pop music icon.

Q: Do you know if Debbie (or Chris Stein) were involved in the production or arrangement of Debbie’s version or was it just a straight SAW recording?

A: I don’t know for sure. But to my ears, it sounds like Stock Aitken Waterman.

Q: When you first heard Debbie’s recording what was your initially impression?

A: I thought this has to be a huge hit!

Q: I guess you are fairly familiar with Debbie’s back-catalogue, how do you feel Mind Over Matter fitted in with her other recordings (particularly her solo career – which she was pursuing at the time)?

A: I was actually very familiar with Debbie’s back-catalogue. In the late 70’s I was the music director of my college radio station. College radio is now and always has been a format of new musical frontiers. At that time it was called “New Wave” and I seem to recall that Blondie was the first act to really cross over from that underground alternative into the mainstream. I gave loads of airplay to Blondie. “Mind Over Matter” would have fit into Debbie’s career as the perfect follow-up to her other movie soundtrack hit “Call Me” from “American Gigolo.” (Just as a side-note, I wrote a second song that appeared on the “Summer School” soundtrack called “Brain Power” which was produced by Giorgio Moroder. Also, now that I think about it, Giorgio Moroder produced my Gloria Estefan song for the “Top Gun” soundtrack. Small world, huh? It’s like playing “connect-the-dots.”)

Q: The E.G Daily version eventually appeared on Chrysalis Records did it not? (Debbie’s label outside the US at that point) Do you have any idea why Debbie’s version couldn’t be released?

A: That’s a weird one! Chrysalis released both the “Summer School” soundtrack AND the E.G. Daily 7-inch single version of “Mind Over Matter,” while a 12-inch remix with the same cover art was released on A&M, the label to which Daily was signed. Regarding the reason for replacing Debbie’s vocal performance with E.G. Daily, it had something to do with the fact that Debbie had just left Chrysalis Records to sign with Geffen. While Chrysalis was given clearances to include Debbie’s version on the movie soundtrack album, they would not be allowed to release it as a single. The song was always positioned to be the hit single to help promote the film. Not being allowed to use Deborah Harry’s version for that purpose meant that Debbie would need to be replaced with another artist.

Q: How did you feel when you learned her recording was not going to be released?

A: I felt it was a true missed opportunity, especially for Deborah Harry. I have never even met her, and yet I was more sad for her than for myself. After all, my song was still coming out and I loved E.G. Daily’s version of it, so I was expecting it might still be a big hit.

Q: In retrospect do you think the song would have been a big hit for Debbie?

A: Absolutely, yes!

Q: To what extent have you followed her subsequent career? What is you favourite recording of hers (solo or Blondie) before and after Mind Over Matter?

A: It seems too easy just to name some obvious hit. I love them all! So I’ll choose one of my favorite album tracks. “Angels On The Balcony” from “Autoamerican.” That song’s melody and Deborah’s performance have a haunting effect on me. I liked all her solo albums in bits and pieces. "KooKoo" and "Rockbird" being my favorites. I liked side one of "Def Dumb and Blonde." Can't say I remember too much about "Debravation." I know I have a copy of it, but that's not one I listened to a lot. But it's been years really since I've heard any of these, so my thoughts on them are not all that fresh. 

Q: Have you and Debbie ever met or talked about her version of your song?

A: I wish we had. I’d love to know her thoughts about the whole thing.

Q: If the opportunity arose would you like to write for Debbie again, or see her re-record Mind Over Matter?

A: I’d like to write for her and/or with her. But I see no point in having her re-record “Mind Over Matter.” I would, however, love to see her original version finally get released as part of a box set retrospective or compilation of Harry rarities. Maybe a remix of the track would be cool, but her vocal performance sounded like vintage Blondie. I wouldn’t touch it!

Q: What are you working on at the moment?

A: I just signed a new publishing deal with BMG Music and I’m looking forward to travelling a lot this year and collaborating on new songs with great writers all around the world. I just wrote a couple of great rock songs with Shannon Curfman for her next album. I’m also very excited about a new song I wrote with Lee Ryan of the hit UK boy group Blue. I’m not sure what the plans are for it, but it’s a great song.

Q: What’s been the highlight of your career so far?

A: For someone with three decades in this business, that’s a tough question. I think I’ve had a major career high in each decade. In the 80’s it was the success of Martika whom I discovered and developed. In the 90’s, Celine Dion recorded my song “Declaration Of Love” on her “Falling Into You” album which sold 30 million units worldwide and won the Grammy Award for Album Of The Year. And the highlight (so far) in this decade seems to be happening for me right now. Rap superstar Eminem is having a huge hit worldwide with his version of my Martika song called “Like Toy Soldiers.” But getting back to “Mind Over Matter.” If Deborah Harry’s version had been released, I might have considered that a career high as well.

Michael Jay
Los Angeles, California
April 17, 2005

Official Lyrics to MIND OVER MATTER
Written by Michael Jay and Rick Palombi

Run, and don't look back, 
We gotta keep our feet on the right track, 
We're strong and we never give up, 
'Cause we believe in a world of love 

People will talk, saying it's not meant to be, 
But I think that we know differently 

We're doing what can't be done, 
Mind over matter, 
There's no battle that can't be won, 
Mind over matter 

Fight, and never say die, 
We've got the right to be satisfied, 
We’re bold to be so brave 
Where there's a will there’s gotta be a way

Sometimes it feels like we're losing altitude, 
But I wear a winner's attitude


We never let dreams die young, 
Mind over matter, 
We're doing what can't be done, 
Mind over matter 

People will talk, saying it's not meant to be, 
But I think that we know differently, woh... 


We never let dreams die young, 
Mind over matter, 
We're doing what can't be done, 
Mind over matter, 
There's no battle that can't be won, 
Mind over matter, 
We never let dreams die young, 
Mind over matter, 
We're doing what can't be done, 
Mind over matter, 
There's no battle that can't be won, 
Mind over matter, 
We never let dreams die young, 
Mind over matter


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