May 08

LEO SAYER – “When I Need You”

FT + Popular29 comments • 4,344 views

#401, 19th February 1977

Another in the recent string of soft, sumptuously arranged ballads, and like the others this is something I can think myself into enjoying – the polished class of the instrumentation in particular – but find it hard to feel. Some of my reserve is down to Sayer’s voice, which is like a thinned-out version of Elton and comes across as a little too whiney. On the positive side, the dynamics of “When I Need You” stop it being pure sap: good pause-and-punch effects on “it’s cold out – but hold out” and the chorus’ return after the sax break, and when Sayer starts improvising a little at the end it works as a payoff.



  1. 1
    Billy Smart on 30 May 2008 #

    Again, there’s that crucial breach here: I’ve only ever responded to this as a neat record, rather than it ever really encouraging any kind of emotional response of making me feel any more loving. Wheras ‘You Make Me Feel Like Dancing’ does at least encourage me to dance, albeit in a rather half-hearted way…

    I suppose that you could say that the most interesting thing about it is that the music is miasmic in intention, while the lyrics are a clear declaration of love.

    The 1997 hit cover version by Hollyoaks star Will Mellors was a regretable enterprise.

  2. 2
    rosie on 30 May 2008 #

    Let me tell you a story.

    On 2 March 1977, a colleague came to my lab and asked me to go to the deputy head’s office while she relieved me. This worried me; I’ve always been a tad paranoid about scrutiny. Although I’m much better these days, followers of my blog will know how I can still become hysterical from time to time. Back then, at the tender age of 22, I was much worse. So, with my heart thudding against my ribs, I made my way over to the other building. The deputy head was on the phone; something seemed to be amusing him because he was laughing, as I stood there with sweat breaking out on the back of my neck, shuffling from foot to foot. There was no chair.

    He put the phone down, and suddenly the laughter dropped from his face as if he’d just torn off a rubber mask. “I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you,” he said. I can hear the flat Holderness vowels even now, as if they had been enunciated seconds ago. My cheeks were burning. I stood there stupidly, not knowing what to think. “We’ve just had a call to say your father’s died,” he said.

    A chair was found. A cup of weak milky tea appeared with a concerned secretary. I was allowed one phone call. I had to use it to explain why I wouldn’t be coming home that evening. It was hard to say anything anyway. The message wouldn’t go in: your parents aren’t supposed to die; they’re supposed to be indestructible. They’ve been around as long as you can remember after all. You can’t imagine a world without them.

    So, I went home, feeling numb; no tears, no sense of loss, just a general dream-like feeling of disbelief. I turned on the radio – still Radio One in the afternoon in those days – and as I threw clothes and toiletries into a holdall, the words stabbed into my consciousness:

    When I need you, I just close my eyes and I’m with you.

    And then I stopped what I was doing, and I howled. You see, I adored my father, but for much of my life to date he was always just out of reach. My sister had always been close to him, but during my teenage years he was working abroad a lot – Rotterdam usually, or Düsseldorf, or Madrid; all places much further away then than they are now, and he was often home only every other weekend. And for much of the previous few years he’d been living in Canada. How dare he go and die on me, just as I was setting out on my journey through the grown-up world. Now I’d never get to know him properly.

    So you see, this record has a very special place in my affections; something that transcends a mere mark out of 10. And although this kind of song is full of false sentiment as a commercial product, it serves a purpose in unlocking emotions. I can’t ever know my father now, but in a way he lives on for me in this particular song, and that’s why I love it. Music is more affective than any other artform, and this song is so much more to me than a few minutes of sentimental ballad.

    There. I’ve said too much. Indulge me this once, please?

  3. 3
    DJ Punctum on 30 May 2008 #

    With characteristic contrarianism, I’m going to talk a bit here about “Orchard Road,” Sayer’s last non-reissued/non-remixed UK hit single, Top 20 in the spring of 1983. The story goes that he and producer Alan Tarney were in the studio one night; Tarney started doodling around with a synth riff, Sayer picked up on it immediately and started improvising a lyric and melody. The theme was returning, somewhat frightened, somewhat expectant, to his wife; alas, he had done her wrong, gone off with a fan and it hadn’t worked out, but she took him back. And so he tells the tale, cautiously ringing her up, stammering and um-ing and ah-ing, and then his astonishment and delight at her acceptance; the end of the song sees him driving the long road back to her street, her door, her heart. Apart from a few minor harmony vocal overdubs, the song was performed and recorded as live, and although Sayer and Tarney essentially had what was a demo, they decided to put it out as a single anyway, unmixed.

    I mention it here because it seems the great bookend to the long-distance pining for his wife which was the emotional basis for “When I Need You”; he was away in L.A. making it big in the States (“You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” having gone one position better on Billboard than it had done at home) but felt like making his next album a record of interpretations rather than having to write all the songs again. Thus “When I Need You” was composed by Albert Hammond and Carole Bayer Sager and really it was custom built for a number one single; after three number twos the general feeling was that Leo was long overdue for a domestic chart topper, and this was it.

    Both songs are very patient and spacious, with huge chasms between voice, keyboard and drums (or drum machine) only intermittently filled in (on “WINY”) by an actual band, including that saxophone. So “WINY” is a thoroughly professional performance and Leo does it superb service; but compared to the Brit mini-movies of “Long Tall Glasses” or “Moonlighting” it seemed a little anonymous, a little lounge bar, as if to say, well he’s still there, but now there’s that distance which marks off the real star from his consumers (“miles and miles of empty space in between us”). But he turns up on TOTP anyway, swaying from side to side with matey hands squeezed tightly into pockets, being a Thoroughly Good Bloke, so ultimately he’ll win through. Yet “Orchard Road” seems to me the more significant song in the long run, since it represents his unabashed spirit coming through again, becoming visible once more; ten years down the road and I’m still a clown, he seems to say, but I’m forgiven and I probably wouldn’t have changed the journey even if I’d known what milestones were approaching.

  4. 4
    wichita lineman on 30 May 2008 #

    Good call DJP. The late Radio 2 dj Ray Moore used to play Orchard Road a lot on his early morning pre-Wogan slot. Ordinarily, I can’t stick Leo Sayer. Something clicked here, though, the chord change onto the chorus was unexpected. The strained vocal sounded genuine enough. And there was a mention of milk floats; it rang true, sounded exactly like coming home to suburbia (the street name is perfect) at daybreak, even had something of the Jimmy Webbs about it.

    When I Need You was treacle, always. And sorry to disagree Tom, but the “cold out” and “hold out” always struck me as the gooiest bit. It makes sense that Carol Bayer wrote the lyric, though Leo didn’t need to sing it. I rarely think this of another man (people in glass houses et cet… though that curly mop and so-self-consciously beseeching smile don’t help), but – hands in pockets, struggling to keep his poor little mitts warm – doesn’t he sound exactly like a wimp?

    And while I’m giving LS a bashing (can’t stop me now!), his 1978 top tenner I Can’t Stop Loving You has one of my favourite godawful rhymes:

    “Feeling humble/ I heard a rumble/ On the railroad track”

    I preferred him in full clown regalia.

  5. 5
    Tom on 30 May 2008 #

    Good contributions all so far but especially Rosie – thanks for sharing.

  6. 6
    Tom on 30 May 2008 #

    “Orchard Road”, for those (like me) unfamiliar or unremembering: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPSkUKrdOTs

    (it’s a black screen, not a video)

  7. 7
    vinylscot on 31 May 2008 #

    I personally find that “WINY” signified the end of Leo Sayer as a “fun” act, liked or at least tolerated by just about everyone (and supporting Roxy Music on a tour!), and the beginning of Leo Sayer as general irritant.

    His hits before “WINY” had come at things from an angle, and were gloriously original, infuriatingly catchy vignettes, which admittedly hinted in a humorous way, at the slightly maudlin, slightly pitiful character he was later to become. Perhaps the relative lack of success of the following two singles “How Much Love” and “Thunder in My Heart” suggested to him that he would be better sticking to ballads and covers; perhaps the muse just left him..

    As you may have guessed, I thought he lost something, and I think the public kinda agreed, as he never really threatened to be this big again, at least not without being heavly remixed/sampled (although his anodyne “More Than I Can Say” nearly hit the top in 1980).

    Please don’t take any of this as an attack on Leo Sayer the man. Some time later, around the late 80s, I found myself at his show at the Glasgow Pavilion (decidedly second-rate in terms of both size and salubriousness). The show was a cracker and I was surprised just how good some of these later hits sounded live, as opposed to on record. (I can remember that night being the first time I had really taken notice of “Orchard Road” – a blistering performance!!) He came across as, probably what he originally wanted to be, a showman, and he seemed genuinely happy, which was good to see, as he has always had difficulties reconciling his somewhat shy personality with the requirement to perform for his fans. (And my mum enjoyed it too)

    His “Unchained Melody” attempt, a #54 hit in 1986, was possibly one of the worst versions ever, maybe even worse than U2’s or any which the SB has up its sleeve for later. Not a patch on the Goons!

    #2 watch – “Boogie Nights” by Heatwave had its (and their) only week at #2 on this song’s last week at the top. I wouldn’t have grudged it the one week!

  8. 8
    wichita lineman on 31 May 2008 #

    “I’m a blues singer, really” Leo told Disc in 1974. Not sure if that clears anything up, but it intrigued me.

  9. 9
    Angus on 31 May 2008 #

    This is the essential version:


  10. 10
    will on 31 May 2008 #

    Nice bloke, nice records. Probably too nice, really. My main memories of little Leo are that (like Showaddywaddy) he was forever appearing on TV in the late 70s, usually promoting his latest attempt at repeating WITY’s success. Pebble Mill At One seemed to particularly like him, as I recall.

  11. 11
    Waldo on 31 May 2008 #

    This record inspired a very childish but painful game at my school, which saw kids walking up to each other and giving them a good old fashioned dead leg before singing “When I kneed you…I lift up my leg and I boot you…” etc. You get the idea. Naturally, some of them took it a little far (knives, swords, chains, kung-fu stars etc) but boys will be boys, even the ones who were built like George Foreman.

    I never really took to Leo Sayer, I must say. The Pierrot bit for “The Show Must Go On” was a nice touch, though and “You make Me Feel Like Dancing” (a US number one) captured the mood, I guess, but I just found Leo annoying. Kudos to him for joint penning “Giving It All Away” for Daltrey, a most worthy piece but otherwise the Waldo drawbridge comes up, I’m afraid.

    I actually used to work with a girl who believe it or not actually FANCIED Leo, which I found astounding, as she was quite nice, whilst yon Sayer looked like he belonged available for purchase in a garden centre. “When I Need You” was as uncomplicated a song as it gets, a mighty ballad it most certainly wasn’t. All in all, I think you can say that this wasn’t my favourite number one of the year, although Leo didn’t inspire hatred as much as mere irritation a tin of Cooper’s pest spray could have readily dealt with.

  12. 12
    Waldo on 31 May 2008 #

    Rosie – Yes, we all, I’m sure, have landmark records covering momentous moments in our lifetime and some are bound to bend a knee to great personal sorrow. Strangely, I lost my own father when I was 22 as well. Unlike you and your dad, he and I did not alas get on, although at the end, things were better. As Tom says, I’m grateful you shared this with us.

    On a related but lighter note, I (17 in 1978) am also soon coming up to one or two rites of passage number ones (marking happier occasions), particularly one towards the end of 1979, which I of course must not mention lest making our unforgiving little lop-earred friend hopping mad. Put the blame on VCR…

  13. 13
    Waldo on 31 May 2008 #

    I’m not unaware that we are still in 1977, btw!!

  14. 14
    thevisitor on 31 May 2008 #

    It’s almost certainly because I was too young to need punk, but I find the weediness of records such as this, throughout this period, oddly heroic. Just like the weediness of post-C86 Sarah pop always seemed heroic. Everyone involved in the making of When I Need You would have had a prevailing sense that maybe the world would soon stop needing records like this – but everything on it serves the song in quite an ego-less way. There’s a modesty about MOR in this period which is really attractive. Everyone simply trying their best. Do I remember there being an sweetly understated harmony on the second chorus? In my head, it’s sounding ace. If I wasn’t at my parents’ house in Birmingham, I would check. For sadness with the emotional Dolby pressed on, it’s not on a par with the Prosaccy loveliness of Chicago’s If You Leave Me Now, but I’m happy it’s in my record collection.

  15. 15
    Tom on 31 May 2008 #

    Thevisitor: I like that angle (not totally sure I believe the people involved felt the writing was on the wall though), and actually I’m aware that I’ve been harsher on this genre than I’d have liked to be in this run of #1s: I underrated Chicago, and just haven’t liked the others, but I’m pretty sure other things in this style would have got higher marks. (And some yet might).

  16. 16
    thevisitor on 31 May 2008 #

    Well, as I say, I’m well aware that I might be conferring my own innocence as a seven/eight year-old in 1977 onto my most fondly-remembered records of this era, and imbuing them with the same qualities…

  17. 17
    Billy Smart on 31 May 2008 #

    It’s a pity that we won’t get to discuss The Carpenters or the Buckingham Fleetwood Mac at any point, possibly the zenith of 1970s MOR of stupendous sensitivity and depth. (Along with ABBA, if you classify them in the same genre)

  18. 18
    LondonLee on 1 Jun 2008 #

    Like most here I draw the line at ‘Moonlighting and ‘Giving It All Away’ when it comes to Mr. Sayer. The clown thing was just one of those bits of 70s costume tomfoolery that made the actual records more annoying than they actually were (like Gilbert O’Sullivan’s ‘When The Boat Comes In’ get up) but once he dropped all that he wasn’t that interesting anyway.

  19. 19
    Doctor Casino on 1 Jun 2008 #

    Endearing video footage of Sayer lipsynching “Long Tall Glasses” (the only one of his cuts I find I really need) can be found here.

  20. 20
    wichita lineman on 1 Jun 2008 #

    It’s funny how listening back to his early hits (Long Tall Glasses, One Man Band and Moonlighting at least) Leo was such an Elton wannabe. It never struck me at the time (clowning clouded the view). And in this light When I Need You seems even paler. The C86/Sarah comparison holds true; When I Need You/Like One Thousand Violins compared to Someone Saved My Life Tonight/I Know It’s Over.

  21. 21

    Well, there were so many elton wannabee’s that Leo being slightly less of one, didn’t register as such until the others died off…

    So, this song is not about masturbating truck drivers then?

  22. 22


  23. 23
    lonepilgrim on 2 Jun 2008 #

    thanks to the interweb I was able to confirm that I saw the Stranglers live at Crawley College around this time – in fact the night before Leo hit number 1 – and therefore my first experience of ‘punk rock’. In those days we’d go and see anything that was on at the college as gigs were fairly infrequent. I remember the talk before the gig was that there was due to be a fight, possibly involving knives, although why this was seen as a selling point I’m not too sure. As it happened there was no obvious violence – and I don’t recall any pogoing or gobbing either. Quite a different story when they played the Leisure Centre a few months later. At this stage I don’t think I’d heard anything by the band before seeing them live but I enjoyed the gig – although not enough to buy any product later.

  24. 24
    mike on 3 Jun 2008 #

    Thanks to some of the “pro” comments on this thread, the version of “When I Need You” that’s currently spooling through my brain sounds unexpectedly fine, causing me to question my long-held indifference. But in truth this left me cold at the time – and, as others have said, marked the moment that I ceased to find Leo even marginally interesting.

    Then again, the first half of 1977 marked the high point of my punk rock scorched earth/Year Zero-ism, and as such my judgement is far from trustworthy. It’s a period in pop which I could do with re-visiting and re-evaluating.

  25. 25
    Paulito on 27 Jan 2012 #

    From Wiki:

    In a 2006 interview with the Globe & Mail Cohen said:

    “I once had that nicking happen with Leo Sayer. Do you remember that song ‘When I Need You’?” Cohen sings the chorus of Sayer’s number one hit from 1977, then segues into ‘And Jane came by with a lock of your hair,’ a lyric from ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’. “Somebody sued them on my behalf … and they did settle”, even though, he laughs, “they hired a musicologist who said that particular motif was in the public domain and, in fact, could be traced back as far as Schubert.”

  26. 26
    punctum on 31 Oct 2012 #

    TPL on Leo Sayer.

  27. 27
    DanH on 19 Jan 2013 #

    Listen to this and Elton’s Little Jeannie back to back

  28. 28
    lonepilgrim on 17 Nov 2019 #

    I find the arrangement on this performance a little too clinical and precise – Leo gives little hints of emotion in his vocal but everything else is locked too tight to suggest any genuine feeling

  29. 29
    Gareth Parker on 2 Jun 2021 #

    A fairly tiresome record to my ears. 2/10 I’m sorry to say.

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