‘I wrote it to get £400 off Volkswagen’: Aqualung on making Strange and Beautiful (I’ll Put a Spell on You)

‘The piano part was recorded in the hallway of our basement flat – I sang really quietly so as not to wake the family upstairs’

Matt Hales, singer, songwriter

I had been in various bands, one called Ruth and the 45s, the sort of acts that got to No 52 and then got dropped by the record company. I’d managed to buy some studio equipment but by the time I reached the age of 30 I was living hand-to-mouth. My wife Kim’s acting work in a TV series kept us going but we were always worried about money.

In those days you’d get paid just for pitching songs for adverts, so I called everyone I could asking if they knew of any opportunities. Someone told me about a new Volkswagen Beetle advert saying, “You won’t get it, but you will get £400.” Someone biked over the advert, which had an Eels song on it to demonstrate what they wanted – slow and atmospheric. I’d just done a slo-mo score for a contemporary dance group, so I decided to have a go.

The ad people needed the song by the next day. I kept thinking “£400”, and by the time Kim came home I had a melody and a hook. My idea for the lyrics was a romantic curse to make someone fall in love with you. I’d written songs with Kim before, so she was in the kitchen trying to sketch out the lyrical idea while I recorded the piano on a computer in the hallway.

We lived in a basement flat with another family above, so when it got late I had to sing really quietly to not wake them up, which suited the slo-mo feel. We finished it in an exhausted haze at 3am and the next day I burned a CD and sent it off. I couldn’t believe it when I got a call telling me they were going to use the song. I thought, “If enough people like it on the advert maybe I can get another record deal or even a hit.” Which is exactly what happened. After 10 years in the music business, I suddenly had something everybody wanted. We had a brilliant time playing all the record companies against each other, then it went Top 10 and I went on Top of the Pops. It set me up for a career in music and hopefully shows any struggling musician that magical things do happen.

Lyricist Kim Oliver … played Buki Lester in Bad Girls.
Lyricist Kim Oliver … played Buki Lester in Bad Girls. Photograph: Cinematic Collection/Alamy

Kim Oliver, songwriter

The week before Matt and I were married, he was mugged and had to have stitches where they’d hit him on the head with a gun. The wedding took place the same day as Diana, Princess of Wales’s funeral. It was a surreal time. Then I got a part in Bad Girls. At the end of series six there was a huge fire and none of the cast knew if our characters had survived. I was in limbo, Matt’s band had been dropped by Mercury and we only had a few hundred pounds left in the bank.

We both thrive on pressure, and a combination of the deadline and really needing the money made us highly motivated. With the VHS of the advert playing in the living room, Matt played this beautiful ascending and descending chord progression. The lyrics were a collaboration. I wrote the first verse after looking at the ad footage. Then, after Matt wrote a chorus originally beginning “I’ll put a spell on you, you’ll fall asleep and sleep for a thousand years”, I suggested repeating the first line as the hook because it worked well with the footage. Matt had written a more boy/girl thing which didn’t feel as connected to the theme, so I wrote the second verse in keeping with the weird stalker vibe. The idea was to make it work for the advert without squashing an ethereal, beautiful song.

After the song was accepted, we had a conversation about how we should present it. Bad Girls had 9 million viewers and I was getting recognised in the supermarket. To me, the idea that this character from the show would be associated with this music felt jarring. I felt it made more sense if Matt became Aqualung on his own, which meant I was able to give up acting, have babies and bring up our children. All that was made possible because of this life-changing song. I still love the fact that the music we did in our hallway and burned on to a CD is the same thing that people heard on the telly and became a hit around the world.

  • Aqualung’s new album, Dead Letters, is out now on Okey-Donkey. The first two Aqualung albums, Aqualung and Still Life, have been reissued and are available on vinyl for the first time.

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Interviews by Dave Simpson

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