By Jamie Brotherton
David Paton emerged on the rock-and-pop scene in 1974, soaring to the top of the charts as the charismatic lead singer of Pilot. An artist with distinctive vocals, Paton is also a gifted songwriter, guitarist and session musician.
Comprised of Ian Bairnson, Billy Lyall, and Stuart Tosh, Pilot literally made magic with their #1 commercial single of the same title. “Magic,” (written by Paton and Lyall, produced by Alan Parsons) skyrocketed the Scottish group to international star status. The band struck gold again with Paton’s “January.” More albums and singles followed.
Then, in 1980, Pilot broke up.
After Pilot, Paton steadily built an impressive body of work, collaborating with The Alan Parsons Project, The Pretenders, Paul McCartney and Kate Bush, among others. In the last decade, Paton has toured the world in his own right and released his own music, including one album containing the first recording of “January.”
What inspired you to be a musician?
David Paton: I was 11 years old, on vacation with my parents in San Sebastian. One big impression left on me — and a kind of awakening — was seeing a Spanish boy about my age playing a guitar. I sat watching and listening to this beautiful sound. I pestered my parents to buy me a guitar until they relented. I sat for months learning how to play from tutors, any kind of tablature. When very young, a neighbor would play me her Elvis records. I wanted to hear the albums over and over again. Then The Beatles came along, and they really had a huge influence on me, my hopes and dreams.
Tell us about your time with the Bay City Rollers?
DP: Tam Paton asked if I’d join the band. I said no I don’t really want to be a Bay City Roller. I wanted to push myself musically, and I didn’t think I’d be stretched with the Rollers. Tam was very persuasive, persistent and a great salesman. The Rollers did have a mystique about them that aroused my curiosity. I had lots of questions and Tam had all the answers. He offered me a new Gibson Les Paul, a Marshall amp, clothes, a good wage and gigs five nights a week.
Their enthusiasm was intense and their thoughts were always on the band and how to make it even more successful. Tam was very strict with us. Any time off was allocated to rehearsal, a night at the cinema or a Chinese meal. They had my full attention, and I was as focused as any of them. The music was left in our hands, and Tam was out there working hard to make a dream come true. We were just an Edinburgh band but creating hysteria at every gig.
Tam mustered interest in the band. Soon we couldn’t go anywhere or do anything without being mobbed by screaming girls. A record deal was on offer, but it was too late for me. I was tired of it. I’d been listening to bands like Free, Genesis, Led Zeppelin, Yes and Little Feat. I wanted to be doing something like that. I had to bow out then or go all the way with it. I chose to bow out. I realize that I made the right move. Life is a puzzle, but gut feelings can’t be ignored.
How was Pilot formed and the name chosen?
DP: I had lost contact with the Rollers and Billy (Lyall). I attended the music library and one day I bumped into Billy. We made polite conversation, and it became an important meeting for both of us. It really was the birth of Pilot. I told him what I was doing; he was now working at Craighall recording studio (subsidiary of EMI) as a sound engineer.
Billy said he could arrange time to record studio songs. “You can play bass and guitar, and I’ll play piano and flute,” he said. I was really knocked out by Craighall, a very professional studio, and the layout was excellent. Billy played a few songs he wrote and recorded. It was interesting, because Billy handled the recording, playing and singing all on his own. He had to start the multi-track in record, then run through to the studio. You could hear his footsteps and the studio door opening and closing behind him.
He then picked up the headphones to meet his cue for the singing. His songs were really good, and I was captivated. This was just the right kind of motivation for me to put more time into writing songs. We came up with the idea of using the initials of our surnames Paton, Lyall, Tosh, and the name PiLoT was created from that.
What was the inspiration for some of your hits?
DP: I had the chorus for “Magic” on an idea tape just waiting for the right verse to pop into my head. “Magic” is a four-bar chorus repeated once. The verse is the same, it’s very simple and the most successful song I have ever written.
I had to get up very early one morning delivering milk for a local dairy, when Mary, my wife, said, “I’ve never been awake to see the daybreak.” I heard her words as a melody and I knew they would fit with my “Magic” chorus, but it was too late to sit at the piano in the flat. So I wrote the melody down on a piece of manuscript together with the chords. I could visualize in my head: G…Bm…Am…D. I pieced it together the next day and could hear the arrangement, hand claps, la la las. We recorded “Magic” and the demo sounded great.
What are some memorable moments you had with Pilot?
DP: Abbey Road. My God, I was so excited. The Beatles meant everything to me, and I was in their workshop about to record my own music …. we even had use of the mellotron they used on “Strawberry Fields.”
What has been your happiest time in the industry?
DP: My most creative [time] as a writer was with Pilot; that was my best time. My #1 with “January” is the kind of success that is a songwriter’s dream.
As a player, my time with Elton John was pretty creative. I respond well to creative people and the better the song the more I’m inspired. Elton inspired me. Working with such talented people is a joy. They are at the top of their profession because they are really good at what they do, and for me to be invited to play for them is an honor.
How do you spend life today? And what are your reflections on your amazing career?
DP: It’s the satisfaction of doing a job that I am dedicated to and love. Where would we be without music? My days are taken up in the studio. I love the creative spark and when it comes to me, I become quite overtaken with it.
I’m happy at my work, and I like to think my enthusiasm rubs off on others. I also enjoy time with my family. Sunday is a day for visiting mum and having my daughters visit us in the afternoon — always quality time. I have more in my life than I ever dreamed would be possible.
To learn about David Paton’s endeavors, visit: www.davidpatonsongs.com
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