By James Wood
John Parr, best known for his Stars and Stripes Gibson Les Paul and 1980s hits “Naughty Naughty” and "St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)," has just released The Mission, an album dedicated to the men and women who have served in our armed forces.
In addition to his regular tour stops, Parr makes it his mission to donate his time and perform for the troops and their families.
Guitar World spoke with Parr from his home across the pond to find out about the new album, his songs and that infamous Les Paul.
GUITAR WORLD: Where did your admiration for the military come from?
I’ve always been inspired by them. The thing about the military is, when things are at their worst, they’re at their best. The greatest human qualities come from that, and that’s what inspires me. The one common denominator everyone has from their military experience is that they all feel they’ve made a difference, and it’s our duty to applaud that.
You have a new album, The Mission. Tell us a little about it.
It’s an album that’s very dear to my heart and one I’ve wanted to do for years. It’s a rock record that just resonates the truth. The biggest thing has been the reaction I’ve gotten from people who’ve heard it and aren’t even in the military. People who just love America or the troops, it seems to have hit a spot with them that doesn’t get hit very often.
Let’s talk a little about some of your biggest hits. How do you write a song like “Naughty Naughty”?
“Naughty Naughty” actually started out as just an idea we warmed up with whenever we went into the studio to make the first record. Eventually, it just kept growing from that until it became the song that it is.
Funny story: I was signed to Atlantic Records by Ahmet Ertegün, the same man who signed Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Aretha Franklin and others. I remember he said to me, “John, you’ve got to know something ... sex sells!” And I was in my late 20s when I did that song and really wanted to make a record that made people say, “Whoa, what is this?” but also make it funny. It worked. The song was a huge success.
Shortly after that song was when you scored your first No. 1 with "Man in Motion" from St. Elmo’s Fire.
The lesson to be learned from writing that song is that sometimes a deadline can actually be your best friend. David Foster and I were working on the soundtrack, and we were given a day to write it and a day to record it. David wasn’t feeling in the mood to write at the time, but I persuaded him and over the course of an hour, we wrote three songs; one of them being "St. Elmo's Fire."
A lot of people might not know this, but that song has a mission of its own.
It does. I remember we had written the song and the melody but had no real words for it. Then David showed me the video of Rick Hansen as he was setting out on the Man in Motion Tour. He had no money and profile and I told David that we had to help him. It inspired me, and the rest is history. To date, we’ve raised $250 million for his foundation to raise awareness for spinal cord injuries.
You’ve also had the pleasure of co-producing with one of rock’s all-time greatest producers, Mutt Lange.
Mutt is my hero. If you line up the most iconic producers of all time, you have Quincy Jones, David Foster and Mutt Lange. To me, Mutt is without question the most humble person and one the greatest people on the planet. For me to be asked to co-produce a record with him for Romeo's Daughter was incredible. I think the only other time he’s ever done that was with Mick Jones.
Tell me about your guitar playing.
I started playing when I was 8 when I got my first guitar. During my heyday; back when I was trying to be “king of the hill," I’d practice seven to eight hours a day. The thing was, I’d never practice things like scales. Anything I’d practice would be something I was trying to do at the time. I always tried to achieve something that was out of my reach. It’s the same way I am today.
Wasn’t there a time when you stopped doing music for a while?
There was. I was involved in litigation and had to literally put my guitar away (so to speak) for 10 years. It wasn’t until 2006 when the case was finally resolved that I was able to take it out of the box and start practicing again. By then, the music industry and guitars had changed a lot. With all of the pedals and effects, it made it easy for anyone to sound really great playing guitar. That’s when I decided that the only real way for me to shine was with an acoustic.
So I began to develop a style on the acoustic that was still rock but very difficult to do and one that took me many hours of practice to develop. The thing I like most about playing acoustic is that there are no hiding places. It’s just me and six strings.
Tell me about your famous Les Paul
I bought it back in 1971, my first professional year as a musician. I saved up the money for it while playing in a small club for six months. It’s not a paint job, it's metal and fiberglass and the one I still use to this very day. The Stars and Stripes.
The Stars and Stripes are very apropos for The Mission.
Absolutely. I also think the guitar and the songs are far better than me as an individual. You can say my name and maybe some people remember it, but everybody always remembers the songs and the guitar.