In December, the songwriter Nicky Chinn was admitted to intensive care with pneumonia. He spent six days on a ventilator. He remembers asking a doctor if he was going to die. The doctor replied: “Not while I’m around.”
“And I thought that was a great answer!” Chinn told me when we met at his home in London, six months later. He’d since been admitted to intensive care with pneumonia a second time, had a shunt fitted to drain excess fluid from his brain, and he’d caught Covid. He has Parkinson’s disease and needs a shoulder replacement and a replacement for his replacement knee, which he cracked in a fall. And yet despite all this he seems as sprightly as any 77-year-old can be, a raconteur with a booming laugh and a Joe Biden smile. “In hospital they kept saying to me, ‘How do you keep smiling?’ And I said, ‘I just do, I believe in it!’” he said.
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“People say to me, ‘I don’t understand how you do it’ and I say: ‘You’ve gotta understand something. I was diagnosed as bipolar at the age of 16. I’ve been fighting, one way or another, all my life. So this isn’t that difficult.’” For much of his life he has been afflicted by depressions so deep that it’s like “dying while being alive”, and by soaring, manic highs that are terrifying in their own way: “As Newton’s law of physics correctly says, what goes up must come down. So, I go up, and I come down again.” He has been hospitalised countless times and has struggled with suicidal feelings. While in the ICU he was acutely aware that his predicament could trigger another descent into depression, and so he phoned his therapist from his sickbed each week, even when it was hard to speak, with a tube up his nose and wires everywhere.
Even if you haven’t heard of Chinn, you will have heard his music. Perhaps the 1970s glam rock hits that made him famous – “Ballroom Blitz” by Sweet, “Tiger Feet” by Mud, Smokie’s “Living Next Door to Alice” – almost certainly “Mickey”, the pop song by Toni Basil that has played at every school disco since the early Eighties. Or at minimum, if only because for one month a year it is inescapable, Mud’s “Lonely This Christmas”.
He co-wrote much of his music with Mike Chapman, who was working as a waiter when they met at the Mayfair nightclub Tramp in 1970 and decided to pair up. “We wrote some pretty average songs. We were getting turned down all over town. But we had the self-belief of youth and as far as we were concerned, we wrote hits,” Chinn recalled.
One day, Chinn invited to lunch a secretary working with the renowned music producer Mickie Most and got her drunk enough that she gave him Most’s home number. He phoned that same evening: “I said, ‘My name’s Nicky Chinn and I write with Mike Chapman and we write hits,’ and he said: ‘Well, what would you like me to do about it?’” The three of them met the following morning. Chinn and Chapman’s song “Tom, Tom, Turnaround” was released by New World in 1971 and reached the top ten, and Most went on to produce many more of the pair’s songs.
Chinn’s professional swagger belied his personal anguish. When he was depressed, he felt “unloved and unlovable”. For weeks or even months, he would be unable to work because he could not even write his own name. He had left school after he was hospitalised at 16, and since his parents seemed ashamed of his mental illness, he felt deeply ashamed too.
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Medication helped, but it was only a “sticking plaster”: he’d recover for a while and then find himself trapped again in the destructive and devastating highs and lows that characterise bipolar disorder.
Finally, in his 40s, he discovered psychotherapy. Understanding the hurt and anger that underpinned his extremes of mood was transformative, he said. The gaps between his illness extended. He has been well for seven years.
Chinn believes it’s “criminal” that mental health care has been chronically underfunded in the UK, which means access to NHS talking therapies and other support is extremely limited. The stigma around mental illness has lessened since his youth, but it remains dangerously present.
“People think that with mental illness there’s something wrong with you, other than the illness,” Chinn said. He’s started working with Bipolar UK, an organisation that is trying to promote public awareness of the condition, improve support for sufferers and engage in suicide prevention initiatives. “What I want people to understand about bipolar is we’re normal people. Yeah, we have a condition. We deal with it. I’ve certainly led a normal life – and a fabulous life, most of the time.”
A friend emailed Chinn recently to say he’d heard two of his songs, played back-to-back, on BBC Radio 2. “That’s a great feeling,” Chinn said. “Fifty years later, these songs are being played… One of the proudest things for me is that when I go, I will have left a legacy.”
He thought of how, even when his mood was lowest, he would sometimes find solace in music. “If it can make you smile, or it can make you cry, it’s a great song. If it can’t make you do either of those, it’s pretty average,” he said.
“The key to writing music is to get to the emotions… and even if it’s sad, the person is able to think: ‘The person who wrote that must have been sad too, so I’m not on my own.’”