Life of Bryan

Bryan Adams standing on a Chevy Corvair with his guitar
(Image credit: Bryan Adams)

Mid-morning in San Diego, and Bryan Adams is in his hotel room taking his breakfast. It’s a simple affair of toast and a pot of coffee, and a side of fruit. Before tucking in, he asks deferentially: “You don’t mind if I eat while we talk?” So far, so very Bryan Adams. For most of a career in music spanning six decades, the now 63-year-old has been perceived as precisely this: unfussy, unshowy, plain normal. An everyman who just happens to have been vegan for 34 years and since before it was generally known what that even meant. 

Adams has hardly ever troubled to tilt at this impression of him. Indeed, he professes not to mind it a bit. Yet it undermines him. Regular Joes don’t tend to sell upwards of 100 million records, as Adams has done. Much less score multiple Grammy (16), Oscar and Golden Globe (three apiece) nominations. In his native Canada he’s the recipient of 20 Juno Awards and an inductee into the Canadian Music Hall Of Fame. Recently his best-loved song, Summer Of ’69, will rack up its billionth stream on Spotify. 

Presently he’s on a tour of North American arenas in support of his fifteenth studio album, last year’s So Happy It Hurts. It’s going wonderfully well, he says. “The best tour we’ve done over here in twenty years. I’m very grateful. I’ve been able to carry on and my voice has held out. What more could you want?” 

Since the late 90s, Adams has also forged a parallel career for himself as a professional photographer. He’s excelled at this other job too, having had many exhibitions of his work around the world and numerous books of his portraiture published. He shot the 2021 edition of the prestigious Pirelli calendar, and his Golden Jubilee commission of Queen Elizabeth II and consort Prince Phillip hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Among his other subjects are Hillary Clinton, Mick Jagger, Serena Williams, Muhammad Ali, and Kate Moss.


Bryan Guy Adams was born on November 5, 1959 in Kingston, Ontario, to Conrad and Elizabeth Adams, recent English migrants to Canada from Plymouth. His father was a military man, a Sandhurst officer who went on to serve in the UN Peacekeeping Force and as a foreignservice diplomat for his adopted country. The family moved around with his father’s job, Adams and his younger brother Bruce being schooled variously in Vienna, Lisbon and Tel Aviv. 

When in 1972 his parents separated, Adams and his brother went to live with their mother in Vancouver, on Canada’s northwest tip. Ask Adams to what extent he looks back and reflects on his journey from then to now, and he replies simply: “I don’t.” Except today, with the merest of coaxing, he does just that, and at length.

What’s your most vivid early memory of childhood? 

Of there being nothing in the fridge.

Who were your parents to you? 

Mum was just a mum. And I mean that in the best way, because she only cared about her boys. My father wasn’t around a lot in the early days. He had left the military to join the UN as a peacekeeping observer for the India-Pakistan war. We travelled quite a bit in Europe after he left the UN and joined the diplomatic service, places like Austria and Portugal, and later to the Middle East and Israel. And because both my parents were British, we’d travel back to the UK to visit grandparents, aunts and uncles, and have Christmases there. 

Growing up, how did you take to moving around so much? 

Well, it was an interesting upbringing. There wasn’t a choice, so you had to go with it. I have my brother, so we would have a laugh together, but the difficult thing was always having to make new friends. But because of doing all that travel, I’ve got friends now all over the world. Seeing so much of the world in your early life makes you realise that where you’re from isn’t everything and there’s much more to see, explore and appreciate.

What was the first piece of music you had a strong reaction to? 

It would have been listening to the radio. My parents had a Chevy Corvair, the same car as on the cover of So Happy It Hurts. It was quite funny buying that car a couple of years ago. It brought back memories of being five, six years old. My brother and me used to laugh and make fun about The Beatles’ She Loves You, repeating the ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’s to my parents ad nauseum. 

At home it was always very much about what my father wanted to listen to, which was opera and military band music. Imagine a Sunday morning with the Black Watch kicking off! What was interesting was he would play music not at regular levels, but would turn it up. Whatever he was into, that was what dominated the house and there was no way around it.

Bryan Adams standing on top of a Chevy Corsair with his back to the camera, holding a guitar aloft.

(Image credit: Bryan Adams )

By what means did you begin to discover music for yourself? 

My father subscribed to this thing called the Columbia Record Club. Once a month they’d send you a catalogue, and if my father bought an opera record from it, you’d be allowed to choose three other records for free. I would say: “Can I have this one, this one, and this one?” and if I was lucky enough he’d get them for me. I always chose the records with the hairiest bastards on the front cover. That’s how I found a lot of music – from image. It was all visual. 

It’s how I discovered Creedence Clearwater and Janis Joplin. My record collection started with those catalogues. There was no other way of getting music when you were in Austria, or Israel. When we lived in Portugal, the single television station was on for three hours a day and that was it. Luckily the school bus driver that took us from Cascais into Lisbon every day would have the radio on, so we’d hear whatever was in the hit parade in Portugal. 

It was usually stuff like Petula Clarke and Tom Jones. I remember The Beatles’ Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da being big on the radio. There was also a record shop in the centre of Cascais I’d poke my head in whenever I was able to get down to the town. This was 1967, 1968. Flower power was going on, and the shop was painted in really elaborate, psychedelic colours. 

There was such a mystique about album covers, and about artists in those days. As I got older I’d pore over records. One of the best records to pore over was Machine Head by Deep Purple, because the inner sleeve had all these photographs of them recording the album. You could see their guitars and amps, which was amazing to me. 

How was it for you settling in Vancouver? 

After my parents split up, my mum didn’t have much, and we struggled hard for several years. I decided to start working and got out of school. I used to go down to this place called Manpower. I was only fourteen, and there would be a queue of people looking for temp work. I’d take whatever job was on offer on the day, go do that and make a few bucks. 

Then when I formally left school I got a steadier job doing dishes at a restaurant. But all the while music was becoming quite a significant thing in my life. All my friends were basically music lovers. Some of them were friends from the fact they had albums I hadn’t heard. Another of my favourite records from back then was T.Rex’s Slider. I saw T.Rex playing on a bill with Blue Öyster Cult in Vancouver

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Adams's first forays into playing music were mixed at best. On a Christmas visit to England, he got his first guitar from a music shop in Reading: an imitation Fender Strat, modelled on the one Ritchie Blackmore played. Back in Canada, he eventually upgraded to a second-hand Gibson Les Paul, picked up from a Five & Dime store in Ottawa. He had precisely one guitar lesson, in Israel, hated it and so ever after taught himself, playing along to his records with the aid of a beginner’s book of guitar chords. 

At high school in Vancouver, he passed through a succession of covers groups, using his mum’s basement as a rehearsal space. Upon leaving school he joined a jobbing bar band named Shock. They were, he recalls, “shockingly bad”. After Shock he got by on the Vancouver session circuit, as well as having an ill-starred tenure fronting glam rockers Sweeney Todd, an experience he declines to speak about. 

He was 18 when he happened across Jim Vallance, seven years his senior, in his local record shop. Vallance was fresh out of moderately successful Vancouver rockers Prism, for whom he’d drummed and written songs under the pseudonym Rodney Hogg. They commenced writing songs together at Vallance’s apartment, and the fruits of their labours landed Adams a deal with A&M Records in 1978. 

The relationship between Adams and his new record label didn’t get off to the best start. Unbeknown to Adams, A&M proceeded to take a demo of one of his and Vallance’s songs, Let Me Take You Dancing, and remix it as a disco track. It became a minor hit in Canada, charting in March 1979. By then Adams had taken steps to better secure himself, enlisting the services of Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Loverboy and Prism manager Bruce Allen, who is still in his corner to this day. 

His first two solo albums, 1980’s Bryan Adams and the following year’s You Want It, You Got It, were each co-written with Vallance, well-stocked with solid, unpretentious blue-collar rockers, and went gold in Canada.

When was the first time you performed to an audience?

With Shock. We got a regular gig in a pub in Vancouver. The first night, because I was fifteen and too young to be in the place, I had to be escorted to the stage by a bouncer when we went on. Then at the end of the show the bouncer took me backstage again. That went on for a day or two and then they went: “Fuck it, you can just walk on yourself.” 

Is there anything in particular you remember about playing sessions in Vancouver? 

I used to audition for all kinds of things. I really wanted to be a guitarist, but I every time I auditioned for work as a guitarist I’d never get the gig. Every single time. Every time I auditioned as a vocalist, I got the job. They weren’t like lead vocal gigs. It was sometimes singing harmony with a group or doing back-ups for other singers. I got to know the local scene and other musicians in Vancouver quite well. 

Were you always intent on writing your own songs? 

I started trying to write when I was about fifteen. I had a friend who was a guitar player, and I said to him: “If we’re going to make it, we have to do our own music.” His response to that was: “Great, you do it.” So I must give him the credit for pushing me.

The first song I wrote that did anything was Wastin’ Time’ for Bachman-Turner Overdrive. That was in 1979, around the same time I also wrote Straight From the Heart. I always give credit to my ma for being so supportive of me early on. I don’t know why that was. I literally dropped out, and it was everything my father would’ve hated. I became the image of the guy on the record sleeve that was really hairy. I just lived and thought music all day long

To begin with, how did you and Jim Vallance go about writing songs together? 

It was two guys sat in a room and bouncing ideas back and forth. Neither of us had anything else going on at the time. I had a load of shit ideas and Jim had a load of good ones. Jim was also a very proficient and talented musician. He played drums, bass, guitar, a bit of cello. There was momentum between us right away. First day we got together, we wrote a song. The next day, we wrote another. The third day one more, and suddenly we had all these songs. 

We’d go down into Jim’s basement where he had a snare drum, bass drum, microphone and a small TEAC four-track recorder. We’d just sit there and make demos. To the point we were spending twelve hours a day, sometimes more, trying to write songs. We worked quite differently, and I think that’s probably why our partnership was successful. 

We’d make drum loops. Jim would play a beat, and he’d loop it on a piece of tape. He’d tie a pencil to the end of the TEAC deck and let the tape go round and round the pencil. When it came out the speakers it was like we’d a drummer in the room with us. We would write songs to the grooves Jim put down. In between times, we’d be chasing Jim’s room-mate’s cat around, trying to get it out of the basement because it would piss over everything. 

Was there a eureka moment for you as a young songwriter? 

Maybe there are people out there that have always been brilliant songwriters, but I think it’s a craft you learn by putting time in. And it’s much like any other kind of craft. Like the first time you sit at a potter’s wheel, the clay doesn’t come together. Song writing is the same. You have to work at it to get good at it. There’s something that happens when you’re writing songs. A fleeting moment while you’re playing where you create something you didn’t have two minutes ago and wouldn’t have two minutes later. 

It’s all about that one magic moment. Let’s say Jim and I would play together for an hour. Then I’d leave and Jim would sit and go through what we’d taped. He’d say: “I think this one idea is really good, let’s work on that tomorrow.” One song that came out that way was Somebody, off the Reckless album. It was just a jam that was sitting on a cassette tape.

You made steady progress. A couple of gold records in Canada, a foothold in the US, but there was nothing happening for you outside of North America. 

In 1981, 1982, I was playing in America quite a bit, doing lots of shows, and I’d say to my manager: “Where’s the European tour?” And Bruce would go: “What the fuck do you want to go to Europe for?” I still repeat that back to him today. I even went over to visit the record company in the UK myself. I was told quite bluntly by the head of A&M Records at the time, a guy called Derek Green: “Listen, mate, your music is never going to be played over here. You might as well go back to America.” There was no way I was listening to him. It emboldened my spirit to make it happen over there. 

Your 1983 album Cuts Like A Knife was your first platinum-selling record in America. What did selling a million records change for you? 

I remember calling my manager and saying: “Bruce, you’re great. Selling a million records – it’s amazing. Where’s the money?” He told me there wasn’t any. I was going back to paying the previous album off and for the tour support. He said: “You signed a really shitty record deal with a low royalty rate.” So that’s what happened with Cuts Like A Knife. To be fair, the money thing never was what I was into anyway. I was just curious, and it would have been nice. I did really want to pay my rent, and I was living with my brother in shitholes. I loved going on tour for that very reason. 

Then in 1984 came the Reckless album. Six Top-15 singles in the US, 12 million sales, an extraordinarily well-crafted record overall. That being the case, have you truly never felt as if the ‘everyman’ perception of you was a terrible slight? 

No. I never really cared what anybody else thought about me. I didn’t have the time to worry if I was being undervalued or whatever. I just had to keep going, because the alternative of washing dishes was no good. I had no choice, I had to do it. And luckily I had another record in me after Cuts Like A Knife. I thought the songs Jim and I were writing were exciting. The litmus test for us was always to put a song on in the car and see how it sounded. If it was good enough for me, it was good enough full stop. Never again did my record company show up and try to tell me what to do.

How did the duet with Tina Turner on It’s Only Love come about? 

I was such a Tina fan. I used to go and see her in the clubs before Private Dancer happened for her and when she was still trying to get back on her feet. Back in 1982, Tina was coming to Vancouver, and just for a laugh Jim and I wrote a song for her called Lock Up Your Sons Cuz Tina’s In Town. Terrible song. I managed to wangle my way backstage. She’d just played this tremendous set and I saw her coming down the hallway. They’d wrapped her in a blanket, and as she went by me I said to her: “Miss Turner, I’ve written a song for you.” I handed her this cassette tape and she said: “Thank you very much,” and disappeared into the night. 

The real fun came when I got a call in early 1984 from producer John Carter, a sweet guy. He said: “Man, I’m producing Tina Turner. Do you have a song for her?” We were finishing up Reckless in New York, and I told him I didn’t but maybe Tina would sing on one of my songs. I sent him It’s Only Love, but never heard back. 

So… fast forward. Reckless is mixed, done, I’m back in Vancouver, and I hear that Tina is coming to town again, this time to open a show for Lionel Ritchie. I got a message to her manager, asking if she’d have time to record this song for my album. And I got a call back saying Tina wanted to meet me. I’m backstage in Vancouver once more, so nervous, and Tina is coming down the hallway again but this time she has that big wig on. 

I could hear her saying: “Where is he? Which one is he?” Someone said to her: “He’s the scrawny little shit over there in the corner.” She came over and said to me: “I love that song.” She recorded it with us the next day. It was only when we were in the studio I realised It’s Only Love was in my pitch. It wasn’t really made for her. I’m twenty-four, and I had to go into the room and say to her: “Tina, it’s not really working with you singing my melody. Why don’t you sing this…” 

And I started to sing, pretending to be Tina Turner. She just went off and did her thing. After she’d said her goodbyes, I turned to Bob Clearmountain, who was my co-producer, and said: ‘Tell me you got that.” We ran the tape back and there it was, a sensational moment.

Can you even begin to process the fact of Summer Of ’69 being streamed a billion times? 

Nice! I don’t think about it. I’ve never really thought of myself as a good singer, or a good guitarist. I’d made the best of what I could with the three chords that I knew. When it came to the songs, I figured if I could remember it, and I could sing it, that’s good enough. However, simple is difficult. I really must give credit to Jim. Great teacher. Always would be there to help me filter out the shite. That everyman thing we’ve been talking about, it’s about making music that everybody can sing. Isn’t that the joy of it? And everyone can sing Summer Of ’69. That’s the magic of it.”

It's fair to say that Adams had an exceedingly prosperous 1990s. They were his superstar years, albeit he passed through them in his own unassuming manner. In partnership with producer ‘Mutt’ Lange, he enjoyed two more huge hit albums: 1991’s Waking Up The Neighbours and 1996’s 18 Til I Die

The former record also yielded Everything I Do (I Do it For You). The behemoth ballad, written in conjunction with Lange and film composer Michael Kamen for the Kevin Costner-starring blockbuster Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, famously spent 16 consecutive weeks at No.1 in the UK. Immovable as a Himalayan peak. 

Altogether, Adams has consistently given good collaboration. Back power-ballading with Lange and Kamen, and singing alongside Rod Stewart and Sting, he scored another smash-hit movie tie-in with 1993’s All For Love. Since when he’s written songs for Aretha Franklin, Celine Dion, Roger Daltrey and Michael Bolton, and duetted with Taylor Swift, Billy Joel, on So Happy It Hurts with Ed Sheeran, and Jennifer Lopez. And if his albums tick rather than boil over these days, in the noughties he’s nevertheless managed to become the first Western artist to perform in Nepal, and add a hit Broadway and West End musical to his CV, adapting Pretty Woman for the stage with Vallance. 

All of it is a long way from the denim-and-leather-clad rocker of Reckless vintage, and nothing Adams is minded to overly talk up, at least not from his part. “I’ve always pushed myself to be with people that are better than me,” he says. “I consider myself to be extremely average, but when I put myself with good people they get good things out of me."

Your bent for collaborating also suggests a curiousness about you? 

I love the challenge of making a song work. One thing that happened in the 1990s was meeting Michael Kamen. Between Michael, Mutt Lange and myself we went on to write two or three number ones, have Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, the whole thing that songwriters could only dream of. I’m always curious to see what happens when two musical styles get put together. 

Sometimes, once again, it can create magic. We started with Everything I Do. It was unlike anything I’d done with Jim, or anyone else. It was orchestral piano music, basically. Throughout the 1980s I’d refused all the soundtrack offers. I hadn’t wanted to do Top Gun, or Footloose. But working with Michael was irresistible. The music was so beautiful. I could definitely busk something over it, and Mutt would naturally make it extra-amazing.

Everything I Do is the obvious one, but do you know in your bones when you’ve got a surefire hit? 

Mutt did. I’d been working with him on Waking Up The Neighbours for a year and a half. We were in Battery Studios in North London. We were at the end of the record, starting to mix it, and Michael brought the idea to me in the form of forty minutes of orchestration. Mutt and I sat at the back of the room, chewing on a Marks & Spencer’s red pepper, and came up with this song underneath Michael’s score. 

I’ll never forget seeing the look on Mutt’s face. He just said: “Keep going, Badams, keep going.” It came together so quickly. When we were done, Mutt said to me: “You know, this is really special, this song.” And I’d never heard him say that about anything. I thought it was a pretty love song, but I didn’t know it was going to be a hit. Mutt really knew. 

What is it about Mutt Lange that everything he touches turns to gold? What special something does he have, or do? 

Oh, man, what a question! Firstly, he’s a really, really good songwriter. He understands voices really well, too. Anybody who’s ever collaborated with Mutt, he’ll have probably got the best vocals out of them that they’ve ever done. Ask Joe Elliott, ask Shania Twain, ask Brian Johnson. I’ll say that about whenever I’ve worked with him as well. 

We’d spend hours working on something because it could always be better. That was the ambition. It was never: “That’s good, let’s move on.” It was always: “It’s good, but I think you can do better.” It’s like working with someone who can walk through the forest, hear birds chirping, and come up with a melody out of it. That’s the kind of guy Mutt is.

What prompted you to try your hand at professional photography? 

I’ve always carried a camera with me. It’s really a shame I didn’t use my pictures earlier, because I look back on all the stuff I took for each album and backstage… I wish I’d put them out, but I never thought my work was any good. I always thought I had to get a ‘real’ photographer. The more I did it, though, the more confidence I got in my own work. I took some pictures when we were doing the On A Day Like Today album [1998], and decided I liked them better than the pictures we’d done with the ‘real’ photographer. So I just started taking things into my own hands, basically. These days I’m a photographer moonlighting as a singer. 

Your subjects – Pink, Mick Jagger, Lana Del Rey and many more – appear notably at ease through your lens. Does that come from your own understanding of how uncomfortable it can be having to pose for a photographer? 

I don’t know, maybe. It’s like with everything, whether it’s music or photography, I like to have a bit of a laugh. I don’t want it to be too stressful and I want people to look great. It’s the same as with writing a song. I’m just trying to find those two or three frames that are different from anything else.

Shooting the Queen of England. Discuss. 

There weren’t any hoops to jump. I was asked to do it by my agent in London, Camera Press. What it was, everybody in the Commonwealth each had a representative granted a five-minute session with the Queen for the Golden Jubilee. I was Canada’s representative. My agent called me and said: “Are you busy on Wednesday? We’d like you to shoot the Queen for us and it’ll be at her house.” I even said: “What house is that?” Buckingham Palace. 

I think I got ten minutes, maybe fifteen, because she liked to chat. I was shooting on ten-by-eight, which is a large-format camera. When I’d set it up, she came down with the corgis. She said something like: “Oh, we haven’t seen one of those for awhile.” I think she was curious to see how it was going to go. 

Do you have a favourite photograph of yours? 

I loved working with Rammstein on their last album cover. I love the photos I did with Mick Jagger. He could be the best person I’ve ever worked with. Amazing energy, and he was up for everything. Of course, he also had some great music to play in the studio. I always wanted to photograph the Stones, but never did. 

Kate Moss was another great person to work with. The first time I worked with her, her agent called me up and said: “Kate’s coming over, she’s in the taxi, and she only wants to wear black stockings.” We did the photos in my kitchen. But I also had the builders in. They were trooping in and out of the house. Kate was so nonchalant. The builders would be like: “Alright, Kate!” And she was going: “Yeah, alright.” Meanwhile she was sitting there in just her pants.

Bryan Adams and one of his portraits of Mick Jagger.

Bryan Adams and one of his portraits of Mick Jagger (Image credit: DDP)

Personally, what do you see when you look in the mirror now? 

It’s like looking at a toad. I’ve never enjoyed having my photograph taken. No, no, no. I was maybe more up for it when I was younger, but certainly not so much any more. I’m much happier behind the camera. 

Musically, what brings you joy these days? 

I’m loving working with Mutt again, and with Jim occasionally. I have an ongoing treadmill of songs that I’m putting together. I have another album in the can, but using the Mutt ethic, it could always be better, so we’re continuing to work on songs together and it’s a lot of fun. My days are filled up with new tunes and new ideas. 

It’s hard to get new music played when you get to sixty-three. I bet if I put out Summer Of ’69 this week, it wouldn’t get played. It’s just the way it is. To get on Radio One you must have ten million hits on YouTube in the first week before they’ll look at you. Rock music doesn’t have that kind of following any more. I don’t know who the gatekeepers are, but it’s almost ageist. But also it doesn’t matter, because you can still do what you love. I go back to the fact I’ve always been happy just to be doing it. 

What are you fearful of? 

Nothing about music. More about travel. There’s bound to be moments when you’re not comfortable travelling. It kind of spooks me a bit. 

Which song of yours are you the proudest of? 

I remember listening to the first take of Run To You, the one you hear on the record, and thinking: “Fuck, this is great.” There was a lot of pressure to put Heaven out as the first single off Reckless, because it was easy, and people were playing it already. I didn’t care what anybody else said, I was determined Run To You would come out first. 

And what’s your greatest accomplishment? 

Paying my rent.

Bryan Adams has live shows lined up in Europe and The US between December 2023 and May 2024. Dates and tickets.

Paul Rees

Paul Rees been a professional writer and journalist for more than 20 years. He was Editor-in-Chief of the music magazines Q and Kerrang! for a total of 13 years and during that period interviewed everyone from Sir Paul McCartney, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen to Noel Gallagher, Adele and Take That. His work has also been published in the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, the Independent, the Evening Standard, the Sunday Express, Classic Rock, Outdoor Fitness, When Saturday Comes and a range of international periodicals.