“Had I known I was going to create a piece of history, I would have approached things differently”: how Only Child made one of the greatest cult hard rock debut albums ever

Paul Sabu of Only Child
Only Child‘s Paul Sabu (Image credit: Press)

Paul Sabu is a cult figure in AOR circles. Although never really setting the world as a whole on fire as a solo artist, he has spent the last 30 years writing and recording some exceptional material as well as being the man behind a whole slew of other artists that have made an impression in one form or another on the melodic rock scene.

Paul first began to make a name for himself as a producer and recording artist, primarily in the disco market, releasing his own recorded debut with Hot Grooves on Polydor in 1977 and following this up with an album of Bee Gees covers. Next, he delivered a pair of well-regarded self-titled releases, a disco album on the Ocean label and a more impressive rock record for MCA in 1980. (Paul finds it surprising that anyone likes this latter release, describing it as a record he cut when he “didn’t know shit” but acknowledging that it set a template for what was to follow later.)

Paul continued to work in the disco field in the early 80s, producing albums by Debbie Jacobs and actress Ann-Margret, as well as issuing further disco singles himself. However, since opting to follow his greater rock inclinations – firstly as an artist on Motown’s custom rock imprint Morocco Records with Kidd Glove in 1984, and then reverting back to the Sabu moniker for the impressive Heartbreak album the following year – he’s never looked back. 

It was his next move, to a more distinct band package named Only Child that led to the creation of his greatest achievement: an album considered an AOR classic.

The self-titled Only Child debut was originally released on Rampage in 1988, and was a record very much of the era: radio-friendly melodic rock with a polished sound. It achieved instant notoriety for being the first and only album ever to be given an ‘L’ rating in Kerrang!, a magazine that under normal conditions only reserved five big and bold ‘K’s as its highest critical award. The man responsible for that rating was Classic Rock Presents AOR’s editor, Geoff Barton, who deemed that this release was better than five Ks – it was one ‘L’ of an album!

Paul is distinctly proud that Only Child made such an impression: “Had I known that I was going to create a piece of history with that record I may well have approached things a little differently, but I just put something together that I really liked, and that others really liked too.” 

After his experiences with the Kidd Glove and Sabu records, Paul had deliberately chosen to put a band project together.

“I’ve always liked being a band guy, but I’d always get myself in situations where there would have to be some kind of twist involved,” he laughs. “Only Child was different. It was a fun band to be in and write with. 

“We were weekend warriors!” he adds. “We’d been recording songs for the publishing company prior to getting the recording deal, so there was no big jump in terms of how we approached the making of it when we eventually cut the thing for real. It may not sound as polished as it could’ve been, but there’s no denying the conviction behind the album.”

Only Child consisted of Paul on guitar and vocals, Tommy Rude on keyboards, Murrill Maglio on bass and Charles Esposito on drums (a holdover from the Heartbreak album sessions). The band did actually tour, although never ventured as far as Europe.

“We toured right across the States,” Paul confirms. “We were often the house band at various clubs on occasion too. Touring with that band brought about my first introduction to Spinal Tap moments though, because Charles, who was a terrific player, brought his wife along on the road…”

Despite the great reviews and the touring the band undertook in the States, the record was hardly a huge success at retail, although four of the songs would be used in the movie Meatballs 4 and Paul’s particular favourite track, Scream Until You Like It (a version of which appears briefly in Trick Or Treat), would also be covered by W.A.S.P. and featured in Ghoulies II. “It made their [W.A.S.P.’s] career,” Paul quips.

By no means a smash hit, nevertheless Only Child has enjoyed a reverential respect from AOR fans over the years. Paul has continued to release new material (including a second Only Child album in 1996, albeit in a more Sammy Hagar-ish, harder style) as well as producing many other artists over the last 30-odd years, but it’s his work with female vocalists that has probably been of most interest as a producer/songwriter. Having first established himself as a great developer of female talent in the late 70s with his work with the aforementioned Debbie Jacobs and Ann-Margret, he has subsequently discovered Precious Metal, Shania Twain (producing her first ever demos prior to her conversion to country music) and Teri Tims and SwissHe finds it terribly amusing that he is still asked to this day whether the Alexa album is actually a Sabu record with a girl’s face on the cover!

“I can’t believe people have these doubts about that album,” he laughs. “It wasn’t as if Alexa was unfeminine. She had this absolutely amazing voice. That is most definitely her singing on that record. It isn’t me!”

Originally published in Classic Rock Presents AOR issue 1