Anatomy of an Album: Producer Ron Nevison Discusses “Chicago Twenty 1″

We all have albums we love, and songs we know by heart, but it’s easy to forget that they’re all made up of individual performances — and that the stories behind those performances are often just as entertaining as the music they produced. Luckily, we’ve started a series to help you remember: Anatomy, which looks at one aspect of a song or album through the eyes of the person who made it happen. This week, we talk with Ron Nevison, who produced Chicago’s 1991 release, the ill-fated Twenty 1.

Unlike the four albums that preceded it, Twenty 1 wasn’t a hit; in fact, it was the band’s biggest setback since Chicago XIV a decade previous. It’s one of the red-headed stepchildren of the Chicago catalog, but what most fans don’t know is that Nevison’s original mixes — which offer a far cleaner, less effects-laden take on the material — were taken from him and the project was handed to Humberto Gatica, who applied the polish heard on the final version. Almost 20 years after Twenty 1 sank without a trace, we gave Nevison a chance to tell his side of the story.

I’ve always thought Twenty 1 was a fascinating footnote in the band’s career, given that it came after such a period of success, and there was nothing gradual about how the band went from having hit singles to…not.

Well, in order to understand it, you have to go back to Chicago 19. I was busy doing Heart at the time, and I wasn’t really sure if Chicago was my kind of thing. And to make matters worse, Peter Cetera had left the band. They had a new singer in Jason Scheff, and they had a guy, Bill Champlin — who I’ve always admired — who was a great rock singer, albeit with a little more R&B.

I interviewed Champlin in ’94 or ’95, and he described you as “the guy who put my voice on a couple of things, which was a nice change.”

You know what? They brought those songs to me, those Diane Warren songs, “Look Away” and “I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love.” I just thought they were better suited, plain and simple, for Bill Champlin. I didn’t make any deliberate attempt to change anything in the band. And I didn’t do all of Chicago 19; I only did four songs. But they were all hit singles. And when I was contacted to do Chicago 20, which ultimately became Twenty 1 because they had a greatest hits album in between, that was the impetus for me doing the whole album the next time.

I mixed all the songs I did with them for Chicago 19, and they didn’t have a problem with me mixing those songs. But there’s something that occurred during that time period at Warner Bros. — I think it was Michael Ostin’s idea to have other people mix things. He took away — I had a big hit with Damn Yankees. How many millions? Songs that I mixed. The next album, he wanted a mixer, so we had Chris Lord-Alge. The difference between Twenty 1 and the second Damn Yankees album is that I went in with Chris and I produced it as he mixed it. With Chicago, I mixed the whole thing, they took it away from me entirely and gave it to this guy…

…Humberto Gatica…

…Who ruined it. Took all the drums off, put in these soft samples — I mean, this is a fucking rock band. He took carefully nurtured songs and put stupid treatments on the vocals — like on “You Come to My Senses,” they’re swimming in all sorts of phasers and flangers. My God, I was shocked! I couldn’t fucking believe it! Look, they did it to themselves. I don’t know why they did it. “Chasin’ the Wind” was a perfect follow-up to “Look Away.” “You Come to My Senses” was a perfect follow-up to that. It all would have worked if they’d left it alone. I promise you.

Chicago – You Come to My Senses (album mix)
Chicago – You Come to My Senses (Nevison mix)

Right. I mean, I’ve always thought of Twenty 1 as kind of a turd — but I was astounded at how much of a difference it made listening to your original mixes. The version that was released, the sound is just kind of this brittle wash –

It’s not anything you would follow up Chicago 19 with.

And the only songs that stand out are the ballads, because the uptempo numbers get crushed in the mix.

Well, and also, they added a new song. “Explain It to My Heart,” which is a good song, but it’s a ballad, and it leads off the album. You don’t start a rock band off with a ballad on the album. I had “If It Were You” opening, which is the song it should have started with. And they did some serious stuff, too — even non-single tracks like “Somebody, Somewhere,” they took this cool synth part that added some susses and took it off. I don’t know why.

Chicago – God Save the Queen (album mix)
Chicago – God Save the Queen (Nevison mix)

I guess the biggest thing for me is, if they wanted it remixed, they should have let me produce the remix. I’m the one who put the whole thing together — I brought a lot of these songs to the table — and I wasn’t able to shepherd the finished product, and I feel like everyone was ripped off because of it. You know, my mixing is not technical, it’s very emotional. Very vocal-oriented. It isn’t like the drums and bass are like a total tight “thing,” you know, but it’s worked for me for 30 years, and I can’t understand them changing in midstream. Bringing me back to produce and then taking it out of my hands. I don’t understand it and I never will.

How did you hear about it?

Well, I heard they didn’t like the mixes, and they were on tour, so I flew out to Atlanta at my own expense and we rented a studio. We played back the mixes, and they just didn’t like them. But you know, this was a band that only turned up to do their parts. So they didn’t really hear everything — they would only show up on the days when they had something specific to do, and no one knew what the other person was doing. So, for instance, Champlin had no idea about the synthesizer parts I’d put on his songs, because he wasn’t around to listen to them. They weren’t there every night to get a mix, like most bands, and take them home, and listen to them, and digest them. They were on tour. I think that’s part of the reason for it — they weren’t around for the sessions, and who knows how they listened.

I wanted to ask you what the tracking process was like — if you even had the whole band together at any point.

Well, first of all, I couldn’t use Dawayne Bailey, their guitar player. He’s a good player and a lovely guy, and he’s perfect on stage, but he isn’t a session guy — I needed a bunch of different sounds. I used John Keane on drums, who called me up, freaking out, wondering why I took his drums off, when I didn’t do it — that was Gatica. I think I might have used Michael Landau for guitars.

It’s interesting to me that they recorded this the way they did. The band fired their drummer, Danny Seraphine, between 19 and Twenty 1 — did you even have enough of them in the studio together to get a feel for the way the vibe in the group was at this point?

Well, you know…you have so many writers in the band, with different styles. I’ve experienced this before. You had Champlin writing, and Lamm writing, and Scheff…Lamm was writing things that were basically part of the tradition he had with Chicago, but Champlin was a new thing. I mean, he’d been in the band for awhile at that point, but he was taking on a new role. I mean…they came in when they needed to do stuff, and you do lose some continuity with that approach, but I don’t fault them for that. The horn players came in when they needed to play horns. They kind of blasted me a little bit for not putting more horns on 19, but the songs didn’t call for it. I don’t know, I just did what I felt was right for the songs. And it went great until the mixing, and I was shocked when I heard the final product, and I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t work. I’m still seething over this, and I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.

Twenty 1 tanked pretty quickly, and the band famously refused to play songs from it during most of the tour that was ostensibly to promote the album. Did you get any kind of sense that they were unhappy with the material on the album? Specifically the songs that were brought in from outside writers?

Not at all. In fact, I think Jason thought “You Come to My Senses,” which I brought in from Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg, would be a legitimate hit for him. That and “Chasin’ the Wind,” which Diane Warren wrote, were the two songs everyone was banking on.

We’re kind of circling around the fact that in the ’80s, you sort of made a name for yourself as a guy who took bands that had fallen out of favor with Top 40 radio and helped them adjust their sounds–

Well, it’s all about songs, not sounds.

But for a lot of longtime fans of groups like Chicago, or Heart, or Starship, the albums from that period in the ’80s are examples of the bands selling out. From the inside, were you aware of that kind of criticism?

I just recorded the songs that we had, or that were given to me. I wasn’t aware of anything. I mean, I’m not saying I was oblivious to their history.

It’s obvious that any band that’s around for a few decades is going to undergo some sort of artistic evolution. But do you think that in making the leap from, say, “Dialogue” or “25 or 6 to 4″ to “Look Away,” they gave anything up in terms of credibility with their fans?

I think you have to look at it from a different point of view. I mean, Chicago had lost Peter Cetera, their main guy, who had been there since day one. Similar to me working with Starship when Mickey Thomas joined, and Grace Slick and Marty Balin had left. You have kind of a fresh start, a new situation — I thought I had kind of a fresh start with Heart, too. Not new singers with them, but a new record company and new management. I think you can take chances with that happens, and go for it. I did with all of those bands, and had some big hits. It’s history. What can I say?

What are you working on now?

I’m working with a new band from Finland called Sturm und Drang. They’re signed to Warner Finland, this is their third album, and they’re only 17. (Laughs) Well, no, the singer’s 18 and a couple of the guys are 20. But they were 15 when they started out, and they’re brilliant. It’s hard rock, which still sells in Europe, and I’m hoping to finish the album in September. I’ve got a couple of other projects, but that’s the one I’m most excited about.

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  • michael

    great interview! i've always loved the songs on that album, and it was insightful to hear nevison's comments.

  • Bill

    There's another elephant in the room: f**king Diane Warren songs? Come on! Tunes form those song peddler/song doctor types ruined a lot of good bands in those days. Look at Cheap Trick's “The Doctor” — worst thing they ever did? Why? Song doctors. Maybe these bands had writing dry spells. Maybe they didn't: maybe the labels foisted these “sure-fire hit makers” on them. All I know is that this era was full of dreck from good bands.

  • Big Willie Johnson

    Actually, The Doctor was entirely written by members of Cheap Trick. The follow-up album, Lap of Luxury, had a great deal of songs written/co-written by song doctors.

  • David_E

    I always wanted to make a supergroup of song doctors. “Warren, Ballard, Child & Foster.”

    Then, you know, shoot it into space.

  • http://www.bullz-eye.com DavidMedsker

    Wow, anyone in the band who thought Nevison's mixes were inferior to the Chicago-in-space mixes Gatica did needs to have his head and ears examined.

    Anyone else think “God Save the Queen” sounds like Toy Matinee?

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    Ah yes, Warren Ballard's Foster Child a/k/a L'il Bastard.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    “I was busy doing Heart at the time…” Hee-hee-hee-heeeee…

    I can't say that I'm a fan of Nevison's production style. It's rather a thing unto itself, like you always knew a Roy Thomas Baker production even without seeing a single liner note. Even so, I can still say his mixes are way more preferable to the Gatico mixes. Nevison is still being far too generous to “You Come To My Senses” which would be a bucket of slop no matter who was in charge of the stirring.

  • Eric S.

    Yeah, to use Mr. Nevison's terms, it was the songs not the sounds that sunk this album.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    As for Gatica's flanging on Scheff's vocals, my gut instinct is aimed at Scheff's voice. He was brought in because on the ballads he sounds a bit like Cetera. The flanging may have been a camouflage attempt, getting people to think on first listen maybe it actually was Cetera.

    It failed.

  • Russ

    “The Doctor” I don't believe had any tracks that were credited solely to band members. I think every track had an outside credit on it. Which to me is a sure sign that the band's manager compromised with the label and took the outside submissions on the stipulation that various band members get some writing credit (and I'm sure the group DID doctor the songs a little to make it somewhat legit.) When it stiffed, you can bet that they weren't going to be given that deal on the next record.

    I could go on but I'd just be repeating posts from the Ass End series. The 80's was loaded with lots of money and blow and arrogance. Everything had to be perfect, no blemishes allowed. The mistakes were taken off the music and doused with makeup and hairspray like all the club chicks and Tammy Baker. Hell, Crowded House should've had a shitload of hits if they were willing to cake on the post-production sheen.

    The biggest reason Chicago 21 stiffed is that shitty album cover – It doesn't look like a Chicago record and it looks like another “hits” compilation. The AC audience isn't exactly loaded with people rushing to a record store to get the new Chicago record, they're picking it up if they notice it at KMart or Venture (period-appropriate stores). And if the consultants who programmed every goddamned “hits” radio station didn't get exactly what they ordered, the record wasn't gonna get more than one week's worth of promo from the label. In that environment, you can hardly blame the band members for not giving a shit anymore.

  • Big Willie Johnson

    Track list for The Doctor:

    1. It's Up to You – written by Rick Nielsen and Robin Zander
    2. Rearview Mirror Romance – written by Rick Nielsen and Robin Zander
    3. Doctor – written by Rick Nielsen
    4. Are You Lonely Tonight – written by Rick Nielsen and Robin Zander
    5. Name of the Game – written by Rick Nielsen and Robin Zander
    6. Kiss Me Red – written by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly
    7. Take Me to the Top – written by Rick Nielsen and Robin Zander
    8. Good Girls Go to Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere) – written by Rick Nielsen and Robin Zander
    9. Man-U-Lip-U-Lator – written by Rick Nielsen, Robin Zander and Tony Platt
    10. It's Only Love – written by Rick Nielsen and Robin Zander

    So the breakdown:

    Eight songs written entirely by members of Cheap Trick
    One song co-written by members of Cheap Trick
    One song written by outside members.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    It's not to say there weren't uncredited song doctors though… But how much worse is it that Nielsen and Zander did it to themselves? The only song that remotely sounds like them is “It's Only Love”, but it sounds like latter period Cheap Trick…

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    Yeah, that album cover came from a period where designs were becoming really austere, two or three colors only, very stark graphics – that the big red one has a quality of looking like a middle finger saluting the buyer says more about the viewer than the designer, particularly after they've heard it.

  • MichaelFortes

    The Doctor is a way underrated album. Its biggest flaw is it sounds like dog shit. But I love these songs, and I maintain that “Take Me To The Top” is one of the best ballads they ever wrote. These songs are all loads of fun, which is exactly what a Cheap Trick record should be. Actually, it's even better when a Cheap Trick record is equal parts fun and demented, but you can't have it all every time.

    Lap of Luxury and Busted are the albums that are stacked with song doctors, especially the former. They also happen to be two of the choppiest, most disjointed and difficult-to-listen-in-one-sitting albums in their entire catalog. At least the live shows were still awesome.

  • MichaelFortes

    I think Nevison's idea of leading the album with “If It Were You” really would have made a huge difference. It was by far the best song Jason had on the record, and it was not only up-tempo, it actually had some horns up in the mix to remind the listener that no, Chicago has not forgotten the brass. I just remember popping that Twenty 1 cassette into my father's tape deck the night I brought it home, and feeling sadly underwhelmed with “Explain It To My Heart.” It actually prevented me from being able to clearly hear “If It Were You,” which was the *very next song* on the album.

    Of course, if I were in charge, Robert Lamm would have had 5 songs instead of 2, but then I've never produced a hit album so what do I know?

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    The big question is whether Chicago will ever make a Chicago album again.

  • EightE1

    And the big follow-up question is whether anyone will give a shit.

    I heard they're making a new Christmas album. I hope it's out in time for Mellowmas.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    After hearing the “lost” album Stone Of Sisyphus, the answer is I doubt it.

    Christmas album, eh? Damn, they've hit the well so hard even the dust has run dry.

  • Matt

    That would be Christmas album #2 – three total, if you count the re-hash/re-release of the first Xmas album.

  • Pat

    Bill… Cheap Trick's LP “The Doctor” was entirely written by Cheap Trick… no outside writers involved. Check your facts next time you want to make a valid point.

  • scheffxp

    Great Job Jeff & Ron… here is a little audio “Interview” I did with Ron last year on Chicago 21 and his career… http://blip.tv/file/1858699 I love Ron's vibe, gotta do it in person with video camera's next!

  • http://www.thebrowntweedsociety.com T. Stump

    I loved this interview. When a band with the massive success of Chicago falls off the commercial rails, there is definitely a story behind the madness.

    A topic also worth further examination: A quasi-faceless group of ex-rockers emerging as one of Top 40 Radio's most consistent hit-making machines for close to a decade? There's no way that ever happens again.

    While I respect Nevison's gift for identifying the needs of the pop consumer, and delivering the perfect antidote, I can't begin to explain how much I hate the 1980s incarnation of a once great band. While “I Don't Want to Live Without Your Love” and “If She Would Have Been Faithful” are not radical departures from “Just You 'n Me” and “Happy Man”, the ballad-oriented material from those early records were more than countered with some bad-ass rock n' roll, not to mention those killer horn riffs (throw “Make Me Smile” on your turntable for some perspective). If anything, we learned that Terry Kath was Chicago's true heart and soul.

    I do have to credit the band masquerading as Chicago for killing my interest in Top 40, making me “Look Away” to the far more lively worlds of alternative, hip-hop and punk. So thanks, Mr. Nevison!

  • side3

    Never a big Chicago fan, post-Kath, still I love this sort of interview. The trashed mixes are so much better than what they released that is is hard to belive they were approved.

  • Fletch

    I had this album on CD and didn't really like it either. More recently I bought “The Chicago Story” 2 CD compilation put out by Rhino in 2002 (which says it's Digitally Remastered) and I thought the mixes of 'You Come To My Senses' etc, were even WORSE on the compilation than Chicago 21. Vocals were really wide and thin in the mix, even in stuff like 'You're Not Alone'.

    Bands really have to resist the urge to play around with stuff.

  • MichaelFortes

    They're also supposedly recording a salsa album.

  • http://www.popdose.com jefito

    I thought that was just Lamm. Has he infected the whole band with that nonsense?

  • MichaelFortes

    From what I remember in the video where he talked about it, there are supposed to be contributions from the band members alongside some salsa musicians, and that it was a Chicago project. It actually sounds to me like it might be kind of cool, certainly more so than another xmas record. I contend that nobody needs to record another xmas record ever again… unless it's for Mellowmas. The label. All xmas, all mellow, all the time.

  • http://www.popdose.com jefito

    The only thing I want to hear from Chicago is what would happen if they were locked in a room and forced to play rock & roll. Real horn charts, no overdubs (hey, they're on the road all year, they should be able to cut it), and Jason only gets two ballads. Oh, and Champlin has to come back.

  • MichaelFortes

    …and the song ratio should be Scheff-Lamm-Champlin at 20-40-40 approx., and not only does Champlin have to come back, he has to lead. And the rest of the guys have to shut up and follow him. Real organ parts, real solos from all members, songs that are written out of authentic feeling without regard for target demographics or markets. Stick them in a barn out in the country with Neil Young cracking the whip, and no auto tune or click tracks or studio ringers allowed!

  • Homersimpson

    Chicago is by far my favorite group.  However:
    Problem #1: They probably haven’t played together in a studio since about 1977.
    Problem #2: They are on the road all year, yes; but half the time they have substitute horn players.  I truly think the “Chicago Horns” lost their chops years ago.
    Problem #3: Champlin ain’t coming back.
    Problem #4: Jason Scheff can’t hold Cetera’s jockstrap when it comes to singing.  Also, Scheff is a decent bass player, but he is nowhere near as powerful or inventive as Cetera.  Hell, Scheff’s old man was way better than Jason.
    The bottom line is Chicago hasn’t recorded anything listenable in almost 30 years.  If you want to be generous, the Night and Day album was OK, but Scheff’s voice ruins much of it.  “I Stand Up” from 19 was great (although the production sucked).  XXX was an aborted Scheff solo album to which some of the Chicago members contributed, and it sucked.  Hang it up, boys.

  • Homersimpson

    Chicago is by far my favorite group.  However:
    Problem #1: They probably haven’t played together in a studio since about 1977.
    Problem #2: They are on the road all year, yes; but half the time they have substitute horn players.  I truly think the “Chicago Horns” lost their chops years ago.
    Problem #3: Champlin ain’t coming back.
    Problem #4: Jason Scheff can’t hold Cetera’s jockstrap when it comes to singing.  Also, Scheff is a decent bass player, but he is nowhere near as powerful or inventive as Cetera.  Hell, Scheff’s old man was way better than Jason.
    The bottom line is Chicago hasn’t recorded anything listenable in almost 30 years.  If you want to be generous, the Night and Day album was OK, but Scheff’s voice ruins much of it.  “I Stand Up” from 19 was great (although the production sucked).  XXX was an aborted Scheff solo album to which some of the Chicago members contributed, and it sucked.  Hang it up, boys.

  • Homersimpson

    Chicago is by far my favorite group.  However:
    Problem #1: They probably haven’t played together in a studio since about 1977.
    Problem #2: They are on the road all year, yes; but half the time they have substitute horn players.  I truly think the “Chicago Horns” lost their chops years ago.
    Problem #3: Champlin ain’t coming back.
    Problem #4: Jason Scheff can’t hold Cetera’s jockstrap when it comes to singing.  Also, Scheff is a decent bass player, but he is nowhere near as powerful or inventive as Cetera.  Hell, Scheff’s old man was way better than Jason.
    The bottom line is Chicago hasn’t recorded anything listenable in almost 30 years.  If you want to be generous, the Night and Day album was OK, but Scheff’s voice ruins much of it.  “I Stand Up” from 19 was great (although the production sucked).  XXX was an aborted Scheff solo album to which some of the Chicago members contributed, and it sucked.  Hang it up, boys.

  • Anonymous

    Doing some web browsing, I happened to come across this article. While I totally understand and respect the criticisms of Chicago’s musical direction in the 80s, I actually quite enjoy it. At the very least, they were damn fine guilty pleasures.

    Twenty-1 is hands down the best album they did since Cetera left the band, and arguably the best one since the 70s. One critique of their 80s albums is the lack of horns, but this one gives them much prominence in the mixes. If there is any reason it failed, it was because the promotion and management were too conservative to let the album do its thing. You Come to my Senses shouldn’t have even made it on to the album, let alone be released as a single. While Chasing the Wind had the chops to be a pop classic, should it have been released as the first single? In fact, the songs which were released as singles were all the ones where band members had no writing or co-writing credits on! If it Were You or God Save the Queen, both songs where band members had writing credits on, would have been great singles. Especially the latter, as it combines classic Chicago sound and themes with contemporary pop-rock production and styles.

    Speaking of God Save the Queen, I hate to say it, but I like the final mix more than Nevison’s. While Nevison’s had some nice effects on it, the final one sounds much cleaner and has more impact. I can’t comment on You Come to my Senses since it doesn’t seem to load.