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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Jeff Giles
Jeff Giles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Popdose and Dadnabbit, as well as an entertainment writer whose work can be seen at Rotten Tomatoes and a number of other sites. Hey, why not follow him at Twitter while you're at it?