The Producers: Just for Kix, Loading LA Guns, and Scolding Billy Idol
It has been over two weeks since I sent the two emails to Dee Snider’s web site and to his publicist. No reply so far, so I guess I won’t be holding my breath.
I was called by my colleague Derek Shulman at Atco Records (Atlantic) regarding Kix in 1987. I wasn’t very familiar with them, but I did know that they were a high energy band who were very much in the AC-DC vein. I recall the night I first saw them that year, because they were playing at a Long Island rock club on a weekday night, and I had a difficult time understanding why their official start time was 1 AM. Even for a guy who considered himself a nighttime sort, this was absurd. I checked into the hotel next to the Nassau Coliseum, and spent the evening thinking that I should be in my pajamas, but tried to maintain enough energy and enthusiasm to leave the hotel for the night’s activity at 12:30 AM. I think the club was L’Amour’s, but I can’t be sure. It was a gold mine, jammed wall to wall with kids who by the midnight hour were drinking with a fair amount of abandon, and needing to hear some hard rock immediately.
The club was vast, and I waited around in front of the stage for about 45 minutes until the band came on at 1:30 or so. Sure enough, they kicked serious ass in that club, and I really liked their frontman Steve Whiteman. I also liked the guitar players, Ronnie Younkins and Brian Forsythe, who were serious shredders, but had a very calm and easygoing personal manner offstage. In stark contrast to Steve’s humor and Brian and Ronnie’s calm was Donnie Purnell’s angst and paranoia. He was the undisputed leader of the band, and the bass player and main songwriter. He rarely smiled, and seemed to feel that people were naturally going to try to take advantage of him. He was a fine musician and a dedicated professional, but he simply wasn’t very much fun to be around.
Like Twisted Sister had been, Kix was ready to make a breakthrough LP, and I had been asked by the label to do this, perhaps against the band’s wishes. So I was on Donnie’s shit list right from the start, even though I had a very good relationship with the other band members. Do we see a pattern here? When you take a producer with an established record and pair him with a band that’s been breaking its back on tour for years and years, it’s not that surprising that the band is reluctant to give any credit to this producer for their breakthrough when it finally does come.
The Kix recording was relatively straightforward, and I did like the music very much. When we started to record vocals, I discovered that singer Steve Whiteman had an audible lisp, and that Donnie’s sonic remedy for this was to record a separate track of s’s (esses) to replace (drown out) Steve’s lisp. It worked perfectly. The album, spearheaded by the power ballad “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” was a big hit, and did prove to be Kix’s breakthrough record. For this, I somehow managed to earn Donnie Purnell’s distrust, and when it came to the disappointing follow-up album Hot Wire, Donnie insisted that he mix the record personally, even though I had overseen the recording. The results are available for your comparison.
At this point, I was happy to split the actual production task with my friends and colleagues Duane Baron and John Purdell. Duane had been working with me as my recording engineer for some years by this time (I began working with him directly after I tired of battling the deadbeat, devious and divisive Geoff Workman), and he had introduced me to his friend John Purdell. I initially used John as a backing vocalist, but he was so eager to do almost anything required in the studio or control room that I hired him as a second engineer and general musical consultant on an hourly basis. The three of us had so much fun making records together that it was almost unthinkable that we should be paid. We would work hard for a couple of hours, and then take a half hour break to play basketball in the parking lot. John could play bass, keyboards, sing, write songs and was learning very quickly how to engineer and produce.
While Duane was content to remain (and I was happy to have him remain) a great recording engineer, it seemed that John was interested in literally every phase of music and recording. They were a natural working pair, and we divided the Kix LP into two groups of songs. They produced one group of songs as a team, and I produced the other. Eventually, when I retired from producing, they went on to produce Ozzy and several other artists, until John tragically suffered an early death from cancer. Duane still lives in Southern California and is a terrific, working engineer.
The three of us took the same approach with LA Guns. They had been making some noise in LA for a while, and again we found the key to their success through the album’s one ballad, called “What Happened to Jane.” I had a nice relationship with Tracii Guns, the guitarist, and I was astonished to discover, when his parents came down to visit the studio one night, that they were younger than I was. I had begun producing contemporaries, and then as I grew older, my artists grew younger and younger by comparison, until they were so much younger than I that even their parents were younger than I was, too. This was serious food for thought at the time. One night we were sitting around in the lounge, tossing around possible titles for the album, and I came up with Cocked & Loaded – not bad for a corny double entendre.
My daughter Nina had a pool party at our house for her 14th birthday on a Friday night during the project, and Traci brought Billy Idol over to the house for the occasion. They both arrived on enormously loud Harleys, and Billy’s presence caused quite a stir. At first, it was a treat to have him at the party, and he showed us photos of his wife and child, but as he drank more and more, he began to get fairly grabby with Nina’s 14- year- old friends, and after he sampled a bit of one of their backsides, we had to ask Tracii to haul him out of there. My wife called the girl’s mother and apologized for anything that might have happened to upset the girl, but the mother actually seemed to feel honored that Billy had selected her daughter’s rear end for the caress. Only in L.A., folks – only in L.A.
Right around the time of the Kix and LA Guns projects, I got a call from my old friend and associate Tom Zutaut, who was now one of the four-man A&R team at Geffen Records. He asked me to stop by a rehearsal room just off the Sunset Strip to see a new band he had signed. He thought I might make a good producer for them. I took Duane along, and we found the address, which was a room no larger than 20 feet square. Inside were four musicians without a singer, playing at ear-bleeding volume. The volume was so overwhelming in that tiny room that the music was distorted, and had no identifiable pitch, because the Doppler effect was causing it to waver. It was literally an undecipherable din. When they stopped playing, I introduced the two of us and asked them where their singer was. The blond bass player replied “He never rehearses with us ‘cause he can’t hear himself.” This was a logical response. I said “I’d like to hear more material, but it’s really not possible to evaluate any songs without a lyric and a melody. We’ll have to try and come back at a different time when he’s actually singing with you.”
So we left our first and only Guns and Roses rehearsal without Axl, and before I could get back a second time, they had decided to use Mike Clink, whom I had known as an excellent assistant engineer at the Record Plant. By the time Appetite for Destruction had come out, Duff McKagan had managed to embellish the story of my first visit so that in a magazine interview, he reported that I came into the room, “put my hands over my ears, said ‘oh shit’, and immediately walked out.” At a Record Plant party, I asked him why he had misrepresented the facts this way. He said “are you calling me a liar?” and threatened to hit me. The guy was only about 20 years younger and half a foot taller than I was. For some reason, they just love to make you look foolish.
In 1990, I got a call from a friend of mine who said he thought I might be interested in a band he came across. We went to a rehearsal facility in the valley and spent some time there listening to Love/Hate. What a band – just explosive. I was thrilled. Here I was in the autumn of my professional life, and I walk into a rehearsal room to find one of the freshest-sounding, most hard-driving bands I’ve ever heard. I wanted to sign them to a production deal immediately. I told them that I was positive I could sign them to a major label pretty quickly. I arranged a showcase for them and invited several heads of A&R from the major labels.
Ron Oberman was head of A&R for the Columbia label on the west coast. He came to see the band and was truly blown away – he called me at home and told me he wanted to sign the band. He loved them. I said I’d be happy to see them on Columbia, but I asked him to please wait a few days until I signed them to a production deal, so I could be aboard as the producer and get a percentage of the proceeds beyond my producer’s royalty. He agreed. The next thing I knew, Ron had gone directly to the band and offered them an $800,000 advance to sign with Columbia. Naturally, they did.
I was a little befuddled. I had known Ron for many years. We both moved out to L.A. from New York at about the same time, and he had always struck me as a straight-shooting nice guy. I guess his enthusiasm for the band got the better of him, because it was a done deal. I did produce the record, but I could never understand why he did what he did. The album was strong, and I had pinned my hopes on the cut “Why Do You Think They Call It Dope?” which was a great song in all respects. Regrettably, the advance was so large that there was little discretionary money left to spend on touring support, promotion or videos. The band languished, and never really got off the ground. Pity.
So at this point in time I was as good as my last hit, which was Blow My Fuse, the first Kix album, released in 1988. The LA Guns album had been certified gold in 1989, but the music scene was changing rapidly, and I and my generation of producers were largely regarded as yesterday’s news. At this point, I was concerned with securing three good projects per year, but the projects I would have been happy with were not all that available to me. I was only 45, but there were 25–year-olds out there producing music that seemed a little foreign to me, and I didn’t really relate to it emotionally. I got a phone call from Stryper’s manager, who happened to be the mom of the brothers Sweet — drummer Robert and singer Michael. They requested a meeting at Robert’s home down in Orange County.
Never have I felt like such a stranger in a strange land than on the day I arrived at the Sweet house. I had been to Orange County only to go to Disneyland, or to pass through on the way to San Diego. I entered the house and met the boys and their mother – all very nice people. Mrs. Sweet brought out a tray of bagels, lox and cream cheese. I thought this was very funny. Here was a nice Jewish boy in the heart of conservative Nixon country, and I could imagine them discussing what to serve for refreshments at our meeting. Anyway, we all enjoyed the food, and we got along well. I explained to them that I would have a difficult time producing a religious record of any kind, and they were quick to say they were anxious to make a straight-ahead rock and roll album with no particular message involving faith of any kind. We shook on it, and we made the album Against the Law. It was a pleasure to work with this band, and Michael Sweet proved to be one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. (He’s living on Cape Cod now, and we were in touch last year via e-mail.) I was entering my third year without a big hit record.