The Producers: Leaving Elektra, Life With the CrÃ¼e, and Meeting Twisted Sister
I departed Elektra after four months as Vice President in charge of A&R. I had signed one band (Stranger, whose album included a song called “There’s a Party in My Pants and You’re Invited”) and agreed to produce three Elektra albums per year for two years; I would receive an advance fee that would be collateralized against any future royalties (if the album recouped its recording costs), and I would receive a number of percentage points per album, based on the retail price (I can’t recall the number exactly, but I know it was quite acceptable to me after seven years of being underpaid for producing). I was happy with this, as it was competitive with the best production deals at the time. If I could be fortunate enough to produce a platinum album with these terms, I stood to make half a million dollars.
Before exiting the label, I attended the Grammys with Bob and a few other executives – a pretty boring affair lasting four hours (it’s actually recorded “live on tape,” which allows for reshoots), replete with orders to minimize the number of trips we made to the bathroom in order to avoid visibly empty seats. The next time I had an opportunity to attend the Grammys, I passed. I had one personally significant meeting at the office with a Mrs. Ellis McDaniel, who was Bo Diddley’s wife. I can’t recall the express purpose of our meeting, but Bo Diddley was such a heavy musical influence on me in my teenage years that I count this as one of the more significant meetings I had while at Elektra.
I also received a call from Irving Azoff, who requested that I get in touch with Tim Schmit of the Eagles and become involved in his plans to record a solo album. Irving wanted me to go to Tim’s house and hear what he planned to record. I did know Tim from the Poco years, but I hadn’t said three words to him during that period (Richie Furay was always the chatty one). I was a little anxious about calling a member of the Eagles and telling him I’d like to come and hear the material he was preparing for his solo album (imagine if Irving had wanted me to do the same with Henley and Frey…).
As expected, every time I did manage to reach Tim, he gave me the dodge or told me this wasn’t a good time, and for the first time in my professional life I learned what it was like to be considered the pesky jerk from the record company. I wanted to leave a message that said “Tim, I’m not a jerk – I actually have some understanding of the musical process,” but of course I never did; nor did I ever manage to hear one note of Tim’s music before I left the label. I had lunch in New York with Judy Collins, and had prepared for this by listening to her more recent albums. How was I to revive her career? To my ear, she was beginning to lose control of her pitch, and the only reason we were doing an album with her was because her contract required it. Elektra was actually in a similar position with many of its artists whose careers had peaked some years earlier.
I never did resolve the Judy Collins question. I accompanied Bob to the studio in LA to visit with Linda Ronstadt while she was making her album of love songs with arrangements by Nelson Riddle and his orchestra. Here was this beautiful woman whose career I had known for years and years, and I shook hands with her, said a few polite words and left; it felt like what it was — a visit to let the artist know that the label knew she was in the studio and didn’t want her to think we had no interest in the project.
Tom Zutaut and I went to Boston to meet with Ric Ocasek and the Cars – the most enjoyable trip I took while at Elektra. Here we went to Ric’s house, had some significant musical discussions, and I made the acquaintance of Cars tour manager Steve Berkowitz, who later moved to New York to run the creative side of the Sony Legacy label – the unit responsible for leveraging and repackaging the extensive Sony music catalog. I had a meeting in my LA office with George Thorogood, who wanted to self-produce his next album. I suggested that this might be acceptable if I could act as sort of a behind-the-scenes consulting producer. He declined. He wanted no one involved in his album, even though his career could have used a boost at this point. That was a particularly disappointing meeting.
I saw MÃ¶tley CrÃ¼e become involved with Doc McGhee and Doug Thaler for management. The extent of my knowledge of these two at that time was that Doug had been a former talent agent. Someone told me that Doc had been involved with a large shipment of weed, and had been doing a fair amount of community service as a result. I really had no idea at the time how fortunate it was that these two were going to manage this fairly unmanageable group. Doc is a very forward-thinking strategist with a brilliant and durable sense of humor, and Doug has a heap of both good sense and patience. Humor, good sense and patience would all play a very significant role in the handling of MÃ¶tley CrÃ¼e over the life of their career.
Tom Zutaut had brought Dokken to the label, and he accompanied me to see the band play at The Palace in the San Fernando Valley. I was very impressed with this band – especially with George Lynch’s guitar playing and Jeff Pilson’s bass playing. I liked their material, Don was a great frontman, and Mick Brown was a great drummer. Here was a great rock and roll band, period. Eventually, Tom promoted my involvement in the production of their next album, and they agreed. Dokken would become the second album of the three I was to produce in the first year of my Elektra agreement.
In June of 1983 I took MÃ¶tley CrÃ¼e into a soundstage at Studio Instrument Rentals on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, and we did the pre-production for the album. It went surprisingly smoothly and swiftly, in large part because Tommy was so good and so adaptable. Most of the changes I suggest in pre-production have to do with drum parts anyway, so we made a number of changes to the basic tracks, but we left vocals and guitar leads pretty much alone. This also gave me a false impression of how much time I would need to complete the album, since I could not imagine the number of hours I would need to have Vince behind the mike in order to get an album’s worth of strong vocals. We entered Cherokee Studios on Fairfax in July of 1983 with Geoff Workman, an engineer I hired for the project because I felt I needed a new engineering approach, with more bottom to the record. Gary Ladinsky and I had gotten along well, and I was very relaxed in the studio with him – but I thought his whole sonic approach was too pop for a band like the CrÃ¼e. Workman had done engineering for Roy Thomas Baker, and I had a great deal of respect for Roy’s producing talent. Geoff was indeed a good choice for this project, but he wouldn’t last more than three albums with me, as he turned out to have some serious issues of his own, which I regrettably discovered only after the damage had been done.
The Internet is loaded with sites and articles about MÃ¶tley CrÃ¼e. Some are probably fairly accurate, and some others are probably not. I know from scanning The Dirt that much of what is attributed to them — and even more of what they attribute to themselves – is exaggerated or pure fiction. Some is designed to titillate, and some is designed to place blame on others for what the band members brought on themselves. But the fact remains that the behavior and lifestyle of these guys was certainly among the most outrageous one could imagine. I actually saw very little of this behavior. I didn’t stay after sessions to party with the band, and I spent little time in social situations with them.
They all spent some time at my house (I started having swimming / barbecue parties to mark the finish of each album I produced, which often resulted in groups of pasty pale-skinned long-haired musicians in black leather and shades lounging uncomfortably in the Southern California sunlight) and I in turn spent some time at Nikki’s homes in both Coldwater Canyon (I think) and in Sherman Oaks. His behavior at this particular house, much of it allegedly spent under the influence of heroin, did not seem that unusual to me. I visited with him several times during his relationship with Vanity, and I had a sushi dinner with him the evening of the day he was released from the hospital, after having been pronounced dead. You won’t read about this anywhere, though, because he wouldn’t want to admit having been friendly with me after what he has written. I spent little or no time in their hotel rooms while they were on tour, so I never saw any of the destruction or mayhem. I was with them mostly in their dressing room or in the studio. I do remember a few bizarre situations, but very few – one being an incident with a girl of questionable morality who interacted with a coke bottle in much the same way that Monica Lewinsky interacted with Bill Clinton’s cigar. I enjoyed a good time as much as the next guy, but this simply wasn’t the kind of enjoyment I sought after a long day in the recording studio.
I attended Vince’s and Tommy’s bachelor parties – one at the Tropicana Mud Wrestling Club and one at a valley strip joint. I attended the record release parties for our three albums. But after the Girls Girls Girls album, I was simply dead to them. If you’re not actually doing something on their behalf, you don’t exist. Even though we ended our working relationship on good terms after five years, they didn’t invite me to attend the album release party for Dr. Feelgood, which was held right in Los Angeles. One wonders about people who can do this, and then greet you on the street with a big hug, as if you were a good buddy.
We recorded Tommy’s drum tracks swiftly and effortlessly, with dummy rhythm guitar tracks (for reference only). We started to overdub Nikki’s bass parts, which typically took several hours per song. His bass playing has improved substantially over the years, but in the beginning it was a little uneven. Before we could get halfway through the bass overdubs, Nikki ran his Porsche off the canyon road into a utility pole one night and dislocated his shoulder. Consequently, he had to finish his bass parts with one arm in a sling. This didn’t speed things up. Mick was well prepared with his guitar parts, and the basic rhythms went pretty quickly, although it would take us three albums until we managed to get a really nice guitar sound on him. His solos were interesting and well rehearsed, but he didn’t have a great feel for guitar fills, especially at transitional points between verses and choruses, and vice-versa. I helped him with these, and he was very cooperative, accepting and embracing most of my suggestions.
Vince was detached from the early portions of the recording, as are most vocalists, so he became accustomed to hanging around the studio during the afternoon and evening, being somewhat bored or distracted, and then he’d go out and party til the cows came home. This didn’t establish a healthy pattern for him when it came time to do lead vocals. He’d come in fairly trashed from the previous night and put in his hours at the mike like a good soldier, but we’d be left with very little usable vocal at the end of the day – so vocals took quite a while to complete. Geoff helped out with sound effects and a great reading of the album’s intro, which had been composed by Nikki.
The album was a pretty live-sounding affair with a decent bottom end. It was released in early October, while I was attending an annual music business golf tournament at Pebble Beach. One afternoon I was standing in my room, looking out at Carmel Bay over the 18th fairway, and I got a call from Zutaut back in the office, who reported “Werman, we’ve got a hit.” He went on to describe the brisk sales of the album, and I was very, very gratified by this. At that same time, though, I began to recognize a familiar feeling of anxiety that accompanied every professional success – and that was the pressure to make another hit next time, because it was now expected of you. I began to recognize this anxious feeling as the fear of success. By the time I had left the label world to become a totally independent producer, my gold or platinum record batting average was around .700, so the expectations for my producing a hit record were unusually high. I’m sure the band also experienced this feeling after the success of Shout at the Devil, since their drug habits were intensifying and their songwriting was suffering by the time we entered the studio to record Theater of Pain.
After I returned from Pebble Beach to enjoy a few weeks off, I was sitting in my kitchen and I received a call from Doug Morris, who was then president of Atlantic Records in New York. He said that he had a band he believed in who had been selling records in the European market, but who couldn’t get arrested over here, and that he was certain I was the only guy who could make a hit record with them for the US market. Would I please go and have a look at them and do him a personal favor by taking on the project? Now, in 1983, when a record company president tells you you’re his first choice, that it would be a personal favor to him, and that there’s nobody else for the job, you simply do it. But what if they were dreadful? I’d be forced to either undertake a project destined for failure, or to alienate a very important man in the industry.
Anyway, I arranged to make my way to Hershey, Pennsylvania, so I could see Twisted Sister at a local rock club. I remember flying directly over Three Mile Island and the cooling towers at the nuclear plant there. Fortunately, and to my relief, the show was different and strong; the band was in full costume and makeup, and they even had a portion of chain link fence onstage. Afterward, we all went out to discuss my involvement, and they were very enthusiastic. That’s right – even Dee Snider was enthusiastic, telling me what a great album it was going to be, and what a perfect time it was for them to be making their breakthrough album for the American market. I enjoyed their casual attitude, their humor, and especially their enthusiasm. When they told me they were basically teetotalers and weightlifters, I thought about what a refreshing change this would be from the normal hard rock experience, and I made up my mind to call Doug, to call my attorney, and to see if we could arrange to go into the studio soon.