The Producers: Lita’s “Dangerous Curves” and the Writing on the Wall
Myron Grumbacher, a drummer whose history includes a stint with Pat Benatar, became involved professionally with Lita Ford some time before I produced Lita’s album Dangerous Curves. I mention Myron because he was a great guy, a great drummer, and a great help with the album. Possessing a healthy sense of humor, he was able to offer suggestions all the time without seeming to butt in or to try to do other people’s work for them. He was a pleasure to work with. Lita, too, was very upbeat, funny and really pleasant. The one difficulty we had with the recording was vocal pitch.
While Lita was a good singer in a live situation, there was something about the headphone scenario that gave her trouble. She was just a hair off pitch when she sang with those headphones on. We tried opposing speakers for monitors ( you can try placing speakers directly facing each other on either side of the microphone, like giant headphones, and this should allow the singer to hear the mix while the two speakers theoretically “cancel each other out” so that the microphone hears only the vocalist), but this method is only occasionally successful.
The result was that we did record her vocals as accurately as possible, but then (remember this was back in 1990, still in the dark age of technology) we routed them through a synthesizer, and I manipulated the pitch wheel so that I could alter the pitch of Lita’s vocals. The corrected vocal was sent to another track. The finished vocal was considerably more accurate in terms of pitch, but nothing like today’s vocals, which are all basically perfect thanks to the miracle of modern technology. Each of Lita’s performances took about two hours to pitch-correct. Her guitar playing, on the other hand, was quite good, and while I really do try to avoid saying things like this, she played as well as most men – there, I said it – and I do feel that the electric guitar is basically a man’s instrument. Lita is one of a number of women who can play the electric guitar with authority, speed and taste.
She would bring her two dachshunds to the studio every day, and the one named Chili Dog would chase a flashlight spot that I’d shine on the studio wall. This became a daily20source of amusement for us all, including Chili, but I think Lita may feel I permanently sent the dog around the bend. I’ve heard she’s happily married and living in Florida. She’s a good person.
There were a number of albums that I did in the ’80s and early ’90s that I haven’t mentioned. I thought the Babylon A.D. record was pretty good, and had a very enjoyable time with this band. I thought the record was pretty solid, but things were changing musically at the time, and it really never made any noise to speak of. I think that by this time, music and concert fans had seen enough of loud, guitar-driven rock bands with aggressive song titles and themes and lead singers cut out of the Steven Tyler mold. I made a couple of records for Geffen Records – one with a band called Junkyard, and one with a band named Pariah.
Pariah was a pretty interesting group from Austin, Texas, led by two guitar-playing brothers named Sims and Kyle Ellison. They were easy-going guys, but very serious about their guitar playing. Tom Zutaut had signed them, most likely having found them at South by Southwest, and they were happy to come out to Los Angeles to make their album. Sims had brought his girlfriend with him – a really cute, 17-year-old blond girl with a wonderful smile and a great sense of humor. While we recorded during the day at Madonna’s studio, this girl would literally pound the pavement, looking f or an agent and going to open casting calls; she told us that she was going to move to Hollywood and become an actress (in the ’90s women actors were still called “actresses” instead of “actors”).
While she was dedicated, we all thought it was kind of cute that here was this young Texas girl who came out to Hollywood with her musician boyfriend and seriously thought that she had a chance of hitting it big on the silver screen. Unfortunately for Pariah, their album (To Mock a Killing Bird) was released at about the same time Appetite for Destruction started to break through, and all Geffen’ s money and focus went toward Guns ‘N’ Roses, and none toward Pariah. Meanwhile, about three years later, my wife and I went to see the Tom Cruise film Jerry Maguire, and I knew there was something pretty familiar about the female lead. Sure enough, it was Rene Zellweger, the cute little blond who was going to be an actress, and we all know the rest of that story.
I had made an album for a band in Iowa, signed by friend Gregg Geller after he had moved to Columbia A&R from Epic. They were called the Hawks, and they were a fine pop band with a great talent for commercial songwriting. They sounded very much like the Beatles at times, and I loved their music. The album was made on a soy bean farm in the middle of Iowa. Frank Wiewel, the bass player, lived on this farm in Otho, Iowa, which was actually a suburb of Fort Dodge, and he had convinced his father to allow him to convert the chicken coop into a recording studio. I think it was renowned studio designer Vincent van Haaff who actually did the conversion. Again, the album was put on a back burner by Columbia.
I recently tried to order it on Amazon, and it was unavailable. This means I have to go to the attic and dig into the cartons of CDs that I have stored up there. I do find that there are certain albums I did that I haven’t heard in 15 or 20 years, and it’s always a surprise to discover how much work seems to have gone into them. I’m still pretty happy with the production work I did, although I’m also a bit stunned by how little I remembered about the music on these forgotten albums.
I think it’s fair to say that by 1993 or 1994, my career had definitely peaked. There were fewer phone calls, the offers that I actually did get weren’t particularly attractive, and music was changing in a way that I found difficult – so much angst, so much discord, so little tuning….one day I was leaving my house and my daughter was playing Ill Communication by the Beastie Boys. I paused at the door, and said “Jules, how can you listen to this? This record sounds as though it was recorded in just a couple of minutes!” And my whole perspective changed when she replied “but Dad, that’s just the point.” I remember driving away from the house and beginning to understand that from that moment on, everything I knew was wrong. Ordered and neat was bad. Perfection itself was to be avoided at all costs. Neither guitars nor vocals needed to necessarily be in tune. I had always believed that there could be no real power in music without things being in tune and in time. Now the writing was most definitely on the wall.
I spent a lot of time thinking about what I should do about this impending professional crisis I was looking at, and I decided to try to reinvent myself – not completely, mind you, but to try to roll with the changes. Consequently, I began calling all my highly placed friends and colleagues at major labels, and making appointments to sit down with them and tell them why they needed to establish a new position for me at their label. I told them that their young A&R people were largely unschooled in the art of making records, and that they were wasting money in the studio and coming out with poor quality recordings.
In other words, if they hired me, I could help them make better records for less money. After all, I had spent years on both sides of the coin – the A&R side and the independent producer side. I was like an IRS accountant who leaves and becomes a tax attorney. Besides, I told them, I could solve specific problems that arose in the studio, because I had had such extensive recording experience. I would be the label’s behind-the-scenes go-to guy if an independent producer had a recording problem. I got in to see almost all of these label presidents, and every one said basically the same thing – “we respect what you’ve done, Tom, but I think we’re fine the way we are.”
During this period, I experienced the dark side of the recording business a couple of times. I was in New York having some of these meetings, and as I was leaving the Sony building and walking across 52nd Street, I heard someone shout “Hey Werman, what are you doing?” It was Tommy Mottola returning to the building in his chauffeur-driven Mercedes town car. I told him I was looking to “come back inside” in a new capacity, and he said “You should meet with Michele,” referring to his right hand person, Michele Anthony. He told me to call his office later that afternoon. I thought to myself “what a nice break,” and later that day when I called, he told me he had spoken to Michele, and that I was to call her office. I did, and made an appointment to come in and speak with her a few weeks later.
By the time our meeting rolled around, my family and I were in Nantucket at the summer house, and I made arrangements to fly into Laguardia, have the meeting, and fly back on an evening plane. It was an expensive day-long affair, but I figured it was definitely worth the investment. When I arrived at the building, I was shown into the tastefully appointed waiting room on one of the higher floors reserved for corporate executives, and after about 20 minutes Ms. Anthony came out and said that she was sorry I had to wait, but that something had come up that only she could handle, so I could either have five minutes right now, or I could come back tomorrow. Not having contemplated staying the night, I chose to speak my piece and hope for the best. In the allotted time, I explained my proposal thoroughly, and as she walked me to the elevator, she said “I like the idea – especially the part about saving money. Send me a written proposal and we’ll talk some more.”
To me, this sounded quite promising. I remember being in a pretty good mood as I flew back to the island. Maybe I could be headquartered in LA, and just travel when I needed to troubleshoot some situation. I spent much of the next three days not on the beach, but at the computer, polishing, refining and re-polishing a three-page document, explaining all facets of my proposal. I faxed it to Michele’s office, and also sent a hard copy via U.S. mail. Knowing how busy she must have been, I waited a week and then called to speak with her. Her office said she was busy, but at least I confirmed that she had received the hard copy. After a couple of more weeks, I called again, and left a message with her assistants (she had two of them). After I had called her office four or five times more and had no response, I decided to give it a rest. In the fall, some three months after our meeting, I went to New York again, and before I flew, I called her office and said I would be in New York for an entire week, I would make myself available to her at any time convenient to her, and that I only needed five minutes. I left both my cell phone and hotel number. That was about 15 years ago, and I never heard from her again. More fun and games next week.