The Producers: Ã–ysters, Cheap Tricks, and Jake & Elwood Blues
By the end of the ’70s, I had just about made a clean transition from A&R man to producer. My corporate title was Senior Vice President/Executive Producer, since I had gone through all the promotions one had to have at CBS in order to justify my pay grade. The CBS Records offices in LA were located in the Carlsberg Building, on the western margin of Century City, on little Santa Monica Boulevard. If I went into the office at all, it was to catch up on routine paperwork, read mail, open unsolicited cassettes, and return messages. I was trying to settle into a nice three-project-a-year groove, with a summer vacation so I could actually spend some time with my family. There was really no one at the office to whom I reported, so if I wasn’t in the studio and I hadn’t any pressing matters or label meetings, the time in between projects was mine to use as I chose.
I was beginning to feel just the slightest bit of complacency about my situation, which was as unsettling to me as it was comforting. It seemed to me that a bit of repetition was creeping into the production process, even though I was eager to keep things fresh and exciting. I remember this period as a time when I started to formulate answers to the same questions being asked by journalists, and I recall saying that I tried to avoid having “a sound” to my productions, maintaining that each project required a unique approach. In theory, I truly believed this, but in practice I found myself relying more and more on things I had done on previous albums, because they produced great results. I don’t think that I had a sound, really, and I do think that I served each artist in the proper way.
At the same time, there were certain things you could find in common on most of my productions – doubled rhythm guitars, shakers and tambourines, hand claps, Hammond organ, and a way of dividing time to create a kind of locomotive feel – that actually worked for a variety of artists. What this really meant was that the common quality to my recordings was in the arrangements, really, and not in the actual sound of the recording. I didn’t have a routine approach to miking the drum kit, and I varied the application of echos and delays, so that there was nothing comparable to a “wall of sound” or a certain presence or lack of presence to the instruments, or booming drums – nothing t hat could possible lead someone to say “this sounds like a Tom Werman record.”
But clearly the early ’80s was a more restless time for me – one during which I felt a drop in the level of excitement and commitment I had to my work. Eventually I realized that I needed to begin looking outside the comfortable world of CBS Records. My agreement with Epic had allowed me to do one outside project per year, but this was pretty limiting. In 1979, that outside project was Blue Ã–yster Cult, who were on the Columbia label. I had known Murray Krugman and Sandy Pearlman (BÃ–C’s producers) when Murray was at Columbia Records, and Sandy was an independent producer. I liked Murray – he was intelligent and humorous, and the band’s records were good. I was excited to be given the opportunity to work with an established band, whose past work I could evaluate and try to take to the next level.
The material they brought to the project was really quite different from “Go Go Godzilla” or “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” It was more serious, more introspective, and in my mind less commercial. They seemed to have written songs around a vague kind of theme. But I liked the guys, and I respected their musical ability. The Bouchard brothers provided the rhythm section, Donald Roeser was a fine guitarist, Eric Bloom had a vocal style that was great for the music, and Alan Lanier was a great keyboard player with a distinct musical style all his own. Yet this album really turned out to be more of an experiment for the band, like what Their Satanic Majesties’ Request was to the Stones or Rubber Soul was to the Beatles.
Having never met the band, I was a little surprised to discover that the guitarist known as “Buck Dharma” (one of the cooler stage names I had heard) was a diminutive, soft-spoken guy with a voice somewhere between baritone and tenor, with a really wonderful sense of humor. From the name, I had expected some kind of tough guy or social outcast – at least a tattoo or two. But Donald kept me in stitches for most of the project, and one night in Record Plant’s Studio B, he literally had me on the floor. It was almost midnight, and he was trying t o nail a vocal in the studio, and had been singing for an hour or two. We were all a little fatigued and a little bugged by the pressure to finish the album by a certain date, and he naturally fell into a hilarious commentary about a number of things, which caused me to laugh so hard that I literally fell out of my chair onto the floor, helpless and clutching my stomach. I’ll never forget it.
Much to Eric Bloom’s disgust, I found Donald’s voice more appropriate for most of the songs they had written, so Eric was stuck in LA with not much to do. I learned early that Donald had been the voice on most of the BÃ–C songs that I knew and liked, so I was ready to proceed with him as the main vocalist. I felt badly for Eric, but at the same time, I wasn’t going to go against my artistic judgment in order to be a nice guy. The album did recoup its recording costs, but wasn’t a hit by the group’s standards. On a personal basis, I enjoyed the band very much, and saw Alan Lanier back in New York a few times following the recording – perhaps because he was the only one who lived right in the city. Alan was distinctly bohemian, compared to the rest of the band. I sometimes wondered how he wound up with these guys.
The year before this project, I was sent into the studio with Cheap Trick to do the Dream Police album, which set a record for the shortest project I ever did. We completed the album in exactly 30 days, from load-in and setup to final mix. By today’s standards, or even by the standards of the ’90s, this was not so big a deal; but in 1979, it was pretty spectacular, given the end result. Once again, everything went smoothly and easily, and once again the songs were great, and incredibly varied. The label had wanted this LP to be delivered by a specific date, so we were in there working like crazy to get it finished. Just after we finished, Live at Budokan took off, and Dream Police sat on the shelf for eight months before it was released.
I always called the title track “Son of Surrender,” but it was a great song in its own right. Engineer Gary Ladinsky and I are singing the answer vocals to “live inside of my head” and “come to me in my bed” on the choruses, and the falsetto “Police, Police” answer vocals at the end of the song. Rick Nielsen and Jai Winding wrote an arrangement for a large string section (Rick was always a big ELO fan) on “Way of the World,” and we recorded it with Jai conducting a 21-musician string section at the big room at RCA Recording Studios. I introduced the Hammond organ into the breakdown section of “Gonna Raise Hell,” and suggested that we get Steve Lukather of Toto to play guitar on “Voices.” Steve and I played the basic rhythm guitars on that song, too.
When Rick informed me that Tom Petersson was going to do the lead vocals on “I Know What I Want,” I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t. The result was not spectacular, but it wasn’t the last time Tom would come up with requests or demands that his girlfriend Dagmar had instigated. Around the time of this album, she started a campaign to convince Tom that he needed to have more personal exposure in the band, that he could sing well, and that he should be more of a frontman. This eventually led to his departure from the group for a brief solo career.
After Dream Police, which went platinum quickly, I figured we were ready to do a real blockbuster album. Instead, the group chose to have George Martin produce their next record. How could I object? I was disappointed, but I was also excited by the prospect of having one of my favorite groups working with the Beatles’ producer. I had mixed feelings when the album proved to be less successful than Dream Police. That was the last real association I had with Cheap Trick until I got a call from them a number of years later. They had been on and off a number of labels, and had fired their brilliant manager Ken Adamany. They left Warner Brothers after Mo & Lenny left the label, and they were looking for a new home. They asked me if I would come out to Rockford, Illinois and help them make some good demos; if those demos led to a record deal, I would produce the album.
I was excited at the prospect of a reunion with the band, and they paid my transportation and room and board. We worked for a week, made some good demos, and mixed them in Chicago. Months later, when they got a label deal with these demos, they called to inform me that they had decided to produce the album themselves. I was bummed, and I advised them against it, but there really wasn’t much I could do. Yes, they went back on their word, but it wasn’t a big money deal for them, and I thought it would be petty of me to complain. When the next album came out, there was my demo, track one, side one – the one I had played percussion on, and my mix – yet there was no mention of my name, no musician credit, and of course, no financial compensation.
Feeling completely chumped, I called their manager and asked him what he thought he was doing. He told me to calm down, that things like this always happen. “Not in my world,” I replied. And that was basically the end of my relationship with Cheap Trick. After that, I was just another in a long list of names they complained about – just about everyone who had worked with them or helped them over the span of their career. This was the first of a series of events that cemented my attitude toward successful rock musicians. Generally speaking, and with few exceptions, if you aren’t doing something for them, you don’t exist, and 10 years later you’re responsible for everything they failed to achieve. It was really small and pathetic behavior, and I was pretty disappointed.
We cranked out Flirtin’ With Disaster and Beatin’ the Odds for Molly Hatchet in 1979 and 1980, and then I worked with Gary Myrick and the Figures. This was something quite different from the stuff I’d been doing. The band was good, tight and lean, and the songs were compelling, Gary was a great guitar stylist and a great singer. There was space in the production, and not all rhythm guitars were doubled. I learned some things from Gary, and we had fun doing this album. As it turned out, maybe Gary was a little ahead of his time. KROQ in Pasadena played the hell out of “She Talks in Stereo,” and it appeared on the Valley Girl movie soundtrack as well. Still, it wasn’t quite enough to establish Gary in the big time. He was as accomplished a visual artist as he was a musician, and later I joined the band onstage in a few wacky club gigs we did, appearing as “The Souldads.” Gary would just start a riff on his guitar, and we’d all fall in line, spinning out these 15-minute jams while Gary just ad-libbed some humorous nonsense at the mike.
A friend of mine named Marty Cohn worked at Warner Brothers, and his brother Bruce was managing the Doobie Brothers. Marty told me about this new artist that Bruce was working with, and asked me if I’d like to come over and play some percussion on the demo. So this is how I wound up playing tambourine and shakers on the demo that got Bruce Hornsby signed. Marty and Bruce now have a very successful wine business in the Napa Valley, and Bruce’s early departure from the record business was an inspiration for my abrupt career change nine years ago.
That year, I also received a phone call at home from a fellow named Paul Cooper, who handled the west coast office of Atlantic Records for New York-based president Doug Morris. Paul told me that the Blues Brothers were planning to record a second album, and that he would like to arrange a meeting between John Belushi and myself when John was in L.A. Belushi was about the biggest name in entertainment at the time, and I was pretty jazzed. After thinking about how we should arrange this meeting, I called Paul back and told him to just bring John over to the house with him for supper, and we’d spend the evening. I looked forward to this dinner with great anticipation and curiosity.