The last installment prompted a number of responses having to do with a couple of bands that I and some of the readers feel should have been more successful. I thought that before we continued with a little history, I’d give Popdose readers some titles from what I consider my “Greatest Misses.” For those who would like to explore a little, these are songs I produced that I consider outstanding in one way or another, but which never really saw the light of day. By checking these out, you may even discover an obscure band whose music you really like.
Mother’s Finest (covered in installment # 7) – “Truth’ll Set You Free” and “Mickey’s Monkey”
The Producers – (covered in installment # 7) — “What’s He Got,” “She Sheila,” “Life of Crime,” “Dear John,” “Back to Basics.”
Brownsville Station – “Who Do You Love” – A 1979 remake of the classic Bo Diddley tune recorded with the Record Plant Remote truck in the basement of the band’s manager’s office building in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The lead guitar, played by the late Cub Coda, is an original Sears Silvertone, and the speaker was built into the actual guitar case itself. I think this version is every bit as good as George Thorogood’s, which is now a classic rock radio staple.
Krokus – “School’s Out” – I did one Krokus LP in 1986, and I invited my daughter’s 5th grade class into the studio to sing on this classic Alice Cooper song.
Love / Hate — “Why Do You Think They Call It Dope?” This is a wonderful song from a band I discovered in a San Fernando Valley rehearsal studio and brought to Columbia Records in 1989 — more about them in a future installment.
LA Guns — “Rip & Tear.” I did one album with this band in 1989, and there will be more about them in a future installment.
Graveyard Train — “Change The World.”Â This Geffen band was a delight to record. The singer, Todd Griffin, is still the best unknown blues singer in the world. We did a rockabilly treatment of this song, which also features the stunning guitar licks of Bruce Draper.
The Pure Pop Misses
Okay, here’s where I give myself away, and where you’ll find a lot of examples of the pop feel that exists in many of the hard rock records I did. I’m simply a pop-rock or power pop fan – not so much a hard rocker. These next few songs are pure pop, and I was always surprised that they didn’t get more radio play.
The Hawks – “The Admiral’s Mutiny” and “Let Me In” – a group of bright guys from Otho, Iowa (a suburb of Fort Dodge, Iowa!). The bass player hired a well-known studio designer to convert a chicken coop on his dad’s soy farm into a fine recording studio, where we made our one LP. At times, this group sounded very much like the Beatles.
Glass Tiger – “Blinded” — a pop song from this Canadian band who were always multi-platinum north of the border.
Boy Meets Girl — “Don’t Tell Me” – This songwriting duo (who wrote “How Will I Know” for Whitney Houston) sent me a demo, and I loved it. It’s as far from home as I get musically, but I loved working with these two, and we did admittedly get a little carried away with the production values.
Some time in 1975 or 1976, I had a visit from Meat Loaf and his writer/pianist Jim Steinman. I knew little or nothing about either of these gentlemen, but we closed the office door, Jim sat down at the piano, and Meat Loaf proceeded to belt out a few songs that sounded very much to me like Broadway show tunes. It was obvious that Meat was a killer vocalist, and a sight to behold. The songs were good, the lyrics were clever, but I really felt that Epic Records wouldn’t have the first idea about what to do with an act like this. We’d have to build a band around this guy, and his songs just weren’t that radio-friendly. I told both of them that I thought they were very talented, but the combination of them and the label wasn’t exactly made in heaven. Meat and I stayed in touch, though.
Some time after that meeting, I had an opportunity to introduce Meat to Steve Popovich, my boss. Steve was always interested in something new and different, and when he finally terminated his career at CBS, he went back to his hometown of Cleveland to start up Cleveland International Records, signing Meat Loaf as his first act. The label was distributed by CBS Records, and plans were underway to record the first album, Bat Out of Hell. This album was released several months after I went down to Atlanta to do Ted’s second album, Free-for-All.
Ted and band had recently come off the road, and had tasted the big time. Partially as a result of this experience, Derek St. Holmes, the band’s principal vocalist, was partying hard and generally causing mayhem, and got into some trouble with the Atlanta police. Lew Futterman, whose production company was responsible for delivering the record to Epic, was not about to let Derek’s shenanigans stand in the way of the LP’s scheduled release and Ted’s major tour. He was impatient with Derek’s attitude, and he asked me if I could think of anyone who might be able to complete the vocals on a few unfinished songs while they tried to sort out Derek’s legal matters.
One thing led to another, and the next day Meat Loaf was on a flight to Atlanta. He had a day or two to learn the songs and familiarize himself with the tracks, and then we recorded him and sent him back to New York. Several months after Free-for-All was released, Bat Out of Hell was released, and the rest is history. I’m not sure how many people, to this day, are aware of this highly improbable combination, but Meat Loaf is duly credited on the album as sharing lead vocals with Derek. Steve Popovich later sued CBS for non-payment of royalties and eventually settled with the label for millions out of court after many years.
When I was in LA doing In Color with Cheap Trick, I lived at the Sunset Marquis, which was something less than what it is today. These days, the Sunset Marquis is a full-service luxury hotel with villas, and it still caters to those in the entertainment business. In those days, it was an all-suites hotel built around a central pool, and it catered heavily to out-of-town musicians. Its dÃ©cor was functional but decidedly funky.
After a couple of weeks at the studio, we had a Sunday off. It was a beautiful day, and I wandered up to Sunset Boulevard, looking in the windows of stores like North beach Leather, where years later I bought a couple of leather suits hand-stitched in Mexico (I was pretty heavily into the LA thing at that time, no? ). I remember walking slowly along in the hot afternoon sun, and suddenly realizing that I could actually live in this town if I wanted to. After all, in New York the entertainment business was probably somewhere in the top 20 industries, but here in LA it was number one, and everyone else was in business to serve it.
One of the things that brought this home to me was a studio experience. We decided to use an electric sitar on one song, and once the decision was made, I asked my engineer Gary where we could get such a thing. He promptly replied “Just call S.I.R.” (Studio Instrument Rentals). Our assistant engineer called S.I.R. and within thirty minutes we had a tuned Coaral Electric Sitar in the control room. I was quite impressed by this. I soon came to realize that most business in LA was there because of the entertainment industry, and that doing anything musical in that town would be far simpler, quicker and less expensive than trying to do the same thing in New York. With a phone call or two, and in a matter of minutes, I could arrange to get any instrument you could imagine, along with someone to play it well, if that was required.
On the personal side, LA was very attractive to a young couple who had spent their lives in the northeast. The weather was superb, the topography was interesting and varied, the lifestyle was far more relaxed, and the traffic wasn’t bad at the time (really). We had two young children, and we were excited by the prospect of spending more time outdoors year ‘round with them. As a producer, I was spending at least half of my time in recording studios, and far less time in the office; by living in LA, I could stay home all year and work there instead of commuting to cities like Atlanta, LA and Orlando. For a number of reasons, I never found myself in New York for any recording projects, so as long as I stayed in the New York area, working in a studio meant living away from home. This was not healthy for a young husband with a family
The label was happy to accommodate my request at this point, and they paid for the move and for my family’s transportation, even helping out with a subsidy for new appliances. While I was doing Heaven Tonight at the Record Plant, we lived for several weeks at the Sunset Marquis, until our house in Laurel Canyon was ready. My wife had found us a great place with a pool in the backyard on a cul de sac off Laurel Canyon Boulevard in Studio City. This was about 15 minutes from my office and from most of the studios I would be using. We converted the garage into a “media room” with a large screen rear-projection TV, a superb stereo and plenty of shelf space for my collection of about 1500 LP’s.
(Note: label A&R people were entitled to order any LPs or cassettes that they considered of interest, so each week we would thumb through our copies of Billboard and compile a list of new releases, which would be purchased for us and charged to a specific “competitive product” account in the A&R budget. Along the way, I acquired the catalogs of Zeppelin, The Stones, The Beatles, Hendrix and The Byrds, which are all sitting in my attic in their original shrink-wrap. Unfortunately they’re all in stereo – the original mono releases are far more valuable).
LA was a rock record producer’s heaven. In New York we tuned into WNEW FM, with deejays like Pete Fornatale. You could hear him and his fellow on-air colleagues, but outside of maybe seeing them as guest announcers at the Fillmore, they weren’t particularly accessible. In LA, we had KMET, with an entire slate of big deejay personalities who would be out at shows and clubs all the time. You could hang out with them backstage at the Forum, or you could run into them in the dressing rooms of the Roxy or The Whiskey or the Starwood. Rock & roll was a major factor in everyday life in LA, and if you had something to do with it, you were generally welcomed everywhere.
This was agreeable to me, and I became familiar with the people at the door in the clubs, and the heads of security at the Long Beach Arena or the Forum. I would be issued laminated passes for entire tours, so if I wanted to catch Ted Nugent or Cheap Trick or Molly Hatchet at a particular arena, I could literally just fly into town and show up at the gig without having to make any arrangements at all. My pass allowed me access to every area of the venue – audience, press pit, backstage, onstage, dressing rooms, sound board, catering or remote recording truck — or I could come to the soundcheck in the afternoon and have dinner with the artists or the manager before the show. I’d just ask my secretary to book me into the same hotel, and order a car to pick me up from the airport and take me to the venue or to the hotel. It was a wonderfully privileged situation, and these excursions were regarded as routine, right down to the town cars or limos.
And then, of course, there was always a party after the show; these have naturally become a little more difficult to recall as time goes by…. but I phoned Ted in his hotel room one night after a show, and he said to come on up. When I arrived, the door was slightly ajar, and I walked in to find him sitting up in bed with a girl on either side of him and a glass of warm milk on the night table (Ted doesn’t drink). The girls appeared to be around 15, and when I asked him about this later on, he told me that he had spoken with their parents and secured permission for them to be with him at the show, under his supervision. He convinced their parents that they were actually better off with him than with some careless young high school kid who might be drinking and driving, or taking drugs of one kind or another.
We made the move to LA in the summer of 1978. I recall driving to the Record Plant one day in the late ’70s and hearing a song on the radio that I had produced. It was always a thrill to hear one of your songs on the radio – you’d imagine people hearing it all across the listening area, hoping they were enjoying it, and marveling at the way it sounded on the air, pumped up by all that compression. As I pulled into the Record Plant parking lot, I switched off the ignition and sat there listening for a few seconds. Then I switched it off before it was over and went inside, because I realized there was a pretty good chance I’d hear some other song I’d produced on the way home, too.
At one point I had three LPs in the top 40 on the Billboard album chart. I was very happy about this, but in retrospect, I neglected to take proper advantage of my good fortune. I was too busy enjoying my work to think about making a production deal, or getting an imprint label, or actually starting a record label and financing it with a major’s funds and having them distribute it.
When I see what happened to the Geffen Records A&R staff, and how each of them became independently wealthy overnight when the label was sold, I know I probably should have been more aggressive in leveraging my success. But I was feeling so fortunate to be doing what I was doing that I simply didn’t feel that I should be doing anything more – I had an office and a secretary, but I wasn’t required to go to into work. I picked my own projects, and made my own schedule, and had a very liberal expense account.
I’d drive in to work at about noon, work until six or so, and break for dinner at about 6 :30. Most nights I’d have dinner with the band and the engineers, and it would be paid for by the recording budget. We’d go right across the studio parking lot to the fabulous French restaurant next door. We’d hang out by the bar, smoking and drinking for a half hour or 45 minutes, chatting with the folks who were working in other rooms at the studio, and then sit down for a nice meal. Rod Stewart and his drummer Carmine Appice used to hang out there nightly when they were recording. Some nights my wife Suky would bring the kids down and we’d all have dinner together. When we were finished, they’d go back to the house to do their homework, and we’d return to the studio to do more recording until about midnight.
The next day we’d resume the routine at noon or 1 PM. I had most weekends off. I was getting paid a nice salary, and the label had actually kicked in a little premium for me (and I do mean little). You see, finding and producing bands was really included in my job description. While I was a salaried producer, independent producers were making royalties of around 35 cents per album. Epic decided to give me 5 cents per record on Ted Nugent, and later on, with the help of an attorney, that was raised to 12 cents per album for Cheap Trick and Molly Hatchet records. With my salary, benefits, expense account, office and secretary, I was really in no position to protest, so I didn’t.