The Producers: Tommy’s Trials and Tribulations

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I called my daughters to talk about Michael Jackson, because I know how important he was to them when they were teenagers. Young people all over the world were saying, “Now I know how my parents felt when John Lennon died.” I told them I was shocked by Jackson’s death rather than saddened by it: I was fascinated by him as an artist but not emotionally involved with his music as I was with both Elvis’s and John Lennon’s.

My daughter Julia mentioned going to see the Jacksons’ Victory Tour in 1984 with me. I didn’t remember it at all. She told me in detail how I had taken her to see the show at the Forum in LA when she was in fourth grade, and how I asked the person in front of her to please sit down so she could see the stage. And she told me about the time when I was doing something at Westlake Sound with Twisted Sister while Michael was making Thriller. Julia and Nina came over to the studio for dinner, and apparently I took them in to meet him. They were over the moon about this, and Julia said they were “queens of the school” the next day because they had met Michael Jackson. It was nice to hear that.

Speaking of Twisted Sister, they were all New York natives, so they had no problem working in the New York area. I agreed to come east to do both the rehearsals and the basic tracks for their third album, Stay Hungry, and they agreed to come west for overdubs and mixing. We rehearsed out in Long Island for a few days, and in January of ’84 we set up at the New York Record Plant. Normally, load-in and setup took about a day, and we usually needed one more day to mike everything and dial it in so we’d be ready to roll tape. The first day went fine, but on the second day we weren’t able to arrive at a satisfactory rhythm-guitar sound for J.J. French, even though that’s all we worked on all day long.

By the third day we’d been through half the rental amps in Manhattan and weren’t too much closer to a good rhythm-guitar sound. It took us three days of experimentation and trial and error before we were able to attempt any recording. On the morning of the third day I woke up in my room at the Warwick Hotel, and I remember wanting to just stay in bed and cry — I was desperate to get a guitar sound. I was used to spending about an hour on this particular task, and now I just couldn’t see our frustration ever coming to an end. Eventually, of course, we overcame the problem somehow and managed to record the tracks, but I’ll always remember that project as the most difficult one of all in terms of establishing a basic sound for a band.

The sessions in Los Angeles went well at Cherokee Studios, and Dee Snyder and I established a little competitive routine on the video game outside the studio door; I think it was Mario Brothers, but it could’ve been Asteroids or something else. I do recall that it had a catchy little tune that played between turns, and Dee used to do a little dance to it. So at least we know he wasn’t miserable at the time.

After we finished the record I came east for a little vacation with my family, and we traveled to a site in New Hampshire where Twisted Sister was headlining an outdoor venue. My wife and I took my kids and stood offstage during the hot midday set. Afterward, we waited patiently in the dusty parking lot outside the band’s bus … and waited … and waited … until we simply ran out of time, gave up, and left. The bus’s door remained closed with the band inside. I think we waited about an hour.

The aftershow backstage visit was certainly something with which I was familiar. If you went back to the band’s bus, they’d usually ask you in after they’d finished cleaning up or having a drink — within 10 or 15 minutes, anyway. In this case, Dee had decided that we were not to be entertained on the bus. Not only that, but apparently no one in the band was allowed to speak to us once they were on board the bus. So there we stood, for about an hour, in the hot parking lot while the band remained huddled in their air-conditioned bus with blacked-out windows. We got the message. Up to this point I hadn’t heard a contrary word from anyone in the band. I was really mystified by their behavior, but I let it go.

During the years that followed, I observed a pretty constant stream of abuse from Dee in the press. It continued when he got his radio show, and I would occasionally see something abusive from him on the Internet. I finally e-mailed his show, requesting equal time. I never heard from him.

I haven’t spoken with the guy since we left Cherokee, but he must have some fairly serious issues, as he continues to beat this very dead horse even now, a long 25 years after the fact. I have seen J.J., but he seemed reluctant to speak for Mr. Snyder. I assume I’ll never again speak with Dee, and that he’ll probably continue to create uncomplimentary stories about me in perpetuity. I guess it makes him happy.

Doug Morris was a pretty happy guy after we’d sold three million copies of Stay Hungry, but Dee insisted on getting Dieter Dierks to produce the band’s next album. I love Dieter’s work with Accept, but the Twisted Sister record he did, Come Out and Play (1985), fell far short of Stay Hungry. Realizing that this was obviously a dead end, I turned my attention to Dokken.

In the spring of ’84, we began recording Tooth and Nail at Cherokee. Tom Zutaut had told me a little about the band’s internal dynamics, mentioning along the way that guitarist George Lynch and singer Don Dokken couldn’t tolerate each other, but I could easily see that drummer Mick Brown and bassist Jeff Pilson were easygoing, agreeable, and professional. As the sessions progressed, engineer Geoff Workman, who apparently had some serious issues of his own, began to tell the band that I knew very little about my job and that he was, in fact, doing all the hard work and all the creative thinking. He also put together an E2 tape using random control-room conversations that he recorded without my knowledge. He edited them in order to create sentences I never uttered. Eventually he played the tape for George, who became irate and paranoid.

We were nearing the end of the recording phase, and George had a few lead breaks left to do. He’d already recorded the lead break to the title track; it was clearly one of the most brilliant guitar solos I’d ever heard. When he played it, it took only three or four “punches” (the process of repairing errors on a specific part of a track) in order to get it perfect. While he was working on another lead break, and not doing anything particularly wonderful besides shredding, I spoke to him over the talkback mike, telling him that I felt he was playing fast but not playing anything as important as what he’d played for the “Tooth and Nail” lead break. I told him how strong that solo was, and that it actually took the listener from point A to point B and that it had a “shape” to it. (You guitar players out there should really hear this outstanding solo.)

George responded to my little pep talk by slamming his guitar on the studio floor and pitching a first-class fit. He was so angry that I actually said to him, “George, you’re so angry that you might feel better if you could hit me. Would you like to hit me, George?” He declined. I called the session off and went home, unaware that he was under the impression that the tape Workman had played for him was authentic. It was years before I learned the extent of the damage Workman had done. He wound up leaving the state in order to escape debtor’s court; he owed significant sums of money to a large number of people, including $5,000 I’d advanced him as a loan.

Meanwhile, I was still scratching my head, wondering what exactly was going on with these musicians, and why I was having such a tough time with them. I spoke with Cliff Burnstein, who managed Dokken, and we reached a pretty quick agreement. I agreed to have my colleague Michael Wagener mix the album; he’d engineered for Roy Thomas Baker and was a good friend of Zutaut’s. So I left early and took my family to Italy for a summer vacation.

When I returned, I found a cassette of comparatively middle-of-the-road songs from a couple named George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam. They had a little songwriting studio and had made a demo of their songs featuring themselves as the singers. Even though they were professional songwriters who usually gave their material to others, they sounded really good singing their own material. I listened to the tape several times, each time enjoying it more, and wondering why on earth they would ever be interested in me as a producer. I finally called them and told them my thoughts, and they replied, “You seem to be able to get the best out of every artist you work with.”

They’d written “How Will I Know” for Whitney Houston, and they were on the A&M label. I liked A&M but had never done anything for them. I met George and Shannon, who recorded as Boy Meets Girl, and found them to be absolutely delightful people. He and I worked very well together on the tracks, and I enjoyed this new musical territory. The self-titled album I produced for them wasn’t a big hit, but “Waiting for a Star to Fall” was a huge single a few years later. I’m still in touch with George today, and they’re still writing successful songs together.

I don’t recall my first contact with the band Krokus, but I was contacted by someone on their behalf, and although I wasn’t a big fan of their music, I did know about them. I thought this might be a very good project for me, since they had an established sales base and they played the kind of music I was used to producing. To be candid, I think I viewed it as a business arrangement as much as I did a creative project — and that could be the reason why the result, Change of Address (1986), never did anything special.

We rehearsed in Switzerland, and it was pleasant enough. Then the band came over here and we recorded the album. But I feel like there should’ve been at least one overriding musical reason to do Change of Address. When we handed in the rough mixes — the band was on Arista, and Clive Davis always liked to hear things as early as possible — Clive said he didn’t hear a single, so we came up with the idea of covering Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out.”

In order to make it authentic, I invited my daughter’s fifth-grade class to come into the studio and do the choruses and bridge. They did a wonderful job, and I think the whole finished version of the song is great — but I think some songs are just untouchable because they’re such classics. Anyway, it wasn’t a hit, but I still prefer it to the original version.

In March of ’85 Mötley Crüe started recording tracks for Theater of Pain at a small studio called Pasha on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood; we moved to the Record Plant to do vocals and guitar leads later on that month. I remember it as one of their more difficult albums since Tommy and Nikki were heavily into heroin at the time. Tommy was dating a number of different exotic women, including Tawny Kitaen, and their visits to the studio were always a highlight of the evening.

I felt that the quality of the material was suffering as a result of the band’s very stressful and demanding schedule, and only four songs really stood out for me: “Home Sweet Home,” “City Boy Blues,” “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room,” and “Keep Your Eye on the Money.” Tommy played a nice grand piano on “Home Sweet Home” that we built the song around. And we found an ex-NFL player to provide the incredibly low voice for the line “Smokin’ ain’t allowed in school” on “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room.” Generally, Theater of Pain was a lot of hard work, and as soon as we were finished, the band went right back out on the road, where they were now spending most of their lives.




  • James B

    Sucks to hear that people still seem to blame you for their misfortune. To be honest, no one has ever confused me with a Crue fan, but Home sweet Home and Smokin in the Boys room are good rock songs no matter who played them. I always thought of Home sweet Home as being such an honest song and not really what I expected from Motley Crue. Thank you

  • addictedtovinyl

    Tom, Funny that Twisted Sister made such a big stink about what a horrible job you did with Stay Hungry….to the point of re-recording it a few years back as “Still Hungry.”

    Yet apparently now, they are okay with it again, okay enough to put out a 25th anniversary edition.

    Good stories!

  • http://www.bullz-eye.com DavidMedsker

    Reading these stories actually make me glad that I never pursued a career as a producer (it was my major in college). I would have had little patience for people who would take the time to edit together secretly recorded conversations in order to turn my client against me.

    Fittingly enough, Dee Snider raved about Geoff Workman in my interview with him. Go figure.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    I think one of the major problems is that some producers are set up from the get-go. The label gets a band's already massive ego near supernova, proclaiming every turd nugget that spills from them to be “f-ing golden!” (Thank you, Blago) and then the producer is assigned and has to polish those turds until they shine. It has to suck to be the one trying to break it to them that, no, take one was not good and the whole run needs to be stepped up and re-recorded.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    I think one of the major problems is that some producers are set up from the get-go. The label gets a band's already massive ego near supernova, proclaiming every turd nugget that spills from them to be “f-ing golden!” (Thank you, Blago) and then the producer is assigned and has to polish those turds until they shine. It has to suck to be the one trying to break it to them that, no, take one was not good and the whole run needs to be stepped up and re-recorded.

  • http://www.bullz-eye.com DavidMedsker

    Reading these stories actually make me glad that I never pursued a career as a producer (it was my major in college). I would have had little patience for people who would take the time to edit together secretly recorded conversations in order to turn my client against me.

    Fittingly enough, Dee Snider raved about Geoff Workman in my interview with him. Go figure.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    I think one of the major problems is that some producers are set up from the get-go. The label gets a band's already massive ego near supernova, proclaiming every turd nugget that spills from them to be “f-ing golden!” (Thank you, Blago) and then the producer is assigned and has to polish those turds until they shine. It has to suck to be the one trying to break it to them that, no, take one was not good and the whole run needs to be stepped up and re-recorded.