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This time I have a special treat for many of you – An interview with Producer extra-ordinaire Bob Ezrin. And WHAT an interview it is! Very revealing in many ways, and I really do hope his attitude towards “faggots” may have changed a bit since 1973.
Anyway – Bob is a favourite producer of mine, and any record he has a hand in is a potential classic. Love his extensive work with Alice Cooper and the records he produced for Kiss, Berlin, Hanoi Rocks, Kansas and Pink Floyd. Enjoy…
The Square and the Faggots
Nick Kent talks to the man behind Lou Reed and Alice
“Detachment. Yes, that`s it exactly. We were both talking about that. Lou said last night: `This album is an exercise in detachment and apathy`. I mean, that sense of detachment is something most people would give their left nuts to attain – and it just oozes out of Louis so naturally.”
Bob Ezrin`s getting excited now. He`s had maybe three hours sleep over the past 48 hours and he`s lounging around one of the control rooms in Morgan Studios, waiting for Lou Reed and the boys to appear. Outside in the restaurant, members of Black Sabbath wander around looking slightly redundant while the usual hordes of roadies sit around getting drunk.
Just over the road, Yes are working on their current worldshattering epic masterwork.
Here in Studio A, Ezrin and Reed are currently working within a deadline of maybe two weeks. That`s tolerable though, because Ezrin claims to have finally found the perfect medium for Reed`s seemingly-jaded brilliance to florish once more, and both he and Lou seem positively radiant at the immediate fruits of their relationship.
“Sure I`m acquainted with all that `Lou Reed – a shadow of his former self` stuff. I believed it myself, right up until now. But Louis has always been misunderstood, particularly by his producers. He`s not a rock`n`roller or really even a songwriter as much as he is a dramatic poet.
“When I showed the lyrics of the new songs to my wife, she immediately drew a parallel with the writer Lawrence Durrell: the way in which Durrell in a sentence captures a whole landscape, an essence, y`know….
“In one line Lou Reed can convey a whole space, a flavour, an attitude. He`s almost a 70s street consciousness version of Jack Kerouac. You know the way the record company put him out as the Phantom of Rock? That was so ridiculous, because he`s so tangible, like a James Dean image – no, not so much James Dean, more Montgomery Clift.”
Ezrin is explaining the motives surrounding his own approach to the task of producing Lou Reed. He agrees with the statement that Reed`s last two albums were badly conceived.
“I feel that both of the producers treated Lou Reed like a rock`n`roll performer, which is wrong. I mean if you put Louis in a studio with a rock`n`roll band he`ll automatically sing loud, which is disastrous because his voice isn`t suited for that.
“The one track that captured Lou Reed for me – and it was Bowie`s only real triumph during his production – was `Walk On The Wild Side`. Perfect. The backing track portrayed the street – it was perfect sub-scoring and very much subordinate to the voice, so when Louis says `the coloured girls`, they suddenly appear.
“But on `Transformer` I thought those gay consciousness songs were terribly overdone. I don`t even want to speculate on the amount of influence that was exerted on Lou in that direction, and you know what I mean by that. We weren`t there, so who`s to say what went down”.
“Louis first came to see me up in Toronto. Dennis Katz, his manager, contacted me and asked me if I was interested – which I was, though I had certain reservations.
“Anyway we talked, discussed the tunes and storylines, threw ideas around and pretty much left with a good general understanding of how we were going to treat it, which is to incorporate this whole cinematic aspect and style. A total filmic approach.
“Lou claimed that the meeting turned him onto a whole new style of writing, which was bullshit. Lou Reed always writes in the same style and it`s great. Actually the first time he played me the songs – I`ll have to admit this and I don`t think he`ll mind me saying it – they sounded so terrible I felt like just giving up and telling him to find another producer.
“But then I took the lyrics home and it just all started to piece together. Right now, rather than being a shadow of his former self I think we`ve just discovered Louis` real identity and now it`s all down to channeling it out in the right way.”
The above words probably sound incredibly glib until one becomes acquainted with the fact that Bob Ezrin currently packs a fair credibility among those-who-know (the presence of a striking array of musicians – Jack Bruce, Aynsley Dunbar, Steve Winwood et al – now working on Reed`s album has not a little to do with Ezrin`s exceptional reputation as a producer within the business).
His list of actual production credits is small and includes as many commercial failures as successes – albums like Flo and Eddie`s second effort, a one-off record from a Michigan power trio called Ursa Major and Mitch Ryder`s Detroit (a disgracefully underrated work, more than worth the effort of searching out from the reject piles) sold an almost negligible amount.
But then that`s all more than counter-balanced by the fact that Ezrin has probably been more responsible than anyone else for transforming Alice Cooper from a band of musically dire dementoids whose appeal was more or less confined to peeping toms and such characters into some of the finest and most musically viable trash on the boards.
Now there MUST be a few neat stories to be gleaned from the aforementioned shift of stylistic emphasis. Mr. Ezrin, if you please:
“The Coopers were my first ever project. I was hired by Nimbus 9 (a production company formed in Canada) basically as a management consultant, not as a producer – I did stuff like Coke jingles, never anything like a group.
“Anyway I went up to the office one day and everyone was in hysterics. The cover of `Easy Action` (Alice Cooper`s second abortive attempt at making an album) was laying around – and we were all really straight guys y`know – I mean, I was never really that much into rock`n`roll. I had arrived at it more or less through things like Simon and Garfunkel.
“Anyway we put on the album and just broke up laughing. We didn`t know if Alice Cooper was a guy or a chick and eventually it became a standing joke around the office that if anyone messed up that week we`d be forced to go and work with Alice Cooper.
A persistent Alice Cooper road manager, commissioned by manager Shep Gordon to get Jack Richardson – another Nimbus producer – for Cooper`s future recordings put the heat on Ezrin in order to get him down to see the band.
“I wasn`t interested in the least. I hated the record, but this guy made my life such hell with his persistence that I reckoned that I`d go and see `em just so they`d get off my back.
“So I went to meet them at Toronto. I walked into their hotel and….these five guys – everyone of `em is a faggot, everyone of `em and they`re all after me. I can tell. The roadmanager is a faggot, the roadies are faggots.
“I`m sitting there in my bluejeans, with my short-hair, shaking inside, man, and here`s this guy Alice Cooper – his hair is stringy and down to his shoulders, his pants are so tight I can actually see his penis through the crotch – they`re slit at the side. He`s talking with a slight lisp….
“I just could not handle it. Anyway they said, `We`re great and we want a producer`. Finally we parted company and I was like so relieved. It was such a horrendous experience – I was such a straight guy before all this started – and I just forgot”.
More harassment by the Cooper minions forced Ezrin to witness the band at Max`s Kansas City.
“After the gig I went backstage. I didn`t know why, but I just thought the show had been great, and I went up to the band and said, `I think you guys can make hit records`, and they said, `That`s good – we think you can too`. It was a nice punk start.
“Actually I was still pretty scared because I still believed they were all faggots. It was just a riff someone had decided on as an image, but I`d just had those album covers to go on before so I didn`t know better.
“Anyway I moved to Detroit into a shoddy motel – hated Detroit – and the guys just crowded into the bedroom in the morning. We started to talk and they played me tapes. THE TAPES WERE HORRIBLE. And I mean, horrible! They said, `We like this sound, can we get it in the studio`. I almost threw up.
“The first thing we ever did was `Eighteen`. Their original arrangement was eight minutes long and had a lot of excess bullshit. You see, my job was first to transform stage arrangements into record arrangements, which was something they`d never bothered to consider. Ultimately it was a great rush to hear the 2 min. 38 secs. version. I knew it would be a hit from then on.”
“Eighteen” actually did become a hit, reaching No. 18 in the American charts, and is still arguably Cooper`s best single to date, sharing that accolade with “School`s Out”.
“Love It To Death”, the album that followed, was both their first critical and financial success.
The Coopers` days as an esoteric, bizarro trash delight were over, and Ezrin was most definitely their mentor in this respect. From then on, his work in the studio became more complex and demanding. Even session guitarists were often added to beef up the Coopers` sound.
“Steve Hunter played on a lot of `Billion Dollar Babies`. He`s my favourite guitarist and if you listen, there`s just no one else who could have played lead on `Generation Landslide` or that solo in `Sick Things` but him.
“Rick Derringer played the stinging guitar solo that I buried so effectively on `Under My Wheels` and the rhythm guitar on `Yeah, Yeah, Yeah`. Derringer was the first outsider to be involved in the Coopers` recordings. Glenn (Buxton) had problems – it was a woman or something – and he was just not learning his guitar parts.
“Finally it came to an ultimatum and one day the band walked into the studios in Chicago and saw this guy tuning up. Now Derringer`s a pro – it took him 15 seconds to tune up, and it took the Coopers two hours on average to tune up in a studio. Literally.
“Anyway they all watched him just do it and they just said `Shit`. That experience gave them a far more realistic approach to music.
“Actually in the studio they`re very humble, much easier to get on with than you`d imagine, quite open to suggestions.
“Dick Wagner was another guitarist we brought in – for `My Stars` as it happens, which is pretty complex with all those chord changes. Actually Wagner and I wrote `I Love The Dead`. Alice threw some lyrics in. They bought him out so don`t print that – no, print it. He deserves it as much as anyone.
“But mostly it`s the Coopers themselves playing on the records. Alice is always there on lyrics and he can write good melodies. Mike Bruce comes up with a lot of riffs. Actually it was Glenn Buxton who worked out the chord sequence of `School`s Out`.”
And how strong is the Coopers` singles consciousness in the studios?
“Alice has a strong sense of single consciousness. The rest of the band have a very strong sense of money….Perfectionists? No, they`re doing it to make money.
“Rock isn`t art. Yeah, it is trash – good trash entertainment and a good way to get rich. I`m reconciled to that belief to the point that I don`t even want to think about it.
“Technically, what I do isn`t trash. But I have no pretense about the rest of it. I mean, the Coopers aren`t really musicians or a rock`n`roll band. You can`t say that to `em now – they`ll be very upset but primarily they`re theatre. And the trick is – to make the music theatre.
“I don`t think it`s what Alice claims – which is to bring the music up to a point where audiences don`t think of us as purely theatrical. I`m just bringing the music up to the theatre level and injecting a little bit of myself into it, a lot of myself actually but it`s just my taste.
“I think that`s what a producer`s job is – to decide what should be done and what shouldn`t be used and if the group can`t cut it you should supply it for them.
“That`s the role I`ve always played for the Coopers and I`ve always been very careful to stick with that identity.”
By now, the studio has started to fill out. Aynsley Dunbar has appeared with a dour-faced Trevor Boulder in tow while guitarist Steve `Decator Gator` Hunter stumbles in. Lou Reed himself is in attendance now, very subdued, having had no sleep the night before.
He says nothing, a Scotch in his hand, while the play-back of the previous night`s work which features a truly dynamic spontaneous jam between Mssrs. Dunbar, Hunter and Jack Bruce finishes on the track “Caroline Says”.
The track “Lady Day” comes on next and Ezrin frantically goes through an impression of all the embellishments. The sound, with heavy, almost Procol Harum-styled keyboards and a powerful chorus, is reminiscent of Kurt Weil but in a cinematic as opposed to a theatrical mode.
This feeling follows through for “Men Of Good Fortune”, a marvellous Reed song perfectly defining through the lyrics and studied vocal attitude that sense of cold detachment which has always been Lou Reed`s greatest attribute and calling-card for greatness.
The track “The Bed” may well be the stand-out achievement of `Berlin`: a tragic ballad in the epic tradition, it sounded, from the rough tape I heard, Reed`s finest individual work since he left the Velvets and a remarkable departure from anything he has been involved in before. (Throughout the playbacks, Ezrin is passionately explaining how an orchestra is going to appear at such-and-such a point while a children`s chorus will be added to certain tracks.(We`re going to use the Ronettes on the chorus of “Caroline Says”).
Reed manages a slight smile. He looks healthier than since I last met him and the music I heard from the “Berlin” sessions leads me to believe that those of us who cast Reed off as a wasted talent will need to drastically re-think our policy.
Elton John – A big star in 1973, but no official fan club? This is what happens….
This number of the NME also contains articles/interviews with these people: Mick Jagger, Nazareth, Stackridge, Keith Moon, Mott the Hoople, James Taylor and Carly Simon, Robin Trower.