“He’s a magic man…”
At last the roadies dried off, the red wine stains and smears of pate had been washed from Ciambotti’s red suspenders, and our Phonogram deal was finalized. The songs were mostly chosen. And the label had chosen a producer for us, a young South African named Mutt Lange. Nick Lowe wasn’t mainstream enough for Phonogram. They had slick, corporate offices. Their employees were more wine bar than pub, with suits, fancy leather coats, and ‘70s blow-dry accountant hair. Not all of them, mind you, there were A&R guys like Nigel Grainge who were as hip as the next dude, but Nick was the Jesus of Cool, and much like the regular Jesus, wasn’t the right fit for a major label at that point.
Robert John “Mutt” Lange is now a household name in the music business, a producer extraordinaire and the writer of stacks of multi-platinum records. While he is publicity-shy and doesn’t like to be seen in the world of the glitterati, he’s been the creative hand and ears behind AC/DC, Def Leppard, Foreigner, many of the number one hits of the last thirty years, including his country-star creation and now ex-wife Shania Twain. He’s certainly one of the top producers and songwriters of the era. When we met him, he’d recently emigrated from South Africa, where he and his first wife, Stevie van Lange, an incredible singer in her own right, had dominated the charts and the jingles market for years. He’d wanted a bigger pond in which to swim, so he made the logical jump to England. He looked like a surfer, with longish, curly blonde hair. He was of Boer descent and had that ruddy Dutch complexion.
Mutt wanted to do the album at Rockfield Studios in Monmouthshire. He liked to work out there, a converted farm a few miles to the west of the medieval walled town of Monmouth, in the Welsh border hills, far away from the distractions of London. (It was his home base for cutting tracks, though he mixed at Trident Studios in London.) What a picturesque location. Monmouth sits on a hill around which curls the River Mon. The western entry to the town is over an arched tower bridge that dates back eight hundred years. The old cobbled streets were narrow and winding, obeying the ancient layout of the town, which must go back at least a couple of thousand years, if not more. It is a strategic place, a hill overlooking a river valley. There was a rather ugly statue of Plantagenet native son Henry V in one tiny square. My literate-minded mother always called him Hank Cinque (“The Fifth,” in French, which came out “Hank Sank.”) I knew the eternally-young Hank from Sir Laurence Olivier’s magnificent fifties movie of the Shakespeare play, “Henry V.”
There was a tourist element to the town, but Monmouth was mostly a regional farming and shopping center. The surrounding countryside was rolling grassy hills several hundred feet high, with sheep on the heights and dairy farms in the narrow, stream-bottomed valleys. Low stone walls separated the fields. The farm houses were one or two-storied and boxy, with thick walls and small windows. The winters are cold in Wales. On a cloudy winter’s day, cold and windy, thin ribbons of blue smoke from the farmhouse chimneys trailed across the frosted fields.
There was a feeling of another, ancient time out in the hills. Here and there a Norman church with a stone bell-tower rose above centuries-old gravestones. But the churches were Johnny-come-lately interlopers, like little fortresses that sought to keep the older, more primal forces of nature and ancient spirits of dale and hillock at bay. The country was a place for long, wistful Dylan Thomas walks, walks through time, time twisting like smoke in the gravestones, the stones growing mold and stained with the tears of the women who wailed on the day our blessed Savior died, as the whiskey-song of our ancestors had it. Since I have Welsh blood, I imagined that I was back in my birth-country. I loved the openness, it was very much like my native west Marin. London was a fantastic place, but cities drive me crazy after a short while. I get claustrophobic. The dark-watered River Wye wandered past Rockfield. I bought some local flies—one that looked a bit like our “renegade” from Montana that was called a “coch-y-bandu” here—and caught trout and dace and a few strong, twisty, slimy, disgusting eels that fought hard but disappointed me by their non-troutness when brought to hand.
The studio compound looked like any other farm at first glance. There was a quadrangle of one- or two-story, older whitewashed buildings and barns with a coating of many cold seasons’ grey mud splatters working up from the wet ground, as if the Earth was determined to eventually claim the buildings from the ground up and return them to the dirt from which they had been fashioned. The quadrangle enclosed a large working farm yard, complete with a funky tractor and a few semi-rusted harrowing tools or whatever they were. There were a couple of scattered out-buildings and cottages as well. All looked worn and organic, like it had grown out of the ground, just another sheep farm, muddy and unkempt in a nice, workaday way.
But the sheep farm was a clever disguise, a funky façade, inside it was another matter. The interiors had been redone in bright knotty pine and gleaming white sheetrock: ski-chalet modern, Scandinavian in feel. Everything was bright and spotless, open and airy. After the rat-holes we’d been staying in, it was like going to a Nordic resort. Most of the tourist hotels we’d been put in had limited plumbing and no kitchen facilities. A good bath was three inches of lukewarm greenish water in a cold, drafty bathroom down the hall. As Americans, we were spoiled, plumbing and otherwise. So with its hot showers and modern kitchen, Rockfield was a very welcome oasis.
The studios themselves were fully state of the art, with Trident mixing consoles and all the up-to-date gear. There were four or five studios scattered throughout the complex. We were in one of the larger ones.
Mutt was a classic studio rat. He started work around ten in the morning and went until two or three the next morning. There was a second engineer, but Mutt was hands-on with the board. He was already highly accomplished, but as it turned out he was putting the last pieces of his own talent arsenal together. Soon, he would be among the best there ever was.
We rehearsed for a week or so, as I recall, and then started cutting, one or two basic tracks a day. There were false starts and many takes that needed to be just a little faster or slower, a bit tighter, or maybe the energy wasn’t quite right. This was still before midi, before digital. We were on recording two-inch tape, twenty-four tracks. You had to get it right, because there was no going back and making digital edits like there is now.
Mutt was a perfectionist. That’s an understatement. Mutt was an ultra perfectionist, a man truly dedicated to getting each phrase, each breath, each picked note, exactly right. I got sick of the word “baby,” and vowed to never use it in a song again, because on Baby, Just Take Another Look (a pseudo-soul song I hated anyway) Mutt had me sing the damn word thirty different ways. It was exasperating. His approach to lead vocals was new to me. He wanted me to sing in an extremely breathy fashion, almost whispering. I was used to singing full out, going for the high notes by belting. I thought harder and louder was the way. He was right, of course. I would come to see it his way, though it would take me years to develop the technique for properly delivering a recoded vocal. But by then I wouldn’t be making albums for major labels.
He loved to double, triple, or even quadruple-track background vocals, mix those all down to one track, and repeat the process, then do it again and again. On some songs there were thirty-two vocal tracks. That produced a smooth, wide vocal sound that receded in the mix. It was the sound the Eagles were scoring with. It meant a lot of work for us. We were forced to take our singing to a new level. There was no letting a poor take pass, it had to be spot-on every time. Since we had five singers and complicated vocal arrangements, it could be infuriating, especially when it was someone else screwing up the takes. But the results were awesome.
Mutt and McFee made a good team. Mutt appreciated John’s virtuosity. Who wouldn’t? McFee is a producer’s dream, a player with ultimate skill who is also a perfectionist by nature. Sean Hopper was a keen studio student who spent much of his time at Mutt’s side, learning the board. In between cutting the basic tracks and doing the vocal sessions, there was a lot of time spent trying various guitar and steel overdubs. McFee did some amazing stuff. For the rest of us, it was tedious. It was fun to finally be in the studio, but recording an album is a trying thing. It’s exciting, anxiety-producing, and, ironically, extremely boring, with a lot of personal down time. There was ping-pong or trips to town if Frank was at Rockfield with the van, though he found an endless string of reasons to stay in London, chasing women. I took my Dylan Thomas walks and went fishing.
The music had to be the best it could be. There were questions about the material. It was still that mish-mash of R&B and pop-rock. The chief hope lay in a couple of mid-tempo songs, Love, Love and Streets of London. We had that horrible imitation Jackson Five kind of song, Baby (I hate that word!) Take Another Look, which featured an a cappella bit. Oh man, it wasn’t Thin Lizzy and it sure wasn’t the Eagles. There was a Brit slang word that summed it up succinctly: cringe-worthy. All we could do was make it sound as good as possible, then wait and see what happened. Also in the mix was my song, the one that Twiggy had recorded, I Lie Awake and Dream of You, which Mutt said would have been a number one song in South Africa. Unfortunately, we weren’t in South Africa, we were in England with our eyes on America. We wanted the album to be more rock than it was, but we—or should I say, I—didn’t know how to do that. We were stuck with the songs. There was no time to write more.
But we weren’t freaking out at this stage. We were having fun. Mutt was a serious guy who lived to work, but he also had a patient, yet razor-sharp, sense of studio humor. There are two kinds of studio humor: Headphone banter and practical jokes. Their common feature is that the laughs of the many come at the expense of the one. Headphone banter is a way of letting off nervous energy, often by picking up on someone’s clam (a bad note) or bad take. It’s spontaneous and quick. But a good practical joke needs a little planning, timing, an inspired set-up, and an aware, quick mind like Mutt’s.
We had one riff that didn’t have lyrics. It was a little more rock than the others—and rock was what we lacked—so we needed to finish it. We worked up some words and it became The Storm, a God-awful piece of nonsense if I ever heard (or wrote) one, which I unfortunately did. Mutt had Huey do a bunch of harmonica overdubs on it. Huey also sang some low vocal bits. The storm won’t last, the storm won’t last forever. Everyone today is used to hearing Huey sing way up there in the register, but at that time he was down in bluesy frog-tone land, Howlin’ Wolf territory. He was also grunting quite a bit in between breaths on the harp, something some of us—including yours truly—do unconsciously. In the headphones, Huey heard the music, not himself making those porcine noises. But in the control room, Mutt had Huey soloed on the big speakers, drenched in a cavernous reverb. He sounded like a giant turtle having an orgasm at the bottom of a hidden submarine base. We were literally rolling on the floor, peeing on ourselves.
Mutt kept encouraging Huey to do more, more, more, “just one more take, mate!” Then, once Mutt had a good sequence of grunts lined up, he said into the talkback mic (sounding pleased), “Great, Huey, come on in and have a listen.” Huey came in out of the booth and stood in front of the big speakers. The turtle that roared. We tried, but couldn’t hold our laughter in, and the poor guy realized that he’d been had.