Epic Fail

His track record is unassailable: He’s earned 23 Gold & Platinum albums. As A&R for Epic records in the 70’s, he signed Cheap Trick, Molly Hatchet, Ted Nugent, Boston, and REO Speedwagon. As a producer for Epic Records from 1970-1982, he produced career-making records by all of the iconic rockers mentioned above. Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you own an album with his name on it. “Heaven Tonight”, anyone? “Cat Scratch Fever”? “Boston”? Maybe some of his 80’s work… Twisted Sister’s “Stay Hungry”? Dokken’s “Tooth and Nail”? Motley Crue’s “Theatre of Pain”?

Tom Werman practically produced the soundtrack to my teens.

Werman brought Kiss, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Rush to CBS, and was turned down in all three cases. Tell me, did this guy not OWN hard rock in the mid 70’s?

Most of the bands Werman worked with had their biggest albums with him; their commercial breakthroughs. Most bands he worked with stayed with him for a number of albums before changing producers. Motley Crue and Cheap Trick each did three records with Werman; Molly Hatchet 5, Nugent 6. And… most bands began their commercial decline after moving on to work with other producers.

Tom Werman’s job was, as he described it, to ‘get bands on the radio’. ‘Cat Scratch Fever’. ‘Surrender’. ‘Flirtin’ with Disaster’… I’ll bet you first heard these songs on the radio. And they are still played on the radio today, 35 years later. Is there any question as to how well this guy did his job?

Yes.

A few years back it somehow became fashionable to dump on Tom Werman. Musicians he had worked with 2 or 3 decades previous were suddenly complaining that the records they made with him were too safe, too commercial, ‘not an accurate representation of our sound’. Why these established rock stars feel the need to look back on their most successful period and complain about the records that established their careers, ‘blaming’ Werman for their biggest hits, is just plain bizarre.

The most infamous instance was probably the war of words between Werman and Nikki Sixx (feel so silly typing that name). Sixx (tee hee) wrote a book about what a super-cool guy he is and how heroin is bad but it’s also very rock ‘n roll, so hey, that’s what decadent rock stars do, dude. In this book, in between blaming his girlfriend for every drug relapse and blaming every drug relapse on his girlfriend, ‘ol Nikk talks trash about Werman, accusing him of spending more time on the phone than producing the Crue’s record. Super-hero Nikki than had to assume control and see the album through. Riiiiight. Werman felt the need to defend himself, and wrote an op/ed piece for the New York Times refuting Sixx’s story and pointing out the inherent absurdities in the version of events as described by Nikki. This, in turn, prompted Nikki to post a response on blabbermouth.com, in which he threatened to ‘out’ Werman to his wife for the partying he allegedly did during the recording of the album. What a douche. Werman responded again. The whole sad saga is encapsulated here:

http://www.blabbermouth.net/news/producer-tom-werman-fires-back-at-nikki-sixx/

Dee Snider played the same game while promoting Twisted Sister’s re-recording of their triple-platinum “Stay Hungry”, titled “Still Hungry”. Besides his production credit, Werman is also credited as ‘co-arranger’ on “Stay Hungry”, and it’s widely known that he reworked some of the songs to make them more commercial. Based on the results, I’d say he was successful. But not Dee. Snider claims that Werman had nothing to do with the success of “Stay Hungry”, that his work on the record came close to ‘ruining’ it, and that he didn’t want ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ and I Wanna Rock’ to be on the record… Really, Dee? This is the guy who gets hard rock bands on the radio. The guy who’s number one priority is making sure there’s a single on the record. He didn’t think those 2 tunes were viable? Sounds like somebody’s trying to spark some controversy to sell their new album (which ultimately sold about 30,00 units, just a tad short of triple platinum). Snider goes on to claim that working with Werman was the reason that Twisted Sister’s next album (produced by Dieter Dierks) completely sucked, as poor Dee was too busy fighting against bad ol’ Tom Werman’s commercial considerations while recording “Stay Hungry” to write decent songs for the follow-up record. Really. Dee Snider’s take on Werman and “Stay Hungry” can be found here:

http://www.bullz-eye.com/music/interviews/2009/dee_snider.htm

Cheap Trick, who Werman continues to speak very highly of, have stated publicly that they were displeased with the sound of their Werman-produced records– but only started talking about it after about 25 years. Interesting that they did their 3rd and 4th lps with Werman, as well… Like Twisted Sister, they too, re-recorded one of their ‘Werman Era’ albums, “In Color”, with infamous indie producer Steve Albini; however, they have never released the record. I’ve heard it; it’s a lot more live-sounding than Werman’s recording, a lot more raw, much like CT’s first album, and maybe a lot closer to what the band were hoping for sonically back in 1977. But is it a better record than Werman’s? No. If the Albini version of “In Color” were released in ’77 as Cheap Trick’s second album, things would have been very different for this band. The Albini “In Color” leaked onto the internet years ago and is fairly easy to obtain. Just not here.

What we have here is the classic battle of art vs. commerce, with musicians on the ‘art’ side and record producers representing ‘commerce’. While Werman undoubtedly steered these bands in a more commercial direction than they were comfortable with, no one can argue that he didn’t do his job (‘getting bands on the radio’) exceedingly well. And perhaps these musicians need to take a moment, as they look back on their 30-year careers, and ask themselves if they’d even have 30-year careers to look back on if they hadn’t had the good fortune to work with Tom Werman… Would they really trade the gold and platinum albums and the hit singles that were the foundation of their success, assured their longevity and cemented their iconic status for generations to come, for complete creative control over their records, commercial success be damned?      

Tom Werman’s track record speaks for itself. However, if you want to read Werman’s story as told by Werman, he writes a regular column at popdose.com where he relates his experiences recording some of the greatest records by the greatest rock bands of all time, before they went all douche-y. I highly recommend that you read his stuff here:

http://popdose.com/the-producers-tom-werman-chapter-one/

Werman now owns and runs a bed & breakfast out in Lenox, MA, called Stonover Farm. He once posted his personal email on popdose, but has since changed it to an unpublished address (he can, however, be contacted through the Stover Farm site). If you email him, he will likely answer. I highly recommend that you do so. Thank him for all the great music. I did.

 

 

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Van Halen: The Ramones of Heavy Metal

OK, calm down… Allow me to explain.

Punk Rock was a largely a reaction to the excessive, overblown rock music of the 70’s. Bands like Yes and Emerson Lake & Palmer, with their orchestrated side-long concept pieces, and the endless improvisational ego trip jamming of bands like Deep Purple and King Crimson. Tales from Topographic Oceans… Need I say more? Actually, Johnny Rotten’s “I Hate Pink Floyd” t-shirt said it all. Punk cleared away everything that came before it and re-set the table with a new aesthetic, new ethos, new rules (or no rules). No matter how you feel about it, it was a fresh start for rock n roll, and a sorely needed one.

ramones-ramones

This new aesthetic crystallized in the form of the 1976 debut album by the Ramones. The Ramones used elements of the music they grew up with as a template, specifically the surf, bubblegum and girl groups of the 50’s and 60’s, and stripped rock music down to its basic elements while adding a primitive, just-the-basics delivery. The resulting record, simply titled ‘Ramones’, is a masterpiece of economy and raw intensity. The longest song on the record clocks in at an epic 2:35; the brevity of the songs maximized their impact. There are no guitar solos anywhere to be found, in a deliberate attempt to distance the band from the hard rock guitar wizards of the day. Guitars were placed on the right channel; the bass on the left, adding to the street level, bargain basement vibe. The ‘Ramones’ version of rock and roll was a slap in the face to the mid-70’s status quo; it reminded us all of what was great about rock and roll, and how far away from that it had evolved.

Heavy Metal was out of gas toward the end of the 70’s. The punk rock explosion had changed the rules, drastically changed the landscape, and generally shaken things up in a major way for most of the hard rock and heavy metal bands that had dominated the scene in the early 70’s. Most of metal’s standard bearers had either gone the way of the dinosaurs, or drastically lost their way; Led Zeppelin was MIA, Deep Purple had imploded, and Black Sabbath had forgotten how to be Black Sabbath. Once-mighty hard rock bands became… confused, and reacted in interesting ways to being knocked off the throne. Ian Gillan was fronting a jazz-rock combo. Several bands had given in and ‘gone disco’; others tried to maintain credibility by dabbling in the punk ethos themselves (if Queen’s “Sheer Heart Attack” from their 1977 album ‘News of the World’ isn’t a direct response to the Ramones, then I don’t know what is). Lyrically, the impact was also evident, as in Robin Trower’s ‘Victims of the Fury’, or the entire concept of Pink Floyd’s “Animals”, or the title of Rush’s 1977 album, “A Farewell to Kings”. Many young metal fans (like me) were waiting for a new band to emerge and end the meandering experimentation, and re-invent, redefine, re-energize heavy metal music.

van-halen-1978

Blasting out of nowhere in 1978, Van Halen’s debut album did all of that and more. A true wake-up call to the metal faithful, ‘Van Halen’ blew the doors off of the hard rock scene and rewrote the rule book for a new generation of metal bands. VH took the music they grew up with, mainly early metal, AM top 40, Soul and Funk, placed it all in a hard rock context by playing it with the basic guitar/bass/drums instrumentation, and created a sound and style that changed the course of rock music forever.

Like ‘Ramones’, the sound of ‘Van Halen’ was itself a reaction to the played out, unfocused hard rock produced in the years just before its release. If ‘Ramones’ was a slap in the face, then ‘Van Halen’ was a swift kick in the ass. The collection of short, powerful songs explodes with a dynamic intensity. The production is stark, sounding like four guys playing together with minimal overdubs, guitar on one side; bass on the other… Hmmm… but the performances are jam-packed with excitement. Van Halen didn’t invent heavy metal on ‘Van Halen’, but rather re-invented it for a new generation. The record single-handedly jump-started the metal movement on the US side of the pond, just as the NWOBHM (itself a reaction to Punk) would on the UK side. Simply put, it was a game-changing debut, and one that “reminded us all of what was great about heavy metal, and how far away from that it had evolved.”

Oh, and, uh, contrary to the Ramones’ debut, there are a few guitar solos on the VH debut… So yes, musically, the differences between these two records are obvious, but the level of impact and influence they had on their respective genres is equal and enormous. Punk Rock’s seismic shockwave had crossed genre borders and had taken root in the realm of Heavy Metal (or, what Creem Magazine once called ‘Dinosaur Music’ in 1977), where its impact would manifest itself in a young upstart band from California that would itself shake up a complacent and confused Metal Nation. Thus, Van Halen became the Ramones of Heavy Metal. Need I mention Track 2, Side 2?