A Whizz of a Wiz

the_producer“Did you know there’s no Academy Award for producing?”-Stanley Moss in Wag the Dog

Years back I’d spend countless hours with a pair of Creative Directors I know trying to make sense of why the Grammy Awards needed to separately recognize the Song of the Year and the  Record of the Year.

The distinction we settled on was that Record of the Year was the producer’s award, which makes little sense once you realize that, unlike the Academy Awards, the Grammys do give an award for Producer of the Year.

I’ve been thinking about producers lately, prompted by the death of Sandy Pearlman last July. I’ll get back to Sandy. First, though, I want to consider the whole role. Before there were producers there were A&R men (and they were all men). A&R guys signed acts and tried to capture on wax whatever magic led to the signing.

I grew up singing along with Mitch Miller, as did many a mid 20th century lad and lass.

I grew up singing along with Mitch Miller, as did many a mid 20th century lad and lass.

So, actually, they were gate keepers. There are two ways to do that job: keeping them out or letting them in. Consider two contemporaries.

Mitch Miller, an oboist (when do you ever get to type that), was head of A&R at Columbia Records in the 1950s and early 1960s.  Mitch was a star in his own right with a TV show and these dreadful albums that my parents encouraged us to sing along with.

Mitch’s nod to modernity was to record these records with ‘The Gang.’ And, to be fair, he made a lot of money for Columbia and developed careers for Doris Day, Dinah Shore and Jo Stafford among others. They actually released some great pop records that are still worth hearing.

Yet Mitch was famously opposed to rock & roll, maybe as much as Sinatra. So much so that the man charged with finding new artists and sales opportunities for one of the nation’s major labels passed on Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and The Beatles. He did, though, live to the ripe old age of 99, passing in 2010 and still living in Manhattan.

John Hammond (r), with Bob Dylan (l) and Benny Goodman (c).Given Dylan's look I'm thinkking it's a mid-1970s photo.

John Hammond (r), with Bob Dylan (l) and Benny Goodman (c). Given Dylan’s look, I’m thinking it must be a mid-1970s photo.

Then there’s John, as in John Hammond who must have, nominally, worked for Miller. Hammond came from the musical branch of the Vanderbilt family–his sister married Benny Goodman and his son is a blues musician.

Hammond’s career spanned forty years. Here’s a partial list of people he signed or produced: Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Charlie Christian, Pete Seeger, Babatunde Olatunji, Bob Dylan, Mike Bloomfield, Bruce Springsteen
and Stevie Ray Vaughan. He produced the first Spirituals to Swing Concert in 1938, a watershed event held at Carnegie Hall. And he persuaded Columbia to reissue the Robert Johnson sides moldering in its vaults. I can’t help wondering if that Vanderbilt money bought freedom from Mitch’s decision-making.

You  probably see my point, though. It’s likely that an esoteric, age-old argument about the value of producers has its roots in this duo.

The album that broke Long Island's Blue Oyster Cult. Produced by Sandy Pearlman.

The album that broke Long Island’s Blue  Öyster Cult. Produced by Sandy Pearlman.

Which brings me back to Sandy. Sandy was the man responsible for the success of a rock band from Long Island. In fact, he was their manager and produced every one of their records.  Blue Öyster Cult was never my band but they had a monster hit–“Don’t Fear the Reaper”–just about the time I entered high school.

That’s the sort of thing that makes a producer’s name. So Sandy was set to make a commercial success of this new thing,  punk. That’s not a stretch, right? I mean, it just more loud guitar music.

His first foray was with The Dictators. Like their contemporaries, the New York Dolls, The Dictators occupied that space between the death of the 60s and the emergence of punk. Yet, I’d argue, one of the great mistakes in music history is misreading punk. Pick a band, The Dolls, The Dictators, the Ramones or Sex Pistols, and what you’ll find under the attitude and noise are tight pop songs. There’s a reason Johnny Thunders covered ‘Great Big Kiss‘ and it wasn’t because he was making an art statement like some  of the later bands did.

The Clash's second record (but first in the US). Or, Sandy fixes punk.

The Clash’s second record (but first in the US). Or, Sandy fixes punk.

The same holds true for The Clash whose instant success in the UK befuddled the American label brass who were, to be sure, raking in beaucoup bucks with records from, well, Blue Öyster Cult among others. So it made sense to throw Sandy Pearlman at them. He knew guitars and radio-friendly. Time to let her rip.

The result was the first Clash record released in the US but the second album. The two products stand in stark contrast and not just because all of a sudden there were instruments besides guitars. Among other sins, Pearlman hated Joe Strummer‘s voice–one of the great howlers of protest ever IMO,–and buried it behind the drums. Some people never forgave the record company.

The best, though, was yet to come. Over on the Left Coast the disintegrating LA punk scene threw up a band that combined the noise and energy of punk with the long forms beloved in the land of lingering light. The Dream Syndicate, nominally part of the Paisley Underground, sounded at times like X with a tendency to run on and on. Their first LP, Days of Wine and Roses, attracted the big guys.

The Dream Syndicate's second album. Sandy strikes again.

The Dream Syndicate’s second album. Sandy strikes again.

And so to Columbia and, you guessed it, Sandy. The Medicine Show, released in 1984, was a repeat of what Sandy had done for Strummer-Jones & Co. Keyboards. A radio-friendly, 4-minute or so single. Clarity in the mix. Fans of the band hated it. I was of a mixed mind.

Thirty years on I’m of a clearer mind. The Pearlman-produced album is the more listenable one. Yes, it’s far more polished than the predecessor but the effort required to listen is easier to muster. Plus, the song content is as weird as anything on the first record. (That made for radio single, as an example, is a song about incest.)

I think in my youth I was too hard on producers. They had a job to do and, the way the economics work, an incentive to generate airplay and sales. That doesn’t mean they didn’t know what the were doing. The whole subject bears a more in-depth look.

Not every producer is a genius on the order of George Martin or Phil Spector. But that doesn’t mean they serve no useful purpose.

 

 

 

 

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