Thursday, December 10, 2020

Quote of the Day (Todd Rundgren, on The New York Dolls’ Studio ‘Freakshow Atmosphere’)

“That whole experience is kind of a blur. The band had so many groupies and hangers-on that it was a freakshow atmosphere every time you went into the studio. The biggest challenge was to get everyone focused enough to get through a couple of takes. David Johansen was pretty even-keel, but some of the other guys were so easily distracted by anything that came in the room, whether it was a groupie or a bindle of drugs. I think some of them felt like they had to achieve a certain level of inebriation in order to play the best that they could—but it was so hard to maintain that they'd often shoot past it.”—American rock ‘n’ roll singer-songwriter and producer Todd Rundgren, on recording The New York Dolls in 1973, interviewed by Sam Richards in “I Don’t Dwell on the Past: An Audience With Todd Rundgren,” Uncut Magazine, Take 283 (December 2020)

During the mid-1970s, when Todd Rundgren appeared in Central Park, “Todd Is God” inscriptions on signs and T-shirts were a common sight. Most fans had in mind his skills as a live performer in such venues, as well as a singer-songwriter of the likes of “Hello It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light,” and “A Dream Goes on Forever.”

Little did many of them realize that in the recording studio, his authority was god-like—not only concerning his own work, but that of musicians who used him to produce their albums. 

I have to admit that when I first considered the above quote, I was a bit confused. After all, haven’t people been talking about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll for years? Wasn’t Rundgren associated in the 1970s with model Bebe Buell, often regarded as the ultimate groupie? And hasn’t he admitted to using Ritalin, peyote and mescaline—not to mention cannabis—in that decade?

Then think about some of the artists he’s produced over the years: Hall and Oates, Meat Loaf, Rick Derringer, the Patti Smith Group, Badfinger, Felix Cavaliere, and The Psychedelic Furs. I doubt that they acted like Boy and Girl Scouts while they worked with him.

But evidently, when it came to getting the best work out of these musicians in as fruitful and expeditious manner as possible, Rundgren was all business. And so, while Jerry Seinfeld had his Soup Nazi, the New York Dolls had their Studio Nazi—i.e., the Hermit of Mink Hollow. 

How bad was the recording experience? Rundgren has also likened it to “herding cats.” Guitarist Sylvain Sylvain remembered the studio work for the band’s first, eponymous LP in this way:

“I do remember there was a few times even with Jerry [Nolan], where he just couldn’t keep the beat, and Todd would be out there with him in the isolation booth with a drumstick and like hitting the beats on a cowbell for Jerry in his cans, his headphones. Todd was sort of a live click track, keeping the steady tempo for Jerry to follow.”

Despite Rundgren’s stringent efforts, the album was a commercial failure, hardly justifying the chance that Mercury Records took on the band when virtually no other label would touch it. The follow-up, under producer George "Shadow" Morton, only reaching number 167 on the U.S. charts when released in the summer of 1974. 

Thirty-seven years after the New York Dolls had trouble finding their footing in the recording studio, surviving members Johansen and Sylvain reunited with Rundgren for the Rhino release 'Cause I Sez So. This time, the exacting producer and the musicians under his gaze worked together far more smoothly, by all accounts.

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