RANDOM RAMBLINGS OF THE MUSICAL MIND

A peak into the mind of John Hampton

A Creative Oasis

If you think about it (not too hard, I hope!), there are two types of  “brain-flow” in the world:

The first would be the analytical brain-flow. It exists in those who can look into a situation, analyze all potential elements of the event, and  from those observations deduce a probable outcome. This type of person is usually good at managing people, running large corporations, directing traffic, etc. They bring you things like Kraft Foods, war, even some ugly cars,  to name a few.

The second would be the creative brain-flow. Those that can completely fabricate a situation within (and outside) the bounds of his/her own mind, and then find a way to bring this fabricated vision to others… through the senses. Within this group you get painters, musicians, authors and screenplay-writers, etc. They bring you things like The Firebird Suite, Whistlers Mother and humor, to name a few.

And it seems everyone possesses varying degrees of both of these “brain-flows”.  Albert Einstein probably had equal talent in both arenas. He analyzed properties of physics and then created the less obvious (i.e E=mC squared) from these observations. He also said that he thought God had a sense of humor.

Architects appear to have equal amounts of both as well. They can design a building that is a true  masterpiece (or horror show!), then relate how to put it together to others more analytical.

But to be able to let the mind free up and do what it does best, it seems a special environment is needed; a place to let the mind go and not have to think  about much else for periods of time, allowing a creative thought time to gain a life of it’s own. In this environment one could be surrounded by trusted people to bounce ideas off of.

And finally the artist will commit the creative thought to some form of “hard copy”. This environment can give the artist a situation that usually produces results with more sustenance; results hard to find when the thought process gets interrupted again and again for one reason or another. Many times, this “art-sandbox” will determine the creative quality of the end result.

Poor creative habit leads to poor artwork, including music. The listener rarely gets interested in a not-so-creative performance of the arts, a lot of which is brought on by not-so-perfect creative habits. A creative oasis is hardly sustainable in a place where interruption and/or lack of collaboration is the order of the day. Nor is it sustainable in an environment that lacks the best tools with which to capture the creation. I mean, imagine doing a valve replacement on your car in a place where only a pair of pliers and a screwdriver is available. Or having your spleen transplanted in your “well stocked” kitchen. Creative genius needs a creative oasis.

Too many times I’ve been called in to fix a record that the artist (bless his pointed little head) was left alone with, and the only person happy with the end result was … THE ARTIST! When the artist hears his creation, he usually LOVES it. He usually hears something that an objective, casual ear just simply does not hear! They will sit with me as we “remix” the work, everyones hopes riding on the nonsense that my ear will fix the problem. Artists say things like “Man Hampton, don’t you just LLLOVE that augmented 9 chord resolving into the root?  I LOVE that!” Well, first off, what the hell is an augmented 9 chord, and a root is like a carrot or something, right? THEN, when I can finally “touch” the spot referred to, it is so incredibly complex that I need a slide rule to make sense of ANY of it! That type of creativity just doesn’t tug at my heartstrings … and it turns out the listener feels the same.

So what makes a “recording studio” better than Bill’s spare upstairs bedroom? I personally believe it starts with dedicated people who were built from the ground up to make records, driven mostly by their love of the creative process.  And the gear that studios use. Most of today’s plug-ins and physical equipment are simply an attempt to make the user think that he/she is using that same gear. But even an average ear could hear the differences between the original gear and the gear made for the “home studio” market. For me it’s best to never draw that kind of comparison. I just try to look at a Fairchild 670 plug-in or a “Blue”microphone as a new piece with it’s own sonic properties.

Other than that, I still believe that what studios have to offer is superior to a ProTools set up in a spare bedroom. Great for demos, but I think records will be better if they are put together by the folks built from the ground up to do it. They LOVE doing it!

Next question?

Plug in that old thinking cap … here we go!

HEY MIKEY! LOOK!! IT’S RUPERT NEVE!

I’ve got a couple of writings (blogs,globs… yeah, globs!) a coming right behind this, where we’ll have a chat about why CDs really DO suck and why herds of people going back to vinyl are NOT just taking part in this week’s flavor… this ain’t no Hula-Hoop, gents and ladies. This is a perceptible reality that makes your listening experience with vinyl records (let’s just call ’em records) a more rewarding event than the same occurrence with CDs. But do you know why you are noticing it NOW for the first time? It’s simple: we have finally become so used to CDs as the norm that a more true to life sonic event is really obvious. So I guess you are wondering how I came to this,. right?  It all started with a chat from a Mr. Rupert Neve, the most well known name in audio science, at a speech he gave at a SPARS luncheon several years ago. It so enrapt me that I believe I still remember every word. And if you don’t know whop Rupert Neve is, you are either very young or very uneducated. He lives in Wimberly. Texas.

Wimberly Texas. Why, there’s Wimberly now!!

I just can NOT think of a better place to invent audio gear.

Mr Neve is a British chap who knows his circuitry, and has an uncanny way of bringing that circuitry to the sound of the music that he loves.R’s (I call him R) life’s goal has been to get the sound of music (yes, he’s bringing Mary Poppins) that you hear from electronics as close to the sound you hear in those two ear holes on either side of your head as he possibly can. Oh, It’s a breeze. Couple of tubes, a bias oscillation transistor, throw in a couple of variable capacitors … you’re DONE!  The stuff he designs and bnuilds is in such high demand, and was constructed so well (until a BIG MEAN GERMAN company bought him out), that audio people have seareched high and low for his older equipment, but the new is just as good. And he seems to be taking his newer gear more toward that “live in the audience” sound. Portico, for example. And Rupert loves analog(ue) and vinyl, and hates CDs. Why? Read on.

Now if doing a bit of comprehensive reading isn’t exactly your thing, as mine is not, we can always start with Dr. Seuss…Hampton style.

If a train is moving toward you, the sound of the horn is slightly higher in pitch  to you than it is to the engineer. That’s called a “Doppler pitch shif”t. And as it passes, then moves away from you, there’s a split second that the same two pitches are the same pitch., then you hear it bend down to become LOWER in pitch as it moves away from you. This doppler pitch shift is also observed when one looks at a star. Ifit looks bluish, it is higher than normal becauseit is moving toward you. Same with a pinkish or reddish color. Those stars are lower in pitch and are moving away from you. THAT … is why I say Dr. Suess, Hampton style. I wrote a book once called”One Fish, Two Fish …Red Shift Blue Shift”, a book for four year olds to start to understand how we can actually, by plotting the direction of all of the stars in the universe, eventually arrive at the precise point of the “Big Bang”. It’s in the children’s book section at Barnes and Noble, and if they’ve run out at Amazon, they’ll restock soon. Get one and read it to your 4-year old. Next … Why vinyl … AGAIN?

Yes, you in the red rubber suit …

Geoff Emerick and the Legend of Strawberry Fields

Did you know that Julian Lennon’s dad used to have a band with that guy in Wings? I have a vague remembrance as a boy (it was February 1964) of watching “Ladies and gentlemen, The BEATLES!” on  TV’s “The Ed Sullivan Show” for the first time. It was a stunning moment for me and millions of others. That cleverly planned moment (I mean come on … 20 days after the record release … how DID they get that gig?) was that moment that  I fell in love with music. But por mois, it was even more than that, resonating with the spiritual side of me. Have you ever reacted to music like that, or am I the only one? My brother Randy and I went to our room when the show was over and, with a broom and a bed … part, we stood in front of the ceiling lamp watching our shadows on the wall morph into John and George. (I was John and Paul was a leftie) That night defined the beginning of my life in music, as it did many others, I’m sure.

I kept up with the band through every part of their meteoric careers, buying everything they released in America. And then later, and into my twenties, I discovered the stores in New York where you could buy British releases of stuff never released state-side. I found a way to keep up with them after they had disbanded. But when I began the recording studio part of my life, I noticed from reading the inside of Anthology 1 that their “team” wasn’t even mentioned on the records; the team of people putting that music together. I mean surely the band didn’t just walk ino any recording studio in the world, running around plugging in microphones, bringing orchestras in and telling them what to do! And SURELY they weren’t the only ones who, after making these gems, sat behind the recording equipment and put the final balance on all of these guitars and French Horns and vocals and miscellaneous cacophony. Nope, it wasn’t them. But it was a team … that was dedicated to seeing that their artistic vision made it safely into my hands, as un-altered as possible. There was George Martin, their “producer”, whatever that meant. And at first,  the “engineer” was Norman Smith. But toward the end of recording their ear-turning Revolver record,  Norman moved on to produce Pink Floyd, and Geoff Emerick, became the guy sitting alongside Martin in the control room. My older sister was staying in tune with The Beach Boys, who were going through their own metamorphasis with their acclaimed Pet Sounds record as both bands went through the white-hot phases of their careers. It was kind of like Pet Sounds vs. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And because of the subtle rivalry for the ultimate recording, records became so … so really interesting. I preferred the British slant, like I Am the WalrusStrawberry Fields ForeverLucy In the Sky with Diamonds … what exactly WAS this new sonic safari all about? cTomorrow Never Knows was the first song by The Beatles where I  heard a distinct difference between the happy, shiny Beatles, and the new, cerebrally cool Beatles. Radically different. But what was making it so different out of the clear blue?

I believe that answer to be two-fold.

#1 drugsLucy inthe Sky w/Diamonds

And #2… Geoff Emerick

Every other part of the team was the same. Geoff was the force that fulfilled John Lennon’s request of matching up one version of Strawberry Fields with another. The two versions had been recorded weeks apart at two different tempos , and in two different keys! It seems Lennon loved the end product after weeks of working out every nuance he wanted … but he still loved the beginning of the very first “potential” keeper. So Geoff, in a single, magical, musical moment, refusing to say it couldn’t be done, found a way to turn the edit between the two versions into a legendary artistic moment. A moment most engineers wouldn’t have even thought of. Geoff was brilliant. He made it work. (The edit occurs at exactly 1:00, on the word “going” in the phrase “’cause I’m going to … Strawberry Fields”) Click the title Strawberry Fields Forever

I had the pleasure (along with about twenty others) of having dinner one night with Geoff and his co-writer Howard Massey when they were in town promoting Geoff’s book,  Here, There, and Everywhere-My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles. (whew!) Rather than hit him with questions he heard all the time and probably hated down inside by now, I just sat there soaking up his presence and listening to his stories that were not in the book. He was brought to town for a presentation of the book, and some previously unheard music, by the Memphis NARAS chapter… the Grammy folks. I had become so infatuated with the man and his outlook on the subject of records and music and the Beatles, that now the book is in my stable of “READ OFTEN”, alongside Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”, Plato’s Republic (which shold be re-titled “Plato’s and Socrates’ Feudalism”), MAD Magazines (about a hundred) and the original screenplay for Hampton Fancher’s “Bladerunner“. Now Geoff’s book. And every day, I discover ways that he and I have many similar viewpoints; he captures the ARTIST’s vision, by finding new and interesting ways to do whatever it takes to bring that vision to fruition. And he sees a clear cut line between engineering and producing, where most (myself included, at first) engineers see a blur and try to get into production eventually, if they can handle that hot seat.
Geoff, if you read this, I am only one of millions of fans who truly appreciate your views since I, too, have been there. Oh, and Geoff …  I regret Yoko’s ubiquitousness as much as you. As do many. But then again, you were sooo lucky to get that gig. Swine …

Next Question …

Dana Rocked This Time Through

The story you are about to hear is true. The names have not been changed to protect the innocent .

It was at LEAST one million degrees below zero. Eddie (Degarmo) and Dana (Key) were inside a phone booth looking through the yellow pages. Their old, clunker bus had made a really funny (bad funny) noise a few miles back, followed by an ever increasing odor inside the bus that had the smell of burning rubber combined with gasoline and, according to bass player Tommy Cathy, old barbecue Fritos.

Leave it to TC to be familiar with that one. But Eddie and Dana had a look of “Oh Crap! Here goes another coupla grand” on their faces.

Finally, Billy Wayne, the driver, said “Guys, we’re losing power fast. I’m pulling over before this dang thing blows up!”

The snow was everywhere. Dana saw the phone booth a hundred feet or so up the road. In the middle of nowhere, there was a PHONE BOOTH! That was not coincidence. These men had God, with a capital G, on their side. And I can prove it.

Eddie and Dana were on the fringe  in their field. They were going where no man had gone before. First, they were going to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to do the first Christian Rock concert in that neck of the woods. AND, they were going to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to play THE FIRST CHRISTIAN ROCK CONCERT in that neck of the woods. Almost every church big-wig, from Falwell to Falwell was calling them evil, imposters, scam artists, you name it. But These guys were for real. And this was,  the to borrow from the Blues Brothers, a mission from God.

In the booth, they got one mechanic who could fix their bus, but he was an hour away, and the truck that could tow the bus was another hour away, and they had to be on the stage in five hours. Wondering what to do, Eddie pointed to a phone number scratched onto the frozen aluminum in the booth and said,”Let’s call him”. With absolutely no idea who they were calling, not to mention absolutely nothing to lose, Dana dialed the number. A man picked up with the native “hahloo”, and Dana just started telling the guy the truth: They were broke down outside of Yorkton, going to play a gig tonight in Saskatoon, the guy to fix the bus MIGHT be there in 3 hours, then he had to FIX the bus, and did he know any one, since they had not even a clue as to where they were, ANYONE who could point them to a better direction

There was a long pause.. a really long pause. The stranger asked what number they were at, which, remarkably, was on the phone, and they gave him the number. “I’ll call you right back”.

After about seven minutes, the guy called back and asked where they were. All Dana could say was that they had just passed a silo that had something written on the side, the stranger remarked that they were only about five miles from him and he’ll be there soon. Dana looked at Eddie with an odd look and said” He’s coming here!”.

Thirty minutes later, four pick-up trucks and two cars pull up next to their bus, and the band dudes get off and there’s a big con-fab there on the side of highway X , and when it was all said and done, the four pick ups and two cars were going to take the band AND the gear the 300 miles to Saskatoon. And I promise you that is a true story. The gig was great. It was actually a miracle. PLUS, the kids LOVED Degarmo and Key. In a million light years this could never happen again to anyone.

Dana’s luck ran a little low Sunday, when he died from complications due to a blood clot. But I say a little low because he knew exactly where he was headed this time and he has told me in the past, and we made many records in the past, how at times he was kind of excited about the life after this life.

Although I bawled like a baby at hearing the news, it was more for his unreal family than for him. Dana, you are and always will be sorely missed. And because of you, I am convinced that we will meet again. I love you. Happy Trails, my friend. You really did it this time through.

Jack’s Record Store

I started this all off verbalizing about the Hell Days of Disco music that society barfed up in the late ’70’s and how the advent of a drum machine altered our pop culture almost as much as Sgt. Pepper (well …  a different altered).

In both applications, pop culture made a HARD turn.

But in the bigger picture, you can see that the longer line of pop culture over the last 50 years or so also has a soft bent toward the left. And, as always, the bent is due to technology. The Internet,  the personal computer, iPhone, uPhone, wePhone,  Vodafone, global communications … all of these are bending not just pop culture but Culture culture in a really profound way. Go to any “Made in China” wholesale site and take a look at what’s heading our way. TV watches with TWO cell phones built in, one for home, one for business.!  I remember hearing Ray Kurzweil, one of our most brilliant inventor/philosophers, tell it all once. In Ray’s words, ‘Society has become accustomed to a linear rate of technological change. That has been the norm. BUT technology doesn’t play by the rules. In the world today, where we used to have a man designing a computer or software … just about everything, we instead have computers and robotics doing the designing and the manufacturing. And when number crunching systems are designing and making more number crunching systems, suddenly we have a technological growth that has taken on a more exponential rate of change. In other words, we are no longer changing along a straight line. The line is changing faster every day, taking it from a line to a curve that is going up.’

And he points his finger away from the host and points it up more and more until he is pointing at the ceiling!

WOW! Technology is growing faster than man can keep up with it! One day, 8 bit is the thing. A year later it’s 16 bit. the next MONTH its 32 bit and now, a WEEK later, its headed toward 64 bit! How do we slow this thing down? Or do we?

We can’t. We either hang on for the wild ride or drop off where the landscape looks friendly. I’m getting off, and I notice I have LOTS of company. One person who got off one stop before me is that wacky Jack White. I think Jack, like me, has an almost romantic vision of the whole music buying experience. What fun is a download? CD Artwork … why is that so NOT stimulating? You used to go to a store that sold records, and just hang out, look at a 12 inch by 12 inch cover of a record and by just looking up close at the artwork and the artist, and maybe even reading a few of her/his words, you might walk out with a record you never even meant to buy; the artist sold her/himself with just the cover. You could cruise aisles and rows of bins and bins of various genres and stop, pick one up, look it over, and walk off to look at another one. The record store enabled the buyer to become more intimate with the artist. A truly unique experience that I want to continue, and I think Jack does, too.

At his recent Dead Weather performance, I found him and the totally understated Jack Lawrence (see Raconteurs) out in the hall with Dean (Fertita  … The sexy singer Alison Mosshart was in the dressing room … RATS!) At their show the band was so exciting to watch as well as hear.

But as I meandered the venue, I saw the merchandising “event” from a hundred feet! A beautiful yet tough looking wall of tees and caps and buckles, yada yada, and an extraordinarily fabulous looking table of Jack’s Third Man Records. It was all vinyl, BIG records including White Stripes records and Karen’s records (his wife) and Dead Weather coming soon posters, and then his “Blue Series” records. These looked like the exploratory side of the label, all an identical muted blue cover, with one exception, a green one for BP Fallon. It was a record store on the road!

For myself, and many others, Third Man has re-invented the record store at a fun, in-depth level that is the closest thing I’ve found yet to an actual store. As they build their artist roster, and I’m sure that they’ll start taking other product and bringing it on-board, It will catch on in a big way. And I must also say that working with Jack and his bands has been a reviving high point in my life and I just can’t wait for the call to do another Third Man Record. Jack’s a gas. And his label/store are just what we need.

Next Question ….. ?

An Evening with Chris Bell

As usual, I was late. But this was one band rehearsal I didn’t want to be late for. I FINALLY get to play with Chris Bell.

My brother Randy had called a couple of nights earlier, and said that Jody Stephens, the regular drummer for the Baker Street Regulars was going … I forget …somewhere, and he and Van were wondering if I could play drums with them. I had heard the Regulars at every gig they had done, because ever since the melt down of Big Star, my favourite Memphis band, I had watched them morph* into this current line up of Van Duren on bass, my older Irish twin Randy Hampton on guitar, Chris Bell on another guitar, and Jody Stephens on drums.

THIS was a great  rockband. It was parts of Brit-Pop Big Star blanded with parts of the best Brit-Pop cover band around, with Van’s Paul Mac meets Paul Carrack lead vocals, Jody (a Memphis version of John Bonham), and Randy, who could play about anything on guitar. And throw in Chris’ Yardbirds meets Zeppelin style (I could just say Jimmy Page meets the South…). But Chris introduced an additional recklessness, ala early Todd Rundgren, that one would expect from a talent of high calibre who, like Alex Chilton, kept finding himself being tripped up by life situations that kept that Platinum record and deserved recognition a breath away. Damn. Unbelievably unfair, at least to Chris’ slowly surrendering soul. I wanted to re-kindle his waning spirit. But who was I?

It worked for awhile. Van, Randy and I had been playing since high school. With us three being good friends, alienating Chris was a constant concern. That  could get wrong, so I (and I’m sure all of us) went a little out of our way to make sure Chris was being “musically nurtured”, because I KNEW he could bolt in a heartbeat … and would …at the slightest negative look, word, motion … I was on eggshells at the first rehearsal, but, as always, we all began melding ideas and he was instantly attune to our high regard of him, and returned the thought by showing off with performance he KNEW we would respond to. We kept an eye on each other through every song, as did he and Van, and whenever I played a stupidly great drum fill, he would act like he didn’t notice by looking away. But his facial expression betrayed his seeming lack of validation – he’d be grinning. But when he blew ME away with something, I would yell how awesome it was. That would fuel him more, and the synergy would finally take over and sweep the entire room into a wild-man musical experience. WOW! This was gonna be good. The Regulars ROCKED! (we rocked)

We finally got our first gig (that’s short for engagement, you knuckleheads). One of Chris’ million sisters was getting married and we were going to be the music at the reception. Having met some sisters, this felt more like someone was doing Chris/us a favor, as his whole family seemed to be a bit too conservative to want us. Then again, if we kept to Beatles covers, obscure Rundgren and Badfinger, and threw in Chris’ and Van’s originals, we might just pull it off.

The gig was Saturday night at 8:00, and Randy and Van and I were there an hour early, our usual thing. But no Chris. Hmmmm. We went ahead, setting up personal gear and we always combined efforts to set up the sound, since it was usually big speaker cabinets and about a hundred wires, plus 4 vocal mics. Yeah, I sang back-up with Randy.                                                                       Our genetically tuned harmonics made us ideal for                      ☝                                combining voices.                                                                          Still no Chris.

At 7:45, Van called Chris’ home. No answer. So he must be on his way. Right? Any minute now, I’m sure.

8:00 PM and all is not well. Where is Chris. Being the pros we were, we started playing 3 piece. I gotta admit we were pretty good. No applause, as I figured. That’s when I looked over and saw Chris, finally, at about 8:15 coming in through the well calculated center of the crowd assembled on the dance floor. Chris was indeed fashionably late. Wearing his whiter than white tennis sweater tied around his waist, whiter than white tennis shorts, whiter than white Hanes socks with tennis shoes, and, of course, a white of all whites Polo tennis shirt I expected what ever was resting on his shoulder to be a HEAD Racket. But it was Keith Sykes’ Fender Telecaster! Where was his red Gibson that sounded so great? And what amp was this? A Fender Concert combo, no naugahyde, was in his other hand. Chris had already stolen the show.

We got off the stage, Van was saying something about a technical problem, we’ll be right back. As Van approached Chris, I’m sure to bitch about his timing, Chris had already plugged in the amp, and the guitar into it. Oh hell … he just maxxed out the knobs! In slow motion, as Van’s mouth opened to speak, a sound straight out of Hell came out of the amp. It was the first lick of Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” solo. Van kept talking as Chris’ eyes combed the room, surely to see the how many girls were covering their ears. About 60%. Good work, Chris! With Van now talking AT him, Chris decided too much top end, lowered the treble on the amp, and played the lick again, this time with a little more conviction. Which is exactly how Jimmy Page starts the solo on Heartbreaker. Does that mean … Yep. Chris blazed through the rest of the solo, note for note, but he added good where Page went bad. UN-BE-FRIGGIN-LIEVABLE! Van gave up, and as the end of the solo got near, Chris once again peruses the room, which by now had all but cleared out, pushed out by the sheer volume. Finally, when he saw my approving smile, he smiled back. I guess we both had a little anarchist in us. The gig went from there without a hitch, but that solo was forever burned into my synapses. It was as if he was showing everyone how good he could be if he chose to be, so back off. Quite the statement.

After that there was, according to Randy, one more gig with Chris before that band imploded. Jody was just gone, Chris was going into running one of his family’s Danvers burger joints, Randy had finally decided to go back to school, I was becoming interested in recording music and would run into Chris later. Van went looking for a band that would stay together for more than 2 gigs, which meant doing a lot more cover songs, which really was where the money was for the long term musician in Memphis … until you get a record label to come along and give you a chance to break out.

A couple of years later I got a phone call at 7AM from my best-friend-in-the-world-that-still-doesn’t-know-it. In an unusually subdued voice he told me that Chris had been killed in a wreck while he was trying to fight telephone poles. He lost. I had no response except the normal nonsense of wheres, whens, and hows. I was talking to God right after that call, and asked him the question only He could answer, which he didn’t.

Why?

To this day, I can’t think of one person on the PLANET who didn’t like Chris. Almost everyone I know LOVED Chris. I did. He just grows on you. He and his brother David are some of the finest around. And, I guess, that’s why that call that morning just did not register. But, it is registering deeply as I write this. We will ALWAYS love you, CB.

Next Question …

*(morph 3 |mɔ(ə)rf| |mɔːf|verb
change or cause to change smoothly from one image to another by small gradual steps

Alex Chilton: The Inveterate Showman

When I hung the phone up, I had just finished going through my iPhoto pictures, trying vainly to categorize them for the thirty seventh time. I kept coming across one in particular that fit into 9 of my categories and I had to get it down to 1. It could be “Ardent Folk”, “Music folk”, “Family”, “Bizarre”, “Bigger that Life”, “Clients”… it was a picture of Alex with my first wife, before I had met either. Hmmmmm. When my phone rang, I answered it with my “EEEYELLOW”. Adam, my assistant, was telling me that Alex Chilton had just died. That was followed by that eerie silence. First I thought “he can’t be dead. I just saw him.” I guess it’s a weird form of shock. Adam was saying something about Fry – John Fry, our founder. Since I was going right by his house on my way home, I thought I would just drop by and check on him. His wife was at home, but then again, she wasn’t around in the day.

I first met Alex at Shoe Studios in Memphis when he was producing another friend, Tommy Hoehn. And Jon Tiven was there as pseudo executive producer. Tommy and Alex had written a song called “She Might Look My Way”, which someone said had missed the cut for Big Star’s Radio City record.

The drums weren’t quite the “vibe” and they needed a drummer. I got the gig. At Shoe, you couldn’t see into the control room. The usual glass ONLY through the headphones. Being the first time for me to ever play in ANY studio, it was … disconcerting at best. So I played as directed and the record was eventually released on Henry Loeb’s “Power Play” records which had also released the Scruffs first single. WOW! I had just played on my first record ever and Alex, the Big Star, had produced it. I was hot stuff, right? Well,considering I was just out of high school and already headed toward my goal-working in a recording studio. I was a happy dude. It was 1974.

March 17, 2010. As I headed down John’s street, I first looked the 1/4 mile to the garage to see if he had company. He did, but I drove up anyway. I called him from his driveway and when he answered, I asked him if everything was cool in there. He replied he was in the “shock bubble”, but assured me he was fine (for now). John had worked extensively on both of the Big Star records and had become very close with Alex, Chris Bell, Andy Hummell and Jody Stephens. They were his friends as well as his label’s pride. #1 record and Radio City were two of the most influential records ever made. But with distribution problems surrounding Stax… well, Big Star’s sales just never happened. I had heard rumors of Big Star’s records ending up in the soul music section of record stores, which I guess made sense in a weird sort of way. If the rumor is true, it would explain why such an influential band had such dismal sales. When you want to buy a rock record, you go to the rock section and if the record isn’t there, you usually buy something else instead of asking “Where are your Big Star records?” I tend to believe the story given the track record Stax had at the time.

Cut to 1977. A guy named Miles Copeland (as in IRS Records, as in Stewart as in The Police) had called to book time for a band he wanted Alex to produce called “The Cramps”. Alex asked if I could engineer the record. Since all I knew at the time was how to align a tape machine and repair faders, I was the perfect choice! Right?

We had a BALL doing that record. Lux Interior was always in character, Brian threw a cinder block at a pile of stuff we had built from folding chairs, flourescent tube lights, a couple of cymbals … and we recorded the subsequent chaos. Lux sang “Human Fly” and “Sunglasses After Dark”. It was NYU performance art becoming a validated rock music scene. Alex basically taught me how to make a rock-a-billy record, and we superimposed that methodology on the Cramps. NOW Alex had been there when I engineered my first record.

As luck would have it, I had inadvertently caused some distortion on the Cramps record. And Alex wanted remuneration for it. So Ardent gave him a week to fix the problem, which he used to record his record “Feudalist Tarts” (a cute little trick he had learned from HIS producer, Jim Dickinson) But wait! That’s cheating! No, I guess in Alex’s eyes, it was legit. I mean, Dickinson did it, so why can’t Alex? Jim always avowed that ‘you can’t have music without some element of crime’.

After that, I hadn’t seen Alex until it was time for him to produce a record on Tav Falco, who had just returned from Belgium where he was learning to Tango. That record, “Behind the Magnolia Curtain” was yet another cult fave, and Alex was now an underground super-star.

1968. Alex Chilton came out of the chute at 16 and within a couple of years had made a plane-load of money having his voice heard around the world. When the “Tops” were opening for the Beach Boys on tour, he stayed in drummer Dennis Wilson’s guest house with none other than Chuckie Manson! (Dennis had thought Charles was harmless enough, so Alex figures what the heck?)

After his ginormous success as the vocalist for the Box-Tops, as in The Letter, Soul Deep, Neon Rainbow, Cry Like a Baby, … a rock-pile of SMASH hits … he met Icewater’s Jody Stephens and Chris Bell (more on Chris soon) and rocket scientist Andy Hummell. Alex and Chris were fairly confident they could make a PowerPop band ala Raspberries, Byrds, Badfinger; PowerPop wis music largely influenced by ’60s British Music: Todd Rundgren’s “Runt” LP, Raspberries single “Go all the way”, Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” and “No Matter What” (a song Paul wrote for the Beatles), Dwight Twilley, Matthew Sweet … that was PowerPop. It’s a long list. And Alex was standing right in the middle of it’s birth. Had it not been for the demise of their distributor, Stax, I’m convinced they would have been the hottest thing since sunburn. “Back of a Car”, “September Gurls”, “Thirteen” … come on. Tell me that isn’t some of the best music you’ve EVER heard.

Though Alex could be cantankerous, i.e. kicking his Fender Twin at the famed and packed Antenna Club or slapping my hand away from the e.q. on a mix, I’m convinced THAT was the inveterate showman he was. Because he really was a great dude. I told him my birthday once around 1976. One day in 1997 at Ardent, he walked up to join me and a friend at 7 card stud, and out of nowhere, he looked up at me , kind of gazing through me, and said “November …(pause) … seventeenth.” Uncanny.

1986. When we started the Replacements “Pleased to Meet Me”, I was listening to their demos-soon-to-be-masters they had recorded the week before, and I thought to myself, “Paul sure sounds like Alex”. Again in 1988, as we heard Tommy Keene’s demos for “Based on Happy Times”, I thought to myself, “Tommy sure sounds like Alex”. Influenced.

Alex made an indelible mark on music. A BIG one. Anyone who is highly influenced by this artform, call me. I LOVE recording PowerPop. Just ask Gin Blossoms.

R I P Alex. We love you. God loves you. We’ll miss you.

No questions, please.

Hearts Off to Haiti

Aiding Haiti with Love and a Melody    

When my management approached me with an offer to help Larry Dodson (from the fabulous Bar-Kays) put together a record that the Bar-Kays and others were doing, my eyes lit up. ALL of the profit from the sales was going directly to someone in quake-ravaged Haiti who was honest to a fault and would get the money wherever it would do the most good. I just said “Sure. When? Where?” But I wasn’t sure WHY I had volunteered so quickly.In July 7, 1977, the first day I worked at Ardent Recording Studio, ZZ Top was in studio A, and the fabulous Bar-Kays were in studio B. There had to be at least 12 people in there, with the speakers turned up to 11, and every fifteen minutes or so, a Bar-Kay would come out to attend to his beeswax, always loud and laughing, and to the casual onlooker, one would think a hoedown was on rather than a record. But boy … they had fun and it was all over the place. I cottoned to this place and these people like a flea cottons to a dog. Good luck getting rid of me, folks. I’m home.

On the day we cranked up this session, Larry and their tech/roadie/remote recordist Markus came in with the production they had done so far, in some secret laboratory. Now WE were going to add more people and more voices, singing a song written to the unfortunate Haitian population that were desperately trying to restore their country that laid in ruin by a natural disaster of the ugliest kind.It seems a lot of people look at Haiti like the movie “Serpent and the Rainbow”, with it’s Black Magic and people coming to life AFTER being officially pronounced dead. But what was coming in on the net, in the news, and through the radio described something much different and even more horrifying once it sinks in that it’s REAL.

But you know, that’s when Americans and the world, do what we do best. We help. We comfort. We give what we can, hoping … what? That if we are ever in that shape, they would return the favor? No, I don’t think so. I think it’s because it just feels good to help a fellow human being in distress. It’s just in our blood.

The record was growing. Maurice White is coming, and Kirk Whalum is slaying us with the most soulful sax this side of, hmmmmm, this side of China.

J. Blackfoot is just plain old testifying, loudly, if I may. Many red lights, mon! Eric Gales is tearing up both a guitar and an amplifier as he blazes a brain boggling blur of fingers and arms and strings, all becoming just white hot! This is fantastic. Then, the almost winner of last year’s Americam Idol, (we call her) Lil Rounds. I wept.

And over the next few days, so many people came in that the production team was simply overwhelmed and we were just saying “GO! We’ll sort it out later”. When you add it up, we spent six days putting more and more and more on this record. Yes, the production was becoming a nightmare. But YES! You could NOT hold back the people who wanted to get involved. There was a couple from Spain, taking a tour of the studio. Larry asked them if they could sing. They came in and sang beeeeautifully … as if to say to say “Haiti, we in Spain care too!” It was all Un Be friggin lieveable!!! We were completely burnt after six days of that. Break!

I did the math. Assuming average promotion, and average airplay. Nationally, of course. Assume a CD with 2 different versions. Or 3. Heck,we could really make about 50 versions! Let’s assume a $5.99 retail. Say 100,000 people hear it, like it and buy it. In America. After the extremely minimal costs incurred are paid, it leaves you with about … it’s easily around a half a mil. What if 300,000 people buy it? Now we’re over a mil. For 6+ days work, we could send the Haitian people over a million BUCKS! A MILLION BUCKS!!  so …

All you have to do to help the Haitian people is buy the record! It’s not lining my pocket one cent. Nor Larry’s. Nor Maurice’s or Kirks or Eric or even Li’l Rounds!! The love shared in that room during the recording of that song made us ALL a little more humble, a little more aware to the devastation that Mother Nature, on a bad day, can cause. This reality check was our payment. And we ALL learned again that LOVE alone (with a little cash) can help even the worst situations.

And as we rounded the corner into the home stretch, Larry and I both realized that we had just been moved a little closer to each other, both on a personal level and a cultural level. One of the greatest things about the music business is that we all share a bond that supersedes race, religion, and just about anything that COULD come between us. It is a spirit that at times becomes the Great equalizer of mankind. It can be humbling. And, like anything spiritual, in the wrong hands, it can wreak havoc. Today, the Hatian peopkle were in good hands. Can I get an AMEN on that, J. Blackfoot?

And very soon, the Haitian people will become a part of it, too.

Next question …

Tora Tora’s walking shoes take them to “Wild America”

When Brian Huttenhower from A &M Records came into my “office” (a couch in the hallway ) at the studio that day, the last thing I expected was his question. Tora Tora, the  first band we had signed to our production company, was nearing the end of another wearying tour, and, unlike most rock bands’ first tours, it seems to have done amazingly well. Their three certifiable mini-hits, “Walkin’Shoes”, “Phantom Rider”, and “Guilty” had indeed seen the light of day, and there were probably a few more in the hat. They had seen a boatload of cities, and they made me privvy to some road stories about groupies getting the royal treatment back-stage, with one special story about a deli-tray and bonus points for hitting certain body parts; a veritable backpack of backstage stories, which I thought were surely just rumors. Surely.

This degree of success at this early part of the boys’ career is what made Brian’s question such a surprise: “So Hampton, you want to do their next record?” My response was one of curiosity, since I thought their last record sounded great. “Why? Not enough low-end for mainstream rock radio?”

Now HE looked surprised, “No, stupid! (Brian and I were close enough that he knew he could get away with that.) PRODUCE their next record!”. Now I WAS taken aback. I was sure he was talking about my sonic abilities, not my song/concept musings. Hence the bass reference.

Produce them? Where I come from, if a record does as well as this had, it was unusual to change horses midstreamlike this. But then again, Brian wasn’t known for playing it safe. (A.D.D. moment– Brian had come in the studio that day wearing a pair of Nike athletic shoes that were probably called Atomic Air Supremacy Deluxe, Special Edition Quantum Accelerator GOLDS. After staring at them a minute, I looked at Brian and asked, “Brian, exactly what kind of shoes ARE those?” Brian looked at the shoes, which added a full inch plus to his height, then he looked at me, then the shoes again, and responded,”Whaddaya mean?” Eight seconds of dead silence. Then, as serious as cancer he looked up and replied, “Bitchin’!” THAT was classic Brian.

So why me to produce their next record? The first one did O.K. didn’t it?

“It did allright, I just wanted to try something different.” Brian could hear hit songs a mile away. He had signed Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, Extreme, Tora Tora, and now Gin Blossoms? Plus he was looking at a couple of other bands. Brian is talented. So talented in fact, that if he wanted me, he had me. “Sure!”

Well, it seems that the band would also glad if I would agree to do it, I found out later. Whatever had led these guys to this decision was one question I didn’t care to ask. They liked me, I liked them … let’s go.

What I liked most about Tora was that right when you thought you were getting any hair-band USA, you got something much deeper, though it wasn’t obvious at first glimpse. They were yet another clash of cultures that yielded a unique artform. This time, it was LA big-hair-big-sound pretentiousness in a real, delta based soul package, complete with mud and mosquitos. “Phantom Rider” had always sounded like a Skynyrd hit, and “Walking Shoes” was a riff-rock powerhouse from the same tree. A story of a man who had been jilted for the last time, so he broke out the walkin’ shoes. If THAT wasn’t a common blues phrase, I nominate it. Along side “I hear my back door slam”, “left home for a brown-eyed man”, “down on the killin’ floor”, and of course “Who Let the Dogs Out”.         (a joke, son)

So this was the key to the band I had decided to keep to the forefront as we made their second record. They wrote, and we hammered the songs out in an unused building a block from the studio. The Pink House we called it. It had been the big, string and horn recording studio owned by a jingle mill named Pepper-Tanner, well known in advertising music. Pepper-Tanner also made a sound effects library, (sorry, another ADD moment) and one infamous entry in this library was a sound-bite entitled “Man shoots pig”.

Over the next few months we recorded, wrote, rehearsed, recorded, wrote, and rehearsed. Suddenly one day I looked up and there were 2 overdubs left until we were done. Everything else on our production chart had been marked through. WOW! Time flies when you are having fun. So, I called Brian and he showed up a couple days later.

In a pecan shell, Brian wanted more. Where we thought it was a ten, Brian wanted eleven. Now I was in a pickle. I had committed to start Gin Blossoms (also for Brian) in about two weeks, but I can never blame a person who wants more, as long as he is paying for it.

So I went to Phoenix to start Gin Blossoms first record, which was later named “New Miserable Experience”, and Brian had a guy come in to cut some more on Tora Tora. I knew it was headed for huge success. But we all failed to foresee the effect that a new type of music that was boiling just under the surface would have on bands such as Tora Tora, who was NOT another any hair-band USA. The danger I saw was that they could possibly be “thrown out with the bath water.” Only time would tell, but my favorite, “Nowhere to Go But Down” was already becoming a favorite with people at the label, which was re-assuring. I didn’t want to leave these children in a lurch, and Brian spoke highly of the incoming guy, but alarms sounded when it got around that his biggest claim to fame was Ratt, so I had a little sit-down with him to get my two cents worth in. And I left it in his “capable hands” as I headed out for Gin Blossom land.

On my return from Phoenix a couple weeks later, I asked my co-producer how it had been going. Turns out he wore a toupee and the guys had been having a ball with him, putting duct tape across the doorway right at head level, just waiting to catch that furry thing in it’s stickum! I laughed until I was aching. They said it was going okay, but he was trying to make them into a Poison meets Motley Crüe meets Slaughter thing, and they’d had been a few “rock moments”, but otherwise, all was well. Good. I had actually missed these guys, and we were becoming good friends.

Next time Brian came in to town, we all sat and listened. Wild America was born. And now, New Miserable Experience was in it’s second trimester. Two radically types of music heading to radioland at about the same time. When I first heard the genius of  Kurt Cobain’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit’, I began to wonder if the listening/buying public would equally embrace this musical expanse. Ah, just put it out and see what happens. Right?

Next question … yes, you … in the toupee …

Transcending the Hair Band, Tora Tora Rocks … Again!

Tora Tora is playing this week in Memphis at Minglewood Hall on March 6th at 8PM and a splendid time is guaranteed for all. Once again, Anthony “Ant-Man” Corder will be singing, Patrick Frances will be playing the bass, Keith Douglas will be highly entertaining with his eeeelectric guitar, and the mighty John Patterson will provide the rock solid rhythmic foundation for Tora Tora. And when you’re standing there listening, try to remember …

That is not a hair band you hear.

Next question …