Musicians can be an unruly bunch, so producers, bandleaders and managers need some way of knocking them into a high performing unit. But what to do when an employee of the month award, a paintballing trip and a bunch of attaboy certificates won’t cut the mustard?
What follows is a compendium of harsh, bizarre, dangerous and downright abusive motivational techniques employed over the years to get musicians performing at their best. And the worst thing is… they worked.
Shamanic Levels Of Forced Intoxication
Used by: Arnold Matson On: Screamin' Jay Hawkins
While drug and alcohol misuse is not recommended by this blog as a path to musical inspiration (“Terrible Albums That Seemed Like A Good Idea On Drugs” would be a very easy list to write, with many such examples marking the demise of otherwise great careers), there is no way we’re going to get through this without narcotic behaviour playing at least a background role. Music history includes substance abuse, there’s no point in denying it. So let’s get this one out the way straight off.
Before he began Screamin’, Delacey Jay Hawkins was a fledgling Rhythm & Blues singer who had scored one of his first jobs in Little Richard’s band, before being sacked by the flamboyant pianist for upstaging him. Signed to OKeh records as a solo artist in 1956, he came to the studio with a straight edged blues ballad called “I Put A Spell On You”. Feeling something was missing in the song’s performance, Arnold Matson, the head of Columbia records, ordered several cases of Italian Muscatel wine for Hawkins and his band to imbibe before the recording session. Only when they were all sufficiently blotto were they allowed to begin recording.
Ten days later a terrifying recording was played back to them. The lead vocal was utterly demonic, full of shrieks, whoops and growls as the singer claimed the object of his affections in the creepiest way possible. “You’re mine!” Hawkins howled over a pounding, loose blues groove like the soundtrack to a voodoo sacrifice. “I don’t care if you love me too!” The record shocked the singer who had recorded it, was banned by radio stations and accused of evoking “everything from devil worship to anal rape”, so of course it was a massive cult hit. Hawkins realised he was on to something and before long was being carried onstage in a coffin, wearing a bone through his nose and birthing the entire genre of shock rock.
Used by: An anonymous theatre manager, Jean Aberbach Upon: Gioachino Rossini, Mike Leiber & Jerry Stoller
Two examples of this one, a couple of centuries apart.
Italian opera composer Gioachino Rossini was almost as notorious for his chronic laziness and procastinating habits as he was admired for his compositional genius, the latter delivering such important works of the classical canon as William Tell and The Barber Of Seville. So when the opening night of his opera “The Thieving Magpie” arrived with no overture submitted, the theatre manager (whose name I have been unable to discover) was unimpressed by the composer’s suggestion for the opera to launch straight into the action without bothering with an overture at all. His counter suggestion was to lock Rossini in an upstairs room where he would write the overture and drop each page to a waiting stagehand in the street outside. Once the overture had been completely delivered, he would be released. If the flow of pages stopped, a pair of burly stagehands were on hand with instructions to drop the wretched composer headfirst out of the window instead.
Years later, songwriting duo Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller found themselves in New York hotel room with the script for a new movie musical they had been commissioned to write songs for. Faced with a choice between doing work and enjoying the excesses of the Big Apple nightlife they chose the latter, until producer Jean Aberbach came to check on their progress. Upon discovering the pair had yet to begin writing song one, Aberbach barricaded the hotel room door with a heavy armchair, sat down and told them in no uncertain terms that if they wanted to get out of that hotel room they’d better cough up those songs pronto.
The movie musical in question went on to become one of Elvis Presley’s most famous features. It was called, appropriately enough, “Jailhouse Rock”.
Fines For Everything
Used by: James Brown Upon: His band.
To the musicians he shared a stage with, the Godfather of Soul was the Godfather of Assholes. He was a fierce perfectionist in every aspect of the band’s performance and appearance and enforced a strict regime of on the spot fines for everything from bum notes to insufficiently shiny shoes. The unfortunate offender would be told of their penalties by cues in the singer’s dance moves and it was not uncommon for musicians to lose their entire wage packet to spot fines over the course of a set.
Brown’s harsh treatment of his sidemen caused the entire band to quit en masse in 1970, in a walkout led by saxophonist Maceo Parker. They set out on their own as All The King’s Men, released an album called Doin’ Their Own Thing and set off on tour, but independent success proved strangely elusive and most were forced to return to James Brown a few years later. Legend has it that the singer had used his considerable influence to prevent the record from being played on radio, thus ensuring it wouldn’t be a hit. Whether true or not (another theory is the record company simply messed up on distribution), such behaviour would not be out of character for a man known to sabotage support acts if he feared they might upstage him.
Trashing The Studio In Order To Impart Work Ethics
Used by: Bob Ezrin On: KISS
Lurid stories abound of producer Bob Ezrin’s production methods, though many are apocryphal – there is a popular legend that he got his kids to cry on Lou Reed’s “The Kids” by telling them their Mother had died, but Ezrin later maintained that the cry was actually a bedtime tantrum. What is known is that he was a prolific cocaine user capable of imparting great musical lessons to the artists he produced, with the former apparently going hand in hand with the latter.
When he began working with painted glam rockers KISS, he took the job after being told by a fan that “they’re amazing, but their records suck”. Ezrin found that harsh, but did think they needed to be more sophisticated.
As told by KISS’s drummer Peter Criss, Ezrin turned up to the first session wearing a t-shirt bearing the slogan “TIME IS MONEY” and launched into a profanity-laden lecture about the meaning of the phrase. “You are not going to waste the fucking time that we’re paying for arguing over what you’re going to eat or when you’re going to get some pussy or whatever the fuck your problems are, because you can’t even tune your own instruments!”, he roared.
To illustrate this point, others might have used such things as clearly visible clocks, a strictly drawn up schedule, team building efficiency exercises or suchlike, but Ezrin had something else in mind. He took a large metal fire extinguisher and began manically spraying the contents all over the studio and equipment while the band cowered in the control room. “Who’s wasting time now?” yelled Ezrin as he continued his rampage.
“That was the first day of working with the Boy Wonder, Bob Ezrin”, recounts Criss, “and it wasn’t even the worst one”.
Once all necessary cleanup and repairs had been carried out, the producer and band went on to make Destroyer, KISS’s breakthrough fourth album regularly featured on lists of all time classic rock albums.
Extreme Sleep Deprivation
Used by: Kevin Shields and Colm Ó Cíosóig On: Themselves
When British indie rockers My Bloody Valentine set out to record their second studio album Loveless, the estimated 5-day production time stretched out to over a year as they struggled to find the studio and creative setting to complete the album to their satisfaction, passing through 19 different studios and a parade of engineers and producers as they searched for their muse. Eventually band members Kevin Shields and Colm Ó Cíosóig sought inspiration by deliberately depriving themselves of sleep for days at a time, to the point where they began halucinating visions of spectral cows and UFOs – as Shields would later state in interviews, “That’s what happens when you don’t sleep much. It brings the subconscious into the present world”.
The baggy eyed musos finally completed the album, which became a critical darling, although the ballooned production costs of the project put paid to it being a commercial success (the record company went bust soon after). A new record deal was signed with Island records in 1993, but the band failed to overcome personal and technical problems that led to their breakup a few years later, before reforming in 2007 to finally release a third (also highly rated) album in 2013.
Used by: Captain Beefheart On: His band
Don Van Vliet’s distinctive style of “Acid Blues” might sound loose and haphazard on first listening, but was actually the work of one of music’s great control freaks. Regarded as a prodigious artist and sculptor as a child, he was a creative multi-instrumentalist and frequently collaborated with the mighty Frank Zappa. But today we’re talking about his 1969 magnum opus Trout Mask Replica.
In a move that would be used by everyone from Sun Ra to The Levellers, in the year leading up to the album’s recording Beefheart required his band to move into a communal house, a rented California cabin where the band would live and rehearse. Note the word “cabin” – the entire band were forced to cram into a single bedroom, while Beefheart slept in the other. But that would be the least of their worries.
He prepared for rehearsals by going to the public library to check out books on high powered management techniques actual abusive brainwashing techniques used by cult leaders that formed the basis of a brutal regime designed to ensure every note played would precisely match Beefheart’s vision, at the cost of the lifelong mental and emotional wellbeing of everyone concerned. Band members were deprived of sleep, starved, physically assaulted and marked out as targets for the rest of the group. As drummer Jon “Drumbo” French later recounted:
“We only escaped being the target by targeting the others, and I seemed to be targeted most. Either I was ‘sabotaging’ his compositions, or ‘secretly having dreams of being a composer,’ or being ‘incredibly selfish,’ or… just about any possibility was considered. I was punched, thrown against the wall, burned with cigarettes, threatened with abdominal piercing with a broken broomstick, and once I was told that I was going to be thrown out the second story window down onto the cement stairs below”.
The house of horrors accomplished its intended purpose, as Trout Mask Replica remains one of the highest rated and most influential albums ever made. Just spare a thought for the poor musicians who made it.
Dishonourable Mention: Discharging Firearms In The Studio
Used by: Phil Specter On: various artists
Left off the main list as, while many important recordings were produced, this one ultimately ended in tragedy.
A hugely influential and important producer who pioneered the “Wall of Sound” production style that soundtracked much of the 1960s, Phil Specter was also a volatile character who took a loaded gun into the studio with him, which he would discharge freely if he felt the session was not going his way – footage of his Yosemite Sam-like pistol totin’ antics can be found on Youtube if you really want to see it. Those antics reached their dreadful logical conclusion in 2003 when he shot dead actress Lana Clarkson at his home, saying at the time she had “kissed the gun”. He was convicted of second degree murder in 2008, sentenced to 19 years to life and exchanged his wall of sound for a wall of brick in Californian State Prison, where he remains at time of writing this article.
Got any more examples of crazy motivational techniques used in the production of great records? Maybe you’ve had experience of working under similar conditions yourself (whether or not the experience resulted in good music). Let me know in the comments below!