Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Special Interview: Craig Leon, Producer of the Ramones' Classic First Album!

Image result for craig leonIn 1976, the iconic punk band The Ramones recorded their first album in under two weeks and on a budget of $6400.00 dollars. Released in April of that year, the album boldly introduced the Ramones to the world, and is now recognized widely as one of the most important pop music albums ever recorded. The album was seminal in launching punk music in the United States and the U.K., and sounds as fresh and innovative today as it did 40 years ago.

In honor of its 40th anniversary, Warner Brothers/Rhino has released a commemorative set that celebrates this ground-breaking album. The set includes three CDs packed with rarities and outtakes, two live performances, and both a remastered stereo and never before released mono version of the album. A vinyl version of the mono mix is also included, and extensive liner notes, an essay on the band, and rare photos round out the package. It’s a great way to learn all about this seminal band and its four founding members, all of whom took on the last name Ramone to symbolize their unity of sound and purpose: Jeffrey Hyman, known as Joey (vocals); John Cummings, or Johnny (guitar), Doug Colvin, or Dee Dee (bass); and Tommy Erdelyi, or Tommy (drums).

The original album was produced by Craig Leon, who oversaw all the remixing of the new release and also made sure that the package was as musically comprehensive as possible. Craig is a musical giant who has also worked with Blondie, the Talking Heads, and other groundbreaking punk and new wave bands. Over time Craig has gravitated toward classical and electronic music, and he continues to produce, orchestrate, and record a wide range of artists, as well as his own original music. He is currently working on new electronic and classical music that will soon be released, and he is currently touring to support his most recent release, “Nommos.”  You can learn more about Craig on his wikipedia page, and of course, keep up with his website and facebook page for all the latest developments.

Craig and I talked about the new release, his role, and the legacy of this album in the rock and roll pantheon.  I am grateful that Craig took the time to talk, and I hope you enjoy our conversation.

Getting The Project Underway

Monte: How did the idea a 40th anniversary release of the first Ramones album come about?

Image result for ramones 40th anniversary deluxe editionCraig: Warner Brothers was planning to do it. I got a call from a friend, Mickey Leigh, who was (Joey’s) brother. He and Dave Frey, who manages the estate of the Ramones, asked me if I wanted to get involved with it. They had given me one of the gold albums in 2014, and while we were talking about that, they said, you know the 40th anniversary is coming, wouldn’t it be great if we could get it sounding like it was originally?”

I said, fine, let me run with that, let me put everything we had wanted to do on the record, try and collate everything that was recorded back in those early days. I didn’t get everything. I think there were are some things that nobody has…the one thing nobody has is the very first demos that Tommy played for me when he came into my office, and asked me if I could help him copyright them, and take them around to record labels. I had a copy of them but that was many years ago.

Getting To Work

Monte: Were there things you were able to do in the studio now that you weren’t able to do the first time around?

Image result for ramones first albumCraig: This is pretty much the record that we wanted to make when we first thought of doing the record, but we were limited in a number of things back then. We wanted a mono and a stereo version. The stereo version was going to be ultra-bizarre, like a parody of the Beatles, these old recordings where you’d have half the band on one side, half the band on the other, and the vocals down the middle. And that was really because they only had three and four track recorders, so they’d have all the band playing at once, maybe a sax solo while they were singing, and then maybe just the tambourine or the backing vocals on the other channel.

But also, it was very indicative of how the Ramones actually played live back in those days. They didn’t have a complicated PA system, and that was one of the reasons we had to make a cheaper record, so they could afford, out of whatever limited budget there was, to get a better PA system.

When they played live, they had bass on one side of the stage, guitar on the other, and Joey would be in the middle. So that is how they sounded when they were live. It was very distinct sounding.

Also the band liked the idea of things from the 1960s. We loved the sound of old rock and roll records in very direct mono, and we loved the sound of old Beatles records and Herman’s Hermits…The Who’s Live at Leeds was one of John’s favorite records. That was the ultimate – Pete Townsend on one side, John Entwistle on the other, drums and vocals down the middle.

Monte: Did you and the band achieve what you set out to do?

Craig: I wanted to do something on the first record that was radically different, that set them aside from everyone else, that announced that they were there with their sound.

In those days, when you were signing a band, you were trying to get them recognized and known on the first record, and maybe pick up a fan base on the second. And then maybe, if you were lucky, start getting hits on the third or fourth album. That was the plan. I think Tommy had a bit of an idea that he wanted the band to sound more 1976 contemporary, instead of bizarre. I think he wanted them to sound more commercial. But that was kind of insane…you’re going to try to sound real commercial and sing about beating on the brat with a baseball bat, and I’m a Nazi baby yes I am…

But that was the dichotomy of the Ramones. They were joking and they were serious about everything they said at the same time.

Monte: Well sometimes you listen to their records, it’s like listening to the Beach Boys.

Image result for craig leon ramonesCraig: There’s a lot of harmonies and things that you don’t hear on the reissues, that are very clear now. There’s double tracking and triple tracking and four-part harmonies on many of the songs, background textures, oohs and aahs, guitar overdubs, there’s all kinds of studio techniques. In fact it’s state of the art recording for its time period.

We used everything that was at our disposal. (But) 1976 was a lot closer to 1960 in terms of equipment than where we are now. There was no digital technology, obviously. Digital delays were around but they were very new and there weren’t that many of them around. There were compressors and limiters and there were echo chambers, and effects that you could get with slowing down and speeding up tape. You could change signals in feedback…but that was about all that you could do. You would have to get an effect by sending something out of the room, or putting a mic down a toilet and trying to see if the sound would reverberate…people were always experimenting with that kind of stuff. But there was no way to seamlessly edit things.

When it first came out, it came out pretty much the way I wanted it to come out, considering what we had. There were a couple details that we fixed on this record. One, we got a mono version, which I think is great. The original monitor mixes that we did, we were going for the mono. The original mixes were very monophonic. They had stereo echoes but everything was down the middle.

We didn’t make the stereo version until the very end. We couldn’t put out the mono because our distributor didn’t make mono records anymore. But we wanted one. The other thing is originally, we wanted to do the record at Abbey Road (in the UK) until we realized we didn’t have the money to do it. Abbey Road has a secret weapon, which was a very heavy compressor to make things loud on the radio. It’s like current digital mastering, but it was much warmer, and it was a very specific effect. It was a modified compressor that only they had.

We didn’t use that on the first album. We got close to it, with the brilliant mastering engineer Greg Taube, who kind of replicated it. It was the best that we could do with the equipment that was available. But, I did the (new release’s) stereo version through those compressors at Abbey Road as well. That’s what we’re hearing now. It’s the only time that it’s the original two-track from the studio that you’re hearing, and not a later copy. 

The stereo version is an off-kilter nod to the recording techniques of the 60s but it also represents how the band set up and sounded on stage. The mono version has more direct power.

Monte: Do you prefer the stereo or mono version?

Craig: I like them both! Both versions sound great. And we worked very hard with the (Abbey Road) remastering guys, they’re big Ramones fans, and they really went out of their way. I’m pretty picky. Bur they were very patient and did it, and went through all the test cuts and everything else.

Monte: In your liner notes you said that they had the first 35 songs or so all planned, including the chronology for their release…I found that very thoughtful of them, very shrewd.

Craig:  We changed a few things, but it was pretty much that way. And they had other songs as well, but it’s pretty close. There was this image that the Ramones portrayed that was aided by Punk Magazine and such, that they were a bunch of slovenly idiot-savants that just got together and played real loud in somebody’s basement, and went in and recorded it in two minutes, and that was it. They got together and had band meetings and band discussions, (discussing) how they were going to look, everything.  Everything was planned out.

Monte: Nobody would say they were world-class musicians, but they seemed to have a very innate sense of what was the right sound for the kind of music they wanted to make.

Craig. Yeah. They were world-class musicians for what they did, which was all you have to be. I work in classical music a lot. Richard Wagner was an orchestral composer and he played really crap piano! Didn’t matter, he was a genius orchestrater. So it’s the same thing. Johnny Ramone was a genius at playing the guitar style that he played. You wouldn’t expect him to play a Wes Montgomery solo. Though if he put his mind to it, he could’ve!

Monte: Johnny said a number of times that they weren’t looking to bury rock and roll, they were looking to revive it.

Image result for craig leon ramonesCraig: They were in love with rock and roll – but the REAL rock and roll! The 50s, the girl groups, the doo wop, Eddie Cochran, Sun Records, all that kind of stuff. And they loved some contemporary bands. They loved the Stooges, the New York Dolls, the Bay City Rollers they loved! It was honest for what it was.

Monte: That came out in a couple of their songs…

Craig: Too much of a homage on one of them! (note: the famous “Hey Ho, Let’s Go” chant in Blitzkrieg Bop was inspired by the Bay City Rollers song “Saturday Night.”) It wasn’t that they hated rock and roll, they hated the excessive, “microphone up your butt” rock and roll that was happening (at the time), when people were re-recording each string of an acoustic guitar to get a strum!

Monte: So that gets to this musicianship that they had, and the idea that they knew what they had to do to make their career happen.

Craig: When they were sitting in bars and were completely unknown they were planning out what guitars they were going to buy, all that kind of stuff. Tommy was the guy who articulated that. He had somewhat of a knowledge of technology, and he articulated that on behalf of the rest of the band. The other guys weren’t great communicators. He put that into perspective. That’s why I gave him an associate producer credit on the album. He was the designer of the band’s sound live, which I was actually translating to record.

It was a performance art piece that he was doing at the beginning, which came from his knowledge of filmmaking. It wasn’t haphazard. And yes, they yelled on stage, and everything fell apart, and they’d start the wrong song, and everything, but that was because everything was so intense that they worked themselves into a frenzy when they were actually playing. But it was intended. Their whole sound, their whole look, was exactly what they wanted to do.

People are surprised when they hear the Ramones demos. They sound remarkably like the Ramones. Well, EVERY band in those days sounded like their demos. It’s not like today, where eighteen Swedish guys go into the studio and communicate with a bunch of guys in LA, and each guy does one bar of a song and you slap background singers on top of it and that’s your record.

Monte: To me it’s become more about the producers than the artists.

Craig: I’d call them corporate mechanics. There are a few producers that are around that I really rate highly. There’s a number in classical and jazz that are (very good).

Monte: What are your thoughts about that Johnny’s down-stroke, slashing style of play? I know of no other guitarist that did that.  

Craig: Ah, the down-stroke…that was his style and his technique. That’s how he sounded; what came out of the amp was what he did. We did do a number of EQ things, a number of overdubs, it’s not just one guitar on the album on every song. Some are like that but there’s many where there’s composite guitars and stuff. But that doesn’t matter. It’s what the guy’s playing, it’s what he did. And I respected that. He had a completely unique style, and he added his dimension to the litany of what guitar players do. There’s a lot of other people that can’t do what he did.

There’s a lot of flashy guitar players, supposedly, who can’t play straight down-strokes at 180 beats per minute for three minutes.

I work every day now with what the world would call world-class musicians. From Luciano Pavorotti to the London Chamber Orchestra, (and many others). I record those people and I conduct myself. Those people do what they do and it’s captured by the microphones in the studio. And it’s the same techniques that were used with the Ramones. The engineers and I were capturing what they actually did. That’s what recording was.

Monte: Now Tommy was not as enthusiastic about being the drummer if I recall.

Image result for tommy ramoneCraig: He was their manager, and then he was their drummer. (At the outset Joey) was the drummer, but that stopped. As Tommy became the drummer and the spokesman, he was courting Danny Fields and negotiating for Danny to manage them. It was Danny and Lisa Robinson that first started writing about them.

But Tommy was really the brains, and he didn’t like going out on the road apparently.  He wanted to produce the band. I think he wanted to be the Brian Wilson of the group, so to speak. I saw them over the years but we never really talked about that stuff. The last time I saw Tommy before he died, we were at a party in New York, and we talked about bluegrass. That was what he was playing.

Monte: What did you hear when you heard his drums? What did you want to capture?

Image result for dee dee ramone craig leonCraig: First of all, he was really metronomic, and really robotic as the drummer. That was really good, that kept them together at those high speeds. He came up with the idea that he should play with a click track in the studio so they didn’t run away with themselves. Dee Dee and John had a tendency to go too fast. So, he was actually reining them in. He played the whole album with a metronome set up in front of him. He didn’t want the click because it bothered him, so we used a classical one, with a little orange light. We turned it way up and he’d sit there studiously playing along to it, like someone who was playing classical music.

And their recording techniques…one journalist who hit it right on the head was Tim Summer of the Observer, who said that if anything, their comparative peers were (the German band) Kraftwerk, believe it or not. A lot of that stuff I loved, which is evident in my electronic records, in Suicide, Front-242, a lot of stuff I’ve done over the years. Tommy was a very futuristic drummer at that time, he wasn’t sloppy, and he wasn’t blues oriented. He was power oriented.

Monte: What was his hi-hat and snare technique? With Marky, he prides himself on hitting every one of those 16th notes. But with Tommy, he was almost a little more laid back, almost quieter than you’d expect him to be.

Craig: He used an open hi-hat a lot, and he kind of let it reverberate. It wouldn’t, believe it or not, be a very distinct hi-hat sound. We actually miked the hi-hat from underneath, because it sounded too washy when we did it the conventional way, on top. So we miked it from underneath and from a distance. It was the hardest part of the drum sound to actually get.

It was just his style. It was closer to how Ringo Starr played on the ride cymbal. Think about it. Listen to the Beatle’s English recordings, where they didn’t have all that stupid echo up front. They remixed everything for America. (They) used to remix all the Beatles records, trying to make them sound “better” for American radio, put all kinds of echo on them and mess up everything. The Beatles hated that. But if you listen to those early Beatles records, that ride cymbal is very similar to how Tommy played open hi-hat.

Monte: By the time they got to Marky, the drums were louder on the recordings but with Tommy, it seems to me like they let Dee Dee and Johnny handle the volume.

Craig: Yeah… Tommy played real light. Tommy, if he had put his mind to it, could have been a jazz drummer. Clem Burke is a fabulous jazz drummer, but you’d never know it.

Monte: He’s a fabulous drummer. He was a Ramone for two shows too!

Craig: He’s a Ramone now, for the tribute concerts that Mickey Leigh does. He plays the whole record exactly at the right nuance, and he plays the cymbal crashes exactly at the right volume. He’s got the whole album down.

Image result for ramonesMonte: You mentioned that Joey’s brother did background vocals on the record. I don’t think that was well known.

Craig: They kind of hid that fact; a lot of people did a lot of things on the record. But there was an image, and it was correct, actually, everything was named Ramones. If they started saying Craig Ramone and Mickey Ramone, and all that, people would look at it and say, oh, there’s nine people in this band.

Monte: It gets back to that image, that performance art aspect that you mentioned, that here’s these four scraggly guys, a band of brothers, all dressed the same in the leather jackets and the torn jeans, here’s the music and it’s in your face, it’s what we do, we are the Ramones. It was just part of that whole concept.

Craig:  Exactly. They didn’t really want to say anything else. That was the way it was. Mickey had a hell of a time getting acknowledged.

Monte: And you have said that Joey was very reliable, on any song he always sounded the same, always exactly on cue, that they knew their songs so well that Joey knew exactly what to do when he came in to do his vocals.

Craig: Absolutely. Once he adapted a phrase it would be the same way, every time. When we went back to the original multi-track I had of some of the trial vocals, there were some earlier takes that we didn’t quite like – you (listen) to them and they are exactly the same. Very minor differences between all of them.

Monte: And Dee Dee…I imagine he was a little harder to rope in?

Craig: He had an incredibly bad mic technique for a recording studio. Too energetic, and that’s why we had to have other people do the quieter background vocals. He did all the energetic ones. And he did all the counts, obviously.

Monte: But no one could sing that part in 53rd and 3rd like Dee Dee.

Image result for ramonesCraig: Right, he’s singing lead on that, and everything he did was perfect for what it was supposed to be. (But) he couldn’t do the textures that I wanted on the record, and the band wanted on the record too. They wanted those Beach Boys harmonies, and things like that. But he couldn’t do it. So that’s why Mickey and others had to do it.

Strangely enough, a friend of mine in another band that I was going to be producing for another label, Elliot Kidd, knew background singers in Connecticut where he grew up. I told him, I don’t think (Dee Dee’s) going to be able to do some of this, you told me that you knew a background singer?” He said “yeah, let me give you the guys number.” So I called him while we were in the studio and I wrote his name down on one of the track sheets, it says “Michael Bolaton,” and of course that’s Michael Bolton. He almost was on the album, but we didn’t have the budget to pay him.

Monte: If you listen to the fourth album, it’s a bit of a departure. On the first three you heard more of a maturation, but on the fourth one (Road to Ruin), it’s a departure. I always assumed they were trying to broaden their appeal a bit, but maybe it also has something to do with when the songs were written – that they were written specifically for that album?

Craig: I think some of the early ones showed up. But they got kind of desperate for a hit, and the one thing that ruins any musician is getting desperate for a hit. If you get desperate for a hit, you’re not going to get it. And they proved that point. I think their biggest mistake was the next album (End of the Century), when they went to Phil Spector. Not to knock Phil Spector, arguably one of the greatest producers in rock and roll history, but they went desperately looking for a hit at a time when Phil couldn’t even get a hit with his own work. I think that was the beginning of a very long period of time when they absolutely were not going to get a hit.

Monte: My impression is that after a while they accepted that, and ended up making some great records later in their career.

Craig: Oh yeah, they made some great records later on. But there was a whole period when they were trying to get a hit.

Monte: I remember hearing the album produced by Graham Goldman (Pleasant Dreams) for the first time and thinking, this isn’t the Ramones.

Craig: Well, he wasn’t the Ramones. He was a very slick, very accomplished pop producer. But maybe that’s what they were thinking, that they needed that. It’s funny that they never came back to me. I never cared about that, but of all the producers that they worked with, I went on and had a number of hits in Europe. 

(Maybe) things would have changed, but you can’t really look at alternate universes and try to say, “this would have been better.” But the producer can only help someone that has a hit in them – you can’t really impose that on someone.

The Legacy

Monte: Did you have any idea that the album would leave such a legacy, and also, was this a gratifying experience for you personally, to shape the album the way you wanted to shape it?

Craig: The first one is easy: absolutely not. I had no idea it would be so influential. In fact anybody in those days didn’t think in terms of something lasting 30 or 40 years. There was no idea that our generation that bought rock and roll records would continue buying rock and roll records when they were (in their 80s). It didn’t happen. In fact people bought rock and then matured into whatever the hell else they matured into. So no, no concept whatsoever.

I’m very happy that we did do this reissue, because it’s 100%, as opposed to 95%, of what I thought the album should be. I was very happy to be a part of it. It’s a very important record to me.  And that I had this (opportunity) is great. If I’m around for the 50th, I’ll be a lucky guy. If I’m around for the 60th, that’d be even better! But until then, this will be the definitive version.

I know that it’s an expensive proposition for a fan to buy this particular set, but if you really want to know the Ramones, you should listen to this. If you happen to have one of the original pressings from the first run, that’s cool. But there are very few of those. But otherwise if you really want to know what the band was about, then listen to this record. It is pretty much the definitive statement. 

Image result for ramones live

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