Thursday, August 27, 2009

August 4, 2000 -- Queens of Noise

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This week one of you sent in a question involving recording sessions for Queens of Noise. Since there is no quick answer, I'd thought I'd make it the story of the week, and give you the scoop on a song by song basis.



Queens of Noise cover (from the Japanese CD reissue).
The smoke was really thick and this shot was taken
at the last moment before we all started choking.
On the the original cover, it's really easy to see
Joan and Cherie starting to squint from the smoke.
This shot was originally going to be the back cover,
but I asked them to put it on the front because I
thought it would draw more attention in an lp display
rack and that it would ruin the shot to have writing on it.
The record company agreed, and switched the front and back covers.

In the 1970's, most bands were contractually obligated to deliver two albums per year to the record company. So our second album came hot on the heels of the first, but even then our relationship with Kim Fowley was souring and the mutual decision was made to bring in a different day to day producer. Kim selected Earle Mankey, who was best known for engineering albums by The Beach Boys, to act as both engineer and producer, although Kim remained involved on a periodic basis and took first position producing credit. We recorded the album at Brothers Studio, The Beach Boys' studio in Santa Monica, California.

Because Kim wasn't around to babysit, we ended up doing a lot of our own producing, which is why, in my opinion, Queens of Noise is not a very good album. Our idea of producing was pretty much to turn our own instrument up as loud as possible. Sandy refused to play to a click track (a steady background click that a drummer listens to through the headphones to help her keep the beat and which is eliminated in the final mix) and, as a result, a lot of songs have uneven tempo. The beat on most of the songs is plodding, and we just tried too hard to make things fancy. Kim Fowley was a jerk, but on our first album he understood one fundamental point -- keep in simple. The Runaways wasn't a fancy album, but we were kept on a tight leash and it sounds clean. Good, bad-girl fun. There is only one song on the first album I really don't like (Lovers, with the lame whispering and hackeyed chord changes, in spite of its one great line, make me scream, hey! what's your name?), and it's a pretty mild dislike. I'm not crazy about Blackmail either, but at least it was fun to play. There are four songs, however, on Queens of Noise that I absolutely hate, and of the songs I like, none are favorites. All in all, a disappointing sophomore effort.

Note: In the special thanks section of the album cover, the first person thanked is Ronnie Fox. That was a thank you to my mother, whose real last name is Fuchs, but I didn't want anyone to figure out my last name so I made the band print it as Fox. We singled my mother out for thanks because she came on our English tour with us which meant we didn't have to have a social worker, plus my mom got along great with the rest of the band and kept us out of serious trouble without ever getting in our way or being uncool.

On to the songs.

Queens of Noise

This song caused the single biggest fight I can recall in the band. Billy Bizeau, who played for Kim Fowley's other band, The Quick, wrote Queens of Noise and submitted it to Kim Fowley. Cherie claimed Billy had written it for her. But Joan insisted on singing lead on the song, and the band backed her. Cherie showed up one day and the vocals were already done -- Joan on lead, me on backup. Cherie was furious. We didn't re-record the vocals for the album, but Cherie made such a stink about it that we reached a compromise for our live performances -- Cherie would sing the first verse, and Joan would sing the second verse with me on backup. This is the version that appears on the Live in Japan album. Joan had shared lead vocal duties with Cherie on the first album, but by the recording of our second album the problem had grown chronic, as Joan was singing lead on half the songs. The song Queens of Noise brought the issue to a head, as Cherie felt that Joan had stolen her song.

Note: I always felt incrediby stupid singing this song live. It just felt so demeaning singing the line "come and get it boys."

Take It or Leave It

This is one of my least favorite Runaways songs. The beat is plodding, the lyrics are weak (Joan was trying too hard to write a Suzi Quatro-type song) and the drum and lead guitar sounds are really cheesy (the reverb went to 11). I never liked this song on record and it wasn't much fun to play live. Plus it was another song that our lead singer didn't sing, and even when I most disliked Cherie, I never thought it was right that the lead singer should have to stand around doing nothing for almost half the songs.

Midnight Music

I came down with pneumonia about halfway through recording Queens of Noise. Some of the other band members and I had gone to the Starwood one night to see a KROQ radio show featuring local bands, including some friends of ours. Rodney Bingenheimer emceed the show. About halfway through the show, I realized I couldn't breathe. By the next day, I had to be hospitalized and missed about three days of recording. When I got back, the band had recorded four songs without me, one of which was Midnight Music (the others were C'Mon and Hollywood Dreaming, which I'll discuss below, and Strawberry Fields, which as I've said before was to me an inexplicable choice). The music had been written by a local songwriter named Steven T, and Kim had written the lyrics. The song was originally titled Heavy Metal Music, but it was a silly title given how mellow the song was so Kim changed it. Cherie got a songwriting credit, although I never did figure out exactly what she contributed. I think Lita played bass on the original track when I was in the hospital, but when I got back I recorded over it. None of us except Cherie liked the song at the time. It certainly wasn't a Runaways song -- Cherie had been insisting on doing something more melodic and we hated how middle of the road the song was and the breathy vocals and "talked" vocals Cherie did. In fact, we hated the song so much that Lita gave me one of the greatest compliments she ever paid me when she said that the only good thing about the song was my bass part.

I recently listened to this album again and Midnight Music is actually one of the better songs on the album (although I still cringe when Cherie "talks" the line singing rock and roll songs toward the end). But we really viewed ourselves as a rock band, and this song just didn't fit in with that view.

Note: This was one of the few songs on the album on which I recorded my bass part straight into the mixing board and, along with C'Mon, the only song on which my bass parts were recorded after the other instruments. On most of the songs, I played through an Ampeg guitar amp, which had smaller speakers than a bass amp and gave my bass a punchier sound. It's not necessarily a better sound, but it is easier to hear the bass parts than it was on the first album, and that was the point.

Born to Be Bad

This song is almost as embarassing as Johnny Guitar. Only its inherent cheesiness prevents it from being utter crap. I remember turning my amp up to ten so it bordered on constant feedback to give the bass more edge. Big mistake, but no one said anything. During the recording of the lead vocals, Joan was drinking Jack Daniels. Kim Fowley wrote the lyrics, which included the lines I want you to bring me his ears, to satisfy my mad desires, and if he bites the dust, he'll have to miss my fire. It was pretty obvious to me that this was a Vietnam war reference, but Joan didn't recognize this, and she was pretty drunk by the time she got to this part. Joan said that the line made her think of the bums in the bowery, and she started crying when she was singing it. If you listen closely, you can hear a sob at the beginning of Lita's guitar solo. Earle didn't punch her vocal mike out in time, and he decided to leave the sob in the final mix.

Neon Angels On the Road to Ruin

Midnight Music was our concession to Cherie's melodic desires. Neon Angels was our concession to Lita's heavy metal ones. This song has yet another set of Kim Fowley lyrics, including the opening line tribute to the Doors, no one here gets out alive. Lita wrote the intro and chorus music, and I wrote the verse music -- in other words, my contribution to the song was essentially "hold an 'E' chord." Cherie hated doing this song live because the high notes were a bitch to hit night after night. Kind of funny that she picked Neon Angel as the title for her autobiography. This is one of the four songs on the album that I don't like, although I don't dislike it as much as I dislike the other three. The chorus is good, but the intro is silly and the verses are akward, as is the transition from the drum solo back to the intro riff.

Note: I've written about how the loyalties and friendships in the band were constantly changing, but I'd have to say that over the course of my year and a half with the band, I was probably the most friendly with Lita. As I'm writing this week's story, it has really come to me that Lita and I were probably the closest during the recording of Queens of Noise. In any event, we seem to have spent a lot of time together in the studio without the other girls. Lita and I were in the control room with Earle one day listening to a playback of her guitar solo on Neon Angels, when Cherie came in and wanted to add some vocals to the beginning of the song. Cherie was always trying to throw falsetto "oohs" and "aahs" into the songs, and she wanted very badly to make this song more melodic. So Earle sets up a mic for her in the control room, and starts the track. At the end of the intro, Cherie starts singing a high, falsetto "oooh" "aaah." It was terrible. I didn't want to say anything (although I was terrified Earle would let Cherie talk him into leaving it in), but Lita, God bless her, looked over at Cherie and screamed, What are we, in f***ing church!?!??! A classic moment. And the ooh aah came out.

I Love Playin' With Fire

There was a band in the '70's called the Hollywood Stars, that Kim Fowley had worked with. One of the band's members, Mark Anthony, wrote a song for us called Born to Burn. The chorus lyrics were 'cause you were born to burn, and I love playing with fire, you were born to burn, yeah you kindle my desire. We learned and rehearsed it a few times, but we didn't really like it and dropped it. Joan liked the second line of the chorus, however, and built a new song around it, which we all liked quite a bit better. You can hear that Kim Fowley's lyric writing had influenced Joan by the time she wrote this song -- your eyes are sparkling' with teenage fire is pure Fowley. This song was always a lot of fun to play. Like all the songs on the album except Midnight Music and C'Mon, the drums, bass and rhythym guitar tracks were all recorded "live," i.e., at the same time and with us having each other in sight (although not in the same room because we didn't want the instruments to "bleed" into the other tracks). Vocals and lead guitar solos and riffs were recorded later. For I Love Playin' With Fire, Lita recorded her solo directly into the mixing board instead of playing through a mic'd amplifier. Earle Mankey and I were the only ones in the control room with Lita when she played her solo. Lita had an idea in mind but was having trouble getting her lead exactly the way she wanted. She played something I thought was really cool, but when I tried telling her, at first she thought I was criticizing her and started screaming at me. So I started screaming louder, trying to get her to understand that what she was doing was awesome. It was really funny -- there we were screaming at each other, when all of a sudden it hit Lita that I was telling her she was playing something great. She got this really confused look on her face, and looked over to Earle to see if he agreed. When he too told her it sounded good, she got into the groove and nailed it in a few takes. I think her solo on this song is one of her best.

Note: The band and assorted friends (including Rodney Bingenheimer) gathered around one mic in the studio to record the hand claps that accompany the first verse. I think it took more time to record the hand claps than the entire rest of the song because everyone, especially Rodney, had such a hard time keeping to the beat. Someone was off on every take. It was really pathetic.

California Paradise

I don't remember why we didn't record this song on our first album. It was one of the earlier songs the Runaways did and the only song on Queens of Noise that was written before I joined the band. I think it's probably the best song on the album, in spite of the excess reverb on the drums which made the track sound dated even back when we recorded it. It's not, however, one of my favorite Cherie vocals, but then nothing on this album was. Don't get me wrong -- I think Cherie has a great voice which has only gotten better over the years, but on this album she was trying way too hard and it didn't suit her. I strongly prefer the version of this song on the Live In Japan album.

Note: When I auditioned for the band, California Paradise was one of the songs I learned. Lita had been the one person who hadn't wanted me in the band, so I complimented her on her guitar solo, which I thought was really good. Only later did I realize that the part I had liked the best was the first portion of the break which is actually played by Joan.

Hollywood

I've already recounted the story of this song in the Q and A section of the site (Q and A WIth Jackie, Page 1) so I won't repeat it here.

Heartbeat

This was originally a song called Joey that Lita and I wrote together. Lita and I had written the music, and I wrote the lyrics as a mock love song to Joey Ramone. When we recorded the track, the song was still Joey. I was the only (at the time) singing member of the band who hadn't sung lead on a song, and I really wanted to do the lead vocal on this one. Cherie, who'd already lost lead singing duties to Joan on almost half the songs, wasn't happy about this, so Kim decided that Cherie and I should sing it together (much the same way that Joan and Cherie shared the lead on Thunder on the first album). But whereas Joan's voice and my voice blended so well together that I still have difficulty telling us apart on Hollywood, Cherie's voice and mine didn't blend well at all and it was a really frustrating experience. We gave up for the day and decided to try it again the following day. Only when I arrived at the studio the next day, I discovered that Cherie had done unto me as Joan had done unto her -- she, Kim and Earle has rewritten the song as a love song to David Bowie and Cherie and Joan had recorded the vocals. But I got my revenge in Boston (Story of the Week, May 12, 2000).

Johnny Guitar

Without a question the single worst song the Runaways ever did. Why anyone thought that five teenage girls could play the blues is beyond me. Although this song did lead to the best inadvertent compliment I've ever been paid. A critic, in writing a scathing review of this song, stated that the bass line was a direct rip-off of Led Zeppelin's Dazed and Confused. Only I'd never heard the song at the time. So I was happy about that particular bad review.

And yes... that is Lita groaning on the song.

The back cover for Queens of Noise (from the Japanese CS re-issue)

Hollywood Dreamin'

This was the song that made Midnight Music sound like Motorhead. It was another Steven T song that he had written for Cherie and her melodic desires. Because I was in the hospital when it was recorded, Steven T played the bass part. Lita flatly refused to play on this song, as did I when I got back to the studio. This song generated a true band rebellion. No one but Cherie wanted it on the album, and the rest of us made sure it got taken off and stayed off. I had lost the battle to get Kim to let us record I Love Rock and Roll, and I wasn't going to let this middle of the road teen fantasy (they tell me I'm too young to dream, but I've seen the pictures in your magazines) take its place. Fortunately, this time the rest of the band felt the same way. I think the song finally ended up on the embarassingly-titled Flaming Schoolgirls, an album that mysteriously appeard on a label called Cherry Red Records along with other songs recorded for Queens of Noise (including Hollywood Cruisin') and for which I never received a single royalty accounting. Our record company swears they have no knowledge of the record and didn't authorize it. But someone gave Cherry Red masters owned by our record company. Bad someone.

C'Mon

This song has my favorite back story of all Runaways songs. Unfortunately for you I won't disclose it here because I firmly believe that each Runaway should have the right to tell about her own personal life (love, sex, drugs, etc.) if and when she feels like it, and none of us should tell those stories for anyone else. So, I guess that opening sentence was just a big tease. Oh well.

When I got back from the hospital, this song had been recorded but there was no bass track. I plugged my bass straight into the board, figuring it wouldn't take long to record my part. I usually got my track on the first or second take. But the drumming on the track for C'Mon is heavily syncopated and it was really off. It took me a couple of hours to get my bass to match Sandy's drums. I wasn't there when it was recorded, so I don't know what happened, but Sandy has obviously had an off day and no one had noticed or been able to do anything about it. As I recall, there had been various things that had slowed recording down. My being in the hospital, someone spilling a can of coke into the mixing board, things that cost us a half day here, three hours there. Probably no one wanted a further delay that would push us over budget, so they just lived with the off-tempo track. I finally got my part down, and it was covered up by more cheezy overprocessed guitar. This is actually a fun song to perform live, and live we made it work great. But the studio version blows. Cherie splits up the last syllable in every line the exact same way --your eyes are wide with anticipa-shu-hun, gonna get involved in a flaming rela-sha-hun. The version on Live In Japan is much better. The original version didn't make it onto Queens of Noise at least in part because I threatened to leave the band if that song appeared on the album, and enough people realized I meant it. It never saw the light of day until Mercury released a cd reissue of Best of the Runaways and by then I was long gone. The lp version of this album was created when Joan first became successful, and only featured songs on which Joan sang lead. It didn't even have Cherry Bomb! When the cd re-issue came out, Cherry Bomb was wisely put on along with bonus track C'Mon. Which still blows.

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