Wizard Wednesdays: My Phoner With Howard, When Flo & Eddie Met The Furs
It’s Wizard Wednesday once again.
In case you’re just tuning in, in the past few weeks, I began devoting a series of Wednesday blog entries featuring selected content from my upcoming history of the productions of Todd Rundgren, entitled A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio, published October 15, 2010 by Jawbone Press. Order now!
I remind everyone that my book is not just about Todd Rundgren music, but it is more of anecdotal history of most of Todd Rundgren’s classic studio productions, with exclusive first-hand tales of the studio from Todd and most of the principles from: Meat Loaf: Bat Out Of Hell, Sparks: (Halfnelson), Hall & Oates: War Babies, XTC: Skylarking, New York Dolls: New York Dolls + Cause I Sez So, Patti Smith Group: Wave, The Band: Stage Fright, Cheap Trick: Next Position Please, The Tubes: Remote Control + Love Bomb, Bourgeois Tagg: YoYo, The Pursuit Of Happiness: Love Junk + One Sided Story, Steve Hillage: L, Psychedelic Furs: Forever Now and Grand Funk: We’re An American Band + Shinin’ On. And yes, I even talked with all key Utopia members (all lineups), and get Todd’s take on the making of Badfinger’s Straight Up and his interactions with George Harrison.
On Wizard Wednesdays, I leak unedited material from both the book and my unused notes. In the first two weeks, I covered Todd’s own Healing and Todd albums, and the week after that I leaked some stuff from the discussion of Todd’s production of New York Dolls (1973). Next. I shared some of Todd fan Dave Gregory’s thoughts on the sessions for XTC’s Skylarking (1986). And last week I took you Lenny Kaye’s house to talk about Patti Smith Group’s Wave album.
This week I want to share a little background that went into the chapter on Todd Rundgren’s production of The Psychedelic Furs’ U.S. breakthrough album, Forever Now (1982).
In chapter 17, you’ll read the whole story of the sessions, with content from The Furs’ Richard Butler, Tim Butler and Vince Ely and of course Todd himself. But I was also lucky enough to get a phone interview with Howard Kaylan. Kaylan and his fellow former Turtle, Mark Volman, comprise the singing duo Flo & Eddie and Todd controversially (at first) brought the two master harmonizers into the Furs sessions to lay down their magic fairy dust all over Forever Now, most crucially on the hit single “Love My Way”. In a second, I’m going to share a few moments from My Phoner With Howard, but first I want to tell you about a great little DVD you should rent or buy. In 2001, Howard wrote a biopic, of sorts, comically chronicling a particularly frenzied period in the history of his amazing former band, The Turtles, dealing with their first night in London on the heels of a huge hit, “Happy Together” (you know it). In the course of one evening The Turtles meet the Beatles, John is drunk and abusive and freaks out the band, Howard is dazed and goes walking around. He bumps into Brian Jones, who tells him how much he really loves the Turtles and, say, there’s another American here I’d love to introduce you to, his name’s Jimi Hendrix…. Howard’s treatment was funny and packed with details, and after he took it to Harold Bronson, over at Rhino Records, he agreed to make the 2003 feature film, My Dinner With Jimi, directed by Bill Fishman (Tapeheads, Car 54, Where Are You?) for Fallout Films. You should get this film, it’s hilarious and mind itchingly packed with historical fact and fantasy.
Anyway, back in 1982, when Todd Rundgren was finishing the Psychedelic Furs album, he wanted a certain textural vocal and he knew just where to get it, Flo & Eddie! Only trouble was, The Furs at the time, thought themselves to be the antithesis to what they perceived as The Turtles oldies, hippie vibe. They needed some schoolin’ and as Howard recalled in our long phone call, they eventually came around and Flo & Eddie saved the day. I’m gonna jump around a bit now and give you some excerpts from the actual transcripts….
Paul Myers: Hey Howard, so great to talk to you after all these years, I’m a big fan and I loved the movie. Can you start by telling me a bit about how Todd ended up getting you and Mark involved on this Furs thing?
Howard Kaylan: Todd said ‘I’ve got this British band. I’m almost done with this album, in fact, I thought I was done with this album but I’m hearing you guys singing on it.’ Now why the hell we were anywhere near Bearsville [the album was done up at Utopia Sound, near Woodstock], I have no idea…Maybe it was at the end of the year, because what was used to do was play at the Bottom Line in Manhattan over the Holidays. So every year we would do our special Christmas/ New Year Bottom Line show, which became famous. I think we did, like fifteen or seventeen years of those. So we could have been in town for that, I don’t remember when the album was recorded, if it was close to the end of the year it wouldn’t have been a big deal to go up there.
PM: I understand there was some resistance at first. And second.
HK: There was a bit of duress in convincing them to accept us. They had already finished the record and to their mind the thing was done and perfect. Especially Richard [Butler], he was really running the show. When we entered [Utopia Sound], it was like ‘Ah, who are these guys?’ And it wasn’t a casual question, either, it was the Butler brothers mainly asking Todd, ‘Who the FUCK are these guys?’ Richard particularly, being the voice of the band, and his brother was asking him, and the band guys were asking his brother, and it kind of fell on Todd to go, ‘Look, you guys calm down. I know, I know, I know.’ These fat old fucks from the Turtles!’ they were saying, ‘What the ‘ells that gonna do?’ They thought we were anti-everything that they were going for.
PM: Did Todd mention your work with Frank Zappa or T.Rex to The Furs, to convince them you were cool?
HK: That’s a possibility, and it’s a shame to have to go such extremes to explain yourself! Those guys, nice guys though they were, were the epitome of sort of, street kids. So raising the name of The Turtles, a pop commercial band, in any way would have red-flagged anything they wanted to do. You know, if the Zappa factor added hipness or ‘street cred’ to what we did, well lovely. And I think when they put two and two together and remembered us from the Zappa days, and the high voices and the groupie shit, it started to make sense to them and all of a sudden as underground faces, those two guys, us, are hip! I still see Todd doing that kind of, well, manipulation to convince people without them knowing it. That’s one of his great gifts. It’s not something you can just do, it’s masterful, he’s a great student of people. He knows.
PM: Had you worked with Todd before? Did you know his approach to recording?
HK: I love to watch Todd produce because, unlike any other producer I’ve worked with, with the possible exception of Ray Davies, Todd has a very unique production style. I’ve seen him work on his own records as well as The Furs. Todd feels, and rightly so, that if you hear it, and it’s wonderful when you hear it, and you record it that way, that’s it. That’s the sound. You can hear it, you can see it on a meter, there it is. So when it comes time to mix, rather than being Roy Thomas Baker about it and spending three days to get the right drum mix on the 47 mics plugged into his portable 64 track, Todd’ll lift everything up half way and say ‘Press record, man! We’re ready to go!’ Because in his brain, he is so well organized that everything has already got its place in the spectrum. Everything has already got its perfect harmonic place to be. On the big scale, if you looked at it like a graph, Todd’s graph is totally full. He envisions it that way from the get-go, from the minute he pictures the song in his head. So that when he’s finished the recording stage, when it comes time for the mixing, it’s done. I never saw Todd put any effect on anything. I never saw him add, tweak, pitch correct, even though he was capable of doing that stuff twenty years before anyone else was. He could, and would, do things in the middle of the recording phase of the project that were amazing and bizarre and you’d go, ‘Is that gonna work?’ and he’d go ‘Yeah, it’s gonna totally work!’ Then he would put everything up to half way and the thing would literally mix itself. To this day I’ve never seen a producer work less with the controls during a mix, because it had already been done.
PM: Todd told me the story of how you ended up on “Love My Way” but I’d like to hear it from your perspective…
HK: The entire record was finished. We were ready to leave. I had my jacket on, Mark who drove [them up], had his keys in his pocket. We were leaving the studio, we had done our four or five songs and Todd said, ‘Do you wanna hear the single?’ So we said ‘Yeah, love to.’ And he played us ‘Love My Way.’ We listened, and we looked at each other and went ‘Hey Todd, do you know what this song needs? What? US! He said, Really? So we sang exactly what we would have done had this been a Marc Bolan record, we would have done those high sustained angelic voices, broken into harmony on those end aah’s. And just sort of made the thing celestial. He tried one take in the studio, and went ‘Holy fuck, this is gonna work!’ So we did a few more takes of it, layering ourselves, I think three or four layers. We played it back, I think it was the first time that he lifted the levels on the marimba loud enough that I could hear the juxtaposition of that instrument and the voices and it was unbe-fucking-lievable! I swear to God, I listen to that single today, I’ll crank it in the car every time it comes on. Just an amazing sonic experience. One of those records.
PM: Some say Todd is, or was, or could be, a bully. Others say he could be detached…what’s your take on his boardside manner?
HK: I can’t think of another producer who is also an artist, and yet will work with a great variety of other acts without putting his own stamp on the act as producer. I can listen to a Phil Spector or Roy Thomas Baker or even Brian Eno record, and know who produced it. The production overwhelms the group, in my opinion. All of a sudden it doesn’t matter whether that’s Coldplay or U2, that’s obviously Brian Eno. So Todd’s gift is that he lets the act be the act, you know? They’re making their own record. A lot of people who have watched other producers work, would say that Todd is very, very casual about his production, implying perhaps that he doesn’t care. But he totally cares, he just wants the person on that side of the glass to bring 100% of themselves to the project. Without changing it, you know? Hall & Oates will always sound like Hall & Oates, Meatloaf is not gonna sound like Hall & Oates and neither one of those things is gonna be particularly ascribed to a ‘Todd Rundgren production style.’ Todd’s gift is letting everybody rise to their natural level of competence, hopefully. At that point, he brings his talents into it and then everybody rises to the occasion. When I said that he lifts everything up half way and that’s his mix, that’s also to say that everybody gets to sound like the way that they sound in real life. Todd doesn’t make them sound fake or phony. Any tricks that he does are tricks in the background, or with the background voices or other things that colour and shade the performance. They don’t change it. He doesn’t alter the artist to fit his vision, it’s the other way around. He changes his vision of the way the final record sounds based on what the artist does live in the studio. People would kill to have a producer like that!