Yeah yeah, I know. For many of you, Bob Rock is basically the guy who ruined Metallica. He replaced Flemming and worked with the band right as they began to suck and Nuclear Assault videos were replaced by Pearl Jam videos on MTV. And he worked on St. Anger, which was maybe the worst album of all time before Lulu. What you might not realize, however, is that Rock is a recording engineer and producer who has had a long, varied career, working in a variety of genres with a lot of different bands. Although his late 80’s hard rock production output has a pretty signature sonic stamp, he’s actually a lot more versatile than many people – particularly more serious artists – give him credit for.
So I’d like to take you on a quick look and listen into some of my favorite records on which Rock either manned the boards, the yellow producers legal pad, or both.
The Subhumans – Death Was Too Kind (1979)
A legendary release in the punk world, the Subhumans’ dirty 1979 12″ also has two direct ties to the metal world: Overkill has famously covered its song “Fuck You” at basically every one of their shows since 1987, and Bob Rock helped make it. At the tender age of 25, Rock notched credits both as engineer as well as producer (Sgt. Rock) of this great little Canadian punk release.
There’s not too much to say about this kind of music, which at a brisk 4-songs, 8-minute length, speaks for itself. I will note that from a production angle, the guitars really sound great on this thing, even today – although they might lack the staccato riffing and tonal attack of Iron Maiden’s early punky material, they have a ton of stank and sizzle on the high end, and a lot of the midrange body of the instrument is preserved. That’s not so common in this genre of music, where the guitars often sound shrill and thin. This is one of those releases that helps draw the line between like, the Sex Pistols and Slayer – in terms of both songwriting and production style.
Colin James – Colin James (1988)
It feels weird to attribute any sort of sonic authorship of a record like Colin James’ self-titled debut to Bob Rock – the credits list three producers (including Rock), three engineers, two assistant engineers, one mixing engineer, and two mastering engineers. Thats a list that looks absolutely absurd by todays standards, even for a pop record: for comparison’s sake, Lorde’s Pure Heroine was made by one mixing engineer/producer/arranger and one mastering engineer.
But its worth mentioning this record for two reasons. First, it’s a great example of Rock’s experience working with straight-up pop music of the era. I know that many people may consider his later rock and metal production work as basically pop, but you really cannot compare the scale of the beasts that we’re talking about here – even for massive albums like Dr. Feelgood and Metallica. Not every recording engineer gets this kind of work to help flex their skills. It’s not easy to work on records like these, where there is a ton of money, expectations, humans, and business interests involved.
Which leads into my second point: for the number of people involved in it, Colin James is really a rather human-sounding pop-rock record (especially by today’s standards – see a monotonous work like Pure Heroine for one example). The instrumentation and performances, although in service of a song, don’t quite sound as polished and waxed as similar artists of the period. The horns blaze when they need to blaze, the guitar parts are performed impeccably and sit great in the mix despite having a very in-your-face attack, and the drums were performed by a real drummer who… didn’t play like a drum machine. James touched on a variety of genres and emotional motifs in his songwriting, and his music was treated really gently by the massive production team involved in the making of this album. That’s a credit to smart, creative work behind the boards.
The Cult – Sonic Temple (1989)
It seems like the Cult are getting a little bit more throwback love these days than they did in the late 90’s and 00’s, and with good reason: they’re awesome. What’s cool about the sound of this record is that it’s deceiving. Even though the songs sound like well polished, in-your-face, ready-for-the-arena-tour 80’s rock, if you listen closely, each instrument actually sounds pretty dirty. The drums are super aggressive – the snare and kick have a ton of attack, the hi-hats are open much of the song and occupying that elusive dark part of the mid range, and the ride cuts through and drives a chorus that has all kinds of stuff going on… like multiple vocal harmonies, a pronounced lead melody, and double-tracked guitars and harmonies.
Some of Billy Duffy’s leads and licks are really distorted – which is something that so often mucks up the way metal records sound, when sloppy playing is “hidden” by a thick layer of distortion. I know most young metal guitarists these days tend to gravitate towards attempting arpeggios and ridiculous tapped parts that Tosin Abasi plays… but try this: sit down, listen closely to Billy Duffy’s rhythm tracks, and then slowly attempt to play those parts. You’ll notice when comparing how you play, with the sound of the album, that he is ridiculously tight with the rhythm section. This song sounds poppy by today’s standards – hell, it probably sounded poppy to people listening to Death or whatever in 1989 – but that’s only because Duffy’s playing is so on the beat. But really tight songwriting, as well as Ian Astbury’s instantly-recognizable voice and distinguished melodies, disguise the dirty rock parts of Sonic Temple‘s sound. The production on this album therefore does what so many engineers aspire to achieve: it simply serves as a conduit for the sound of a band. That happens not only when good equipment and a great sounding board are used, but also when everyone performs at a high level.
Which means that Rock didn’t let those dudes fuck around when they were in the studio tracking those parts.
Skid Row – Subhuman Race (1993)
Skid Row do not get taken seriously enough. With reason, because their debut record is essentially a dated hair metal record (although the songwriting is top notch and Sebastian Bach’s singing is a cut above his peers), and their bloated GNR-style meteoric rise and catastrophic fall story is so typical of the era that it is easy to think of them as just another pop-metal band that was unlucky enough to get the gears turning right as Nirvana came to power.
But Skid Row are more interesting than that.
After the phenomenal success of their debut, they released two pretty interesting records, one of which was produced by Bob Rock. Bob didn’t work on their masterpiece, Slave to the Grind (which for my money, is better than Metallica and Appetite for Destruction, and holds the strange honor of being the first heavy metal album to ever debut at #1 on Billboard), but he did produce their third record Subhuman Race.
This album is weird. In many ways the production is kind of tame – Baz’s vocals sit strangely in the mix, the drums sound pretty flat, and although the guitars are clear, the tones lack the sizzle and attack that made Slave to the Grind such an enjoyable listen – but I think it sort of works in favor of the record. In their heyday, Skid Row was a band with a ton of energy. Rachel Bolan brought a ton of punk rock attitude to the band; guitarists Dave Sabo and Scotti Hill were interesting and creative riff writers; Rob Affuso knew how to play to the song better than many of his peers; and of course, Baz is a personality that you cannot ignore. So you have an 80s hair metal/hard rock band who are super unhinged as musicians, playing through a pretty “standard” post-Nirvana deadpan production lens. It almost sounds kinds of… unsettling. Strange and yet familiar.
I’m not going to argue that this is a great record by any means. It has a lot of flaws, and the songs definitely don’t have the riffs and creative energy that made Slave to the Grind so special. But its interesting, and certainly more entertaining than the albums that Skid Row’s peers made (or didn’t make) during this time.
Motley Crue – Dr. Feelgood (1989)
In case you haven’t read The Dirt, the Crue made Dr. Feelgood in the midst of major personal upheavals – each member was dealing with some amount of death, rehab, or fallout from overdoses and benders. Allegedly, things were so bad that Aerosmith personally reached out to the band to tell them “Hey guys, ya’ll gotta cool it” in regards to their partying.
Well, Rock took the band under his wing and whipped their asses into shape. Dr. Feelgood is the band’s best-sounding record in terms of both performance and sonic makeup, and it also has some of their most vital material. It’s basically the only Crue record (other than the debut, I suppose) that is listenable all the way through. It actually gets better after the main singles – in my view, the standout track isn’t “Kickstart my Heart” like Monday Night Football might indicate – it’s more like a toss up between “Rattlesnake Shake,” and “Don’t Go Away Mad.”
This might be a weird thing to say about a metal album – even one by Motley Crue – but I actually think the drum and vocal parts completely outshine the riffs and solos. Credit to Bob in knowing how to record drums, and in kicking Vince Neil’s ass in the booth. Apparently he went particularly hard on Neil, with the two of them doing takes late into the night, working to make sure every syllable was articulated just right.
The craziest thing to me about Dr. Feelgood is that even though it arrives basically at the end of an era, listening back to it you’d think that 80’s metal was just getting started. Its albums like this, Skid Row’s Slave to the Grind, and GNR’s Appetite for Destruction, which so often get lumped in with the rest of the 80’s hair scene, that seemed to point in new directions for this branch of metal. Dr. Feelgood sounds like a band at their best, with so much to sing about. That Bob Rock was able to coax this performance out of a trainwreck of a band literally at rock bottom, is a testament not only to engineering and production ability, but to character as well. I can’t think of an engineer working today who would be willing to put up with a band as volatile as the Crue were at their heyday, let alone be able to squeeze a record this good out of them.
HONORABLE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM:
Metallica – Metallica (1991)
I implore you to watch A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica if you’ve not seen it, and even if you are not a big Metallica fan. In addition to being an incredible documentation of that era of the band, the film gives great insight into the production process behind big metal and rock records in the early 1990s.
Although I love this record, my favorite thing about it is actually many people’s least favorite thing about Metallica period: Lars Ulrich’s drumming. It’s great. It’s not good, it’s not passable – it’s great. The sound is perfect – they reportedly used some 30-odd microphones to capture his playing – and as you see in the film, Rock kicked Ulrich’s ass into really performing better than he ever had, or would again, on a Metallica recording. The drum sound on this record is maybe the best that has ever been captured in metal, across all of its subgenres (although these days, Kurt Ballou is starting to inch his way towards that ring). For all of the miracle production techniques and options that engineers have these days (and for some big bands, the budgets), Rock’s recording of Ulrich in 1990 still eclipses everything else. And there was no secret to it – an exceptional performance, in a great room.