The Shirts’ first album had achieved recognition in the UK and bona fida hits in Europe, including a top-ten single (Tell Me Your Plans) in the Netherlands. The group were happy and felt they had a creative and supportive London home. Such support was broad and sometimes necessarily specific. My A&R Department expense account, always under stress even in times when record company largesse wasn’t compromised by any semblance of tight accounting, had to deliver serious cash at the local Seventh Avenue (Brooklyn) supermarket when the larder of the Shirt House at the corner of Ninth Street (above the F train station) was bare. A first album had been well-received in many countries (if not at home). Basic living standard or not, it was time for the second.
For this ingenuously enthusiastic, musically ambitious and positively-thinking group, personal support from EMI London in the late seventies was caring and unconditional. Those were the days when workers at a large corporate record company could feel free to respond on a personal level and make a difference. From this distance, it seems increasingly incomprehensible that a large corporation could exhibit such indie-record company responsiveness: not any more. I dimly remember going out to Heathrow Airport with A&R boss Nick Mobbs and a couple of other company people to pick up and greet the Shirts after their New York flight on arrival at Heathrow at 9am, arriving for their first album recording. Getting up at such a time has always been a serious endeavor for any music type, but we all did it without a second thought.
I also dimly remembered another early morning getting-up at the shit-house (as it was affectionately known) Shirt House, under the crippling influence of jet-lag and a hangover. CBGB’s club needed to be seen serve food to keep its liquor license, one aspect of a continuing cat-and-mouse game with the New York City regulatory authorities. Since there wasn’t much call for fine cuisine (the dreadful Phebe’s down the Bowery being the recovery room of choice) there was usually a surplus of raw material at the end of the long night. Balanced on one of the gas stove burners were an aluminum pan and a wodge of good-looking hamburger meat. The pan was on the stove, where it belonged. The meat was underneath it. Domesticating the Shirts never seemed a viable option.
Socially, it was a long way from the upper floors of Capitol Records in Hollywood. However belatedly, the company’s higher echelons did realize that something was going on, that hits were conceivable, and so they reached out to become actively involved with the group. On their terms, of course. But we were all happy that the second album could be recorded in New York with the support and resources of the large local company branch on 56th Street. I flew over from London to rehearse with the group, again staying with them in Brooklyn. This was my first production assignment in New York, so the other important task was to survey the local studios and choose one to camp in for the two months I thought it would take to record the album.
There were several mad-houses in New York at that time. The burgeoning Downtown music scene, centered on CBGB and Max's Kansas City, was one of them. The pressure-cooker recording studio scene was yet another. For both the Shirts and me, it would be a different and new experience, and a little like entering an alien world.
Of the three biggest metropolitan recording cities, London and Los Angeles are fairly spread out. Land was not then in especially short supply and rents were correspondingly lower, particularly in the less-central areas where high-end studios were located. Sessions and rental rates were sufficiently low to encourage booking by the day, which meant that the equipment could be left set up for a week or more. In London, it was (and still is) no problem to take a couple of hours off down the pub for pies and pints, so the pace of music-making was quite leisurely.
In contrast, New York in general and vertically-oriented mid-town in particular (where the top studios were) had some of the highest property rents in the world, even if still trailing those of Tokyo. The hourly rental of a large recording room for a group session could run as much as $200 an hour in 1979, not far short of the top price in 2003. Session pacing was completely different from my London experience. Because of the enormous fixed overheads and the impossibility of any act except the top stars locking out a room, most studios ran three session shifts per day, generally sorted by dividing the day into four-hour periods. Even the night shift could be busy. Bands generally recorded 2pm through 10pm, and so did we.
The discipline I learned during this time would help the efficient delivery of projects for the rest of my production career. It was essential to keep the action going and to pace it so that no-one was ever tired, felt under any pressure or dropped a minute. Regulating the session was clearly a local craft, and I learned to map out the day ahead, albeit in a flexible and fluid way (you can’t impose a train schedule in the studio, since wrecks and unforeseen delays are an inevitable part of the proceedings).
Should any band feel the stress inherent in any expensive recording session too strongly, it can prove intolerable for them. However, it is possible to translate such tension into an excitement and sense of occasion that would be impossible in an open-ended day for both timing and stamina reasons but which can be sustained for eight intense hours. In 1979, the New York City atmosphere really helped intense music be made. I duly arrived in the city for a week of rehearsals and studio shopping with nothing except hand baggage, two T shirts, jeans and the US Navy flying leather jacket (brown, Downtown, for the use of) on my back.
Staying at the Plaza was a good start. A grand old New York hotel always soothes the mental state. A Capitol staffer had told me to check out this fading piece of old New York. The immigration officer wasn’t quite sure what to make of my story, contrasting light carry-on baggage and general scruffiness with destination, but let me through anyway. (They were to tighten up later.) Unfortunately, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Capitol Records had booked me one day short at the home of Eloise, and the first night was spent on road manager Barbara Demartis’ East Village apartment floor (she had fled the madness of the shit-house Shirt House a few months before). Jet lag and the garbage truck at 4am put me in great shape for the following days’ rehearsals. Then back to the Plaza and a small room into which I let myself.
There was a nice, fragrant bouquet of fresh flower son the desk (with an accompanying loving note) and an open, crisply-organized suitcase, maybe even a rare sighting of the trouser press in use. Back to reception. Very sorry sir. Back to a suite with a marble bathroom which seemed bigger than my basement flat in South London. My friend from upstate who was invited to crash on my hotel floor was very impressed. As the project developed, we would eventually become used to such ups and downs, material and emotional, as being the essential contours of the album itself. In contrast, I spent the album recording period of two months at the Wellington ('Smellington') Hotel on Seventh Avenue at 55th Street. On my first evening (out), the room was broken into, thanks to room cleaning not locking properly, and I lost my portable cassette player (remember, this was 1979). Later that year, the Urban Verbs would stay there while we worked at Mediasound on their first album for Warner Bothers. Further trouble. This time, the head of security tried to seduce the drummer in the band ('the terrace on the roof is beautiful under the stars'). Kept the production pace going nicely.
The ten studios on my shortlist shared the same economic pressure on time but were true individuals and stylistically very different. At the highest end was the Power Station (the premises and facility now Avatar), eventually to have a (er) supergroup named after them (although without the hallowed-ground status of Abbey Road). I didn’t much look like the typical big-company record producer, so they barely gave me the time of day. I didn’t like important leather swivel chairs either. Each party was guilty of judging the book by its cover.
searched behind the mirrors
it something rare and new
My reception at Hit Factory was at the opposite extreme. To avoid disturbing active sessions, my viewing appointment was at the rock+roll-God-forsaken hour of 9am. Add my subway commute from Brooklyn and I might as well have been working in a factory. I bumped into the studio manager at the elevator entrance on the ground floor. ‘Wonderful to meet you,’ she said planting a kiss on my cheek. Even by American standards, I thought this was a bit over the top. The kid was learning the ropes.
In between were several great establishments: Soundmixers, Record Plant, A&R Recording and more. But the true standout for me was Mediasound, now Le Bar Bat on 57th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. In a former lifetime it had been a church, and the big recording room was ideal for noisy rock+roll. Or hymns, for that matter. Or orchestras. Or film scoring. The studio knew it all. The hourly rate was $175.
I was shown round the four-studio complex by assistant Carl Beatty, with whom I would later form a team and deliver many innovative and successful projects varying in style from the Flowerpot Men to the Communards. The personality of the institution seemed appropriately neutral. Instead of pre-programmed condescension or lovieness, everyone I met was business-like and only concerned to check out my credentials, desires and attitudes. The place had a constructive, can-do atmosphere but maintained a healthy skepticism and a light, non-precious touch to its operations. As a result, a broad spectrum of people would record there, from Aretha to Aerosmith, from Stevie Wonder to……the Shirts (from Brooklyn).
The studio itself had impeccable credentials, largely thanks to all the staff seeming driven by wanting to be around music, to handle it on a daily basis. Even the two owners, John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, had been the instigators of the first Woodstock Festival in 1969, and an original poster was discreetly placed in the upstairs hallway among a profusion of art posters. The equipment was often vintage, with the inevitable advantages (classic sound) and disadvantages (cranky), and needed constant TLC to keep it working. The four rooms justified a 24-hour maintenance department, and an army of assistants able to turn sessions around in 30 minutes flat.
Acoustically, the rooms were far from perfect, even the big Studio A, but the savvy and creative improvisation of the staff engineers would keep good sounds coming reliably. On the surface, everything ran smoothly and control room visitors would made the usual comparisons with flight decks and space probes. Below the surface, though, was the swirling mayhem of the intense interactions of 35 intense and volatile people. The studio had a day persona, when jingles would whistle through in three efficient morning hours (at $300 per hour), and a night sensibility which would gradually take over during the afternoon. It was the perfectly complementary environment for the Shirts (from Brooklyn). Ups and downs, above and below stairs.
On this record, the Shirts now sounded a different band altogether. The had developed a long way, and, better still, they now found themselves on home ground. From the first (effected) piano chords of Laugh And Walk Away you hear a confident, steady combo, a rich vocal sound from Annie in her best range, as you now do throughout the album. Another Dutch hit, another well-received US release. More European acclaim. More sales indifference in the United States, despite what I still think is the instantly accessible, seductive pop of the vocal arrangements. It still sounds still like a rich, accomplished all-American record.
The yearning poise and assurance of Annie and the group on Triangulum shows a tremendous musical journey beyond the first album as far as the stars (or at least the song's Acamar).
CBGB’s might still be home, but in some ways it’s far behind. No, Annie didn’t develop stellar lungs at the end (listen in RealAudio, right). We made a loop of her stratospheric last notes to keep them hanging for ever, a simple but enormously effective trick which took considerable setting up. (I had used vocal loops often with Wire, and would shortly after with Til Tuesday and the Communards, taking very distinctive and capable vocalists to altogether different places.)
shine on the cheap white suit
Milton At The Savoy brought in the first outside instrumentalists to a Shirts recording, a full swing horn section arranged by Rusty Dedrick (and coincidentally introduced me to high-level session players with whom I’d work often during following New York years). The story is a poignant fantasy
about an uptown jazz musician whose time has passed him by. He was originally slated for the first album, but the song proved beyond us until the quasi-theatrical horns were brought in with Rusty as specialist arranger and stylist. Milton's mythologized picture hung in the lounge of the shit-house Shirt House and unfortunately was destroyed one drunken night just after the first album, when Milton appeared to be over. Pity, really, because it was a strong photograph and the powerful inspiration for the song. But Milton is immortal in a more abstract sense now.
In many ways, Outside The Cathedral Door is the Shirts’ grand masterpiece. It was always played in the expansive 5’30” format on stage, and was considered too radical for the first album, but it could hold the raucous CBGB’s audience quietly spellbound. I had little to do with the structure when in was recorded for the second album. If it ain’t broke, you don’t fix it, and its evolution over years on stage to its grand conclusion and recording capture just seemed to flow naturally. Unusually, Robert
Racioppo takes lead vocals (although much of the vocal delivery is choral, with signature Annie Golden on top as well as setting the stage at the beginning). Finally the Shirts had their grand statement and an immaculate arrangement (again, with which I needed to do little other than enhance and exaggerate).
The album was delivered to enthusiastic British cheers and muted rumbles from Los Angeles. They didn’t hear singles. Two further tracks, Can’t Cry Anymore and Don't You Hesitate were cut in a fraught, pressure-cooker week in June in New York, during which time Hilly Kristal and I might have given up on what was to become an enduring friendship. In particular, Can’t Cry now sounds a little listless and formulaic, made to measure as it was, although Hesitate reflects the stoic, ingenuous beauty that remains so much a part of writer Artie’s music and character.
Far more than the first album, Street Light Shine sounds fresh, accomplished and stunning, even in 2003. The group’s combination of simplicity, directness, musical ambition and (finally) matching technical ability generated a distinctive, classic record.
It remains unavailable on CD. Go figure, as you might say in Brooklyn.
The third and final Shirts album, Inner Sleeve, was made in Los Angeles by three people closely related to the record company. The total payout for the project was higher than I would receive as an advance when I was an established producer who delivered hit records from unlikely characters and misfits. Someone somewhere thought that a hit was established and waiting to happen, and that the new bandwagon could be ridden.
Someone was wrong. The album had high-end presentation and a custom cutout sleeve. To me, it sounded not so energetic, although my bias is obvious and natural. One Dutch critic in particular was mortified and apologized directly to the band for giving it a bad review, using expressions like 'very non-live feeling, very overdubbed'. Such a shame. I would far rather that they had gone on to greater heights and that our Street Light Shine effort had been a supportive and developmental way station. But corporate politics and business reigned, and spoiled. The group was dropped after the album failed.
On the surface, it was a waste. But, thinking positively, the ride had been a rewarding one for all.
- Mike Thorne, April 4 2003
In 2003, the group restructured, welcoming vocalist Caren Messing and keyboard player/vocalist Kathy McKlosky. Annie Golden is no longer with the band.
Thorne production commentaries:
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