Song Writing

Producer Ron Nevison

by Greg Prato

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Nevison explains in very clear terms the Quadrophenia concept and how Heart staged their resurgence after being dropped by their record company.

Name several of your favorite arena rock acts of the '70s and '80s, and chances are, Ron Nevison worked with a few in either an engineer or producer capacity - The Who, Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, Heart, Ozzy Osbourne and Kiss among them. In fact, the sound that Nevison created in the studio for Heart on their mega-selling 1985 self-titled release quickly became synonymous with MTV's golden age, as many subsequent artists used that sonic template in hopes of striking gold (or rather... platinum) themselves. But as Nevison told Songfacts, it was more that he was in the right place at the right time when it came to making the transition from concert soundman to much-sought-after producer.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How did you get started producing and engineering?

Ron Nevison: A lot of people don't know that I was a soundman in the '60s. I built myself up through a local sound company called Festival Group, in Philadelphia. They were one of the big sound companies on the East Coast. There were two or three big sound companies - Festival Group, Clair Brothers, and there was another one I can't remember. I got to be a pretty hot sound mixer - I had done tours with Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker on the Mad Dogs & Englishman Tour, which was a pretty big tour in those days, Eric Clapton/Derek and the Dominos, I was his soundman. And I did a couple of tours with Traffic.

And during one of those tours, I was riding in a car - a station wagon, I think - from gig to gig with Chris Blackwell, who was Traffic's manager and had Island Records and Island Studios. We were having a conversation, and I told him this was like, my third year on the road, and I was burnt out. In those days, you didn't get on a private plane with the band with your briefcase as a front of house mixer. You'd go on the truck. [Laughs] So, I was tired of loading and unloading. The demands of touring can be really tough on roadies. And that's pretty much all it was. He said, "Well, what are you going to do?" And I said, "I want to get into the studio and do my thing on tape, so people can hear it." I had no idea he had a studio in London. He said, "Well, you can work for me in London."

So, I pulled up stakes and moved to London in late 1970, and started working at Island Studios in early 1971. And from there, I started doing sessions, and by 1973, I was doing albums with the Who, Led Zeppelin, and Bad Company. I just built up that, and then started producing in 1975. In '75, I got the job to be the chief engineer at the Record Plant, and moved back to LA and started producing. And it all went from there.

Songfacts: You mentioned working with the Who, starting with Quadrophenia. What was the most challenging song to record on that album?

Nevison: I don't know which song was the most challenging, but the project was really challenging. The Who had built a studio with the whole idea of Quadrophenia. The concept was born out of Tommy for everybody that wanted Pete to follow up with another kind of "rock opera," so you had Jimmy, the mod kid in Quadrophenia.

Pete's concept was Jimmy would be "quadrophenic," not schizophrenic: he would have four personalities, and each one of those personalities would be one of the Who. Like, Roger "the romantic guy," Keith "the crazy guy," and so on. MCA was Track Records' parent company and their distributor.

In those days, there was a very short-lived "quad" thing - nobody really remembers it. Basically, it was a way to take the channels and fold them out of phase into the front channels, and come up with a pseudo-fake four-track quad. It wasn't discreet quad. But even in order to mix it, you had to have quad panning, and you had to have four speakers. There was no studio that could do that in London, so The Who decided to build their own.

Ron with Bad Company, 1975
I had been working for Pete's company, Trackplan, building studios, and I got tapped to do engineering. So, the challenging thing was to try to figure out how to do this in quad. Not just any particular song, but every song. We ended up not doing it in quad, but I did record the drums with the idea of having them spread out in a quadrophonic kind of way. Although, I didn't really know - and no one knew - what to do. Nowadays, what you want to call quad and 5.1, you still put the band across the front, and in the rear you have the room, so you feel like you're in the audience almost. I didn't know what to do. You listen to the early Beatles songs when they first came into stereo, they didn't know what to do with them. On some of the Beatles' earliest stereo recordings, all the drums were on the left, the bass was on the right. They didn't spread them out. They treated stereo like two monos. And so, I didn't really know exactly - I just did what I felt.

And it was fairly early on in the project. Once they sent over this package for us to demo, where we could encode the stereo into the quad and listen to it, it was so bad that Pete ultimately said, "You know what? I'm not going to do a quad version of this album. It's worse than stereo." And not that we were ever going to release this just in quad - we were going to do a stereo version, too. So, that alleviated a lot of pressure off that recording, because the quad was off the table. Some people maintained that we did a quad mix - we never did. We checked it out ahead of time and decided at some point during the project to abandon that.

Songfacts: You mentioned recording Keith Moon's drums. How challenging was that?

Nevison: The biggest problem with Keith on the drums was finding a place to put the microphones. He had so many drums - two hi-hats, two kick drums, six or eight tom-toms - it was challenging just to get in there to get the snare drum covered. That was the toughest part. Once he started playing, he was in great shape. A couple of years later, I did the Tommy film soundtrack, and he was not in good shape - he was under the influence a lot, and they decided not to use him for the film, and decided to use other drummers, including Kenney Jones.

Songfacts: You also worked with Bad Company and Led Zeppelin in the '70s.

Nevison: I have to go back to when I left Island Records and joined this company with Pete Townshend called Trackplan. They were a start-up company that was building studios for musicians. And he had studios going for Cat Stevens, Daltrey, Entwistle in his house, and of course, Pete had his own studio in his house, where he had his synthesizers set up.

Pete would do all his synthesizer stuff at home because the synthesizers he was using in those early days, you couldn't save the sound. It wasn't like you could press the "save" button. Once you got a string sound, you had to record it, or you'd lose it. It wasn't exactly user friendly. And so, a lot of the tracks on Quadrophenia, he did a click track and put a rudimentary drum and bass on it - just really simple stuff, but not to interfere with anything that John Entwistle or Keith Moon would do - and guitar, and then do all the synths. Then, we would come in and overdub the drums, bass, and guitar. So, on the huge synth tracks on Quadrophenia, that's what we did.

As far as Zeppelin, once I started working for Trackplan, I got two big projects. Both were for guys in the Faces: I built a mobile studio for Ronnie Lane of the Faces in an Airstream that he had bought when he was on tour, that he sent back. So, I designed that and built that. And I also designed and built a studio for Ronnie Wood at his house in the Richmond section of London. A big, beautiful, old house. The reason why it's relevant to Trackplan is because when Quadrophenia was ready to go, the studio wasn't finished. So, I had built this studio where the control room was ready to go, but the studio part - it was called Ramport - the desk wasn't wired up and checked out. There were still some pieces missing. They wanted to start working, so they had me bring over the Airstream studio, set it up outside and run the lines inside. Then they started recording Quadrophenia. Pete liked what I had done, and kept me for the rest of it.

And now that we have this recording studio - this mobile recording studio - Zeppelin had been renting this house called Headley Grange in Hampshire that they had done previous work in, including Houses Of The Holy, with the Rolling Stones truck. Now, I am not sure why I was called, but I got the call to go down to Headley Grange. Ultimately what happened was something came up with the band that forced them to put off the recording for a month or six weeks. Because the "Paul Rodgers band" had just signed with Peter Grant - Zeppelin's manager - he said, "Why don't you guys go in? I've got the truck, I've got Nevison." So that's how the BadCo album [1974's self-titled debut] happened. So, I went down to Headley Grange to record that. We recorded that in like, two weeks' time, and then took it back to Olympic Studios to mix it and put some stuff on it.

And then, I went back to Headley Grange for Zeppelin. So, I actually recorded the Physical Graffiti backing tracks and some of the overdubs, and the first Bad Company album, on the Airstream truck that I had built for Ronnie Lane and the Quadrophenia tracks! And then the next Bad Company album, Straight Shooter, I rented a castle [Clearwell Castle] in Wales on the Welsh border near London in the west of England. It was a gothic castle that was opened in the summer for tourists, but in the wintertime, it was closed up and they just rented it out to rock bands to rehearse in. But where you can rehearse, you can record. So, I went up to have a look at it, and I said, "Yeah, this would be great." That's where we did the Straight Shooter album, and that was again on the Ronnie Lane mobile.

"where you can rehearse, you can record"

Bad Company's campfire song, in the very literal sense, is "Do Right By Your Woman," a track from Run With The Pack. The band was playing it around a campfire when Nevison ran a microphone the 50 yards or so from the mobile studio and hit record. "We went in and, blow me down, it sounded great," BadCo drummer Simon Kirke told us in 2017. "There was a couple of crackles from the fire and we thought, 'Yeah, that's cool.'"
Songfacts: Skipping ahead a bit, was it a conscious attempt to make Heart an "MTV band" with their 1985 self-titled album?

Nevison: I got a call from Don Grierson, the head of Capitol A&R. Apparently, the girls [Ann and Nancy Wilson] had called him up because I had worked with Zeppelin, which was their favorite band, and wanted to talk to me about doing a record. So, I went up there to Seattle, had dinner with them, had a good time, hung out, had a few drinks, and they took me back to the airport. The next day I found out that they wanted me to do it.

But the deal was, when Heart came out with Dreamboat Annie, it was one of the biggest out-of-the-box rock albums of the late '70s. Maybe Boston was the only bigger album that came out. But they had a great combination of the ballads the girls wrote, and the rockers like "Crazy On You," "Magic Man" and "Barracuda," that the guitar player came up with - the main guitar guy [Roger Fisher]. But by the early '80s, these guys were not in the band anymore because they were the boyfriends of the girls.

Ron with Heart, 1984
They had done an album called Passionworks, and it didn't live up to Epic's expectations. It just didn't have the grit that it needed, so, they dropped them. That's when they got a new manager, Trudy Green, they got a new producer, me, and a new A&R guy at the record company [Capitol], Don Grierson. And Don told them, "I'll sign you if we can mutually agree on the producer, and mutually agree on the songs." That meant that they had to be open to co-writing and outside songs. And I came up with a couple of songs, and Don came up with a song or two, Holly Knight wrote with the girls, and we upped the quality of the songwriting. That's exactly what they needed. They weren't that happy with the fact that they weren't the writers - their egos were bruised by it. But that's kind of what happens.

I heard from Ann at some point, she had read somewhere that I "didn't like her songs" or something. I told her that's not true. I might have said that "I didn't think you had any singles" - that's different than not liking your songs. I was on my way to a rehearsal up in Seattle, and my manager sent me a cassette of five songs that Bernie Taupin had written - because he managed Bernie Taupin - and one of these was "These Dreams." I listened to it on the plane, and I felt, "This is going to be great for Nancy." Never dreaming it would be a #1 hit. But that's the way it worked out.

Songfacts: And then due to your success on Heart's album, it led to work with Ozzy Osbourne and Kiss.

Nevison: I had gone to London to do work with Joe Cocker, and while I was there, I got a call that Ozzy and Sharon wanted to talk to me. So, I actually ended up finishing the Joe Cocker thing and staying another couple of months for Ozzy. So, that was all in 1985.

I was also able to also interview Nevison for my 2011 book, The Eric Carr Story, in which he compared what it was like working with several of rock's top names in the recording studio:

"They're all so different [the artists Ron worked with over the years]. For instance, Ozzy was hardly at the studio at all when I was doing work with the guitar player. Ozzy is just the lead singer, whereas Paul [Stanley] is one of the guitar players. Paul was always there. Bruce [Kulick] was always there, Gene [Simmons] was pretty much always there. Ozzy, I just had one guy there - Jake E. Lee. After Randy Castillo was finished, we finished all the bass parts. So that's different. With The Who, I was not the producer. I was just the engineer, and Pete Townshend was the producer [on Quadrophenia]. So that was a different situation. That was 15 years before that, too. That was the early days for me, my first big album. Keith Moon was just so unique - you can't compare anybody to Keith Moon, just like you can't compare anybody to John Bonham, who I worked with, too. Those were guys that were both so unique - Bonham in his power and Keith's style."
Songfacts: Was it straight from working with Ozzy into working with Kiss?

Nevison: No. I did another couple of albums before that. I think in early '86, I spent a month or so on a Triumph album, that I departed. We weren't seeing eye-to-eye on stuff. I cut the tracks, and I had established a thing with them that I wanted Rik Emmett to be frontman of the band.

They had two singers. One of them was the drummer [Gil Moore], and he wasn't as good a singer, and I just thought with MTV, we should focus more on Rik. It created a thing in the band, they ended up not living up to their agreement, so I just said, "You're better off getting somebody else to finish it." So, we slipped Mike Clink in there, who was an unknown guy at the time. Mike was my assistant for five years or so, and of course, has since done nicely for himself [Clink went on to produce Appetite for Destruction by Guns N' Roses].

Songfacts: Which album are you most proud of that you worked on?

Nevison: There's a different level of satisfaction that you get. One level is when you're out of the studio and you feel like you've done something remarkable. And then, the next level is when everybody else thinks it's remarkable and it's a total smash. You don't get that second level without the first level. That's how I feel about a lot of things. You forget about them if they weren't a hit, and how great you thought they were and how excited you were about the prospects, and what a great job you thought you might have done or whatever.

I guess Quadrophenia being the first big album that I ever did, and working with somebody like Pete, a genius - that was probably the most memorable album that I ever did. The biggest commercial album as a producer I ever did were the two Heart albums - as far as sales go.

December 21, 2018
Photos courtesy of ronnevison.com.

Further reading:
Richie Wise
Flemming Rasmussen
Butch Vig
Rupert Hine
Terry Cashman

More Song Writing

Comments: 1

  • Manoli Papadakis from Montreal Quebec Great interview. His fingerprints are all over my record collection - the music I grew up with. Todays stuff by these cookie cutters is brutal - the songwriting, production, etc. Very forgetful. Look at Ron's body of work -- music that stands the test of time. Thanks Ron.
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