ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, NOV. 12, 1998
By Steve Newton
It’s been a very long time since Kiss performed at a nightclub in Vancouver. Twenty-four years, actually, since Gene Simmons nearly set the Commodore Ballroom’s red velvet curtains ablaze with his fire-breathing antics. But there they were again two months back, the four original members, gyrating in full makeup and costume on-stage at a local bar.
There were no Kiss Army T-shirts to be seen—or any jean jackets with the band’s logo composed in sequins—but the crowd of 200 that had assembled at the Rage was decked out to party, Halloween-style. The club was decorated with dangling skeletons, decomposed bodies, and bodiless heads, and the costumed audience was decked out as witches, ghouls, Roman soldiers, Elvis impersonators, Tarzan types, and bearded guys in pink tutus. And wasn’t that Simmons’s main squeeze, former Playboy Playmate (or was it Penthouse Pet?) Shannon Tweed, in full Bride of Frankenstein mode?
As word got out that the band was there to film a scene for the Halloween episode of TV’s Millennium, fans started to show up outside, dog-eared vinyl copies of Kiss Alive in hand, angling for autographs. Inside, as the director called “Action” and the cameras rolled, Kiss lip-synched its way through a song while the horde of extras danced and pranced. At one point, bloodcurdling screams erupted from somewhere in the crowd and the mass of bodies fled the dance floor, leaving Millennium star Lance Henrickson standing alone, staring into space, evidently in the throes of one of those psychic flashbacks his character is prone to.
But Kiss played on, and the song they were air-guitaring to wasn’t at all like the schlocky crotch-rock the band has been knocking off ever since Love Gun in ’77. This was an energizing blast of vibrant guitar-rock called “Psycho Circus”—from the album of the same name—the latest in a formidable number of hits to be produced by Vancouver’s Bruce Fairbairn.
During a break in the action, while the crew set up for the next shot, Kiss’s road manager led me up to where the band was waiting—“Look Ma, I’m on-stage with Kiss!”—and rounded up Paul Stanley and Ace Frehley for a quick (as in 90-second) interview. As they sat on Peter Criss’s drum riser to take a load off those six-inch platform boots, I asked the glam-rock legends how Fairbairn had aided the recording of the album.
“Incredible shorts,” quipped Frehley. “He was wearing shorts, white socks, and sandals. He inspired us incredibly in the studio.”
“Well, his clothes,” added Stanley, one eye peering through that renowned black star, “but, seriously, a producer’s role with a band that’s had the longevity we have is really not to lead anything but to be a flavour enhancer. It’s not something that changes anything drastically, but it helps make it as good as it can be, and Bruce has done that with other bands too. He’s done a lot of great stuff, and, more importantly, our album just entered the charts in Australia today at Number 1, Sweden Number 1, Norway Number 1, and Germany Number 5. And now, back to you.”
Over to Fairbairn, actually. A couple of weeks later, I visit the producer at his Kitsilano studio, located near West 1st Avenue and Pine Street, in the shadow of the Molson Brewery. The location of Armoury Studios seems kind of apt, considering how many millions of beers must have been downed to the party-hearty strains of Fairbairn-helmed ditties such as “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Love in an Elevator”. As you walk into his second-floor studio—which Fairbairn purchased from local songwriter Jim Vallance three years back—to your immediate left is Fairbairn’s multiplatinum producer’s award for Aerosmith’s Permanent Vacation, which is inscribed with the message: “Thanks for being there at the beginning, July 31, 1987.”
In his elegantly appointed office, Fairbairn slouches behind an antique walnut table from the early 1800s, wearing an orangey-red T-shirt and jeans, those “incredible shorts” nowhere to be seen. He is in rapt conversation with audio design consultant John Vrtacic, who used to be the head audio tech at Little Mountain Sound, where Fairbairn produced such top-selling discs as Permanent Vacation and Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet.
Terms like DVD and Dolby processing pepper their conversation while my eyes are drawn to the classy artwork adorning the walls. There are no autographed posters of Steven Tyler or Jon Bon Jovi here, only paintings and photographs of jazz legends such as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. Turns out Fairbairn is a jazz nut, and he was actually introduced to his musical instrument of choice by an adult next-door neighbour when he was five.
“It was one of those things,” says Fairbairn, 48, “where somebody goes down in the basement and opens up a case and there’s a shiny silver trumpet. He used to get it out and play a few licks, and I was totally mesmerized by it. Then, eventually, he said, ‘Go on, give it a blow,’ so I did, and he taught me how to play ‘Taps’. He said, ‘I’ll let you play the horn, but you have to go out and stand on the back porch every night and play “Taps” when the sun goes down.’
“So I did that—I used to get a pretty good audience around the neighbourhood—and then he said, ‘Okay, you can rent this horn for a nickel a month if you go and take some trumpet lessons.’ This was when I was about six, I guess. So I said, ‘Okay, you got a deal,’ and I started taking lessons, and then eventually he gave me that horn, and I played it for years and years. I eventually dug it out about five years ago and had it refinished. I’ve got it downstairs and I still play it. It’s really a beautiful horn.”
Fairbairn’s discovery of the trumpet led to a love of music that saw him playing in cover bands while attending Prince of Wales high school. He also spent time in such original local groups as the Spectres Rhythm & Blues Revue and Sunshyne while continuing his education at UBC, where he earned an honours degree in biology.
“I became an expert in salamanders,” he quips, “which has really stood me in good stead. And then, realizing I didn’t want to end up analyzing seagull shit for the rest of my life, I went and I did a degree in resource management, kind of the environmental-planning side of that.
“But it was good because I was able to play music all the way through, and that kind of paid the bills for me. And every so often, we would take a year off with various bands and try and make it. We would go out and write and demo and tour everywhere we could, but invariably we failed, so we’d go back to playing casuals on the weekend.”
After graduating from UBC, Fairbairn went to work for B.C. Hydro, and he was just finishing up a four-volume environmental-impact analysis of the Revelstoke Dam when he got a call from a lawyer friend of his who had played one of Sunshyne’s demos for a producer in L.A. With a recording contract offered, Sunshyne became Prism, Bruce Allen became its manager, Fairbairn became a producer, and tunes such as “Spaceship Superstar” and “Open Soul Surgery” became Canadian rock-radio faves. At that point, Fairbairn said “So long” to four-volume environmental-impact analyses.
In 1980, after producing four albums for Prism, Fairbairn got the nod to oversee the debut album by another Allen-managed band, Loverboy, and he never looked back. “I think the success of the first Loverboy album was the key to the success of my producing career,” he points out. “To make that record was a very easy job because the guys played so well and they were just a real hot band at that time—all I had to do was get them in the studio, get the mikes in front of the gear, and turn on the tape recorder. But for me, it was the first record that was a big hit, especially in the States, so it was a milestone for me.”
Six years after Loverboy first graced the airwaves—or disgraced them, depending on your taste in music—with tunes such as “Turn Me Loose” and “The Kid Is Hot Tonight”, Fairbairn took on the task of producing the third album by a then-obscure quintet of pinup-ready, sexy spandex lads from New Jersey. Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet—the title of which was inspired by a Vancouver strip bar’s shower facility—went on to sell an amazing 17 million copies worldwide, but Fairbairn says he had no inkling at the time that he was onto anything that special.
“All we were hoping for was just to get a good-sounding record,” he relates. “Our goal, as I remember sitting down and talking to Jon about it, was, ‘Okay, if we sell 500,000 copies of this record, we’re in,’ and that was it. We had no idea that there were gonna be big hits on there. But it was very much like a Loverboy kind of thing—the band was hot, they were playin’ great and gettin’ along great—so we did the record and put it out, and it was just one of those things.”
Fairbairn gives fate a little credit for dealing him the production job that made his name familiar worldwide in mainstream-rock circles—and for helping him keep it. Turns out he almost got fired from the Slippery When Wet sessions during the rehearsal process. “I listened to the songs for a few days,” he recalls, “just to see what they had, then Jon and I went for a ride, and he said, ‘Bruce, you’re not doin’ it.’ And I go, ‘Oh? Whaddya mean?’ And he says, ‘Well, you’re not sayin’ much; you’re not comin’ to the party.’ And I went, ‘Well, that’s not my style, Jon; I want to try and find out what’s at the party before I try and move the venue.’
“He’s a very driven guy,” adds Fairbairn. “He’s very much like Bryan Adams in terms of motivation. Jon—and I know Bryan too—expects everybody on the team to be kickin’ at that level and working at that intensity, and if you’re not, you’re out. And that’s a good thing, except in some cases everybody has a bit of a different way of doing that.”
After Fairbairn solidified his winning streak with Slippery—and Bon Jovi’s multiplatinum 1988 follow-up, New Jersey—bands were lining up, hoping to have his success rub off on them. Former arena packers the Scorpions signed up for his services in ’93, shooting for that elusive comeback album, but their resultant Face the Heat disc could not live up to previous glories. Fairbairn explains that he can only do so much as a producer.
“Unfortunately, it’s not about who produces your record,” he says, “it’s about what songs you’ve got. I mean, everybody loves ‘Rock You Like a Hurricane’, but with [Feel the Heat] there wasn’t anything that had that kinda magic to it. So you just…what can you do? You can say, ‘We’re not gonna record till we get that [hit] song,’ but that’s not in the band’s interest either—they need to make a record and get out and tour and do what they do.
“But producers can influence what happens in the writing, to some extent,” he adds. “If the band has it, and they’ve got a good song, it’s up to us as producers to really hear that it’s there. Sometimes the band doesn’t know it; it’s just a little piece of music that sits there, and you have to really be able to spot that gem sittin’ in the rock pile.”
Fairbairn’s ability to spy the jewels in a band’s song quarry paid off well when Aerosmith came to town in ’87 to work with him on what would turn out to be their comeback album, Permanent Vacation. One such diamond in the rough was discovered and polished by Fairbairn into their horn-tinged hit “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)”.
“Steven Tyler is so full of ideas,” says Fairbairn, “that he’ll have a great idea and then move on, and he forgets about or dismisses some of it. I think that song was [originally] called ‘Cruisin’ for the Ladies’, and it just had a really good hook. The rest of the demo was not much of anything, but it had a really good chorus, so it was all about saying, ‘Hey, Steven, go back two steps and take a look at this.’ Meanwhile, Tyler’s moving on—he’s like a whirlwind—and you have to slow him down and say, ‘Hey, come back. Don’t forget this, there’s something here.’ There was a lot of other instances like that, especially with him, because he’s so creative and so manic.”
In early ’97, Aerosmith released Nine Lives, the first Aerosmith CD not produced by Bruce Fairbairn since Permanent Vacation. Fairbairn had also been at the controls for 1989’s Grammy Award–winning Pump, as well as 1993’s Get a Grip, the group’s most popular album ever. Although Nine Lives has gone on to sell nearly four-and-a-half million copies, its sales figures are disappointing when you take into account Get a Grip’s tally of more than 14 million.
We’ll never know whether or not Fairbairn’s production would have made a huge difference in Nine Lives’ commercial success, but the fact remains that the records he’s produced during his career have sold more than 60 million units. His recent revitalization of old warhorse Kiss sure makes it look as if his magic touch still thrives.
Although Fairbairn has overseen records by several of the world’s top bands, he has never produced Bryan Adams, the biggest star from his own hometown (at least until Sarah McLachlan took over the spot). “Yeah, well,” Fairbairn ponders, “I think it’s like, you know, two homeboys. Bryan is of a stature that he likes to work with people outside Vancouver. So it’s never kinda been in the cards, just because we’ve run in the same circles for so long. Now, you know, Bob Rock did his last record, and I was glad to see that happen, because I think Bob will be able to lend a good thing to Bryan’s songs and the whole vibe of his next record. I heard it’s real good.”
Fairbairn might be believing the hype on Adams’s new CD, On a Day Like Today, but he hasn’t always been so positive about the North Van pop-rocker’s tunes. In an interview with Equity magazine in March of ’96, Fairbairn ruminated on how he’d like to make a straight-ahead rock album with Adams and steer him away from the “movie-ballad shit” of recent years.
“He’s had great success with those ballads and that whole style of makin’ a record,” Fairbairn says, “where you do it a bit at a time and there’s not a real performance energy on any of those tracks. They sound like a million bucks—I don’t know how they do it—but in Bryan, I miss his ‘Cuts Like a Knife’ thing, and that’s how I could do a record with him. But I don’t think he wants to do a record like that, so that’s fair enough. I mean, you have to say what you think, and if you don’t, you’re gonna be in a big mess when you start workin’ on a record.”
Adams’s global success is often mentioned in the same breath as his relationship to powerhouse manager Bruce Allen, who is also credited with steering Loverboy to fame and fortune—although Fairbairn points out that comanager Lou Blair was equally responsible for that. For the past 10 years, Allen—who once fired Prism’s horn section, of which Fairbairn constituted one-half—has been handling Fairbairn’s business affairs.
“He answers the phone,” says Fairbairn, “so that’s real important to me—for better or worse. But Bruce has been great; he’s been a good friend for many years. I mean, he’s like another opinion—he’s certainly got an opinion. Sometimes he’s right, sometimes he’s wrong, but it’s great to have somebody else take another viewpoint.”
Allen also manages hotshot Vancouver rock producer Bob Rock, who currently spends most of his time at his home studio on Maui. Both Rock and Langley-based producer Mike Fraser worked under Fairbairn as engineers before making names for themselves, but Fairbairn doesn’t see himself as that much of an influence on their production styles.
“When you work with somebody, you see how they do it,” he relates, “and then you find your own groove. Bob and Mike have headed out in their own direction and really been successful at it. You know, I still rip off Rock’s sound—he’s got the best drum sounds in the business.”
As well as top-selling discs by bands like Mötley Crüe and the Cult, Rock has produced every Metallica album since the band’s self-titled release of ’91 brought metal to the mainstream via the radio hit “Enter Sandman”. Fraser also specializes in guitar-dominated hard rock, having produced, engineered, and mixed the latest Joe Satriani album.
Both Rock and Fraser have displayed a kinship to the hard-rock music they produce—the former via his guitarist stint in Rockhead, the latter through his devotion to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin—but what about Fairbairn? Is the trumpet freak who delights in the idea of producing someone like Wynton Marsalis a true hard-rock fan, or is his interest purely professional?
“Because I cut my teeth playing rhythm and blues,” he explains, “my real heart and soul for music went that direction. I mean, I can remember falling down silly going to see Sam and Dave play at the Cave, for example, whereas other people were gettin’ wound up going down to see the Stones or whatever was goin’ on.
“But then with hard rock, I really enjoyed that music, and the more I worked with those bands, the more I did enjoy it. I mean, with AC/DC, I loved that band forever—and same with Aerosmith. Kiss was one of those bands where I was more interested in their show, ’cause they were an event. I always kind of enjoyed their songs, like everybody else did. They were kinda silly, but they were fun to go to see.
“But then, that band’s never really been known as a great musical band, and that’s one thing we thought would be fun with this record: to try and spend a little more time on the songs and see if we could open up a few doors, musically. And Mike [Plotnikoff] is a great engineer, so we just decided to make a better-sounding record than they have, because at least then people who don’t like Kiss could say, ‘Well, it was a good-sounding record; it’s worth havin’ a listen to.’ And for Kiss fans, they might like the band and think it’s a good-sounding record too.”
Although hanging out with the gods of rock might be a kick for Fairbairn, his rubbing shoulders with the music elite hasn’t always resulted in jolly times and platinum albums. He produced INXS’s Elegantly Wasted album of ’97, only to wake up one day and hear the shocking news of vocalist Michael Hutchence’s suicide. “I never would have called that,” he says, “never in a million years.”
Despite repeated calls to INXS’s label, Mercury/PolyGram, worldwide sales figures for Elegantly Wasted were unavailable, perhaps meaning that it did not live up to commercial expectations. But even if Wasted was a flop in comparison to previous INXS efforts, that’s hardly enough to discourage Fairbairn’s quest for excellence. He says his dream production job would involve the likes of U2 or Sting, but he realizes that it would be hard to top what he’s accomplished already.
“I don’t even try,” says Fairbairn, whose current project is a Detroit swing band called the Atomic Fireballs. “I can’t even imagine, you know, because I’ve had so much good luck. And a lot of it is luck. I mean, I nearly didn’t do the Loverboy record because I was gonna do another Ian Lloyd record, but Ian delayed, so I fit that in. It was strictly right place, right time—same with Bon Jovi.
“So now I’d like to make records not because I’m tryin’ to top what I’ve done but because I love the music or love the players, or something about it has to really interest me. I mean, I’ve always wanted to win a Grammy, but who’s to compete with Babyface and David Foster and these guys, ’cause they record a million songs a year, and they’re all just right up that mainstream, sucky-pop stuff.
“And what do you do if you’re into rock ’n’ roll?”
And here’s the sidebar that ran with the cover story:
Somewhere out there in the record collections of the world are 60 million CDs, tapes, and LPs with Bruce Fairbairn’s name on them. And although he has produced rock music that sells by the shipload, little has been written about the process by which Fairbairn actually puts his mark on these smash hits. So, one afternoon the Straight dropped by his Armoury Studios to hang out and glimpse a recording session in progress.
Standing in his office, with the erratic thump of a drum sounding in the background, the producer explains that they’re setting up to record the basic tracks for a song called “How Do I Deal”, to be included on the soundtrack to the teen-oriented horror flick I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. Shortly thereafter, the Man With the Golden Ears leads me on a short walk past award-laden walls to the centre of his state-of-the-art facility.
Once you’re in the control room, your attention is drawn immediately to the dominant item, a $750,000 recording console—the SSL 4000 G+, it says right there on the label. It’s a daunting piece of equipment, sporting thousands of small knobs and switches. Directly in front of this monster board is a six-by-nine-foot window through which local percussion ace Kat Hendrikse can be seen checking his snare drum. At the console, Fairbairn’s current engineer of choice, Mike Plotnikoff, twiddles the knobs while Hendrikse tests each cymbal and drum. The studious-looking drummer then strolls into the control room and greets the studio’s audio design consultant, John Vrtacic.
“It’s good to have some good players coming in for a change,” declares Vrtacic, perhaps alluding to some of the less-accomplished skin bashers that Fairbairn has coached along the way. Spotting yours truly hanging around, Plotnikoff—evidently fooled by the Fender T-shirt I’ve chosen for the occasion—asks, “Are you Rene?” Soon after I explain that I’m not world-class session player Rene Worst but just a lowly rock journalist, the real Worst shows up, sporting a denim shirt with Puget Sound Guitar Workshop embroidered on the front.
Fairbairn asks the curly-haired bassist if he’ll try out an old Fender Bassman amplifier for this particular session, and assistant engineer Paul Silveira lugs the vintage amp to a small miking room, where Worst snaps off some hot jazz licks combined with the unmistakable riff from “Smoke on the Water” before pronouncing “It’s warm.”
After Fairbairn stations himself behind the board, Plotnikoff to his right, he instructs Worst to get some headphones and prepare to warm up with Hendrikse, and they start jamming out on a loping 12-bar progression. “It could use a little more meat to it,” Fairbairn tells Hendrikse, “like either ding it closer on the bell or use the meat of your stick, so it clanks a little more.” Fairbairn instructs the two to play until they get comfortable, then rolls around on his high-backed leather chair, selecting knobs to twiddle from the scores laid out in front of him.
It doesn’t take long for Worst and Hendrikse to get a strong vibe happening—not surprising, since they’ve been the rhythm section for local jazz-fusion kings Skywalk for many years. After a couple more minutes, Fairbairn declares that the sound is fine and tells the players to take a break. There’s nothing to do now but wait for the arrival of the third and final player on today’s session, Keith Scott, guitarist from Bryan Adams’s band.
Before long, Scott saunters in, instrument in tow, and the friendly, soft-spoken guitarist chats a bit with the effusive Vrtacic—who apparently can’t stop talking about music and sound—before making his way to the studio proper. “Keith, you want to plug in?” asks Plotnikoff, eager to get the show on the road, and Scott takes a seat in the studio’s “live room”, strumming some open chords and tossing off some fingerpicking boogie licks on his prized ’54 Telecaster.
But when he gets up to chat with guitar tech Lance Stadnyk and lays the instrument on his chair, he accidentally knocks it onto the wooden floor with a cringe-inducing claannggg that reverberates throughout the control room. “Doesn’t he have a stand?” Fairbairn asks as Scott is forced to retune his guitar, eating up valuable studio time. Fairbairn’s tone is more one of curiosity than annoyance, though. I guess when you own the joint, a few extra minutes on the log book is no big whoop.
When Fairbairn is called away to take a business call, Plotnikoff plays the demo tape of the tune the three assembled players are here to record. It’s being sung by Canadian vocalist Jory Eve, although the people at the movie company are planning to have the star of I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Jennifer Love Hewitt, perform it on the soundtrack. (Hewitt isn’t a singer, mind you, but that’s showbiz.) As the catchy but innocuous pop tune fills the control room, an unidentified voice comments, “It reminds me of Ally McBeal”; the offhand observation rings true.
When Fairbairn returns, he gets the trio to run through the tune, and he uses a talk-back remote transmitter to communicate with them in the other room. “Why don’t we throw one on tape, everybody come in and listen, and we’ll go from there,” he says, then sits back as the tape rolls and the three veterans create the backdrop to what could be the world’s next adult-contemporary chartbuster.
After 10 minutes or so, Hendrikse starts incorporating some wild Buddy Rich drum rolls into the proceedings, and Fairbairn takes that as a cue to rein things in. The players then converge in the control room to hear the tape played back, and there’s much head-bobbing and toe-tapping as their performance is analyzed.
Six hours later, it’s rainy and dark as I drive back to the studio to hear the final results of the day’s recording and give my stamp of approval to the finished product (yeah, right). The radio is fixed on CFOX, and the airwaves are pierced by a wail of feedback, an overdriven power riff, then that classic hard-rock effect of a pick being dragged along the neck of not one but two heavily amped guitars. “Shhhyeahhh!” howls Paul Stanley as the rowdy noise erupts with a sonic vibrancy that makes even my standard Mazda tuner come to life. It’s “Psycho Circus”, the title track from the new Kiss CD, produced by Fairbairn and engineered by Plotnikoff earlier this year. It’s the best-sounding song Kiss has recorded in 20 years.
Entering the studio for the second time that day, I’m greeted by the sight of Scott, Stadnyk, and Plotnikoff hunkered around the lounge’s coffee bar and facing Fairbairn, who’s pouring glasses of red and white wine. It’s “Miller Time”, as the remnants of the recording session’s team toast an honest day’s work.
When I tell Fairbairn that I heard the wicked “Psycho Circus” on the way down, his unexpected response sets me back a step. “Oh, God,” he exclaims, “it’s amazing you’re here! You could have turned around and gone, ‘Fuck this; if the guy produced shit like this, I’m not talking to him.’ Did you hear the edit they’ve got on the radio? The intro fades and the guitar riff is chopped. It’s horrible.”
At this point, I make a mental note to definitely not take up record-producing, because the version so rankling to Fairbairn sounded just fine to me, even if some “bozo” (Fairbairn’s term) did a hatchet job on the radio edit.
As if to cleanse my ears of the despised rendition, Fairbairn beckons me into the control room one last time. After explaining that keyboardist John Webster is due in tomorrow to add his part, Fairbairn rolls the tape, and what they’ve laid down so far certainly sounds like radio-ready background for a ’90s pop hit. Scott’s driving chords and simple, melodic fills lead the way over Hendrikse’s precise drumming and Worst’s buoyant bass lines.
“That’s just the basic track,” says Fairbairn, “and, really, ’cause it’s a pop song, most of it’ll be vocals.” Oh, yeah, that’s right—wannabe vocalist Jennifer Love Hewitt. Well, at least I was one of the first to hear the instrumental version.
As he sips his wine and listens to the tracks for the umpteenth time that day, Fairbairn appears pleased with the session’s result, and you can tell by the way he rubs his face that he’s feeling a tad drained by this little ditty. It’s after 10 p.m. and he’s ready to go home; one of his three boys needs a ride to trumpet lessons early the next morning.
“It is what it is,” he says of the song, “and it’s just really nice to work quickly like that. Sometimes a song can take months, depending on how far you want to push it. But that is the danger of making pop records: you spend too much time.”
Bruce Fairbairn died of unknown causes at age 49 on May 17, 1999