Star producer Bob Rock just wants to play guitar in a band

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, DEC. 12, 1991

By Steve Newton

Vancouver’s Bob Rock is one of the most in-demand rock producers in the world today. The albums he’s worked on in the last few years have sold millions of copies and—in the case of Motley Crüe’s Dr. Feelgood—made it to number one in Billboard. Recently, he accomplished the incredible feat of getting former thrashers Metallica on top-40 radio. And right now he’s working on the sophomore effort by British blues-rockers the London Choirboys, who hope to outdo their hit 1990 debut, A Bit of What You Fancy.

But on the night the Georgia Straight drops in on Rock at Burnaby’s Vancouver Studios, he’s got other things on his mind besides making hit albums for other bands. In one of the studio’s small editing rooms, the blond rocker can’t wait to play his visitor a rough mix of his own group, Rockhead.

Hunched forward in a chair, cradling the tape case in his hands, Rock is living up to his name: his shaggy mane flies as he nods his head to the music, while his hiking boots beat out a steady rhythm on the carpet. He’s obviously excited about the sound of Rockhead, even if recent showcase gigs at clubs like Coconuts and the Rock Cellar have garnered a mild response from top-40 fans.

The combined effort of Rock, his longtime drummer pal Chris Taylor, singer Steve Jack (ex-Love Hunter), and bassist Jamie Koch (from the Strolling Clones) has resulted in a mainstream hard-rock noise which combines the bluesy raunch of the Cult with a big, radio-friendly sound reminiscent of Bon Jovi. It’s much different from anything the producer/guitarist has done before, with longtime collaborator Paul Hyde in the Payola$ and Rock & Hyde, but, in a way, it’s actually bringing Rock full circle.

“Strange as it may seem, when Paul and I were in high school, all we listened to was harder rock. And it was actually the whole punk movement that gave us a chance to get up on stage and really do something. But just the way the music scene went, and for whatever reason—probably Paul took me there—we shifted to a softer thing. In the Payola$ and Rock & Hyde we fooled around in a lot of areas of music, and it had a lot to do with Paul’s influence; he didn’t much care for the harder rock.

“But that’s kind of always been there for me,” adds Rock, sipping on a Coke Classic. “And then when I was in the studio, engineering [Bon Jovi’s] New Jersey, and then producing John Sykes [Blue Murder], just being around the hard rock I kinda went, ‘This is what I’m missing.’

“So Rockhead came out of the fact that I was inspired by some of the bands I’ve worked with and wanted to get back into what I am as a musician. I mean, if anybody remembers the first Payola$ gig, we were awfully loud!”

Rock’s fruitful musical journey began in Winnipeg, where, as a little kid, he saw the Rolling Stones on TV. “I can still remember seeing Keith Richards with that Plexiglas guitar and his carrot-top haircut,” recalls Rock. “I said, ‘I have to be that guy. I don’t know what he is, but that’s me.’ And when I moved out to Victoria, I didn’t really have any friends, so basically I got into music. That’s when I really started getting a grasp on it, anyway.”

Rock did end up finding one friend in Victoria, though, so he and high-school buddy Paul Hyde formed a blues band that played places like Club Tango and the Purple Onion. “Paul played bass, and we were into Humble Pie, Rory Gallagher, and Taste—all these English bands. And when we finished school, Paul and I ended up goin’ to England to be rock stars. That never really happened, so we both ended up coming back to Canada and finding jobs.”

The two met up again in Vancouver in ’78 or so and started to put together the Payola$, an intense, punk-influenced outfit that showed a lot of rowdy promise but—apart from the Canadian hit single “Eyes of a Stranger”—couldn’t cut it commercially.

Rock also became involved in the technical aspects of the recording process. It beat hammering nails.

“I got into a recording studio because I didn’t like construction work,” chuckles Rock. “Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but I wasn’t enjoying myself, so I thought I’d at least get into a studio and learn how to record people. But being an engineer was sort of limiting, so I went on to producing. I guess the first bands I ever produced were the Payola$, and then the Young Canadians and the Pointed Sticks and stuff. I got to practise on those guys, learn my trade, and it’s developed into this.”

Yet Rock himself isn’t so sure what makes top-selling acts like Metallica and Motley Crüe vie for his skills at the sound board. “But I know what I try and do as a producer, and that’s let a band or artist be themselves, and just bring out their strongest points. I’m not the kind of producer that has a certain sound, which is one of the reasons why I enjoyed doin’ Metallica. They don’t sound like Motley or any of the other things I’ve done, and I like that.”

With the London Choirboys—a band whose party-hearty sound is most reminiscent of Rod Stewart-era Faces—Rock and engineer Randy Staub find themselves sailing a straightforward course.

“The Choirboys are pretty simple rock ’n’ roll,” explains Rock. “It’s off-the-hip kinda stuff, and a lot of it has a ‘live’ feel. Randy and I are really enjoying it, because it’s so different from what we were working at with Metallica. Not that there was anything wrong with Metallica, but we were in the studio for a long time, and it was a very studious, intense thing, so it’s great to do something that’s just straight-ahead.”

As for the Choirboys themselves, guitarist Guy Bailey says he couldn’t be happier about nabbing Rock for their album. “Coming up here and working with someone like Bob, especially after the success of Metallica, is gonna be really good for us,” says Bailey in his Cockney twang. “He’s actually incredibly versatile—which I suppose is one of the prerequisites for a good producer—and he’s got a great ear for the basics: guitar, drums, and bass. Plus he’s really sympathetic to everything we do. He’s like a father figure to us.

“Yeah,” laughs the rocker, “put that in. That’ll really piss him off.”

Bailey leaves no doubt that Rock has won over at least one Choirboy as both a producer and a friend, but Rock says being on a casual, friendly basis with his clients isn’t a major factor in getting the best out of them. “I actually prefer to work with bands and people that are intense and feel strong about their music,” he says, “because that’s the way I am. I take what I do very seriously. So even though we may have a rough time in the studio, and there’s arguments and flare-ups, that can be really good for the music.”

But wouldn’t a producer of Bob Rock’s stature have it written into his contract that he could stamp his little hiking boots and get his own way whenever he wanted?

“Hell no! When I’m working with an artist, it’s their career, not mine. It’s their piece of work. I’m there to give them a different point of view and help guide them. But the bottom line is them. That’s why it’s always so strange when you read interviews after you’ve done bands and you’ve had this experience and they end up slagging you. It’s really silly because—especially the way I work—we’re all in it together.”

Any discussion of music production in Vancouver eventually leads to the mention of Bruce Fairbairn, the man who put this city on the international recording map by drawing such biggies as AC/DC, Aerosmith, and Bon Jovi to town. How do Rock’s production techniques compare with those of Fairbairn?

“All I can say is that Bruce Fairbairn has this wonderful magic about him in terms of dealing with artists and getting the best out of ’em. Myself, I don’t know what I do. Bruce Allen tells me that it comes from the heart a little more for me,” Rock says of his manager, “that I’m in it almost as an artist.

Mike Fraser [the Little Mountain Sound recording engineer] and Bruce Fairbairn and myself are very lucky in that now a lotta people are liking what we’re doing, but all three of us have different things to offer. And Bruce is definitely a different producer than I am.”

Fairbairn doesn’t quite agree with Rock’s assessment, however. “Bob and I pretty much come from a similar school of producing,” says Fairbairn, “so I don’t think there’s that many differences. It’s not like he’s chosen to produce in a style like Mark Knopfler or something like that, in which case you could say, yeah, sure, Bob has a totally different approach or style than I do. We really work in the same genre, with similar kinds of bands.”

One thing that the two producers do agree on is that there isn’t any competition between them for the world-famous bands that want to record in their home studio, Little Mountain Sound. “Only in other people’s eyes,” says Rock, “not between us.”

“Sometimes we end up getting called on the same bands,” admits Fairbairn, “but it’s never boiled down to where he and I are going after the same gig. We usually end up talking about it amongst ourselves, and that’s really a nice way to do it. Life’s too short to get into fighting with each other over who’s gonna do what band.”

Fairbairn says AC/DC, his current project, is a case in point.

“We both liked that band a lot, but it was the same thing with Metallica. There’s a lot of bands out there that, when they’re gonna make a record, they make up a list of five guys that they would ideally like to work with, and a lotta times Bob and I will be on that list. But there’s lots of good bands out there, and lots of good music to make, so we never end up running into one another.”

While Rock wouldn’t mind having his name on an AC/DC record, there are other bands, past and present, that he’d wish to produce. He’s quick to pick Led Zeppelin as his choice fantasy. “I don’t think there’s any question about that,” says Rock. “But there’s all sorts of people that I’d love to work with. There’s a lot of great new music, like Nirvana. There’s a lot of great bands out of Seattle, like Alice in Chains. And I would have loved to have worked with Mother Love Bone.

“But I pretty much like to work with anybody that believes in their music. I’ve been so very lucky—financially I’m doin’ okay—that now I think of music and engineering and producing, the whole thing, as more of a journey. Wherever it leads me, that’s where I’ll go. I just want to work with artists I like.”

But neither the financial rewards of producing big-name acts nor the notoriety that comes with it could help Rock out when it came time to get Rockhead into the clubs. He was startled to find how difficult it was for an original act to find a gig in this town. “I couldn’t believe how tough it was,” says Rock. “I was stupid enough to think, ‘Okay, we’ve got a record comin’ out, so maybe somebody’ll let us play,’ but basically everybody said, ‘Who cares? Go away.’ So I had to get Bruce [Allen] to yell at everybody just to get us to play.

“Luckily enough a couple of club owners were silly enough to actually let us,” quips Rock, “so now we’re doing okay. Some people are coming out to see us. But basically we’re losing money just to be able to play live. And I feel sorry for all the other bands, ’cause there’s only a couple of places to play original music here. So they’re havin’ a tough time, too.

Despite the indifference of local clubs and audiences, Bruce Allen thinks the chances are good of Rockhead making it big in today’s rock market-place. “The reason they’ve got a good chance is because Bob Rock has been sitting in the studio with guys like Jon Bon Jovi and Metallica and Motley Crüe,” says the feisty manager. “And there’s something in common with every one of those bands in that they know how to make hit records, radio-friendly records.

“So with all the things Bob has learned, it’s gonna be a lot different record than he used to put out with the Payola$, who weren’t exactly radio-friendly. I believe Bob has learned how to get on the radio from being in those sessions.”

As well as having Allen at the helm for the Rockhead project, Rock makes full use of B.A.’s management expertise in his producer’s role, too. “Bruce is basically the deal-getter,” says Rock, “and it’s a good thing to have somebody, other than a producer, to deal with the financial things and all the problem areas. It’s not for me to piss off bands’ managers or A&R people; I’d rather Bruce do that. And,” chuckles Rock, “he does a real good job of it.

“We’ve got a great relationship now,” adds Rock. “Obviously Bryan Adams demands a lot of his attention—and so he should—but Bruce knows what I wanna do, and we’ve got a good plan.”

If—for some strange reason—Rockhead’s heavy but accessible sound doesn’t make it on the charts and airwaves, and the dynamic duo’s plan for world domination crumbles, don’t expect the 37-year-old Rock to slink back into his studio and spend the rest of his life helping to fulfil other people’s musical ambitions.

“I’m totally possessed by music,” says Rock, “so producing isn’t enough, that’s the thing. It would be great to sell a lot of records with Rockhead, but I’m just real happy to be playing in a hard-rock band. I dig the shit out of bein’ on-stage with these guys. What makes me happy—besides bein’ with my wife and kids—is playin’ guitar in a band. I’d rather do that than anything.”

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