Keeping this blog up-to-date has my attention these days. I don’t expect to blog daily, and maybe not even weekly, but a random-regular basis may work. I intend to keep these “halls” reasonably active with studio stories and tidbits about historic facilities and other random items. So while I go about gathering new material for this endeavor (which could take some time, thanks to the day job), I’ll continue to fill it with snippets from my books and whatever else pops into my head on a random-regular basis.
With that in mind, here is an excerpt from Born in a Small Town: The John Mellencamp Story about recording the song “Pink Houses,” a song that I used to hear at least 10 times a day in 1984, and that I hear now when I’m shopping at Trader Joe’s. The shack referred to in the excerpt is an unfinished house in Indiana owned by one of John’s relatives. Producer/engineer Don Gehman worked out of Miami’s Criteria Recording at the time—hence the mobile equipment—and had recorded Mellencamp’s previous album, American Fool. Their credo for this album, Uh-Huh, was: Think fast. Make mistakes. Move on. Enjoy, Hj
The Shack, even with Criteria’s mobile equipment, still fell far from a professional studio, although recording in bedrooms, hallways and kitchens lent a certain rustic charm. “Since it was being taken apart after recording, there was no need to make it pretty, and it wasn’t,” recalls David Thoener, who engineered and mixed the album with Don Gehman. He was a 29-year-old New Yorker at the time, near the start of his career when he joined Gehman in Indiana. “The air conditioning ducts were hanging out of the ceilings, it was quite a site. But it had an amazing sound.”
“The control room was so small you literally couldn’t turn around,” adds Wanchic. “You had to just pick your spot and plant!” Between takes, the band hung out in the upstairs bedroom, converted to a makeshift lounge. “It was upstairs to hang; downstairs to work,” says Wanchic.
Another downside: the house sat on a pig farm, so the smell was “pretty unbelievable.” The back of the album has pictures of the band goofing off in the mud. The whole scene, from the muddy pigpens outside to the close quarters inside, lent itself well to John’s vision for his American Fool follow-up.
“We decided to just go out there and make the rawest, most natural sounding, off the cuff, first impression record that we could come up with, and we did it very spontaneously,” says Wanchic. “First ideas were exploited heavily, and it was done with great vigor and aggression.”
Admittedly, many of their ideas came from external sources. “The Uh-Huh record was heavily influenced by the Rolling Stones, very heavily,” Wanchic said in an interview with NUVO. “We were feeling our oats as a young American rock band with a lot of success at that moment, we felt we could take the liberty; hell, we even thanked the Rolling Stones on the record.”
As with the previous Cougar-Gehman collaborations, Gehman’s presence was integral to the success of this off-kilter recording session. Aside from being an excellent engineer, he had a calming influence over the hotheaded young artist. He wasn’t intimidated by his client’s demanding nature, and made for an honest sounding board for John’s ideas, as well as one who could keep him from going too far over the edge. But John pushed him, and his band, by routinely taking them to unfamiliar, and unconventional, territory. For Uh Huh, John wanted to call forth not just an aggressive sound, but irritating and aggravating, the very opposite of the clean and more pleasant sound of his earlier records. Recording in a half-finished house with wires covering the floor and minimal equipment was one way to instill some of the tension that would lead to this raw, aggressive sound. “Because of my background in live sound, I was accustomed to moving equipment in and out, wiring things up and making them work,” says Gehman, who got his start as a sound engineer. “Getting used to what an environment does to you acoustically and making judgments [in that environment], I knew nothing about. I’m out in the boonies, with gear that I’d rented, in some acoustic space where I really couldn’t hear anything, and then he wanted me to create something that I had never done before. Everybody was pushed to this place where they’re teetering.”
They recorded “Pink Houses” in about a day. As with many of John’s songs, he had the lyrics down and the basic melodic idea, but had to communicate what he heard in his head to the band. Frustration came when they didn’t get it right. Luckily, Crane and Wanchic had enough experience with John to come close most times. Crane usually fiddled around until he got the basic rhythm. Once he got a good groove going, the rest of the band would come in behind him, adding parts little by little until they had the structure of the song formed.
“Pink Houses” especially “captured the ambience of the acoustics,” recalls Thoener. “There is no reverb on the drums; that sound is only the living room. Even John’s tracking vocal was recorded in the same room. We used gobos with a Plexiglas window, put John in a corner of the room and made a triangle. He stood there looking at Kenny and the entire band. Everyone was in the same room. We put a guitar amp in one bathroom, the bass in another small room and the other guitar [amp] in another separate room off the living room. The backing vocals were an overdub but recorded in the same room so the ambience on the backing vocals is the living room also.”
John and the band recorded together, their instruments bleeding into one another, which only added to the album’s raw, natural sound. They kept most of John’s original vocal takes, a rarity in recording, with John going back to maybe fix a line or two. “He is meticulous, but you can’t deny a great performance,” says Thoener. “If you’re lucky to get it on the live take you’d be a fool to not recognize it and keep it. He’s always after his best performance, and not one for punching in syllables.”