“I’ve always liked brave and dramatic music. And I’ve always gravitated toward things that are ‘heavy,’ whether that’s heavy metal, or heavy orchestral or heavy themes.”
For anyone who’s familiar with the career of Bob Ezrin, those words from the man himself will come as no surprise. From the Alice Cooper Group’s seminal early ’70s albums, to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, to Kiss’ 1976 opus, Destroyer, Ezrin’s work as a producer has often tended toward the theatrical. That said, to pigeonhole the veteran studio maestro is to fail to do him justice. After all, in addition to the above classics, Ezrin has manned the boards for such diverse artists as Lou Reed, Poco, Peter Gabriel and Dr. John. And that’s just a small sampling.
A classically trained musician, Ezrin studied the art of producing under the tutelage of long-time Guess Who boardman Jack Richardson. His pivotal break came in 1970, when he witnessed an Alice Cooper performance at New York’s legendary Max’s Kansas City. Though Ezrin was just 19 at the time, his belief in the Cooper band was strong enough that he convinced Richardson to give him a shot at producing the group. Thus began a partnership that spawned a string of classics, including Love It to Death (1971), Killer (1971), School’s Out (1972) and Billion Dollar Babies (1973).
Having established himself with the Alice Cooper Group, Ezrin started taking on a wider variety of projects. Among his other production credits during the ’70s were Lou Reed’s Berlin album, Peter Gabriel’s solo debut and Dr. John’s Hollywood Be Thy Name. Impressive as those albums were, Ezrin closed out the decade with what many consider his finest achievement. Acting essentially as the creative director (and referee) for the most ambitious project of Pink Floyd’s career, Ezrin helped the band bring to life its two-disc opus, The Wall.
For many, Ezrin will forever be best known for his touchstone work in the ’70s, but in truth he remains a major force in music to this day. In addition to producing Pink Floyd’s two post-Roger Waters studio albums, A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987) and The Division Bell (1994), he continues to maintain an executive producer association with Alice Cooper the solo artist. Moreover, Ezrin has lent his skills to a new generation of younger bands, among them the British pop group Kula Shaker and the acclaimed Americana band the Jayhawks.
You first saw the Alice Cooper Group at a very early stage in their career. What was it about the band that convinced you they had potential?
Well, first of all, you have to understand that I was 19 years old when I saw them. At that time I was a folk musician, and a classically trained pianist, so I was heavily into music of all kinds. And like most kids of the ’60s, I was used to rock music being played by angry young men with beards and T-shirts and jeans, talking about social issues and/or their own securities.
When I went to New York City to see Alice Cooper play … first of all, I found myself in a room filled with people in black spandex and face makeup, with black fingernails and spider eyes and black lipstick. And then when the band hit the stage, they came on like a group of theatrical ghouls, who sort of walked out with their instruments and props and amazing lights and proceeded to do a show that was as much theater as it was rock music. The show took us through all kinds of strange little twilight zone-like short stories involving a variety of twisted characters and weird tales. By the end of it, they had given us basically an hour and a half of theatrical and musical experience. And I thought, this is the future of rock music. We’re going to graduate from T-shirts and jeans, and graduate to big productions and songs about large ideas.
Alice has said that you were really their George Martin, and that you tightened up the band. He said that what you did was expand upon the good things about their songs and strip away anything that seemed extraneous.
Oh, yes, that was done, at least. We sometimes did complete reconstructive surgery. We would come up with ideas and then take those ideas right down to the bare chassis—the first chord progression and three lines of melody—and rebuild an entire song around that. Or we might do that with one great riff, as with “School’s Out,” for example. Out of that one guitar riff we crafted an entire song in the rehearsal studio.
There’s a song called “Reflected,” on the band’s first album, that has a catchy melody but sounds tentative. A few years after the song was initially recorded, you and the band transformed it into “Elected,” which is a powerful anthem. Can you talk a bit about how that was done?
Well, we were nothing if not brave and sort of macho about our approach to music. And very melodramatic. The idea for “Elected” really sprang out of a casual conversation where we jokingly said, “Why don’t we run Alice for president?” It was such a horrible field of candidates, and we were so disappointed with what was going on in America at the time, that we thought that would be a great irony. And of course we all looked at each other and thought, “Why not?” (Laughs) We started thinking about what to do with the idea, and someone suggested we could make “Reflected” into “Elected.” We looked at the song, and thought, “Hell, yes, we can do that.” So we took the song and made it brasher or “brassier.” We added brass to it and made it speak like a hunting call.
Quite a few of Alice Cooper’s songs start off with bass lines being played solo. What was the idea behind that?
That’s an interesting thing. That was a device we used, and in fact we may have used it too much. It was a way of building energy and allowing the song to get larger and larger in a sort of natural way, using the five members of the band.
Around this same time, in 1973, you produced Lou Reed’s Berlin album. That album seems to have grown in critical stature through the years.
Actually, critically speaking, that album was highly acclaimed when it came out. There was a Rolling Stone article that called it the Sgt. Pepper of the ’70s. But it didn’t have a radio-friendly single, so it never got the exposure that it should have had and therefore didn’t have the commercial success that we had hoped for. The truth is, we might have had to sacrifice on the artistic side to get that exposure in a way that maybe we would’ve regretted later on. It’s very hard to go back and say what one would’ve done, or what one should’ve done, but I’m entirely satisfied with that album. I think it’s one of the best and most complete pieces of work I’ve ever been involved with.
It’s been written from time to time that Berlin was a real nightmare to make. Is that true?
It was indeed a nightmare to make. Much of that came from the otherworldly nature of the world of Lou Reed. Lou Reed is a true New York artist, with all the trappings that go along with that. He had a coterie of strange friends, and a lifestyle that was weird to a simple Canadian boy like myself, who was just finding his way in the international world of music. There was a lot of exotic stuff going on around me that kind of undermined my sense of familiarity and comfort.
Keep in mind that with Alice Cooper, I was really just dealing with a bunch of regular guys who happened to wear makeup when they went on stage. Essentially their lifestyle was very all-American. They were really just hamburger and TV guys, so I understood them. I understood the way they liked to live, and the way they partied, and the way they liked to work. Lou, on the other hand, was an artist with a capitol “A.” His milieu included some of the most cutting edge and eclectic artists of the time, and their whole approach to everything—from their art to their living—was foreign to me and somewhat scary. That made it tough, and then when you add to that the fact that many of us were experimenting with drugs … it was disorienting, challenging and ultimately frightening.
Did you and Reed map out the direction of the album, prior to entering the studio?
We had the entire album completely mapped out before we took it into the studio. And that was, for me, an epiphany, in the sense that for the first time in my career, I heard in my head what I was about to make before I made it.
You used children’s voices on that album, which is something you’ve done often through the years. How did that idea originate for you?
That came from an innate sense of theatricality. I feel that if you want something to be vocally chilling, or kind of otherworldly, one way to do that is to use the voices of children. And by the way, that’s not something I myself discovered. That’s something that’s been done in choral music for many years. When they wanted something to have an otherworldly sound, they had children sing it, instead of adults.
The other thing is, if you want to touch people, most people respond to the sound of a child, for whatever reason. Whether it’s children laughing or children crying, that seems to be more touching than hearing the very same thing coming out of the mouth of an adult. In all the cases where I’ve used kids, it’s been for dramatic effect.
Did the members of Pink Floyd know ahead of time that you were going to add the voices of children to “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)”?
They knew I was doing a lot of work on the track. They were sort of just letting me do whatever I wanted to. Roger [Water’s] attitude was, “Go ahead and waste your time doing a lot of silly stuff; in the end it’s going to be the way I hear it” (laughs). In the case of that song, that meant one verse and one chorus, then ‘out.’ But what I literally did was, I copied the track. If you listen to it, you can hear that it’s verse one and chorus one, played again, exactly the same. I made verse two and chorus two, and I put kids on that. I found a drum fill that wasn’t particularly good—that was just there to sort of join up the pieces—and put some kids on the second half and extended the song that way. The first time Roger heard it—with the children on there, and the second verse—he got it.
Is it true that you actually wrote a screenplay for The Wall as you were recording, to serve as a guide?
Yes. Actually, we had all this material from Roger, and the general sense of the story. The one we started out with wasn’t the one we ended up with, but it was close. What I did was to take the story, and the material we had, and write out a screenplay, literally, with acts and scenes, where each scene was a song. And I described, with language, what the song was, and what it did, and how it sounded, and what the segue would be from that song into the next. It might be something like, “Cut to the sound of a bomb falling, and before the bomb hits the ground, cut to a baby crying.” It was very much written like a film script.
So I brought that in and handed it out, and we literally did a table read. That’s where a cast first sits around and reads from a script that’s just been written. By the time we got to the end, it was very clear what we were making, and more importantly, very clear what we were missing. Because a lot of the scenes said, “To be written.” There were some songs we needed that we didn’t have yet. For instance, we didn’t have a song to describe the illness. We didn’t have “Comfortably Numb.” But I described what it was that we had to write, and we went out looking for it. By that I mean that we dug through more of Roger’s material, and then through some of Dave [Gilmour’s] material.
Was there much resistance on the part of Waters about Gilmour getting more involved?
I worked very hard at bringing Dave into the process of making the record. At the outset it was sort of Roger’s project, and sort of all about Roger. It was by Roger and for Roger. But Dave has a sense of melody and an emotional side that’s different from Roger’s. Dave is more of a romantic, and sometimes a little more accessible, although the melody for “Another Brick in the Wall” is Roger’s. But “Comfortably Numb” was a song that Dave had written under a different title and with a different verse. That chorus was Dave’s. It was very melodic … a very beautiful, soaring kind of melody. He brought that demo in, and after I heard it I said, “Okay, this is just awesome. We’ve got to finish it.” I gave it to Roger to finish, and he was at first reluctant, because it wasn’t his. But very quickly he took it home and started working on it, and he hit that magical moment where he realized if he started with that [sings “Hello hello hello …”], he was onto something really special. That got him excited, and after that he started writing feverishly. It just plopped out. Two days later Roger came back with this phenomenal approach to the verse, and the song came together.
Let’s talk a bit about some general aspects of producing. If you’re working with someone for the first time, how do you know when you’ve gotten the best take out of them?
To me, that just seems like one of the easiest things on the face of the earth. And yet for other people it seems really challenging. The key to that is to pay attention. Go to some shows, and listen to demos, and listen to their albums, and somewhere in all that you will hear moments of brilliance. You kind of have an invisible meter in your head, like an applause meter, that goes up when you hear certain levels of excellence. And when you hear those magical moments, or see those magical moments, the applause meter goes all the way up to a nine, and you say, “That’s it. That’s what they’re capable of, and nothing short of that will be acceptable for the project we’re about to do.” And when you tell a real artist—not just a musician, but a real artist—something like that, they love it. You tell that to them with a true sense of respect, because what you’re saying is, “What I’ve seen is your true brilliance. That’s the good news. Now the bad news is, I will accept nothing less than that because I know you can do it.” They find that challenging and exciting and inspiring. I think that’s a no-brainer.
Have advances in technology changed your role as producer?
I don’t think it’s changed the role, but it’s certainly given us a whole new set of tools to work with. It makes it possible to do some things quickly that were very labor-intensive in the old days, and required a lot of invention and a sort of strange bending of the rules of physics (laughs). Sometimes you had to be a sort of sonic contortionist, in the old days. And actually I loved that. I loved the problem-solving aspect of trying to create a sound with no tools available. Now you have all the tools in the world and almost too much sound available. And I think one of the dangers of that is that people get hung up with the tools and lose sight of the essential job at hand, which is to make good music. Some people are really good technicians but not terribly good at making music.
—By Russell Hall
From Performing Songwriter Issue 59, January/February 2002