Interviews

Ron Nevison (Producer, Engineer: Led Zeppelin, KISS, Heart)

It's impossible to call a rock album collection complete without including at least 9 - 10 albums that Ron Nevison either produced or engineered, or both.

Born in the States, Nevison first found behind-the-scenes fame as an engineer in England, working on seminal records such as Quadrophenia (The Who), Physical Graffiti (Led Zeppelin), and Bad Company's first three albums. His résumé also includes work on hit releases by artists like UFO, Chicago, KISS, and Ozzy Osbourne. In the '80s, Nevison helped resurrect Heart's career, producing chart beasts "Alone," "These Dreams," "What About Love," and other hit singles for the band. Hard rock fans know Nevison's name from records like Icon's Night of the Crime, The Quireboys' A Bit of What You Fancy, and the two Damn Yankees albums.

I've been wanting to interview Nevison for years, and I had the pleasure of finally doing that a few weeks back. What follows is a Q&A with the producer, and even though it's on the longer side of things, we only touched on a small portion of his extensive discography.

When did you develop your love for music and electronics?

I had a teacher in elementary school who told my mom that I was drawing really well and she suggested that my family should enroll me at the Tyler School of Art on the weekends. So I did that, but there was a choir next door and I switched from doing the art stuff to the music from there. I had formal singing training for years after that.

I also developed an interest in electronics, as primitive as it was when I was a kid in the late '50s, early '60s. That was my hobby. You know, when the transistor radios first came out. I remember getting copies of Popular Electronics magazine. I started spending my allowance money on soldering irons, and other stuff, so I can build radios. So, yeah, it doesn't really surprise me that I developed a career in music and electronics.

Nevison in the '70s.

How did you get your foot in the door?

I knew I wanted to be involved in the music business, even if I wasn't going to become a great singer; I still wanted to do something. So, in the mid-'60s hippie days, I started experimenting with different things. I managed a band at one point. I also ended up doing some concert promoting. I remember doing a Vanilla Fudge show in Allentown, Pa. I decided that wasn't it, but I did hire a sound company called Festival Group Sound, and I ended up working for them. That's where I got my first break, going out on tour and working my way up to the Front of House sound guy. By the late '60s, I was doing the live sound for some big names like Traffic and Derek and the Dominos, you know, making a lot of great connections with some of the English bands of that time.

Is that the point you hooked up with Chris Blackwell at Island Records?

Yeah, Chris managed Traffic at the time and I met him out on the road. I told him that I had spent three years on tour and didn't want to do it anymore. So he invited me to England to come work in the studio. So, I did that, and a few years later, I ended up engineering some huge albums for bands like The Who and Led Zeppelin. It was a gradual evolution of live sound guy to engineer to producer.

I know I'm skipping ahead in your discography, but a lot has been written about your work with the bands you mentioned. I wanted to move on to Freedom at Point Zero, an album you produced for Jefferson Starship.

I had done live sound on several tours for Jefferson Airplane in the early '70s. When I came up to the Bay Area in 1979 to interview for the producer gig on the Jefferson Starship album, I didn't want to tell them that I had done live sound for them. I had looked totally different from when I had toured with them, so they didn't recognize me.

Why didn't you want to tell them that you had done their live sound in the past?

I was worried that they wouldn't want to hire me because they might have thought of me as just a live guy. Anyway, I ended up getting the job, and I told them about the live thing after producing three of their albums [laughs]. I was sitting around with their roadies and they were telling an old road story, and I joined in. One of them looks at me and says, "You're from Philly, right? I remember you!" It blew their minds [laughs].

Another group you worked with in the late '70s was The Babys.

They were a great band that just didn't have the right single. Their label, Chrysalis, wanted singles. They brought me in and I found them the songs "Isn't it Time" and "Every Time I Think of You." John [Waite, singer] hated those songs, but he was always a royal pain in the ass anyway. Back then, you needed a ballad to get onto CHR [contemporary hit radio] stations. I did the same thing for Heart and Chicago years later, bringing them songs.

In 1979, you produced Strangers in the Night, the seminal live album from UFO. We all know that most live records feature studio overdubs, but I've read that Michael Schenker's guitar solos on the UFO album are all directly from the concert. Is there any truth to that?

Yeah, I don't think we fixed much at all on that album. In those days, since albums were mainly released on vinyl, you could only get 20 minutes per side. UFO had a song called "Rock Bottom" which was 11 minutes long when they played it live. It was obvious to me that we were going to have to release the show as a double album.

Anyway, I felt like we were a couple songs short of having a great album. So we went to the Record Plant to record two songs. I don't think anyone knows that, so I might as well let the cat out of the bag. It was "Mother Mary" and one more song that I can't remember right now. I recorded them live in the studio and I added the crowd noise afterwards. I don't think anyone could tell. I don't even think I could tell if you played it now.

[Nevison then tells me the story behind the Strangers in the Night album title.]

There was a restaurant called Entourage next to the Record Plant and I went there for lunch one day while mixing the album. It was a French place and on the jukebox someone was playing [hums the melody to Frank Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night"] and it struck me that "Strangers in the Night" was a cool title. So, yeah, I came up with that title. When Chrysalis released the album, they decided to rent out the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles for the launch party. That's the kind of thing record companies don't do anymore [laughs].

Looking back at your '70s studio work, does any particular album stick out to you that you feel was a bit overlooked?

I was lucky. From 1973 to 1976, I did Quadrophenia, the soundtrack to Tommy, three Bad Company albums, Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti, and Thin Lizzy's Nightlife. The only one that wasn't of note was an album by a band called Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers. They were a cool bar band from London. That was a fun album to do, but it didn't sell many copies.

You stayed busy during the '80s. Something I think gets overlooked about your career is your work with Survivor. Vital Signs is one of the best melodic rock albums of all time.

Yeah, that's one of my favorite albums. I had worked with Survivor a few years prior to that [1980's Survivor], and I don't really remember what happened, but I didn't end up finishing the album. I just remember having a big argument with [legendary A&R executive] John Kalodner and then left. I was like "fuck you" and that was it. The band was pissed off, but they always wanted to work with me again.

Years later, Survivor wanted to record a song for The Karate Kid soundtrack called "The Moment of Truth," so they called me. I flew to Chicago to produce the song and they loved it. That's how I ended up producing Vital Signs, and eventually, When Seconds Count. They had great songs and a fantastic singer.

I think Jimi Jamison's vocal performances on Vital Signs and When Seconds Count is just about as good as it gets. What was it like producing his vocal sessions?

Working with Jimi could be very tedious. You would tell him that he was singing flat in a certain part, so he would do it again, and get it perfectly in tune, but then his timing would be off a bit. And then you would tell him that he's out of time and he would do it again, but then be flat [laughs]. But it's a tough thing to overdub vocal performances in the studio. Some artists had difficulty with that. Jimi was naturally more of a live singer, so it would take him a while, but he would always nail it in the end.

I think Jimi's all-time best performance was on "Man Against the World" from When Seconds Count.

Yeah, that's one of my favorites, too. In fact, I've thought about cutting that song with someone else many times throughout the years. I know Jim Peterik [former Survivor keyboardist/guitarist] would love that. I just saw him a couple of years ago. I've worked with Jim many times, even outside of Survivor. He's great.

Let's talk about the two Heart albums you produced in the mid-'80s, Heart and Bad Animals. Those records were massive and featured some of the biggest songwriters of the era pitching in material.

That self-titled album was a new beginning for the band since they had been dropped by Epic Records and it was going to be their first record for Capitol. Don Grierson of Capitol wanted me to come in and produce a couple of ballads for the album. I loved Heart, so I went up to Seattle to interview for the job and I had a great time with them. I came back from the trip and my manager tells me that they want me to produce the entire album.

But part of the deal with Heart signing to Capitol was that Don Grierson had to also agree with their choice of producer, and have a say in the material they recorded for the album. I loved the songs they had, but I didn't think they had any that could be a big single and translate over to CHR. So I grabbed a song that was sitting on Don's desk called "If Looks Could Kill" that was headed to Tina Turner. I thought it would be a good one for [Heart's] Ann Wilson to sing.

My manager, Michael Lippman, managed [Elton John collaborator] Bernie Taupin and he gave me a cassette with "These Dreams" on it. I ended up playing the tape for [Heart's] Nancy Wilson at a rehearsal up in Seattle since I thought the song fit her so perfectly. She liked the song a lot and it ended up on the record.

Grierson brought in "What About Love," which was written by Jim Vallance, a songwriter/producer who has worked with Bryan Adams a lot through the years. The Wilson sisters also got together with Holly Knight [Pat Benatar's "Love is a Battlefield," Animotion's "Obsession"] to co-write a couple of songs. So, yeah, it was a collaborative thing.

Despite the massive success of those two Heart albums you produced, the Wilson sisters have been dismissive of some of the material throughout the years. They felt like they had relinquished too much control over to their record company.

They didn't like the label interfering, just like John Waite didn't when I was doing The Babys stuff. I remember playing "What About Love" at Nancy's house for the first time. She went down the stairs to cry because she didn't like it. What she was really offended by was how the demo sounded. It was really wimpy. I said to them that they should record it and try to make it their own. If it doesn't work, we could just not do it. Anyway, Ann goes in to record it and it's amazing.

Look, I was brought in by the label and management to get the job done, and that meant I sometimes had to lead them screaming and kicking into the charts. What can I say? It is what it is.

An album you worked on that didn't set the charts ablaze, but a lot of people in the hard rock community hold dear to their hearts, is Icon's Night of the Crime. What do you remember about that project?

I was brought in to mix that one. I didn't do many projects where all I did was the mix. I remember doing the mix at the Record Plant with the band there, and they were really nice. Outside of that, I don't really remember much else about that gig [laughs].

Night of the Crime was produced by Eddie Kramer, a legend in the music business through his work with Jimi Hendrix and KISS. I guess the label and/or the band didn't like his original mix. Did it feel strange coming into the project under those circumstances?

You know, I had an album taken away from me at the mixing stage by Eddie years before that. It was Run with the Pack from Bad Company. I had recorded and mixed the first two Bad Company albums, and I was mixing Run with the Pack at the Record Plant. They were bastards. I showed up to the studio one day and the tapes were gone. They didn't even have the decency to give me a phone call about it. This was after doing three albums together.

One day, I'm walking in the parking lot of the studio and a producer friend said to me, "You didn't mix that new Bad Company album, did you?" I asked him how he knew that and he said because the snare drum wasn't as loud as I normally would mix it [laughs]. So, yeah, that stuff happens in this business.

You produced Ozzy Osbourne's The Ultimate Sin album. Was he hard to work with at the time?

The hardest part was convincing him to record "Shot in the Dark." It was a song his bass player at the time, Phil Soussan, had written. Well, they ended up recording it and it became a hit. After that, they're like, "Where's the follow-up?" and I said, "You want a follow up? You didn't even want to do that one!"

I also had a bit of trouble getting Ozzy into the studio to record his vocals. So I asked Sharon [Osbourne] if there was a specific place Ozzy hated and she said France. I was like, "Great! We're gonna record in Paris!" We did the vocals in 10 days.

Going back to "Shot in the Dark," did Phil Soussan present that song specifically for the album?

Yeah, I believe so. I think he had a demo of it. You know, Phil doesn't like me too much. I was doing a Vince Neil record called Exposed and Steve Stevens was playing guitar on it. Phil was playing bass in the band. Anyway, Steve didn't like Phil's bass playing and he wanted to do them over. He went in and did a great job. Of course, being the producer, I had to go tell Phil that his bass tracks were not going to be used on the album. It was much easier for him to blame me for that than Steve. I understand that in a way since his gig was taken away from him.

The last thing I wanted to ask you about was Crazy Nights, the album you produced for KISS. There's a ballad on that album called "Reason to Live" that I think should have been a monster on the charts, but it didn't happen. What's your take on that song?

You're right, it should have been huge. That's why I spent a long time working on it. Paul Stanley co-wrote it with Desmond Child. I thought it was a great song at the right time, so we were really disappointed that it didn't do something big. Even though we scored a platinum album, we thought that "Reason to Live" would do something bigger for the band. I haven't had that many disappointments in my career, but that was definitely one of them.

Head over to RonNevison.com to find out more about his extensive discography and other projects.

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