Set the controls for the heart of every Pink Floyd fan: We’re celebrating Roger Waters’ highly anticipated return with a week of Floydian features that will make you wish you were here forever. Today, we revisit David Konow’s interview with legendary Floyd producer Bob Ezrin.
Out of all of the interviews I’ve done in my so-called journalism career, one of my all-time favorites was getting to meet producer Bob Ezrin. If all he’d produced was The Wall, he’d deserve to be in the pantheon of the greats, but Ezrin was also behind the boards of Alice Cooper’s best work, including Welcome to My Nightmare, Lou Reed’s Berlin, Kiss’s Destroyer, and many more.
Ezrin’s always been wonderfully left of center, and former Kiss guitarist Bruce Kulick once called him a “mad scientist producer,” a description that fits well, especially considering Alice Cooper was his personal Frankenstein monster.
Ezrin’s career launched in 1971 with Alice Cooper’s Love It to Death album, which featured his classic anthem, “I’m Eighteen”, and he’s still actively working as a producer to this day. In recent years, he’s worked with Jane’s Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, The Deftones, as well as Johnny Depp’s super group, The Hollywood Vampires. This is a remarkable feat for any producer because it’s easy to get pigeonholed, not to mention the fact that there isn’t much of a music business left anymore.
Working with Ezrin isn’t for everybody. He can be a tough, intense taskmaster, but if you can take the heat, some great results can come from the kitchen. As proven with Welcome to My Nightmare, Destroyer, and The Wall, Ezrin can take a band’s work to a whole new level and flavor it with many of his wonderfully unique and personal touches.
I’ll always be grateful that Ezrin shared many of the methods behind his wonderful madness with me, and when he told me these unforgettable, behind-the-scenes stories, it was like taking a guided tour through many of my favorite albums, which deepened my appreciation and respect for them even more.
Ezrin was born in Toronto in 1949, and as he told me, “I’ve been into music my whole life. My first really important toy was a record player, and I knew all the records by their labels. I could pick them all out. I was able to manipulate it myself, play them myself, and sing along. My grandfather was an old song and dance man, and he taught me a bunch of routines when I was a teeny little kid.
“I started studying music when I was five,” he continues. “I took classical piano, jazz piano, composition. I really taught myself how to orchestrate. I bought a couple of books and called a couple of friends when I had questions. I also learned a lot just by doing it. Some of the world’s most expensive demo sessions happened by simply deciding that on an Alice Cooper album, we were going to have a string section and a couple of horns! I didn’t tell anybody at the time that I really didn’t know how to write for them, but I was going to learn by the day of the session.”
Ezrin was first mentored by producer Jack Richardson at Nimbus 9 Productions. Richardson was best known for producing The Guess Who, as well as the classic Bob Seger album Night Moves. “One day Alice Cooper’s manager Shep Gordon realized what Alice Cooper really needed was that Guess Who sound! How he made that leap I have no idea, but he somehow determined that Jack was the man for Alice. Shep brought in the early Alice Cooper records, Pretties for You and Easy Action, and they scared everybody to death in the office. Nobody wanted anything to do with them.”
The first two Cooper albums were released on Frank Zappa’s label, Bizarre, and as Ezrin recalls, “I hated them as a representation of what the band could do, but I loved them for their innocence and their simplicity. I just knew we could do much better than that, and I think we did. The sound just got a little more disciplined and focused. We kept a lot of the madness. We just controlled it and aimed it.”
As Shep Gordon kept continually hounding Richardson, he finally relented and said, “Okay, okay, if my assistant likes them, I’ll talk to the band.” Then Gordon got Ezrin’s phone number and started calling him 40 times a day. “Shep’s a very persistent guy, still is to this day, and they weren’t going to let me off the hook.”
Ezrin and a friend finally went to go see the band in New York at Max’s Kansas City. “We walked into a sort of underworld filled with spandex, spider eyes, people who looked stranger than any group of people I’d ever seen in my life. They were all really bone thin, pasty. They had black fingernails, long muttonchops. My friend and I sat down at the table in front of the stage, I was 18 inches away from Alice Cooper, and by the time the show was over, my friend and I were wide-eyed and slack-jawed, overwhelmed. I said, ‘What the fuck was that?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, but I think I liked it.’ I said, ‘I think I loved it.’”
As Ezrin told Performing Songwriter, that night Cooper “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. 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.”
Now it was Ezrin who wouldn’t take no for an answer, and he stood on Jack Richardson’s desk, telling him, “This is not about music. It’s a cultural movement. This is the beginning of something. They have sets and props, the audience dresses like them, wears makeup like them, we gotta get in on this.” Finally, just to get Ezrin off everybody’s back, the Nimbus 9 powers that be told him, “Okay, if you like it so much, you do it.”
“That’s how I became a record producer,” Ezrin says.
It was fortuitous for Cooper and Ezrin to hook up at the time. Ezrin would help transform Cooper into the rock Frankenstein he became, and he was building his strengths as a producer in the process. With the song “I’m Eighteen”, Ezrin misheard the lyrics and thought Cooper was singing, “I’m edgy, and I don’t know what I want.”
“I thought, Jeez, this is fuckin’ great, you know? Let’s put out a really edgy song. And it’s even called ‘Edgy!’” They used to laugh at me every time I said that, and I didn’t know why until I realized of course that the name of the song was “Eighteen”. But I did feel it was an edgy song, and that’s what I was trying to capture.
“We were trying to create the feeling of the songs,” Ezrin continues. “We didn’t know that there was any other way to do it but to be it. To sound angry, you sort of had to be angry. To sound drunk, you had to get drunk. We got a sound in our head, we needed something that accomplished it, then we’d look around and see what we had to work with that could solve the problem. We knew what we wanted to sound like. We just didn’t know the technique of how to get there. I didn’t do it according to rules, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I just did whatever sort of made sense, and we made use of whatever tools were available.”
On “School’s Out”, it was the first time Ezrin had a chorus of children, which he also later used to great effect on “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)”.
Once the song came to the chorus, Ezrin told the band, “’You know what would be great? That’s so kid-like. We should have little kids singing on it.’ Where do you get little kids? You call Central Casting, and they sent over a bunch of stage brats, and you get stage parents with them too. Into the Record Plant comes five sets of prima donna brat kids with their stage parents, and I have to explain to the parents why it’s okay for this group of kids to sing with this group of completely twisted individuals. They walked into the hallway, saw this group, and they were ready to turn around, get back in their taxis, and go home! The kids were scared to death, but I got them all to relax, and we all had a really good time. By the end of it, the kids were all giggling and laughing, and they loved Alice. It ended up being very effective, and I think one of the best moments in rock history is when those kids sing on that record.”
Ezrin’s collaboration with the original Alice Cooper band peaked with Billion Dollar Babies, and after one more album, Muscle of Love, which Jack Douglas produced, Alice went solo, reinventing himself with Welcome to My Nightmare.
Alice’s new band was a murderer’s row put together by Ezrin that had previously played on Lou Reed’s Berlin. The band included the dual guitar team of Steve Hunter and the late Dick Wagner, who also laid down the incredible solo interplay on the live version of “Sweet Jane”. One of the best Ezrin touches on Nightmare was bringing in Vincent Price for the song “The Black Widow”. Ezrin’s pitch to the legendary horror star was simple: “Mr. Price, how would you like to make your rock ‘n’ roll debut?”
“He thought it was such a ridiculous concept he couldn’t pass it up,” Ezrin says. “We did that session on the phone. I was in Toronto. He was in L.A. I wrote the script for “The Black Widow” the night before, got him on the phone the next day in a studio. This was pre-fax, we read the script over the phone, he did a read, I listened over the phone, I’d give him a few pointers … the whole thing at best took an hour. It’s unbelievable to me what an impression that small little piece has made on so many people.”
Then Ezrin helped reinvent Kiss with Destroyer a year later. “In fact, I’ve sort of reinvented them three times. Twice successfully with Destroyer and Revenge and once unsuccessfully with The Elder. That seems to be my role in their lives. When they’re at a crisis point and they need something to push them forward, or they need to make a change, they sort of turn to me when they seem to be lost. Sometimes we’re right, sometimes we’re wrong, but on Destroyer we were extremely right.”
On Destroyer, Ezrin did a major overhaul on a Peter Criss song, “Beck”, which then became “Beth”, Kiss’s highest-charting single and a ballad no less. “I remember it was politically required that Peter have a song on the album,” Ezrin says. “We had to find something he was involved with, and he kept bringing in stuff that just wasn’t acceptable because he’s not really a great writer. He came in with this slightly countrified sort of ballad called ‘Beck’. I felt there was something there I could work with, so I basically re-wrote it and brought it back in.
“The band wasn’t really thrilled, because it is Kiss after all, and at that time in their history, nobody was convinced they could get away with something like this. But to their credit, they agreed to do it, they allowed me to introduce an orchestra, and they agreed to support Peter because they had a deal that everybody would have a chance to participate in their albums.”
Another great touch on Destroyer are Ezrin’s own kids, David and Josh, on “God of Thunder”. Ezrin bought space helmets for his children that had walkie-talkies in them, “and I thought, ‘What a great sound! Let’s mike this thing!’ So we miked it, and I asked Josh and David to tell me monster stories. So you got a little kid going, ‘Rrrrr! Rrrrr! Rrrr!,’ and Josh said, ‘Aaaaaah! I don’t know about monsters!’ It was kind of appropriate for the song in an inappropriate way, and we decided to throw it on for fun.”
While a lot of rock journalism is certainly prone to hyperbole, it goes without saying that Pink Floyd’s The Wall is a genuine masterpiece, a crowning achievement that would symbolize the peak, as well as the end, of the band. As one could imagine, a band could easily collapse under the strain of trying to create a Sistine Chapel like this, but where Pink Floyd would indeed fall apart after touring for The Wall, the album would hold up remarkably well for decades.
With Roger Waters, there’s always two givens: that he’s brilliant and that he’s a famously hard case. There’s been a lot of hard feelings between Waters, the rest of Floyd, and Ezrin over the years, but as Ezrin says, “I really love him despite all of the problems that we had. He is an incredible man and one of the best people ever to work with. Best and worst. Very hard, but very stimulating and thrilling.”
Waters first told Ezrin about the concept of The Wall during the Animals tour, and not long after, he played Bob a demo that was essentially a 90-minute-long song. ”It started and just kept going. At that point, it didn’t have any sort of commercial potential. In fact, it wasn’t even organize-able in its form, but it was the genesis of a great idea.”
Once the band got together to work on the album with Bob, he hit it off immediately with David Gilmour, and Ezrin worked hard to have him more involved with the album. “Plus, I’m trying to make Roger’s stuff more musical if I could. We took the storyline that Roger had been working with, and I wrote a screenplay for The Wall, where every scene was a song. You could see where each song came from and how it worked into the next. The opening would be ‘Act One-Scene One’ as opposed to ‘Song One.’ We fade up, we pan across, and we zoom in …those were the terms we were using to describe how things would sound and feel.”
The script would show where the holes in the album had to be filled, “and I really lobbied to fill it with Gilmour material, because my feeling was, at that point, we were one-sided musically. We were really missing the Gilmour influence and his heart. We had a lot of Roger’s angst and intellect, but we were missing the visceral Gilmour heart and swing. So then we started filling in the holes with Gilmour’s stuff. When there were certain holes left in the script, it would say, ‘To be written.’”
Although Waters decreed there would be no singles on the album, Ezrin knew “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)” was a hit the first time he heard it. The first version of the song had no kids on it. It was just one verse, one chorus, and out. Ezrin told the band, “That’s too short. We need it as a single. It’s a smash, and we have to have it.”
Waters wouldn’t budge, so Ezrin copied it, “and if you listen, you’ll realize it’s the same verse and chorus twice. I copied it, edited it together, and sent it across to England to the Arts High School around the corner from the studio. We recorded these kids in the stairwells. Having done “School’s Out”, I knew the effect of kids, particularly in anything that has to do with school! I played it for Roger as a surprise, and the grin on his face was unbelievable. From that point on, not only did he get it, but I think he probably believed it was his idea in the first place!”
The Wall also had incredible sound effects, like the helicopter, which was recorded at Edwards Airforce Base. “We put a couple of pzm mikes out on the tarmac and got some seriously good stereo! I think it’s the best helicopter that’s ever been on record. We didn’t do anything by half measure. I loved that about Roger. Actually, you’d be surprised. Some of the stuff that musicians drive themselves crazy over, like a harmony part, he’d sing it, and say, ‘Close enough! Great! Next!’ But if you wanted a sound effect, you went for the real thing. If you wanted the sound of English school kids, you went to an English school.
“Making that album was a very difficult job, but it was thrilling because it was such a pure vision. When I finally got all four sides of the record done and I could play them 1, 2, 3, 4 in order, I broke down and cried because it was such a release. So many months in construction, pounding away and fighting with things, bending, adapting, and going without to get that final product.”