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Classic Tracks: Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”

Much the way Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera have been played off against each other in the press in recent years, Cyndi Lauper was often compared to Madonna in 1983 and 1984, the years Lauper made her solo debut with She's So Unusual and Madonna released her first two discs.

Much the way Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera have been played
off against each other in the press in recent years, Cyndi Lauper was
often compared to Madonna in 1983 and 1984, the years Lauper made her
solo debut with She’s So Unusual and Madonna released her first
two discs. Lauper and Madonna presented two highly different versions
of the female pop icon: one, a street-savvy Catholic-girl-gone-bad for
whom sex and ambition went hand in hand; the other, a quirky,
day-glo-haired rebel who combined pop divahood with a punky, new wave
sensibility. Two of the singles that helped define their early careers
emphasize this contrast: Madonna’s “Material Girl” was the
portrait of the ultimate pragmatic seductress, while Lauper’s
“Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” offered a playful perspective
on female independence. Of the two singers, Lauper had the serious
vocal chops: Her voice displayed a range and power that Madonna, though
ultimately better at staying on top of the pop game, couldn’t

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“Girls,” like the rest of She’s So Unusual, is
full of artful musical touches that complement Lauper’s off-the-wall
singing — the bouncy cartoon-reggae groove, the outlandish
keyboard solo mid-song, the over-the-top background vocals. The studio
team responsible for the song was the same one behind the hit ’80s
band, The Hooters: Rob Hyman (keys), Eric Bazilian (guitar), producer
Rick Chertoff and engineer William Wittman. Chertoff met Hyman and
Bazilian in college and, according to the producer, “We always
stayed in touch and always were trying to work together in some way
that would be fun.” (The four continued to collaborate on and off
after Lauper’s album, scoring another big success in 1995 with Joan
Osborne’s Grammy-nominated debut, Relish.)

Chertoff remembers the genesis of the concept for She’s So
: “I was jealously guarding some songs that I thought
were great in my desk drawer at Columbia,” he says.
“‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,’ ‘All Through the
Night,’ that beautiful Jules Shear song, ‘Money Changes
Everything’ — and I had an idea about how to recut that
Prince song, ‘When You Were Mine.’ For me, they were really
important pieces of some project, and I was looking for a Cinderella to
kind of fit that slipper.” During a cross-country flight, he
mentioned his idea to Portrait Records executive Lennie Petze, who
recommended a singer he’d been trying to sign from a band called Blue
Angel. Chertoff soon met Lauper, and his slipper found its foot.

Lauper, however, was definitely not the passive princess type.
“The songs that I had originally made up a good part of the
record, but Cyndi’s goal was to write as much as she could around
those,” Chertoff says. Lauper ended up co-authoring three of the
album’s songs, including the Gold single “Time After Time.”
“Cyndi and Rob Hyman from The Hooters wrote that song while I was
running around breaking down drum mics,” assistant engineer John
Agnello recalls. “It was pretty inspiring.”

Chertoff knew all along that “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”
was important to the recording. “I first heard it from Rob
Hazard, who was trying to get his own record deal back then and
eventually did. He had his own band called Robert Hazard & The
Heroes. This particular song of his always struck me as being something
interesting and fun and sort of poignant in its own way, and I knew
that it was a cornerstone of my record with Cyndi.”

It was another thing, however, to win Lauper over to the idea.
“I sort of had to do a little convincing with her,”
Chertoff says. “I remember that rather than letting the song demo
that I had be the only thing that could impact Cyndi on her choice of
whether or not we should do this song, I decided to drive her down to
Philly — we both lived in New York at the time — to see a
performance of Robert Hazard & The Heroes.

“In the middle of the show, people are standing, cheering,
hanging on every note, just the right atmosphere for me to try to sell
this concept to Cyndi. As a young producer back then, I knew how
important it was, so I was determined to try to show it to her in the
best light and have her love it. Anyway, in the middle of this show,
they play the song and people are cheering. But in the middle of the
song, Cyndi shouts in my ear, ‘I will never do that

Chertoff says he was “devastated” by Lauper’s reaction.
But he was also determined, and throughout the three-hour ride back to
New York he debated with her. “Philosophically, she thought it
was a sexist song. Politically, we were on the same page: I wouldn’t
have wanted to do a sexist kind of song, but I didn’t feel it was
that.” By the time they got home, they still had not reached a
conclusion and the debate continued for several weeks until Chertoff
came up with a winning argument.

“I said, ‘Listen, Cyndi. I just woke up this morning
thinking that one thing we haven’t talked about is if you sing it, it’s
a whole different orientation than if a guy sings it.’ And I
said, ‘Don’t answer now. Let’s just hang up and sleep another day
on it.’ Anyway, long story short, to her credit, she called back
the next day and said, ‘All right, I’ll do it.’ Ironically,
I don’t know how many months later, she’s on the cover of
Newsweek and Ms magazine and it’s a feminist

It took several tries to find the right arrangement for
“Girls.” Chertoff says that they had decided on a reggae
approach, but initially weren’t satisfied with the takes they were
getting with their in-house band, so they decided to enlist some help.
“I remember that we were huge fans of Sly Dunbar and Robbie
Shakespeare, who happened to be recording Infidels with [Bob]
Dylan in New York City at the same time we were recording this record.
We arranged to get them on an off weekend to come down and help us on
that one track. I remember they were expensive and it was a big deal
for me.” They worked for a day with Dunbar and Shakespeare but,
according to engineer Wittman, the results didn’t match what they’d
already gotten from bassist Neil Jason and drummer Anton Fig. (Fig
currently plays with the Dave Letterman band.)

She’s So Unusual was recorded at New York’s Record Plant,
using what Wittman calls “The Method,” a recording approach
he and Chertoff developed on Lauper’s album and have used many times
since. “We would lay down a drum machine, at that time it was a
Linn drum, and we would overdub a guide track. In the case of
‘Girls,’ it was a guitar and the vox organ, which was
playing the upbeats with the echo on it. That was kind of the basic
layer. And then after we had a reference vocal, we would overdub real
drums on top and then go back and replace the guide instruments. So
everybody played to the drums, but we would sort of shape out the song
and get a sense of the arrangement by laying down these guide tracks

The drums were recorded in the Record Plant’s Studio B, which
Wittman says contributed greatly to their sound. “We set Anton up
in the middle of the room, which was not huge — about 35 by 25,
and only an 11-foot ceiling — but it was unbelievably live. Every
surface was hard, and it was very bouncy, splashy, nasty, live.
Literally, if one person was talking on one side of the room, you might
have trouble understanding them on the other side because of the
scatter. So it was an incredible room for rock drums. And we set him up
right in the middle to get maximum splash.”

In terms of drum miking, Wittman used what remains his basic setup
with a couple of special modifications. “It was an RE-20 inside
the bass drum, with a blanket over the drum to try to keep the sound
out of the other microphones and make it sound closer. The snare drum
was a Neumann KM84, the hi-hat was a KM86 and the toms were U87s.
Overhead, I had Beyer M 160 ribbon microphones.

“And then I had one STC 4038 way up over the control room
window and right up at the ceiling, right where the wall meets the
ceiling — it was maybe 25 or 30 feet from the snare drum to this
high, distant room mic,” says Wittman. “I supercompressed
that distant room mic — squashed the hell out of it — made
it really, really bright. Then I gated that with a Quad-8 noise gate,
and I triggered the gate with a close snare mic, so when he hit the
snare, it would open this distant room mic near the ceiling, and you
would get that ‘gush’ sound — it was very compressed
and white noise-y. That was recorded to a separate track. After the
fact, we also added a distorted handclap off of an 808 — Eric
Bazilian actually played it pretty much by hand, almost in real time to
the track — that also had that white noise-y ‘gush’
sound, which was mixed in.

“Both the guitar and the vox organ were going through ’60s Vox
AC-30 amplifiers,” Wittman continues. “Both of them were
miked with one U87; pretty simple. We generated the delay that makes
the double upbeats on the organ with a Publison [digital delay unit].
The effect was recorded with the sound onto the track.

“Also, the guitars were compressed with an LA-2A. Again, all
that went to tape, so whatever effects or compression or EQ, I put it
right on the tape. Pretty much, when you push the faders up, the sound
is already there on those recordings. And I still do that. I like to
know what it’s going to sound like, and I don’t like to have to
re-create it every time you have to do an overdub or anything. I like
to know that once you have something you like, you’re locked

As far as mic pre’s, Wittman used only the ones in the API console
at Studio B, “because when you have a console with terrific mic
pre’s, there’s no reason to shop outside. I really think this trend of,
‘Oh, I want eight different mic pre’s’ came about because
so many places started to have consoles that weren’t any good. If you
had a great console, there was really no reason for outboard mic

Wittman recorded Lauper’s vocals with a Neumann U47, sending the
signal through an API 525 compressor and the Publison delay. Half of
the vocals on the track were cut in Studio B; the other half Lauper
sang in a large storage room that she favored for recording, which was
located behind the mix room and euphemistically dubbed “Studio
E.” “Of course, we couldn’t see her. I think she lost some
of her inhibitions in Studio E,” Chertoff says. This led to some
humorous moments for the studio crew. “There was a moment where
we swore she was talking to somebody out there and the room was
empty,” Agnello says. “We ended up naming her fictional
friend ‘Tony.’ Like, ‘She’s talking to Tony

The track’s wacky, skittering keyboard solo, one of its most
memorable sections, turns out to have been a bit of studio serendipity.
Rob Hyman played it on a Roland Juno 60 synth, nailing it on the first
take. “It was like a big joke when we first did it, but then
everyone was like, ‘That’s kind of awesome,’” Agnello

The mixdown was fairly laborious. Using the Record Plant’s 56-in TSM
Trident Console, it was done completely manually, as the studio had not
yet gotten automated equipment. “You literally would have to do a
section at a time,” Agnello remembers. “Once you were
finished mixing the actual song, you cut it all together, you would sit
and listen back to it, and, ultimately, something would be not right,
so you’d go back to that section, reset all the faders to that section
and then do that and cut it in.” Wittman corroborates the
description: “We would do that again and again, editing in small
pieces until everything was corrected, so the final mix probably has
100 little edits in it. That was instead of automation.”

Ultimately, both “Girls” and She’s So Unusual went
Platinum in the U.S., the latter six times over. And though she had a
number of hits in the ’80s, several from her debut album, Lauper is
still often remembered for the single that first brought her to the
public’s consciousness. While her days of Top 10 hits may be over, she
continues to be well-regarded as a singer, and a recent cover album of
jazz and pop standards, At Last, has given her career something of a
comeback. But She’s So Unusual certainly earned her a place in the pop
pantheon. It’s a well-crafted recording whose spirit of exuberant,
musically savvy fun hasn’t faded a bit 20 years down the road.