L.A. Grapevine

The year 1977 was, shall we say, a transitional period around the L.A. music scene. On the plus side, the most popular studios were booked around the

The late Geordie Hormel was photographed in the then-newly designed Studio D, which was built in 1977 to host Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk sessions.

The year 1977 was, shall we say, a “transitional period” around the L.A. music scene. On the plus side, the most popular studios were booked around the clock; however, the interiors of these studios quite often resembled insane asylums with the inmates in charge.

Some veterans look back on this turbulent time — with classic rock and R&B still going strong while punk and disco exploded — as the golden age of analog artistry; others greet questions about '77 with cringes, remembering it as a period when a lot of smart people did really dumb things, thanks in part to a veritable blizzard of cocaine. But even amid scenes of single-edge razors being used to cut lines and tape, gram scales sitting on near-field monitors and 3 a.m. runs for “maintenance,” records somehow got made and a number of them have endured, along with some of the people who made them.

In '77, I worked as a product manager for A&M Records, but it seems like I spent as much time at the old Record Plant on West Third Street as I did on the A&M lot. The primary object of my attention — or obsession, to put it more bluntly — was The Tubes, who were locked up in the studio trying to finish their third album, Now, following the exit of producer John Anthony. Those were wild sessions, with Captain Beefheart popping in one day for some overdubs, his presence further amping up the sessions' surreal vibe, and guitarist Roger Steen coming up with the defining track “I'm Just a Mess,” while bandleader/guitarist Bill Spooner and I engaged in an ongoing competition on the Bally Fireball in the pinball room.

I thought at the time that the band was making a landmark album, only to have a sobering conversation with Al Kooper, who had produced The Tubes' self-titled debut at the same studio in 1974. He pointed out that superior record-making required experience and clear heads, both of which were in short supply during those sessions. As it turned out, no one outside the band's inner circle greeted Now with much enthusiasm, and 30 years later I still lack any semblance of perspective; in fact, I avoid listening to it because every note brings back such intense memories. The album stiffed, but at least we survived the experience, and The Tubes went on to make strong records with Todd Rundgren and David Foster.

In '77, Rose Mann (now Cherney) was in her first full year of managing the Record Plant — a role she continues to play at the studio's current location in Hollywood, along with serving as president and co-owner. She describes the layout and appointments of 30 years ago: “There were three large studios, three bedrooms — they were called the Sissy Room, the Boat Room and the Rack Room — a Jacuzzi, sauna and pinball room. We had beer in the soda machines. There were API boards, loads of tube mics and Studer multitrack tape machines. I think they mixed to quarter-inch and used 4-track for slap. We also had two remote trucks; one of them was used to record Frampton Comes Alive.”

According to Mann-Cherney, among those working at the Record Plant around that time were Eddie Money, The Eagles, The Tubes, Frank Zappa, Donna Summer, Barry Manilow, the Moody Blues, CSN, Supertramp, Dan Fogelberg, Smokey Robinson, Stephen Stills, Rick Nelson, Al Kooper, The Kinks, Stevie Wonder and her “old pals” Rod Stewart and Bill Withers.

“It was a good year, 1977,” says Mann-Cherney. “‘Gucci, Pucci, Fiorucci,’ to quote Steven Tyler. Record execs hung out every night — you never knew who was going to pop in for a visit. Every deal was done on a handshake. Tom Werman, John Boylan, Ron Nevison and Andy Johns would all book a year in advance. Major labels not only put us on the guest list at the Roxy, they gave us unlimited drink tickets. We roller-skated at Flippers, hung out at the Rainbow Bar and Grill, La Scala and Le Dome — so much fun. In those days, a backstage pass was really a backstage pass.”

A mile or so north on Fairfax, two-year-old Cherokee Studios also had it going on in 1977. The facility, owned and operated by the three Robb brothers, was the site of work on Rod Stewart's Footloose and Fancy Free, Bob Seger's Night Moves, Barbra Streisand's Evergreen, and the soundtracks to the Sgt. Pepper movie and Saturday Night Fever. Also in session around that time were the Bay City Rollers, Kiss, Ted Nugent, The O'Jays, Natalie Cole, Foreigner, Hall & Oates, Andy Gibb, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Donna Summer and Barry Manilow (those two apparently got around in '77).

“It was unbelievable,” says Bruce Robb of that period. “You could wake up at 3 in the morning, go into Cherokee and it was like the biggest, most exciting nightclub in town. It was around the clock, with the most insane things going on in the rooms. We'd have Barry Manilow in one room, Kiss in another room and Frank Sinatra in another room. And Bob Crewe was just crankin' with disco. There were two sessions a day in each room; one would stop at 8 p.m., the next would start at 9 and go to the next morning. At one point, Joe and I were doing Sinatra, and Dee was doing [David] Bowie. Bowie would stroll into our session and invite Sinatra back into his session. We'd have Jeff Beck in doing Wired, and he'd go up to a Rod Stewart session — ‘Lemme play a solo on this track.’ There was a lot of that then; nowadays, it's a little more closed off, more driven toward the market and the brand of the group. It was more about music than marketing back then, and the artists were still leading the trends. We catered to the artist rather than the label, because those are the guys who made the records. And you know what? That's still the way we feel.”

When I mention that I don't remember a lot of details about that period, Bruce Robb lets out a hearty laugh. “I don't either,” he says, “but people tell me I had a great time.”

After 32 years, Cherokee closed at the end of August of this year. The old site on Fairfax is being converted to a facility containing a dozen “musicians' lofts,” including home studios and living quarters. The Robbs are moving to Culver City, where they'll set up a two-room operation using much of their prized vintage gear, including a pair of Trident A-Range boards. “After all these years,” says Bruce Robb, “I still can't think of anything I'd rather do.”

Over on the West Side, the Village Recorder — Geordie Hormel's eccentrically designed and technically advanced operation — spent much of '77 hosting one high-end client and anticipating the arrival of another.

Day after day, week after week, Carol Farhat, who'd worked at the studio since a few months after it opened and was now managing the joint, watched the comings and goings of Donald Fagen, Walter Becker and their shifting lineup of hot-shot hired guns through the one-way glass of her office. They were back in Studio A, where they'd cut their first four albums, working painstakingly on what would be their magnum opus, Aja. “They would block out A for six months to a year,” she says. “They loved it because it was a really live room. Steely Dan had a lot of money for recording by then, and the label expected them to take that long to do an album. They'd go in, have a good time and finally get down to business when it got closer to deadline.”

While the Dan were laboriously painting their masterpiece, Hormel was busily fulfilling a commitment he'd made to the newly rich and famous Fleetwood Mac to build them a room of their own at the Village. So while Big Mac toured the planet behind Rumours (see page 91 for photos of The Plant sessions for that album), Hormel did his magic — and when the band gathered back in L.A. to start work on Tusk, Hormel proudly led them into the warm and gleaming environs of brand-new Studio D.

Also passing through the wall-of-mirrors lobby around that time — and sometimes walking into walls trying to find the door (Hormel loved optical illusions) — were Joe Cocker, Bonnie Raitt, Alice Coltrane and the young members of Kiss. “They came in without their makeup,” says Farhat, “and they were really cute young guys; really innocent and sweet. One of them had his favorite guitar stolen and he came in my office crying.”

Even then, says Farhat — and current Village top dog Jeff Greenberg confirms it — the Village was haunted by what both refer to as the “phantom bass player.” But that's a story for another time.

Clarification: In my September column, I not only failed to point out that Gussie Miller makes constant use of Logic Pro 7 and his Pro Tools HD system, I also managed to typo the name of Miller's home studio — it's Artis Musicai. My apologies — make that mea culpa.

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