As I described in the memoir, “Go West, Young Man!” – Reflections on the Vinnie Vincent Invasion audition, 30 Years Later, landing the VVI gig out of a once-in-a-lifetime audition opportunity was one of the most unforgettable memories I’ve had in my professional career. Unfortunately, recording the first Invasion album two months later would also be one of my most “unforgettable memories”… but for reasons I would rather forget!
So pull up a chair and settle in for the complete story, as I attempt to recount it for you here – in all of if its excruciating detail – 30 years later. But first, let’s start with this whole “Bobby Rock” name-change thing, as it could prove relevant in understanding the bigger picture of our journey into hell….
A “Bobby Rock” is Born
Once I got the Vinnie Vincent Invasion gig after that fateful audition experience, we all went to the Chrysalis offices to meet up with the record company suits. It was then that I first realized my new bandmates thought my last name was Rock, not Brock. It turns out that Dana misunderstood me when I left that first answering machine message about the audition. So here I was, getting introduced to everyone as “our new drummer, Bobby Rock.” Of course, I couldn’t say anything on the spot, as it would’ve been awkward to correct Vinnie in front of the record company people about my last name, so I went along with it.
While I hung in Houston before returning to LA to start work on the first record, Vinnie did a shitload of interviews talking about his new drummer, Bobby Rock, who drove down from Texas and blew them all away. I remember thinking: Oh shit… we never talked about this hokey-ass Bobby Rock thing. I’ll have to talk to them about it when I go back to LA.
Two months later, I had my chance. At the studio during one of the initial recording sessions, Vinnie, Dana and I were hanging out in the lounge and I said, “By the way guys, I’ve been meaning to mention, Rock isn’t really my last name.”
“It is now,” Vinnie said, with a big smile.
We all laughed… but then I started to make my case to use my real name.
“Well, I’m just not sure if it’s the right…” I started to say.
“No, it’s perfect!” Vinnie interjected. “Your poster is going to be all over the bedroom walls of kids around the world. This band is going to be bigger than life, and you will be bigger than life. Bobby Rock is a much better name for this.”
Granted, the mid-80s were the time for these kind of caricature-like names (Nikki Sixx, Rikki Rockett, Blackie Lawless, Tracii Guns, etc.), so no one really flinched at the prospect of such a name-change. Still, I pressed him a bit.
“Well… yeah, I hear what you’re saying, but it just sounds so ‘Hollywood’ – so cliché – and not like the name of a truly serious player, ya know? Almost like if someone called himself ‘Johnny Star’ or something.”
Vinnie got serious. “Well, that worked out okay for Ringo.”
Uhhh, true. And at that point, there wasn’t much more I could say.
I would go on to consult a few more trusted advisor types, including our manager, George Sewitt. And since no one had any real problem with it – especially since it was just one letter off from my birth name – I went with Rock and got used to it pretty fast.
Actually, there was one person who, like me, thought the Bobby Rock thing was a little silly, and he implored me not to change my name: our singer, Robert Fleischman. And while his points were well taken, I decided to take the leap into “Bigger-Than-Life-ville” anyway (although I would occasionally struggle with the decision at key junctures in the future).
One other little tid-bit: I actually went by “Bob” more often than “Bobby” back then. So when I brought this up to Dana Strum and asked if I should go with “Bob Rock” or “Bobby Rock” (this was before anyone knew about the producer, Bob Rock, by the way), here’s how Dana advised me to decide:
“Imagine we’re out on tour somewhere, and you’re banging some slut in your hotel room. Would you picture her calling out your name like “Ooohhhh, Bob!” or “Ooohhhh, Bobby!”?
“Well, I guess she would probably say ‘Bobby.'” I replied.
“Then go with Bobby Rock,” he said.
And that, my friends, was the profound and spiritually fortuitous way that I arrived at Bobby Rock. Gotta love the 80s!
An early VVI article in Hit Parader mag
Setting the Stage
The sessions officially got underway at Baby-O Studios in Hollywood in late fall of ’85, with Vinnie and Dana co-producing. It was an interesting time in the recording industry. Almost everything you heard in the commercial pop, R&B, and dance music sphere was programmed drums. Same with TV themes and movie soundtracks. Those big, fake drum tracks had infested virtually every realm of popular music… hard rock excluded.
But even in our idiom, this influence was starting to seep in, perhaps most notably with Def Leppard’s Pyromania, which had come out a year or two prior. There was a machine-like accuracy and spit-shine polish to those drum tracks – and, indeed, the overall production approach – that gave it a very “modern” sound; one that would go on to influence the landscape of rock recording in the years ahead. Even the latest Van Halen record, 1984, had a fairly synthetic drum sound, although it still managed to retain Alex’s signature live feel.
With all of this in mind, Dana had lobbied for doing the record in a very “modern” way. There would be a simple drum machine part used as a metronomic reference for each song, and we would record the album in reverse order: Vinnie would record all rhythm guitar tracks first, then Dana would drop in bass guitar, and then I would “replace” the drum machine tracks with live drums.
Typically, you would either record all rhythm tracks simultaneously – guitar, bass and drums – or at least lay down keeper drum tracks first. So this was a rather unorthodox method of tracking that, presumably, would be a best-of-both-worlds approach: guitar and bass would have that mechanical precision since they would be cut to a machine, but then you would drop the drums in last to preserve some of that live performance fire, all while maintaining the “perfection” of the drum machine foundation. Sounded promising… and probably would’ve been under different circumstances. But I digress.
Let the Tracking Commence
The first couple weeks of recording were a breezy, joyous time. Once guitar tones were all set and ready to go, Dana would sit at the helm of the console and work the tape machine, while Vinnie sat next to him and played his ass off. I was basically free to come and go as I liked, but I pretty much just hung around the studio like a proverbial fly on the wall and grooved to the incredible tracks these guys were putting together every day.
And man, you talk about a scary fucking guitar tone. On the other side of the glass in the tracking room, I remember there being at least six different guitar heads, arranged on their sides in a semi circle, with an oscillating fan going back-and-forth to keep the tubes cool. Then, there were various guitar cabinets, strategically placed around the studio, with an array of different mics positioned around the room in key places; some close to the cabinets to capture Vinnie’s searing pick attack, others further away for that “arena” room ambience. All of this gear was somehow connected together with clusters of black cables, snaking their way along the floor or into various patch bay points. It was like the movie set of a sci-fi film in there.
I’m not sure how or why I ended up walking through that room a few times while Vinnie was tracking, but it was so unbearably loud, I remember thinking that if a small mammal were to somehow find himself scurrying across the studio floor at that moment, his little brains would surely come oozing out of his ears! It was literally painful to be in there. But… the way the guitars hit the tape was undeniable. (And if you take a close listen, for example, to the intro of “Shoot You Full Of Love,” or the open guitar solo stuff at the end of “Animal,” you can actually hear how hot those guitars were hitting the two-inch. Fucking awesome!)
I’m sure our engineer, Mikey Davis, had his fair share of input on helping to get guitar sounds. But again, it was almost always Dana working the machine, doing the actual recording. Dana had an inexhaustible work ethic, and was a master “puncher.” By that I mean, he could “punch” into record mode for virtually any part of a guitar passage for a repair, then “punch” out just after with razor-sharp accuracy, so there was seldom any evidence of the edit. Or, even more typically, he could pick up a take from virtually anywhere in a slew of chords, whammy-bar licks, or solo riffs, offering Vinnie unlimited creative freedom to piece things together.
These days, with digital editing being almost the exclusive way everyone records, these type of edits can be done much easier, and risk-free of accidentally erasing some piece you wanted to leave intact. But back then, it was extremely risky to punch in and out of any pass, because you were actually recording over shit on the master. So, if you fucked up the punch, the performer would have to redo the part all over again or, worse, you could inadvertently mow over some “magical” part of a performance. This could be disastrous.
But there Dana was, fearlessly punching together these incredible takes of Vinnie, hours a day. And while it was Vinnie’s monster riffs and true guitar genius that propelled the sessions, let’s just say that Dana was a “facilitator” of virtually anything that Vinnie heard in his head or spontaneously attempted to play. (Ultimately, Dana’s prolific punching skills would, in my opinion, alter the inevitable direction that Vinnie would take later in the process when it came time to lay down all of his solos.)
Once rhythm guitar tracks were done, Dana’s bass tracks were dropped in over a few days time with a minimal amount of fuss, as I recall. He pulled up a ballsy, growling bass tone that sounded monstrous with Vinnie’s guitar parts, and he and Mikey started mowing down takes. Vinnie would hang nearby with his cup of herbal tea for input and suggestions. Dana laid down lots of cool, hooky bass parts that served the tracks well without detracting from any of Vinnie’s classic riffs. There’s an art to that, and a skill to nailing the shit down to the click as easily as he did.
Two down, one to go, and rhythm section tracks would be in the can.
The V-man, back in his Kiss days…
With all of the rhythm guitar and bass tracks locked in, the big day had finally arrived; time to start tracking drums. And what a production it was to get everything dialed in before the red lights on the tape machine lit up.
Baby-O Studios was set up on the second floor of a historic old Hollywood building. Directly underneath it was a dilapidated old theater that had been vacant for quite some time. Word was, Van Halen filmed their “Jump” video on the theater stage, and that is precisely where we set up the drums. A local drummer named Mark Edwards was hired to bring in his kit for me to play, and also to serve in a sort of drum tech role, handling head changes, tuning, etc. To be clear, though, Mark was no mere drum tech. He was a world-class drummer in his own right, known for his work with the legendary band, Steeler, and currently playing with guitarist Doug Aldrich in a popular LA band called Lion. He was also an experienced studio drummer who knew how to get great tones out of his Yamaha Recording Series kit, hence Mikey and Dana’s decision to hire him.
We got the drums set up in the center of the stage. It was a big double bass kit, grand piano white, with two 26″ kicks, three rack toms, two floor toms, and my ever-present 6″, 8″ and 10″ roto-toms. There were a few different high-end snares, as well, but what we wound up using escapes me. We might have rented these from the infamous Paul “Jaimo” Jamieson, who was one of the top-call drum rental/cartage guys in LA for years. There was also a wide array of cymbals, mainly Paistes, and most of which I had borrowed from a very generous Keith Karnaky, owner of The Drum Shop in Houston.
Once the kit was dialed in and I started hitting the drums in that cavernous space, we all knew we were on to something pretty special. Simply put, they sounded like fucking cannons going off in there. This was basically a giant room, comprised of concrete and wood, with interesting and asymmetrical angles everywhere. With that in mind, Dana, Mikey, and our second engineer, Kevin, took a great deal of care with mic placement. In addition to the usual close miking and standard issue overhead positionings, they were very strategic about choosing multiple places around the theater for additional mics to capture that magical ambience… some as far as 50 feet away from the kit. They even set up some baffling at certain points to better contain the room sound at particularly favorable “sonic pockets.” But that was just the half of it.
Being that this was the overkill 80s, it wasn’t enough just to have a world-class “drum theater” to record in. Once all of the tracking room mics were in place, they arranged to split the signal from my close mics so that one feed went directly into the control room, and a second feed went to a separate PA system that was set up in studio B upstairs, where various mics had been strategically placed to capture that sound. As we all know, drums take on a special tone when blasted through a PA system. So now, in addition to all of the magic coming at them from our gutted theater downstairs, they also had the option of bringing in these drum sounds from the PA in studio B. Then, when you blended together all three of these sources – close mics on the kit, all of the various ambient mics around the theater, and the “stadium” drum sounds from the PA – it sounded like the end of the fucking world. There was even talk about getting an editor from Mix magazine to come down and do an article on this unprecedented drum recording process. We were flying high, and we hadn’t even started tracking yet!
Once everything was finally ready to go, all the street level entry points of the theater had to be locked and chained again… which meant that we had to establish a creative way for me to actually get down there to record, direct from the second floor control room area. This involved constructing a makeshift “catwalk” that I had to crawl through, before walking across a 10-foot plank, and then shimmying down to the theater stage. (No, I’m not joking.) It was some real Spider-Man kind of shit just to get in and out of there, but I didn’t care. We were going to nail down some revolutionary drum tracks, by God!
Another oddity was this; they had arranged for there to be a video camera on me at all times so they could see me from a TV monitor in the control room. But I could never see them. So throughout the sessions – which would prove to be famously arduous – this created a bizarre “big brother” kind of feeling as I sat there in the dungeon-like ambience of the theater. (But we’ll get to that soon enough.)
Tracking Madness – Round 1
I’ll never forget the moment before we started tracking the first song. I was shitting myself, to be honest. I had obviously recorded in various studios before, but nothing at this kind of high-stakes, major label level. And I remember Dana and the guys joking, saying “You better nail these drum parts, Bobby, or we’ll send your ass back to Texas!”
I turned to Mark, who was seated in a chair nearby about 20 feet away. “Say bro, they said they would send me home if I don’t get this right.”
“I’m pretty sure they were just joking with you,” Mark reassured me. But man, I was so fucking anxious about this, I probably thought they were serious.
First song up: “I Wanna Be Your Victim.” Tape starts rolling, and I start pounding. It seems like we got through a verse and a chorus before we stopped for some reason. I should point out that there had been zero pre-production done in terms of figuring out drum parts, so we would be constructing them on the fly. One of the first things I remember hearing through my headphones between takes, was Vinnie asking Dana how accurately I was playing up against the drum machine reference part. “He’s right on it!” Dana assured him.
We carried on, and Dana’s punching prowess continued to come in handy because, again, we were essentially composing things as we went along. So if Vinnie wanted me to play a more adventurous fill somewhere, no problem. Dana would just punch in at that point and I would continue the take from there. And I should also mention that Vinnie was all about elaborate, super-chopsy fills: fast up-and-down the toms stuff; bombastic double-bass riffing; intricate snare/cymbal combinations. He loved that shit. Meanwhile, I think Dana preferred simpler, “attitude” type fills, but would typically defer to Vinnie’s preference. Although at one point along the way, I remember Dana asking us, “Why do all of these fills have to be so fast and notey?” Too many notes? Believe me, he was asking the wrong two guys that question!
As we continued to build the track, I could see that Vinnie was an absolute fanatic about all of my grooves and fills being perfectly in sync with the machine. This meant that even if I laid down a chorus that sounded great with the guitar and bass, if he heard any discrepancy against the machine anywhere, I would have to do the whole section over again. It was a bitch, but we eventually made it through the first song.
Once Vinnie and Dana had listened down from top-to-bottom a time or two and were both satisfied that I had nailed it, they invited me up to the control room to have a final listen before moving on to the next tune. This would be the first time I heard everything together through proper monitors, and man, it was a moment in time. Mikey blasted it through the “big speakers,” and truly, the track was magnificent. It had this massive, arena-style wall-of-sound production quality – even in its raw state – combined with a super-vibey live performance feel. It sounded like three bad-ass mofos, on top of their game, ripping through the riffs of this tune, live in the studio, like the fucking place was on fire. There was a unique band chemistry already sizzling off the tape, anchored by this mile-wide groove. I’m telling you, the track was exploding out of the speakers like napalm.
In fact, I remember listening to “Victim” while standing in front of the console, as my rib cage was getting pummeled by kick drum and bass guitar. And I remember feeling like I was in the middle of a train track with the glaring light of a locomotive blazing straight toward me. That was the pure, sonic experience of the music; this shit was S-L-A-M-M-I-N’!
We were all thrilled, just beside ourselves with how huge it sounded. And again, this was just the rhythm tracks, minus solos, vocals or mixing. Daaaaamn!
One of the original VVI promo shots; our scaled-down “street look.”
Once we all settled back down, it was decided that we would listen to the track one more time with the drum machine back in the mix so we could do a final double-check for accuracy. But remember, we had already been very stringent about how every groove and fill matched up with the machine while we were tracking. Sure enough, as the song played down, the drums were so locked with the machine – which was notably lower in the mix at this point – you barely noticed it. The track was a done deal in my mind, so I was bobbing my head to the groove in the back of the control room, relieved that we had popped the cherry on our first song, and just out of my skin with how epic things were sounding.
Suddenly, midway through the track, Vinnie’s index finger shot up toward the studio monitors and he blurted out, “There! Right there! Did you hear that kick drum? It’s off.”
Mikey rolls the tape back about 30 seconds and we all listen from that point.
“There!” Vinnie repeated. “That third kick after the second snare fill. It’s off with the machine.”
So again, Mikey rolls it back a few bars, then solos just the drum machine and my drum track. Indeed, on that kick drum in question, there was a slight “flamming” effect, meaning that the kick was a micro mili-second ahead of the machine kick. Mind you, we would never had heard this minor, inconsequential discrepancy had the machine not been playing, as well; in other words, as the listener would be hearing it, minus the machine. But, Vinnie did hear it, and just by principle, it had to be fixed. Naturally, the rest of us thought this was ridiculous, but it was way too soon in our relationship with Vinnie for anyone to question him too much. So… it was back down to the dungeon so Dana could punch into a perfectly good track, to fix one “pushed” kick drum, that no one would ever hear.
And so the nightmare began.
Chasing the Devil’s Tail
Dana found a way to punch me in and out as I “fixed” the kick drum in question. But then upon a playback that involved live drums and drum machine only, Vinnie heard a snare I had just played slightly off with the machine. So now we had to punch back into the new punched part and try to fix that. And so with this heightened new level of scrutiny, it became a game of odds to fix these single note discrepancies. What were the odds that I could play perfectly enough to fix the questionable note… but also play the rest of the new passage perfectly, as well? And I mean perfect as in “drum machine certified” perfect. Likewise, what were the odds that Dana could successfully punch in and out of a pass with an acceptable level of transparent precision? This became the theme of this “round one” attempt at nailing down drum tracks.
This pretty much sums up our situation. (Image by John Schwegal)
The next 10 or so days were an impossibly aggravating blur of start-stop-check-start-punch-wait-check-start-stop-start-punch-stop-check-sigh-wait. The playback in my headphones was always the whole track – guitar, bass, live drums and machine – so it was difficult to evaluate how accurately I had just played something. But in the control room, it was a different scene. Within a couple days, we had arrived at a point where I was consistently playing so dead-on with the machine that Vinnie found it necessary to hard-pan each part to its own monitor so he could better discern how perfectly everything lined up: my drum tracks would be panned hard left, and the machine would be hard right. And as the playback went down – typically with the guitar and bass tracks muted so as not to “get in the way” of the analyzation process – everyone would be absolutely quiet and still as every single note was evaluated. And if Vinnie thought he heard something, the tape would be wound back for further examination.
Meanwhile, I would be sitting behind the drums in that darkened, cold-ass theater, with a chilly film of sweat blanketing my skin, hearing some arbitrary five-second excerpt of the take being looped over and over again, with no idea what they were listening for, let alone talking about. I would usually just hear Dana or Mikey click into the talkback with a “One moment, Bobby,” and that was it. It could be anywhere from 30 seconds to ten minutes before the next update… and always with the robotic red glow of that video camera light on me. The electric eye. Always there. Big brother in the fucking house.
It would usually be Dana’s voice next. “Bobby, we’re gonna jump back in at the top of the second verse and grab something real quick. Just play along…” And then; start-stop-check-start-punch-wait-check-start-stop-start-punch-stop-check-sigh-wait. Other times, it would be Vinnie on the talkback, usually with a considerably less diplomatic tone.
“Bobby, it’s sounding very amateur right now…” or “It sounds really local,” meaning that he thought I was playing like some half-assed local band drummer. In other words, I needed to play even more machine-like.
I recognize that Vinnie had no obligation whatsoever to speak to me diplomatically. This was his gig, his record deal, and I was just a lucky young punk from Texas. And in retrospect, I don’t think Vinnie was trying to be a prick, or had some kind of sadistic intention of making my life hell in the studio. In fact, I seldom remember there even being much malice in his tone as he said these things. He was generally calm and matter-of-fact in his delivery.
Instead, I just think he was oblivious to how his wording of things could actually be hindering the result he was looking for. I mean, man… the entire situation was challenging enough as it was, so all of the condescending commentary only added to the relentless mind-fucking that was going on in my head. Honestly, I reached a point somewhere in the middle of all this where I doubted my abilities as a drummer: What the hell is wrong with me? Am I that shitty of a player that we can barely punch together takes? Maybe I need to go back to playing bars because I’m just not good enough to perform at this level yet…
Dana, on the other hand, was notably more empathetic. Throughout this entire process, he was extremely mindful of how I was likely interpreting things, and how it was in everyone’s best interest for him to mitigate the potential head-tripping by keeping all communications light, constructive, and respectful.
I should also point out that all of my studio allies – Mark Edwards, Dana, and Mikey – were constantly assuring me that the lunacy we were all experiencing here was by no means “industry standard” in a session… that I was playing well, and we should not have to be wasting time pandering to this kind of senselessness.
Unfortunately, the net result of this crazy-high level of scrutiny and obsessive micro-punching was, of course, that we were stripping these drum tracks of their very soul. It is in the ultra-subtle “push-pull” against the machine – even as a bit of flamming may occasionally occur – that a true live feel is captured. It’s what separates all the greatest classic rock tracks that we love, from much of the quantized and homogenized productions we hear these days.
Granted, that original pass of “I Wanna Be Your Victim” had plenty of punches in it. But it was based around big chunks of really solid live performance… which is why it retained its live feel. These new tracks were basically a punched-together patchwork quilt of percussive puzzle pieces. Trying to make the shit drum machine-perfect sterilized the hardcore groove factor right out of it. So tragic.
Getting through “round one” was an around-the-clock proposition of nerve-shattering patience, dogged perseverance, and a sort of mental warfare. And it seemed to have no end. Mercifully, though, we “officially” finished drum tracks late one evening, to the euphoric relief of all parties involved. We made it! There were hugs and back-slaps. And although I felt like we had sacrificed a lot of the spontaneous, live-drummer-in-a-big-room magic we initially captured before this insanity began, I was still elated. And starting early the next morning, I had just enough time to drive the old Ford van all the way back to Houston for the Christmas holidays. Life was good, and all was well.
Or so I thought….
Friends, I hate to have to bookmark it here, but this shit is getting long! Stay tuned for more torture… including not one but two more complete rounds of tracking; behind the scenes impressions on guitar solos and vocals; the cruel and tragic irony of this entire process; and my personal response to the most enduring question I get about these hellish sessions: “Why?”
In case you missed the first entry of this series, here it is: