In Part 1 of Welcome to Hell, we talked in great detail about the behind-the-scenes particulars of the Vinnie Vincent Invasion debut recording. We also talked about the excruciating process of having my drum tracks endure a beat-by-beat analysis against a drum machine reference track, under the watchful eyes and ears of one very meticulous Mr. Vincent. But, we managed to end on a high note, as we (seemingly) finished up drum tracks right before Christmas break ’85, and I headed back home to Texas for the holidays.
In Part 2, we pick up where we left off and return to the fire for more punishment…
Tracking Madness – Round 2
After the holiday break, things were quiet out west. I was to hang out in Houston until the record was in the can, then we would talk about me coming back out to LA for the album cover photos and all the pre-release promo stuff. Things were cool and casual… until that fateful phone call from Dana Strum just a couple weeks into the new year.
“Uh…. Bobby. Uh… there have been some new developments regarding the drum tracks.”
My heart jumped up into my throat.
“Shit. Like what?”
He then proceeded to tell me about the manic number of hours that he, Mikey and Vinnie had been putting into this “new” drum track direction since I split. He had not wanted to call me any sooner than he had to.
Apparently, after I went home and they began tracking guitar solos, Vinnie started hearing things again… namely kick drums and snares, “out of sync” with the drum machine. How this was possible, given the amount of effort we all had just put into making things “perfect,” I’ll never know. But there these guys were, spending untold more days and nights in the studio, massacring these perfectly good tracks with a new protocol. This involved sampling my kick and snare sounds, then selectively allowing the drum machine to “override” my drum tracks in those select places where Vinnie felt like the drums were off. From there, as I recall, they ended up deferring to the machine kick and snare for most of the groove sections, but they kept all of my original fills from round one! This became problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which was how my original hi-hat, ride and crash parts were lining up with the “new” kick and snare parts.
Bottom line? Dana said it was time for me to jump on a flight and head back out to LA so I could redo all of my hi-hat, ride and crash parts. We would use mainly drum machine kick and snare in the groove sections, but keep all the original fills. What the fuck?
When I asked about the airline ticket situation, Dana very diplomatically said something about, “Ya know.. it’s been difficult getting through this… everyone’s pretty fried… I think we all need to pull together and just do what we gotta do…” etc. Translation? Pay for your own motherfuckin’ plane ticket and get out here asap, and let’s make this thing right before Vinnie fires your ass!
I would never know exactly how close Vinnie may or may not have been to this, but I wasn’t about to find out. So I had to go back to Keith Karnaky at The Drum Shop to borrow all of those cymbals again, and make up some lame excuse about how we needed to “tweak some more parts” or something. Then I got my ass back to LA within a day or two.
I’ll never forget the dread I felt on that brisk LA morning when Dana and Mikey picked me up curbside near where I was staying to go back to the studio. “Didn’t we already go through this once?” they joked, as I got in the car. Then on the way back to Baby-O, they told me all about the lunacy they had been up to the past few weeks. Sounded like an even bigger nightmare than before. But I still couldn’t get an accurate read on how Vinnie was feeling about me… especially since Dana was trying to downplay things, saying something about how Vinnie realized this drum machine approach was what we should’ve done all along.
But when we got settled in at the studio and Vinnie showed up shortly thereafter, it was a much more tense vibe than I could have anticipated.
“Do you have any idea how much money you’ve cost me,” was the first thing he said to me, eyes glaring through glittery blue eye shadow
I didn’t even know how to respond. I think I said something stupid like, “But the fills were okay, right?”
“Yeah, but you can’t make a record on fills alone!” he replied.
And so, we began again. This time, I was sitting in a standard tracking room with hi-hat and cymbals only, playing along with some whacked-out hybrid tracks comprised of both real and drum machine grooves, plus my original live fills. Super bizarre. And yes, my hi-hat and ride cymbal accompaniments would fall under the same laser scrutiny that we went through last time, except in a much more strained and toxic atmosphere.
At one point during this round two process, things got so overbearingly analytical, it was becoming hard to discern what we were even hearing anymore. “Wait… is that fourth snare a bit off? Was that an original snare, or a drum machine replacement snare? Didn’t we already replace it? Wait, play it back again. No, that snare’s okay… but the one before it is a little rushed, isn’t it? Shit… Mikey, play it one more time.” We were all starting to lose it.
I remember one time we were trying to replace a snare that Vinnie insisted was off. But when Dana went to punch, the machine didn’t go into record for some reason, so nothing had actually been “fixed.” Kevin, our second, noticed this and was just about to blurt out that the punch didn’t happen. But Dana shot him a shut-the-fuck-up glare that would’ve had Mike Tyson cowering under the console, and he remained quiet. Then Dana calmly rolled the tape back for Vinnie, knowing nothing had changed, and hit play. Sure enough, Vinnie said, “That’s better. Let’s move on.” Everyone quietly shook their heads, knowing that we had officially stepped off into a backwards-ass abyss of Twilight Zone insanity. Anything could happen at that point.
These were dark days in the studio… especially since I felt like my drumming “incompetence” had driven us to this unorthodox way of trying to piece together acceptable drum tracks. Once again, though, my studio allies (Dana and Mikey at this point), helped me keep a perspective as we just put our heads down and got it done.
After a week or so, we finally completed this second round of tracking to little fanfare. There wasn’t really any sort of celebratory tone in finishing; we were all burnt to a crisp. And while Vinnie seemed cool with things, the rest of us were quietly regretful that the original, bad-ass theater recordings were just a memory, and instead, we now had these fucking patchwork, mishmash tracks that were a shadow of what they should’ve been. But, we were all living in a sort of technological haze of denial, justifying the outcome as “contemporary” Def Leppard-esque tracks… which was quite a stretch. (A poor man’s Def Leppard, maybe, but not nearly as cool.)
Early Faces mag article
So I flew back to Houston, returned my big ol’ heavy bag of cymbals to Keith Karnaky at The Drum Shop, then settled into a light depression, post this extremely disillusioning experience. Again, I was supposed to just hang out and wait for them to finish lead vocals, guitar solos, backgrounds, and mixing, and then at some point in the spring, head on back for all of the promo activity. But it was a rough couple weeks for me mentally. Everyone tried to pass it off as “the modern approach to recording that we should have taken all along,” but I wasn’t buying it. The shit we did the first time around was fucking epic. I was sure Dana and Mikey agreed, as well.
And as it turned out, so would our manager, George Sewitt.
Tracking Madness – Round 3
Some time in early February ’86, George came out west from NY to meet with the LA label folks and check up on our progress. Remember, this was pre-Internet and pre-digital files, so, short of coming down to the studio, the only way to let someone hear something was to mail them a cassette tape. At this point, George hadn’t heard any music beyond some of our initial tracks from round one… although he had heard plenty of crazy studio stories from Strum in the form of nightly updates via telephone, after Vinnie went home each evening.
Once George hit LA, they sat him down in the control room and started playing him some of our latest roughs.
“What the fuck happened to the drums?” he asked. “This sounds like dogshit!”
And after a spirited but brief debate, that was it: I was about to get the phone call I could’ve only dreamed of receiving.
“Uh…. Bobby. Uh… there have been some new developments regarding the drum tracks,” Dana said, but in a much more relaxed tone than last time.
“What the hell? What now?” I asked.
“Well, my man,” Dana continued, “it appears that everyone else hates this new drum track direction. Sewitt flipped, and now Mr. Vincent has had a change of heart about things. We’ll need for you to head back out and do these tracks the right way… all over again.”
“You’re shittin’ me!”
“Nope. And Chrysalis will be picking up your flight this time, that’s for damn sure!” Dana said.
“Holy Mother of Christ! Are you serious?”
“Yes! Go round up your cymbals, pack your shit, and get your ass back out here!” he said.
I got off the phone in a daze. I simply didn’t know how to process this double injection of vindication and dread. The upside? I get to redo drums! The downside? I get to redo drums! Ultimately, I saw it as a way to right the wrong of what went down with this round two bullshit. I was a man possessed.
I was also a man who had to, once again, go back to Keith Karnaky at The Drum Shop and ask to borrow all those cymbals yet again. This time, I leveled with him and told him about the “back-alley abortion” we had been through up to this point in the recording process, and how I had the chance to make things right this time. As usual, K.K. was the coolest, and he let me walk with all of those cymbals one last time.
Three days later, I’m back in LA, walking into Baby-O Studios. I saw Mikey and Dana in the control room and we all just laughed. It was one of those rare times in life where the overall absurdity level of a situation negated anything you could possibly express about it. Fortunately, though, there would be a noticeably lighter vibe in the air this time.
Vinnie and Dana from our first tour…
When Vinnie showed up a bit later, there was absolutely no attempt at any sort of explanation or apology for this whole thing. Nor did I expect any, really. I believe he said something philosophical about how we probably should’ve stayed with our “first instinct” or something to that effect, and that was it. Nothing more was ever said between us about the crazy twists and turns we encountered recording drums on the first VVI record.
Later that afternoon, I found myself behind the drums, back in that drafty old theater downstairs. Mark Edwards was there. The Yamaha drums were there. Most of those mics were there. The PA feed up in Studio B, however, was not there, because that studio had since been locked out by George Clinton. Nonetheless, we were going to do our best to replicate the way things were the first time around.
And we did… our best, that is. I remember we were all happy just to get all live drums back on this thing. But, at this point, we were way over-budget on the drums, and also, we had a ticking clock with regard to how long we could be in the theater. Things were a bit more rushed. Also, it seems like there was some weirdness regarding keeping some of the initial fills or something, I don’t exactly recall. So, while we did go back to live grooves, it was never going to be quite as cool and spontaneous as it was the first time through.
And yes, Vinnie was still on board with plenty of drum machine obsessing, and this dragged shit out. In fact, I remember running out of time in the theater before we could get to “Boyz Are Gonna Rock.” Or maybe, it was that Vinnie decided he was unhappy with our round three version of it. In any case, the final version of “Boyz” happened with the drums set up in the main studio tracking room upstairs, with a whacked combo of grooves from this final round three session and some of the original fills left intact (since they still sounded so monstrous). Tragic… but indeed, we had finally crossed the Rubicon.
Moving On (and Initial Impressions)
At this point, we were back in celebration mode. Drums truly were done! Along the way, the guys had been making more headway with solos and lead vocals, both of which were turning out incredible. I’ll never forget hearing some of Robert Fleischman’s vocal tracks, soloed in that control room; just his pipes and a mic, blasting through the monitors. Good God, that motherfucker could sing! (Still can, by the way.) It sounded like every syllable he sang was wrenched from the deepest part of his guts. And yet, there was an effortlessness, an ease, and a bone-rattling soulfulness about it all. The hair on my arms stood up as I listened, and his tracks on that record are still among my favorite from any title in that genre.
Meanwhile, Vinnie and Dana were putting together these crazy, off-the-hook solos that would cut through your skull like a chainsaw. When I first heard them, it was almost shocking… this sonic barrage of notes. There was notably more urgency and adventurousness in this round of solos, as opposed to the way Vinnie played on the original demos. It took a little getting used to, but yet, it was so in-your-face, we would just laugh when the playbacks were going down. Thirty years later – love him or hate him – no one, and I mean no one, can play like Vinnie Vincent. So you can imagine how we were feeling about these solos back then. It was unprecedented. There was no one around to even compare him to.
Still, if I’m being candid, I think even then I preferred the direction of his original demo solos. They seemed to breathe a bit more. They still had a lot of his frantic, signature shred elements, but those passages were interwoven with more bluesy, soulful licks which, to my ears, made for more musical solos. But, as I alluded to earlier, the Dana Strum Punching Extravaganza capability gave Vinnie a wide-open canvas to string together these crazy clusters of notes to his heart’s desire, and he went apeshit with it.
Don’t get me wrong; I still love his playing on the album. The first VVI remains my go-to record if I want to strap on the headphones and annihilate some brain cells with unmercifully over-the-top guitars and first-rate arena rock anthems. It’s just that he was such a multi-dimensional player – so seasoned and accomplished in so many ways – that I think it would’ve been more true to his whole trip had he visited all of those dimensions in his soloing. (This “less is more” commentary is brought to you by a guy who would go on to release a 20-minute drum solo on a double-live CD, so… what the hell do I know?)
Once I settled back into the slower pace of life back home in Houston, it was hurry up and wait… times ten. Man, things took forever: The rest of the tracking. The mixes. The mastering. On and on it went. I would touch base with the guys by phone from time to time, and everyone’s spirits were up, but I simply could not get any of these motherfuckers to send me some mixes. It was killing me. I would’ve severed my left testicle with a butter knife just to hear a rough mix of something complete. I would hound Strum about this, and he would assure me that something would be “in the mail” shortly. But after days of waiting for the mailman to turn up with a cassette, I would call Dana back only to get more excuses about how he hadn’t had time to drop me something… but he would soon. It was almost as if he didn’t want me to hear the final mixes.
Finally, our day of reckoning arrived late spring/early summer. Dana was flying out to Houston to catch up with Sweet Savage, a band he had produced, who were playing a show at a local club. I had arranged to pick his ass up at the airport and, naturally, he would have to play something for me now. Hell, the record was already mixed and mastered; there was no way out of it. So… he gets in the van, cues up the tape to “Twisted” (which would turn out to have one of the heavier drum mixes on the record), and blasts the shit out of it until the speakers were distorting. Truth is, he was, shall we say, reluctant to have me hear these mixes. Why? Because the guitars had been mixed so unbearably hot, and the drums so comparatively low, that he figured I would flip out. But actually, playing “Twisted” first was a wise move, even though I found it odd at the time. The featured tom parts sounded present and punchy, and that tune had some of the most intense drum work from all the sessions. Everything else on the track was bangin’, as well, and this put me in a favorable mindset to hear the whole record. I was thrilled. (A clever guy, that Mr. Strum!)
At some point thereafter, though, I would play my cassette copy of the album on various systems, for various people, at various volumes, and it became evident in a hurry that there were issues with the final mix. Among other things, the guitars were crazy loud, and many key drum parts, particularly some of the more intricate fills, were way down in the mix. In fact, I could barely discern some of what I played, and I was the one who actually played the shit!
Plus, something was lost in translation with regard to the drum “performance” aspect of the tracks. I was beating the shit out of those drums in a huge room, delivering good performances, and even our initial playback in the control room revealed that. The grooves were thumpin’ and the takes were sounding massive – right on the two-inch tape, raw as hell. I just knew that once they did their post-production magic to everything, we would have some world-class sounding tracks on our hands. But such was not the case. Even to this day, the drum mix is actually my least favorite part of the debut record.
And this leads us to the most tragic punchline of all: Given all we went through to record those drum tracks, the fact that they wound up being such an inconsequential aspect of the mix is truly a devastating irony.
This is still, to this day, a tough pill for me to choke down.
Still have a great deal of sentiment around this record…
The Big Why?
It’s no secret that Vinnie has been regarded through the years as somewhat of a “problem child” in the industry, both in his dealings with Kiss, and also with the Invasion. I can’t speak to the Kiss situation, for obvious reasons. I’ve heard a lot about those dealings from Vinnie, and a little from Gene and, well, who knows what the real truth is there.
As for this debut album studio nightmare, the story has been recounted numerous times through the years, and for those who already have an impression that Vinnie is some kind of incorrigible asshole, this story provides excellent kindling. Accordingly, I’ve had countless fans and friends through the years ask me, in all earnestness, “Is Vinnie Vincent really a dick?”
And my answer remains: No. I would not characterize him that way at all.
So then how does one explain the certifiable studio insanity we all endured? Surely, that was the work of a narcissistic madman, looking to impose his evil will on a young musician, perhaps as some sort of subconscious response to the “evil will” that was undoubtedly imposed upon him by Gene and Paul, right?
Truthfully… I never saw it that way, although I’m sure one could attempt to make some kind of case around this. I mean, he did seem pretty adamant that I change my name, in the same way that the Kiss guys were supposedly adamant that he change his. And apparently, the Kiss guys wielded a lot of control over him in the studio in terms of what and how he played, and this was what he appeared to be doing with me.
Still… I never felt like that was the case; even to this day.
How about some kind of OCD type vibe as an explanation? Nowadays, we think nothing of diagnosing folks with some form of this. But back then, it wasn’t largely talked about, and we were all far less familiar with it. One could make a case that his behavior had all the classic symptoms. It’s like the guy who can’t leave his house until he knows that all the soup cans are facing label-out in the pantry… and then he has trouble leaving the house without going back and checking on the soup cans multiple times before he actually leaves. Here, Vinnie appeared to have an obsession with the tracks being perfect against the machine, and I know there are maybe a few “behind the scenes” things that a few of us there were privy to that might support this case.
Still… while it might be a behavioral match, I’m less inclined to write it off as a “clinical” syndrome.
To me, it was an issue of greater complexity than any of us will ever know – including Vinnie himself, in my opinion – but here’s my best explanation:
The man was simply a perfectionist who was trying to create an oil painting with watercolors. He was wanting to hear these triggered, programmed-sounding Mutt Lange-style drums du jour, when we were set up to deliver more of a classic, raw, acoustic-drums-in-a-big-room-with-a-live-drummer-bashing kind of thing. But… none of us really knew this at the time.
Consider the context. Up until the early 80s, virtually everything had live drums on it. Pop, rock, soul, even disco. But Vinnie was someone who liked all kinds of music, and I knew he listened to a lot of the standard pop stuff from the mid-80s, as well. (Forever a student of good songwriting, no matter the genre.) At the same time, Vinnie was a serious player, and he appreciated serious musicianship. So I think Vinnie was having trouble finding a balance between these two opposing concepts: he loved the modern, rock-solid, big drum approach of either programmed or programmed-sounding drums; but he also loved a drummer who could play a bunch of crazy shit, as well. So these sessions were largely about Vinnie trying to reconcile these two concepts… without really knowing he was trying to reconcile them.
To what extent we were all equipped to fully be able to reconcile these counter concepts – technology-wise or otherwise – will forever be unknown. We certainly did the best we could with what we had.
As for me, if I’ve come across at any point in these writings as a whiny little bitch who felt victimized by a mean Mr. Vincent… hey, “don’t cry for me, Argentina.” I’m the better musician for having endured the rigors of those sessions, especially for my maiden voyage into major label recording. I’ve had plenty of tough days of studio recording since, but nothing – and I mean nothing – compared to the first VVI record. And I regret nothing… well, except maybe that there was never any documentation of that original, untouched version of “I Wanna Be Your Victim.” But seriously, it’s all good.
A full-circle moment with Lita Ford band-mate, Patrick Kennison,
on Kiss Kruise V, Halloween night, 2015
A final question I get from time to time: Would I ever work with Vinnie Vincent again? My answer? A few prerequisite inquiries aside… hell yes. Vinnie Vincent is a bad motherfucker, and truly bad motherfuckers are almost as extinct these days as the main man himself.
Beyond this agonizing first album recording odyssey, the only other time I felt like things were really coming off the rails was when Vinnie thought Dana Strum, Mark Slaughter and I were pulling a band mutiny on him, and he had a shyster of a manager standing nearby, whispering in his ear, looking to run off with a big pot of money. This was all going down during our final tour; an apocalyptic summer of the most dysfunctional shenanigans I have ever heard of in the biz.
But that, my friends, is, of course… another story.
In case you missed part one, here it is:
* * * * *
And here’s the first memoir of this VVI series about my audition experience:
Thanks for reading…