Jack Douglas: Lennon, Aerosmith and Beyond

john lennon

CultureSonar readers will probably be most familiar with producer Jack Douglas for his work on John Lennon’s Double Fantasy, although there’s more to his career than that. We caught up with him to discuss Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, and his current projects. For example, Silverplanes’ Airbus will be out on April 5th via Make Records and Universal Music Group.

CS:  How did you discover Silverplanes?

JD: Well, when my son was going to college in San Francisco he became friends with Aaron Smart. My son is in the same business as I am, but he’s at a different end of it. Anyway, when he came back to Los Angeles, as he was establishing himself, I asked him what studios were like. He said, “You should try this studio: it’s really well equipped, and it’s on Sunset Blvd, at the back of the Hollywood Athletic Club.” I went there, and it had beautiful rooms, great microphones, so I booked time in there. The owner was Aaron Smart, the leader of Silverplanes. I worked there, and sometime later my son called me and said, “You know that guy, Aaron Smart? He’s a super talented writer and singer; you should listen to his stuff.” So, at the time I was living on Johnny Depp’s estate in West Hollywood, so I said [to Smart], “Come over.” Joe Perry and I were both living in houses that Johnny owned, on his estate. Aaron came over and played some of his tunes. I said, “Great, I’d love to do this.”

CS: You’ve worked with Silverplanes and Aerosmith. I want to know how they approach things differently in the studio.

JD: Oh, completely different. Aerosmith, you’re working with icons. Such a different scene. Aerosmith are pampered, and they’re rock & roll stars; very different. But I’ve been working with them since before they were stars, so they can’t pull that on me, because I’ll cut to the chase. I know them too well for that. [Whereas] a band like Silverplanes, it’s get down, and do the business, because you have to be economical, and want to get the work done. A band like Aerosmith can do things over and over as you like; you have the option of throwing away things that you don’t like, even though you’ve spent a day or two recording them. Quite different, and it’s funny because working with John Lennon never felt like he needed to be pampered. It was very easy to work with him. Some “rock stars” can be difficult to work with, but I never considered John Lennon to be like that.

CS:  On the topic of Lennon, I’d like to ask you about “I’m Losing You.” I prefer the version he did with Cheap Trick to the one on the Double Fantasy album because it has added depth and grit. Why wasn’t it used on the album?

JD: It’s funny because I brought in Rick Nielsen. Rick and Cheap Trick were in Montserrat with George Martin, who I was very good friends with. I called up George and said, “You’ve got my guys down there, and I have your guy here in New York. Can I borrow my guys?”  I got Rick and Bun E. to come over. It was my own kind of fantasy that Cheap Trick would be the ideal backup band for John. I thought I would get this idea in his head by bringing up Rick and Bun E. Carlos, and it’s very edgy. They really enjoyed playing with each other and had a wonderful time; Tony Levin was on bass. However, when it was done, we listened to it and though we all loved it, we felt it didn’t fit in the context of the whole record. Suddenly, that would leap out in a different way. So, I played the Cheap Trick version to the band that recorded the whole album. They played along with it, and played along with it, to get the feel of the track. I kept putting the song lower in their headphones before I eventually took it out. We got the feel, but not the ferocity. But I knew the Cheap Trick version would be available, somewhere and somehow.

CS: I rate that version over the more conventional arrangement. It’s got the Plastic Ono Band DNA in it.

JD: Exactly, and that’s somewhere we didn’t want to go. When John and I discussed the philosophy of doing the record, he made it clear to me: “I know how hard you love me to rock, but that’s not what this album is about.” There was a phrase we used back then called “MOR” music: middle-of-the-road music. That’s what he wanted the album to be. An adult record meant for people between the ages of thirty-five and sixty. The people who had come up with him on the whole Beatle ride from 1963 to the late 1970s. He wanted them to know this was music being made by a middle-aged man reflecting on where he was, so he didn’t want it to be bombastic.

CS: I’m in a minority in that I gravitate to Yoko Ono’s tracks on Double Fantasy more than Lennon’s. She wrote some fantastic work.

JD: Yeah, and there I could allow her to be as edgy as she wanted to be. I had worked with her on a few albums. We developed a really good working relationship: Yoko and me. Almost on everything I worked on Double Fantasy with Yoko, I worked without John being there.

CS: Now, that’s news to me.

JD: Absolutely! He was more critical of her, so if she sang a little flat, he would point that out, and she would become insecure. He was more of a perfectionist when it came to her than he was with himself. With himself, he would say, “Make it louder in the mix, and they’ll think I did it on purpose.” But with her, he would be insecure already about what she was doing. So if I worked with her, it just gave her the freedom to do what she was going to do. And the band was totally receptive to that. I told Yoko when I first started working with her in the early 1970s: “I don’t care if you want to play piano from inside, or from outside. It doesn’t matter to me; you’re an artist.” And that culminated when we got to working on “Walking On Thin Ice” which is an amazing piece of work.

CS: Possibly her finest hour.

JD: John thought so too! That was the plan: Yoko would be so recognized for her contributions to music, and the art of music. He said the next record would just be “The Boys” and I understood “The Boys” being John, Paul, and George being the back-up for Ringo. They were just going to be sidemen.

CS: That makes sense: The Ringo (1973) album featured the other three as sidemen.

JD: That was the plan. The plan was to finish the work that became Milk and Honey and get on with something new. There was also a tour planned, with both Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey.

CS: Some of the tracks really hold up – “I’m Stepping Out” could have been recorded last year!

JD: We had so much material. John had sent some demos, with everything from “Real Love” to all those tunes that came out later. They were all on his cassettes. Most of them came from Bermuda. They had dialogue on them, which was fun. He would introduce the song: “The same ol’ crap.” Or he would say, “This one is for Richard Starkey.” Not that long ago – maybe two years ago – I said to Richard, because he likes to be called Richard, “Have you ever heard a cassette with John saying that these songs are for you?” He said he hadn’t. I had my cassette flown out to Los Angeles, and I made a CD for him. I gave it to him, and the next time I saw him he said he was crying because it was so beautiful. I said “Grow Old With Me” would be perfect for Richard, and I’ll do it for free, the string arrangements and everything. He said, “Let me think about it.” And then he called me the next day and said, “Let’s do it.” Paul McCartney is playing bass on it, Richard’s brother-in-law [Joe Walsh] played guitar, and it was done in his studio at Beverly Hills. It’s Barbara [Bach]’s favorite Ringo song.

CS: Is it?

JD: He discovered sometime later that all four Beatles are on that track. I’ll tell you how: John wrote it. Ringo’s playing drums, and singing. Paul’s doing back-up vocals and playing bass. In the string arrangements, I put a George Harrison song in there. So, all four are there.

CS: Which Harrisong was it?

JD: I’m not going to tell you [laughs]. You should listen, and you’ll find it. Once you hear it, it’s very obvious.

hair of rock merch

CS: Talk to me about Cheap Trick. How did your path cross with theirs?

JD: I had relatives and in-laws, in Waukesha, Wisconsin,  twenty miles west of Milwaukee. I was visiting there, and my brother-in-law said to me, “There is going to be a cool band playing in the bowling alley tonight.” “Who?” I said. “Cheap Trick.” I had heard of Cheap Trick before because I had picked up a publicity pack that was sent to me by their manager. They had been bouncing around for a year, or so, with no deal. I went to see them, and they were in a bowling alley lounge, and it was packed. I mean, you couldn’t squeeze another person. And they were incredibly fantastic, more like a carnival show than just a rock show. It was really entertaining, and the music was incredible! This combination here: Two beautiful guys, an accountant on drums, and a maniac playing guitar who looked like one of the Dead End Kids. Their live performance was better than any demo I had heard. And I said: “I want to get you guys a deal, and I want to produce you.” I called my friend at Epic Records because I had a pretty good reputation. I said, “If you don’t sign this act, I’ll bring them to RCA.” He heard them, and Cheap Trick was signed within two weeks. Then, we went in and did the first album, and I’ve been close to them since. They’re like family, like Aerosmith are family to me.

CS: Do any of the Aerosmith albums jump above the others for you?

JD: Yes: Rocks is absolutely my favorite.

CS: That’s my favorite one, too.

JD: Yeah. It comes the closest. You know, I like a record to have truth in it, and it’s hard to describe what truth is in a record. We recorded that in a warehouse, which was their rehearsal space; a big, giant warehouse. When Aerosmith come in, they come in with very little material. It’s not like they don’t have material: they have ideas, bits and bobs. They’ll have a riff, [but] no melody lines, no lyrics, nothing. They’d been on the road, and when they’re on the road, they don’t write on the road, so it’s pretty tough. They were just a year out on the record, so it was time to come in and do this record from scratch. We started rehearsing in this big space. Every day, I would come in early, and drop a rug on the wall, bring a piece of furniture in. It was over-stuffed, but I would do everything I could to make it easier to work in the room, it was so huge. So loud, and so ambient, and I kept stuffing things in until I got the room to sound good. The keys of the songs became dependent on the room itself. Without knowing it, we were writing to the room, and I think that brings a certain truth to what you’re doing. That’s a ferocious record, and I said, “Let’s stay here and record.” I brought a remote truck up and parked it in the garage. It was the middle of winter in Massachusetts. And we just recorded where everything was set up for rehearsal, and by playing it once. We did vocals in New York, but the tracks we recorded [in the warehouse].

CS: It’s the closest I’ve come to an American Led Zeppelin album.

JD: Yeah, yeah. I think so too. I love how it starts. “Back In The Saddle”: we were talking about the track, and Steven [Tyler] was looking for some inspiration, and what that song should be. I said, “It’s got to be the first song on the record, and I want you to think of this song when you’re writing the lyrics.” I sang him a Gene Autry song [“Back in the Saddle Again”]. It was a country song, and he got the point. He’d sit on a stairwell with his headphones on a cassette, and he would just play the track over and over again. He was very fast when he was inspired.

CS: Do you think Aerosmith will release another album?

JD: No, I don’t think so. They haven’t really written an album in a long time. You kind of lose the mojo, I guess; it’s hard. Back then, the drugs were working, and no one was fucked up. They were still young and hungry. They’re still capable. Look at Joe Perry, he’s still out there, and we did a record together called Sweetzerland Manifesto. We had everyone on that one: Terry Reid, Robin Zander. Everybody came by, and it was fun because Johnny Depp was co-producing. We were in his studio, which was between my house and Joe’s on the estate. And of course, Joe goes out as [part of the] Hollywood Vampires. He was expecting to go out with Aerosmith, you know; he likes to work.

CS: Joe Perry looks like the youngest of the band members.

JD: Because he’s got the fire! Joe’s the most dangerous guitar player I ever worked with, because he would just go for it, and I would never stop him. He would go off into another key, and that was fine.

CS: Do Silverplanes allow for such instrumental exercises?

JD: Absolutely. We don’t plan everything out, and we don’t even know where we are going sometimes. We know what the basic chords are, but we like to experiment and to save everything.

CS: Are they working on a follow-up?

JD: Yeah: Four or five songs, and all they need are vocals. We have a lot of material. We have the stuff we did with Geoff Emerick; that was quite a treat.

CS: What was he like? I’ve heard he could be changeable.

JD: Really fun to work with. It was so upsetting because he died so suddenly. He was not a technical engineer. If it sounded right, that’s what he did. I liked that philosophy when I was engineering.

CS: McCartney worked with him for decades.

JD: Geoff always spoke highly of Paul, but he said to me, “I wish I knew the John you knew.” He knew a very impatient, harsh, and a bit bitter John, while I knew a chilled-out John. Although I saw the other side during Imagine: impatience. He could be tough, but if you stayed ahead of him, which I did, he liked that. I could read him pretty well.

CS: Did you ever work with McCartney on a face-to-face level?

JD: No, just his contributions to “Grow Old With Me.” I’d like to work with him. “Beautiful Boy” is his favorite John song.

CS: Last question: What is it about Silverplanes that will attract them to fans in Europe and America?

JD: If you like really good rock. Not metal, but melodic, well-made music, you’ll like it. It’s very English-influenced, and it’s very good.

-Eoghan Lyng

Photo: John Lennon in 1980 (Getty Images)

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6 comments on “Jack Douglas: Lennon, Aerosmith and Beyond

  1. Padraig Ryan

    The Harrison song is “Here Comes The Sun”. It’s not subtle!

  2. John Smistad

    Really nice forth & back with Jack, mate. & thanks for the intro to Silverplanes. Quite like ’em! Puts one in the place of Australia’s Silverchair mixing it up with America’s Gin Blossoms for me, it does.

  3. Eoghan Lyng

    I like what I have heard of the band.

    Gracias por leer

  4. Steven Valvano

    Eoghan, another great interview….for this one, you really got him talking (and he seemed to be enjoying himself) Well done!

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