Rick Rubin – Heavy Metal Alchemist
A companion piece to the Our House blog posted a few days ago, this one’s by Joe.
We’re up in Laurel Canyon. Chris is getting excited about Joni Mitchell and CSNY, while my reference points are a little more contemporary …
The music that moves Chris fills a canyon. Laurel Canyon, to be precise – the location for today’s film shoot with Terra. But the magical musical spot for me in this part of Los Angeles is somewhat smaller. It’s a house. Well, a mansion really, built in 1918 and owned at one time by Harry Houdini. There’s a lot of security around it, and it looks tricky to get into to. (But presumably there’s a hidden key somewhere nearby so that you can pick the locks without anyone in the audience knowing.)
The Houdini Mansion is now owned by Rick Rubin, a man who has shaped my – and, chances are, your – music collection. On the one hand, Rubin’s achievements in music are so extraordinary that he, more than anyone else in the field, is deserving of the prefix ‘a man who needs no introduction’. On the other, he is such an enigma, and his work so mysterious, that an introduction is precisely what he needs.
Frederick Jay ‘Rick’ Rubin, was born on March 10th, 1963 in New York and started growing a beard on March 11th. Whilst serving in high school band The Pricks he founded a record label and gave it the rather magnificent name of Def Jam Recordings. In 1984 he met an entrepreneur called Russell Simmons and Def Jam evolved into the most exciting and dynamic record label on the planet. With Rubin handling much of the production work, as well as the A&R (‘artist and repetoire’ in record company speak – ‘person who says “don’t record that song it’s crap, do record that song it’s good” in normal speak), Def Jam signed LL Cool J, Public Enemy, and Beastie Boys. Walk This Way? Yep – that was Rick’s idea. Hell, he’s even responsible for The Bangles’ version of Hazy Shade Of Winter, one of the greatest cover versions of all time.
Having pretty much brought hip–hop to the mainstream – not a shabby first day in the office – he fell out of love with Def Jam, moved to LA and founded Def American Recordings. Which is where he decided to reinvent heavy metal. Rock music was in good health at this point; Metallica, Anthrax, Maiden, Guns ‘N’ Roses were all having considerable success, so the genre wasn’t crying out for a new dimension. Clearly no–one told Rick. Or for that matter Slayer, a band noted for their recurrent themes of death, deviance, warfare, suicide, religion, necrophilia, satanism and nazism. Cliff Richard’s a big fan. Impossibly loud, devastatingly thrashing, and staggeringly technically accomplished their masterwork, their first album with Rubin, is called Reign In Blood. It’s a classic.
So, having done rap and metal (oh, and having completed an Aerosmith revival by producing the brilliant Permanent Vacation album – so that’s rock ticked off as well), he turned to the fusion of genres being peddled by sock–sporting funk–rock chancers the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Which is where the Houdini Mansion comes in. You see, Rick’s vision for them involved recording at his new gaff in LA. The subsequent record, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, beat the sales and acclaim of anything the band or Rubin had produced before. No matter what the hip sneery journos might say, Blood Sugar is a masterpiece. From the mono AM radio-style opening of The Power Of Equality, through the world–dominating Under The Bridge, all the way to the Charleston skip of They’re Red Hot it’s a record of impeccable musicianship, ingenious production and truly awful lyrics.
When I first heard it I found it awkward and terribly long. Yet their tattooed, beachside ne–er do-well appeal prompted me to do something I had never done before. I tried harder to like it. So when the summer holiday came, I decided I would listen to one album and one album only, so that by the start of the school year I’d have a new favourite band. It worked. I planned to apply precisely this logic to item number one on my ‘to do’ list for the trip – learn to love the music of Gram Parsons. A month locked in a car with several albums and a Gram obsessive bleeting in my ear was sure to do the trick.
The Houdini Mansion has since been used as the studio for a range of records including such gems as Jay Z’s 99 Problems and The Mars Volta’s De–Loused In The Comatorium. It’s also rumoured to be haunted. Now I’m pretty sceptical about the whole haunting business, but there’s a big difference between a house that can scare, say, first lady of the paranormal Yvette Fielding, and a house that scares … Slipknot. That’s right – Iowa’s purveyors of finest thrash metal recorded at the house and to this day will not go back there, due to what Joey Jordison (the death mask–sporting, crown of thorns–wearing drummer) describes as ‘an unsettling incident in the basement’. The record they made there, The Subliminal Verses, is another of Rick’s gems, proving once again that he is a musical alchemist, turning the heaviest of metals into pure gold records.
Everyone owns a bit of Rubin somewhere. If at this point you’re thinking that you don’t, then I’d suggest a quick look at his discography and you’ll find that you probably do. Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie? Rubin. Sir Mixalot bottom–fetish anthem Baby Got Back? Rubin. System Of A Down? Rage Against The Machine? Weezer? Rubin. Lil Jon? Metaillca? ACDC? The Cult? Justin Timberlake? U2 … all Rick Rubin. Trust me, it goes on. And then there’s the reason I love Rick Rubin. Johnny Cash.
Today, Johnny Cash is venerated as one of the greats of American music. His dusty outlaw boom–chikka–boom tales are woven into the fabric of the country’s musical history. The mariachi horns of Ring Of Fire are as familiar to the American ear as the whistle of a distant freight train. They laughed along with A Boy Named Sue, cried along to Hurt, and broke into spontaneous applause when he said ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash’. But it wasn’t always this way. After commercial success in the 1960’s and TV success in the seventies, his star lost some of its shine, reaching its nadir with such country–lite nonsense as Chicken In Black (a song about having his brain put in a chicken – really). Shortly after that particular low point he left Columbia records and exited the mainstream. A little while later, enter Rick Rubin.
In 1993 Rick signed Johnny Cash to his Def American label, and a year later released an album comprising mostly covers, and pretty obscure ones at that. So starts the greatest last act in rock and roll history. Entitled American Recordings, the record reminded listeners of one thing – that Johnny Cash was a singer of songs without equal.
In the ten years that followed, Johnny Cash would release another three albums in this vein, each one providing a mix of gospel, country, and ingenious covers. Much has been written about his rendition of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt, and its quietly devastating video. But for me Johnny Cash did one thing that no one else on the planet could. He made country music sound great. In his hands, with his voice, it no longer sounded like shit–kicking, cousin–shagging fairground music – it was soaring and graceful, evocative and warm. That’s why Johnny Cash is the only country artist I love. And that’s why I love Rick Rubin.
So I was looking for a mansion. Chris was looking for a bungalow.
Watch a short video about our Laurel Canyon trip here. Excerpted from Live Fast, Die Young: Misadventures in Rock & Roll America by Chris Price and Joe Harland. If you’d like to find out more, please visit the Missing Parsons website. You can join the Missing Parsons community on Facebook here.