I recently interviewed Chip Douglas who produced numerous hit records in the 1960s, including "Happy Together" and "Elenore" for The Turtles, as well as "Daydream Believer," "Pleasant Valley Sunday," and several others for The Monkees.
Chip also produced the Monkees' multi-platinum album, “Headquarters,” which was recorded at a time when the group was struggling with the record label over the right to play the instruments on their own recordings.
I talked to Chip about how well he communicated and collaborated (or didn’t) with all the various people surrounding the project, and considering all the pressure from the record label, how he managed to produce a record that sold 12 million copies and is today considered , “One of the 1001 albums you must listen to in your lifetime.”
TS: What are the responsibilities of a producer on an album project like “Headquarters?”
CHIP: In the case of “Headquarters” I made sure everything was recorded properly and I was in charge of what tunes were recorded and how the arrangements went and for the end product basically. I was also responsible for the final mix, and making sure everyone was singing on key and did a good performance, and that the parts were played as well as possible with the maximum amount of feeling so we got a good take. Just someone to pull it all together, that’s what any producer does.
TS: How would you describe your style as a producer, as opposed to someone like Phil Spector with whom you worked in the 60s?
Chip: Producers like Phil got in the studio and broke out the champagne and the cocktails and got everybody loose and tried to get it all down on tape that way. I wasn’t into that exactly. I didn't make a party out of it. Mine was a pretty sober approach and I’m more of a serious sort of guy I guess. But in the case of the Monkees, we had our moments when we would relax and have fun and do things that were, you know, actually a means to getting the tunes recorded. We’d go out and buy a bunch of water pistols and have a water gun fight, stuff like that, just to relieve the tension of recording an album.
TS: What communication skills do you have that helped you work successfully with the Monkees?
Chip: I never thought of myself as a particularly great communicator, but all of us being the same age, we spoke a common language and understood each other just fine. I do listen back to some of the outtakes from “Headquarters” and think…you know if I were to do it all today, I’d have a much more easygoing way of communicating what I want…I wouldn’t get all wrapped up and all tense and sometimes when you’re going along, waiting for that take to be right and it makes you a little tense and you think: I hope they don’t blow up right there at that point but…yeah! That’s pretty good, so that’ll work. Like I say, I never had high marks in communication skills in college, although I won the storytelling contest in elementary school. [Laughs] I could do that if I had lines to read or something memorized, but that’s different. I’m an average communicator I would think. Getting better all the time.
TS: As you know, part of producing a record is being able to communicate to a lot of different types of creative people—engineers, technicians, different types of musicians, arrangers, etc. How did you manage to do that successfully?
Chip: As far as the engineer goes, he was pretty much doing the talking to me because when I started with the Monkees I didn’t know much about producing records. Like, as far as the sound goes, and how much bass drum you need, and how much EQ on this or that—I had no clue and was really in the dark, so I relied on Hank Cicalo (the recording engineer) to tell me what we needed to do to make it sound better instrumentally.
Of course, it’s a breeze to communicate when you’re working with studio musicians because they play session after session after session and they do it all day long. They have a very consistent sound and that’s why they’re the most popular. Studio musicians like drummers Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer—they knew how to tune their snares and make them sound good so when you put a mic on the bass drum and a mic on the snare, it sounded terrific.
But Micky (Dolenz) was a beginning drummer and he didn’t necessarily have consistent levels when he was hitting the snare, you know, sometimes it would be louder than the beat before, but…I’m getting off subject…what was the question? Communication? [Laughs] Anyway, there’s a lot of things you have to talk about when you’re making a record, figuring out how to make this better and where that guitar lick comes in, and so everybody’s talking to each other and working together.
TS: Was “Headquarters” the very first project you worked on with the Monkees?
Chip: Well, before “Headquarters” we did two songs before we actually launched into the pressure of the album, which I’m glad we did. I always felt the need to be in the studio playing something, which I was advised not to do by (TV producer) Bert Schneider. He said, “Don’t be in there playing with them! You’re going to lose control of the situation! You be the supervisor!” But that wasn’t as much fun for me. I liked to play. So I jumped in there on the bass and I felt I needed to do that to mold things together a little bit. It’s just a little easier for me to tell what’s a good take when I’m in there playing it, ‘cause I can feel it and go, “Oh, this is good!"
TS: Did that help the energy of the songs once you started recording the album?
Chip: It did, because everyone has a little option—Davy would be in there participating and saying things and trying to keep it together, and keeping the mood light. He was kind of a jokester, you know, cracking jokes and stuff—so it was worth having us all in there doing something together.
TS: "Headquarters" was your first album with the group and the first time The Monkees were out from under the record label's thumb. Did you feel Don Kirshner (Musical Director of The Monkees TV series) was hoping the project wouldn’t work out?
Chip: I never felt that exactly, but when I met with Don Kirshner for the first time at the Beverly Hills Hotel, he wanted to assure me he was calling the shots. That was one of the things he said, “The decisions as to what the boys will record, those will of course be my decisions.” I thought, Okay, fine, I’m just going with the flow here, I just got pulled into this and I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. And so he played me a few things he wanted to record with the guys and I specifically remember he played “Sugar Sugar” (a song later recorded by The Archies) and I thought, Oh my God, this is just too bubblegum for my taste, I can’t really do this…but I didn’t say anything. I just thought, Oh my God.
TS: At the time you were just 24 years old. You must have thought, “Well, Kirshner’s got a proven track record and I'm just this kid, basically.” How did you deal with that?
Chip: I was a little intimidated to tell you the truth. I mean, there was Don Kirshner and his lawyer, and they were putting the pressure on me to sign on for one and a half percent as opposed to two. His words were, “Well, I know most producers get two percent, two points, but we’re offering you a point and a half of the Beatles, buddy, so…that’s big!” I said, “I don't want to talk about this, you guys call my lawyer” and Don’s lawyer says to me, “Well, what’s his name? Let’s get him on the phone!” Typical Hollywood meeting, you know, “What’s his name? Let’s get him on the phone!” I said, “His name is Marty Cohen.“ “Marty Cohen? Let’s get him on the phone!” [Laughs]
TS: Did you take the songs to the group and then get a consensus, or did you make an executive decision?
Chip: The songs I definitely did not want them to do I put to the side, but all the ones I liked I took to them. Mike (Nesmith), of course, always had his songs that he’d want to do and he didn’t venture much of an opinion about the other songs. I specifically remember Davy, a song would come in and he’d say, “That’s good for me, man.” And he’d jump on it right away—“That’d be a good one for me!” And he was good about that…he would just pipe right up and say, “Yep! That’s me, I’ll do that.”
TS: Did you go into the studio with a pre-conceived sound in your head as to what the album needed to be?
Chip: I always had some idea of what I wanted to hear, but it wouldn’t always turn out the way I imagined it. In the case of a song I wrote called "Forget That Girl," Don Kirshner’s response to me after hearing it was, “Kinda has a bit of a negative message to it, don’tcha think?” and I was taken aback. I had never thought of it that way. I saw the song as advice to myself about a girl who happened to be my next-door neighbor—and she had a boyfriend that she was madly in love with and she also was close to me. But I knew it was never going to work out so I wrote this little song. You know, “Forget that girl, It’s never gonna work out…” That was the idea of it. I thought of it as a positive thing in my direction to, you know, relieve me of the sorrow that was going to come up later if I pursued this for very long. So I didn’t really know what to say, it shocked me when Kirshner said it was a negative song.
TS: Because the four Monkees worked together all the time on the set…did you feel like you were the newcomer to the studio?
Chip: I definitely felt like the new guy on the block. But we soon became friends and bonded heavily and it became a real labor of love. We painted the window of the control room and stuff like that. And every day we’d get there about eight in the morning and start into it and pretty soon we were just all a team and it was very comfortable.
TS: Did you have to communicate in a different way with Mike & Peter who were trained musicians as opposed to Micky and Davy, who had more of an acting background?
Chip: Micky and Davy were more easy going and pretty much went along with whatever I’d say. I’d argue with Peter now and then. I’d want it this way, and he’d want it that way, and we’d talk about it and…if I had a nickel for every time he’d just give up on the argument and say, “Chip, you’re the producer!” and then he’d walk away and that would be that, and I’d say, “Okay, well, we’ll do it this way, I guess.”
We did Mike’s stuff the way Mike wanted to do it, but he enjoyed putting his parts on whatever tune we were playing, especially on the “Headquarters” album. Later on, he got a little tired of it and wanted to do his own thing, but during “Headquarters” we were really all pulling together pretty heavy to make it a group effort.
TS: Did the four Monkees work with you on the mixing/mastering?
Chip: No, just Hank Cicalo and I did it. Too many opinions when you get too many guys in there, and everyone’s like, “Eh, I can’t hear myself.” You know, too many cooks.
TS: How different were The Doors’ recording sessions from The Monkees?
Chip: Recording sessions with rock and roll groups are pretty similar in various ways. You got four guys in there doing their thing and working it out and talking about it, you know, “Let’s do it this way or that way.” But The Doors had their stuff worked out onstage, so that’s the difference you know. The Monkees and “Headquarters,” that was all worked out in the studio, but The Doors, they had worked their tunes on the stage before they even got to the studio. I heard “Light My Fire” a dozen or more times at the Whisky a Go Go before it was ever a record. I was there every weekend watching them play it and I remember Robbie Krieger’s guitar solo and Manzarek’s keyboard solo were note for note, the same, every night. It wasn’t an ad-libbed thing. So I was very familiar with that whole tune before it became a record.
TS: So The Doors just went into the studio and documented what they had already created on stage?
Chip: Exactly. And the same thing is true for the Turtles and "Happy Together." We were on the road with that song and it went through some changes and we added that big “Bum, bum bum” part in the middle and all of that stuff while we were on the road and, you know, we felt it needed something there and so “Hey, let’s do this and that, and what about this part here? And you do that, and”… it evolved into something. So I can’t say enough about working your tunes out onstage first so that you really know what you’re doing when you go in the studio.
TS: Did you communicate with Linda Ronstadt as well as you did with the Monkees?
Chip: Well, we would fight and argue something terrible, because, first of all, we were sweethearts at the time so that conflicted with things. We were able to spend a lot of time together talking about things, but we had different ideas as to what she wanted to do and…today, if I were to teach a class on producing, I would say to every young guy who wants to be a producer, “You’re going to work with artists, and your job really is to do what they have envisioned. That’s your job, to get their vision down on tape. And if you can alter their vision with your opinion and make it a little better vision overall, well, great. But if they don’t want to do it that way, then you have to back off and say, okay, this is your record and we’ll just have to do it how you want to do it.”
But I just didn’t have that mindset in those days, I was like, “This is the way it’s got to be, fellas! It’s terrible that way! Let’s do it this way, it’ll be much better!” And so there was conflict about what the overall thing is going to sound like. But now I know you have to serve somebody, you know, if you’re going to be a producer.
TS: How did you survive all the egos? You’re not a big ego guy in my experience.
Chip: Well, I’m not without my ego. But…it’s control. When I worked with Phil Spector, Cyrus Faryar (a member of Chip’s band at that time)…he was quite the philosopher, and wise thinking, wise living type of person, who’d eat all the right foods and take care of himself…and thinks well…and treats people well and all this stuff. So we met Phil Spector up at his house and Phil had these bodyguards. One of them was this enormous Asian fellow…and he was a very serious sort of guy, but he was talking about karate and how you meditate and it’s all in your mind and to help your mind. And Cyrus began to talk about the ego and…and this guy at one point, said “Well, you see, I have ego now, but it’s controlled.” [Laughs] I will always remember that because we always had the feeling this guy was ready to pounce on us at any second…but very controlled, and I never forgot that
TS: Looking back on your career, how do you feel about collaboration? Is it a joy? Is it a curse?
Chip: Collaboration is great because another person can fill in the blanks sometimes and surprise! It's great! I’ve done too little collaborating in my life, you know, I should have done a lot more. I’m kind of a loner, and I just get an idea in my head and I’m driving home at night in the car by myself and so I’m thinking of song lyrics and I don’t have anybody right there to talk it back and forth with, like a lifelong partner that I write songs with or anything like that. But it’s great when that other person comes up with something and you think, “God, I never would have thought of that! How perfect! How brilliant!” It’s just every once in a while somebody has a great idea for something like that, you know, and it just works out brilliantly. That’s collaboration. That’s communication.