Phil Ramone's Ears of Genius

What does making a hit record have to do with great sex? Read on.

In November, 1975, my mentor Phil Ramone, got an opportunity to co-produce. He was already established as a world-class recording engineer, but was just breaking into producing -- he was years away from doing his hit-making work with Billy Joel. This was a gift of his old friend, Milt Okun, who was an influential producer and musical director on many folk records, including Peter, Paul, and Mary's top hits, which Phil had engineered.

Okun was bringing in a band run by a married duo, Bill and Taffy Danoff. After doing their own thing in a group called Fat City, they wrote a hit for John Denver called "Take Me Home, Country Roads," which was monumental, and Denver signed them to his, and Milt Okun's, Windsong label. (Okun was intrinsic to Denver's success, too.)

Bill and Taffy joined forces with two cute kids, a guy named Jon Carroll, and a gal named Margot Chapman, and this formed the group coming into the studio. Though Ramone was supposed to engineer and co-produce, he must have gotten the whiff early that this was not going to advance his ascent into the producing stratosphere, so he passed the recording job onto a former protégé, Rich Blakin, and me.

Most of the time, Ramone was nowhere to be found. Instead, he'd be scoring coke, trying to get laid, appeasing a ball-crushing Streisand, or lining up his next gig with Chicago -- while we did all the work. Every once in a while he would zip through the control room, just to show he was doing something for his credit.

Okun didn't do much either. He sat at the producer's table reading Billboard Magazine. It didn't much matter. Bill Danoff basically ran the show. The four band members were all very capable. The musicians, like Russell George on bass, Jimmie Young behind the drums, and George Young on sax, were the best studio guns. So, this was an easy gig for the big boys.

Personally, I couldn't stand the record. I thought it was one of the corniest turkeys I'd worked on. This white-bread vocal quartet doing cheesy 70s country-rock were as far from John Lennon and Brian Eno, my heroes of the era, as musicians could get. Phil and Milt's apparent lack of interest just indicated to me that they thought this was a loser, too.

Recording could be a tedious affair even when the shit was hot, but when it wasn't it could be an endless drag. I learned, by this time, how to space out while getting everything done that I needed to.
I was kicked out of my semi-fugue state by one of Ramone's obligatory rotations through the studio. Without stopping, he shouted instructions. Shit, I thought, he's going to cause some unnecessary chaos now, making us actually do some work, all for no good reason other than he's got to piss on the hydrant.

In his commanding, Patton-esque voice, he said, "Here's what you do. Bring in a pedal-steel guitar. Put it through a fuzz box and a flanger. When they sing "skyrockets in flight," have the pedal steel do a descending gliss. Do that and you have a number one record."

What? A number one record from these lame-os? He was really nuts this time. Nevertheless, when Ramone gave direction, we followed it. And so did the artists. We brought in Danny Pendleton on pedal steel, put it through the effect boxes, and added the musical sound effect to the skyrockets part.

That was the sum total of Ramone's contribution to the entire album.

That song, "Afternoon Delight," became a number one record, and one of the biggest hits of the 1970s. The band, named the Starland Vocal Band, won two Grammys, including best new artist.

Ramone had the ears of a genius, man. He could hear something from the hallway while he was in the middle of a phone call and know it was a hit. And he knew just the little piece of ear candy to add, just the right hook, to grab the audience and drag them to the cash register. In my first three years in the studio I'd worked on two records of Phil's that garnered best new artist Grammys - Phoebe Snow, and now this.

It turned out it was all the pedal steel. With that one sentence Ramone had earned his production credit. The band were a one-hit wonder. They put out three more discs, all of which sank without a trace.

What was Ramone's magic? The quality that Ramone possessed was one that Bernard Meland called appreciative consciousness. Simply put, this is the ability to see the universe in a grain of sand, as William Blake put it, or to find beauty in the ordinary. This faculty is something that can be cultivated and is one of the spiritual goals of life. Everything in our world is wondrous, and we would be able to experience it as such, should we only be able to break through our own limited vision. All I heard was some boring music. Ramone heard the diamond in the rough.

So what does this have to do with great sex? All too many of my straight male psychotherapy clients report getting sexually bored of their partners sooner or later. They focus on the small flaw -- an extra couple of pounds here, the oddly shaped breast there -- rather than perceiving the infinite beauty of the eternal feminine in the woman that they are with. The key to great monogamous sex for a lifetime is to cultivate appreciative consciousness. Ramone proved this was true -- the beauty was in the object -- it just needed to be perceived.

Without that developed faculty, there's no telling what you might miss. I was so oblivious it was years before I figured out that the corny hit was kinky. It was about doing it in the middle of the day.