Dan Hartman takes Chas De Whalley to the US of AOR
"I consider myself a communicator more than anything else. And communicators understand what people's ears are listening to. Especially as you have to open the door before you can make your statement. If you open that door by making such experimental sounds that it flogs people — then they ain't gonna open up their ears to you."
How good a communicator Dan Hartman is you must judge more by his records than by his turn of phrase. Sure, the guy is easily bright enough and he knows what he's trying to tell us. But very first thing in the morning after a heavy night negotiating the roadworks on the southbound carriageway of the M1, our Dan's tongue is still a little stiff and sleepy. It will probably be lunchtime before his breakfast black coffee has its desired effect. Nevertheless, the sense gets through even if the sentences are often a little shattered.
We were talking not so much about the space between us as about Dan Hartman's new album on MCA which contains the blockbusting hit I Can Dream About You from the Streets Of Fire movie and marks him down alongside Hall and Oates and Huey Lewis as one of the finest purveyors of that peculiarly American musical hybrid — Soul Rock.
Of course, the last thing I would ever do is ask my grandmother to suck eggs, let alone quiz Mr Hartman on the validity or viability of what he does. After all, one way or another this friendly fellow from mellow New England has been at the top of his trade for almost 14 years, penning or producing US hits for a varied bunch including Edgar Winter (for whom he spent three years playing bass guitar), Foghat, 38 Special, and Diana Ross as well as racking up chart success in this country under his own name with infectious dance records like Instant Replay and Relight My Fire in the late Seventies.
Nevertheless I did venture the opinion that, for a man who cites the likes of Mose Allison and Allen Toussaint as major influences — and admits to an infatuation with Sam and Dave's brand of Stax stomp as well — this current album was really a little too sanitised and pre-packaged for comfort. A bit too US Industry Standard for British ears. The moment I opened my mouth I expected trouble. But even first thing in the morning after a heavy etcetera Dan Hartman took the criticism on the chin with a grin and even agreed with me!!
"Sure. It does lean more towards the industry standard rather than towards my roots. But I meant it to be that way for a reason. To begin with this is my first album in about three years and my first for a new label. So I wanted the album to have the same basic listenability throughout and I wanted the record company to feel that they could hear four or five potential singles on it. Tracks that would work on the radio. Because that was what I was aiming for, I had to make sure that each song would capture an exact feeling which would get across to the most number of people.
"I always like to make records like that. I hate records where all the musicians or the artiste are really saying is 'Dig Me!' You can lose a lot of your potential audience by making self-indulgent statements. Unless, of course, you're so neat and groovy that people say 'Wow Man! Come All Over Me!'. Now I think I am pretty neat and groovy, but I prefer to make the sort of records which will make people think about themselves, not about me. Pop music shouldn't really express the innermost thoughts of the artiste as much as giving the listeners a feeling of exuberance or pain or power or whatever. To give them a sense of their own selves.
"Once you start making music with that sort of end in mind, you realise that you have to make it less jagged and more compartmentalised. And so the reason I Can Dream About You sounds maybe as Industry Standard as it does is because it was designed to get through to as many different sorts of people as possible. And that isn't necessarily a negative factor."
But from a British point of view, it does represent a lot of what's bad about American music in the 1980s.
"I know. And I can dig that. Personally I find I listen to more English and European records these days than I do American records. There's always more of a sense of experimentalisation to them. It's all down to the social conditions in the UK and the music reflects that in exactly the same way that American records reflect the social conditions in the US. English records are usually much more of a sketch, and the first scratches on the paper are what they leave. In America they like records which... It's like the difference between two or three players jamming away and whatever comes out is what it is, and a Rock concert with all the latest digital equipment so that when the band comes on they blow you hair away because the sound is so perfect. That's the way the Americans like it. And it's because America's pace and attitude is so much more aggressive. They have no time for Art. It's all 'Give it to me now! Fast, finished and exciting, so I can get on to the next!'. I love that Fine Young Cannibals record, for instance, because it's the opposite of all that. It's obviously come right off the top of somebody's head, which is a very British thing, and even though it's essentially a demo it's got so much energy. It's like Pop without the gelatine they'd pour all over it in the States."
Despite this ready willingness to criticise his fellow countrymen, Dan Hartman has yet to decide to pull up his roots and re-locate in Europe. Maybe the five months he spent in Copenhagen in 1983 grooming Danish superstars the RK Band for an international career put him off the idea. Or maybe the fact that he has a 24-track studio of his own literally in the front room of his Connecticut home keeps his feet firmly on American soil. Or maybe it's because he believes he's discovered the perfect compromise for a creative writer, performer and producer in the United States.
"You have to present your music to Americans in a form which they recognise and understand. That way they'll listen."
And there speaks a man who has no doubt about how to take care of his business. And doesn't care who knows about it. But what of production itself? Surely it can't be a combination of curly blond charm, strength of character and grim determination that has kept Dan Hartman in employment and staying in the best hotels for all these years? Well, it certainly isn't technical expertise, that's for sure.
"I'm the least technical person I've ever met," he quips. "I hate anything with digital numbers on it. I just go by instinct. It's the same with a new AMS as it is with a synthesizer for me. I never read manuals. I just sit down with the thing for a couple of days and fiddle with the knobs until I figure out what it can do. And get what I like out of it.
"When it comes to producing too I just go for something that will jump off the record and into people's heads. Again, it's a question of what feels right.
I try to make records which have a point of view to express and so you always have to concentrate upon the voice. When we did my album we tried very hard to keep the sort of R'n'B danceability in the vocals you'd expect from a D Train or Gloria Gaynor, but still keeping that Rock conviction you get from Foreigner."
By 'we' Dan Hartman means himself and the legendary Jimmy Lovine who co-produced the album: "to stop me making a breakdance record which nobody but kids on the corner in New York City would listen to". It was Lovine, as executive producer of the musical side of Dan Hill's epic Rock melodrama Streets Of Fire, who coaxed Hartman back to a recording career of his own.
But not even the insistence of the man who can number Tom Petty, Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith among satisfied customers could drag Dan Hartman away from his home studio.
"I do everything in my house. I've had a 24-track studio there for over 10 years. I've always used MCI gear. Right now I've got the 538 console with the oil-filled modules and an MCI multitrack. But I reckon I'll get an Otari soon because I want to go 48-track. All my outboard equipment is old design tube stuff like Teletronic and Urei limiters and Pultec equalizers which I've bought from other studios over the years. None of them are made any more but they're all so simple to use!
"The first album I produced there was Edgar Winter's Jasmine Nightdreams. I did Instant Replay there and loads of other stuff. It was called the Schoolhouse originally because it was in this one huge room in an old New England school house which had been built in about 1760, I think. Other people have used it too. Johnny Winter produced those albums he did with Muddy Waters there, you know, Hard Again and I'm Ready with me doing a lot of the engineering. I cut Metal Priestess with Wendy O' Williams and The Plasmatics right there in my house too."
Plasmatics!?! Well, !*%& me!
Anybody further away from the Dan Hartman school of blue-eyed soul would be hard to imagine. I refrained from asking Mr Hartman whether the formidable Ms. O' Williams wears the same arrangement of gaffer tape in the studio as she does on stage. Instead I enquired how he'd been roped in to do that one. Only to be astounded when he told me how he'd actively sought the band out, tracked them down and all but begged them to let him work with them.
"It goes back to what we were talking about earlier in a way. I was in Los Angeles for a spell in 1983 and I bought about 80 different LPs. I put them all on one by one and I got so depressed because they all sounded like so much over-produced crap. There was nothing being communicated, nothing at all.
Then I fell upon the Plasmatics and I thought 'This Is It'. I played it constantly and I kept thinking 'This is such an awfully made record. If only somebody would help them make a good record with that outrageous attitude.' So I chased them and phoned them up. They said 'Dan Who?' When I explained who I was, how I'd done Free Ride and Frankenstein with Edgar Winter and had a hit myself with 'Instant Replay' I thought they'd hang up. But they didn't. I had a great time working with them because if there's one thing the Plasmatics like to do it's communicate. It nearly shook my house down with the volume.
And now that Dan Hartman is capitalising on his Streets Of Fire success by contributing title songs (and often the productions) to a whole string of big budget Hollywood movies like Chevy Chase's Fletch, John Travolta's Perfect, Crush Groove and the new Rocky IV (which is fought out to the sound of James Brown singing Hartman's Living In America) there must be a fair few people in the business who aren't quite sure which hat ol' Dan's wearing this week.
"You're right. People get confused because they want the boxes your talent comes in to be always the same shape and the same colour. If you don't do that then people lose track of who you are. They say 'Oh, he doesn't know himself'. But I know who I am. The energy is the same, the expression is the same and the work diligence is the same. Always. It's just that sometimes it all comes in different boxes and different colours. It may be weird to some people but it surely doesn't bother me."
Feature by Chas de Whalley
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