Interviews

Interview: Legendary Music Producer TOM WERMAN chats about his book, “Turn It Up!”

Growing up in the Boston suburbs, Tom Werman was deeply affected by pop music from a young age. He long dreamed of a career in music—first as Elvis, then as the next George Harrison—but it almost didn’t turn out that way. Dutifully following the path his parents had laid out for him, he obtained an MBA from an Ivy League university and took a plum job in an industry he came to despise. Then, in 1970, a chance letter sent to CBS Records boss Clive Davis led to a new opportunity—and a place in rock’n’roll history.

As an A&R man at Epic Records, Werman helped introduce the world to REO Speedwagon, Boston, Ted Nugent, and Cheap Trick; he also discovered KISS, Rush, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, but his record label passed on all of them. Then, as an independent producer, he oversaw landmark albums by Mötley Crüe (Shout At The Devil), Twisted Sister (Stay Hungry), Jeff Beck (Live With Jan Hammer), Poison (Open Up And Say … Ahh!), and many more. All in all, his record-making résumé includes twenty-three gold- or platinum-selling albums and cumulative sales of more than fifty-two million copies.

I recently was afforded the opportunity to chat to the man behind the music.


Antihero: I would like to open by asking what made you decide to write a book after so many years of you being out of the music business.

Tom Werman: I was doing more and more podcasts starting maybe 10 years ago, and one of them on the making of one album got over a hundred thousand hits. So I thought I was conscious of more people at a greater age span, being curious about this music and knowing about it, having grown up in a family where dad played it all the time. That wasn’t the case with us because dad didn’t play Frank Sinatra and Benny Goodman all the time.

So, then I was surfing the net and I came across a very critical review of me, not of my music, but of me, and it got really personal and I’d never met the guy. So it was on a blog, and I wrote to the editor, and I said, “Can I please respond to this? Would you print that?” He said, “Sure.” So, I wrote a very good response. I kind of put the guy away and we never heard from him again, but the editor said, “Our readers really like this, could you write some more?” So, I did 18 episodes and that became the skeleton for the book.

Then as I had thoughts or memories, I would go and write them down and try to insert them chronologically into the 18-episode memoir of my career and how I got into it and what we did. I never really… I was kind of doing this for my family just to put down my life, especially my life in music. It began to take form and then people read it and said, “This is a book. You should write a book.” So, I did. I got very lucky in terms of getting an agent and a publisher, and bang, that was it. My publisher is in your town. Are you in London?

Antihero: I’m actually in Manchester.

Tom Werman: Okay. Okay. Anyway, it’s Jawbone, the Jawbone Press, they’re really nice people. My editor left me pretty much alone with some guidance, and there it is. It seems to be being well received.

Antihero: Did you have any authors or previous books that you’d read as a guideline, or were you just determined to fly solo and just do your own thing? It is quite a task, writing a book.

Tom Werman: Yeah. I didn’t. Most rock and roll books and memoirs are, I have to say, not great. Most of them are as told to. So, it’s by some rockstar as told to an assistant, a ghost writer, whatever. I wanted to write it myself. I had read very few, there are very few books that I was interested in that turned out to be really good that were about pop music, or rock and roll.

The best one being a two-volume biography of Elvis by Peter Guralnick. They’re called Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love. Absolutely brilliant book, more than you ever wanted to know about Elvis. Then there was Heaven and Hell by Don Felder about Henley and Frey and The Eagles, but very few others. Anyway, I wrote this book in my own stream of consciousness, kind of. I wrote down pretty much whatever I could remember at my advanced stage. We’re talking about 50 years ago in some cases. Yeah.

Antihero: Have you kept actual notes over the years? I mean, let’s be honest, some of those periods, I’m thinking particularly the ’80s, could have been a bit difficult to recall particular episodes, incidents, and different stories from that time.

Tom Werman: I didn’t. Not only didn’t I keep notes, but I also didn’t have many photos. I mean, there are photos in the book, but I never thought of documenting my experiences or my career. It was just all in my head. I think I remembered most of the significant stuff, but I never… Jimmy Iovine, for instance, seems to have had a video crew in his control room from the very first record he engineered. I don’t know how he had that foresight, or maybe he was just very confident in saying, “I need to document every minute of my career.” I didn’t think about it.

Antihero: Yeah. How long did the whole process take, and was it easy to stay focused? Obviously, writers get periods of writer’s block. When they just can’t see a way forward. Did you encounter any of that?

Tom Werman: No writer’s block, because I only wrote when I felt like it. Sometimes I wouldn’t write for a month. The book was being written over about three years, and I would never write for more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time. I’d get an inspiration and I’d write it down, and then I’d kind of refine it later and slot it in at the right place in the text. I know that what I was supposed to do, what the pros do, the real writers, they all seem to say the same thing. I have two very strong cups of coffee at 6:00 AM and I pound out 10 pages regardless of what I feel or whether I want to or not. I didn’t do that.

Antihero: Did you find the whole process an enjoyable one or challenging at times?

Tom Werman: I loved it. Yeah. If I was challenged, I’d stop. I wouldn’t write. I’d remember something and get excited about the fact that I did remember it. I enjoyed describing it in the best way possible. People seem to say, the people who have read it now all say it’s an easy read and it’s conversational. They start to read it, and then they honest to God can’t put it down. If they say, “I started to read it, I read up to a hundred pages, now I’ve got to finish.” There are people who have finished it in two days, and that’s great for me. I think that’s certainly a plus in terms of writing and reading.

Antihero: When you got that final copy and read it, was it a feeling of a job well done? I’m perfectly happy. That’s what I set out to do.

Tom Werman: For the most part. Yes. Yeah. It wasn’t so much the text and the actual material and writing the content of the book. The biggest disagreement I had, and the most controversial discussion I had with my editor was, they call it the Oxford comma. I turned the book in, and I know how I wrote it, and then it came back to me for a final approval. Every time I listed three things there would put a comma after the third thing before the word and.

I said, “The word is there, why do you need a comma?” He said, “Well, this is publishing a format, and we all use this, and I use this with every publisher in the states that I’ve worked with.” Somebody at Oxford decided that this was the right way to do it, and I disagreed. I thought it just messed up things. It added unnecessary grammatical hieroglyphs, but I had to leave it. Otherwise, I was very happy. I’m very happy with the layout, the illustrations, and the quality of the actual book. It’s very good.

Antihero: Has writing the book fired up any enthusiasm for maybe writing a follow-up or is that you’re done with writing?

Tom Werman: That’s it for me. I mean, I have nothing more. The only other things I have to add would be complaints, and I wanted to try to find the highlights of my career, not the low points. I do have another book that I want to write, but it’s not about music. It’s what pisses me off and how to fix it. A working title would be The Way It Ought To Be, about people talking in the movies or people hogging the passing lane, or people using bad grammar. Everything that bothers me. It is going to be a little humorous, so I’d like to do that eventually.

Antihero: The book actually ends on a sad note suggesting that music has lost its soul in an age of technology where machines can replicate musicians. I just wondered how you feel about bands from, I find that many bands from ’80s going back and touring again, and musically, they’re not quite as good as they used to be, and they rely a lot on the technology to recreate that sound.

Tom Werman: Yeah, I’m not at all happy with today’s music, predictably because I’m old, but also because it’s very largely computer generated and perfect. We made records with humans all playing real instruments, and we sometimes recorded mistakes, warts and all. Today it’s just one snare hit can be sampled and used for all snare hits in the whole song, and the sample thing.

The technology is great, but if you know how to use a computer and play a keyboard, then basically you can make a whole album in your bedroom, and they do. They discover acts largely on social media and through algorithms. I’m not even sure what an algorithm is. My son works in A and R at Warner Records in LA, and it’s very hard for me to understand what he does and how they do the whole thing, finding artists and the producer is not what it used to be. Instead, you just make some beats and add to it.

Antihero: I actually got sent last week a new album created solely by artificial intelligence.

Tom Werman: Yeah, I’m having enough trouble learning how to text, and along comes AI. Thank you, I consider myself really fortunate to be out of the traffic. Really. I’m retired. I live in the country. I’m not off the grid at all, but I just can’t deal with all this, with technology. I mean, when I made records, I was totally dependent on my engineer. I just told him what I would like, and he not only knew what devices to employ, but how they worked. I wasn’t interested. I’m arts and music, no science, no math. It’s just the way my brain was constructed.

Antihero: Just a final one. As a music fan, you seem to have achieved all your dreams, hopes, and aspirations in terms of working with particular artists. Are there any dreams, hopes, ambitions that have yet remained unfulfilled for you? Maybe an artist that perhaps you would’ve liked to work with that you didn’t get that opportunity?

Tom Werman: Tom Petty and his band were my meat and potatoes. I would love that. I’m not a metalhead. I’m a pop guy, which is why I was able to make hit singles with a lot of album groups. I still want to meet Dave Grohl. I think he is… He personifies rock and roll; his passion goes way beyond anybody else’s that’s been described to me or I’ve read about. Got a great sense of humour. I think he’s the only person that I could call a role model or an idol who is actually younger than I am at this point. I’d love to work with him, but I don’t think he needs it.

It’s like working with the Eagles. They didn’t need a producer. I had to work with challenging bands that were not that great necessarily in terms of musicianship, and that’s why they kept bringing me the same type of band, the labels. The artists that I wish I had worked with really don’t need producers because they were that good. I’ve worked with some special people like Jeff Beck. There’s nothing that I yearn for at this point. I consider myself very fortunate to have been where I was at that time.

I was nine years old when I started to listen to music seriously. That’s when Elvis came on the scene. So, I think I was right there for the whole era of classic rock, which I think is over. It’s a finite period. I wrote the book in part to try to convince people, tell people why they should love the music that I love, and give them examples. This is good. This is why. That’s it.

Antihero: In terms of your book promotion, will it be continuing or you’re going to wrap that up? Or any plans maybe to take it out and read extracts and tell some stories? I know a lot of authors are doing that.

Tom Werman: What? The book signings and the readings?

Antihero: Yes, like a “spoken words” type thing.

Tom Werman: Yeah. Well, I’ve been doing a lot of Zooms, which is great. I don’t have a massive machine, publicity machine behind me, but I am doing a local bookstore, reading and wine and having fun. I’m doing a couple of little TV and public radio; national public radio interviews and it’ll wind up in a few weeks. There was a lot before the book came out. They have told me that they sold out of the first printing and they’re printing more. I don’t know what that means in terms of numbers, but I’m pretty happy with what’s going on and I don’t think I should be promoting the book months after its release.

Antihero: Okay. That’s fair enough. Thank you very much for chatting with me. Glad we finally got to do this.

Tom Werman: Yeah, thank you very much too.

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