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The Devil Went Down to Sheffield

Imagine you’re an 18 year-old bloke born and raised in Sheffield, England. You’ve just finished high school, have no plans for university, and you’re not sure what to do with your life. There are few options. Sheffield is a gray, aging steel town, and if you don’t think of something else you’ll end up working in a factory. Or maybe not, because the local economy is shit and a lot of the steel mills are closing.

But you do happen to be an aspiring musician, and one day when you miss a bus, you find yourself talking to another chap who’s in a band. He invites you to audition. You’re thrilled at the prospect of joining an actual band, and you want to play guitar, but it’s clear your skills aren’t quite up to the task. Or at least not playing an instrument. To your surprise the band asks you to become their lead singer, which at that point is the greatest moment of your life.

A few months later your band adds another guitarist and pretty soon the five of you are rehearsing in an abandoned spoon factory. You feel like you’re pretty good, especially for a bunch of kids just out of high school. You borrow some money from your parents and record an EP and to your surprise, a famous BBC DJ plays it often. Within a year you’re approached by a major record label, and just like that, you’re a professional musician.

You’re taken to Ringo Starr’s house to record your first album, where you bathe in alcohol and complete a record in a mere 18 days. In months you’re invited to the United States to tour with one of the most popular bands in the world. You’re voted the best new band of the year by a rock magazine you actually read. And just when you think life couldn’t get better, you’re approached by a famous record producer, who offers to help with your second album. You wonder what you did to deserve all this success. You certainly were never asked to pay any dues.

Your second album becomes actual work, because the new producer is more demanding than the last. He teaches you to sing better and your band mates to play their instruments better. The recording takes three months, which feels like an eternity compared to the first, but when you’re done you realize you don’t like the first album anymore. The new one sounds polished, like a real band made it.

But it still doesn’t sell as well as you hope. And if you can’t create a great record with the best producer alive, do you really have the talent to make it big? You keep touring with some of the world’s best known rock outfits, and you put on good shows, but you wonder if your own material will ever be good enough to push you to the next level.

As it happens, Lady Luck always smiles on your band, and soon enough it happens again. The famous music producer makes you a deal, one worthy of Faust. Turn yourself over to me, he says. Give me complete control of your next album. Let me help you write it. I want to change the way rock albums are recorded, and I want to do it with you guys. It will be a painstaking process, but if you trust me, I’ll make you the biggest band in the world.

What would you say to something like that? You’ve come so far from Sheffield, and you’ve had a lot of fun, but what you really want is what everyone wants: money, sold-out arenas, international fame. Here’s a guy who claims he can give it to you. He’s done it before. Do you trust him? Of course you do.

But you have no idea what such a deal really entails. That having everything you want in the world might still not be enough.

First of all, the producer doesn’t want you to write songs in the typical way. He wants you and your band mates to spend hours just brainstorming guitar riffs. And when one of you thinks of something good, the producer won’t record it in the regular way. Play it one string at a time, he says, and we’ll construct the chord electronically, using multi-track tapes. You feel like a fool and you wonder if the genius producer has lost his mind.

You spend months and months recording, playing and singing to a drum machine, because your human drummer can’t keep proper time. Not when you are building songs one millisecond after another. Six months go by and you haven’t finished a single track in its entirety. Your voice is worn out from screaming the same lyrics over and over, in a register well above your comfort level. What ends up on tape are hundreds of guitars and vocal tracks, music you barely remember playing. And since the producer doesn’t like the background vocals of the other band members, he records most of those himself. Is the guy even human?

But at the end it all comes together. A year after you begin — a full year this time — you have completed an album. Forty-five minutes of polished hard rock that sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. It’s somehow dense like Boston with an edge like AC/DC. You find it difficult to believe a couple thousand hours in the studio, recording music in a way you don’t really understand, is this album. But the producer has done exactly what he said he would do.

And when it’s released, the album is nothing short of a commercial sensation. It sells in excess of 100,000 copies every week for nearly the entire calendar year and turns you into a household name. It moves six million units, and you play the United States in support of it, ending your tour in front of a stadium of 55,000 fans screaming your name. A Gallup poll conducted the next year names you the most popular rock band in America. All this, you think, in exchange for giving yourself to a famous producer. Did you make the right choice? Is that even a question?

Now all you have to do, to prove your success wasn’t a fluke, is sit down and record another album. It should be easy enough with the genius on your side, right?

Except a few months into writing, tragedy strikes. Your drummer gets into a bad car accident. His injuries are so severe that he loses his left arm. For a while you do nothing but console your friend, who fears his new life as a rock star is over forever. When he cries every day and falls into depression, you don’t imagine one day his lost arm will become a joke to music fans everywhere.

Around the same time, your genius producer tells you he won’t be available to produce the next album. So now you have no drummer and no producer, and the previous album, so miraculous when you first heard it, has become a burden. You don’t know how to make another one that sounds like it. You’re totally lost. Two years and two producers later, you’ve got nothing on tape worth keeping, and you must surely wonder if you really have talent or ever had talent.

To help cheer up your depressed drummer, the two of you sit down one day with a couple of engineers to draw up an electronic kit that could conceivably be played with one arm. While your drummer works this out, the genius producer finally returns and decides to help you finish the album. Suddenly everything in the world is right again…except now you’re in for another eighteen excruciating months of recording. And by the time you’re done, the costs to produce this album will prove so staggering that you’ll need to sell almost five million copies just to break even.

And there’s no guarantee it’ll sell at all, not when you risk losing one audience to appeal to a larger one. The updated sound sought by the genius producer is barely possible with the day’s most advanced technology, and you never imagine that one day computer software will reduce your efforts from hours to minutes. But still you proceed, sometimes recording one bar at a time, hoping when the album finally drops the world will still remember who you are.

At the end of the recording sessions, while polishing the very last track, the producer hears you tinkering with the guitar during a break and asks what it is. You tell him it’s some lame idea you had, but the genius disagrees. He believes the melody you just played could become the most popular song you’ve ever written. Reluctantly the band agrees to record one more track, piling on even more debt, and then, finally, you’re done. The producer disappears with the tapes you’ve given years to record and spends four months mixing them into an album. Four months. You’re not even sure what he’s doing at this point.

But the record proves to be a gigantic success. It takes a while, but when the important track is released (which in fact becomes your most famous song and one of the biggest hits of the decade), the album begins to sell at an astronomical rate, as many as one million copies per week. Your drummer has returned to the stage and becomes a hero. And there is a short period of time at the height of the record’s success, during your 236-show world tour, where you really are the most popular band in the world, just as you always dreamed. Thirty years later your band is selected for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

But still you’re left to wonder: Is it because of your talent? Could you have done it without the genius? After all, he never produces another of your albums, and your popularity declines markedly after he’s gone. Meanwhile, the genius’ next project (with a woman who eventually becomes his wife) goes on to sell even more albums than yours.

And at what cost, this commercial success? Your drummer has recovered in fantastic fashion, but a few years later one of your lead guitarists dies from a depression-related drug and alcohol overdose. And as the years wear on, the legacy of your music does not match the money you’ve earned from it. The sound you worked so hard to perfect, at the behest of the genius, is now regarded as too polished. The lyrics don’t make sense. Your voice is ruined from trying to sing notes you could barely hit in your prime, and even though you continue to play stadiums late into your career, the performances everyone wants to hear are the songs you recorded with the (evil) genius.

Worst of all, plenty of rock fans regard your band as a bad joke, representative of a musical decade that said too little too loudly.

So now take yourself backward, rewind, through all the hotel rooms loaded with drugs and alcohol and naked women, through the years you spent learning from maybe the best producer in music history, back through the lyrics you never intended to mean anything, that you wrote for fun, for a laugh, because you only ever wanted to make people happy, go back to the sold-out arenas and millions of fans screaming your name, proudly wearing your famous Union Jack T-shirt, to the 24-hour music video channel you helped make famous, back to Ringo Starr’s house, to the first tiny gigs you played, back to the spoon factory, to the steel city where so many kids had no real chance for a bright future, all the way to that place on the road where you met a fellow musician only because you missed your bus.

Are you glad you missed it?

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Def Leppard, 1983. Image courtesy of DefLeppard.com

Richard Cox is the author of five novels, including HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN, coming July 27. Find him at https://richardcox.net/ or https://twitter.com/coxric.

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