- Buy the book
Reviewed by Jeff Giles
hances are, unless you grew up in the vinyl age – and spent large portions of it poring over liner notes – you’ve probably never heard of Phil Ramone. Though certainly an A-list producer (the front cover of this book touts his 14 Grammy wins), Ramone was never flashy enough – and his work was never distinctive enough – to acquire the level of celebrity attached to, say, Phil Spector, George Martin, or even David Foster, and as a result, he’s never really been what you’d call a household name.
This lack of public attention has been the ultimate tribute to Ramone’s work, in a way; if his production lacked any real sonic signature, it was rarely less than solid – and as the stunning number of bestsellers he’s shepherded to the finish line will attest, he’s long had a knack for getting the best out of his clients. Seriously, to give even a meaningful partial list of the classic records he’s been a part of would be impossible here – suffice it to say that Ramone has worked with damn near everyone during his career.
In other words, there’s a fantastic autobiography waiting to happen here. Or a guide for hopeful would-be producers. Hell, even an entertaining collection of off-the-record stories. Unfortunately, “Making Records”is really none of those things. To his credit, Ramone lays it all out in the book’s introduction – “this volume is not an autobiography or technical manual, nor does it pretend to be a definitive study of any one topic related to record production” – but that doesn’t make the book more interesting.
Essentially, what the reader will get for his $24.95 is just under 285 pages of gee-whiz anecdotes about a few of the better-known artists on Ramone’s Rolodex – including the three with whom he’s probably most closely associated, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, and Barbra Streisand. Each of these projects could easily fill its own book, but they’re skimmed over here, and their chapters are stuffed with lard like “I’ll never forget the day I met Paul Simon” and “The guys in Billy’s band weren’t shy when it came to sharing ideas.” For a guy who has always demonstrated an unerring instinct for getting to the heart of an artist’s work, Ramone’s prose is embarrassingly clunky – big chunks of it read like the work of a lower-level PR flack, and you can pretty much count on at least half a dozen exclamation points in every chapter (“The clock nearly drove Billy insane!” “Had I known that, I never would have slept as well as I did!” “Leakage is one thing; having all of these disparate musical groupings on one stage with Nigel Olsson and the band playing right next to them is quite another!”)
This wouldn’t be such a big deal, ironically, if “Making Records”had been written by Phil Spector or George Martin; both of them have significant name value, and would be writing for a wider audience. Ramone, however, is largely preaching to the record-geek choir, so it’s more difficult to understand why the book lacks depth and focus; almost anyone who buys it will be looking for more of everything.
“Making Records” isn’t a total loss. Ramone scatters interesting stories throughout the book, and he does manage to get down to brass tacks on a few occasions, including a semi-detailed recollection of the mix for Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” and the steps involved in arranging for Tony Bennett to perform a “duet” with Billie Holiday in 1997. He saves the best for last, too – the book’s final chapter is a tenderly written account of Ramone’s work on Ray Charles’ Genius Loves Company.The final result is mildly entertaining overall, but hampered by stilted writing and an unwillingness to get down in the trenches with the only people who are likely going to be interested in buying the book. There are periodic glimmers of a great book in here, though, and readers can take limited solace in the hope that Ramone will eventually get around to writing it.