Released on June 13, 1979, The Cars’ sophomore effort, Candy-O, would be certified platinum in less than two months, and would soar as high as #3 on the Billboard 200 chart and #4 on RPM Canada. Its first single, “Let’s Go,” would jump to #14 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and the follow up release, “It’s All I Can Do,” would peak at #41. Candy-O‘s iconic album cover, painted by Alberto Vargas, would be talked about for years. And all this while The Cars’ self-titled debut album, released almost exactly one year prior, was still riding high: Billboard Magazine’s chart for the “Top Pop Albums of 1979” lists The Cars at #4 and Candy-O at #82. Needless to say, this band was on fire.
But this Candy-O story begins at the very beginning, and doesn’t end until more than three decades later…
(Quick disclaimer: I am fairly confident that these next four photos I am including of Cherokee Studios and the mixing equipment are indeed of Cherokee, but are likely NOT how the studio looked when The Cars recorded there in 1979.)
In February of 1979, The Cars packed up their gear and headed to Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles, California, to record their second album. Originally started as the venture of three brothers on a ranch, by 1979 Cherokee Studios had moved to Fairfax Avenue and was a hot spot for many of the world’s top recording artists. By the time The Cars arrived, Cherokee had already turned out albums for Steely Dan, David Bowie, Art Garfunkel, ELO, Jeff Beck, Olivia Newton-John, Rod Stewart, Hall & Oates, Alice Cooper, Bob Seger, Journey, Neil Diamond, The Jacksons… the list goes on and on.
Cherokee was an unusual studio at the time because it operated independently of any record label. Additionally, the years the Robb brothers had spent as struggling musicians prior to opening their studio made them keenly aware of the importance of an ‘artist-friendly atmosphere.’ They also outfitted their Fairfax location with state-of-the-art equipment and acoustics. It’s no wonder that in his autobiography, Beatles producer Sir George Martin dubbed Cherokee Studios the best studio in America.
Generally when a band gets ready to record an album the first thing they do is create a monitor mix. I do not know what The Cars’ actual setup was at Cherokee, or which of the three studios the band worked in, but it’s likely that their work day looked something like this: the band goes into the big room and sets up their instruments. A series of microphones are positioned all around the studio to capture the sounds from each individual band member. David’s drums (which might be enclosed in some kind of clear paneling to avoid sound from the other instruments “bleeding” into his mics) would have 6 to 8 mics around his kit at each of the various drum pieces (kick, snare, high hat, etc). Each of the other guys would have a mic for their instrument and a mic for their vocals.
At one end of the studio there is another little room (the control room) separated from the band by a big window, and in that little room sit the producer and sound engineer. In front of them is a huge board with all sorts of slider switches and dials and lights — this is called a monitor console, or a mixing table. Each microphone near the band feeds the sounds it captures into a specialized channel where it is recorded in isolation from the other sounds. Those channels are then accessed and arranged by the producer and sound engineer on the monitor console. Nerd fact: at Cherokee Studios they used the legendary Trident A-Range 24-channel monitor (only 13 of the original models were ever manufactured), and they were the first studio in America to do so. BUT Greg Hawkes indicates that this album was recorded on Roy Thomas Baker’s personal 40-track machine, which was an unusual recorder in the industry at the time.
Once everything is set up and ready to record, the band plays their song and the music is captured as described above. The producer and sound engineer adjust levels on the console to get the desired balance from the mics and to construct the basic foundation of the song, listening to the music through the large monitor speakers in the control room (pictured above, on top of the console). The resulting track is called a ‘monitor mix.’ This recorded mix is then used by the band to perfect the production of the individual parts of the song. Wearing headphones and listening to a customized playback of the monitor mix, each band member can re-record their part, locking into the pieces of the composition they need to hear to bring out the best in their own performance.
For example, in order to really nail his guitar solo, Elliot may need to zero in on the drums and bass parts. The sound engineer can fiddle with the sliders on his console and make it so that what Elliot hears in his headphones is largely the rhythm section, while the synth and vocals are toned way down or not audible. This gives him the reference points he needs to play to. At the same time, maybe Benjamin needs to hear David’s kick drum pumped up a bit to keep his tempo on track, and the rhythm of Greg’s riffs to sing along to. The sound engineer can make that happen.While the band plays on, the guys in the control room continue to finesse and adjust the mix on the console, moving closer to the final product.
So The Cars spent February of 1979 at Cherokee, recording, mixing and preparing the entire Candy-O album; getting it just how they liked it. When it was finally ‘in the can’ they packed up and headed back to Boston with their completed master tapes, leaving the monitor mix tapes stored in the Cherokee tape vault.
Fast forward to sometime in 2001. A listing shows up on ebay for two reel-to-reel tapes of “The Cars’ Candy-O Demos” for auction. It appears that a former employee of Cherokee Studios, now residing in California, has some authentic vintage recordings to offer. (Interesting side note: the same seller had also listed similar items from Led Zeppelin and Elvis). A longtime Cars fan — we’ll call him Phil — triumphantly wins the auction and, thrilled to have these alternate recordings of some of his favorite songs, has a local recording studio transfer the tracks to CDs. He shares a few copies with his trusted friends. He sees nothing wrong with this since he owns the sound recordings now.
Fast forward again, this time to 2014. By now these alternate recordings have been out for over ten years. They have been shared and shared again among the Fanorama, and eventually uploaded onto youtube. Toward the end of the year, our very own David Curry (the genius behind @Night_Spots) decides to feature one of the songs on his tumblr page. Low and behold, Les Steinberg (Elliot Easton’s brother), comes across Dave’s post and hears this version of “It’s All I Can Do” that he’s never heard before.
Since he already had a working relationship with Dave, Les contacts him and asked him where the recording came from. Dave, surprised that Les has no idea about the mix tapes, explains their history. Les enthusiastically encourages Dave to contact his friend from whom he originally received the recordings to see if the tapes are still around. He indicates that he is sure The Cars’ management would be thrilled to buy back the tapes for their own collection. Dave agrees to contact Phil, and in the meantime, Dave mails his personal CD copy of the mixes to Les for the Steinberg family to keep.
It is the end of November, 2014, when Dave contacts Phil. As fate would have it, after holding on to the tapes for 13 years, Phil finally had a need to sell them and had just completed an ebay transaction less than a month prior to Dave’s message, sending them off to the next happy owner. Though he would have very eagerly just GIVEN the tapes to The Cars, they are out of his hands.
Unfortunately, now that the word is out that the original reel-to-reels have surfaced, it becomes important to The Cars’ camp to track them down. It turns out that those mixes had been stolen from Cherokee’s tape vault and sold illegally (unbeknownst to any of the Fanorama). This makes Phil understandably nervous — to be somehow connected to stolen intellectual property (even though he is innocent of any wrongdoing) — and so Dave offers to act as a mediator between Phil and The Cars; a natural role since he is already openly connected to both parties.
Now the task falls on Dave to facilitate the tracking down of the reels. Luckily the new owner (who is also eager to avoid a legal hassle) agrees to let them be repurchased. A flurry of emails zips back and forth across the country over the early weeks of December as arrangements are made to have them shipped to Dave’s place of work. After he signs for them he is a little stunned, realizing that he is holding a piece of precious Cars history. “When I got the tapes home, I told my wife about their significance and snapped a few photos. I was in Cars heaven! That lasted about 20 minutes… It suddenly occurred to me that I was now responsible for their care. At that point, I wanted them out of my house as soon as possible.”
[Dave’s involvement in this was truly motivated by kindness and his love for The Cars, and he expected nothing in return. It is still pretty cool, though, that he received a copy of Move Like This, signed by all of the band members, as a ‘thank you.’]
Wow, what a history! How exciting for the Cars group to get those original recordings back! And wouldn’t it be great if Rhino Records compiled them along with the Candy-O album and made a deluxe version, like they did with the debut? We can only keep our fingers crossed… In the meantime, you can hear the monitor mix tracks for yourself by exploring this playlist on youtube. Enjoy!