Classic Tracks: Tommy James & The Shondells' "I Think We're Alone Now"

Mar 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Matt Hurwitz

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The role of the arranger on pop/rock songs of the '60s often overlapped some with that of the producer, though Wisner says that line was clear to him. “I didn't write the song, I didn't pick the song, I didn't pick the artist,” he explains. “The producer runs the session.” But Wisner would work together with a producer like Cordell to craft the song into a surefire hit. “One important part of being an arranger is helping to format the song. People put their song together, but when it comes to putting a record together they may not have a good feel for, say, how long the intro should be or what kind of intro it should have. That's where an arranger really comes into play. Where do you go after you go through the song the first time? Do you go right to an instrumental? Do you go to a different part? How long is that instrumental, if you have it?”

Another important contribution Wisner would make was the selection of musicians — even for an established band like James'. While pop bands like The Shondells, the Beach Boys, The Monkees and countless others might perform well live onstage, studio recording required something different. “The session guys in New York and L.A. at that time were very record-oriented,” Wisner says. “A lot of these bands, if they didn't have experience going into the studio, as soon as that red light goes on they're just not that good. But we had studio guys who'd come in and knew and could be the band immediately, and they were relaxed with the recording process.”

Bands would go along with having substitute players, though they didn't always like it. “I did three Spanky & Our Gang hits and The Cowsills' ‘The Rain the Park and the Other Things,” and they weren't too happy that we didn't use them. Though the family did sing background on the Cowsills track.”

In The Shondells' case, only James and guitarist Eddie Gray played some muted guitars on “I Think We're Alone Now,” and The Shondells sang some background vocals on the song's fade. The main recording, however, was handled by legendary session guitarist Al Gorgoni (Four Seasons, Simon & Garfunkel and Neil Diamond, to name a few), veteran session bassist Joe Macko, drummer Bobby Gregg and pianist Paul Griffin (whose contribution was mixed out of the final recording).

The recording also featured another vet — Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich session pianist Artie Butler (“On Broadway,” “Leader of the Pack,” “Chapel of Love”). Butler performed on an Ondioline — a vacuum-powered keyboard forerunner to the synthesizer (the signature sound on Del Shannon's “Runaway”), which played a high run through parts of the song. “I wanted something to do a long line,” Wisner explains. “It's good practice when you have a rhythm going to have a long line over the top of it — either an organ or a sustain line. It goes against the rhythm, but it actually enhances the rhythm.”

The band recorded the rhythm track that Christmas Eve, placing drums (Gregg on a ragtag kit of various studio drums) and Macko's Fender Precision (played through the studio's old Ampeg bass amp — “with the tubs up top,” recalls James) and an electric guitar onto one track of the 4-track tape. The remaining chord instruments (including James' trademark Fender Jazzmaster guitar played through a Gemini II amp) were recorded to a second track, with miscellaneous overdubs added prior to James' lead vocal recording.

“I really discovered a lot about recording and producing from that record,” James says. “Up until that time, people would use a 4-track by recording everything live and then mixing to mono. This was the first time we began layering a record.”

In absence of a second machine, Staple had to ping-pong submixes onto an empty track. “You really had to plan way ahead of how you were going to submix prior to recording,” James notes. “Any one of your moves could ruin the record.” Prior instrumentation would, of course, be subject to generational losses during ping-ponging — all except whatever was last recorded onto a vacant track. “You'd have your final mix…and a tambourine. So the tambourine would be in your face, and the rest of your mix sounded like sweat socks!”

James triple-tracked his vocal, bouncing between the two open tracks before he, Cordell and Gentry recorded the song's very-'60s background vocals. The song was then mixed for mono.

Interestingly, James notes, while the song opens solely with the “pegged” bass line, the song was actually recorded with the full band playing, though the mix doesn't reflect that. “Most pop records were written in stairsteps,” James explains. “You'd start here, then the bridge would be here, building up to the full chorus. We went in the opposite direction — we stepped down to the chorus, which is almost bare,” except for a chirping cricket added by Staple from a sound effects record. (“The crickets were in the studio, too,” James says jokingly.)

“I learned a great lesson about recording for AM radio with that record,” James notes. “On AM radio, you're going to fill up 100 percent of the speaker with something. If it's two instruments, like a bass and a drum, each part gets 50 percent. So, geometrically, you make the record smaller when you add instruments. You make it bigger by having fewer things. On ‘I Think We're Alone Now,’ the chorus was the quietest part of the record, but it was the biggest part of the record.”

While beginning a song bound for play on tiny portable AM radio speakers with a solo bass line would normally be a risky venture, the problem was neatly addressed by doubling the bass line with an electric guitar. “You had to make it very percussive so that it would cut through a small speaker,” the singer says. (James also noted this past December that when the song was redigitized for XM radio, those scouring the vault mistakenly grabbed a previously unheard early mix that featured the full band in the intro, which now plays on the network.)

Mixing for AM also required “a lot of top end and midrange,” James adds. “You basically had to EQ things out of each other's way, particularly because you're mixing for mono and it's all coming out of one point of your speaker.”

The song has never been mixed for stereo (though a “mock stereo” mix was created for the stereo LP release in 1967). Why? “Morris Levy didn't want to take any chances with radio,” says James. “He just said [imitating Levy's gruff voice], ‘No, that's the mix!’ He didn't want to change a thing. He wanted the hit.”

“I Think We're Alone Now” was indeed a hit upon its quick release in January 1967, playing alongside such other classic tracks as The Beatles' “Strawberry Fields Forever” and the Rolling Stones' “Let's Spend the Night Together.” “It was actually banned in Detroit for being too dirty!” James recalls. “This is at the same time that the Number One record was ‘Let's Spend the Night Together.’” The song did have a curious effect, though, recalls Wisner, currently working at a studio in New Jersey with James on a Christmas album for 2008. “We did a DJ convention 10 years ago, and a guy came up to Tommy, and told him, ‘You know, the first time I made out was with that record.’ It was a big moment for him!”






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