Mick Jones said producing Van Halen’s 1986 album 5150 may have been an exhausting experience but it was also equally as rewarding.
“I was completely exhausted at the end of it,” Jones recently told Guitar World. “We were running a bit late — and the band had a tour booked. So there was pressure…It was a pretty intense experience but we achieved something very special.”
Jones, who was at the time taking a break from his band Foreigner, was enlisted as co-producer on 5150 along with Donn Landee. After its March 24th, 1986 release, the album became the band’s first #1 album.
Below is more from Jones’ 5150 Q&A with Guitar World’s Paul Elliot:
Q: Firstly, how did you get the job of co-producing Van Halen?
A: “It came through Sammy Hagar. He and I went back a long way, and we had maintained a friendship over the years. I’d also met Eddie socially several times, but it was Sammy who put my name forward, and then Eddie decided he’d like to work with me.”
Q: You were brought in because the band’s regular producer, Ted Templeman, had defected to work on David Lee Roth’s solo album Eat ‘Em and Smile. But Templeman’s right-hand man, engineer Donn Landee, remained loyal to Van Halen.
A: “Yes, Donn had engineered all of their albums up to 5150, so I was the new boy. There was some concern from Donn, and that took a little bit of… Massaging, let’s say. But it all worked out, and by the end of the recording we were the best of friends. Donn is a great engineer and it was an honor to work with him.”
Q: How did you see your role as co-producer?
A: “At the time I was taking a break from Foreigner and I wanted to branch out a bit. So with Van Halen, it was a new challenge to see what I could pull out of them and see if I could change a few things here and there. Not to mess with their identity by any means, but just try to enhance the sound and the arrangements…”
Q: What do you remember about your first day working with them?
A: “Sammy picked me up from the airport and he gave me a rundown of what to expect. It was a little scary! He said, ‘Mick, we’ve been through the wars — this goes a little bit higher and a little crazier. So buckle your seatbelt!’
“But when we arrived at Eddie’s place, all of the guys were very cordial, very chatty and ‘up’ and cracking David Lee Roth jokes. So it was a nice warm welcome. And I was a little nervous, but I think that tends to bring out the best in me.”
Q: The studio — in a converted garage, and designed by Donn Landee —
was the band’s HQ and Eddie’s man-cave. Can you describe what you found in there?
A: “It was definitely funky. Everybody was smoking like crazy and drinking this high-alcohol content beer. Luckily I didn’t really drink beer, so I avoided that. So yeah, it had a vibe. It wasn’t the cleanest or most hygienic place I’ve ever spent time in, but it was acoustically designed and they had developed the sound in there. It definitely had a sound.”
Q: What tracks did they have ready at that stage?
A: “They had demos of all the tracks that made the final cut, pretty much. The only one that wasn’t demoed was ‘Dreams’, and I would say that was the one I had most involvement with from an arranging point of view. I think I really brought something to that song, especially Sammy’s vocals.
“I worked very long and hard with him on that, and he told me it was one of his all-time favorite performances. He was singing so high that he was hyperventilating. He almost passed out! I really pushed him. But we got it.”
Watch Mick Jones Talk About “Dreams” Vocals On Rock & Roll Road Trip with Sammy Hagar
Q: With “Dreams” and other songs such as “Love Walks In”, Eddie played the riffs on synthesizers…
A: “He developed his own style of keyboard synth stuff . It was a slightly different direction, but it was still rock. It really felt good when I first heard the songs. And they made it pretty easy for me. They gave me a great drawing board. Gradually as we got to know each other, things really gelled.”
Q: Eddie was also experimenting with different guitars.
A: “Of course he was playing that famous red Strat with the cream gaffer tape around it, but also a Steinberger. I used a Steinberger for a while at that time.”
Q: Did you hear this as Eddie reaching for something beyond the classic Van Halen ‘brown sound’?
A: “I didn’t really dissect what it sounded like. I just knew that it was powerful. And I felt that we captured the spirit of what was going on. I think they really wanted to show David Lee Roth that he wasn’t indispensable — let’s put it that way.”
Q: Certainly there was a different tone in “Get Up”, a really fast and furious track.
A: “I’d never heard anything like it in my life. It sounded like four guys fighting inside the speaker cabinets, beating the shit out of each other!”
Q: Presumably you didn’t feel the need to coach him as one guitar player to another?
A: “He was so talented, so there wasn’t a lot I could add or suggest from a performance point of view. And he had a unique style, obviously. I didn’t want to say things for the sake of it. I thought seriously about what I was saying, what I was contributing.”
Q: But he would look to you for approval, for feedback?
A: “Yeah. I think he respected my songwriting — he knew I could write songs, and that was a plus for me. Some of the songs needed a bit of tailoring, and I think I provided that, as well as feedback. I wasn’t afraid to speak up about how I felt, which was a little risky, I guess.”
Q: It seems strange to ask, but were there moments when you said, ‘Sorry Edward, that I don’t think that solo is good enough’?
A: “There were several times that happened — and then I would sprint out of the door and run into the forest at the back of the studio! But I think we respected each other, and we both had the experience to be able to sensibly exchange opinions.”
To read the rest of Jones’ Q&A, head over to Guitar World’s official website HERE.
Watch Mick Jones’ 2015 CBS Sunday Morning Interview