Nashville engineer Steve Marcantonio is best known these days as an Academy of Country Music Engineer-of-the-Year Award winner who has worked with the likes of Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, Alabama, Deanna Carter, George Strait, Reba McEntire, Vince Gill and Brooks and Dunn. But long before his Music City days, he got his start in 1978 as an assistant engineer at the Record Plant in New York City, where he worked with the Blue Brothers, The J. Geils Band, Aerosmith, Kiss, Cheap Trick, Richie Havens and Clarence Clemons and others. In December 1980, he got the opportunity to work with John Lennon, Yoko Ono and producer Jack Douglas, who had booked time at the Record Plant to work on the Yoko Ono song “Walking on Thin Ice.” The song was originally tracked during the Double Fantasy sessions, and was being considered as the next single of Lennon and Ono’s collaboration. Tracking began on December 1 and ended on December 8th, just hours before Lennon’s untimely death.
In advance of the national PBS broadcast premiere on Monday, November 22 at 8:00 p.m. Central of the American Masters: LENNONYC documentary, we asked Marcantonio to share his thoughts on the film and his recollections of working with Lennon and Ono during those eight days — days that would be the former Beatles’ last, and include the final time he recorded music.
On his engineering experience before working with Lennon and Yoko:
I knew nothing at all about anything in music before I worked for Roy Cicala at the Record Plant. I dabbled in playing guitar for a few months, and I grew up in a house of music and I took a course in recording that did nothing for me. The terminology and the gear I knew nothing about, so that first year, it took me awhile just to understand the language. I had maybe a little more than a year under my belt of actually working as an assistant. It was still quite new to me, the whole assisting thing.
On the sessions for “Walking on Thin Ice.”
Earlier in the year in 1980, John came in to do some work on Double Fantasy and they wanted me to be the assistant, but I was working on the Blues Brothers soundtrack and the producer didn’t want to let me go, since he was used to working with me. So them coming back in December, it felt like it was in the cards that I was going to be working with him. I had gotten a second chance.
When John and Yoko tracked Double Fantasy, they had recorded two albums worth of music, and they were going to put out a second album and this was one of those songs. I think it was eventually going to go on that record, but it was definitely going to be the next single.
We started on the 1st, a Monday, and they came in at the beginning of the day. The times and the hours are kind of vague, but we started sometime before noon. Jack Douglas was the producer and basically the engineer as well. He sat behind the board. We listened to the track, to all the music that was recorded. There were minimal tracks, because they didn’t really finish it, so Jack, John and Yoko decided what they needed to do, and what they decided to do was record some guitars from John, a synthesizer that John would put on, and all the vocals, which was Yoko. So that process, and mixing it, getting all the elements together and forming the record, took a full week. It didn’t get to ungodly hours until the very end.
John and Yoko would come in the studio every day, and John was basically co-producing with Yoko and Jack. They all had a say on it. He was very much a part of the record-making process. He knew the signal flow, and he knew what he wanted and how he liked things to sound. Matter of fact, there was a device out called the Clap Track, and it was a device that simulated the sound of claps. We figured out that it was made somewhere in New Jersey. I offered to get it for him. He gave me $200 — two $100 bills — and I was gonna get it and bring it to him at the Dakota after that week. I just dreamed of going up the elevator to his apartment and giving him this device.
John laid down this really cool guitar solo that was so John Lennon, and every time the solo came up he would turn to me and we’d play air guitar to each other. It’s pretty surreal even thinking about it now.
On the final night and day of recording, and taking a walk with Lennon:
It was Monday morning, the 8th — Sunday night into Monday morning — about 3:00 in the morning. It was freezing cold. I had been up probably at that point, 18 or 20 hours, and I was starting to fade. Jack said, “Let’s take a break and stop for awhile.” I felt that I needed to get some air just to keep awake for the next few hours. I took my coat and said, “Guys, I’m going out for a walk,” and as I’m leaving the control room, John says “Hold on, I’m coming with you.”
The only things out in the street were very light traffic, taxi cabs and garbage trucks. And there’s me and John Lennon walking down 44th street up to 8th Avenue. He told me a story of when he and the Beatles were in a neighborhood where the local guys were mad at them because they had the attention of their ladies, so a group of guys were chasing them down the street and John said he just took his hat and threw it on the ground and they stomped on it and that gave them enough time to get away. And I guess that walk reminded him of that, maybe because it was so cold out. But it was so cool that he told me that. It was so out of left field. And I don’t think we walked far. We might have walked around the block, but all I know was that I was walking alone with John Lennon and I wanted the whole world to see. That’s what I thought, and there was no one out there.
We went back in the studio and then we worked until at least six in the morning. There was a little concession stand in the Record Plant and I remember that John and Yoko stopped and got something before they left. That was back in the day when you worked in the studio the whole day and could lose track of time. There were no windows, and when you left the studio it could be daytime again.
That Monday we came back in later to listen to the mix, to tighten everything and make sure everything was cool. I remember that night vividly. Jack Douglas was also producing a girl named Karen Lawrence. She was in a rock band called 1994. We had set a session for 9:00 that night, right after John and Yoko’s thing. I was scurrying around the studio getting ready for that session while John and Yoko were getting ready to leave. In my mind I had all these things I wanted to say to them, you know, “Thanks a lot…it was great working with you…I’ll see you with the clap track..this and that,” and I had to walk down the hall to another room. As I’m walking back to the studio where John and Yoko were, they were already in the elevator. So there was just barely enough time to say goodbye. So they were nice and receptive and said “Take care, Steve.” I was getting ready for Karen’s session, and it seemed like it was only an hour or so later that we heard the news (that he had died). There were four rooms in the studio, and each session just ran to a halt. I had to get the tapes and put them into the vault on the roof. For some reason I was scared – I don’t know why — to take those tapes up to the vault.
On going back in the studio after John’s death:
The following week, after his death, we were back in the studio with Yoko, and Jack said in the movie, it was kind of like their private memorial, and I was part of that. It was pretty intense and very heavy for me to be a part of. What they did, when they recorded Double Fantasy, they had a little tape machine called a Nagra. It was a small reel-to-reel that they set up in the control room. Whatever was said, they captured on tape. I think some of that is in the movie. You can hear John’s voice in the studio. What they did I think, we took all those tapes and skimmed through them and made like a montage of things he said, and put that to music — I’m not sure what the music was — so we made this little montage and I think it just went to Yoko. I don’t think there’s a trace of that anywhere to be had. We spent the better part of a day in the studio and it was intense. It was very much a somber mood.
I did get the cash (for the Clap Track) back to Yoko. And think Yoko remembered that, because she wound up giving me a double platinum plaque for Double Fantasy even though I didn’t work on it.
On watching LENNONYC:
I’ve mentioned this film to maybe twenty different people and the first thing I tell them is that even if you don’t care about John Lennon, it’s a great timepiece and historical movie. Obviously, fans of John Lennon are going to love it. I didn’t realize until years later (after working with him) the impact he had on the peace movement at that time. It was phenomenal. But the historical sense of the movie is amazing, just for people who want to see what the country was going through at the time.
For me personally, seeing (Record Plant owner) Roy Cicala up on the screen … he’s the person that hired me, literally, off the street. I met him on the turnpike one day — my cousin knew him and introduced us – to go for a ride to pick up a boat, and that was my first exposure to him. He took a liking to me instantly and I was his personal assistant for the first year. So we were pulling tapes out of the vault of old John Lennon stuff and I was exposed to that instantly. Growing up listening to the Beatles, George Harrison was always my favorite Beatle. But John Lennon was my brother John’s favorite Beatle. He exposed me to John Lennon’s thought process.
So my exposure to John Lennon was kind of post-Beatles. I never understood the impact of what he was all about until after the Beatles were over. And then working at the Record Plant I got really exposed to him as an artist. So when I saw that film and saw Roy Cicala on the screen, and I saw old pictures of Record Plant it brought me back to the day when I first started.
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Steve Marcantonio is currently producing and engineering a Nashville tribute record to John Lennon slated for release in early 2011. Conceived to coincide with what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday this year, and what is the 30th Anniversary of his death on December 8, the album will include covers of Lennon songs by Rodney Crowell, Foster & Lloyd, Gretchen Peters, Billy Falcon and Matraca Berg and Jeff Hanna with saxophonist Bobby Keys, who do a blistering version of “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” a song Keys played the original saxophone on. The project has the blessing of Yoko Ono. Proceeds from the sale of the album will benefit the Nashville Engineer Relief Fund.
Interview conducted and edited by Joe Pagetta.