5 Albums: Bob Ezrin
Original Story by Don Morgan (2023-03-28)
The release of Songs of Surrender offers us an opportunity to resurrect the 5 Albums series and focus on a producer whose name is relatively unique in the U2 universe: Bob Ezrin. On the new album, he’s credited as a co-producer with The Edge on the full collection, with specific roles dependent upon which track you’re looking at. (The main liner notes technically read: “Produced by The Edge. With production by Bob Ezrin. Additional production by Duncan Stewart, Declan Gaffney and Richard Rainey.”) Ezrin’s previous work with U2 includes producing U2 Live at the BBC in 2017, which featured the band accompanied by an orchestra at Abbey Road Studios. The audio for this TV special has not been released separately. Ezrin also mixed the live from New Orleans version of U2’s collaboration with Green Day, “The Saints are Coming,” on that single in 2006. And of course, The Edge and Bob Ezrin are the co-founders of Music Rising, a charitable organization launched in 2005 to aid musicians following Hurricane Katrina.
Outside of U2’s orbit, Bob Ezrin’s resume is distinguished and incredibly diverse. He has produced landmark albums for Alice Cooper, KISS, Pink Floyd, and many others, and has produced, mixed, or co-written recordings by Taylor Swift, Rod Stewart, Hanoi Rocks, Kirsten Chenoweth, the Canadian Tenors, Deftones, Janes Addiction, 2Cellos (who also appear on Songs of Surrender), and many more. Here are 5 albums that bear the unmistakable Bob Ezrin stamp:
After three lackluster studio releases in the early 1970s, American rock band KISS found unexpected success with its fourth release, a concert album called Alive! To capitalize on that success, producer Bob Ezrin was enlisted to oversee the studio follow-up, 1976’s Destroyer. Ezrin significantly expanded the group’s palette of what had, to that point, essentially been a raw, garage-band style. Destroyer would feature numerous new studio tricks and enhancements including strings and other sound effects. Ezrin also brought in additional musicians to help flesh out the band’s sound, as none of the core members had any musical training. In fact, legend has it that Ezrin halted the recording process at one point to give the band members some basic pointers in music theory. Guitarist Paul Stanley would later describe working with him as “musical boot camp.” It must have worked, though, because the album itself became KISS’s first platinum-seller, spawning iconic hard rock anthems such as “Detroit Rock City” and “Shout It Out Loud” and the power-ballad “Beth.” Ezrin is also credited as a co-writer on most tracks. He would revisit the album in 2012 as producer and remixer for the anniversary release Destroyer: Resurrected. Love ‘em or hate ’em, KISS holds a unique place in the rock n’ roll universe, and Bob Ezrin helped get them there.
Peter Gabriel-Peter Gabriel
It was a big deal when Peter Gabriel left Genesis in 1975 to embark on a solo career. When it came time to record his first album a year later, he enlisted Bob Ezrin as producer. Typically referred to as “PG1” or “Car” to distinguish it between Gabriel’s first four albums, all of which are technically just titled Peter Gabriel, the songs are shorter, punchier, and quirkier than those from Gabriel’s Genesis days. Ezrin employs a wide range of studio techniques and technology, effectively combining Gabriel’s vocals, keyboards, and flute (clearly Peter hadn’t yet completely abandoned his Genesis roots) with Larry Fast’s synthesizers (including programming that was cutting edge for the time), Tony Levin’s bass (Levin remains Gabriel’s studio and touring bassist to this day), and Robert Fripp’s guitar (Fripp would go on to produce PG2). The barbershop quartet intro on “Excuse Me” is one of the album’s most intriguing moments. A couple of songs from “Car” remain Gabriel staples to this day, including debut single “Solsbury Hill” (re-released in 1983, 1988, and 1990 and a frequent inclusion on movie soundtracks) and closing track “Here Comes the Flood.” Most critics agree that Peter Gabriel didn’t really find his footing as a solo artist until 1980’s PG3 (”Melt”) (see our analysis of that album in 5 Albums: Steve Lillywhite), but with PG1, Ezrin definitely helped put him on the right path and gave him a strong foundation for the successes that would lie ahead.
Geoffrey Oryema-Beat the Border
Ugandan singer, songwriter, and guitarist Geoffrey Oryema, who sadly passed away in 2018, recorded three albums for Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records in the 1990s. His first album, Exile, was produced by Brian Eno and covered in our 5 Albums: Brian Eno segment. The follow-up, 1993’s Beat the Border, was originally recorded over a series of demo sessions at Real World in November of 1992, and those sessions were produced by Bob Ezrin. From the ten original demos, Ezrin would go on to produce three tracks on the final album, including lead single “The River,” which was mixed by Brian Eno. Whereas the majority of songs on the debut were sung in Oryema’s native Acholi or Swahili, on Beat the Border there are several tracks that incorporate English vocals as well. Under the guidance of Ezrin alongside Gabriel’s in-house producer David Bottrill, there was a conscious effort to expand the sparse sonic palette of the first album, with keyboards and a drum kit complimenting Oryema’s work on the guitar and traditional instruments lukeme and nanga. Ezrin contributes keyboards and bass to some tracks as well, creating a warm, global pop sound that avoids the pitfalls and cliches of many “world fusion” albums of the time.
Pink Floyd-The Wall
If you’ve read Bono’s memoir Surrender, you know that in the early days of U2, the band and their post-punk peers were stridently and vocally opposed to anything that might be classified as “prog rock.” It’s ironic, then, that U2’s most recent release is produced by a man who was intimately involved with one of the most iconic prog albums of all time! The Wallis one of those “even if you’re not a fan of the band, you probably have this album in your collection” releases. And if you don’t actually own a copy, you’ve certainly not been able to escape the sounds of “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” and “Comfortably Numb” emanating from your car radio over the past four-plus decades. Bob Ezrin co-produced this 1979 double album, a “rock opera,” alongside band members David Gilmour and Roger Waters and engineer James Guthrie. Ezrin’s role in the album extended far beyond that of producer, though. He worked with Waters to capture the sound effects required to carry the narrative forward, including phone calls, ambient nature sounds, excerpts from TV shows, and more. He also helped develop and refine Waters’ original story concepts, played keyboards and other instruments on some tracks, provided orchestral arrangements, and perhaps most significantly, played the role of peacemaker between warring band members during the contentious recording sessions. In the years since that time The Wall has come to be widely regarded as one of the defining albums of the rock music era. It is Pink Floyd’s second highest selling title at an estimated 33,000,000 copies worldwide (Dark Side of the Moon takes the prize at 50,000,000 copies) and is the top-selling double album of all time. It has spawned tours, stage productions, a feature film, tribute albums, and more. Critics don’t necessarily love it, and it continues to be a subject of great controversy between the famously feuding former members of Pink Floyd, but its influence is undeniable, and Bob Ezrin deserves much of the credit for that.
Lou Reed influenced countless musicians over the years, and U2 is no exception. In fact, Reed was a nightly guest vocalist—via video—on the Zoo TV Tour during “Satellite of Love.” So it’s only fitting that Songs of Surrender would include contributions from one of Reed’s past collaborators. Bob Ezrin produced and mixed Reed’s 1973 release Berlin, a confounding and disorienting concept album that was considered a critical and commercial failure at the time. In fact, Rolling Stone labeled Berlin a “disaster” upon its release in 1973—although it’s worth noting that by the dawn of the new millennium, RS had included it in its list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” The album’s narrative is a harrowing chronicle of abuse, addiction, and dysfunction that was based at least partly on Reed’s real-life experiences. At one point in the story, the authorities step in to remove the protagonist’s children from their drug-addled parents, and Ezrin’s own children provide the pitiful screams that can be heard during this sequence. Ezrin also plays mellotron and piano on the album, and additional musicians include Jack Bruce, Steve Winwood, Tony Levin, and Blue Weaver. Interestingly, Berlin was originally conceived as a double album, but the record company got cold feet and as a result, many of the tracks were edited down to a shorter length and one instrumental track was removed altogether to accommodate a single LP. By 2007, the critical consensus on Berlin had reversed to such a degree that Reed performed the album in its entirety on a tour across Europe. Coming full circle, Bob Ezrin served as musical director (alongside U2 friend Hal Willner) for that 2007 outing.