Marshall Crenshaw interview for Vintage Guitar magazine

by Pete Prown

Do you remember where you work your parts of “Whenever You’re On My Mind”? Did you just bash it out or did you work on it for a while? (And it was a leftover from the first album, right?)

I wrote that song, with help from my good friend Bill Teeley, in 1979. I was in Milwaukee with Beatlemania when I got the initial idea for it, which was the guitar riff that’s the foundation of the whole thing. When I got home and we finished writing the song, I recorded it right away on my TEAC 3340s and played the same guitar parts then that I’d play 3-4 years later on the Field Day version. It’s mostly just two guitars, except when the solo is in octaves (and the intro is doubled). During this time-frame I don’t remember ever struggling to come up with an idea for guitar parts. They all just fell into place easily.

There’s an obvious Byrds jangle on that cut, but I read you mentioning a Jackie DeShannon influence. Can you elaborate? (I doubt many of our readers know too much about DeShannon.)

Jackie DeShannon’s record, “When You Walk In the Room” came out in late 1963 and was a monster smash hit single in the Detroit area, where I grew up, and is still a favorite of mine. It really casts a spell, you might say. It didn’t make the Billboard Top 40 but was huge where I was. The record sounds two years ahead of its time now, with the dominant electric 12-string, and in fact Jackie was an influence on The Byrds, and was friends with them.

She only ever had two big hit records of her own during the ‘60s, but was kind of an underground legend, writing hits for lots of other people. And she was a great Rock and Roller.

About 5 or 6 of my songs from this time period are me trying to do a take-off, or a rip-off, of Jackie’s record.  But at the same time, you were right to make that Byrds reference: On “Whenever You’re On My Mind”, during the end of the choruses, I do play a counter-melody on guitar that’s a quote from the solo on “Turn Turn Turn”. You can’t really hear that part, but it’s there.

Production-wise, what did Steve Lillywhite bring to that song and the rest of the album?

I loved a lot of Steve’s records from 1980-1, but the one that made me track him down as a producer was “I Will Follow” by U2. I heard this huge, other-worldly sound coming from just a spare number of instruments and figured that this was the guy we needed. He was super-creative and had lots of ideas, but he was also open to learning from me and everybody in the room, which was great. Scott Litt was the engineer, so it was a pretty amazing team.

Steve and I talked about sounds that I liked- I probably played him a Bo Diddley record or two, maybe “Oh Baby Doll” by Chuck Berry, maybe “Just Once In My Life” by The Righteous Brothers, and said “Listen to these on acid and you’ll get what I’m looking for”.. And off we went.

There’s a very loose, live-in-the-studio vibe for “Our Town”? How did you capture that spontaneity?

On most every track on Field Day there’s just one electric rhythm guitar and an overdub or two. The drums and bass were done in layers, but when I did my main rhythm guitar part I’d always go for a complete take in one pass, like I was playing the song onstage. If I made a mistake I’d start over again from the top. And I did the same with all the percussion parts that I played on the record. That’s partly where the live energy comes from, plus we were young guys who were high on life.

On “For Her Love,” you take a guitar solo, but it’s more chordal, like Buddy Holly. An influence? Who are your other guitar influences?

Ah, that’s a good call! It does sound like something that Tommy Allsup might’ve played on one of Buddy’s records, and I probably had that thought in mind at the time. Sometimes onstage I mention that I saw Buddy Holly on the Ed Sullivan show when I was 4 years old and he was blurry- I needed glasses at the time but nobody knew it yet.

Other guitar influences? At the time of Field Day I would’ve been hearing Nile Rodgers, Jody Harris, Robert Quine, lots of others, maybe some Andy Summers too, ‘cause I used a chorus pedal sometimes...

I met Nile Rodgers at the Power Station while we were doing the album but was too star-struck to say anything intelligent to him. He was great though, really friendly. I was friends with Danny Gatton at this time and invited him to play a solo on “One Day With You”; he didn’t show up, so I tried to play something like what I thought he might’ve played.

There are two solos on “All I Know Right Now”- I remember doing the long one at the end in one take, just channeling the emotions that are in the song.

What guitars did you use on Field Day, especially get that jangle on something like “One More Reason”? (I’ve seen photos of you with an Epiphone.)

About 60% of the time it’s a Stratocaster through an AC30, and I only had one Strat at the time (now I have two). I also had an Epiphone Coronet with a P90, and had just gotten a 1955 Gretsch Jet Firebird; I’d wanted one of those since I first saw Bo Diddley playing one on the cover of Go Bo Diddley. I used two electric 12-strings, an Epiphone Wilshire, and a Carvin- I don’t remember the model name of that one, but it was black, had a lot of switches on it, and was really nice. I still had a Vox Phantom XII but didn’t use it on this album. And I had this funny little 6-string bass that I can’t remember the name of. A Hondo, maybe? It looked like a toy. Oh, and a Guild Thunderbird on “Hold It”- I got that guitar right as the album was being finished.

And I almost forgot: I had a ’63 Tele during Field Day, but only used it for the solo on “One Day With You” and nothing else. There was something funny about the fingerboard- somebody had sanded it down flat, so I didn’t keep the guitar. It sounded great though...

I tried acoustic guitar on one song but got rid of it- it’s electric guitars only on this album.

What about amps? Any vintage ones?

Again, mainly it was Vox AC30s- I had two but they were brand new, not vintage. I guess they’d be “vintage” now.. I had a blackface Dual Showman- on “Try” and “One Day With You” it’s the Jet Firebird through the Dual Showman. We’d gotten a free backline from Music Man just before they stopped making amps, and that was really nice stuff. I know for sure that the 12-string on “All I Know Right Now” was the Carvin through a Music Man amp.

Where did the reverb come from – the amp or dedicated reverb unit?

If I remember correctly, there’s very little reverb on the album. On “One Day With You” Scott re-amped my rhythm guitar through a Twin Reverb and added some that way; I don’t remember if that was his idea or mine. Normally, back then, I didn’t use any reverb on guitar.

In 1974 I got three albums that really spun my head around: “The World Is Still Waiting For the Sunrise” by Les Paul and Mary Ford, “The Bop That Just Won’t Stop” by Gene Vincent, and “The Sun Collection” by Elvis Presley. After that I always wanted to use a slap-echo on my guitar. First I got an Echoplex, then traded that for a Morley Echo pedal, then MXR came out with their analog delay pedal, which plugged into the wall, and I got one of those. By the time of Field Day I was using a Boss Analog Delay; my guitar was always plugged into that, and straight from there into the amp.

If Scott added any other reverb to the guitars during mixing then it was very subtle, not really audible. There’s backwards chamber-echo on “What Time Is It”- I remember that. Steve pretty much arranged that track.

There’s lots of tape delay and slap-echo throughout the album. We used a Roland Space Echo on the vocals during mixing- that was Steve’s idea.

You hear a gated room-sound on the drums and maybe elsewhere. There are some crazy sounds on the album, but it’s all real earthy and organic to me; there’s tape delay, maybe a trace of echo chamber here and there (I’m guessing), room sounds, tube outboard equipment, etc.

Did Beatlemania prepare you to be a solo artist? Or was that the plan all along?

In a way it did- the thought process that led to me being a solo artist did start while I was in the show. I hadn’t been training myself all my life for the job of Rock frontman, but by the time I left Beatlemania I had a bunch of songs, a real clear sense of direction, and I needed to have flexibility and freedom, so being a solo artist was the way to go. And lucky for me I got a ton of great help and support from my brother Robert- at first it was just him and me, before we met Chris Donato and started playing gigs.

You were tagged as a New Wave artist at the time. Were you okay with that spin or was it a burden?

There are what you might call “Retro” influences in what I was doing, but I always wanted to be on a forward-going path and not ever try to make the same record twice. I was drawing inspiration from things that I’d grown up with, along with things that were in the air around me right at that moment. It was a combination of elements that was its own thing.

I actually wanted people to identify us as a New Wave group at the time. People now think of that term as meaning something formulaic, but in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s it was the opposite of formulaic, and that suited me because I always had eclectic taste and didn’t want to play by anyone else’s rules. In what was called New Wave when I was starting out with my own music, there didn’t seem to be any rules. At that time, a lot of disparate things fell under the umbrella of New Wave somehow, and it made sense to me.

By the mid 1980s, stripped-down rock got knocked out by massive drum beats and slick, over-the-top production. Yet “Whenever You’re On My Mind” remains a critical track of the early decade. What are your memories of the song, the Field Day album, and your rock ‘n’ roll legacy?

Popular Music is always moving forward, just like time itself, and also, the music business is super fast-paced and competitive, so if you have a chunk of time where things are working reasonably well for you, you should be grateful for that, and I am. From late 1981, when Robert Gordon’s version of “Someday Someway” was in the Billboard Hot 100, up to late 1987, when the “La Bamba” soundtrack album was Number One, there was always something somewhere in the charts that had my name on it for some reason, either as an artist or songwriter, and that includes the Country charts too, because I had album tracks by The Bellamy Brothers, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The New Grass Revival, et. al. And of course I’ve never stopped since then. My brother John once asked me about surviving all the ups and downs, how I managed to do it, and I told him, “As long as I can keep playing, my spirit will stay intact.”

As far as Field Day goes, I love it. It’s my second album, but it’s the first one where you can tell that I’m a guitar player.

Thanks Marshall