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Most of us record albums with budgetary constraints — that’s just our reality. Imagine waking up one day with unlimited resources at your fingertips. Here and now, there’s nothing that your conscious mind can dream of that can’t be done. Imagine the opportunity to create an album under these conditions — what might that look like? Where would you go? What would you invent? What would you expend in the name of “recording costs” — a symphony orchestra, the chance to work with a legend, endlessly flowing champagne and cigars?
Let’s take a look at a few instances in the past 50 years when a record label blindly forked over heaping piles of cash, satisfying the whims of their artists until a final product was delivered. In some cases, this freedom helped create a landmark album like nothing the world had ever heard — and sometimes, well, not so much.
1. The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Cost: £40,000 in 1967 (approx. $932,200 today)
No list of albums created with credit carte blanche would be complete without mentioning the Beatles. Their Sgt. Pepper period was marked by an unparalleled exploration of the open-ended potential of the recording studio.
By 1966, the Beatles were the biggest band in the world. The limits of live sound production meant that it was no longer possible for the band to successfully perform in public. As such, the Beatles retired from performing and shifted their focus to what they could create within the confines of EMI’s Abbey Road studios.
It may be difficult to comprehend, but at that time, the recording studio was more science laboratory than rock and roll funhouse: engineers literally wore white lab coats and had to follow strict procedural guidelines.
The Beatles weren’t accustomed to hearing the word “no” from anybody, and thanks to their unwavering vision (or stubbornness, as the case may be) and the willingness to entertain their far-out ideas, the band and their close-knit team (producer Sir George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick) managed to create one of the most incredible albums of their time.
Any preliminary investigation will uncover some of the ways that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band changed recorded music forever. Geoff Emerick’s fascinating book Here, There And Everywhere is strongly recommended for anyone who’s curious to learn more about those adventurous days. Or watch this strange BBC television documentary about trying to recreate the album 40 years later.
2. The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds and Smile
Cost: $70,000 in 1965-66 (approx. $531,454.09 today)
Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper never would have happened…. Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.
– Beatles’ producer Sir George Martin.
After profiling the inimitable Sgt. Pepper, it’s only fair to take a look at one of the main points of inspiration for that album. On the other side of the pond, Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys spent an unheard of $70,000 on their album Pet Sounds.
Pet Sounds is an album that synonymous with an artistic vision realized despite the slowly deteriorating state of its maestro as painted by the brush of history. The final result was unabashed psychedelia, and the record label had absolutely no idea how to market it, opting instead to funnel their promotional efforts into a best-of album released shortly afterward. Yet, Pet Sounds is a genre-defying masterpiece, whose 50th anniversary was celebrated with a gorgeous reissue and plenty of bonus material.
In 2004, Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE was released after nearly 40 years. Production of the album, which began in 1966, was incredibly ambitious but ultimately halted in 1967 due to Wilson’s unpredictability. Some of the frivolous expenses for the album included a $30,000 dollar Arabian tent built for the consumption of “inspirational substances and sandwiches.” Wilson had his piano placed in a sandbox filled with eight tons of premium beach sand so he could feel the sand between his toes while recording.
Van Dyke Parks, who befriended Wilson and was hired to work on the album as a lyricist, chose to abandon the project after seeing how destructive Wilson had become. While we will never know how much money was spent on the SMiLE sessions, at least we now have the album itself.
3. Talk Talk – Spirit Of Eden
Cost: unlimited budget, spend unknown.
Talk Talk’s career began in the early 1980s as a Brit-pop band who got some attention for their hooky pop songs and synth-laden warmth. Easy comparisons to Duran Duran (due to their double-word name for one and the fact that Talk Talk also supported them on tour in the mid ’80s) weren’t entirely justified, which became evident when their ambitions and budget grew accordingly.
Their third album, The Colour Of Spring, afforded them the chance to use session musicians instead of synthesizers to flesh out their arrangements, something the band had been interested in doing previously but lacked the financial support. With the commercial success of The Colour of Spring, their label granted Talk Talk an unlimited budget and total creative control for their upcoming album Spirit of Eden. What the label received was far from what they were expecting — an experimental dirge into uncharted territory.
Spirit of Eden was created over several months of intense, improvisational sessions wherein the studio was blacked out, oil projectors flashed psychedelic images on the walls, and the band used then-modern digital mixing techniques to shape and mold their masterpiece.
A mix of classical impressionism, jazz, and rock, the album earned mixed critical reviews, though Spirit of Eden is often retroactively cited as a cult classic and credited with helping to birth the post-rock movement. Listening back, it’s not hard to hear how the album may have influenced emotionally powerful bands like Sigur Ros, Tortoise, and even Radiohead.
4. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Cost: approx. $3,000,000 in 2009
Kanye West’s fifth album, My Dark Twisted Fantasy, was recorded during a period of self-imposed exile on Hawaii’s Oahu Island with additional recording done in Los Angeles and New York. While all of Kanye’s albums have largely been both critically and commercially successful, it could be said that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy stands as his masterpiece. It’s a successful culmination of the technical and cultural innovations of his albums that preceded it, like featuring string and orchestral ensembles and impressive sampling while dropping as an uncompromising display of the future of hip-hop.
While the label spared no expense on the production, reports from the compound in Hawaii characterized a Kanye hard at work — employing engineers to run soundboards across three session rooms 24 hours a day as Kanye took periodic 90-minute naps instead of regular sleep.
Kanye solicited a massive roster of A-list artists and producers for the sessions, including Eminem, Lil Wayne, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Elton John, Kid Cudi, Beyonce, Jay Z, and so many more. He even hired two private chefs to cook in the studio — one strictly for hot food, the other strictly for cold food. The album still stands on its own as a crowning achievement of hip-hop, and it’s, of course, unapologetically Kanye. It’s not just Kanye — hip-hop has a long historical connection with food. Check it out in depth here!
5. Steely Dan – Gaucho
In 1979, the Steely Dan train was rolling down the tracks full steam ahead, but soon things would begin to get rocky for band leader Walter Becker. A nasty drug habit was putting a strain on his relationship with co-leader Donald Fagen.
In early 1980, his girlfriend died of a drug overdose at his home, and the family of the deceased sued Becker for exposing the woman to drugs. Not long after, Becker was struck by a New York City taxicab, which took six months of recovery time. Furthermore, the band was nearly pulled into court by jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, who claimed they stole one of his compositions for the Gaucho title track — a dispute that was settled out of court for $1,000,000.
These were the conditions in which Steely Dan found themselves in the late ’70s — a band already notorious for overblowing their studio time with treacherously long recording sessions, take after take, band after band.
In an effort to perfect the sound of the recorded drums, the band paid recording engineer Roger Nichols to create a drum machine (that they nicknamed Wendel) for the handsome sum of $150,000. When Gaucho reached platinum status, Wendel was awarded a plaque for his contributions. Gaucho is as indulgent as anything in the Steely Dan catalog, a loosely woven tapestry of hipster debauchery set in the Hollywood Hills; for a prime slice of American artistic hedonism, look no further.
6. Grateful Dead – Aoxomoxoa
Cost: $180,000 in 1969 ($1,175,554 today)
The Grateful Dead are less regarded for their studio output than for their legendary history as psychedelic pioneers. The Dead broke all the rules regarding band management, circulating their music among fans for free, and innovated live music production and touring management with their Wall of Sound speakers, courtesy of their legendary sound designer and LSD chemist, Owsley “Bear” Stanley.
Unfortunately, the band built their roadshow into something entirely too big to sustain, and it claimed a number of lives, concluding with the passing of Jerry Garcia in 1995. But while much of the conversation steers towards the cultural significance of the group, fans of the band know that their early studio records are incredibly rewarding, and reflect the same spirit of anti-authoritarianism and whimsy that the band wholly embodied.
The Grateful Dead had already recorded two albums by the time they began working on Aoxomoxoa. The album was initially recorded on eight-track tape, but then scrapped and re-recorded entirely after Ampex manufactured the first 16-track tape recorder.
The Dead were no strangers to tinkering with technology and spent eight months learning and experimenting with the new device, which offered twice as many dedicated tracks of music. The result was a sprawling, dense, and naturally indulgent experience. However, by the time the last licks were laid down, the band had spent $180,000. In order to offset their debt to the record company, they also produced their first live album, Live/Dead, utilizing the same 16-track tape recorder that they used on Aoxomoxoa.
7. Van Dyke Parks – Song Cycle
Cost: $40,000 in 1967 (almost $300,000 today)
Van Dyke Parks released his debut album, Song Cycle, in 1967. By then, Parks had become well known as a session pianist, arranger, and lyricist; co-produced an album for Randy Newman; and had his songs covered by other artists for radio play. (Read all about Van Dyke Parks’ career in our full profile.) Suffice to say, Warner Bros. prioritized Parks’ vision over budget in crafting his first album.
Throughout his career, Parks was eons ahead of the technical curve — experimenting with tape splicing, Moog prototypes, and even spearheading the use of video — and Song Cycle featured such technical innovation as eight-track reel-to-reel tape and innovation in tape delay and varispeed. The album cost $40,000 to produce, but unfortunately didn’t sell more than 10,000 copies upon release, which didn’t cover recording costs and thus was deemed a flop.
8. Fleetwood Mac – Tusk
Cost: $1,000,000 in 1979 ($3,000,000 today)
I would’ve loved to have been a fly on the wall when Warner Brothers first put that album on in the boardroom, ’cause they really didn’t hear it until it was done and we gave it to them…. From a marketing point of view, it was not what they wanted or what they expected. It was a ballsy thing to do.
– Lindsay Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac.
Fleetwood Mac released their best-selling album, Rumours, in 1977. Hardly an overnight success, the single-laden Rumours was their eleventh studio album. Despite the encouragement of the record label, their double-album follow-up Tusk was decidedly not a recreation of the commercially proven sound of Rumours.
Guitarist Lindsay Buckingham became increasingly involved in the album’s production and sound, at times bordering on mania and alarming producer Ken Caillat. Buckingham crafted much of the album at his own home studio, and three of the tracks on the album were recorded solely by Buckingham. His self-imposed stress over the creation of the album led to more questionable behavior, and Fleetwood Mac was not new to overspending and excess.
The tales surrounding the Tusk recording sessions include all-night, drugged-out parties, a studio decked out to resemble an African burial ground, renting out Dodgers Stadium for the entire USC Trojans marching band to accompany them on the title track (which you can see in the video above).
Buckingham strived to maintain the legitimacy of Fleetwood Mac in a post-punk musical world. In the end, he was able to craft the album he wanted, despite the lukewarm label reception. Tusk only sold four million copies, compared to Rumours’ 10 million — considering its price tag, it was considered a commercial flop. However, it was the album that Buckingham wanted to make, and it has since been re-characterized as an integral album for the band.
9. Garth Brooks/Chris Gaines – …The Life of Chris Gaines
Cost: nearly $20,000,000 in 1999
The only thing more fascinating about the events and decisions surrounding …The Life of Chris Gaines is the nearly $20,000,000 spent on recording and promotion. Garth Brooks was already at the top of the heap in 1999 when he decided to take on an alter-ego character named Chris Gaines.
The character was conceived and slated to star in an upcoming film, The Lamb. But that’s just where things started to go off the rails. In addition to dedicating himself publicly to the pursuit of this new character, Brooks appeared as Gaines on an episode of SNL and even filmed an entire VH1 Behind the Music as Chris Gaines — but the public wasn’t buying it, and the voices of the critical were heard and felt.
It’s hard not to look at this entire chapter in Brooks’ career as an ego-plagued messianic fantasy acted out by one of the world’s biggest country singers. Despite the alienation of his diehard fans (could the wig and guy-liner have had something to do with it?), the resulting album, …The Life of Chris Gaines, is actually pretty good. The record plays down as a state-of-the-union address of adult contemporary pop in 1999. Solid songwriting and world-class musicians and production give the music life. The album managed to sell over two million copies upon its release, but considering Brooks’ selling power and the money spent on promotion, this was considered a failure. The film project was scrapped, and Chris Gaines has since faded into memory.
10. Sleep – Dopesmoker
Anyone steeped in the world of metal and its many sub-genres will know Sleep, but for those who aren’t yet familiar, their third album Dopesmoker is a legendary exercise in excess and abandon. Sleep was one of the first bands to codify the stoner/doom metal sound, with impossibly slow riffing played on incredibly loud, fuzzed-out guitars that recall Tony Iommi in the heyday of Black Sabbath and lyrics about (you guessed it) smoking the herb. The first lyrics we’re treated to on Dopesmoker are “Drop out of life, bong in hand.”
Whatever you say, Sleep.
Here’s where things start to get funky. After the success of their second album, Sleep’s Holy Mountain, they opted to sign with London Records to record their follow-up. The label promised unlimited budget and zero creative interruption. What London didn’t know was that Sleep was writing a single, hour-long metal epic about wandering, bong smoking sand people. That’s right. One song, one hour.
In addition to spending a considerable amount of their advance on their favorite inspirational substance, Sleep claimed to have spent over $75,000 on custom guitar amplifiers and more gear to help them achieve the heaviest heavy metal album of all time.
Needless to say, the label didn’t know what to do with the final product and shelved it. Eventually, the band agreed to a remix of the album, which was slightly shortened and cut up to become Jerusalem — after the band had already broken up. The full, unedited version of the original piece, entitled Dopesmoker, was released in 2003 and is regarded as one of the most important albums of the genre. Sleep has reunited for occasional performances and has since recorded a new single with the promise of an album on the way.
This mini-documentary on the album is pretty entertaining.
11. Guns N’ Roses – Chinese Democracy
Cost: over $13,000,000 in total over the course of 14 years
No list of albums would be complete without the most expensive album ever produced to date — Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy. Chinese Democracy has become something of a punchline in the music industry. Synonymous with never-ending demands and impossible feats of artistic revelry, the album was a fairy tale of endless excess and wasted funds until it finally saw the light of day in 2008.
The saga of Chinese Democracy began as early as 1994 when the band suffered from irreconcilable creative differences which led to the resigning or firing of nearly all the members of the band, save for lead vocalist Axl Rose and keyboardist Dizzy Reed. Drugs were initially a contributing factor to the slow progress of the record, but shifts in personnel (GNR employed eight different guitarists over the course of the recording), as well as employing some unorthodox practices. For instance, anyone who worked on the record needed to be personally vetted by Axl’s personal spiritual guide, Sharon “Yoda” Maynard.
Buckethead, the only guitarist whose inner strangeness matched the tone of the Chinese Democracy recording process, requested that an actual chicken coop be erected in the studio for his own comfort. The chicken coop even had some dog poop in it and a television monitor that continuously screened hardcore pornography — which eventually prompted Axl to shut the coop down. Hey, it’s nice to know where the line is.
While Chinese Democracy does an interesting job of modernizing the heavy metal that Guns N’ Roses ushered in in the late 1980s, it ultimately fell upon tepid critical reviews and less-than-stellar sales.
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