John Lennon on the cover of his Rock 'n' Roll albumMay Pang Talks About John Lennon's
Classic Album Rock 'n' Roll
Exclusively for Absolute Elsewhere

by ladyjean (Jean Teeters)

An Absolute Elsewhere Exclusive InterviewMay Pang played an important role, both personal and professional, in the recording of John Lennon’s classic album, Rock ‘n’ Roll. With the release of the newly remastered CD set for November 2, May talked to me about the experiences she and John shared during that time, in and out of the studio. The following interview was conducted exclusively for Absolute Elsewhere on September 23, 2004. ~ Jean Teeters

ABSOLUTE ELSEWHERE: Let’s start out talking about the time when the Rock ‘n’ Roll album was happening.

MAY PANG: When John and I decided to leave for Los Angeles -- and it was only because his lawyer was leaving that evening -- on an impulsive move John said, “Come on, May, we’re going to go to Los Angeles.” We left in late August, early September of 1973 and it was because John just wanted a new place for us. He wanted us to go somewhere other than New York, because I was feeling uncomfortable being in New York with what was going on. So we happened to be in Los Angeles, staying at his lawyer’s apartment (Harold Seider) and we contacted everybody that we knew there...Tony King, Ringo. We just contact everybody that we heard was around. John also started doing interviews for Mind Games and at that point when he was doing that -- being ‘DJ’ on some of the radio stations in those interviews -- they would always ask him what songs he liked and he would play his favorites. He would get a big kick out of that. At one point he said that he’d like to do an album of oldies, music that was the basis for his music. All the good stuff, Chuck Berry, Little name it. Phil Spector was around, and of course he had worked with him before, so we thought who better to do it with than Phil? He was the king at that point as a producer. John said, “I don’t even want to be a producer in this case. I just want to be the singer in the band and sing my heart out...sing all my favorite songs.” And that’s how it started.

AE: Did John ever consider anyone other than Phil Spector to produce the album?

MP: He didn’t consider anyone else. Seeing Phil out there is what caused the idea to come to him.

AE: He had a good relationship with Phil, didn’t he?

MP: Yes. We did a lot of things with Phil, but Phil had always been co-producer. In this case, John was going to give him the job of producer 100% on the album. Phil did ask him, “Do you really mean that?” (Jokingly) John should have taken the hint, as it were. I should have seen what was happening when he would come over to our house to go over songs and make arrangements. He’d come at night when everybody had already gone to bed and then he’d leave before dawn. After a while, I was telling my friend Arlene, “We’d better get a mirror to make sure he’s not a vampire.”

AE: Was John looking for the “Wall of Sound” from Phil for the album?

MP: I don’t think he was looking for anything except a good record. Something that would do the songs justice from his perspective: John’s way of singing and his arrangement.

AE: Did John have any idea about how elaborate Phil wanted the production to be in the beginning?

MP: No, not at all. Phil wouldn’t tell us. And the first day of the sessions, 27 musicians showed up. We were both taken by surprise. John wanted to be sure that he had his own engineer, and that was Roy Cicala. That was a definite. Everything else was Phil’s doing.

AE: So was that a red flag on the first day, when all those extra guys where showing up?

MP: It wasn’t like it was a red flag; there was a bunch of musicians and nobody knew what they were doing. And the producer hadn’t shown up. He was three hours late. Phil IS a red flag. He was unpredictable as he could be. But John had worked with him before and had never had any problems. Now all of a sudden he was late. John’s work ethic was very strict. He liked being on time; everybody getting there and ready to work.

AE: Was it a number of days before things started getting out of control, or did it happen pretty quickly?

MP: It was apparent very quickly. Phil would drink a bottle of liquor...he set the tone. And then everybody started to go wild. John’s way of working was that he would come into the studio and do the work. If you wanted to go drinking or take drugs, you did it after, not during his sessions. In this case, everybody was drinking, getting out of their minds, before the sessions. Because John had made Phil the producer, he wasn’t in control of the sessions. He didn’t even know what song they were gonna do the next day. It was never clear. It was very difficult.

AE: Do you think that John’s superstar status had these professional session musicians acting like it was a big party?

MP: Oh, absolutely. John was the new kid on the block. He had never recorded in L.A., he had always recorded in New York or London. This was totally different. And he had never given up control. He never thought in a million years it was going to go that haywire. John was thrilled to see some of the musicians who were on the sessions: Steve Cropper, Hal Blaine, Barry Mann...Dr. John one night, Leon Russell another night.

AE: If history had been rewritten, and John had been the producer, it would have been a totally different album.

MP: He did do it: when we couldn’t finish the album with Phil. Rock ‘n’ Roll has two ‘feels’: for example, Stand By Me was produced by John. We couldn’t use everything that Phil did because of the ‘wall of sound.’ You can’t contain the ‘leakage’ so if someone is playing badly in an overdub, it presents a problem.

AE: What things do you remember most about what happened as the sessions went on?

MP: The sessions were very tough, and obviously it’s been documented every way possible about how those sessions were. We got thrown out of A&M because some fool had gotten so drunk that he took a bottle of liquor and poured it down the console. John felt bad about that. That wasn’t the way he did things.

AE: It’s well known that The Beatles were highly disciplined in the way they were trained to record from the very start with George Martin. But it seems like by the time the Rock ‘n’ Roll sessions took place, the whole attitude of rock musicians had changed.

MP: In this case, it was the drinking. And that was something that John and I were not used to. But we both thought that it wouldn’t last; that it wouldn’t be every day of the sessions. But that’s not the way it turned out. People didn’t want to go home, because there were drinks there. Everybody wanted the freebie, and it was on John.

AE: But based on your personal knowledge about the recording business at that time, wasn’t it looser in general, the way the artists would record? That they weren’t disciplined in the way John had been from the start of his recording career?

MP: John always had discipline, so it was quite interesting to be in a session where it wasn’t like that. Phil had always been on target, but suddenly he wasn’t, and it really threw us off. We were on his turf. All John wanted to do was get through the get through the record. He wanted to pay homage to the people that he admired, that he grew up with. If the sessions had been a co-production between John and Phil, we would have had a lot less hassles.

AE: How long did the Phil Spector Rock ‘n’ Roll sessions last?

MP: They went on for a couple of months. We weren’t in the studio every day. We’d record one day and then take a few days off. We had to move to the Record Plant to finish the rest of the album, after we got kicked out of A&M. And that went on until sometime in December. Then after that, Julian was coming over to visit John. From that point on, we couldn’t get Phil back on track. We had recorded about nine songs. That’s where it fell apart and John was really upset by it.

AE: How long were you at A&M before you got kicked out?

MP: A couple of weeks, at least.

AE: How did you find out that you had been kicked out?

MP: I believe we found out through Phil.

AE: When you had to move to the Record Plant, did that put a damper on things?

MP: It didn’t go that way. No one cared that we moved to another studio. But John did feel bad when he found out what it was about. We had no idea what had happened at A&E until later on.

AE: Did the chaotic atmosphere of the sessions spill into the days you weren’t recording?

MP: It spilled into our personal lives because of Phil. Everybody wanted to be partying constantly. Even if we tried to slow it down, somebody would pick up the speed on it.

AE: Was Harry Nilsson around at that time?

MP: Yeah, he came in for a visit. Joni Mitchell was recording in the other studio. When she found out that John was recording in the studio we were in, she was coming in all the time. She would bring in other people. One night it was Warren Beatty and David Geffen. Musicians were always coming through the door: Elton John, Cher. Then Phil would give his speech, “How dare you walk into my session.” I would have fights with Phil, because I wouldn’t take it from him. I was in my early 20s at the time, and I was really strong-headed with him. He couldn’t handle that. I was trying to keep John from all the crazy things that people were trying to drag him into, things he was not aware of.

AE: Didn’t Paul McCartney show up one night?

MP: Paul didn’t come to that.

AE: There are two versions of that ‘studio jam’ tape, where Paul did jam with John. One, as I’m sure you know is called “The May Pang Tape” and the other one is called “A Toot and a Snore.”

MP: I want to clarify that I had nothing to do with the May Pang bootleg. When I heard about it, I didn’t know what it was about. But then I realized it was just referring to my ‘time period’ with John. I don’t even know where they got that tape. John and I didn’t even have it. I was surprised to hear about it. Why would I want my name to be attached to something like that? Actually, that tape was recorded when Paul happened to drop in at the end of the first night of the Harry Nilsson sessions for Pussy Cats. They jammed on old rock and roll songs because that’s what they all know.

AE: And that was the only time that John and Paul actually jammed together in the studio?

MP: Yes. Paul would come and visit us a lot, but that was the only time we really had a jam. Paul played drums, I played tambourine, Linda played Hammond organ, Stevie Wonder played electric piano. By the time Paul and Linda showed up, the night’s session was over. We could have had Keith Moon, Klaus Voorman, Ringo, and a bunch of other people, but they had already left.

AE: Something really entertaining could have come out of that. As it stands, it’s pretty well accepted that it’s one of the most depressing bootlegs to listen to.

MP: What people are forgetting, is that no one was doing this for recording purposes. It was for their own enjoyment. We didn’t even realize the tape was running.

AE: I think historically, from the fan’s perspective, it’s like being a fly on the wall, but you’re there at the wrong time.

MP: I get angry when I hear these comments. It was not for public consumption. And it was at the end of the night. In fact, John and I were about to leave, when Paul and Linda walked in. The session was over.

AE: What you have said about this tape, puts it into context.

MP: As I said, it was the first night of the Pussy Cats sessions at Burbank Studios. But, you know, John was thinking about going back with Paul and wanting to write with him. And I got very close to making that happen. I was encouraging him about it and he thought it would be good. We were talking about going to see Paul, and that’s how it would have been.

AE: What are your fondest memories about the Phil Spector Rock ‘n’ Roll sessions?

MP: Besides the bad memories that everybody keeps talking about, and they aren’t even correct, the good stuff was like Phil telling me, “I asked Leon Russell how much he wanted to be paid for the session and he said, ‘I just want a bird.’” My biggest thrill was seeing the great songwriters from the 60s. Then, of course, we saw Chuck Berry.

AE: Can you tell me about that meeting?

MP: Phil called off the session and rehearsal for the night because he said he had a surprise for us. John and I suspected it had something to do with Chuck Berry, because he was in town. That was a wild night. Phil had never met Chuck. But picture this scene: we’re sitting in a sunken living room that’s’s like the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland...and the only other light came from an aquarium and that was neon purple. We kept waiting and finally John said, “So, Phil, is it Chuck Berry? I bet you it’s Chuck.” The next thing we know, Phil’s butler comes to the door and announces “Mr. Charles Berry.” Chuck starts coming down the steps with a blonde on each arm and Phil turns out the lights and we were in pitch darkness. John runs up to him and says, “Chuck, it’s great to see you! Phil, turn on the lights.” A lot of crazy stuff went on that night.

AE: So the stories we’ve heard about Phil being eccentric aren’t exaggerated?

MP: No. Part of the reason Phil would show up late for the sessions is because he would do things like having a makeup artist paint a ‘shiner’ on his eye and tell everyone that John punched him. Or he would come in dressed as a doctor or in a karate outfit. He had a wand with a light at the end of it. It was something bizarre every night. It hindered the sessions.

AE: It sounds like the kind of weirdness that wasn’t enjoyable.

MP: No, it wasn’t. And honestly, I’d rather not talk any further about the unpleasant things that went on between Phil and John.

AE: Could we talk about the gun going off in the studio?

MP: Yeah. People have that all wrong. It was at the Record Plant. We were sitting around listening to the playback and we heard a gunshot. Everybody was ducking, but I ran out to the lounge to see what was going on. Phil’s standing there with a gun and Mal Evans is grabbing it out of his hand. People were screaming. John was standing there with his fingers to his ears and he said, “Phil, if you’re gonna shoot, shoot me, but don’t fuck with me ears. I need them for listening.” What happened was Phil kept hitting Mal on the nose, Mal told him to stop, and Phil said, “Nobody tells me what to do.” And when he reached for the gun, it accidentally went off. John and I always thought that there were blanks in Phil’s gun, but the next day, Mal came by the house and he said, “Here’s the bullet from last night.”

AE: There has been a lot of talk about John being in bad shape during the Rock ‘n’ Roll sessions.

MP: John was fine. He was not a drunk. He wasn’t drinking every day. It wasn’t remotely like that. He was having fun with the guys, but the only person who got in the paper was John.

AE: If you look at the producer’s credits on the original Rock ‘n’ Roll album, it looks like only four songs from the Phil Spector sessions made it to the LP and the rest were produced by John.

MP: That’s right.

AE: How did the John Lennon produced Rock ‘n’ Roll sessions come about?

MP: He had to finish it up, because it was part of the legal obligation that John had to Morris Levy. If it had happened today, the usage of ‘here comes old flat top’ would have never gone to the courts. Even back then, we thought we would win, but John didn’t want to go back to New York for a court case because we had gotten Phil back into the studio [in L.A.], and that was the reason for the settlement. We never finished the album with Phil, and instead went on to do the Harry Nilsson album [Pussy Cats] and Walls and Bridges. The first day on Walls and Bridges, Al Coury, the Vice President of Promotion and A&R, came in and told us that he had the Rock ‘n’ Roll tapes. At that time, John didn’t want to listen to them. Then after Walls and Bridges, he sat down and listened to them and it was very painful. In September of 1974, we went up to Morris Levy’s farm in upstate New York to rehearse some more songs for the album. Then John got a band together and did the songs.

AE: What was the duration of those sessions at the New York Record Plant?

MP: A week to ten days. But Rock ‘n’ Roll wasn’t a ‘throw-away.’ John enjoyed it. He did have to fix Phil’s songs. John ended up producing nine of the songs. It was completed in about a month.

AE: I assume that those sessions were ‘closed.’

MP: Yes, but people would drop by. John was very much down to business. He wanted to get it done.

AE: How do you feel the album was originally perceived in the mid-70s in contrast to how it is perceived now as a classic piece of Lennon’s work?

MP: When it first came out, people didn’t know what to make of it, because they had heard about what had gone on in the sessions. John was going to rise above it and he did what he had to do to put the album out.

AE: Did it sell well?

MP: Yeah, it did quite well. I have John’s silver record from Britain, so that tells you how well it did.

AE: Do you recall how it was viewed by the critics?

MP: They seemed to like the songs John produced better than the ones that were done by Phil. I said to John, “We didn’t need Phil.” John wanted Rock ‘n’ Roll to be a fun album; a fun experience. It became a ‘chore’ album because of everything that went down in getting the record completed and to the public.

AE: What can you tell me about the Morris Levy version of the album that was released?

MP: John never promised Morris anything. And John did not say that it could be put on his record label. John did say to him that he thought the idea of selling LPs the way Morris did, through TV ads, was interesting. But John told him, no matter what it came down to, he was signed to Capitol and they were the only ones who would release it. In good faith, John did give him an unmixed listening tape that was 7-1/2 ips. It was not standard quality to make a record. When Morris put it out, he used the worst photo on the cover, the worst marketing.

AE: How did the cover for the official Rock ‘n’ Roll album come about?

MP: I specifically contacted Jurgen Vollmer, an old friend of John’s from the Hamburg days, and invited him back to see John. John was so happy to see him, and vice versa. We got a print of that classic photo of John to use on the cover and Jurgen was thrilled. That photo really represented the time, the songs, and what the album was about.

AE: Did John have the ‘John Lennon’ neon sign made up?

MP: No, the art director at Capitol came up with that after they got Jurgen’s photo and John told them what he wanted.

AE: How would you sum up your involvement with the recording of Rock ‘n’ Roll ?

MP: It was fun, when I think about it now. John didn’t want to just call me the Production Coordinator in the credits on this one. He wanted to give me something more, because I had gone to hell and back with all of it. So he said, “You’re Mother Superior.” And that’s what appears on the liner notes. There I was, a little 23-year-old girl, running around trying to keep everybody on their toes. I was there to help him through it and John wanted me to get special credit for that.

Copyright © 2004-2008 ladyjean / / Jean Teeters

Read Absolute Elsewhere's Exclusive Interview with May Pang about Mind Games

Read ladyjean's New York Post story about John and May Pang

Buy the remixed and remastered Rock 'n Roll CD

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