book excerpt

The Making (and Unmaking) of Paul’s Boutique

The Beastie Boys made a masterpiece. And then they were foiled by Donny Osmond.

The Beastie Boys with Mario Caldato Jr., far left, in Matt Dike’s apartment in 1988. Photo: Ricky Powell
The Beastie Boys with Mario Caldato Jr., far left, in Matt Dike’s apartment in 1988. Photo: Ricky Powell

Michael Diamond: After the success of Licensed to Ill, a bunch of people thought they knew exactly what our future should look like. After we parted ways with Def Jam, we started meeting with other labels and eventually signed with Capitol. In the music business of the late 1980s, fortunes could still be made, and Capitol was betting millions of dollars on us. They wanted a new record immediately. We were … in less of a hurry.

Matt Dike introduced us to Mario Caldato, the engineer with whom he’d built a makeshift studio at Matt’s down-and-out apartment on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. They were recording instrumental tracks there with these two hip-hop fanatics named John King and Mike Simpson, who recorded under the name the Dust Brothers. We loved the Dust Brothers’ shit the second we heard it and immediately wanted to work with them on our next record; their stuff had an entirely different vibe than the tracks on Licensed to Ill: funkier, jazzier, less classic rock, more R&B. It also pushed the boundaries of what we thought was possible with sample-based music.

We started working together and ended up recording most of the music and a fair number of vocals for Paul’s Boutique at Matt’s apartment. We really could have just recorded our entire album there, and in hindsight, I’m not exactly sure why we didn’t. Capitol may have started to get nervous that we were holed up in a shitty apartment in the middle of a drug-and-prostitution zone. Or maybe we were just insecure and thought that to make a “big time” record, we had to do it at some “big time” studio with dudes with mullets crouched and poised to set up a mic or coil a cable. Or maybe we thought it was funny to record where Debbie Gibson and Lionel Richie might have recorded.

Anyway: We ended up at the Record Plant. An iconic L.A. studio. Platinum Eagles records lining the halls. Now, don’t get me wrong. The Eagles are a big name in the game. Been in the game a long time. But what the fuck does that have to do with what we were making?

We spent days just redoing the shit we’d already done at Matt’s. We retracked every loop and scratch. Redid our vocals. Tweaked everything on the giant Solid State Logic mixing consoles you see in every super-fancy studio. Ran tracks through expensive outboard gear with every variety of knobs, faders, lights, and meters in abundance. It was the same crew — the three of us, Mario C on the faders, Mike and John behind desktop PCs (that’s right, people, laptops were not the go-to yet), Matt Dike (RIP) kinda bobbing his head with a smile of approval every so often. And it took what seemed like forever.

One day while we were doing all this, a huge video crew rolled into the studio across the hall from us. Craft services times ten. An army of dudes with rolls of tape hanging from their belts and walkie-talkies on their shoulders. Persian rugs were suddenly everywhere. Lots of booze bottles placed around the studio, just so.

Turned out Guns N’ Roses was there to film the video for “Patience.”

First we ran into Slash, briefly. Nice guy. Big hat. Then, by the reception desk, we stumbled into the bass player, Duff McKagan. We started talking about hardcore, and it turned out he was in this band we’d heard a lot on “Noise the Show” in our hardcore days: the Fartz. A Seattle hardcore band. So here we’re meeting someone from a ginormous band traveling around the world on floating magic carpets, their feet never touching the ground, and we realized we had more in common than we’d ever have thought.

We never ran into Axl.

Anyway, back to the (re)recording of our album. After we got through a couple of songs — “Shake Your Rump” and “Car Thief” — we listened to what we’d done and realized, Fuck — what we had from Matt’s house was better. Yeah, some of the new vocals were stronger on the new versions, but overall we were disappointed. We went more “pro” and lost some of the grit. This happens often when bands rerecord their demos — they get a more polished recording but lose some of the magical essence of the demo. Yeah, that’s right: magical essence.

We did some work at a studio where Quincy Jones had supposedly worked on those amazing albums he made with Michael Jackson. This spot had a crazy Harrison mixing console that looked like it belonged at NASA mission control. It was the first generation of digital console, a fucking humongous thing with all kinds of micro green and red lights. The wave of the future. Unfortunately, at that time, the future still sucked: Nothing — and I mean nothing — worked on this thing. We’d sit around for hours while guys in button-down shirts ran in and out of the room in panic mode, unable to figure out why the entire studio was inoperable. After several days of doing nothing, bored out of our minds, we finally just canceled the session.

So after all that, did we go back to Matt’s apartment at last? No, we fucking did not: We decided to just return to the Record Plant even though we didn’t like what we’d already gotten there. We booked it for weeks on end to finish the record, tracking final vocals, scratches, overdubs, and mixing. It might have been a productive plan if we hadn’t also decided to rent basically an entire arcade’s worth of games and put them in the main room of the studio. We recorded ourselves playing Ping-Pong in stereo, so it could be panned left and right in the headphones. I guess it just made us feel big time.

The upside was that we finally did finish Paul’s Boutique in that second push at the Record Plant. The downside is that we wasted So. Much. Fucking. Money. I don’t know the exact amount, but it was hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars fronted us by Capitol, which would come out of our royalties. It was even more of a fucking waste because we still liked many of the instrumental tracks from Matt’s apartment best anyway. Soon enough, though, the amount of money we’d just wasted would be the least of our problems.

Not long after Paul’s Boutique came out, I ran into our old friend Dante Ross. He told me that he had just heard our new record. He said (in a positive way), “Yo, I just heard your new record, it’s all right. It’s got like two songs on there.” There’s actually 15 songs on the track list, so I assumed that he meant that only two of those 15 were anything that anyone would want to listen to. We’ve used this quote about a thousand times since. “Yo, you heard that new Radiohead joint? It’s got like one and a half songs on there.”

Caldato at his G-Son Studios in L.A. Photo: Spike Jonze

Adam Horovitz: It’s not like we wanted to burn the fuckin’ flag or anything. We just wanted a huge American flag that said BEASTIE BOYS on it, flown on the roof of the Capitol Records Building. And when Paul’s Boutique was done, finished, and handed in to Capitol, that flag was raised for all of Los Angeles to see. We had a big record-release party up on the roof of the building. Hollywood’s own Empire State Building. The party coincided with George Bush’s campaign to protect the American flag from desecration. We weren’t trying to burn it or anything. We were the multiplatinum fight-for-your-right-to-party guys … we were just really feeling ourselves. And we wanted the world to know. Like, This was Frank Sinatra’s building, but now it’s ours. We truly believed that we were shot callers. (It’s like when Tamra Davis was gonna direct a video for Cher. The first day of the shoot, Cher walks right up to Tammy D, introduces herself, and says … “I’m gonna be wearing leather. A lot of leather. Get used to it.”) And that’s when things started to get a little … odd.

Right after we handed in the final version of Paul’s Boutique, the president of Capitol Records quit. Around the same time, the A&R guy who brought us in and signed us quit. New faces at the label. New band on the label. Then this happened: Capitol brought us in for a marketing meeting to launch the record. They had us sit down with their “street team” to figure out how to get the word out to “the streets.” (Yikes.)

The street team had a plan. They had been given the title Street Awareness Program. And so on their presentation paperwork it spelled out S-A-P in big letters across the top of each page. Already funny. SAP, SAP, SAP. Their marketing plan was for us to make a diss record against MC Hammer. They said that diss records always get some kind of attention, and ’cause Hammer was so huge, that’d be great. Oh, and that because Hammer was also on Capitol Records, it’d be easy to contact him to let him know that it wasn’t for real. We told the saps that we’d never met Hammer and had nothing against him, and that he seemed like a nice enough guy. Maybe we should just try to get the songs on the radio and in clubs and stuff instead. To be fair … me, Adam, and Mike were sitting in that meeting obviously high as kites and dressed in our best Madilyn Grasshoff outfits, looking like we were on our way to a Cymande concert. I’m sure the lack of confidence was mutual.

But the most weirdest and most bummerish thing happened after the record came out. We just assumed that because Licensed to Ill sold a billion copies, Paul’s Boutique would do the same. But, like, it didn’t. I went to the Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard a couple days after it came out, and they didn’t have any copies. So I thought, Great, this shit is flying off the shelves and we are still large. It turned out that they did sell out quick, but Capitol had only sent, like, I don’t know, a hundred or so copies. No back order, nothing.
Seriously … Capitol is literally down the street from Tower Records. Can’t someone drive a couple boxes over? I mean, shit … I’ll buy the goddamn stamps. We don’t know who we were supposed to call to be like … “You know, there’s no copies at Tower Records” or … “Is there a better game plan than us humiliating ourselves by making a record trying to pick a fight with MC Hammer?”

So we were kind of in a holding pattern. We kept trying to arrange a meeting with the new president of Capitol Records, but he wasn’t really getting back to us. A solid couple weeks go by and then we finally meet with him. We go to the top floor of the Capitol Records Building and wait on some nice new couches. The president is ready for us, so we go in. The first thing I notice is, Man, this is a nice office. It’s kind of huge and has a crazy view. You can see all of what L.A. is made of. But the most striking visual inside the room is the new president himself. My man is, like, mid-50s, balding on top with a teeny ponytail in the back, and he’s rocking a brand-new, crispy, fake-tie-dyed Grateful Dead tour T-shirt. (Eesh.)

So we sit down, and before we can ask our whats and whys, he’s like … “Look, guys. I’m a Dead Head, so I know where you’re at. The company’s just really busy right now. We’re all just focusing and working really hard on the new Donny Osmond album, so, next time. Okay?” Wait … What?! What he had just said to us, the multiplatinum fight-for-your-right-to-party guys, is … Forget about the record you just spent the past couple years making. Forget that you made a huge and bold move severing ties with Rick, Russell, Rush, and Def Jam. Forget all this life-changing shit that’s happening to you as a band, people, and friends. Because … Donny Osmond’s new record is just a little more important than yours. Just go back, make another record, and we’ll see what happens when that happens. Everything’s gonna be fine.

Industry rule No. 4080: Record-company people are shaaady. The teeny-ponytailed/phony-baloney hippie-costume/looking-like-an-undercover-cop guy was replaced soon after by … some other middle-aged-white-guy record executive. To quote the great Donny Osmond … “One bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl.”

Important note: Besides this glitch, Capitol Records has always been really supportive of us and what we make. I’m not talking shit on the label, because really, for a major label with a big business to run, they left us alone to make what we wanted to make, and we probably couldn’t have done that somewhere else. That being said … for a good time, look up “Donny Osmond Sacred Emotion” on YouTube. That’s what this Dead Head had the company locked down with.

*This article appears in the October 15, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Making (and Unmaking) of Paul’s Boutique