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Cathode Ray Blues: Ben Vaughn Talks TV With Reissue Of 'Instrumental Stylings'

Courtesy, Ben Vaughn

First released in 1995, Instrumental Stylings became musician Ben Vaughn’s ticket to a new life. Having spent much of the 1980s touring and recording with the Ben Vaughn Combo, the New Jersey-reared artist made an instrumental-driven record that covered a variety of musical settings and highlighted his particular brand of humor. Not long after he’d completed work on the project, he moved to Los Angeles and found himself composing for a number of television and film projects over the course of the next decade-plus, including 3rd Rock From The Sun, That ‘70s Show and Men Behaving Badly.

Now released on vinyl for the first time, Instrumental Stylings sounds remarkably timeless more than 20 years after its birth with Vaughn’s compositions and musicianship carrying the highly-imaginative record from end to end. Completed in three weeks, the frenetic pace of writing and recording perfectly predicted the world Vaughn would find himself in during his stay in Los Angeles.

With production credits that include works with the legendary Arthur Alexander, Los Straitjackets and Ween, among others, he is also the host of the syndicated radio show The Many Moods of Ben Vaughn.

Speaking via phone during a recent stopover in New Orleans, Vaughn discussed his time as a television composer as well as his work with the late Alan Vega and Alex Chilton.

The vinyl reissue of Instrumental Stylings is out now via Bar/None.

Jedd Beaudoin: How is writing an instrumental different than a piece intended to have lyrics?

Ben Vaughn: It really isn’t that much different. You still need a beginning, middle and an end. It has to be something that is memorable, melodically. Even if it’s an all-out rocker. If you’re writing a song with lyrics, it’s going to have a verse-chorus, a bridge, some kind of break, another verse-chorus and you’re done. That’s basically the form for rock ‘n’ roll and country. Counter melodies are important because if you’re going to be repeating a melody, you’re going to need another instrument lurking in the background, playing something different to keep the audience interested. But it’s a pretty natural style for me to write in.

When you moved to L.A. were you tired of trying to keep bands together, book tours, all of that?

Definitely. For me what it really came down to was that I wanted to write music every day. The record business does not give you an opportunity to do that. If you’re an artist that has a record deal you’re only required to have 12 songs every year-and-a-half. That’s not much writing. So, I knew that I was an artist but I wanted to find out if I was a craftsman. Could I write on demand? Could I write on deadline? I lost interest in the record business. It was too much repetition. I wanted new stuff all the time.

With 3rd Rock From The Sun, did you have preexisting things that you could bring in or did you have to work from the clips as you received them?

I had to create all new stuff. The people at the show liked the Instrumental Stylings record a lot. They thought it was funny and the thing they said to me which I took as a compliment was, “We’re looking for classic American rock ‘n’ roll as if played by aliens. And we think you’re already doing that.” I guess that was a compliment.

We had a meeting about what the theme was going to be. It was a great meeting. I took notes. We agreed that “Back in the U.S.A.” is maybe the greatest American rock ‘n’ roll song ever. That was the template: Something that had a swing to it but that got weird at one point to prove that aliens are among us. I went back to my studio, wrote that thing really fast, sent it back to them and they went nuts over it.

What was great about 3rd Rock From The Sun was that they let me do pretty much whatever I wanted. That’s not the way that TV music usually is. With other shows there was a lot of neurosis and a lot of nervous people who can’t make their minds up about anything, including their music because they’re already tortured by something else that’s wrong with that episode. 

Do you feel that the music can make or break a given episode?

I do. Can you imagine Pulp Fiction with different songs? If you put Herb Alpert in there instead of Link Wray, you’d ruin that movie. I’ve been in positions where people at the show said, “Please make this scene or this transition work because we know it’s awkward but it’s the only way we can move from one idea to the next. Can you work your magic?” I’ve seen it work. Now, on a bad sitcom, they might say, “Could you please make this joke funny?” That’s impossible.

3rd Rock lasted for a long time. Did you ever get to the point where you said, “Oh, man. Now I’m writing every day,” like the thing you wished for had become a hassle?

At a certain point I did because 3rd Rock was six-and-a-half seasons. That ‘70s Show was eight seasons. Whenever we were renewed that was great news because that’s job security. But for me it meant more repetition. I had learned everything I wanted to learn about writing on assignment and being in the high stakes world. The best thing about TV music was this: Any neurosis I might have had about having a writer’s block was totally eliminated. We were on the soundstage mixing the episode every Tuesday whether I was ready or not. It was going to be on TV and millions of people were going to see it. There’s no room for second guessing. There’s no second idea. Your first idea had to be your only idea. I loved it. It was the greatest thing.

In the record business you can always postpone deadlines. If somebody had a substance abuse problem, they’ll push back the release date. It’s very malleable. TV is not. You’re on the air, that’s it. It was very exciting to know that what you were working on was going to be on the air a week after you wrote it.

Do you start developing cues as soon as you get the script or do you wait until the episode’s been shot?

I would read the script but I wouldn’t place much stock in it because scenes get cut out, things get reshuffled in the editing room. What you’re reading is a shooting script but it’s when you see the final edit that you really start to go to work. You’d sit down with a director or producer of the show and do a spotting session. You’d watch the episode with them and if they had any particular things they wanted special attention paid to, they would describe that to you and you’d take notes. Then you’d go back and start composing.

3rd Rock was a high concept show. Every now and then underscore was necessary. Even though it was a sitcom they would go into these bits where you had to score to a picture as opposed to interstitial cues, the bumpers between scenes. Most sitcoms only have bumper music. The graphics of the planets and my music gave the show a feel that was different from all other shows at the time. They would also go into flights of fantasy. A scene would be going a certain way and then all of a sudden they would be parodying Jaws or The Twilight Zone and I would have to write underscore to work with that.

I learned to wait until the final cut before I wrote a single note of music because I might write something that was not even going to be used.

Was it your idea to use Big Star’s “In The Street” as the theme for That ‘70s Show?

Totally. [Laughs.] I was friends with Alex Chilton and I always thought that “In The Street” should have been a huge hit record. Huge! That song should have been up there with “Eighteen” by Alice Cooper. I always thought it was a missed opportunity. Alex always felt that way too. He’d say, “Yeah, that’s the one that got away.”

We had this big meeting about what the theme of the show was going to be. We wanted the kids to singing along to it in the car. The creators of That ‘70s Show, Bonnie and Terry Turner, had co-written Wayne’s World with Mike Myers. The “Bohemian Rhapsody” thing was their idea. They had this thing about kids singing along to songs in cars.

So, we had this meeting about what that song was going to be for the show. It was very tense. We had a veteran music supervisor there who knew how much everything was going to cost. He didn’t even have to look it up. He knew an expensive copyright from an inexpensive copyright. They were throwing songs out like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who. He’d say, “Can’t afford it!” Somebody would say, “Eighteen” by Alice Cooper. “Nope! Out of your price range!” “Young Americans” by David Bowie? No, can’t do it.

We were sitting there and so, finally, I said, “Does it have to be a song that was a hit in the ‘70s or could it be a song that should have been a hit in the ‘70s?” They said, “We don’t care as long as it’s a great song that the kids can sing along to.” One of the writers from 3rd Rock was helping out with the pilot of That ‘70s Show and he was a Big Star fanatic. I told him to go down to his office and get his Big Star CD. He brought it back, I cued up “In The Street” and played it and everybody went nuts.

The music supervisor said, “Well, the only way we can get this song is if somebody in this room knows the guy who wrote it.” I said, “Well, that would be me.” I called Alex and said, “Hey, I think ‘In The Street’ is going to be a hit in a kind of weird, roundabout way but I think something important is going to happen with this song. But I need you to call your publisher and get them on the ball because we’re shooting the scene with the kids in three days.”

It was super intense but it was the perfect song for that show. Having “In The Street” as the theme gave the show credibility too.

It seems like that was a good time for Alex Chilton too, like he had started to make peace with his past by that point.

I think Big Star had only done that one show in Columbia, Missouri before That ‘70s Show. He was open to it because he would also do The Box Tops too. He was at peace with his past, finally. He was getting into a good place. He was a troubled human being and was becoming less and less so, just more and more balanced and normal. He was becoming OK with stuff, including Big Star and The Box Tops. They were able to go out and play a bunch of shows and having the theme out there did not hurt.

You had also worked with him and Alan Vega on Cubist Blues. How did that project present itself?

I was friends with Alan Vega for a real long time. I was a Suicide fanatic and his record “Jukebox Babe” was one of the greatest records I’ve ever heard in my life. Alex was a big fan of that song too. One of the first things we ever talked about when we were becoming friends was Alan Vega and how much we liked him.

I was in New York and I kept telling Alan that we should make a late night blues record. The two of us. Finally, our schedules came together and we were able to do it. Alan was a real artistic guy. He said, “I don’t want no expectations. I don’t wanna know what songs we’re going to do, I don’t wanna know what songs you’re bringing in. I just wanna show up, push the record button and improvise.”

I wasn’t used to working that way. I was talking to Alex about it on the phone and said, “You know, I’m going into the studio with Alan Vega to cut this blues record but he doesn’t want to know anything about it. He doesn’t want to prepare. He doesn’t want anything prepared at all.” Alex got real excited and said, “Boy, I would love to play on that! Can I fly up and be on this record?” I said, “Yeah.” But I didn’t tell Alan because Alan had told me that he didn’t want to know who was going to be playing. [Laughs.]

It was a surprise when Alan walked into the room and Alex was there. They knew each other from the CBGB days. Way back. We just started recording and it was an interesting two nights.

I feel like that’s a record that people who know it really appreciate it, really embrace it.

I feel exactly that way, that the people who get it really get it. The people who don’t get it, that’s the interesting thing. I can understand never having heard it. It’s easy for a record like that to slip through the cracks. But it is the people who hear it and don’t get it that interest me. I can see how it might be a little too meandering or whatever. It’s a strange record. But the people who love it? Boy. Especially in France and Spain. When I go over there to tour, they’re always bringing that record up as some kind of masterpiece.

How does the transition from television to streaming impact someone like you?

I wouldn’t know. I haven’t composed for television for more than 10 years. When That ‘70s Show went off the air as a new show I left the biz. I have no idea what the future of TV is, what the future of music on TV is. I don’t know how payment happens. That ‘70s Show is still on in syndication, sometimes several times a day all over the place. The revenue stream resembles what it did 10 years ago and there is some stuff coming in for Netflix but I don’t quite understand it.

The portable device has changed everything. I have a syndicated radio show. I’m on in 23 different markets but the most action I get is from the podcast, which people download. I don’t know where they are when they’re hearing my show. I don’t know what time of day it is when they’re hearing my show. It’s on the move.

Do you like doing radio?

I love radio. When I was a kid I was a fanatic. I would stay up all night and listen. This is back when Beatlemania was in full swing. I grew up in New Jersey, on the other side of Philadelphia. We had great radio in Philadelphia. Soul music, doo-wop never died there so I never stopped hearing doo-wop. In fact, if you go to Philly right now and turn on the radio you’ll probably hear doo-wop. It’s still considered a current art form back there and dancing is really important, so it was a great place to grow up.

I would also sit up late at night and tune in the Grand Ole Opry coming in from Nashville or I’d tune in WLS in Chicago. My dad was a TV repairman so  I’d listen to shortwave radio, BBC and Radio Luxembourg. I could have easily been a DJ or a musician. To me, they were equal.