Although he has one of the more enviable jobs on the planet, producing mega-selling albums for the likes of Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, Michael Bublé and Metallica (including the latter's 1991 self-titled 30-million-seller), Bob Rock admits that the role of big-time record maker wasn't his first career choice. “When I was a kid growing up in Winnipeg, it was all about hockey for me," says Rock. "I was such a fan. For a while there, hockey was everything."
Like it was for millions of children of the '60s, Rock's world changed dramatically when he caught sight of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones on TV. Practically overnight, the kid who could never get a hockey stick out of his hands was now cutting out cardboard guitars and miming Fab Four songs with his friends. "We stood on our desks in school and did Twist And Shout," says Rock. "From that point on, I was obsessed with music."
Rock got himself a real guitar and played in bands throughout his teens. In 1973, he traveled to England with his friends Paul Hyde and William Alexander to test out the musical waters on the other side of the pond. "We tried to become rock stars," says Rock. "That didn't work out, do I came back to Canada and started working construction."
Fascinated by the sound of certain records ("The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin – and Queen. Queen were a huge influence"), Rock took an introductory recording course and landed a job at Vancouver's Little Mountain Sound Studios. "I was making tape copies and cleaning up – things like that," he says. Around the same time, Rock and Hyde were making waves with their new pop-punk band The Payola$. "Paul and I could actually play," says Rock. "With punk, it was all about attitude." The band signed to A&M, and Rock, who by now had graduated to assistant engineer at Little Mountain, produced their initial recordings.
Despite several hits in Canada and a couple of flirtations with the US charts, The Payola$ failed to achieve mainstream success (by 1987, they were known as Rock and Hyde, and eventually, they disbanded, although there have been occasional reunions over the years). Rock's star, however, was on the rise thanks to his engineering and mixing work for producer Bruce Fairbairn on breakthrough albums by Loverboy and Bon Jovi, along with Aerosmith's 1987's comeback Permanent Vacation.
By 1988, Rock was flying solo, producing hard rock chart-toppers that distinguished themselves not only for their irresistible hookability but also their crushing sonics. Guitars, bass and drums didn't just have greater intensity and definition – they seemed to have actual mass. And Rock's way with singers was no less transcendent: under his watch, vocalists such as James Hetfield extended their range and reach, blossoming into full-blown storytellers.
“I’m an artist-driven producer," says Rock. "I’ve always sided with artists. You have to give them the records they want. I don’t care about managers or record companies – the artist has to be happy. Whatever the weaknesses are, I try to shore them up, and I try to play up the strengths. Some people say I’ve got a sound, but really, I just want a great sound and an album that keeps going."
Asked to describe the one key element he looks for in an artist, Rock answers quickly: "Integrity. I have to believe in the integrity of the artist. It’s why I can go from Metallica to Michael Bublé – they’re both real. It doesn’t matter if one is done with an orchestra and the other is done with an incredibly loud, heavy sound; it’s all about making the best possible records that have great songs."
And, in Rock's view, the experience of sitting down and listening to a record should be a striking one, "If a record can make you happy or break your heart, then you know it’s good," he says. "That's what I try to do."
On the following pages, Rock walks us through his incredible history behind the studio glass, starting with his own band, The Payola$, and winding up with with the multi-platinum Michael Bublé, whose next album he's currently preparing.