I once had access to the most exclusive address on Newbury Street — No. 331, near a Japanese restaurant that today houses Sonsie. It was the site of Syncro Sound, an aging recording studio that The Cars bought and completely refurbished in 1981. Every day, thousands of people passed the storefront between Hereford Street and Massachusetts Avenue; few knew what went on beyond the unmarked door and one-way window.
The studio was christened with the Cars’ Shake It Up, for which producer Roy Thomas Baker (Foreigner, Journey, Queen) temporarily installed his “magic machine” — a 40-track tape machine that spawned a string of platinum records. Many other artists came, too — like Cyndi Lauper, Aimee Mann, Romeo Void, and Ministry. That last one was the Chicago-based group I joined in 1982, playing synthesizers from behind chin-length bangs that almost hid my insecurity.
“The benefit was that we could live at home while recording,” says Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes. But Ric Ocasek, the band’s de facto director, wanted to build something more than a cozy studio. He envisioned a clubhouse for creativity, a place where ideas and inspiration mattered as much as a perfect chorus harmony. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, the other four Cars members bought into it.
“Ric’s concept was to build a Boston Factory, like Warhol’s Factory,” says Luis Aira, a commercial and music video director in Los Angeles and Syncro Sound’s resident filmmaker at the time. “He was more of a beatnik than a rock star.”
“It became a bit of a melting pot for musicians and artsy people,” says Ian Taylor, who for a couple of years practically lived in the studio, sometimes splicing tapes and fiddling with track levels through the night. “It had a very neighborhood feel.” Taylor engineered Shake It Up and produced Ministry, Romeo Void, and ’Til Tuesday. (Disclosure: He’s now my brother-in-law.)
If you had connections or persuaded Julia Channing Bell — the oh-so-discreet office manager — to buzz you in, there was always something to witness. John Belushi arrived unannounced one night. Hard-core progenitors Bad Brains’ fondness for smoking massive marijuana spliffs set off the smoke alarms so many times that the Boylston Street fire station began responding on foot. One especially memorable afternoon, I came across Iggy Pop scribbling lyrics, aided by a thesaurus.
Producer Walter Turbitt, who began at Syncro Sound as a tape operator (“It was the gig in town”), also remembers Iggy’s visit. “He was sitting on the couch talking about history and books — super intellectual,” Turbitt says. “Yet this guy would be naked onstage.”
Over the years, other clients and guests included Yes, Cheap Trick, Peter Wolf, Alan Vega of the edgy duo Suicide, and a chosen-few local groups like the synth-pop outfit New Models.
By the summer of ’83, though, the Cars had become absentee landlords. The band, already fracturing from the inside, decamped to London to record 1984’s Heartbeat City. The studio turned into an ordinary — and unprofitable — business, and the band never again recorded there. “Syncro got to the point where we were all having to contribute money just to keep it going,” says Hawkes. “But it was fun — for a while.”