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Grammy Watch: Hank Neuberger Defends the Antithesis of Hip

NARAS honcho Hank Neuberger/They're the Grammys--they're supposed to be square.

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"I thought about being a rock critic," says Hank Neuberger, "but then I had to come up with an honest way to make a living." Neuberger--recording engineer and producer, operations manager of the tony Chicago Recording Company, and chairman of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences--takes a lot of guff about the Grammys, and he can give as good as he gets. The youthful-looking 42-year-old studied film at Northwestern and actually did write about rock for the 70s Chicago rock mag Triad. But he knew he wanted to make records, and joined CRC as an assistant engineer when it opened as a one-studio outfit in 1975. Nearly 20 years on, the studio has expanded to four multitrack music studios, nine digital postproduction rooms, and three duplicating studios. And Neuberger's a pretty big cheese as well; after years of engineering (everyone from the Ohio Players to Sting), producing (he won a Grammy himself for Tribute to Steve Goodman, recorded live at the Arie Crown in 1985), and involvement with NARAS, he was elected this year as national head of the 5,000-member organization, whose 36th annual Grammy Awards ceremony will take place March 1.

The purpose of this column is not to bash the Grammys; it's to let Neuberger, a sensible voice for change in the academy, have his say. But it's worth noting exactly what's wrong with them. NARAS and the Grammys were formed in 1957 specifically to protect the bland, safe pop music of the day from the likes of Elvis Presley. Henry Schipper's Broken Record: The Inside Story of the Grammy Awards amusingly charts both the group's suspect beginnings and its almost mind-numbing clumsiness over the years. With extremely few exceptions (Sgt. Pepper's 1967 album-of-the-year win and Stevie Wonder's mid-70s winning streak come to mind) the Grammys have invariably ignored the seminal work of most major rock artists, from Presley to the Stones, Bob Dylan to Elvis Costello, and honored in their stead evanescence ("Up-Up and Away," "Bette Davis Eyes"), blandness (Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston), and tripe (Starland Vocal Band, A Taste of Honey).

"Historically," Neuberger concedes, "the Grammys have missed a couple of major shifts." But he points out with some force that the purpose of the Grammys is to honor excellence in record making generally, not just rock 'n' roll. "I don't think there's anything hip about the Grammys. We're the antithesis of hip. If hipness is a lot of people not getting it, we're the opposite. We're promoting recorded music so that the greatest number of people start to get it."

On these rather narrow terms, some of what Neuberger says--and some of what the Grammys have wrought--starts to make sense. "The reason it doesn't conform to critics' lists, the reason it doesn't conform to the charts in Billboard, is that it's a peer award," he says. "And the fact is that other record makers, people who spend night after night in the studio making those hundreds and hundreds of decisions that go into record making, are the ones that nominate in our process." Neuberger joined NARAS as a young engineer in 1975, but the turning point of his involvement came, ironically enough, after one of the Grammys' typically scrambled moments. "A group of younger lions were propelled into the academy in 1985 when Born in the U.S.A. was upset for album of the year by Lionel Richie. It drove us nuts. Lionel made an excellent album that year," says the diplomatic new chairman, "but it didn't compare to Born in the U.S.A. We went ballistic." In the years since "we have really tried to recruit--and been successful in recruiting--younger record makers in the organization, and really flesh out the vision of the academy. We've shown them the benefits of being involved, and they make better nominations." (Anyone who's written, recorded, produced, or performed six commercially available songs--or half an album--can join.)

Specifically, Neuberger notes that the organization has finally gotten its branch-office concept off the ground. In addition to the original big three music-center groups (New York, LA, and Nashville), full-fledged chapters have been around for a while in Memphis, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Chicago. Finally catching on to the massive decentralization of record making in the 1980s, NARAS is now forming smaller arms in towns like Austin, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Miami. And Neuberger says the Grammys are getting better already. Look at this year's nominations, he says. The best-alternative-album category includes In Utero, Automatic for the People, Zooropa, Belly's Star, and the Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream. "Those are great records."

The more prestigious album-of-the- year category is dodgier--Automatic for the People's up against the Bodyguard sound track, Donald Fagen's Kamakiriad, Billy Joel's River of Dreams, and Sting's Ten Summoner's Tales--but rather less embarrassing than those of recent years. Neuberger's choice? R.E.M. "Maybe if you tell them I voted for R.E.M. they won't think I'm a total snooze."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.

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