May 2005: Rebelscum staffer Shane Turgeon recently got a chance to visit with Meco, the man responsible for the huge album from 1977, Star Wars and other Galactic Funk. He has a new CD called Star Wars Party. Read along as we continue with part 2...
Welcome to the second installment of our three-part interview with Meco Monardo – the man behind the pop versions of our favorite Star Wars themes. Meco has a new album out called Star Wars Party which can be purchased from CdBaby.com and if you missed the first chapter in our interview with Meco, be sure to check it out here!
Shane: So, “Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk” and the accompanying single has come out and both turn out to be huge successes for you. What did you do in the three years between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back?
Meco: Well, it’s interesting. I’m this guy with the number 1 record in the world and nobody’s ever seen me. I’ve never made even one appearance. My picture’s nowhere, and on the radio they didn’t even pronounce Meco right - they thought I was a Japanese group! I did not lead the life of a typical, successful recording artist. There were no videos, no nothing. So between 1977 and 1980 I made 4 more albums - Superman, Moondancer, Encounters of Every Kind, and The Wizard of Oz. The Wizard of Oz was my second most successful record and that was the only time that I ever appeared as an artist on national television. I performed on Dick Clark’s Wednesday Night Live. It was a variety show much like the old Ed Sullivan show. He (Dick Clark) literally begged me on his hands and knees to be on that show. He was a big fan of mine and he knew I’d never done any appearances. I said, “What do you want me to do, stand up there and conduct? Hello! Who cares?” He said, “No, we’ll do something special”. And they did. They started by introducing me and I was conducting the orchestra, remember it was all pre-recorded, then they cut outside where they had all these people dancing to the Wizard of Oz! Then they came back to the studio and Dick and I spoke for a moment. Dick Clark was a major, major fan of mine.
Shane: When you heard that they were going to make another Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back, was Meco’s mind already turning to thoughts of a new record?
Meco: Of course! But in the meantime, a few years had gone by and the record company I was with went out of business, so I was a free agent. I struck a deal as a recording artist with a company called RSO Records (Robert Stigwood Organization). Their biggest act at that time was the Bee Gees. When I made the deal with them they had already listened to the soundtrack from John Williams and already had two other so-called “pop” versions of The Empire Strikes Back signed. So they didn’t have room for another album. They only had room for a single and an EP - an album with only 4 songs.
For the first time, I’m involved with Lucasfilm. At this point I said, instead of me having to go through all the trouble to make those sound effects, maybe I can talk to Lucas. So we called them and sure enough, Ben Burtt sent me a tape. And on that tape was everything you could possibly want in the realm of sound effects. Twenty R2-D2 beeps, lasers, sword fights, ships going by – every sound effect you could imagine was there. All those sounds were official and we were probably the only ones in the world who had them because we didn’t have the Internet. I used those on The Empire Strikes Back and that became a very big record for me. It went to number 18 on the Billboard Pop Charts.
Shane: Your Empire Strikes Back album has a different sound when compared to “Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk”.
Meco: A very different sound! That was on purpose.
Shane: Why was that?
Meco: 1977 was the height of disco. 1980 was - disco sucks! Simple as that. From 1977, the height of disco, to 1980 there was this big backlash against disco and a return to pop. I didn’t want to repeat that sound because I knew the commerciality was gone, so we purposely went for a harder, more rock and roll beat and that’s what you hear on the record. More rock and roll guitar, but still with the Meco orchestrations, which was my signature, but with a harder beat to it. And that was cool because Darth Vader’s theme was dark, it’s thick. A rock and roll beat suits Darth Vader a lot better than a disco beat. So it was really, really nice how it all came together like that.
Shane: Rock and roll tends to have a little more staying power in the grand scheme of contemporary music.
Meco: Absolutely, because it’s not a fad. It’s been around in one form or another and will probably be around forever.
Shane: Another one of your classic albums is Christmas in the Stars. How on earth did you come up with an idea like that?
Meco: That was the same year as the Empire Strikes Back. If you remember, I had made contact earlier with Lucasfilm and so I wrote a letter, nine pages long. It starts: “Dear George, you don’t know me personally but you know who I am…” and I reiterated all the things I had done with Star Wars, blah blah blah, and then I said, “You have some characters who are so much like all the Christmas characters that we all love…” I went into great detail, eventually saying, “I think we should do a Christmas album together”.
And then I had the one and only telephone conversation I ever had with George Lucas. Whoa man! I was I thrilled…excited…nervous! We spoke for probably an hour and in that hour conversation when you would imagine that Meco would speak for 30 minutes and George would speak for 30 minutes, Meco spoke for 54 minutes and George spoke for maybe 6 minutes. He’s the type of guy who listens a lot and doesn’t say too much. I remember the one thing he said to me, “These are the things you can do, and these are the things you cannot do, but the one thing you must not do is kiss the Wookiee” (laughs). So, I was excited, it was going to be fun. They flew in Anthony Daniels from London for a weekend to do his part, but of course he’s not a singer so he basically talks the part.
The biggest surprise of all with that album was, on the day we were recording the horn section, which was assembled in the recording studio Power Station. Suddenly the door opens up and none other than Darth Vader was standing there! He strides ominously through the door! And oh my God we were like…well, nobody said a word. We were speechless!! Nobody knew what to do! Here was Darth Vader. And after a minute or so I understood! Lucasfilm had sent Darth Vader to make sure we did everything right.
Shane: And who better? Really?
Meco: Yeah. And who better! He stayed around for the strings session and it just was a lot of fun.
So, the Christmas record came out on RSO Records around November of 1980, just before the holidays. And they pressed 150,000 copies, which was a huge pressing because of the anticipation of the sales, and I was pretty excited and I thought we had a smash here. Then I get a message from George’s office that said - “George wants to know, Meco, if the credit that’s on the record right now which says: Concept by Meco Monardo, if you wouldn’t mind, if George’s name could be there too”. Now, I had no problem with that except that it shouldn’t be: Concept by Meco Monardo and George Lucas, it had to be: Concept by George Lucas and Meco Monardo. And that change in credit was going to be on the next pressing. Well, a few of weeks later, I just happened to go up to the RSO office to see how things were going. I was shocked to see that the doors to the office were closed by the Sheriff’s Office! It turned out that RSO Records was no longer a record company anywhere in the world. They had shut their doors, which was totally unheard of. And why would they do that? Because their number one act, the Bee Gees, threatened to sue them. So rather than go through all that, they just closed their doors. And when they closed their doors, there went the (second pressing of the) Star Wars Christmas album.
Shane: So that was the only print run then, the first 150,000 copies?
Meco: Yes. It might have sold 500,000 or a million copies, who knows! Move forward then to about 1996 or so and Lucas then bought the master and it was put out by Rhino on CD.
Shane: That record, Christmas in the Stars, features a very early recording of someone you’ve already mentioned, a very young Jon Bon Jovi. Was he a big Star Wars fan in those days?
Meco: No. But here’s how that came about. My co-producer was Tony Bongiovi. Jon Bon Jovi was his little cousin and by little I mean we were all in our 30s and early 40s but Jon at that time was 17 years old. And we were in the studio called Power Station – which is the studio that Star Wars built by the way – the first royalty cheque Tony got, he built the Power Station. The Power Station is a legend in the record business. In those days, the late 70s and early 80s, probably 40 out of the top 100 albums were recorded at the Power Station. So, here you have his little cousin who was on salary sweeping the floors. And I was stuck on this one song. I had three different people come in to sing it and I didn’t like the way any of them sounded. Tony says to me, “Why don’t you try little Jon”. Well, all right, let’s try him. And after just the first few notes out of his mouth I said, “Yes! This is him. This is the one! This is the one who should sing it”. He had this cute little voice - he was still a kid, and his voice really hadn’t even come down in pitch yet. It was still a little high but he had a great feeling for it. And of course, we all know what this little kid went on to do – he became one of the biggest rock and roll stars of all time.
It’s interesting that after we finished recording and we were walking up the street together I said, “What are your aspirations about music”? He said, “Well, I don’t really know”. I said, “You don’t know? You don’t want to be a star of some sort? You don’t want to sing”?
“Well maybe”, he said.
I said, “I’ll tell you what you need to do. You need to sing because you’re going to be the biggest star you can possibly imagine if you ever decide to do this full time”. He says, “Yeah right…” (laughs) And we all know he became just that.
Shane: So you weren’t surprised at all at how successful he eventually became.
Meco: Not at all. Because I got to hear him in his very, very infantile, raw stage and it was there, the magic was there. That’s what happens. That’s what you need to possess as a singer - magic. You don’t need to be perfect in how you do it, you can be raw and not perfect in pitch, but you’ve got to have magic. All the great stars and all the great singers have it - magic.
Shane: You also did an Ewok Celebration record for The Return of the Jedi but it only had three Star Wars tracks on it. What was the decision surrounding that?
Meco: Meco was no longer with RSO. I was a free agent and half a year before the movie came out, I made a deal with the best record company in the world at that time, Arista Records and Clive Davis. I went to see the movie and was pretty disappointed – not in the movie, I loved the movie - disappointed in the amount of material that John had written that was new. In other words, there weren’t enough new themes that I could take and do my thing and make at least one side of an album like I did with the first one. I only did three songs so it’s not all of the music from ROTJ. What we decided together, Clive Davis and I, was to do Meco versions of songs from other movies that were going to be out that summer – so-called cover versions. So of the 8 songs on that album, only 3 were Star Wars. I re-did the Star Wars theme; I did Ewok Celebration and Lapti-Nek.
Shane: There were a lot of other Star Wars “theme” albums that came out during those days such as the score done by the Electronic Moog Orchestra, Empire Jazz or John Rose and the Hartford Pipe Organ. What are your thoughts on some of those recordings?
Meco: I’ve never really heard too many of them. I heard a few of them and they’re not commercial, they’re not pop and they didn’t have any magic. Consequently, they didn’t sell. I am the only artist, other than John Williams, who has sold any number of (Star Wars) records except for Weird Al. Now, I know he didn’t go Gold or anything and I don’t know how many he sold but he was out there, had a video and had some success. Other than that, no other artist has succeeded. I’ve charted 4 times with Star Wars material. So it’s in my blood I think.
Shane: In his blood indeed! When the third and final chapter of our interview with Meco continues on June 14th, we’ll find out what Meco was up to throughout the 1980s and ‘90s and what lead to the release of his latest album, “Star Wars Party”, which is currently available at CdBaby.com. In the meantime, check out some of our Fun Facts About Meco!
-One of the few questions that stumped Jeopardy superstar Ken Jennings was: "In 1977, Meco's single version of the Theme from Star Wars shot up to the Number one position in Billboard, while this composer's version only reached Number 10."The answer of course, was John Williams and it was promptly answered by one of Ken’s competitors.
-Between 1977 and 1983, after his huge success with Star Wars, many film companies arranged private screenings in the hope that Meco would do a version of their score. In 1982 Paramount invited Meco to a screening of a film that all the executives were worried about - they had spent a lot of money on it and nobody at Paramount liked it. There was a song that played under the end credits which they all hated as well, and were hoping Meco would record it. After a private screening, Meco told the executives that the movie would be their biggest hit of the year and further, the song at the end, should be released as is. They all laughed and wondered maybe, if what Meco had done prior to that, was just a fluke! Meco had the last laugh as that movie, "An Officer And a Gentleman" was the biggest-grossing film for them that year and the song, "Up Where We Belong" went to Number 1 and won the Grammy for Song of the Year!
-During the 1980s, the NHL team, the Edmonton Oilers would skate to the ice while Meco’s version of Darth Vader’s theme boomed overhead.
-Of all his Star Wars recordings, Meco’s favorite is still the very first.
-The art for Meco’s newest record Star Wars Party was done by Frank Pepito, an artist who has worked on many other Star Wars projects.
Be sure and check out Shane's website Tatoosandtoys.com.