Secrets of the Masters: Dokken’s “Dream Warriors"
Daryl Dragon (the Captain of Captain and Tennille) boasted that his 10,000 sq/ft studio nestled in the asphyxiating deep valley provided a low pressure and creative environment for his clients. Well, in early 1987 that comfort may have offset rising tension between members of the pop-metal band Dokken. Well-documented animosity shared by singer Don Dokken and guitar legend, George Lynch was the backdrop for “Back for the Attack” and may account for that record’s strident tone and fierce guitar performances. “Dream Warriors” is no exception and while it was originally recorded for the third Nightmare on Elm Street film, it was the first song tracked for the band’s most successful record to date.
A Nightmare on Saticoy Street
Let’s travel back in time 23 years by way of two Ampex 456 multi-track reels of analog tape. The place: Rumbo Recorders in Canoga Park, California under the supervision of Neil Kernon (most famous for producing Hall and Oats’ big albums). With Mike Clink wrestling “Appetite for Destruction” into fruition down the hall, Kernon kept Dokken’s volatile ingredients as separated as the 36 analog tracks that were used to capture “Dream Warriors”. Penned by Lynch and bassist Jeff Pilson, this song is quintessential Dokken but this time their romantic-but-still-tough lyrics were directed toward a scissor-fingered villain rather than the usual Sunset stripper. What better place to finally wallow in the self-pity of those “lonely nights” and one’s thermal propensity to “feel the fire” than in a slasher horror flick soundtrack? Let’s face it; this song is a well-executed delivery system for Lynch’s monster tone rather than any kind of vehicle for literary genius. Examining the contents of these master reels reveals an ideal example of crafted, accessible metal showcasing one of the guitar greats at the top of his game.
Andy Udoff must have had his hands full. Credited as assistant engineer on two high profile records being recorded simultaneously under the same roof may account for some of the errors in the documentation for this song. Assuming he was responsible for labeling these things (as assistants typically were), the track sheets and the tape boxes were erroneously dated January of ’86 when it should have been for the following year. Apparently sleep deprivation can cause an over-worked engineer to consistently misspell “warriors” as well. It’s not unusual to have discrepancies in documentation with older tapes and in a lot of cases finding the corresponding track sheets can be a victory in itself. So all mislabeling aside, let’s spool-up the 2” machine and hear what went down on Saticoy Street.
Exhuming the Boom
The unprocessed drums sound remarkably good. Not only did Mick Brown deliver a solid performance, but the separation and fidelity far exceeded that of previous Dokken albums. Like many other rock bands back then, Dokken was on the cusp of a technology and sonic growth that saw significant improvement throughout the 80’s. This was most obvious in the drum sounds of the time.
There were kick and snare room samples on the master tape to supplement the live drum performance. At that time, engineers would most likely have printed a pre-trigger by flipping the tape around to play backwards which allowed them to bounce the particular drum track to an available track through a delay unit. When the tape was played forward, that track would be gated and appropriately delayed in time to trigger the sample loaded in an AMS DMX 1580 unit. This would have been a significant step up from having to get that overblown sound entirely from the natural drum kit.
Mr. Scary’s Sweet Revenge
George Lynch’s guitar tracks on “Dream Warriors” were a pleasure to hear in their raw state. His signature chunky eighth note chugs and unconventional chord inversions are the elements responsible for propelling this song into a fist-raising rock anthem. The main rhythm guitars were tracked in stereo from a single performance—either using two separate amps or just different cabinets. The stereo imaging of this pair is superb with nice width in the higher frequencies tapering to the center for the lower midrange. The phase relationship of these waveforms is impeccable and this explains why the guitars sound so full and aggressive in this song. These rhythm tracks are supported with a single mono guitar double. The clean arpeggiated guitars—which are another Lynch trademark—are layered with a thin, metallic-sounding DI acoustic guitar track.
I distinctly remember the “Dream Warriors” music video that showed Lynch’s wrecking ball impersonation as he wielded his skeleton guitar to the bewilderment of an adolescent Patricia Arquette. Defiance by way of ridiculous guitar solo entrance may come off as comical now, but this solo is no joke. Being able to isolate this track dry--without the Thompson/Barbiero mix treatment--and audition these nuances in their rawest form was a privilege worthy of more than Arquette’s painted-on admiration. I can almost taste the distain for Don emanating from those precarious bends and disorienting mélange of well-articulated notes whose final dismount rivals that of a chip cascading down the Plinko board on The Price is Right. Lynch’s tone is bold and never loses focus, plowing indiscriminately through the minor string rattles and pick noise imperfections that get masked in the final mix. This solo track is supplemented with a harmony lead that highlights and heightens this original performance. There was additional outro soloing other than what made it to the final mix but Kernon extracted all the good stuff from this track and flew it into just the right spot to close out the song.
Don’s lead vocal was well-recorded and like the drums and guitars, full of presence and tonal character that are easily missed in the final sloshy 80’s-centric mix down that we’ve all grown accustomed to hearing.
While Don may be the front man after which the band is named, Jeff Pilson may be the unsung hero of this song. Jeff sang the guide chorus vocals on a scratch track that was used to build the 18-voice harmony layers constructed later on the tape. These were combined, consolidated to four tracks and were then placed into each chorus of the slave reel. Judging by that and a verse harmony track labeled as Jeff on the track sheet, I suspect that he may have sung most of these background vocals. Incidentally, his scratch bass take (that was most likely recorded live when the drums were done) was very well thought out and note for note pretty much what ended up on the master bass take.
The Bitter End
While Captain and Tennille may have professed that “Love Will Keep Us Together”, sadly such was not the case with Dokken. “Dream Warriors” represented a career peak that was really just the beginning of the end for the band. Different member incarnations and reunion attempts failed to recapture the magic of Dokken in their prime. Is it true that all good things must come to an end? Eventually the significantly more popular Guns n’ Roses crumbled apart due to similar internal band problems and even Rumbo Recorders that housed both of them during this time has since closed its doors as well. Despite music industry decline and seemingly irresolvable feuds, the recorded music of bands like Dokken will outlive all the egos and attitudes that broke them apart in the first place. Evidence of their significance is not just immortalized in the mixes that we’ve come to know. The individual tracks of these master tapes tell a back story of their creation that will survive not only the bands themselves, but the fading memories of those who were involved in its creation.