‘I was ready to throw the tape away’: how we made What a Fool Believes by the Doobie Brothers

‘I went into a meeting with old pros and hitmakers and said: “This thing is a piece of crap, but I’ll play it for you anyway.” And they replied: “Are you crazy? That’s great!”’

Michael McDonald, singer

Kenny Loggins and I had been chatting about getting together to write some songs. He came over to my house in LA just as I was playing what I had for What a Fool Believes. He said: “You were just playing something at the piano. Is that new? That’s what I want to work on first.” He had already come up with the song’s hook line – “She had a place in his life” – before he’d got through the door.

During the session, we got nostalgic about the records we grew up listening to, songs like the Four Seasons’ Sherry and Walk Like a Man. They were a big part of our memory bank, and What a Fool Believes filled that space. By the next day, we had finished the track.

Kenny and I both recorded separate versions around the same time. My band, the Doobie Brothers, tried desperately to get a version we liked. The song was always kind of an enigma. We tried everything in the studio. We got so desperate that producer Ted Templeman actually wound up playing drums along with our drummer. By that point, there were boxes of takes for this one song piled as high as the ceiling. “This is crazy,” Ted said. “Let’s stop right here – because I know we’ve got a take in that pile.” He got off the drums, walked into the control room and started cutting the tapes into individual sections right there. Back then, you were really going for broke when you physically cut the tape. But that’s what we used to make the record.

record cover - Doobie Brothers, The - What A Fool Believes

Kenny’s solo version was released first, in July 1978. It was more of a creative arrangement with his producer Bob James, who was a phenomenal jazz pianist. The Doobie Brothers kept the song in its simplest form and figured we didn’t need to get too wordy and just tried to capture its spirit. Our single came out at the start of 1979 and went to No 1 a few months later. It really captured the public’s imagination and developed a life of its own.

I think it came out of nowhere and stylistically wasn’t like anything we’d done before or like anything anyone else was doing at the time. I was flattered by the Yacht Rock YouTube series [a mockumentary about California’s mid-70s and early 80s music scene] even though it wasn’t very accurate in depicting the people I knew. There was no real rivalry between Kenny and I, or the other bands, but it was funny – you could almost believe it. Seeing myself sent up on TV in Family Guy and films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin has been hilarious, and valuable too. I tell my son, who’s also a musician: “Just remember, when your music becomes less relevant, your pathetic comic value may be of some importance.”

Ted Templeman, producer

We recorded the track over and over and it just wouldn’t come together. Everyone was getting frustrated and my engineer, Donn Landee, said: “Why don’t you go play drums, Ted?” So I went out and we did a take. That’s when I decided to cut the tapes. We had about 35 boxes stacked up in the record booth. Michael looked at me in horror, the whole band did. In those days when you cut the tape, you’re over – that’s the master of your recording. But we got lucky and I put it together on the spot.

Michael came up with the rest of the arrangement. His voice has such a unique range and quality. He added all the keyboard parts on the synthesiser, layered the vocals and then the string lines, which give What a Fool Believes that emotion. It’s a catchy melody with great lyrics: every guy has had a relationship with a girl who didn’t give a damn.

When the song was finished, I still didn’t think it was right. I went over to Warner Bros and into a meeting with all these hitmakers and old pros. “This thing is a piece of crap,” I said, “but I’ll play it for you anyway.” I was just about ready to throw it away. And they said: “Are you crazy? That’s great!” Even when we went to collect the Grammy for Song of the Year in 1980, I was thinking: “How did this happen?”

Ted Templeman’s official biography, A Platinum Producer’s Life in Music, is out now.

Interviews by Ben Gilbert

The GuardianTramp

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