2 July 2011

i’ll take my chance on a beautiful stranger – Mark Endert speaks

Mark Endert - to know him is to love him

This week, 12 years ago, Beautiful Stranger was at #8 on the UK Singles Chart – spending its third week inside the Top 10. The song entered the chart at #2; behind children’s TV sensation S Club 7’s debut single, Bring It All Back – not the first “novelty” single to keep Madonna from pole position.

More than a year after its release, the Grammy-grabbing Ray of Light was still hovering in and out of the Top 20 UK Album Chart. Tentative plans to extend the album campaign even further (with the single release of Skin and a remix album, Veronica Electronica) were shelved when Madonna recorded Beautiful Stranger for the soundtrack of Mike Meyers’ Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, with her Ray of Light co-producer, William Orbit.

On Beautiful Stranger, Madonna and Orbit take Ray of Light’s 1960s pop psychedelia flirtations to the next level with a “love-in” of Lennon/Ono proportions – much inspired by William’s Liquid Mix of Ray of Light, not to mention the 1967 single, She Comes In Colors, by US psychedelic rock band, Love. The song also features Madonna’s most unapologetic, outright pop hook since Vogue, sung in a voice that harks back to the one-woman girl group days of True Blue and Cherish, but with her Evita-trained chops ensuring effortless perfection.  

Such pop perfection resulted in an immediate UK radio smash and Beautiful Stranger quickly became one of the most played songs on UK radio ever – at one point receiving 2,462 broadcasts in a single week! A total of 16 weeks on the UK singles chart (seven of which within the Top 20) helped rack up sales of 520,000, making Beautiful Stranger Madonna’s tenth best selling single in the UK.

In 2007 I spoke to producer Mark Endert (Maroon 5, Rhianna, Savage Garden) who worked extensively with Madonna and William Orbit on recording Ray of Light, Music, The Next Best Thing soundtrack and Beautiful Stranger:

In between those two albums (Ray of Light and Music), I recorded Beautiful Stranger with her (Madonna) and William. William had decided to record Beautiful Stranger using a Pro Tools system, which he brought in to Encore Recording Studios (in Burbank, California). Before Madonna turned up, he said to me, “Mark, she’s just had nothing but problems with Pro Tools and we can’t let her know that we’re using it.” So, I was like, “What do you want me to do?” And he was like, “Mark, if you would be so kind to put the keyboard on top of the analogue remote, so it looks like you’re using the tape machine, but you’re pressing the actual computer keyboard. She’ll never know, but we’ll tell her afterwards.” Apparently her experience with Pro Tools had been so bad that she would’ve been pissed off if she knew that we were actually using it.
She thought it was too cumbersome and I think she lost some vocals or something got screwed up and she lost information – either part of a song, or part of one of her tracks. What we call “data loss” obviously isn’t good when you’re trying to be creative and make a record.
So, we recorded all of her lead vocals for Beautiful Stranger and everyone was happy. She was in a great mood, she was singing great and the track sounded really great. We’d all been there since early in the morning and we were all going to break for lunch. She comes into the room and she was like, “William this track’s really coming along,” and she said, “What’s this screen?” William was like, “Madonna, I wasn’t going to say anything until we were finished, but we’ve been recording to Pro Tools this whole time.” She was like, “William, you know I don’t like that thing” and she walked out of the room.
While everyone had gone to lunch, I hit play on the tape machine and we couldn’t get the session to play – at all. All of her vocals that she had just cut were locked in the machine. The session crashed, the file got corrupted and I had to spend two hours transferring the files onto an analogue tape machine. I got no lunch and it delayed the session by three hours. Also, Madonna came into the room every 20 minutes saying, “How long do we need Mark?”
So, she was understandably pissed because we’d used Pro Tools without telling her. I was scrambling to salvage her vocals, which thankfully I happened to do. We did rest of the session on analogue tape because the entire system crashed and I ended up working a 14-hour day with no lunch. Had we lost everything, I’m sure someone would’ve been fired. Her background vocals and everything were on the tape machine. So, she had her reasons why she didn’t like Pro Tools.”
thebeatswithin: Beautiful Stranger definitely seems to have been inspired by William’s remix of Ray of Light.
“It had such an awesome production and a lot of it is just William Orbit to a T. I remember that it was the first recording that he had done pretty much entirely in Pro Tools. He was living in Malibu then and he had a little studio at his house there. Of course, this was totally different than the Trident Recording Console and everything else that he had in London. I believe he put most of that track together in Malibu, unless I’m incorrect. But he had done all of it in Pro Tools, and he was very concerned with the sound.
William had always been able to get such great sounds out of his old outdated equipment and here he was on the latest equipment and I remember he said, “Do you like the snare? Do you like the backbeat? Is it okay? Does it sound right?” I said, “William, the backbeat on this is charming. It sounds like the 1960s!” And he said, “It’s amazing you used that word. I like that word – charming! It is a charming backbeat isn’t it?”

He was really concerned with the sound of Beautiful Stranger because it was the first one that he had done kind of on a completely new system.  The funny thing is that it sounded even more retro and even more organic than a lot of the electronic stuff done with the old equipment. He did the song on the latest gear that you could buy and it sounded like one of the older more vintage-style recordings.”

Click here to watch the Brett Ratner-directed video for Beautiful Stranger


Rabbitbunny said...

Again, Beautiful Stranger is another Madonna triumph! Like earlier artworks Lucky Star, Who's That Girl?, Take a Bow and Ray of Light and like later hits Die Another Day and Give It to Me Madonna could and might just as well be singing and crying to and about herself. That is one of her better qualities. Part of the reason the albums Ray of Light and Music-and the stand-alone hit Beautiful Stranger were so good for Madonna was that Billy Orbit was able to rein in the electronica and keep her tuneful and melodic qualities something that the follw-up record American Life sorely lacked-in fact that album is her low point. Thankfully, Beautiful Stranger could be the song of Madonna's life because she is the Beautiful Stranger who is a True Friend to All of Us-Rock Critics and Rabid Fans alike. I am one of them. When Madonna happily cries out "To know you is to love you...Beautiful Stranger, I am really quite touched. In the end, that will be her Beautiful Legacy in Rock!

Anonymous said...

Hi Rabbitbunny - thanks for your comments, but I couldn't disagree morere American Life - in my opinion it's one of her best!

andrew said...

I agree, Beats, about American Life. It is still one of my fave albums to sing along to. Nothing Fails, Easy Ride, Intervention....amazing songs.
And its funny....I've always felt Beautiful Stranger was Beatles-esque!

Aitch said...

Nice!! thanks.. Although, I remember around the time of the release of Confessions album she talked about pro-tools as if she has mastered it


Cristian said...

I discovered this blog through Madonna-TV.com and let me say...it has been a TREASURE.

Thank you so much for sharing these incredible interviews and stories. It's so rare we hear about the recording process of Madonna's music and to see so many great stories told here...well, I can't say enough how terrific it is.

I kept cracking up at this particular story. I can easily imagine Madonna getting pissed off at Pro Tools. I use Final Cut at times for video editing projects, and yikes, there is always that potential of the project getting corrupted. And lo and behold, that's exactly what happened to Madonna's original vocals for this track.

I chuckled when I read about Mark having to work 12 hours without lunch. "Time is money" as they say (which Madonna is notoriously known for saying as well), and he definitely learned that lesson that day.

Thanks for sharing this with the Madonna fan community.

Oh, and Beautiful Stranger is pop music bliss.