Out of the Sandbox and into the Playground

By Ben Valley

The origins of “Playground” go back to July 2010. I travel the world as an Aerospace Engineer and value my time at home. One night at home, I sat in my recliner while watching the late-night Chicago news and strumming a fairly new guitar I picked up: a Taylor T-5. 

There was a news report about soldiers coming home from Iraq and others being deployed again. Tearful family members were cheering them on. One young soldier interviewed said, “I’m going back to the Sandbox” as his wife cried next to him. Soldiers referred to Iraq as “the Sandbox.” I thought there was as a song idea.

The problem was I had never really written a song before and didn’t really consider myself a musician. It was just something I did for fun. In 2008, I met Steve Boyer who came to work with us in Aerospace after crossing over from being a six-time Grammy winning recording engineer at the famous Power Station Studios in NYC. Steve and I quickly traveled the world together and became the brothers that neither one of us ever had. We were the same age and shared the same love and knowledge of music. 

Prior to seeing that news story, the lady I had been dating said to me one day, “Steve asked me if you have written a song for me yet?” I knew that was Steve’s way of getting the message to me to write a song. So by August of 2010 I had “Sandbox” written. I flew to Power Station and played it for our keyboard player Marty Dunayer who also became a great friend.

The basic theme of the song is about a soldier coming back from Iraq as seen from his wife’s point of view. It’s about them having relationship problems due to his PTSD. As a side note, I had worked with many Vietnam Vets who would tell me their stories upon returning to “the world.” A lot of guys won’t talk about their experiences so I opened the song with “Don’t know where you’ve been, don’t know what you’ve seen – I just want you to love me, forever again … wake me with your bad dreams, tell me all that you’ve seen … Sandbox is still calling but into my arms you are falling.” While I was crafting the lyrics, I was able to sneak in three Beach Boys song titles: “Forever,” “This Whole World” and “Let’s Put Our Hearts Together.” I wrote out the chord chart, sat at my piano, and plunked out the melody and wrote the words. Steve helped revise some lyrics as we went along.

On a dark and cold Christmas Day in 2010 we were stuck in Chicago without any family. It was me, Steve, his girlfriend (now wife) Tammy, and his son Steven. With everything shut down for Christmas, we did just like Ralphie’s family in the film “A Christmas Story” and ate at a Chinese restaurant for dinner. Afterwards, we came back to my place where Steve had built a studio in my finished basement using an old Fostex 8-Track Digital machine to record.

We did “Take One” with his son Steven and myself on acoustic guitars bleeding into one mic. We had no drummer, so we used a Yamaha keyboard playing a Salsa beat as a click track with another mic hanging over it. Steve is a master of mic placement and this was just an experiment but it felt pretty good. When we popped up around 2 a.m., we saw that a beautiful fresh new snowfall covered everything while we were recording – literally from darkness to a new light, just like the song.

We went on to record electric guitar overdubs with Marty adding piano and strings. My old friend Larry Alicz came in and added some guitar licks as well. Larry flew the F-117 Stealth Fighter in the Gulf, so I wanted some authenticity. Tammy sang the lead vocal in the spring of 2011.

Steve and I were flying all over the world working for “GOGO.” We were very good at what we did which was develop all of the engineering and then make sure the planes were installed safely. Everything from 747s down to small, regional jets. We traveled so much that trying to finish this record seemed impossible. At one point, we had thought we booked a studio in Chicago only to find there was a mix up and it had been set for the following day. The studio owner said to come back tomorrow. I said, “No, you don’t understand – we have to be in Beijing tomorrow!” It was that crazy.

We both had been on the road for decades and there were many times when we would wake up and not know what country we were in. Many of our installations took place overnight and we had to stay up to babysit it all. Several times we had to stay up nearly 48 hours in a row.

Unfortunately, in September of 2011, Steve was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer. Being the tough guy that he is, he fought back with intensity. By August of 2012 we went in and did what we thought would be the “Final Mix.”

There it sat on the shelf as we worked to get Wi-Fi and internet on nearly 3,000 aircraft. Our roles had expanded and I was doing everything from shooting 4-pound chickens at 400 MPH at airplane radomes to building wind tunnel models and testing. The fallout of doing a good job is having everyone wanting more from you. We made it look easy and had great fun in the process. We just didn’t have time to do much with “Sandbox” … but we would talk about it.

Steve was living in Florida and I was working out of San Diego and living in Cincinnati. When California Surf Inc would play in Florida, I would go visit Steve and take him to meet Ed Carter, Bobby Figueroa, Sterling Smith, Probyn Gregory and Randell Kirsch. It was usually in the spring when the weather was nice. This past March I asked Bobby and Ed if they would like to do overdubs on a song we wanted to rework. They were coming to Tampa and thought it would be fun. They said sure and we got them in a day or two early and went to Clear Track Studios in Clearwater that Steve had used in the past.

I wanted real drums and it definitely needed Eddie Carter on bass. Bobby added bongos, as well, which really gave it a Latin feel. There are some video clips on Facebook of the session. All they had was the title and the existing track. We never gave them the lyrics. Bobby came into the control room after a few takes and said something to the effect of “I really get this” and “Sandbox reminds me of a Playground.” He started to say, “It’s like playing onstage with The Beach Boys was my playground, being on the road traveling the world was our playground. It makes me miss those days, Dennis and Carl … and I wish I could go back to those times.” He had a tear in his eye telling me this. I said, “Well that’s what ‘Sandbox’ is about: going back to an earlier, simpler time in life.”

Bobby came up with the background “Play—Ground … Our Hearts Abound.” Having known Ed for many years I had no idea he played piano. He sat down and played the chords for the background parts that we all got a shot at contributing. Tammy had a friend from Italy, Vittorio Maiolo, who was there and did the high parts. Eddie saw some electric guitars sitting around and asked if we wanted him to play. How could we say no? He picked up a Fender Tele and that’s what you hear in the intro and throughout the song. Ed played off the riffs we had on the track perfectly. So, on the track there are about 11 different guitars being played by Ed, Steven Boyer, Larry Alicz and me. I’m not sure if it was a “Wall Of Sound,” but Steve blended everything very, very well.

The session was on Saturday so afterwards we all went to celebrate with a nice dinner in downtown Clearwater. Bobby asked me if he could write new lyrics because he had some ideas. I said, “sure”. We got the guys to their show the next day and everyone flew back afterwards. By June, Bobby said, “I think I have something you guys are gonna like.”

I was off from work in July and August so I had some time to get things accomplished and combined trips to do just that. In late July I had planned to fly to San Diego to help my old friend “The Famous San Diego Chicken” Ted Giannoulas as he performed for the San Diego Padres 50th Anniversary. The next day, I flew from San Diego to LAX and met Steve (who had flown in from Tampa). We got a car and drove out to spend the afternoon with my dear friend, Miss Carol Kaye. Steve really enjoyed meeting Carol and we had a great time. 

Ben, Bobby, Jeff Peters and Steve
Ed, Vittoria Maiolo, Ben, Steve, Bobby and Spencer Bradham

We got back to LAX that night and the plan was to head to Jeff Peter’s studio in Pasadena on Monday to do Bobby’s lead vocal. Bobby nailed it in 4 takes and off we went. He definitely channeled Dennis’ voice. The lyrics he wrote are perfect. Without ever seeing the “Sandbox” lyrics he managed to do the same thing I did by using Dennis’ songs and The Beach Boys titles.

We took the track back to Florida for mixing at Clear Track but not before getting Probyn to lay down a flugelhorn track and sending it to us. In late August, we headed to the Solid State Logic board to get this done after nine years. Before I left to fly to Florida, I told Steve, “We need sleigh bells on this.” He was a little unsure at first. I packed two sleigh bell trees, wrapped in bubble wrap in my checked luggage. As I dragged it through Tampa Airport it sounded like I had Santa stuffed in my bag! Steve added them into the final mix and by then was convinced why I had suggested them.

My dear friend Marty Dunayer played keyboards, guitars were myself, Steve Boyer, Larry Alicz, and Eddie, who also played bass. Probyn’s  flugelhorn really added to the track. Spencer Bradham was our engineer at Clear Track Studios in Clearwater as well as Nathan Swygert from Naperville Music. Background vocals were arranged by Bobby and sung by Bobby, Spencer, Tamara, Vittoria and me, and Steve added a moogbox. 

We went thru several iterations of minor changes to the mix to get it to what you hear on the download. In the span of a week or two, I had to carve a music publishing company out of my Aerospace company, join ASCAP, BMI and update the copyright to include “Playground.” It is now available on CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, Pandora and all the others.

I can’t thank Bobby (and Eddie) enough for having the ideas to bring “Playground” to release. Steve is still very alive and doing this music keeps him going. His fight with cancer is as inspirational as it gets. I don’t know how he does it; many lesser men would have given up long ago. We still have our thriving day jobs and keep doing music as much as we can. “Sandbox” was just released, as well, by Steve’s wife, Tamara Spiri Boyer.

Bobby captured Dennis 100% with the lyrics and vocal. I was fortunate enough to know Dennis and he was everything in this song, and then some. I got to see the softer side of him that not a lot of people did. I played the song for Dean Torrence and he said, “Dennis, would-DOES approve of this song.” Ed’s guitar parts remind me of some of the songs he played on Pacific Ocean Blue and Ricci Martin’s Beached album, which are two of my all-time favorites. I hope everyone enjoys this song. 

Guitars played on “Playground” / “SandBox”

Gibson Hummingbird
Taylor T-5
Martin D-28
Gibson ’63 ES-335 Custom
Gibson Les Paul Custom
Gibson SG
Gibson Howard Roberts Fusion III
Fender Stratocaster
Fender Telecaster (two of them)
Rickenbacker 360
Danelectro U56



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Rob Strickland

1 year ago

I met Ben through the San Francisco Giants Fantasy Camp and have been friends with him for six years now. He never told me he was a song writer or musician. We just keep peeling back layers of the onion that is Ben.

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