Among the interviews I enjoyed most was this one, with the producer Tony Visconti. It took place in Soho, London, for The Word magazine’s edition of April 2010.
He was responsible for so many of my favourite records, and here he explains the role of a producer with clarity, tact and humour.
At this point he had not worked with Bowie since the Reality album, seven years earlier, and (he implies here) did not know if they would work together again. Yet he was prescient in saying of Bowie that “I think he still has a couple of great albums to do.” This is precisely what happened, in the form of The Next Day and Blackstar. And, fittingly, it was Visconti who produced them.
There’s an excellent chance that Tony Visconti produced one of your all-time favourite albums. I know that his fingerprints are all over my record collection. To pick three at random: T.Rex’s Electric Warrior, Sparks’ Indiscreet and David Bowie’s Low. For these alone he ought to be made a Freeman of Rock’n’Roll.
Production is the marriage of art and science. We’re typically good at one or the other, but seldom at both. Yet Visconti is the classically-trained musician who coaxes players to career heights of creativity; at the same time, he’s capturing their art to the best effect technology offers. You needn’t be a geek to love the familiar story of the three microphones he used on Bowie’s “Heroes”, in the huge and gloomy Berlin studio. The mics were set up far apart from one another, the second two “gated” so they opened only as Bowie’s voice hit certain levels. The track’s extraordinary crescendo quality was thus perfected. Artistic intuition meets scientific ingenuity.
Visconti is a New Yorker, born in 1944, who spent his High School years studying double bass and musical theory; as he recounts in his Autobiography: Bolan, Bowie And The Brooklyn Boy, his teens were divided between youth orchestras, formal tuition and rock’n’roll bands, leading to early production work. Between 1967 and 1989, he lived in London, where he met the artists with whom he’ll be forever linked. Visconti’s back in New York nowadays, but still speaks in a mellow, London-American accent. High in a hotel room in Soho, we’re yards away from the old Trident Studios where he oversaw the amazing ascent of Marc Bolan, from lisping pixie cult to the crunching boogie monster of Ride A White Swan, Hot Love and Get It On. In Trident, too, he steered Bowie away from chirping Cockney novelties to the churning psycho-dramas of The Man Who Sold The World.
He’s flown in briefly to promote his newest protégé, the Australian singer Danielle Spencer, wife of Russell Crowe. He’s a little dulled by jet-lag, but always willing to answer questions that must be wearyingly familiar to him. He has a Beethoven ring-tone on his mobile, and a book of Buddhism by his bed. When he suggests the best position for me to place my recording device, I naturally pay attention. Later on, the sonic maestro will offer us tips on how to pimp our iPods; he’ll caution against the blind worship of vinyl, and explain why these are the “Dark Ages” of audio.
His career has taken in everyone from Thin Lizzy to The Moody Blues to Morrissey. In many cases the Visconti work is their very best. As an arranger, engineer and all-purpose session musician, he served an early London apprenticeship to Denny Cordell, the producer of Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade Of Pale; with Cordell he played a part in such classic ’60s singles as The Move’s Flowers In The Rain and Joe Cocker’s With A Little Help From My Friends. The list looks uniformly prestigious. But a jobbing producer takes on all sorts and Visconti’s CV defies pigeon-holing. As he will note, wryly, a cancelled Bowie project led to a stop-gap job with Modern Romance, assisting the Ay Ay Ay Ay Moosey hitmakers with their 1985 LP Burn It!. Other clients have included Elaine Paige, Gentle Giant and Gay Dad.
He was for a while the producer – and husband – of Paul McCartney’s great discovery Mary Hopkin. In fact he and Mary, with two of their children, are now working together again, with a young Welsh artist called Debbie Clarke. “She’s a great singer,” he says. “I was inspired by Susan Boyle winning that contest. Gosh, the world really needs a few great singers again. I love a big voice.”
Where did all this begin for you?
I’d produced for a very small period in New York and realised how inadequate I was. My equipment consisted of two tape recorders and two microphones. I was getting nowhere. Then I met Denny Cordell, quite fortuitously, at the water cooler. I think I’d only met one other Englishman before, so I was impressed. He was in New York making a record for Georgie Fame. I asked to see the musical arrangements and he said, ‘In London we don’t have any, we just light a spliff and eventually get it done.’ But New York is incredibly unionised, you will be crucified if you do that here, they will charge you triple. So he said ‘Help me out here!’ And I did. I was good with the music but not yet with the production.
I thought that was the end of seeing Denny but two weeks later I got a call from him in England, probably in the middle of the night for me. He wanted me to come over to London as soon as possible. So in April ’67 I found myself on a plane to London with everything I owned. Two suitcases of clothes and four guitars.
You effectively served your apprenticeship with Denny Cordell?
Yes. An apprenticeship as far as producing was concerned, but I was also his arranger. Within days he had put me with Denny Laine, the ex-singer of the Moody Blues, who had a string quartet, and the next thing I’m asked to take a bow at his concert in Shaftesbury Avenue with Hendrix and The Who on the bill, and The Beatles in the audience. I was exposed to such rock royalty it was a pinch-me situation. Next I wrote arrangements for The Move, who were now using strings as The Beatles had done on Eleanor Rigby.
I think Denny [Cordell] was, if not the first, then the second to have his own production company, Mickie Most had one too. Denny had a licensing deal with Decca Records, the Deram label, and then switched to EMI, to Regal Zonophone. It was exciting to be part of that.
And as part of your work for Cordell you discovered Marc Bolan?
Denny said ‘Go out and find a group of your own,’ so I opened up the International Times and there was an advert for the UFO Club and Tyrannosaurus Rex. I’d seen their name before and heard a mention by John Peel but that was about it. So I went around the corner to Tottenham Court Road and I fell in love with Marc Bolan. I could not believe what I heard and saw, it was quiet but over a hundred people were sitting on the floor cross-legged. Having just arrived in England I was expecting something like Beatlemania, a rock group, girls screaming. I was not prepared for this and it made me re-examine the reasons I came to this country. I was looking for the next big thing. If I was to be a record producer I had to discover nothing less than the next Beatles. But this little folk duo were having an effect more powerful than just fan mania. I approached Marc after the set and within a week he was making demos in my flat.
In a sense you did discover the next big thing, but there was a long wait, making those acoustic Bolan albums before he went electric, as T.Rex.
He’d always wanted to make a rock record but his guitar had been taken from him when he left John’s Children. We’d analyse Beatles and Beach Boys records, break them down, then go into the studio and try to make our own version of those sounds. We were limited by cheap instruments and a Pixiephone from Woolworth’s, and Steve [Took, the percussionist] played these little Moroccan bongos, but ingenuity was high. The first Tyrannosaurus Rex album, My People Were Fair, cost £400 for four days in the studio, but it’s unlistenable to me now. By Unicorn we’d proved ourselves, Denny was making a profit from the group, so now we had a whole month. We figured out how to do Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound with just two musicians. I listen to that album all the time, especially She Was Born To Be My Unicorn. It haunts me. But yes, T.Rex were so big. That was probably my crowning achievement. If I die now, I’m very happy with that era. It was hard to start a group from the ground up, and your chances are one in a million anyway, but to succeed is simply amazing.
Did you meet David Bowie through Marc?
No. I met David about a month after Marc and I remember the weather. It was a nice day, I was in [Cordell’s partner] David Platz’s office at 68 Oxford Street and he played me Bowie’s first Deram album, saying, What do you think of this kid? I said he’s all over the map. You know that album, Uncle Arthur, Mr Gravedigger and so on, crazy songs, Laughing Gnome? I said he’s great but so unfocused. And he said, Come and meet him, he’s in the next room. David was about 19 at the time, very nervous sitting there. He knew he was going to meet me, it had all been set up, and David Platz left us after five minutes.
We got on very well, we shared a love of Andy Warhol, underground music, a group called The Fugs, which few British people were aware of. He was obviously in love with American music and I loved him, he was a singer songwriter, had this great English accent and now we were going to work together.
So we took a long walk down Oxford Street, on this nice day, we continued to talk the whole day and about three hours later ended up on King’s Road near a film theatre where Roman Polanski’s Knife In The Water was playing. We’d been talking about foreign films and Truffaut, specifically black and white and scratchy films, so we went in there and we said goodbye at about 7 in the evening. We’d struck up a great friendship.
Again it would be a few years before your protégé hit big. You did some great early albums together, but famously not the one track that was a hit single, Space Oddity.
I turned it down. I thought it was a novelty song. I respected him for the folk rock songs he gave me, with great depth in the lyrics, a real underground writer. But then he hands me this Space Oddity song, which was topical to the point of novelty. To this day I regret not doing it, it’s a great song, people remember it more than Young Americans or Let’s Dance. I offered it to Gus Dudgeon in the next office, he said, You don’t want to record this? You’re crazy! And he did a great job. Then David came back to me. His record company would not let him make the album unless he recorded Space Oddity. ‘Now that we’ve got that out of the way,’ these were his exact words, ‘let’s get on with the album.’
It took a long time for that record to chart. He never did write a follow-up to Space Oddity. His next single was The Prettiest Star, which I got Marc Bolan to play on. But really nothing happened until he conceived of Ziggy Stardust a couple of years later.
Is it hurtful when artists don’t use you for the next album? Though you would work together again later, Bowie went elsewhere for Hunky Dory. Is there a natural expectation that you will get the call?
It’s rarely hurt me. With David it only happened once. Hunky Dory I didn’t mind, because we’d called it quits after The Man Who Sold The World. Nobody was buying those records, and much as I loved him artistically, we’re in the business of selling records. You don’t get invited back to the studio unless you show some returns for it. And when he got Tony DeFries in as manager, that was a falling out. I just didn’t like Tony DeFries. We parted company and I didn’t speak to David for another two years. So I knew I was giving Hunky Dory away but I was really pleased for him when I heard it, it’s got to be one of my favourite Bowie albums. It’s intimate, it wasn’t bombastic, it wasn’t the Ziggy thing yet; Man Who Sold The World had been a great album but it wasn’t quite him, it was him and Mick Ronson and me going crazy in the studio – we loved Cream – and it wasn’t that focused.
I was booked to do Let’s Dance and at the last minute he pulled that from me; he’d met Nile Rodgers. It wasn’t so much a hurt as an inconvenience, because I was very busy and getting lots of offers. Of course I wanted to work with David, and suddenly there was a three-month gap in my life – that I filled up with Modern Romance! So it was confusing and a bit hurtful. But it was water under the bridge, we remained friends and I’ve done his last two albums [Heathen and Reality]. If he goes into the studio again I’ll be a likely candidate, although he might choose someone else.
Have you been in contact lately?
All the time. We email a lot. I don’t see him physically, but we share the same sense of humour, we maybe send each other snippets of The Fast Show or stupid things, it’s a friendly relationship. But he hasn’t worked much in the past few years. He’s probably in a reflective stage of his life, but I wouldn’t write him off. I think he’s got a couple of great albums left to do.
You must have had some extraordinary conversations when you’ve re-convened to plan a new album. Records like Young Americans and Low were hardly business-as-usual for Bowie were they?
Well, he’s always been very trusting of me and we don’t have to have a great conversation before we do each album; he states what he’d like to do, and because we share a wide range of interests, he only has to say ‘I’d like to go to Philadelphia and make an R&B album’ and I say ‘I’m right there, buddy, just let me pack my case.’ Marc Bolan liked to think he was that flexible but he limited himself by his own musical education. When I told Phil Lynott that David wrote his lyrics at the microphone while he was doing his vocal, Phil thought that was amazing but he couldn’t do it. David’s the most mercurial and versatile musician, so if he rang me tomorrow and said ‘We’re gonna go to Tibet and make an album with Tibetan musicians,’ I’d pack my case and start boning up on Tibetan music.
Then again, he’d probably bring musicians over from the Bronx. When we did Young Americans we didn’t use any Philly guys, but it was the backdrop and the influence and the vibes. We went to Berlin to record and there were no German musicians on the record. So our brief conversations would lead to something fresh, which we call ‘hybridism’. Bowie is always best when he’s a rule breaker. He’ll admit he got a little lost in the ’80s when he was trying to do what was commercial.
Technical aspects aside, do you find different studios have a distinct atmosphere?
Yes. Certain studios did lend more mystique and inspiration. The Château D’Hérouville in France, the ‘Honky Chateau’, was strange but magical, it drew great performances from Marc Bolan and David Bowie. It was residential, reputedly haunted by George Sand [French female novelist], and I think it was. I mean, someone kept tapping Brian Eno on the shoulder at 5am every morning, he’d wake up and nobody was there. You have to make a great record in a place like that.
And the studio in Philadelphia, Sigma, was so dirty and dingy, which for some reason is conducive to making a great record. These new studios that look like saunas, they’re so sterile. The trend is now for bare wood and chrome, well-lit, but like a health spa. I like dim lighting and a reasonable selection of gear. You have to feel warm and cocooned in a studio, not cold and alienated.
A lot of your early work was in Trident Studios, here in Soho, wasn’t it?
I took Marc down there, it was so convenient for my office at 68 Oxford Street, but also the Sheffield brothers [Trident owners Norman and Barry] were tech-heads, the first independent studios with an eight-track machine, whereas at EMI they had an eight-track but were having their technicians go over it for three months. The Sheffield brothers just bought theirs and put it in. I liked their attitude, they were like Wild West guys, they wanted the newest and the best and they spent a lot of money.
Trident had a famous Bechstein piano, didn’t it? The one Paul used on Hey Jude, then it’s on the Bolan and Bowie records, Elton John, Queen…
It was a great piano, those were the days when you had to have a great piano in the studio and it had to be tuned all the time. If you go to a studio nowadays where they do have a grand piano, it’s usually out of tune and not maintained. The piano is an archaic instrument, it’s not just the strings, it’s like an old car that has to be tuned constantly. Trident was one of the last great studios to keep a piano tuned and cleaned regularly. That piano was probably on more recordings than any individual artist that used it. Nowadays if you hire a studio you will have to pay for the piano to be tuned; it used to be part of the studio’s own costs. People aren’t maintaining pianos like they used to. The classical world still benefits from that but in the pop world half the pianos are in a state of disrepair.
Is the golden age of the studio receding into history? And the golden age of producers like yourself? Can’t a young band go and buy software off the shelf that will do so much of that?
It’s double-edged. The equipment is now very affordable. You walk in with a credit card and you walk out with Pro Tools under your arm. But if it was all about the gear, you’d have a million geniuses making records. But it’s not all about the gear. Nobody buys a record because the kick-drum has a D12 microphone on it. Making records is still a creative process, you have to use your ingenuity. So people like me are working all the time. After people have bought all the gear and tried doing it themselves… I know a certain legendary American singer and guitarist who bought everything from Abbey Road, all the equipment The Beatles had, and he was surprised after a year that he couldn’t make a record as good as The Beatles.
So it’s not that studios or people like me aren’t needed any more, it’s that there’s more stuff out there than ever before and it’s a transitional period. Some of the classic studios like Trident have been gone for many years, that happens all the time. Shops close down and something new will re-open on the same premises. In New York some big studios have closed down. The Power Station where we recorded Scary Monsters has been carved up into smaller rooms. Studios are now opening up in Brooklyn, where you’d never have dreamed of even living, now you have to live in Williamsburg or Park Slope. And they’re thriving, much of the Amy Winehouse album was made there.
Old-timers like me better not get nostalgic, it’s all about making music. I don’t care about keeping a studio open, I’ve owned about eight studios in my life and when they stop working for me I would get rid of them. I had a great place on Dean Street [Good Earth] for about 13 years, we did loads of Thin Lizzy work there, and half of Scary Monsters, but then a day came when I was just the owner of this legacy that was going down the drain. This was ’89, people were buying samplers and making dance music at home and the labels were thrilled they didn’t have to spend a thousand quid a day on my studio.
So I said, Fine, I’m not attached to it, it’s just equipment and it’s not needed any more. Of course I was sad but I have to think of my original intent, which was to make great records.
Wasn’t it George Martin who first inspired you?
He was the first producer I became aware of, after Phil Spector. I started hearing albums like Rubber Soul. Before that, I thought The Beatles just went in the studio and recorded, which is pretty much what it sounds like. But then on Rubber Soul there was the sitar, the harpsichord on In My Life, and I was really aware that there was a fifth brain involved. I read a lot about George Martin and learned that he was trained as a classical musician, that he wrote the strings for Eleanor Rigby. I considered myself very square sometimes, because I studied the double bass, I studied orchestration, and these were things I wouldn’t even admit to in the rock world. All my friends were just dumb-ass guitar players. And this is how I survived for 40 years, because I really understand music, I specialise in this. And George Martin was the person who opened that door for me.
He could have tried to look cool, in a leather jacket, but he never did that, he remained the same, he wore his EMI suit and tie and kept his hair short when everyone was going crazy. Yet he’s cranking out these great rock’n’roll records with style and flair, I just had to emulate him. He was my shining example of what a record producer is.
George called his book All You Need Is Ears. Musical and technical expertise are obviously vital, but are there more personal skills, also? You’re dealing with talented but difficult people – egocentric, temperamental, fragile…
You’re absolutely right. And I think George Martin underplays how good he was at handling The Beatles, who were four very unique individuals. He does talk about the arguments he had with John and Paul about certain things, and he gave me a little secret: if he felt very strongly about something, he had a way of convincing John Lennon that it was his idea. It was George Martin’s idea but John Lennon was convinced an hour later that he thought it up.
I was working with people like Bolan because I respected him and I thought he was a genius, and me having George Martin as my role model I found ways to convince Marc… Most artists are very precious about what they present to the producer. They want the producer to change it, make it better, but once you start doing that they resist you. They feel they’re gonna lose what they thought of. So I’m acutely aware of this and I try my best not to put my personality in there. It’s their album, I realised this from the beginning. Their name is gonna be way bigger than mine. But I’m there to be a helping hand and any time I can make it better…
Most of my artists are very good to me, they welcome my ideas. But it’s a juggling act of personalities, especially in a group. The bass-player’s gonna want more bass, the drummer wants more snare, the singer wants more vocal. Usually I’ll find out who is the alpha person in that group, and it’s gonna go that person’s way. Democracy does not work in a rock’n’roll band.
You were roughly a contemporary of Bolan and Bowie, all young men starting out. But now you must get hired by younger artists who’ve grown up with your work, such as Morrissey [Ringleader Of The Tormentors]. Does that alter the relationship, when you’re brought in as a big name?
Morrissey happened to like a lot of records I made, he’s a big T.Rex fan, and he loved Sparks and he’s very fond of Mary Hopkin. First of all, he’s very fussy and he often sacks people at a moment’s notice, and it’s hard to figure him out. But I had this great legacy behind me, which he respected. He respected my earlier Bowie work rather than the later. So it was an open door for me. My previous work opens loads of doors for me, I don’t have to sell myself like I did when I was an unknown. But sometimes it backfires. Sometimes a young group wants to work with me and they find me too intimidating. I’ve been in several meetings with younger groups and I’ve seen members visibly shaking. And I don’t want to have that effect on people. I’m not big time, I feel for others. I know how vulnerable they are, and I go out of my way to make an artist comfortable in the studio.
What’s your selection process with new artists? Like your current project, Danielle Spencer.
Again it’s the Bowie connection, she was a big Bowie fan who heard my records when she was growing up in the UK; her father was a presenter on Play School, Don Spencer. This is her second album but even before that she had a successful career as an Australian actress. The album before this one was highly programmed by the producer and, for me, it was a little too clean. We had two friends in common who suggested we work together, one being Neil Finn, who I worked with about six years ago with his brother Tim. They recommended me, and in the 2000s I haven’t met a lot of people I want to work with… That film Juno, all the music in that film is so weak and bland, people just picking up an acoustic guitar and strumming, it’s like a lot of young people have reverted to nursery rhyme.
I worked with Bowie and Morrissey, who write such great lyrics, whose songs go off on musical tangents, then I heard Danielle’s writing and it rivalled something Kate Bush would write. And her voice is unique, I work with people who have unique voices. So she passed the first two tests. The very first song I heard from her, Just A Thought, the backing vocals were as complex as the lead, the song could not exist without them. And she plays the keyboards. I thought, she’s making these mini-operettas like The Beach Boys, it’s stunning. Killer album, I love it.
At the other end of the process, of course, we have the listener. Likely as not, we’ll settle for an MP3 file. It’s not the future we once expected, of ever-rising audio standards. Ease of use, convenience, seem to have won out. How does that sit with you?
I know. It’s tragic what’s happened in the audio world as regards MP3s. I’ve found ways around it and I actually enjoy listening on my iPod and iPhone now. Headphones that boost the treble too much really bring out the worst in MP3s. So I’ve covered my headphones with little buds. I’ve spent up to $400 on headphones for travelling but I’ve gone back to the original Apple headphones, covered to cut down the high frequency, and it sounds more mellow. Almost as good as a well-recorded cassette! MP3s are horrible, I actually prefer a cassette to that sound.
But I’ve learned ways. I use the EQ inside the iPod. The convenience of being able to carry round 20,000 tracks is amazing, that’s the trade-off. But I think now with this Lossless file that Apple are putting out the sound is much better, and we’ll slowly creep up to at least CD quality. When I started mixing in surround sound, I thought surely everyone’s gonna go out and buy six speakers and listen at 96 kilohertz, the quality you get on a DVD… People who wax lyrical about vinyl, they never sat in a control room with me and heard those masters off tape. High-speed tape is the best audio quality you can get, but no consumer ever heard that.
Speaking of vinyl, you recommend a limit of 18 minutes per side?
Yes. There are so many limitations to vinyl. You’re limited as to how much low or high frequency you can put on. And you can’t go too long. I used to come away almost in tears from a mastering session. I’d have a Bowie album or a T.Rex album with all this bass on the bottom and the disc cutter would say, Oh, I’m gonna have to filter that out, we can’t get that on vinyl. At least when CDs came out, if they were properly mastered you could actually hear something very close to the original master tape I had produced.
People didn’t know how to master CDs in the first decade. They sounded awful. We had this convenient means of storage but it was brittle. In actual fact, people were afraid to use the headroom of CD, to get that loud sound. Now of course they over-do that, you get a CD that’s so loud, if you put it in a computer you’d see it was a block of sound, it doesn’t even have peaks and troughs.
So, audio’s in a transition and it can only get better. We will soon have MP3 players of much higher quality. Music will cease to exist physically, I know that’s going, you won’t get a disc any more. Everything will be downloaded: I pray that you’ll be able to download the credits a lot easier. They’re starting to do that, but when iTunes came out you had no idea who the producer was, where it was recorded, all the great information you got from a CD booklet or a vinyl insert. So we’re living in Dark Ages but I have great hopes for the future of audio. It’s gotta get better.