Sunday 19 November 2017

Music: In praise of those studio mavericks

John Meagher on the unsung producers behind the hits

The different financial products created before the financial crash are making a comeback
The different financial products created before the financial crash are making a comeback
Allen Tate of San Fermin
Joseph Lyons, aka Eaves
Jim James of My Morning Jacket
The Pretenders
John Meagher

John Meagher

Blondie's 'Heart of Glass' was released 37 years ago this summer, and it hasn't dated one bit. It remains a thrilling slice of electro-pop and one of the finest moments of Debbie Harry's long career.

But a man who must take much of the credit for this disco anthem was not a band member dressed in suit and Converse flanking Harry on the cover of Parallel Lines, the album on which the song appears. Instead, he was behind the mixing desk at the celebrated Power Plant recording studio in New York where it was recorded.

Mike Chapman was already a celebrated pop producer before he began work with Blondie, but his reputation was cemented with Parallel Lines and, especially, 'Heart of Glass'.

Harry and Chris Stein had recorded an early version of the song, then named 'Once I Had a Love', a few years earlier and although there's the bones of something special there, it's but a shadow of Chapman's effervescent and unashamedly commercial retooling. Unlike Blondie's previous (laid-back) producer Richard Gottehrer, Chapman was relentless in pushing the band towards technical perfection during the three-month studio session. Later, Blondie keyboard player Jimmy Destri, acknowledged his importance: "He was a very good producer... he knew the console like nobody else I've ever seen. From Parallel Lines and onwards, Mike was integral... we couldn't go in the studio without him."

Destri's words offer a reminder of the pivotal role played by producers, something that generally goes unnoticed by most of the public. But could you imagine U2 without Brian Eno or The Beatles without George Martin? Or, indeed, Michael Jackson without Quincy Jones or The Ronettes without Phil Spector?

Joe Donnelly, who presents a drive-time show on Dublin alternative music station, TXFM, recognises the importance of these largely unsung, but utterly crucial, figures.

Last year, he broadcast a series of interviews with producers such as Stephen Street (who spoke about working on Blur's Parklife) and Gil Norton (who helmed Pixies' Doolittle) and, from next week, he's offering another batch of noted studio mavens who talk about their contribution to a classic album celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

First up, on Thursday, it's Owen Morris who will be discussing his role as producer of Oasis's massive selling second album (What's the Story) Morning Glory? and, the following Thursday, Donnelly will be talking to John Leckie about helming one of the all-time great second albums, Radiohead's The Bends.

It was a previous conversation that Donnelly had with Leckie about producing The Stone Roses' seminal debut album that first piqued his interest in getting producers to open up about working on great albums. (I doubt I'm the only one who loves The Bends and The Stone Roses and yet wouldn't be able to identify Leckie in a line-up.)

Further instalments in the series will include Chris Thomas on Pulp's Different Class and Barrett Jones on Foo Fighters' self-titled debut. (The latter will be broadcast on May 28, just in time for Foo Fighters' headline performance at Slane.)

All half-hour interviews air on Thursdays at 6.30pm.

"A great producer," Donnelly insists, "is someone who gets the best from a band or artist and realises their own vision almost without the band/artist realising it, if that makes sense.

"A lot of artists may not like having a producer telling them what to do, in some cases, so it's essential for the producer to foster a trusting and fertile woking partnership."

Donnelly has particular admiration for Steve Albini and Butch Vig. "Albini," he says, "is a punk at heart, and his discography (PJ Harvey, Pixies, Nirvana) testifies to this sound, but his relationship with his 'clients' is quite remarkable.

"He doesn't take a percentage royalty, like most producers do, from album sales. He likens this practice to a plumber coming to your house to fix your washing machine and then returning a year later and asking for more money because it's still working."

Vig, meanwhile, is worthy of acclaim because of his stunning work on Nirvana's era-defining Nevermind. "When you hear him interviewed about working with the band, you can see just what a challenge he faced in getting the genius songwriting of Kurt Cobain, and the raging grunge sound, to coalesce into something that might become a bit of a hit.

"His influence over the shape and sound of the album was immense. A good example is the track 'Polly', which is acoustic, and is quite dark in subject matter, but it was Vig who 'constructed' the sound of that song, with Cobain's vocals overdubbed."

It's hard to argue with his appraisal of either. A producer of similar hue to both - but working with an even greater breadth of artists - is, of course, Rick Rubin. After producing albums from Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and Mick Jagger - among many, many others - he helped give Johnny Cash a late, and great, lease of life with the American Recordings series of albums and one can only wonder what he might have brought to U2's latest offering had their sessions come to fruition.

It's a reminder, if needed, that producers and artists don't always click, irrespective of how good the union might appear on paper.

Meanwhile, anyone who questions the impact of a good producer should be directed to 'With Every Heartbeat', the peerless pop song from Swedish singer, Robyn.

Her compatriot Andreas Kleerup imbues the song with a glorious dance-floor beat, but never loses sight of the pain at its heart.

It's a stunning four-minuter from 2005 and captures the alchemy between artist and producer in spectacular fashion.

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