This one should also be of interest to fans of T. Rex and David Bowie as they are heavily featured in this article. I really like to read articles that involves the great record producers as they have “been there and done that” to a whole legion of different artist. They are the people that really have stories to tell and many of them were sober enough to tell them correctly. Mr. Visconti is 75 years old on April 24th this year and is still active in his trade.
The spider who nearly got to mars
By Geoff Barton
The name Tony Visconti pops up with fair frequency at the bottom of record labels. The man is a record producer, as you probably know. He has been involved with Bolan, Bowie, Cocker, Procol, etcetera, ad infinitum.
But to look at him you wouldn`t believe he`d been anywhere remotely near such people. When you meet him the impression you get is of a clean-cut American – why, he even looks like one of the Osmonds. This time, however, you can throw your first impression to the wind. He`s been around, has Tony.
Tony comes from Brooklyn, New York, and has been a professional musician since he was 15 – he`s 30 now. He grew up with the likes of Fats Domino, Little Richard and Alan Freed. He studied classical guitar for three years, played bass and tried to be a jazz musician. “I did everything,” he says. “I was into every musical involvement in New York City.”
When he was 22 he was trying desperately to break into recording. He had visions of being a singer, a guitar player or a songwriter, or maybe all three. Instead, he was offered a job as record producer.
“My publisher was impressed by some home demos I`d made, and he reckoned I had a talent as a record producer. But I didn`t even know what a record producer was. The few times I`d been in the studio I`d only noticed the engineer and not the other guy – in those days he was called an A and R man.
“But I said I`d have a go. I did it for about a month, and then I met Denny Cordell, who had come over from England. He was looking for an American producer to bring back to England with him and introduce an American sound in Britain. He said he`d consider me.
“He failed to bring back Phil Spector so I got the job.”
Visconti spent his first six months over here as assistant to Cordell. He sat in on a lot of the early Move and Procol Harum sessions, and co-produced a few of the tracks on “Shine On Brightly”.
Then he met Marc Bolan in the UFO club, and watched what was then Tyrannosaurus Rex`s third gig.
“Tyrannosaurus Rex were the first group I discovered,” he says. “I went out and found them all on my own.”
So he came to produce “Prophets, Seers And Sages”, the first Tyrannosaurus Rex album, on a really low budget. “That was very sad. We made it in about four sessions, and it sounds drastically different from the ones that followed. `Prophets`, the next album, we got on a higher budget. But I think it really happened on `Unicorn`, when we had total control and I had started to develop lots of technical tricks. We were making guitars sound like violins and pianos like brass sections. We had a ball.”
Much of “Unicorn`s” individual, distinctive sound, he told me, is due to the fact that a large part of it was recorded in the gent`s loo at Trident Studios – which, as you might guess, had acoustic properties all of its own.
“Marc and I both had a passion for Phil Spector in those days, and we were into our Spector thing on the `Unicorn` album. Of course, it turned out completely freaky because Marc Bolan and Spector just don`t mix.”
And then, Marc went electric.
“Well, that was just a slow development. Marc got himself a little Strat, and that was it. Although he`d always wanted to play electric, Steve Took was more into electric music at the time. He was dying to pick up a guitar and play. He was writing loads and loads of songs around the time of `Unicorn`, but as we all know Marc isn`t about to share billing with anybody. They broke up about that, really.
“Steve was very frustrated, he wanted to play electric but it just didn`t happen. Had Marc allowed him to write I think that Tyrannosaurus Rex would have developed into a very different thing today.”
Do you approve of the “thing” T. Rex has now become?
“No. Quite honestly, no. I think Marc had something extremely unique in those days. I was really surprised that he switched, and tried to appeal to the mass market. You shouldn`t make hits for the public`s way of of thinking. You can`t live to please the public – there`s too many of them and they have too many different ideas. You have to be true to yourself.
“When we went over to electric I still tried to innovate new sound techniques, but one thing I had no control over was the quality of the songs.
“When I look back on it I think the most important thing to Marc Bolan was to be successful. He really wanted to be successful, and that lead to our break up.”
At the same time Visconti was producing Bolan he was also producing Bowie. And, conversely, he`s really pleased with the way Bowie has evolved.
“On one hand I had Marc Bolan, an aggressive little go-getter who really wanted to get somewhere, and on the other I had David Bowie who, at the time, was the laziest, most untogether person in the world.”
So, he split with Bolan and continued with Bowie. Well, for the time being at least.
“When I was involved with Bowie originally, he was trying desperately to become a pop artist. He didn`t want to be underground. I was producing him when he had his hit with `Space Oddity`.”
But, strangely enough, Visconti didn`t produce that single. Apparently he considered it to be a rip off, a “nick” as he calls it, of a number of other records including “Sounds Of Silence”. So, he didn`t want to know. Gus Dudgeon eventually produced the single, but Bowie came back to Visconti for the album of the same name.
“He must have respected me for not wanting to produce the single and we did both the `Space Oddity` and the `Man Who Sold The World` albums together. That last one was particularly gratifying because I got to play bass on it. I would have been a Spider From Mars if David and I hadn`t fallen out over domestic matters.
“Recently we`ve got together again, though. Bowie said to me: `the best time I ever had was making “Man Who Sold The World”. Can we do it all over again?` So, we did.”
Result: what Visconti calls Bowie`s “black album”. Like “Ziggy”, it`s another identity album, and it`s due to be released early next year. It was recorded in studios in Philadelphia, the centre of America`s black music industry, and is apparently unmistakably Bowie but with some “black treatment” – whatever that is.
Then, of course, there`s the Bowie live double album, mixed in quad, that was recorded over two nights in Philly, once again. They both should be interesting to hear.
Visconti has produced hundreds of albums, but I wondered if there were any he thought should have received greater acclaim.
“Yes. Two albums, in fact. The first one is an album I produced with my wife (Mary Hopkin) called `Earth Song, Ocean Song`. Mary has always been a folk singer, but when she won `Opportunity Knocks` she was taken into the glamour of it all, and it took her a long time to recover.
“She had been trying for years to do a folk album, and when I was first approached to produce it, I turned it down, saying `Mary Hopkin isn`t capable of doing a folk album`. The second time I was approached I actually met her, and we hit it off great. I found she knew her folk music very well. I ended up producing her, and the end result was a beautiful album.”
Mary was anxious to lose the image of the “Knock Knock, Who`s There” girl, but she couldn`t promote the album because she had to do a Summer season in Margate as the “old” Mary Hopkin. That finished her, and by the end of the Summer she had lost all her nerve. Tony hinted that she could now be on her way back, though.
The other album Visconti thinks should be better known is Carmen`s first album. That, he feels, was a victim of the energy crisis – the band couldn`t go on the road to promote it because of lack of petrol at the time.
Now, he`s making his own records as well.
Isn`t that just a bit of an ego trip?
“No. I`ve been writing songs for years, and I`ve always been an active musician.”
I have personally transcribed this from the original paper. Any errors in the text from the original magazine may not have been corrected for the sake of accuracy. If you have a music-related web-page where this fits – please make a link to the article. With credits to the original writer of the article from all of us music fans!
This number of Sounds also contains articles/interviews with these people: Ron Wood, The Sharks, John Cale, Michael Fennelly, John Sebastian, Sparks, John Entwistle, Maggie Bell, CSNY, Scott English, Tommy Aldridge, Tom Scott, John Grimaldi, Brian Robertson, Steve Howe, Lorraine Ellison.
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