Tony Visconti: My Top 6 productions
Iconic producer and Guitar Star chief judge Tony Visconti recalls history-making sessions with Bowie, Bolan and Morrissey
T. Rex – The Slider (1972)
“The Slider was the first T.Rex album conceived as an album and we had a great time making it. We went to the Honky Chateau [Elton John named a 1972 album in honour of Château d'Hérouville, an 18th century country house studio near Paris] to make it, and it was just a magical time. We were sequestered in the studio for about four days and recorded 17 songs. The last day was almost a flurry because we recorded so fast and furiously, but that was the way we worked best. Traditionally, we didn't labour a song, we'd record one song in one day, and the band often learned the song just before they recorded it. Half the album was pre-rehearsed, but the other half had to be learned in the studio. I remember we did seven takes of one song and Marc said 'That's it'. And [T.Rex drummer] Bill Legend said, 'No, It's not it! I've only just learned the bloody song. Now I can really play it.' And Marc said, 'No, that's it.' The drumming was great, already more than acceptable, Marc would never go any further than seven takes at the most.
This was the first album that Marc recorded as the superstar he'd always wanted to be, and the first on his own label. That's why I liked it so much, he was on top of the world. It started with a single on each side, Metal Guru and Telegram Sam. Baby Boomerang was great, there are so many great songs on that album. Almost all of the album was recorded in France, but Telegram Sam was recorded in Denmark. Marc wrote Telegram Sam and Thunderwing while he was out there doing a show. He called me and said, 'I have to record these right now.' So we went to a studio where I had formerly worked on Dragonfly with The Strawbs, that's how I knew there was a decent studio in Copenhagen. The other thing I liked about The Slider was that I took the cover photo. Not Ringo Starr, despite what Marc might have said.”
David Bowie – Blackstar (2016)
“For obvious reasons... David did not record Blackstar as his farewell album, he had another album to do right afterwards. He told me in late December that he had written five new songs, so while in hindsight Blackstar looks like a farewell album, especially if you see the videos, it wasn't. The reason why I consider Blackstar to be one of my top six albums is because instead of just doing another album like The Next Day we tried something new. Traditionally, David and I always broke the mould for every album we did, we never copied the past. We might make a few references to it, but with Blackstar we wanted to do everything different. The main difference was that we didn't use his band that he had been using for the past ten years, we used a new band that David discovered in a nightclub, a quartet headed by the saxophone player Donny McCaslin.
The Donny McCaslin Band were a straight-up modern jazz band really, and we got them to play rock, and that's a really different discipline. I mean, a lot of rock musicians can play jazz, but not well, and a lot of jazz musicians can play rock, but reluctantly. Jazz musicians are like classical musicians, they practice long and hard, and they often have university degrees, so we had the best you can get, and they absolutely loved the batch of songs that David had written for Blackstar. The drummer, Mark Guiliana, was a young white guy from Queens in New York City and he loved hip-hop, so he brought a hip-hop element to the album too, with a jazz flavour, so I think Blackstar was one of the most unique albums that David ever made, and for me it was certainly a journey I had never taken before. He was never more innovative than he was at that point and that's why it's right there at the top of my list. On The Next Day we borrowed heavily from the past without recreating it, and I'd have said that, if we had never made Blackstar, The Next Day would also have been right up there as one of my top albums.”
David Bowie – "Heroes" (1977)
“"Heroes" was, like Blackstar, brand new. We had already done some innovative things on Low, when we started working with Brian Eno. We went to some strange territories there, especially where we had this new concept of the A-side being recordings with a rock band and the B-side would be ambient recordings with Brian Eno; really floaty, new age stuff, but I would say we really perfected the format on "Heroes". That was the best we got at doing this, and the songs on "Heroes" were a lot better, at least the ones we recorded with the band. I loved Joe The Lion, such an amazing lads song, and cutting Blackout, which is insane, and has the most amazing drum fills ever recorded. Dennis Davis was a jazz musician who worked out perfectly for David - like Mike Garson - who plays straight-up rock but would then surprise you by throwing in a reference to jazz. So Dennis Davis was, appropriately enough, my hero for that album.
The song "Heroes" has been lauded as an anthem since the day it came out. I mean, any heroic event nowadays, whether it surrounds a terrorist attack – which happens too frequently now – there it is. You hear the song "Heroes" all the time. Inadvertently, David wrote this great anthem, and "Heroes" will be around forever, the same as Space Oddity, those two songs will probably have the greatest longevity of all his songs.
There is so much of me on that album, I was backing vocalist on every song and played a lot of instruments on that album. It was made under really strange conditions, near the Berlin Wall. That was the only album completely recorded in Berlin, and there are so many stories, so much history to that album. I revisited the studio a year ago and it gave me goosebumps just walking through the streets. That was an album where we brought the environment into the studio. Usually, the studio shuts out the world, you cut yourself off from the world, but not so with "Heroes", we took Berlin inside the studio and control room, it was an album that we lived our lives inside of, it was fantastic.”
Morrissey – Ringleader Of The Tormentors (2006)
“The one and only Morrissey album that I produced. The title alone is fantastic, and I assume that Morrissey is the ringleader who is tormenting us. That album, like "Heroes", was done in a very special place. It was recorded in Rome, and like David, Morrissey brought Rome into the studio. The songs were written about Rome, all of us were doing things in Rome, we'd go out to have dinner together at Italian restaurants, I don't drink, so I wouldn't join Morrissey and the band when they would go to nightclubs, but everyone was completely immersing themselves in the city.
The atmosphere in the studio while making the album was such that what ever you were doing you were constantly reminded that you were in Rome, and a lot of references to Rome got into the lyrics. We even got the great Ennio Morricone to do the strings on Dear God, Please Help Me which was just fantastic. So that was quite an amazing album and I'm also proud that I made it sound retro, which was on purpose, I think Morrissey wanted it to sound like a Tony Visconti production rather than a modern production where everything is loud and in your face, so I recorded that album with sensitivity in mind.
He would just be in ecstasy every day. Every day that he showed up in the studio he would listen to what I had been doing earlier in the day with Boz (Boorer), Jesse (Tobias) and Alain (Whyte), the three guitarists on the album, and he just approved of everything, and I'd heard that he could be a cruel taskmaster. If he didn't like you, you'd be sacked in five seconds. I endured the length of the album, and it's an album that I'm very proud of. Unfortunately, two of the best tracks were released as B-sides. One was Ganglord, I wish Ganglord was on that album, there was also a song called Sweetie-Pie, I got Kristeen Young to sing backing vocals on that, they were two controversial titles that, if they had been included, would have made it a better album. But in all, the whole experience with Ringleader was something that I shall never forget.”
Gentle Giant – Gentle Giant (1970)
“The first Gentle Giant album. Wherever I go I'm always surprised when someone will recognise me in the street, approach me and say 'I love Gentle Giant'. This completes it, because no one loved Gentle Giant back in the day except the people who made that record. Even the label was quite disappointed because it was art-rock. But I felt I needed to do that, I needed to work with musicians of that calibre because I studied classical music, I trained hard, and this was very, very challenging. We were working with analogue tape and they were doing things that, honestly, you would have required Protools to pull off. And Protools hadn't been invented. So we did some tricks that were akin to what George Martin and The Beatles were doing with analogue tape, and made a fantastic work of art. I'm very pleased the group stayed together, the album was promoted and eventually did sell, because the initial sales were very disappointing, maybe only a few hundred. Even the artwork was brilliant. I got my friend George Underwood, David Bowie's friend from Bromley days, to do the artwork. This was, on every level one of the best albums I was ever involved with. Even as recently as this year, Holy Holy and I were doing gigs all over the United States and at least three fans came up afterwards and said how much they loved Gentle Giant. I'm so glad I can talk about it, because if no one heard this album, it wouldn't be worth discussing.
I love that album, and album two, Acquiring The Taste, which was in many ways better than the first one, but Gentle Giant, the first one, was my favourite because we broke so much fresh ground on that one. It was so innovative.
As a subtext, around that time I was also doing Osibisa, breaking new territory again. No one had ever recorded an African group authentically. It wasn't showbiz African music, it was the real thing. If you went to Ghana where they lived, you'd have heard them playing that music in nightclubs, I first heard them at Ronnie Scott's. I just had to sneak that in. I did it around the same time as Gentle Giant, and they were two very symbolic albums to me. Where I did something I believed in, and to Hell with the sales, to Hell with the A & R department, these just had to be done because, culturally speaking, they were two very important albums.”
“I was also working on The Man Who Sold The World at that time, which I would say was the pop-rock version of Gentle Giant. We were doing things on that album that I was also doing with Gentle Giant. These were pioneering days. If you were eccentric or really unusual, it was highly prized, so these weren't futile exercises in self-indulgence. Labels were signing you if you were out of this world. They really valued that then, which they don't now.”
The Strawbs – Dragonfly (1970)
“The Strawbs had started out as a little folk trio, they had an acoustic bass player in the band, and look what happened to them. They became quite an art-rock band themselves. They had two amazing keyboard players in Rick Wakeman and Blue Weaver, but I think Dragonfly was the beginning of them becoming a very, very serious band of progressive musicians. It's not that usual for a band to come from folk roots - they're just one of a very few, Steeleye Span, Pentangle, Fairport Convention, to have their beginnings in the folk scene - and then go on to become a big concert rock band.
Recording Dragonfly was where I really cut my teeth. I did some really sophisticated recording on that album: vari-speeding the tape speed, everything's very floaty, the EQs I used were pretty radical. The man who built that studio in Copenhagen was a genius, his name was Ivar Rosenberg, and the console that I recorded Dragonfly on was a one-off, there was no other console in the world like that, I don't want to go into technical details, but you could do things on that you couldn't do on a normal recording console, I really love that album to this day.”
Tony Visconti is the chief judge on the second series of Guitar Star which begins its run on Sky Arts on June 14th at 8pm.