n the grand narrative of film, the director has risen to prominence as the genius auteur behind the scenes, constructing the finished product from the raw material given to him by the actors and cameramen. The same goes for music. The producer has taken on nearly the same role in the shaping of the final product.
In this concluding edition of our Non-Definitive Guide, Stylus takes a look at some more of the most influential producers of all time. What do they all have in common? They each have an unerring motivation within them to challenge the artists that they are working with. Their methods vary widely from neurotically hands-on to an equally as persistent desire to say away from the artist’s with which they are working, but in the end they’ve helped make some of the greatest music ever recorded.
Without further ado: Part Two of Stylus Magazine’s Non-Definitive Guide to the Producers…
Yes, yes, the Wall of Sound—the reverb, the echo, the sheer mass of sound. But let’s forget about all that for a moment, because Phil Spector’s greatest gift to music was not slapback studio effects or anything of the kind—it was the introduction to the pop lexicon of symphonic pop, not only in its sound and instrumentation but more importantly its scope. Even if it was as much a publishing strong-arming tactic as a matter of artistic necessity, Spector’s co-authorship of almost one of his every major hits meant he also became pop’s first auteur—the first producer to receive billing as important as the artist’s. Though he will always have his detractors—not least of which those he worked with—Phil Spector was unquestionably the first important pop producer and arguably still the best. His work explains why.
The Ronettes - “Be My Baby”
Boom…boom-boom…BOP! ‘Nuff said. Let’s move on.
The Crystals - “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)”
Now we’re talking. With this infamous nugget of punch drunk love, withdrawn as a single for its racy subject matter, we hear why Spector was so obviously the greatest producer of his era. The “Be My Baby” rhythm subtly lurking for the duration as played by the echoed bass, the melody plods away joylessly, before Spector opens the song up, bringing in the marcato strings sawing and stuttering their way to the perversely romantic climax. Genius.
The Righteous Brothers - “Just Once In My Life”
“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” may have been the duo’s all-time classic, but it was this that better captured the essence of pop—the melodrama, the fatalism, and, best of all—from the Bill Medley baritone that sounds like the tape player’s on the fritz to Bobby Hatfield’s preternaturally girlish shriek—the rush. Perfection.
Ike and Tina Turner - “River Deep, Mountain High”
Recorded in what sounds like the halls of CF Kane’s Xanadu, “River Deep Mountain High” is the product of a man utterly lost in ego, power and sound—the ultimate in 70mm production. Never did the Jack Nitzschze strings soar quite as high as they do here, as the cavernous bass throbs, the finger-snaps and shaker echoing from what seems like a mile away—all of it drenched in vats of Gold Star reverb. Oh, and one of the great uninhibited soul vocals in history from one Anna Mae Bullock. The song’s failure to chart higher than #88 in America would render “River Deep” the Heaven’s Gate of popular music, effectively running Spector out of the music business for the better part of four years.
John Lennon/Yoko Ono - “Instant Karma”
Though rarely acknowledged as such, Spector’s contributions to the post-Beatles work of Lennon and Harrison is almost as groundbreaking as anything he did in the previous decade, adapting his mono pop style to full-fledged, stereophonic rock and roll. Though Lennon would work with Spector from this single on through Plastic Ono Band and Imagine up to the disastrous Rock and Roll album, it was this raucous single, as “primitive and joyous as an old-time jug band” as Richard Williams would later write, that would remain their finest moment together. Harkening back to his Sun Records heroes, the song also marked the debut of Lennon’s signature slapback-echo sound, upon which the singer would draw long past the end of their partnership. Remarkably, “Instant Karma” was written, recorded and released within a matter of a few weeks, as Lennon refused to let the detail-obsessed Spector embellish. Smart move.
Dion - “Born To Be With You”
While Lennon was consumed with getting Spector to relinquish control of the master tapes from their ill-fated “treat me like a Ronette” Rock and Roll sessions, the producer himself was putting the singer of 50’s hit “The Wanderer” through the worst experience of his life since kicking heroin four years previously. Worshipped by Bobby Gillespie, adored by Pete Townshend, and a favorite of Jason Spaceman’s, Born To Be With You found Spector marrying his panoramic soundscapes to the post-psychedelia the producer first mined on All Things Must Pass. With the record’s title track, Spector wrenches one final brilliant performance out of the fallen 50’s superstar—a hymn to the singer’s vices for sure, featuring Msr. Dimucci moaning and pleading like he never could have decades previously. With an ensemble so large Mahler might have blushed—with seven percussionists, five pianists and an unbelievable dozen guitarists strumming, wah-ing and riffing—it all adds up to a positively glorious six-minutes and fifty-one seconds and possibly the most heartbreaking 12-bar blues ever committed to two-inch. (Special mention to Leonard Cohen’s “Iodine” and The Ramones’ “(Do You Remember) Rock n’ Roll Radio?”)
If you need any further proof of how unfair life is, stop someone at random in the street and ask them who they think was the first truly independent music producer of the modern age—and then slap them in the face, hard, when they say ‘Phil Spector’. I’m not arguing that that little mansion-ridden speed-freak wasn’t important, just that he wasn’t flipping first. No, that dubious honour is held by Joe Meek, the UK’s very own sonic pioneer, in some ways the absolute antithesis of Spector, in others, his spooky twin.
Born in England in 1929, Meek was an electronics prodigy who built his own television set in 1943 at the age of 14, a technological achievement on a par in 2004 with your classmate asking you if you want to come round tonight ‘to play with this fusion reactor I just knocked together’. It’s perhaps unsurprising then that Meek gravitated towards geekdom upon leaving school, being offered a job in 1956 at the then state-of-the-art studios at Landsdowne House in Holland Park, London. However, while in less than ten years the working uniform of the nascent producer would be ripped jeans and t-shirt, in the stuffy world of 50s Britain producers were required to wear…lab coats…in the studio. Meek quickly got sick of this atmosphere and set up his own three-floor recording studio and apartment over 304 Holloway Rd, London in the beginning of the 60s. It was here, in the kind of bizarre circumstances that urban legends are made of, Joe Meek shot first his landlady and then himself, in 1967, ending forever his one-man music empire.
So why was Meek important? I’d argue that he deserves his dues as the first man to embody what it meant to be truly ‘indie’ in the West, for both in business and aesthetics Meek had complete control. Technically, as a producer, he presented a different vision to Spector; while crazy Phil’s wall-of-sound techniques resulted out of a mash of mono, Meek was working in glorious stereo, separating each instrument and track even as he poured more and more bizarre sounds into the mix (like rattling chains, winds and reverb-soaked howls on the Moontrekkers’ “Night of the Vampire”). But I really think that the main reason to give Meek props in 2004 is his finest hour, “I Hear a New World”. Originally meant as a kind of demonstration of stereo recording techniques, it’s a surf-psych-rock classic that reminds you of a half-dozen things at once; the incidental music to The Prisoner, Morricone’s soundtracks, Eno’s early ambient music, Ween, John Barry, Alvin and the Chipmunks...While Meek’s way with twiddling knobs is in evidence on all of the early 60s Britpop that he was involved in, “I Hear A New World” is simultaneously a technical tour-de-force and a record that can still sounds as, well, ‘out there’ as it surely did almost 50 years ago.
Joe Meek - “I Hear A New World”
The Tornados - “Telstar”
True genius when viewed with the hindsight of history; yet this single, composed by Meek and played by the Tornados was a massive worldwide hit in 1962, even reaching number one in the good ol’ US of A. Meek’s “backroom-boy” spirit reaches its apogee in his rendering of a rocket’s reverb upon takeoff, allegedly produced by playing a recording of a toilet flushing…backwards.
Vanda and Young
George Young and Harry Vanda began their careers as members of The Easybeats—kings of the Aussie garage/proto-punk sound during the period 1965 to 1967 with hits including “Women (Make You Feel Alright)”, “I’ll Make You Happy” and, of course, “Friday On My Mind”. Young (guitarist and big brother of AC/DC’s Malcolm and Angus) and Vanda (guitarist) eventually took over songwriting duties from singer Stevie Wright and took the band’s work into increasingly complex territory during the psychedelic era. Importantly, The Easybeats were arguably the first Aussie band to outgrow the local fascination with (and aping of) the British beat sound—perhaps ironic, considering the Youngs were from England and Vanda was a Dutch immigrant! Following one final Australian tour in 1969, the pair began working as full-time songwriters and producers.
Though they’ve worked with many fine and influential artists, perhaps Vanda & Young’s most notable charges were AC/DC, the young band they helped get its act together in the early ‘70s. Working with George’s brothers on guitar, the production team honed the essentially clean yet incredibly heavy, powerful sound of AC/DC’s twin guitar attack with Malcolm’s steady, driving rhythm underpinning Angus’ florid lead breaks. Compared to most overstuffed heavy rock that the USA and UK were producing at the time, Vanda & Young allowed space to become an important part of the song and it’s this restraint that sees AC/DC’s early works remain fresh even today, from High Voltage through to the extraordinary If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It). When producer Robert “Mutt” Lange took the reins on Highway To Hell, he ushered the band into a more commercial, stadium sound and ending the golden era of AC/DC’s particular Australian-ness—that lead singer Bon Scott died soon after the record’s release was just confirmation of the change.
The open, driving sound that Vanda & Young pioneered with AC/DC would characterise their other works, too, becoming a trademark of both their production and of Australian rock music. They oversaw, among many masterworks, their old band mate Stevie Wright’s epic “Evie Pts 1, 2 and 3”, Rose Tattoo’s “Bad Boy For Love”, The Angels’ “Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again”, The Saints’ Prodigal Son and John Paul Young’s mega-hit “Love Is In The Air”. Though bands like AC/DC, The Angels and The Saints would go on to become influential worldwide, theirs was a sound that remained almost exclusive to Australian artists. You can see it today in young, successful Australian bands like The Casanovas and Dallas Crane (who, to complete the circle, have signed to AC/DC and Vanda & Young’s record/production label, Alberts). Without Vanda & Young’s innovations, it would be fair to say that Australian rock‘n’roll as we know it might have never existed.
AC/DC - “T.N.T”
While it’s almost impossible to single out just one of AC/DC and Vanda & Young’s collaborations as a prime example, it’s “T.N.T” that remains the purest specimen of both parties’ magic. On this classic Bon Scott track (considered to be one of many semi-autobiographical tracks for the impish screamer), every instrument plays only the bare minimum to create a percussive, sparse atmosphere of excitement. Heartbeat bass guitar and a single kick drum and tom thump underneath while Malcolm and Angus’ simple riff ‘sings along’ with the chorus, a technique that would later be used to brilliant effect in Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” when Kurt Cobain and his guitar both said “hey”.
John Paul Young - “Love Is In the Air”
Vanda & Young seemed to have a knack for creating signature songs (having already magicked up Stevie Wright’s “Evie”) and turned it on to great effect with this monster hit for “Squeak”. They’d already worked with the matinee idol on his LPs Hero and J.P.Y, but up until ‘78’s “Love Is In The Air”, his oeuvre was chirpy pop/rock songs. “Love” was most definitely a pop track, but the disco craze suited Vanda & Young’s simple-yet-powerful arrangements and—despite the obvious genre differences—they didn’t need to stray from their standard operating procedure. The song is made of repetitive, stark instrumentation—it actually grew from a chord progression that was never quite “finished”—from the relentless snare drums to the clicking percussion and gently swelling guitars and bass. Even Young’s vocals have little more to say than “love is in the air” and “whoa, whoa, whoa”. It remains special because there’s something in the sleepy arrangement that speaks of suburban Australia, which is probably the secret to its enduring popularity—like all Vanda & Young productions, “Love Is In The Air” sounded as natural as a walk down the street to the local pub on a summer’s day.
Lee “Scratch” Perry
Lee Perry’s “aura” is best described by the title of his worst album: History, Mystery, Prophecy. The history began in Jamaica, where he used his telekinetic powers to win domino matches before breaking into the music industry and turning Bob Marley’s music from formulaic rocksteady into thunder-bass one-drop. Marley stole his band and moved on, but that didn’t slow down Scratch, who quarreled with various Jamdown producers before setting up his own recording studio, record store and ganja research institute at 36 Charles Street. After a string of bizarre battle tracks and instrumental Western-themed hits with new band The Upsetters, Perry eventually built The Black Ark studio in the 70’s. The Black Ark is the mystery, a place where prehistoric recording technology was rewired by Perry into a Brazil-like living building. There, he presided over a series of sessions with a variety of vocalists and backing tracks from the Upsetters.
The recordings from the Black Ark contain sounds never heard before or since—timbres vaguely like chains or cows or clouds of tape hiss. In the Black Ark, Perry prophesied: he invented the lo-fi aesthetic, beatmixing, and live sample manipulation (using tape loops). He added synths and drum machines to his productions. He refined dub, the basis of all modern remix culture, and took it to places that its accidental discoverer (King Tubby) could never have imagined.
Next stop: crazytown. Everyone heading to crazytown, please get off here. Perry had to make sure that his secrets went down with the ship, so he wisely burned the Ark and quickly set about worshipping bananas and eating money. Wouldn’t you? Either way, the sounds he created in the Black Ark went on to inspire generations – especially white generations, who tried to relocate and reinvigorate him, to little success. After 1978, Perry’s releases featured his shamanic vocals, rather than his shamanic production. And, since then, we’ve merely been trying to catch up.
The Upsetters - “Sunshine Rock”
The Upsetters - “Return of Django”
The Upsetters - “Enter the Dragon”
Instrumentals (with a little bit of Lee rocking the mic) that rock hard and light and free like nostalgia and glee.
Lee Perry - “Rainy Night Dub” / “Open the Gate Dub”
Flawless dub monoliths that stand alone, beyond communication.
Lee Perry - “Kentucky Skank”
Lee Perry likes Kentucky Fried Chicken, so he made a track where there’s the sound of chicken frying in the background. Delicious—and healthy! Oh, and the rhythm is unlike any other reggae beat in history.
If it weren’t for young Martin Sandberg’s dreams of rock/pop/anything-he-could-get superstardom, we might never have known Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Abs, Nick Carter or, er, 3T. Sandberg’s glam rock band It’s Alive signed a recording contract with Sweden’s Cheiron label, run by famed producer Denniz Pop. Recognising a talent for writing pop songs in the young rocker, Pop renamed his new charge Max Martin and eventually became Martin’s mentor. By 1992, Martin had been hired as a co-producer and songwriter at Cheiron and got the hang of things while Pop produced Ace Of Base’s mega-hit “I Saw The Sign”; their first collaborative project was The Rednex (remember “Cotton Eye Joe”?) in ‘95.
Jive Records approached Pop and Martin in ’96 regarding the possibility of working with a new boy band they’d assembled, The Backstreet Boys. Though Martin was at first wary of the prefab band, he threw himself into the project, writing and producing the songs that—upon their ’97 re-release in the USA—would become the band’s hit singles. From there it was all-systems-go, as the team also shaped the debut records for Britain’s 5ive and Backstreet’s direct competitors, N*Sync. Sadly, Pop died of Cancer in mid-’98, but Martin took the reins of the Cheiron studio (working with writer/producer Raimi), putting the finishing touches to a young Southern girl’s debut album and its accompanying lead single, “…Baby One More Time”. Both Britney Spears and Max Martin had arrived.
“…Baby One More Time” was only the beginning for Max Martin, as he went on to win ASCAP’s Songwriter Of The Year award in 1999, Backstreet’s Millennium became the highest-selling album of ’99 (to date, the record has sold 13 million copies in the US alone, certifying Diamond Status), and he wrote songs for Bryan Adams, Celine Dion and eventually closed down Cheiron studios and moved to Stockholm along with Raimi, their first project at the new address being Spears’ third album, Britney.
Martin more or less trademarked the bouncing, piano/synth-heavy pop sound that was so typical of the groups he worked with, taking hallmarks from Europop and Italian house and mixing them in with classic American Bandstand pop arrangements to create his oddly mid-Atlantic sound. For years, his charges reigned supreme over the charts, with the lower echelons populated by groups and artists who’d clearly asked their producers and songwriters for “the Max Martin sound”. Gradually, as hip hop became an increasing influence upon the pop charts and producers like Timbaland, The Neptunes and more recently Bloodshy & Avant were suddenly in-demand (even for N*Sync and Spears, who essentially owe their success to Martin). Nevertheless, Martin remains a successful esteemed—and busy!—producer/writer—and you need only take a listen to songs like Stacie Orrico’s “Stuck”, t.A.T.u’s “All The Things She Said”, or any number of Top 40 hits, to be reminded of Max Martin’s massive influence on modern pop music.
Backstreet Boys - “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)”
Even six years after its release, and in the face of some of the most adventurous pop productions ever created, “Everybody” remains a thrilling piece of pop genius. While the boy band’s main trade was in syrupy ballads or non-threatening up-tempo numbers, “Everybody” combined stadium-esque house production with an undeniable menace (and an accompanying faux-horror clip) and a hitherto untouched sexual element. Martin’s melding of classic American pop themes, from hip-hop (ironically, as it would be the genre that would spell the “end” to his reign) to ‘50s/’60s vocal group tinges (the slowed, almost gospel middle eight) with Italo-house synthesisers and booming drum machines created a pop sound that was unlike anything the stale, kiddie-ish pop charts of the ‘90s had seen. The echo-to-fade (“Back. Street’s. Back / Alright-alright-alright…”) finale was also a Martin hallmark that would be overused for years to come by previously wimpy boy bands wanting to leave a lasting impression.
Britney Spears - “…Baby One More Time”
Those opening piano chords are arguably the most recognisable pop motif of the past decade, a musical interval (it’s hardly a theme, nearly a melody, not even a phrase) that triggers the memory of the song’s lyrics in anyone who spent any time near a radio or television set over the last five years. Working with his trademark keys-laden/layered-vocal/gospel-tinged-middle-eight template, he’d originally written the song—an oddly threatening R&B; jam reminiscent of Phil Spector’s Crystals track, “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)”—for TLC, but because they were ‘taking time off’, then-unknown Jive Records signing Britney Spears was offered the song. Similarly to “Everybody”, the song laid a menacing, dark undercurrent beneath the usual pop melodrama that made the video clip’s Lolita-esque references all the more powerful. “…Baby One More Time” went on to become a classic, regularly covered (by everyone from Travis to Eminem to Fountains Of Wayne) and mentioned in countless ‘best ever’ type songwriting lists. It was a benchmark that Britney would be measured against forevermore and a masterwork that revitalised and redefined female pop music for the new millennium.
The early 90s were an important period for hip-hop’s development, as the producer-as-auteur moved from Marley Marl to a movement, from single dominant figures to an entire aesthetic and style of beat production. While today’s hip-hop in this sample-heavy vein displays extremely limited tunnel vision, the inability of many artists to look past one of hip-hop’s most important golden eras shows how influential this era truly was. Large Professor was one of the most distinct producers from this period, and with good reason. For a few short years, Large Pro was the future, a musically minded crate-digger whose knack for impressive sample selections were outdone only by his ability to manipulate this music into entirely new productions. While Prince Paul often gets much of the credit for his work in this period, he was working within a much different aesthetic—Paul redefined the familiar, recontextualized songs we knew and made us think about them differently. Large Professor’s goal was different: to find obscure records and manipulate those samples thoroughly, creating his own pop songs using the raw source material of a long-gone era.
While his career as a creative producer was rather brief, compared to the likes of DJ Premier or Timbaland, his impact rivals both of those producers to a great degree—in fact, Large Professor is often credited with helping Premier filter the bass line used on “Ex Girl to Next Girl.” Large Pro built on the bass-filtering techniques pioneered by Marley Marl, and it became a definitive aspect of his production—a wide, spacious, submerged sound used to great effect on Main Source tracks like “Looking at the Front Door,” as well as classic Nas tracks like “Halftime.” However, his impact goes even further than this distinct bass texture; he was also an expert manipulator of the SP1200. Over time, his stature has faded, especially in recent years with the release of the resoundingly mediocre album 2nd Class. However, the internet-only re-release of his underground classic The LP is a reminder that whatever the grand talk about his “influence” and “impact,” Extra P was a great musician most of all, a creator of beautiful street music .
Main Source - Breaking Atoms
A release that marked the beginning of a new era in hip-hop production. Probably one of my ten favorite hip-hop releases ever, filled with a wheezing drum-kit and chock full of funk and soul samples that are not quite recognizable. From beginning to end, it’s a beautiful tribute to the art of music.
Akinyele - Vagina Diner
An out of print classic, Vagina Diner exemplifies Extra P’s development since Breaking Atoms. Tracks like “I Luh Her” and “No Exit” show that his ability to manipulate the listener’s mood was nearly unsurpassed.
Large Professor - The LP
“Buy the album when I drop it,” was how Extra P closed his verse on Tribe’s classic Midnight Mauraders album. Unfortunately, he discovered that his label had other plans. Shelved at the last minute (promo copies still exist!) this is an unreleased classic that sounds surprisingly low-key considering the amount of hype it has often received. The largely unassuming production seems more melancholic and poignant than most of his other releases. “Dancing Girl,” “Spacy,” and “I Jus Wanna Chill,” (with its instantly memorable chorus) all glow with understated magnetism.
Many have said that Glyn Johns “is classic rock”, and it’s a fair call—spend a few hours listening to any classic hits radio station and chances are you’ll catch a few Johns-enabled tracks. But nostalgia for the past means that Johns’ subtle and intuitive work with everyone from The Eagles to Led Zeppelin to The Who and Eric Clapton has been wrongly lumped in with the non-threatening AOR/MOR of the ‘70s, when the reality is that he had a hand in some of the most enduring rock albums of all time.
Like Max Martin, Johns ended up in engineering and production by way of a dead-end solo career as a singer-songwriter, which led him to undertake an apprenticeship of sorts under the wing of producer Shel Talmy (who’d found fame through producing just about every big British beat hit for artists like The Who, Small Faces and Manfred Mann). During this time he cut his teeth as an engineer on sessions for Led Zeppelin and for The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request and Beggars Banquet (some of the first records his credit appeared on). Following his first major role as a producer (for the Steve Miller Band’s ’69 album, Sailor), in 1971 Johns fairly exploded onto the scene as a highly sought after producer, working on The Who’s Who’s Next, The Stones’ Sticky Fingers and The Faces A Nod Is As Good As A Wink To A Blind Horse. Johns is perhaps best known for pioneering the laidback, country-tinged West Coast Rock style with The Eagles, working with them on their album Desperado—arguably their best record.
Though the bands he worked with were often poles apart, what characterises all of Johns work as a producer (and engineer) is the amazing, three-dimensional warmth he brings to the arrangements; or, as one writer put it, a “hot, spacious recording that sounds like you could walk around inside of it”. On top of this, Johns had an almost mystical knack for capturing the ‘perfect’ sound for each band. His son Ethan Johns (who works as a producer with today’s ‘west coast’ stars, Kings Of Leon, Ryan Adams and Ben Kweller) tells a story of the time when, recording with Led Zeppelin, they couldn’t get the ride cymbal to sound as they wanted it to. Glyn Johns looked for the channel on the desk that the cymbal was coming through, pulled the channel all the way down and then pushed it back to exactly where it was before—and the cymbal suddenly sounded perfect.
If that seems dull by today’s bells-and-whistles standards, consider the lengths that records by young turks The Vines and Jet go to when chasing the right sound (months of recording, hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless session musicians), and then consider that they only end up sounding half-baked. Add to that the number of artists who’ve strived to imitate a mere sliver of the Stones’ early-‘70s swagger, or The Eagles’ effortless, dreamlike qualities or just how many party-covers bands have never quite been able to replicate “The Gangster Of Love”, and you’ve got the magic of Glyn Johns in a nutshell.
The Eagles - “Peaceful Easy Feeling”
Glenn Frey and Don Henley adopted Jack Tempchin’s pretty desert love song because they admired Poco’s “pristine and perfect” vocals and wanted to model themselves after the Californian country-rock stars. The Eagles also loved The Byrds’ and Beach Boys’ vocal harmonies and turned to Glyn Johns, who was already working with the band on recording their debut album, to help them achieve the sound. Though they’d tried layered vocals already on the Jackson Browne-penned “Take It Easy” and “Witchy Woman”, it was “Peaceful Easy Feeling” that really perfected the sound—and it was arguably the ultimate distillation of the band’s essence. Johns’ open, three-dimensional recording simply added to the gentle yet bittersweet feel, as he brings various lap steel and electric/acoustic guitar solos back and forth in the mix over the horizontal 6- and 12-string steel guitar. Even though The Eagles would return to the sound on Desperado with “Tequila Sunrise” and On The Border’s “Best Of My Love”, and later with “Lyin’ Eyes” and “New Kid In Town” (with producer Bill Szymczyk), they never recaptured the purity of “Peaceful Easy Feeling”.
The Rolling Stones - “Happy”
It’s hard to pick just one Stones/Johns collaboration from the Sticky Fingers/Exile On Main Street period as essential, but Exile’s “Happy” is simply mesmerising. Similar to that album’s opener, “Rocks Off”, the Keith Richards-led “Happy” starts innocently enough but gradually builds to become a rock‘n’roll behemoth. Despite the fact that most of the band (and, at times, himself) were in a drug haze during the lengthy recording sessions, on these upbeat tracks Johns conjures incredibly life-drenched performances from the band. Beginning with Keith’s loosely strummed riff, Johns adds on layers of instruments and vocals like new coats of paint, weaving in new guitars and bass and, finally, a near-hysterical brass section. The end result is a remarkably “live” sounding recording that really captures the spirit of a band that – though they might have been in the depths of drug- and tax-induced despair – were at the height of their musical power.
One of the great unsung producers—and certainly the most important in Germany's history—Conny Plank was integral to the electro-sheen of dozens of Krautrock gems in the 1970's and early 1980's, and it is difficult to imagine where today's sounds of Berlin and Cologne would be without him. Plank produced, engineered, mixed and performed on countless records during the era, including albums by Kraftwerk, Ash Ra Tempel, Cluster, Harmonia, Neu!, and Can—hardly a band in the country failed to pay a visit to Conny's studio at one point or another. He also helmed records by Eurythmics and Ultravox, in addition to pursuing several collaborations with Cluster's Dieter Moebius and Brian Eno.
Plank's exact role seemed less a creative force than an insightfully encouraging one—Neu!'s Michael Rother would later recount to Perfect Sound Forever, "Apart from his manual skills, Conny had a tremendous sensitivity for the music and psychological fine feeling...It was amazing, how precisely Conny sensed our ideas and in critical situations he helped me in an unobtrusive and effective way." Indeed, one of Plank's greatest gifts was his ability to create an electronic luster using only a modicum of electronic instruments. However he did it, Plank was undoubtedly one of the key architects of Krautrock, and in particular the driving motorik sound that came to define it.
Cluster - Cluster '71
Krautrockologist Julian Cope once described Cluster's second record, Cluster II, as a dense "helium balloon" of electronics; if that's the case, then this seminal debut is a veritable zeppelin. Cluster '71 finds Plank and the duo of Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius creating broad swaths of noise and ambience across three epic-length tracks. Disturbing, challenging, ambitious, and wholly original, Cluster '71 set the template for countless experiments in texture that would be made over the next three decades, fusing primitive electronics and feedback into one giant kosmische experience.
Neu! - Neu!
Neu! - Neu! 2
Neu! - Neu! '75
Taken in tandem with his work on Kraftwerk's Autobahn, Plank's work with Neu! makes a pretty good case that he—not Michael Rother, Ralf Hutter, or Klaus Dinger—was the, erm, driving force behind the propulsive motorik sound. In stark contrast to some of Plank's more lush productions, the Neu! records were crisp and dry, with the focus less on ambient texture than rhythm, simple melodies and energy. It was a sound he would explore further (and with great success) on the first four of Michael Rother's underappreciated solo records.
Moebius/Plank/Neumeier - Zero Set
One of many brilliant collaborations with Cluster-man, Dieter Moebius that pushed Krautrock into techno territory. Though not a dance record per se, Zero Set is one of the earliest extensions of Krautrock's possibilities on the dancefloor, pitting the profoundly electronic sequence patterns of Plank and Moebius against the hyperactive percussives of Guru Guru drummer Mani Neumeier. On tracks such as the prophetically titled "Speed Display" and "Pitch Control," the phasing, chattering and decidedly Germanic grooves found on Zero Set constitute vibrant proto-techno at its earliest and finest.
Ultravox - Systems of Romance
This collaboration with the post-punk pioneers was Plank's first real foray outside of the Krautrock purview, though certainly, on songs such as "I Can't Stay Long" and "Maximum Acceleration", the motorik pulse is very much present. Elsewhere, the group transparently adopts an electronic sheen on "Dislocation" and pursues bouncing Eno-pop on "The Quiet Man". Plank would go on to record several more albums with the 'vox, but it's this, the last record with lead singer John Foxx, that would prove to be their masterpiece.
By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2004-08-02