Friday, June 10, 2011
5 Minutes With Tony Visconti
Tony Visconti has, since the late 1960s, worked with an array of performers including Marc Bolan, Thin Lizzy, Morrisey and Kaiser Chiefs; his lengthiest involvement with any artist is with David Bowie: from Bowie's 1969 album Space Oddity to 2003's Reality, Visconti has produced and occasionally performed on many of Bowie's albums.
Q1. What was the first record you bought and what effect did it have on you?
Tony Visconti: Well, bear in mind I was raised in Brooklyn, the 50s, so this record will be virtually unknown, yet it had a profound effect on me. "Flying Saucer" by Buchanan and Goodman. It was a novelty record made, I believe, by two cutting edge DJs. It was a faux news report delivered rapid fire, but each item was interjected with a short snippet from a popular record of the day. For instance, they'd say something like, "...and the bank robber got away with $10,000," then a sudden cut into Fats Domino singing, "Ain't that a shame... ." They would add, "...and police followed him in a high speed car chase," followed by a sudden cut into Chuck Berry singing, "You can't catch me, no baby you can't catch me." It was a remarkable combination of humor and technology. I had no idea how they did that. My father raised me on the absurd musical comedy records of Spike Jones and his City Slickers, so I took this on as my generation's Spike Jones. From this one record I knew I wanted to make records. It was obvious to me that there was something you could do in a studio that you couldn't do live. This drove me to seek my first studio experience, first as an artist and later, when the arcane studio secrets were not freely shared, I was determined to become a record producer.
Q2. When did you start making music and who or what influenced you to do that?
TV: I was a child prodigy on the ukulele. At 5 years, I learned how to play it in one day, then I proceeded to put in my 10,000 hours on the instrument. When my hands were large enough I switched over to guitar and my parents had the wisdom to send me to an ace guitar teacher, Leon Block, for three years. He gave me a firm background in technique and sight reading music. Around then I adopted four idols: Elvis, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and especially Buddy Holly. All of them taught me valuable lessons. Elvis made sexual music, he was dirty. Chuck Berry was a pop poet and a guitar master, Fats Domino made music feel good, really good (till this day New Orleans music moves me to smile inanely). But Buddy, he was a firecracker in the studio. He got guitar tones that are modern by today's standards. He sang harmony with himself and he wrote songs outside the normal rock and roll chords. Like me, Buddy studied music, he could read and write arrangements (his own string arrangements). For harmonic sophistication you can't get much better than his charming ballad (accompanied only with Celesta and thigh slapping) "Everyday."
I started a band with a sax playing friend from school and his older, blind cousin, our drummer. We were called Mike D and The Dukes. We were a cover band, we could play all the hits and we played our first gig when I was 13. After that I joined a more sophisticated group, the five of us were called The Crystals and we put out two singles. It was this period when I started to figure out what goes on in the studio, although we were never permitted to go in the control room and look at the equipment. Between 13 and 22, I was in many musical groups and odd combinations. From 15, I was earning a good living as a musician playing weddings, bar mitzvahs, sleazy bars (under age, with borrowed ID) and recording sessions. All the time I was trying to write great pop/rock songs. A publishing deal eventually failed but it led to a production deal. I produced only for a few months when I was loaned to Denny Cordell and within a few days in London I was working with the likes of Procol Harum, The Move, Denny Laine and Manfred Mann.
Q3. Do you think that rapid information exchange via the Internet means that previous musical formats, albums and singles for example, are a dying art form?
TV:I don't agree that singles and albums are dying art forms. People are still writing symphonies, concertos, chamber music, string quartets, all were art forms before recording was invented. The rapid exchange of information is, however, a good thing. It helps many artists bypass the still, stiff and slow acting, 'sure thing' kind of barrier that record labels still persist to perpetuate. That's the good side. The bad side is that there is a preponderance of really bad musicians who 'clog the arteries' of the Internet with really crap music. It is no wonder that most people give away music for free now, because no one would buy it anyway. Not very many artists can make a great album but the few who can should, and the art form will always be there. I think the definition is changing. In the recent "old days" you had to have at least three singles on your album and the rest could be "fillers." Most mediocre artists adapted this sad contribution to culture. Say what you may, but some groups like Radiohead showed a new generation how to make an album. And, nowadays, an album can be anything an artist wants it to be. My artist, KRISTEENYOUNG, stopped at just seven songs and we now have a bunch of songs out. We were undecided to call it a "Mini-album" or an "EP" so we settled on the latter. This EP is called V The Volcanic. I am extremely proud of this recording.
Q4. How did you become involved with producing records?
TV: As stated earlier, I knew studios were magic places. I had a couple of tape recorders at home and made intricate demos of my songs bouncing back and forth between the machines. They didn't sound as good as professional recordings but my ideas were good enough to land a publishing contract with a big New York company. A couple of bad experiences with old school, whiskey guzzling, tough talking producers led me to run from the studio to the control room. I vowed to become the musicians' best friend. As soon as I managed to get to produce other people I did so with respect and always trying to maintain a comfortable, secure recording session, so that artists could let their spirits fly and their wildest dreams get recorded on tape. I believe that George Martin created such an atmosphere for The Beatles. He is my idol. All my experience and knowledge was best used serving others, I deduced. My solo artist career has been put on hold for decades (although I've got six hot songs I'm in the process of recording). I knew when I met two particular artists in their very early days, Marc Bolan and David Bowie, that I had an opportunity to make music that would rival The Beatles doing what I do. When I met both of them they were both having very difficult times in the music industry. They had already 'been around the block' a couple of times and now they were underdogs. I stuck with them tenaciously and the rest is (what's the word?)....
Q5. Give us a really off the wall anecdote/story. Something that not many people will know about-could be about anything related to your work.
TV: Well, I have already put lots of off the wall anecdotes in my autobiography, Bowie, Bolan and The Boy From Brooklyn (Harper Collins). It's still available on Amazon (really cheap). The one that always gets a laugh is staying up all night with Bowie, Lennon, May Pang, Neil Aspinall (Beatles businessman) and a coke dealer. After many snorts of cognac and coke I turned to Lennon and told him how I wrote all the orchestrations on "Band On The Run," conducted the 50-piece orchestra, and only got a 'thanks' credit on the album sleeve. True, McCartney sang/played some lines he wanted me to incorporate into the arrangements -- all artists do that. Lennon said, even if he whistled all the parts I should have at least been credited as 'orchestrator.' Then he said, "I was going to phone Paul tomorrow, but you just reminded me of what a fucking c**t he is." Gosh, I hope I didn't single handedly stop a Beatles reunion! In all fairness, McCartney made good by giving me on the 25th anniversary edition of BOTR and wrote a personal note to me saying, "You got your credit." In its very latest incarnation I still have the credit and a photo of Paul and me taken by Linda McCartney with her Polaroid SX-70.