The Four Steps. No, no numerical error involved here to refer to one of Hitchcock´s masterpieces, but it sure would serve as the title of this interview. That´s all it takes to get in one of the most significant landmark places in the history of popular music of at least the last 50 years. Four doorsteps, the only border that divides the world this side of life and the entrance to the Olympic building, located in the Barnes neighborhood, just across the Thames, perhaps the most legendary of all London recording studios alongside fellow Abbey Road. And also in the whole of England. Formerly established in 1906, first as theater of its own repertoire company under the name of Byfeld Hall, which ran until the end of the ‘50s, when it turned to a television studio, it was in 1965 that the Olympic Sound Studios firm decided to purchase it and thus give way to the most celebrated of his activities: that of independent recording studio, within its walls some of the most seminal sessions in the history of English rock and pop music took place. Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, the Stones, the Beatles, The Who, Bowie, Howlin ‘Wolf, Ray Charles, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Clapton, B.B. King, Ten Years After, Spooky Tooth,Barbra Streisand, Stevie Wonder, Roxy Music, Jethro Tull, Prince, Queen, Supertramp, Van Morrison, Thin Lizzy, Iggy Pop, Motörhead, The Yardbirds, Madonna, Oasis, Duran Duran… The list could go on and on, just to mention the main names. That´s how Olympic managed to set an unparalleled reputation that revolved around its axis composed by sound quality, technical excellence and unrivaled atmosphere, making it the place that led the cream of rock and pop on both sides of the Atlantic to agree that it was «the studio where we have to go to».
In January 2009 Olympic Studios shut down its doors for the first time ever, which led the British record industry to lose one of its most important recording spots. The building would later reopen at the end of 2013 under the name of Olympic Cinema, modifying its original geography to house two single movie theaters that featured hi-tech sound technology, also adding a restaurant, a café, and a room or gold members. But those four steps remained the same as they did in the early days. The same ones that, with a few tiny interruptions here and there, Chris Kimsey has been crossing since 1969, when he was just a teenager with a slight amateur inclination towards the recording industry, landing in Olympic with the mere intention of finding a job to support his personal expenses.
Almost half a century later, that young fellow who was first given the job to serve tea to the employees and musicians who worked in the establishment, would eventually become one of the most renowned producers, mixers and sound engineers in music history.
MADHOUSE met Chris Kimsey in November last year right at the place that gave birth to his career nearly 50 years ago, like time hadn´t gone by at all and, again, beyond those same old four steps.
My first question is about one of your most recent works , Thirsty´s ‘Albatross’ album, which I believe you enjoyed doing very much.
Yeah, that album’s getting some really good reviews actually.
I don’t have the albums, but I got to play them online. And I’m really happy about Guy Bailey.
Me too, it’s a great vehicle for him. I tried on quite a few occasions to get him involved with other things. He’s ok for the writing part but he doesn’t want to go and do it live. Which is a shame, actually… he does do some things live, like he did with the Peckham Cowboys, but it’s a shame, because he could teach a lot of kids a lot of stuff. But we get on really well, and I like his kind of approach and his voice. He recorded most of it in his bedroom. He has no regard for compressor or limiters, everything has to be up to 11, but it works, I like it, so it’s good fun.
You know, I like the Quireboys, but actually my two favourite albums of the band are the ones with Guy. They used to be more rock ’n’ roll before he left the band.
It’s a good combination that he writes the music, and the melodies, and he’s really good at lyrics too.
You had a great time working with him since their very first album.
Yes, when was it, 4 years ago? And it’s good to see they got back together to do a second album as well.
But they don’t want to do it live.
Oh no, and that’s a bit of a problem. It’s got to be Guy, you can’t get someone else to play the guitar.
Yes, but when I interviewed him he told me he cannot do it because he also needs the guy from Squeeze, the drummer, who’s not always available.
Yeah, that’s true but I don’t know.
I must confess, Chris, you have such a great background, I don’t know what to start with.
Well it all starts in here! (laughs)
How long have you been working in the music industry and mainly how did it all start for you? I mean, you probably were like all of us, somebody who likes music. How did it all happen?
It started here in 1967, I got a job here as a tea boy. I didn’t know what was in these four walls. I just saw “Olympic Studios” outside. And before that, at school, I was involved with recording the music or sound effects for school plays, because I had a tape recorder. I had a tape recorder from a very… I had my first tape recorder when I was about 9 or 10. I used to love listening to film soundtracks and musicals, not rock and roll or anything like that, but more orchestral, my parents gave me a tape recorder, because you could buy pre-recorded 3 ¾ ips (inches per second) tapes of musicals and film music. Not vinyl, they didn’t have vinyl. So I was introduced to the tape recorder at a very early age, and that went on at school they would ask me to record if there was any sound effects, or any spoken word coming from the speaker, so I was involved with that. And that excited my ear about the fact that one could capture a sound on tape.
So you were basically «the music guy» at school.
I was the sound guy at school. And that actually went on because when I was 14, I was asked if I would like to go to a recording studio that was owned by the Inner London Education Authority, which was the school authority of the time. And they had a studio off Tottenham Court Road. I used to get on the tube from Morden to Tottenham Court Road, I think maybe twice a month, for the Saturday, to this school and the studio was tiny. It had a Vortexian four channel mixer which was just four volume knobs, and a stereo Ferrograph tape recorder it might have been mono actually. I got the bug there even more. And I was very fortunate because one of the first people that I recorded there was Dame Sybil Thorndike, who was a very famous celebrated actress at the time. She was like Laurence Olivier in that area and I was recording her for a ‘Son et Lumiere’, a show that we had at my next school where I also had a tape recorder. And at this studio, this is quite fascinating, there was myself, and there was only one other student, a young student who is a couple of months older than me. He was from the East End of London, and I was from the South of London, and we both went to this studio on Saturdays, and his name is Ray Staff. Well Ray went on to become and is one of the best mastering engineers in the world. He runs Air Mastering. So he ended up getting into the music business. He started at Trident. So the two of us young kids we were recording various things, and the teacher who was running the program, he was a music teacher for the school, and he was a jazz musician, and one afternoon he said “when we finish, would you stay behind because I want to record my jazz trio?” So I stayed behind.
Because you were “the sound guy”
At 14 years old, I was “the sound guy”. And years later I saw him playing for Elton John, because his name was Ray Cooper.
Oh, of course, the bald guy with the glasses! Elton’s legendary percussionist!
Yeah, so Ray was this little school music teacher, and Ray Staff and myself never would have had an idea that many years later we would all be in the music business and kind of top of what we do.
That’s a great story!
So after that, moving on a few years, 16 and a half years old, I didn’t want to do further education, I left school, and I was looking for a job. I used to have a girlfriend who lived around the corner, so every time I came over to see her, I would come in here, not really knowing what was inside. I knew they were recording something. And I asked them for a job and they said “no no, no jobs, go away”. And I kept coming back, and eventually they said “give us your name, your number, and if anything comes up we’ll call you”
So it paid off after a while.
Yeah. I didn’t go to any other studios, I didn’t write to anyone I didn’t attempt to. I was about to start a job as a supermarket fitter travelling around the UK fitting out supermarkets. ‘Cause another girl friend, her brother owned a supermarket fitting company, so I was going to start work for him on a Monday, but fortunately Olympic called up on the Friday and they said “can you start next week?” 11 pounds a week. “Just come in”
When was that, in 1967?
Yes, March ’67.
Were you a music fan before that? Were you into rock and roll? Did you go to see shows?
No, I wasn’t into rock and roll at all. No, no, I was into musicals, I was into film music, totally orchestra-orientated. That’s the sound I loved. I also listened to the radio a lot, so I liked popular music. I didn’t go to gigs. I wasn’t into Hendrix, or Cream, or the Stones (laughs)
Now that’s interesting because you ended up working for them, when it wasn’t your thing.
No, it wasn’t my thing. In fact, I remember my first session. I was an assistant to Glyn Johns at a Stones’ session. I’d met Glyn only once before, I’d never met the Stones. I was in the studio setting up. I can’t remember who arrived, but one or two of the Stones arrived, and I actually called security, because I thought there was someone, you know, someone breaking in, or trying to steal something (laughs), they looked very dubious. They weren’t like the musicians, I was used to working with in orchestras and stuff but that soon changed.
That’s when you became a record producer and a mixer.
No, for maybe three years I was an assistant engineer. And the studio manager, Keith Grant, who built Olympic Studios, who gave me my job, he said, “the longer you can put up with being an assistant, you’ll learn and learn and learn”, which was so true. So I was an assistant for three and a half years, and then my lucky break really was when I was an assistant on a Johnny Hallyday album. The engineers at that time were all house engineers, they were all paid by Olympic, they weren’t freelance engineers, except for Glyn, he was one of the first freelance engineers.
So you were pretty much coming around here every day.
Yeah, so I worked on orchestra sessions, jingle sessions, jazz sessions, pop sessions. No rock and roll. That wasn’t until later. And so for three and a half years I was an assistant, and then on one session with Johnny Hallyday, just started recording the album. On the second day the Olympic engineer didn’t turn up. He didn’t turn up because he didn’t like the French people. It was kind of strange because the producer, Johnny’s producer, was actually American. His name is Lee Halliday, from Oklahoma, he’s American, he lived in France. So they were trying to figure out who could engineer, as they got musicians coming, and Lee said “Well what about Kimsey? What about him?” And they said “well, he’s never engineered before but I’m sure he can” So I jumped in the seat and that was it. I never left the seat after that. And Johnny fell in love with me, I mean, he loved the sound. After that I had a very, very strong relationship with Johnny, I must have done maybe five albums with him.
Do you remember what the first one was?
The first one was ‘Flagrant Delit’, it’s got ‘Jolie Sarah’ on it, and the album cover is a cobbled street, with like a bronze bust of his head with his fist punching through. Mick Jones of Foreigner was in that band, he was Johnny’s guitar player, way before Foreigner. Mickey’s has got to learn his craft writing and playing for Johnny.
And it was a great time for Johnny Hallyday, he was great in England.
No, he was never popular in England, but he was always recording generally in London. And those sessions were fantastic because the producer we would have Ringo was on drums, well some of the drums, Peter Frampton was on the sessions, Gary Wright of Spooky Tooth... So I got to meet all those musicians making this album, and became very good friends with Peter Frampton. So that led on for me to carry on and work with Peter.
I’ve always wondered if it’s easier to be a record producer, or a mixer. If you had to choose one…
If I had to choose one, I like the process of recording, creating the atmosphere, and working with a band on talking about arrangements. Not mixing, I’d rather be recording or producing. I mean, I enjoy mixing too. I think I’d rather mix things now that I haven’t recorded. I mean, I just finished an album with Peter Perrett, and I said at the beginning “I don’t want to mix this”. I want someone else to mix it.
And you’ve actually did more recording than mixing all through your career.
I’ve got no idea, I don’t know. I mean, I generally do mix what I’ve recorded.
As a record producer or mixer, do you have the chance to choose the artist who you work for? I mean, can you say “yes” or “no”? Or do you have to follow orders from Olympic?
Yes, I can now. With Olympic no, it was always who they said I had to work with.
Yeah, whatever one. But what was strange, I didn’t stay working for Olympic very long. After I had that session with Johnny Hallyday. I did some albums with Ten Years After, I was still an Olympic engineer.
The ‘Watt’ album?
No, the bigger one, ‘Space In Time’, which was one of my favourite albums. And Gary Wright I was recording him as an Olympic engineer. I think I was only an Olympic engineer for maybe a year, and then I was getting so busy I thought “I’m gonna become freelance and do it on my own” And I did. I was still working here all the time (laughs) People were coming to me, and fortunately the best people were coming to me, or good people.
How did you manage to find the time to work for Olympic and also freelancing?
Well, I think I must have been at least a year engineering for Olympic, and then I decided to leave. But most of the artists wanted to record here anyway, and Olympic didn’t have any problem with an outside engineer working here. And it’s the same with Glyn. The reason why Glyn came to Olympic, or one of the reasons, was that Abbey Road would not allow outside engineers. A lot of studios wouldn’t allow that, you had to be an engineer who worked in the studio, in house. And Olympic didn’t have that rule, so it was one of the first studios to enable the freelance engineers.
Very interesting. So your first job with a rock and roll band was in 1970, wasn’t it? I mean, the ‘Led Zeppelin III’ album, the ‘Watt’ album by Ten Years after, as an engineer, and then as tape operator for the Stones’ ‘Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!’. Since this is the place where you actually began your career those albums meant an easy or a difficult start? I mean, you worked with the Stones and Led Zeppelin in the very same year.
Well, to me, it wasn’t difficult, as all those artists weren’t important to me, because of the musical background that I enjoyed, or came from. I would have been very nervous if I’d be working with Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra. Still to my date, they’re idols. But the Stones, their music at the time was like “oh, it’s ok, interesting”, Zeppelin “ok, that’s interesting”. That type of music was very new as well, so it was groundbreaking stuff, so you weren’t really aware that you were working on something that was so groundbreaking, although I suppose with Zeppelin you would have felt it a little more than the Stones. The whole Zeppelin thing was quite the whole mystic around it. That Zeppelin thing was bigger than the band itself.
Do you remember the very first time, the very moment you met the members of Led Zeppelin and the Stones? I guess you were pretty relaxed as they weren’t Nat King Cole or Sinatra.
Yeah, it was here. I was just relaxed and doing my job.
Were they nice to you?
I don’t remember anyone being…No one was being an arsehole. Yes, they were nice, they were fine!
It was a natural feeling, you didn’t feel subordinate to the musicians.
Yeah, you were part of the team. It’s all a team thing, so… You might see an argument between the band and the producer, or the band and the engineer, but that was it. But not really “arguments”, no.
The following year, in 1971, you did B.B. King’s album “In London”…
Yes, that was B.B. King doing sessions at Studio Two. I think that was only for a couple of days. I don’t remember that very well, that’s why I think it wasn’t a week over there. It was more like a “in and out” job. I was definitely not aware of who B.B. King was at the time.
But the same year you worked with the Stones for the “Sticky Fingers” album, who you had already met before. The album was recorded here in Olympic, as well as in Trident studios, and then also in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Being it such an important album in rock’n’roll history, any memories of the recording? Is there anything left to say?
No, I think it’s all been said. But I remember the strings session for ‘Moonlight Mile’ with Paul Buckmaster. I remember that was done at Basing Street Studios, that wasn’t done here. Actually that was maybe the first time I really felt the power of an orchestral arrangement with rock music. Because his arrangement was absolutely mind blowing on that. And to hear the orchestra alone was quite beautiful. Although I had recorded an orchestra with Del Newman for Ten Years After, that was quite a smaller orchestra. The arrangement on ‘Moonlight Mile’ was really quite grand.
So that’s when orchestra meets rock and roll, and that’s when you started getting interested in it.
Well, an album I’ve just finished now has got orchestra through the whole album. It’s not rock ’n’ roll, it’s more R&B, old school r‘n’b. But I brought Tony Visconti out of retirement. Not that Tony’s ever retired. Not many people realise that Tony is an excellent orchestral arranger, and writer, and conductor. He does everything. I knew this. We met each other about 3 years ago, just before David (Bowie) passed away. We became very good friends. So when I asked him to orchestrate this album he was like “Really, wow, yeah!”, and he did such an incredible job. I also got Paul Buckmaster to do one song as well, which was good, but Tony was quite incredible.
So was it you who recommended him for the Stones’ sessions?
For the Stones? No. I don’t know who that would have been, actually.
And he did ‘Sway’ as well.
Yeah, ‘Sway’ too. I don’t know how that connection came up. I’m pretty sure it must have been a Mick connection, it wouldn’t have been a Keith connection.
You worked with many people here at Olympic, like George Chkiantz, Glyn Johns, Roger Savage, Eddie Kramer, Jimmy Miller…Any memories of them?
I’ve never worked with Eddie. I knew him, but never worked with him. Jimmy Miller was a terrific producer and mood creator, and he had a wonderful ear for percussion. Jimmy just made everyone feel good in the room, and if there was a problem, he always knew how to sort it out and to keep the flow and the energy going. He was a good man.
Cut to 1973, when you did The “Brain Salad Surgery” with Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Peter Frampton’s ‘Camel’ album.
ELP, yes, but I didn’t do the Peter one, Eddie Kramer did that. But Emerson, Lake and Palmer, that was really fun, I enjoyed doing that. I wanted to work with them, so it was great when I got the call to do it.
And then in 1974 you were producer and engineer for Bill Wyman’s ‘Monkey Grip’, which happened to be the first solo album by a member of the Rolling Stones.
It’s true, Bill’s was the first, yeah. I don’t think I was producer on that, I think I came in to mix some of it, because a lot of it was done in the States, I believe. Bill was always in Olympic. If he wasn’t doing a solo album, he was working with a band called The End, and I engineered some of that, so Bill was here a lot doing different things other than the Stones. And he asked for me to work with or Keith Harwood, who was another Olympic engineer, but he went freelance. Keith, we were very close friends. Keith recorded a lot with Led Zeppelin, and he did “Black and Blue” with the Stones.
There’s a few words dedicated to him on the back cover of the Stones’ ‘Love You Live’ album.
Yeah. He died of a car crash when he was coming back from Stargroves, from Mick’s house.
In 1976 you did Peter Frampton’s classic ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ album, which is one of the best selling live albums ever. Did you or Peter know at the time it would be such a hit album?
No. I mean, we knew it was good because when mixing it, you just got a wonderful euphoria feeling from listening to it. And that’s because the audience really made that record. You can just feel the communication of the audience. It was commented we added more audience, but we didn’t do any of that. That’s exactly how it was. No fixes, no additions. I recorded two concerts for the album, and Eddie recorded some and there were others. I recorded less than the others, but I mixed the whole thing. And I had so much fun mixing it. I remember the flanger, which had just been invented. I used it on the Fender Rhodes, on ‘Do You Feel’, on Bobby’s (Mayo) solo. Yeah I had great fun, but when we finished mixing that album, because there was a very small budget, we had only mixed a single album, and then Jerry Moss came down for playback with Peter’s manager, Dee Anthony. And we playback’ed what we mixed one album and Jerry said “where’s the rest?” And we said we were told by Peter’s manager we could only do a single album, “nobody wants a double album”, and Jerry said “no, you have to do a double album, the whole show” So we went back in and mixed the rest of the album.
And then it became such a hit album.
Yeah. It was nearly a single album. It’s still a great album to listen to. I know that Peter has remixed it a few years ago. I haven’t listened to the remix (laughs) I don’t quite see it. We’ve had this discussion about a lot of records that get remixed, classic albums that get remixed again is like “why?” Why remaster, when you can get it right the first time?
Right, if it’s good, why touching it?
Exactly. Most remasters are done, so the record companies think they will re-sell again but a lot of them, when they remaster it, they fuck it up. It doesn’t sound as good as the original.
Somehow the record companies need to tell the audiences “you should get this as it’s a remastered version”. That’s probably the trick to sell them again.
The thing with the remasters is, a lot of the time, they don’t even ask the producer or the engineer, they just go ahead and do it. There was a terrible remaster of the Stones, “Some Girls” album. It was terrible, actually terrible! Six months after the release, the public put it up on Amazon, “this is the worse…”. Then I contacted the Stones’ management and they said, “well it’s got a 5 star review on Rolling Stone”, we don’t really care.
Well, as far as I remembered, it’s Mick Jagger who gave orders to remaster it that way. In the end I think he just doesn’t like to go back to the past. He hates nostalgia.
Mick doesn’t like to go back at all. Absolutely, yeah. Actually I have to say it’s quite remarkable how they are touring and doing the gigs. The rest of them are holding up well. There’s only two albums that have been remastered that sounded better, and that was Marillion’s ‘Misplaced Childhood’. The original sound was really good but they guy who orchestrated that, Simon (Wilson), he worked for EMI, and he really loved what he was doing, he really appreciated what could go wrong. So he really kept an eye on this whole remastering thing. And he also was in charge of remastering the Peter Tosh ‘Mama Africa’ album. So sometimes it can come off good but I still think what’s the point of doing it, if it sounds great already? It’s more of a sales venture for the record company.
It all just comes down to put a sticker on them reading “remastered version”, suggesting that you’ve got to buy it.
Yeah, you should put a sticker on it saying, now in “mono” (laughs)
By the way, talking about the Stones and remastered versions, before you co-produced some of their albums, in 1978 you worked as an engineer for the original ‘Some Girls’. During the recording of the album, there were reportedly lots of problems concerning Keith, as he wasn’t showing at the studio when it was supposed. How did you cope with that?
Yeah, we were always waiting for them to show up anyway, not just Keith. Keith would be there, but he still had his habit, so he would disappear to the toilet for maybe an hour, so we’d be just hanging around, waiting. But actually Mick was very supportive during that time for Keith, he knew what Keith was going through, he knew the pressure. He also knew if he didn’t get through the Stones wouldn’t be any more. I think there was an ulterior motive as well. He wasn’t slagging him off or complaining. He was really helping him. That was good to see that friendship.
And just 2 years after that you worked in the “Emotional Rescue” album at the same studio in Paris, Pathé Marconi, as associate producer and engineer mixer. There were lots of outtakes from both the ‘Some Girls’ and ‘Emotional Rescue’ sessions.
Yes, quite a lot of material that never made it to ‘Some Girls’, some of it ended up in ‘Emotional Rescue’, and what else left over ended up on ‘Tattoo You’.
So at the time you were finally really into rock’n’roll.
Yeah, actually ‘Some Girls’ in a way was one of the easiest albums to record in so much as when I walked into the room, I knew exactly how I wanted to set the band up, and the sound that I wanted from the room. I put a little P.A. up, so you could hear Charlie’s snare drum and bass drum, ‘cause they didn’t want to use headphones that much. And also to put Mick’s vocals through because I had this feeling they were a live band. In the studio, you don’t want to restrict them. You want to give them the capability of a feel like they’re playing in a club or just playing live. So the setup I had in that studio worked well. The console worked really well, and the control room worked really well too, because it was so small, you couldn’t get more than three people in there. It was kind of strange, really, because it’s the first time that I’d been asked to record the whole album, the whole sessions. Mick and Keith hardly ever came in the control room, I think they may have came in once or twice during the first 2 or 3 days, and just listened they didn’t say anything about the sound. And that was it. Left me to it really after that. I just carried on doing what I wanted to do inside, and outside as well, as I helped with the guitar sounds a bit, mainly in volume, or maybe a pedal.
And you had won their complete trust at that stage.
Yeah. To me they didn’t impress me as rock gods. They were just a bunch of musicians. And I was trying to help them capture something.
And you got a great sound. I mean, the original one, not the remastered version…
Yeah! (laughs) The sound from that album is quite unique because of the set up, and the console as well. That was a very special time. I kinda knew that. Keith knew it as well, because there was a period where…We weren’t supposed to stay in that room. That was the cheaper room, with an old EMI desk. We were supposed to go into Studio 2 which had the big new Neve desk. The recording area was just as big, there were two very large rooms, but I loved the sound that we were getting from the studio with the old console. And so did Keith. We actually said to Mick, “we shouldn’t move” Because Mick was for, you know, “the future”.
So once again, why touching things when they’re ok?
We didn’t, thank God.
Did you have unlimited time to work in the studio?
Yeah, pretty much I think they would have booked like two months or something. That studio that we stayed in was a quarter of the price than the other one so it worked out good for everybody in that respect.
Was it easier working in the ‘Tattoo You’ album, as most of the original tracks were already recorded?
Well, we didn’t record anything for ‘Tattoo You’. It was stuff that I found, stuff that I knew that I recorded and hadn’t been used. So there was a good five or six songs. If I know that that’s what I’ve recorded and was around for there must be something on other albums. So I started to look back at ‘Goats Head Soup’ and ‘Black and Blue’ and found a few other wonderful gems.
Did you choose the songs for the album, or was it a Mick and Keith decision? Or the three of you?
No, it was more the fact of what was available, and also what was the most near completion in regards to melody and lyrics for Mick.
But things like ‘Heaven’, wasn’t that new?
No, that was recorded in ‘Some Girls’, or maybe ‘Emotional Rescue’. I can’t remember which album, but that was Paris, yeah.
Maybe ‘Litte T&A’ was a new one.
I can’t remember where the stuff I’d recorded whether it came from the ‘Some Girls’ or the ‘Emotional Rescue’ sessions. It was across the two. More likely from ‘Some Girls’, funny enough, ‘cause ‘Emotional Rescue’ was at a slower pace in making that record. It wasn’t as much fun as ‘Some Girls’. The energy had changed. Maybe by that time Keith had straightened up by that time? He must have been. So he would have suddenly started to wake up.
Probably the oldest one was ‘Waiting On a Friend’
That was from ‘Goats Head Soup’. The same with ‘Tops’. But ‘Tops’ was from Glyn, I think. That was when he was in Rotterdam with the mobile truck.
And then you were there for the complete change of ‘Start Me Up’ from the early reggae version to the rock n’ roll pop one?
Yeah – one of their biggest songs.
So your first real co-production with the Glimmer Twins was ‘Undercover’?
I can’t remember how the credits go. It’s a very underrated album. I think it is better than ‘Emotional Rescue’. I enjoy it more than ‘Emotional Rescue’. It was a very dangerous time with them. Because they were not getting on at all. I would love to get hold of the multitrack of ‘Undercover’ because I could use that for teaching because it was like no other track we’d recorded. It started with Charlie playing timpani and Mick on acoustic guitar just the two of them and it just grew from that. I had this crazy idea how I wanted to mix it. It took me two or three days to mix with all the backward stuff. It was all tape – no digital. I loved doing that – quite fantastic.
No, that was mixed in New York. It was recorded in Paris and then at Compass Point and New York.
A year later you were working with The Cult on the ‘Dreamtime’ album.
Yeah, that was in Berlin. I did a lot of work in Berlin. I did two Killing Joke albums in Berlin at Hansa, I did a JoBoxer record, Marillion’s ‘Misplaced Childhood’, The Cult, Spear of Destiny, a band called Eden. I think that was all in Hansa, I love that studio.
How was working with Marillion like?
I loved it. We just did a film actually, the “making of” ‘Misplaced Childhood’. We had the multitrack there, which was fantastic to listen to it from Hansa – that magic hall. They also had the original track sheets, which was my writing, and the detail in the track sheets was amazing. It had to be very well classified, because it was a concept album. Song, going into song, going into song, continually on a reel of tape, you had to really plan ahead, so that everything correlated, that you didn’t have different things ended up on different tracks. You had to be very very thought out. And it’s quite amazing to look at what I did. Even the band said “well, this is incredible, we never knew that you did that, it sounds really good!” And it was the cheapest album I’ve ever made, and the biggest-selling album I’ve ever made.
Was it working with them more the kind of music you liked? Like “let’s get away from rock’n’roll a bit and work with some really serious people”
(Laughs) Yeah, it was actually. Well the Stones are more blues than rock and roll, I mean, Zeppelin and the Stones, are nowhere near the same. They are both called rock ‘n’ roll. The Stones were verging on the softer side, well not “softer” that’s not the right word. Yeah, it’s different, isn’t it? But Marillion were a lot more theatrical and cinematic. I liked working with them a lot, and I liked their music. But just as much as I like Killing Joke, which is the total opposite (laughs) Now that’s rock’n’roll to me, that’s heavy rock’n’roll. But see, with Killing Joke there was an orchestral element in Jaz Coleman’s composing, in the keyboard player, in his compositions. There was a very grand kind of sound to it.
Jaz Coleman arranged the Rolling Stones pop symphony you did?
Yes he did – he did four or five, ‘Angie’ is amazing. I love that album. That got five star reviews on Amazon. A beautiful album. The record company really fucked up on that. They didn’t know how to sell it. They got more savvy on later albums.
Do you prepare yourself in advance to work with different music styles? I mean, you jumped from the Stones to Marillion to Killing Joke…
And then to reggae!
And then to reggae.
Well I just love reggae really. I love all genres of music. Although I don’t like Metallica. Could I work with Metallica? No, I don’t think I could work. That would drive me insane. But there was another very heavy American band, they were huge. I had to say “no”. It’s one name…
Tool! They were huge. Massive. I got the call from them when I was working with the Gypsy Kings (laughs) And I’m like, trying to give my production observations to Tool while I’m working with the Gypsy Kings! It was insane.
By the way, right after Marillion you got to work with Ace Frehley, the ‘Frehley’s Comet’ album. That must have been fun.
Well, I didn’t do much on that. It was because of my friendship with Bill Aucoin. Ace was pretty messed up and needed help.
He just cleaned up after all these years.
Sometimes I get called in to work with artists who are impossible or generally fucked up. If I can break through and get to their heart and the soul, then I will do that. If I don’t have that connection, then I can’t do it.
So how do you manage if you’re not able to get that connection?
Then I don’t work with them. Like I said before, I just finished an album with Peter Perrett, who was in The Only Ones.
Yes, I remember them, ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’…
Yeah. But Peter had severe heroin addiction, for 25 years. I can’t believe he’s still alive. But he’s been clean for 7 years, but in those 7 years there were so many demons and problems, because his kids are in the band, and they suffered immense abuse from his parents being drug addicts for all their lifetime. But I had great joy in making that album, and what was really, really lovely, and this is what I think I’m good and which I get great reward from. It got to a point where Peter said “I can’t believe that I’m working with you because I trust you in everything” And it’s wonderful when you get that back from an artist. Not only if they’ve been through a major life crisis or not? it’s nice when you get that from a straight artist as well. It’s a wonderful album, and I’m very proud of it.
So, back to the questions…
Back to the future or past! (laughs)
Yeah, I love that, “back to the past”… You worked with Peter Tosh on the ‘Mama Africa’ album. How did you enjoy working with him?
No, he was an arsehole. I loved his voice, and we had a very strange relationship in the studio because he didn’t have much respect for anyone other than himself. Not even the musicians! So he would just come to the studio, play three or four songs, all very simple, everyone would learn it, and then he’d say “ok I go for some fish!”, and he’d fuck off and come back in the evening to see if we done it. We finished it and done it and then he would put his vocals on top. I loved his voice, but as a person he wasn’t a very nice man.
So it must have been quite difficult to work with him.
Well, not difficult because he wasn’t there! That was the best thing! (laughs) As opposed to Jimmy Cliff, who was the opposite. Jimmy was like working with an angel, he’s such a wonderful person.
I believe Peter was there but then he wasn’t there, as he was always high.
Yeah. And there’s a very famous story when Donald Kinsey, the guitar player from Chicago, who was on that album. We both had this idea that Peter should do a cover of ‘Johnny B. Goode’, the Chuck Berry song. So one morning I played it to Peter and he said “me no sing no white man song”. So the next day I brought in a picture of Chuck Berry and said “this is the man who wrote ‘Johnny B. Goode’“.
He didn’t know Chuck?
No, he didn’t know him. And then he said “him brother, me do the song!” (laughs) And he did it very well. He changed the lyrics, which I loved, “the gunny sack”.
But Peter had such a great voice.
Wonderful voice, yeah. Wonderful songs in the album, actually. I still love the album, I love songs like ‘Glass House’ (starts singing). He was a great singer. And I met a lot of great musicians working on that album, like Sticky Thompson, the keyboard player Phil Ramacon, who lives in London. I just got to do a session with him, hadn’t seen him since then – so that was quite wonderful.
1989, another Stones co-production, ‘Steel Wheels’, a different kind of sound for the band.
Yeah different also in so much as I take a much broader control – not sure that’s the right word. I had a vision for a sound for that whole album, that it should be quite rich, quite lush. Not as raw as ‘Exile on Main Street’, not as trashy as ‘Some Girls’, I really wanted quite a big fat warm sound in the production.
It sounds clean and polished. More metallic.
Yeah, clean and polished, it was meant to sound like that. The whole thing in the arrangements and backing vocals it was more of a produced album, and I was really happy with the way it turned out, because before I started it I knew I wanted it to sound like that. Because in my mind was the next album, I wanted to go and make another ‘Exile’. I wanted the next one to be completely the opposite. But I thought to get it to work you’ve got to have a very new sounding Stones’ record. I don’t think there’s a Stones’ album that sounds like ‘Steel Wheels’ but that would be the shock, because after that you would get back to the grime.
And by the way I just remembered about ‘Let’s Go Steady’, this unreleased song from the ‘Emotional Rescue’ sessions that…
That’s a duet of my wife with Keith!
It always was one of my favourites Stones’ outtakes! How did that ever happen?
That’s very sweet. She would be very pleased to hear that! Actually that was recorded in Compass Point studios, in Nassau. My wife Kristi would travel everywhere with me, this was before the kids were born. I think it was like 2 or 3 in the morning, and Keith said “hey get Kristi, get her to come over, I want her to sing on this”.
I think she said, “no” because she could sing it better in the morning.
Did she say “no”? I can’t remember (laughs) Not at this time. But anyway, she did it later. I think that they did one take. They were singing together live! It was great fun.
And Mick was out of the picture at the moment.
I don’t think Mick was on the island actually! (laughs)
And she did good!
She did really good! I mean, yeah, really really good! I mean, she had no time to learn the song. It was as if they had always sung together. It was quite special. She was quite instrumental in helping Keith finish “Slipping Away”. He had “slipping away, slipping away, slipping away…” for at least 2 years. Just that bit. But he didn’t have the other bits. And then one night when we were in Montserrat we were having dinner over at Keith’s house, and he was playing that, and Kristi started to sing something different, it just pushed him somewhere else, and he got to finish the song.
I love that one.
Yeah, that’s a lovely song. “First the sun and then the moon…”
We were talking about Guy Bailey and Thirsty at the beginning of the interview. And in 1992 you worked with the Quireboys for the “Bitter Sweet and Twisted” album, the second one featuring the original line-up, when Guy was still in the band.
Oh that was a nightmare! I inherited that from Bob Rock, that was with the song ‘King of New York’. Bob Rock started to produce that record and record it, he kind of walked away. I guess someone offered him more money, so he walked away and left it, and it ended up with me. And what I say is horrible is because the way that Bob recorded it. It was in the day when we had Sony digital machines, and Bob had linked up three 48-track machines. So one machine is full of guitar solos so I had like, you know, 48 guitar takes to go through. The whole album was like that. Everything had been replaced and replaced and replaced, and it took me a week, ‘cause I wanted to go back to find out the original recording, or where did this start from, and it took me a week to find that, which was a nightmare.
But you still liked the band.
I liked the band, yeah. I liked Spike and I liked Guy.
A year later you worked in the ‘Full Moon, Dirty Hearts’ with INXS. Of course Michael Hutchence was such a prominent singer and star. Any anecdotes from that time?
Yeah, that was here. And Michael was a lovely man. He was one of the most gracious people that I’ve met and worked with, actually. Especially, I asked him to sing on the ‘Symphonic Stones’ album. I wanted him to do ‘Under My Thumb’. Michael came on board, he was absolutely thrilled to do it. And he was just so much fun to work with in the studio, very quick and very intelligent. Just a really nice guy, I got on really well with him. And, as a bonus one night, and this was when he was going out with the model Helena Christensen, he said “can you look after Helena for me?” Of course, no problem. (laughs) He was a sweet lovely man. When we worked on that album, it was kind of strange because, I had met them in Paris when I was working on a Stones album, over there, and we got together, and they played me like half of that album. I thought it was demos, ‘cos it sounded really pretty ropey, it sounded rough, and I said “it will be great when you record it properly” And they said “that is recorded properly” And I went “oh!” (laughs) They said “do you think we should do this again?” So we came here and we recorded it, we didn’t do the whole album and we did that duet with Chrissie Hynde, which was crazy. She arrived and we were already doing the vocal, the duet, and she said “I’m just gonna go out to do some shopping”, and she went out for 5 hours. She has “studio stage fright. She hates being in the studio. So she came, she looked and listened and went.
Maybe that’s the reason why she always takes so long to put a new album.
Maybe. 5 hours, that was exaggeration, but it was a good hour and a half (laughs) You know, “where did Chrissie go?”
In 1995 there was another Stones album you worked in, ‘Stripped’, and also the Chieftains’ ‘The Long Black Veil’.
Oh yes. I’d been working with the Chieftains before, because I’d become very good friends with their manager Steve Macklan, because I’d been working with the Canadian Colin James, producing two of Colin albums. So I met Paddy (Moloney) through that connection. And then I worked on the album, which had many guests. The Four Stones, Sting was on one, Bono on another. I remember going to a meeting with Paddy and Mick in Ireland, about which song to cover. That’s when it was a shock to Paddy that Mick knew ‘The Long Black Veil’. He didn’t think Mick would know it. I did a couple of things with the Chieftains. Very sad. The harpist of the band, Derek Bell, very talented, he passed away, and they did a live tribute album that I mixed with Paddy.
For a change, then in 1996 you worked with the Gypsy Kings, the ‘Compas’ album.
That was fun. I enjoyed that, because my whole ethos on that album was that I didn’t want any brass, no horns, or any drums. I just wanted the Gypsy Kings. But I did take Pino Palladino for bass and Jon Carin for some keyboard. But I had great fun making that album. But the problem with them was that their manager, Claude Martinez, he kind of owned more of the Gypsy Kings than the Gypsy Kings owned. He’s a very shrewd businessman. But he kept an eye on their writing because they were very bad. They would come in and play a song. They pitched it, and they had nicked it from someone else on the radio. They just heard it and they would do it and he said “no you can’t do that, that’s whatever it is”. So he was good otherwise they would be in court all the time.
Now I’d like to ask you about working with Ray Davies, which was in 2007. Was it difficult?
Yeah, he was difficult, he was interesting! I’ve got a lot of sympathy for Ray. I saw him just recently, ‘cause I’ve been working doing the Peter Perrett album at his studio, Konk Studios. Now he’s very lovely, he came in to say “hello”, which was very nice. But he’s driven by demons. I think it gets to a point in a solo artist’s career, where they always get frightened of putting anything out. Because they obviously want it to be successful in a way, and I think that’s a wrong thing to do. I think you should just keep “putting it out, putting it out”, and once you start to stand back and worry, then you start second-guessing, and it’s never good. So the album I worked with him on, he re-recorded it, I think, two times again. He just kept doing it with different people. Yeah he’s a lovely man. What amazed me the most, actually the two most incredible experiences with Ray was one when he said “which acoustic guitar should I use?” “oh this one I wrote Lola on?” I said “Lola, I think you should use that one”. But also, in doing vocals with him, we recorded the track and then he would go sing like three takes of vocals, and when he came in the control room he said “I want the first verse from take three, the second line of verse two from take one, the first line from take two”. And I put it all together and it was perfect. He has an amazing memory. Amazing. He was weird and wonderful.
It’s been a fantastic interview, Chris, and so I guess I’d like to close it by asking you about your recent work with Thirsty, which is actually how the interview started.
Guy had recorded pretty much everything, and then he needed someone to come in as an overview, so I would go to Guy’s and listen to everything, and make suggestions on arrangements, or whatever. And then Guy would implement that. Maybe oversee the arrangements and make sure the vocals were good, and then I mixed it all. So it was more of an overseeing situation, but then when it got to mixing I did what I want mixing wise.
How long did it take to get it all together?
I mixed it really quick, I mixed it in about 4 or 5 days. Very quickly. But I did a lot of work with Guy at his place building the tracks. I knew what I was gonna do, or what I’d have to do. The first album, ‘Thirsty’, I actually think I worked on it for maybe 4 months, but the second one, ‘Albatross’, was a lot quicker.
You returned to Olympic Studios in 2014. Why was that?
I returned to Olympic because I became very good friends with the new owners and they know nothing about the music business, they’re in film business and graphic design. They were absolutely thrilled to meet me because I became the link back to the musical history of Olympic, because I go back to the beginning of Olympic. And through that they invited me to … they knew Olympic’s heritage of the best sound, so they wanted the best sound for the cinema. So I designed the sound in the cinema for them. Most cinemas have a kind of off the shelf sound system. This is not that, this is a completely unique system, so I helped to do that, and then I introduced them to Keith Grant, ‘cause Keith was still alive when they bought the building, and also to help with the 50th anniversary book they’re making. We have selected 120 albums of the 900 and something that were recorded here, with all the album covers. And they’re going in the book. And I’ve been speaking to different artists like Cat Stevens. I got a lovely letter from him getting different bits and pieces from different artists.
It must have been a difficult task to pick them.
It still is, because we wanted 100, but we can’t get below 120. It was very difficult. When you look at what was recorded in this building, it’s quite ridiculous. I begin to really appreciate and understand, “what Olympic!”, they get incredibly excited because they know only a fraction of what’s gone on here. And then all that led to me discussing with the owners about building a studio here, and it was gonna be in a tiny little room in the basement a couple of years ago, but I couldn’t do that, because it wouldn’t be Olympic, it would be too small. So now we’re building one on the roof, the other roof, which is as big as Screen one. It’s a big room. We’ve just finished the first sound proof wall, we have to do the floating floors next, so hopefully it will be opened in summer, next year. That’s what I’m aiming towards. So that will be a complete joy for me. It will be my design, I mean, I’ll be here, I’ll be the manager, and I’ll be working in there for sure. We are looking forward to that very much.
So who are you working with now?
The last song mix for Peter Perrett. An album with Noah Johnson. Another artist I’ve been working with. That’s maybe one of the best albums I’ve made. I’m so happy with that one. It’s a soul, Marvin Gaye type album. He’s Welsh and got a helluva voice, a great songwriter. I pulled out all of my knowledge. That’s the one with Tony Visconti on the strings and Paul Buckmaster. Steve Jordan on some drums. Jennifer Maidman on bass, Jon Carin, amazing album. All my friends. We are mastering it now. It should be out in May.
You haven’t worked with any South American artists yet, and you sure know there’s a lot of music there.
Yeah, I know, some amazing performers and music. I was just talking about it, that would be exciting.
Is there any artist or band you would love to work with that you haven’t worked with?
I love Laura Mvula. I met her several times. I don’t think I could work with her, she’s got her team but I love her work. Also with a band called King King, a big blues band.
Ok Chris, thanks for a fantastic time and interview…
Oh! Pete Townshend, I’d love to do Pete’s new album. We met the other day, he’s writing at the moment. He’s been working upstairs, we had a good afternoon, it was funny. And also because he’s in the book as well with his solo album ‘Who Came First’, and also ‘Who’s Next’ which was done here. He’s got a console I’m thinking to put in the studio. It’s a special console, so he lent it to me. He’s got the only one in the U.K. That’s was very nice of him.
So, once again, thanks so much, if this is not the best interview I’ve ever done…
Oh you say that to everyone! (laughs) Thank you as well, I enjoyed it too!
*With special thanks to Martin Elliott (http://stonessessions.com/) for facilitating the interview and also for suggesting some great questions.