Fade In, Fade Out: Top 10 Producers
INTRO AND HON MENTIONS
Well I’ve done it, I’ve managed to compile a list of my favourite producers but it was not without deliberation, trial and error. I mean how does one compile this, is it quantity of fave artists covered or the less is more clarity over quantity. As always I struck some sort of a balance.
Still love them all and without further ado here’s the list of those whose ideas and ear worms still inhabit my cranium and colour my world to this day. First the Honourable Mentions…
MARK OPITZ (INXS, Aussie Crawl, Noiseworks)
DAVID Z (Wendy and Lisa, FYC, A-ha)
TREVOR HORN (ABC, YES, SEAL)
KEITH FORSEY (Icehouse, Simple Minds, Wang Chung)
DAVID LORD (Peter Gabriel, XTC, Europeans, Icehouse)
CHRISTOPHER NEIL (Mike and the Mechanics, A-ha, Marillion, Morten Harket, Moody Blues, Wax)
STEVE HILLAGE (Simple Minds, Real Life, Cock Robin, It Bites, System 7)
LARRY KLEIN (Joni Mitchell, Innocence Mission, David Baerwald, Shawn Colvin, Julia Fordham)
Even within that clutch of producers is some phenomenal music so I hope they are not disheartened to be the reserve team. So without further ado, let’s begin…
(Eno, Harold Budd, Jon Hassell, Laraaji, U2, Coldplay)
Well he had to be in here somewhere didn’t he, I mean he is Brian Eno, but the surprise for me is that he is in 10th. Although I am a huge fan of him, it was only when I looked at his productions that I realised it is mostly his own output and close collaborations which I am a fan of. What no Talking Heads, no James!? Well, only Once in a Lifetime and Say Something really.
However it is in the body of his own that he is perhaps strongest: On Land, Wrong Way Up with John Cale co-producing, The Equatorial Stars (with Fripp but produced by Eno), and Lux to name a few.
Co-productions include: Possible Musics (with Jon Hassell), My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (with David Byrne), The Pearl (with Daniel Lanois) – a favourite of many including Tim Bowness and Neil Tennant, several U2 albums (with Steve Lillywhite and/or Daniel Lanois), and his work with Coldplay (with Markus Dravs and Rik Simpson).
Had he produced Systems of Romance (instead of the first Ultravox album), Bowie’s Heroes and ICEHOUSE’s Measure for Measure (rather than just contribute to them) then he would have surely been higher. Regardless, he’s still produced some of the most beautiful, forward thinking and iconic music in the history of recorded sound and for that his ideas will live forever.
(Tears For Fears, Wang Chung, Ric Ocasek, Howard Jones, Robert Plant)
Who would have thought Adam and the Ants would unearth such a magnificent producer! (as well as a bombastic tribal pounder of the skins). It is for many though that he will forever be associated with Tears for Fears first two albums and it’s those together with Wang Chung’s Points on the Curve that pretty much bag him ninth place. Only the electronic drum sound on Points which sounds like someone hitting a plastic coke bottle and the synth-drenched Paul McCartney (see below) disappoint.
But he is much more than that of course, throw in some poetic wonderment from of all people Ric Ocasek. Emotion in Motion is ever more poignant as it’s not even available to buy on iTunes UK at the time of writing. I wasn’t too big on The Cars or Led Zeppelin but Chris Hughes talent is to make the unpredictable sound good; Robert Plant (Great Spirit). Anyone that is except Paul McCartney – too ‘over egged’ as Hughes puts it in my opinion or in the case of Figure of Eight just as abysmal as anything on Press to Play.
Hughes production work also lent itself to Howard Jones who was on a rebound from a disastrous third (One to One) by Arif Mardin! As suitable a producer to Jones as Stephen Hague to Def Leppard! Which thankfully didn’t happen or hasn’t yet. Cross That Line’s first two tracks The Prisoner and Everlasting Love were both produced by the TFF crew (Hughes, Ross Cullum and Ian Stanley). What a pity they were not enlisted for One to One but better late than never.
Like ENO he likes to make guest appearances, on Enya’s Storms in Africa he adds the kind of tribal icing on the cake he is known for and his own Shift, a homage to avant-garde composer Steve Reich who himself had inspired Hughes as a youngster. Big thanks to Mr Hughes senior who took his son to see that performance and without whom we wouldn’t have all of this amazing music!
(Roxy Music, Wings, Pretenders, INXS, Shakespears Sister, Pulp, Razorlight)
Chris Thomas is a magician! This guy can make anyone sound good but that’s no blight on the material or talent he’s giving his ears to. The Roxy era may not have done too much for me (Pyjamarama is still a dirge) but hey he did produce In Every Dreamhome and Love is the Drug! Come the late seventies he’s on board for Wings (Back to the Egg) and The Pretenders whose first two records still sound great which says a lot.
It’s in the mid-eighties that I really notice him as he helms probably the two best INXS albums; Listen Like Thieves and mega-selling KICK. It was Thomas’ idea that Andrew Farriss and Michael Hutchence write all the material.
Since then he’s spearheaded Shakespears Sister’s Hormonally Yours album with the brilliant Goodbye Cruel World (see the 1991 blog), added the necessary ingredients to Pulp’s mid-nineties work Different Class and headed up Razorlight’s second album which was again bright and fresh, and to an extent owing to INXS in its sound and Pretenders in its cover.
(Phil Collins, Genesis, The Police, Julia Fordham, Sting)
Gordon Sumner (Sting) is on a tour bus. He asks his support act’s frontman, XTC’s Andy Partridge who was responsible for that great drum sound on their Drums and Wires album. The answer was their engineer Hugh Padgham. Around the same time Mr Padgham is in a studio engineering Peter Gabriel 3. The opening song Intruder needs something and the solution is the gated reverb effect.
The drummer is Phil Collins. You can see where this is heading, perhaps you can feel it coming in the air tonight but what is history is also rare and Padgham’s discovery catapults him into the stratosphere, attaining the ears and knob twiddler status on Genesis Abacab and The Police’s Ghost in the Machine albums. Collins also enlisted him for his own album Face Value.
How Padgham found the time to produce Face Value, Hello I Must Be Going, Abacab, Genesis (shapes album), Ghost in the Machine and Synchronicity (as well as XTC’s English Settlement) I don’t know but when I hear those albums I’m rather grateful he got the gig. As an added bonus he mixed Hall and Oates H2O album, so it’s safe to say Mr Padgham had a busy and astonishing run.
Not only that but he also produced Split Enz Time and Tide (a coup indeed for the Kiwi’s) and was so busy he couldn’t accommodate Midnight Oil’s request to helm 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 (commonly known as 10-1). It took time for them to come around to the idea of his assistant Nick Launay handling it with Padgham’s supervision. Launay went on to work on several more Oils albums excluding their international breakthrough Diesel and Dust.
At the end of the same decade Padgham was co-producing Julia Fordham’s Porcelain. There’s also a lost Paula Cole album languishing in a record company vault somewhere, that is if the tapes haven’t been destroyed over time.
(Mancrab, Lloyd Cole, Howard Jones, Propaganda, A-ha, Pretenders, Human League)
As part of Tears for Fears Stanley’s celestial synth work lit up Listen – the final song on their Songs From the Big Chair album, he was also instrumental in the running order. In 1986 a one off single Fish for Life under the group name Mancrab and co-produced with Roland Orzabal showcased his importance to the TFF sound.
Unfortunately he never made it to The Seeds of Love, but he was responsible for two of its more interesting b-sides; Always in the Past and My Life in the Suicide Ranks (the latter TFF meets Blue Nile with Orzabal attempting a Prince vocal trope mid way through – I rather wished he hadn’t).
By then, Stanley had already made inroads into production with Lloyd Cole and the Commotions 1987 album Mainstream and the beautiful single Jennifer She Said and deep cuts like Mr Malcontent which also appeared on the 1984-89 best of.
Onto Hojo and the first two tracks on Cross That Line got the treatment (see Chris Hughes above). Propaganda or a version of them? Whatever your opinion the single Heaven Give Me Words was a nice job, just not sure it should have sailed under the Propaganda moniker with only one member among the line up; closer to Simple Minds if anything.
Stanley shared production duties on A-ha’s fourth East of the Sun, West of the Moon with Chris Neil. Stanley’s songs included the sixties kitsch Early Morning and the acoustic orchestral title track.
He – and I only just realised this myself – was also the man for Pretenders Night in my Veins – I had always thought it was Chris Thomas before returning to the realm of electronica for the Human League’s Octopus, credited by Phil Oakey as the album that saved their career.
(OMD, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Climie Fisher, Jane Wiedlin, New Order, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Jerry Burns, Dubstar, A-ha, Claudia Brücken)
Stephen Hague, who I’ve just found out is actually American, is interesting not for that reason but that he should gravitate to the synth-pop artists that he is known for producing. There’s a caveat here in doing so makes fellow American Jane Wiedlin sound European (perhaps she fancied a slice of Laura Branigan’s Euro-disco pie!).
To begin with however we dock in Liverpool for OMD’s Hopper-esque inspired Crush album. While this featured the irritating Secret, the production was at least promising and Hague stayed on board for The Pacific Age. We Love You may have stalled in the 50s at home in the UK but the Aussies gave it the top 20 it deserved as they did with so many acts, good effort Aussies.
1986 also saw him producing Please, the now iconic debut from the Pet Shop Boys as well as follow up Actually. Erasure continued the synth-pop vein and Hague stepped in to helm their album The Innocents; it was a tough call between the single Ship of Fools but I always loved Weight of the World.
So to Climie Fisher and while the Steve Lillywhite produced second side of their Everything album as an equal counterweight, Hague handled the first half and there we find their signature tune Love Changes (Everything), the mellow Rise to the Occasion (before those bloody hip-hop mixers got to it), and the bitter sweet I Won’t Bleed for You.
Now it gets a little complex. The fourth song on Hague’s side of the fence was Room to Move – which became a top 10 hit in America for a version of the band Animotion (the real band fronted by Bill Wadham and Astrid Plane had quit ironically over a record company decision to vito a third album to be recorded in England with… yep, Stephen Hague and I wish that had happened but it’s another one scuppered by interfering suits). Finally (back to Climie Fisher) for the utterly gorgeous Precious Moments which Cliff Richard was down to cover but never did.
More? How about Jane Wiedlin who was a cutie with her pixie cut hair (but beneath the surface was err, more vampish put it that way). More importantly the music on Fur was as far from The GoGo’s as Belinda Carlisle’s solo work. Wiedlin backed by Hague as mentioned went for pure pop (Rush Hour, Inside a Dream – both very strong singles).
But I really liked the opening One Heart, One Way and Song of the Factory which I still play a lot (despite its nasty morse code message – f**k off Shep – to rival Shep Pettibone). The End of Love is another pretty ballad penned by… any guesses? …Simon Climie, see I don’t just throw this together.
All of those acts make perfect sense but he wrong footed everyone in 1991 by producing Siouxsie and the Banshees Superstition album. I really liked Shadowtime from that set. The following year, that annus anus of 1992 saw moody Scottish chanteuse Jerry Burns and her song Pale Red was another one that got away.
The mid-nineties saw more English-ness from Dubstar; synth-pop meets Billy Bragg and the Cocteau Twins. No wonder I thought Hague was English. Anyway Disgraceful is a wonderful record if a little girly on the imagery but songs like Stars, Not So Manic Now and the title track displayed a depth with a melodic richness. Hague went on to produce Cathedral Park which was perfectly timed for September 1997, perfect that is if it hadn’t coincided with Princess Diana’s death which killed off the single.
This millennium Hague lent a hand to – and this makes total sense – A-ha for a few tracks on their Lifelines album and David Mead. A decade later (2012) and something else that is totally logical is his overseeing German chanteuse Claudia Brücken’s The Lost Are Found and though it’s not entirely successful there are some gems to be uncovered.
Her cover of Pet Shop Boys King’s Cross (which Hague also produced back in ’87) is fine enough as is her faithful take on Stina Nordenstam’s Crime. Phew, he’s sure had one hell of a career has Mr Hague and he’s given us some great ear candy but was just pipped for fourth position by…
(Japan, Icehouse, The Cure, David Sylvian, Clannad, Love and Money, Claudia Brücken)
Not content with making Japan’s innovative Tin Drum and not one, not two but all three of David Sylvian’s holy trinity of albums. Brilliant Trees alone would have been a feat but together with Gone to Earth and Secrets of the Beehive well lucky call comes to mind. Clearly Sylvian didn’t mind Nye’s flatulence as noted in Anthony Reynolds’ books on the band
Aside the Japan clan and Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Nye contributed to the one off ICEHOUSE single Love in Motion which I still play regularly. A stop gap between the first album and Primitive Man it was the final recording with the quartet of Davies, John Lloyd, Anthony Smith and Keith Welsh and known for the quiet passage of the fairlight synth which guides the song to its conclusion, still a fave moment for me.
In 1985 he helped birth the tone poem In a Lifetime by Clannad featuring Bono. A song that could only have come out of Ireland (even with English production). Within its three minutes lay the mystery of life, the emerald isle itself and is perfect for a stormy day or one of those quiet dark afternoons. The song also features the sax of Mel Collins (King Crimson, Tears for Fears).
What did take me by surprise was his production for Scotland’s Love and Money and their Dogs in the Traffic album (also from 1991). He may only have produced three of the songs on Claudia Brücken’s Love and a Million Other Things but they are among its finest. Stranger still, Always sounds more like CHIC or Nile Rodgers than the Germanic iciness she is known for or the more enigmatic artists he is known for and that would lead nicely to the man himself…
(CHIC, Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, INXS, Madonna, Thompson Twins, Duran Duran, The B-52s, David Bowie)
There can be no de-nial (see what I’ve done there) that Nile Rodgers is a musical icon easily adept at joining up the dots between the black and white spheres of the music world. CHIC themselves inspired by Roxy Music were always different. A band fusing funk and soul with the sophisticated enigma of Roxy and an almighty rhythm section in Tony Thompson and Bernard Edwards (the latter also a producer) both no longer with us.
As a producer he’s been behind some of the world’s most iconic songs: Le Freak, Goodtimes, We Are Family, Lost in Music, Upside Down, I’m Coming Out, Let’s Dance, Original Sin, Like a Virgin, Material Girl, Notorious, Roam – the man is a phenomenon! That the Brit School up the road from where I wrote this should name one of their studios after him is not a surprise, nor undeserved.
(Thompson Twins, Duran Duran, Arcadia, Robbie Nevil, Boom Crash Opera)
Close but no cigar for this highly stylised producer and who knows what he might have gone on to had he not passed in 1987. Before his untimely demise he was responsible for some absolute studio stonkers! Quick Step and Side Kick might not be the most memorable of Thompson Twins albums but it did include the ultra cool Love on Your Side and set the tone for the more Sadkin-esque Into the Gap (You Take Me Up, Day After Day, Storm on the Sea).
Between the two he stepped up for Duran Duran’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger (or Seven and the Rancid Budgie, Indiana LeBon and the Temple of Doom if you like) with Ian Little. From that I’ve chosen I Take the Dice even if Simon does sound a bit whiny on the verses. I also like the very feint keyboard part that begins New Moon on Monday (this may have been down to Nick Rhodes but it’s a nice touch whoever came up with the idea).
You could put the sad in Sadkin in that Simple Minds considered him for the follow up to New Gold Dream but instead went with Steve Lillywhite and we know what came of that, an album you either love or hate. My fantasy Simple Minds album is the one they never made with Sadkin sprinkling his magic and can obviously never make.
Back to reality and after Into the Gap came one of the highlights and that can only mean…
A R C A D I A, yes it is the one and only So Red the Rose. What a pity Steve Jansen chose not to play on it. Even so it remains a cult classic recorded over several months in Paris (it had to be Paris whose ambience flavours the whole thing). Everything about that record is near perfection; the videos, the sleeve art and obviously the production (Election Day, Missing, Lady Ice all seem like something from a moody art film).
It may be a surprise then that waiting in the wings for Sadkin’s attention was one Robbie Nevil, yes him of C’est La Vie fame and in keeping with some of the above Laura Branigan, Jane Wielding was very European in its sound design. Check out the Orientally synth motif in the early part of Back to You the ‘environmental percussion’ and its swirling outro. Technically speaking the album was a co-produce with Phil Thornalley (who recorded and mixed) but in his words they pushed Nevil hard on the vocals.
Sadkin also made Simply Red’s second Men and Women which again seemed a strange choice of producer for Mick Hucknell’s brand of sophisticated soul. This was one of the last records he would work on along with the debut of the band who should have been huge but alas timing conspired against them with the producers unfortunate passing.
Nonetheless his ideas helped shape the beginnings of Boom Crash Opera; an American producing Australians in England (London). His innovation was confident as it was quirky even playing fire extinguisher on its final song Too Hot to Think. The BCO album with its dour cover imagery was dedicated to Sadkin and Robbie Nevil recorded his own tribute Too Soon on his second album A Place Like This.
(Eno, Roxy Music, King Crimson, Wang Chung, OMD, Talk Talk,
Bryan Ferry, Icehouse, ’Til Tuesday, Cock Robin)
So it isn’t Eno but someone with a close connection and who co-produced Another Green World and who ironically would then go on to produce the band Eno left (Roxy) and their trilogy of albums between ’79 and ’82 (Manifesto, Flesh and Blood and Avalon). On Manifesto’s title song we get both sides of Bryan Ferry’s persona; the eerie dark side and the cool strut when the track finally gets into gear (around the 2 minute mark).
Alongside those are King Crimson’s Discipline and Beat, a few tracks on the fledgling Wang Chung’s first album including I Can’t Sleep. He also lent his considerable talents to the nowadays much praised Dazzle Ships by OMD, and Talk Talk’s single My Foolish Friend. Why did they not continue with him for the overtly Roxy sounding It’s My Life? Truth is they did but it didn’t work out, enter Tim Friese-Green.
Come the mid-eighties Davies was still in demand hooking up with another Davies (Iva) and ICEHOUSE for half of the bands Measure for Measure set (with Eno pottering around in the background) and if that wasn’t enough he calls the shots on what is still the best Cock Robin album and you know what that is cause I mention it all the time (First Love, Last Rites).
He also did ’Til Tuesday’s second and third albums though listening to them now I wouldn’t have had a clue it was Rhett producing, they sound more indicative of Don Gehman than Davies. The third Everything’s Different Now is the better and featured a highly emotive vocal turn by Aimee Mann on Long Gone (Buddy). Not sure why it’s in brackets – but especially on the chorus.
Since 1999 Rhett re-established his musical connection with Bryan Ferry. Weirdly my favourite Ferry disc is the Patrick Leonard produced Bête Noire, though Davies did work his magic on Slave to Love and Don’t Stop the Dance.
PLAYLIST AND CREDITS
As always before I do the playlist and photo credits, check out the UNIVERSITY for teaching work and The Atlas for more music, travel and culture blogs. Also if you like what I’m doing hit the social: Facebook, Twitter, 500px and Good Reads. Ok here comes the Playlist…
Once in a Lifetime – Talking Heads
Say Something – James
Their Memories – Harold Budd/Brian Eno
Zoo Station – U2
Passage D.E – Jon Hassell
Viva La Vida – Coldplay
Mountain of Needles – Brian Eno/David Byrne
Dance Hall Days – Wang Chung
Head Over Heels – Tears For Fears
Emotion in Motion – Ric Ocasek
Everlasting Love – Howard Jones
Great Spirit – Robert Plant
In Every Dreamhome… – Roxy Music
Spin it On – Wings
Talk of the Town – The Pretenders
This Time – INXS
Goodbye Cruel World – Shakespears Sister
Disco 2000 – Pulp
Hold On – Razorlight
Abacab – Genesis
Hand in Hand – Phil Collins
Synchronicity 1 – The Police
Prince of Peace – Julia Fordham
All This Time – Sting
Fish for Life – Mancrab
Always in the Past – Tears for Fears
Jennifer She Said – Lloyd Cole and the Commotions
The Prisoner – Howard Jones
Heaven Give Me Words – Propaganda
East of the Sun – A-ha
Night in my Veins – Pretenders
These Are the Days – Human League
We Love You – OMD
Tonight is Forever – Pet Shop Boys
Weight of the World – Erasure
Precious Moments – Climie Fisher
The End of Love – Jane Wiedlin
Regret – New Order
Disgraceful – Dubstar
Forever Not Yours – A-ha
Whispering Pines – Claudia Brücken
Still Life in Mobile Homes – Japan
Love in Motion (original single version) – Icehouse
Weathered Wall – David Sylvian
In a Lifetime – Clannad ft Bono
My Love Lives in a Dead House – Love and Money
Always – Claudia Brücken
A Warm Summer Night – CHIC
Lost in Music – Sister Sledge
Have Fun – Diana Ross
Original Sin – INXS
Angel – Madonna
Love is the Law – Thompson Twins
Vertigo – Duran Duran
Don’t Let Me Down and Down – David Bowie
Roam – B-52s
Love on Your Side – Thompson Twins
I Take the Dice – Duran Duran
Lady Ice – Arcadia
Back to You – Robbie Nevil
Too Hot to Think – Boom Crash Opera
Sky Saw – Brian Eno
Manifesto – Roxy Music
Neal and Jack and Me – King Crimson
I Can’t Sleep – Huang Chung (Wang Chung)
Telegraph – OMD
My Foolish Friend – Talk Talk
The Flame – Icehouse
Long Gone (Buddy) – ’Til Tuesday
Worlds Apart – Cock Robin
Photo credits: Discogs, assembled by KH