Producer Chris Thomas: THREE DECADES ON THE CUTTING EDGE AND THE CHARTSThere are more famous producers than Chris Thomas, but few, if any, can match his incredible string of artistic and commercial successes since he broke
There are more famous producers than Chris Thomas, but few, if any,can match his incredible string of artistic and commercial successessince he broke into the English recording scene in the late '60s. Forthree decades he's worked with some of the most exciting andinfluential groups and singers in rock music, selling untold millionsof records. Here's a hopelessly abbreviated list of some of the artistshe's worked with: The Beatles (The White Album); Climax Blues Band(four albums); Procol Harum (five albums, including Home, BrokenBarricades and Grand Hotel); Roxy Music (five albums, from For YourPleasure through Viva); John Cale (Paris 1919); Badfinger (threealbums); Pink Floyd (mixed Dark Side of the Moon); Paul McCartney (Backto the Egg); Sex Pistols (Never Mind the Bollocks); The Pretenders(first three albums); Tom Robinson (Power in the Darkness); PeteTownshend (Empty Glass and All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes);INXS (Listen Like Thieves, Kick and X); Elton John (a dozen albums,includingToo Low for Zero, Sleeping With the Past and The One); andPulp (Different Class and This Is Hard Core).
The reason you don't hear more about Thomas is that, unlike manyproducers, he has no interest in self-promotion and he doesn't like todo interviews; he kindly acceded to our request mostly because he's alongtime chum of Mix technical editor Chris Michie. When Thomas came tothe Bay Area this summer to see The Pretenders perform, he graciouslystopped by Mix's offices for an extensive interview, highlights ofwhich appear below. Other nuggets from our talk will doubtless turn upin our "Classic Tracks" column down the road.
Did you come up in the recording world the conventionalway-musician, tape op, tea boy, whatever?
Not really, no. I had been a musician, but really how all this cameabout was in 1965 I wrote to George Martin and asked him if he couldgive me any advice, and he gave me an interview at EMI. Then I went tosee his managing director, because George was only an employee at EMIat the time.
What was in your mind at the time?
To be a producer, or an A&R man as it was called in those days.But I didn't want to fiddle around working my way to the top. I wantedto do it straight away. [Laughs]
What experiences did you have that made you qualified for that?
None, really. As a musician, I'd had an exhibition at the RoyalAcademy of Music when I was a kid. I played the violin, and I studiedpiano as a second subject there; actually, I enjoyed that more than theviolin.
How did you get into pop music from that world?
I discovered Buddy Holly and fell in love with his records. I saw aphotograph of him and realized that when I did the same [fingering] onthe guitar, that he was playing D. So my life started to change fromthere. After playing the violin, I found the tuning of the guitar a bitconfusing, so I went to the bass guitar, which was a complete cop-out,but very easy for me to play-it took about three minutes to get downthe basics. Then The Beatles came out and completely blew me away. Iremember the first time "Love Me Do" was played on Radio Luxembourg andyou just knew it was going to change your life. So I got reallyhooked.
From there I started playing in bands, started writing. PeteTownshend wrote a song for one of the bands I had.
That was an exciting time to be getting into rock 'n' roll.
Yes, and there was a lot going on in that area, around Ealing.Before The Who were The Who, they were the High Numbers. And beforethat they were The Detours. The Stones were playing down the road. TheEnglish Birds, with Ronnie Wood, were around. Jim Marshall [of Marshallamps fame] was the local shop. I used to know Mitch Mitchell. GeorgieFame & the Blue Flames had been disbanded, and one day Mitch cameup to me and said, "You play bass don't you?" I said, "Yeah." He said,"I'm going to Germany to rehearse with this American guy who playsguitar behind his back and with his teeth and stuff." I thought thisguitar player must be some kind of exhibitionist, so I said, "Thank youvery much, I'll stay here." Then a few months later I was watchingReady Steady Go! and there was Jimi Hendrix doing "Hey Joe" with Mitchon drums. I thought, "Oh Christ!" [Laughs]
By now you could have written a book about how you wereunderpaid!
Or I could be dead. [Laughs]
Anyway, getting back to your question about how I got into all this,[back in 1965] George Martin told me to speak to the managing director[of EMI], and of course I didn't, so I let the whole thing go for aboutthree years. Then, at the end of 1967 I thought, "Oh-oh, I'm gettingnowhere here." I realized that being in a band you were dependent onall these other people, and I also knew that if I'd ever beensuccessful in a band, I would've wanted to stay in the studio and justmake the records; I wasn't that interested in playing live.
So I contacted George Martin again. By this time he was at AIRLondon, before AIR Studios; when it was a production company. And Iwrote him a letter saying, "I hope you remember me," and I explainedwhat happened at EMI and he gave me advice again. I had anotherinterview with George Martin, and then he fixed up for me to beinterviewed by John Burgess and Ron Richards, and they put me on sixmonths trial [employment]. That was obviously tea-boy, messenger boy,anything that was around to do. Basically they said, "Hang around. Comedown to any session you like." So I went down to Hollies sessions withRon Richards, and that was fun.
I'd been at AIR for two or three months when The Beatles started theWhite Album, so I asked George [Martin] if I could come down to thosesessions and he said yes, so I sat in the corner for a couple ofmonths.
How did it strike you? Most famous band in the world...
Exactly. It was ridiculous. Obviously, I was extremely nervousaround them at first. But not as nervous as I was aboutthree-and-a-half months later when George went on holiday. I had justcome back from holiday myself, and when I came in there was a littleletter on the desk that said, "Dear Chris, Hope you had a nice holiday.I'm off on mine now. Make yourself available to The Beatles. Neil andMal know you're coming down."
So I went down to the studio and didn't really know what to expectbecause I'd only been observing up to that point. I was scared stiffand couldn't speak for hours! Ken Scott was engineering. He was 21, Iwas 22. The tape op was probably 20. Here we were with the biggest bandon the planet. But The Beatles completely ignored me, and I got quiteworried. Then they had a little break after three or four hours andthey were chatting about Apple, which was new then, and I was wanderingaround downstairs and I heard John [Lennon] say, "He's not really doinghis job is he?" and I immediately took that to be about me. I thought,"This is it." I figured my whole career had about four hours left andthen I'd get the bullet. George Martin would give me the bullet, andthat would be the end of it.
So I went back upstairs and they started again and they were doing atake and somebody made a mistake, so I pressed the button to interruptthem to say, "Try again." And in that studio the interruption was aklaxon [horn]-this huge RRRRAWWWWK! [Laughs] And they didn't hear themistake, so they came up to the control room to have a listen. And Ithought, "God, if I've hallucinated this I'm in real trouble!" But theyheard it, and then they went back downstairs and started again.
A producer is born!
[Laughs] Well, I had nothing to lose because I thought at that pointthe door was open and I was being yanked out of it. So I said it anddid it and at the end of the evening, maybe 12 hours later, they wereleaving and I said to Paul, "What happens tomorrow? Should I come downtomorrow?" And he said, "Yeah, if you want." He didn't say no! Whew.And I collapsed in a heap.
So I stayed there for about three weeks and we did quite a fewsongs, actually. Up until then the progress had been going very, veryslowly, but we managed to knock out about half a dozen songs in thatperiod: "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," "Piggies," which I actually got toplay on-I played the harpsichord. I stayed on the album right throughto the very end, and towards the end things really accelerated to thepoint where one night we used all three studios at Abbey Road. John wasworking with George Martin on "Revolution #9," I was working withGeorge Harrison on "Savoy Truffle" in Number 2, and Paul went intoNumber 1 and did "Why Don't We Do It in the Road" on his own.
I've never really said I "produced" The Beatles, because that'sbeing ridiculously presumptuous. But I did help on that record, and Iplayed on a few songs. I've been very fortunate in the sense of havingridiculous fantasies come true-for instance, playing live [mellotron]with the other four Beatles on "Bungalow Bill" with George Martin upthere producing. Incredible!
What was the first album you produced from beginning to end?
The Climax Chicago Blues Band, which we did at Abbey Road in twodays. They were quite good. Their guitarist, Pete Haycock, was reallygood. He does a lot of work with Hans Zimmer now. He lives in Germanyand works on Zimmer's soundtracks. But when it came to work with ClimaxBlues Band, I realized that technically I knew almost nothing, so itwas very hard to utilize any of the things that The Beatles hadlearned-how to use compression, the whole technical alphabetreally.
The real breakthrough for me, though, was with Procol Harum. Theywanted to work with somebody new rather than somebody established. And[keyboardist/leader] Gary Brooker had been in The Paramounts, which wasproduced by Ron Richards, and he heard about me and asked me to do it.I was very nervous about this, because Salty Dog was the previousalbum, and that is an absolute classic record. The first record Iworked with them on was Home.
It was quite funny: They were talking about how they'd been rippedoff and didn't have any money. So I thought, "Well, I'll record them instereo and that will be much cheaper than using 8-track." So the firstthing we did was "Whiskey Train," and they came in to listen to it andRobin Trower said, "Can you put my guitar up a bit louder?" And I said,"No." He said "What do you mean 'No?'" I said, "It's on 2-track!"
You hadn't consulted the band?
No. [Laughs] So, that's what's on the record; it's maybe the secondtake. After that we went to 8-track.
But here's another example of one thing leading to another. I didthe live album with them and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, and JohnCale heard what I did. He'd done an album with an orchestra and heliked that, so he contacted me about producing 1919. Roxy Music, aftertheir first album, contacted John Cale to produce them and they said,"Which studio would you like to produce us in?" And John said AIRStudios. Well, I was doing some stuff at AIR with Procol when BryanFerry came by to look at the studio. I met him, then the thing withJohn blew out, so Bryan asked me to produce them.
Now there was a band that had a strong frontman in Bryan Ferry, butalso assertive and original musicians such as Phil Manzanera and AndyMackay. How in control was Bryan at Roxy sessions?
Totally. Well, maybe not totally in control. He tried to be totallyin control. But for instance, when we did Stranded , the way weworked mostly was first we just put down backing tracks of keyboards,bass and drums. "What's this one called?" "Number 3." "Oh, okay, that'sinspirational!" Half the time there were no lyrics written for thesesongs. Then, Phil would go in and put guitar parts down, and thatactually was the point for me where the songs would turn intosomething. Then we'd build up these backing tracks to flesh it out, andthat was always tremendous fun. Then Bryan would come in at the end andput his vocals on.
That seems like a real '70s way of working. It was that way inAmerica, too, with a lot of bands-the lead vocal being put on the lastday of the sessions as the record company awaited delivery of therecord...
That's right. Of course, until you have the vocal, you usually don'thave the full melody there, so it's difficult to make everything elsesympathetic to what the song's going to be. So it made it a littlehit-and-miss sometimes.
Did Bryan always write the lyrics?
Oh yeah. He did all the lyrics. And the lyrics he was writing onthose first albums were just outrageous-they were fantastic.
What do you get from working with a band for five or six albums in arow like you did with Roxy? Obviously something happens after the firstalbum you do with a group that makes them want to work with youagain...
From my standpoint, the reason I'd want to keep working with anartist is because I think I can still make a good record with them.That's the only reason to do it in the first place, so if that applieson record five, then you do record five, and if it doesn't, and itseems like it's going to be a waste of time, then you don't.
I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about mixing Pink Floyd's DarkSide of the Moon. Were all four of the Floyds involved in the mix, orwas it mostly Roger Waters?
No, it was all of them. They were all there all the time because wewere recording and adding things at the same time we were mixing. Andcontrary to some things I've read in the last ten years, there was avery nice atmosphere in the studio. They were funny, witty people to bearound, and it was very productive.
At that time I had just done John Cale and I was working on GrandHotel [Procol Harum] at the same time. What I used to do was, after Ifinished working on Dark Side of the Moon at midnight-because theynever used to work past midnight-I used to go down to AIR Studios andadd more stuff to Grand Hotel and leave AIR at about 5 o'clock in themorning.
That sounds confusing, not to mention tiring.
Sometimes I'd even go to the wrong studio by accident! [Laughs]
When you're working on two projects simultaneously, do theyinfluence each other?
They're bound to. In a subtle way. I mean you're not going to put ahorn part on the wrong record hopefully!
Are you surprised by the staying power of the Floyd record?
Yeah, 'cause I didn't like it when I finished it. [Laughs] The albumbefore that was Meddle, which had "Echoes" on it, and I had hoped theywere going to get into something like that, but Dark Side was just abunch of songs. And bunches of songs are what I always did, so Ithought, "Great-Pink Floyd. I'll get to do something strange and out ofthe ordinary." But that wasn't really the case.
How did you make the transition into producing new wave bands in themid-'70s? At the time there was a real sense of these bands trying tobreak from the past, yet here you were-you'd worked with Procol Harumand Badfinger and bands who were definitely part of the old guard.
It wasn't a transition for me. It was all just music to me. I mean,when I first heard the Sex Pistols' demos that they brought to me, Ithought, "This has the potential to be the best English rock band sinceThe Who. It's a three-piece again-guitar, bass and drums."
Do you recall why they approached you?
I'd met Malcolm McLaren, and he was toying with the idea of managingthe New York Dolls and first he asked me to produce them. Nothing cameof that, but his next thing was he found the Sex Pistols; they triedworking with Dave Goodman and it didn't work out for some reason, soMalcolm asked me. I said, "Let's have a listen," and I loved the demos.Then they sent the band around. Actually, John [Rotten/Lydon] wasn'tinvited, but the other three came out and I said, "Why me?" And Steve[Jones] and Paul [Cook] both liked a record I'd made with Ian Dury whenhe was in this band Kilburn & the High Roads, a thing called "RoughKids."
The first single was "Anarchy in the UK," which made quite animpression...
"Anarchy" has something like a dozen guitars on it; I sort oforchestrated it, double-tracking some bits and separating the parts andadding them, et cetera.
It sounded so raw I think at the time I assumed that it waslive-in-the-studio.
Oh no, it wasn't like that at all. It was quite labored. The vocalswere labored, as well.
Were they cool with that aesthetic? I thought they were into workingfast, being spontaneous.
We did the backing track without John being there. John was beingkept in the dark by Malcolm the whole time. He didn't even know theywere in the studio...
To what end?
I don't know. That's to do with them, or with Malcolm at least. Thenit came time to do the vocal and John appeared in the control room. Hehad this amazing presence to him. So he went in to sing "Anarchy," andhe basically just screamed into the microphone. So I went in to speakto him, and I tried to explain to him that I didn't think it was goingto work like that. And he said, "Well, what should I do? You're the onewith the track record." I said, "Let's go down to the pub." He wasnervous and I probably looked straight and old to him. He was about 20;I was probably 30, which was a gap, especially then. But bit by bit weworked on it and it came together. And the reason it did come togetheras well as it did is they were serious. The publicity line is thatMalcolm got these four no-no's and invented the whole thing, which isobviously not the case. John was quite brilliant. I remember when wemixed it, the others were asleep but John was sitting right behind meand he was really enthusiastic about it.
So they were disciplined enough that you could ask for multipletakes or whatever you needed?
Oh, definitely. But the whole making of the album was very weirdbecause they kicked out Glen [Matlock, bassist] and we went into thestudio on Boxing Day [December 26] and it was just Paul and Steve, andthat afternoon we did "God Save the Queen," "Pretty Vacant" "EMI" andthey put down a backing track for another tune, but they couldn'tfigure out what to do because it was just guitar and drums. I thinkthey invited Glen in as a session guy, but he said no. So I asked Steveif he thought he could play some bass on it, and he went out there andfirst take he just plays the root notes of the chords he's beenplaying, because he's used to playing the bar chords. And that wasit-that was the Sex Pistols sound. Because beforehand, when we did"Anarchy," we spent a day doing the backing track and edited it all upfrom different takes because it was very loose between bass and drums.Now it was just like a rock because Steve was just playing exactly whathe did on the guitar, except on the one string. So suddenly it soundslike this tank rolling down!
Did your colleagues in the profession ask you how you could sink solow?
[Laughs] They certainly did. Every single one of them! "My God,what's he doing now?"
What were the early Pretenders sessions like?
They were fantastic. I'd known Chrissie [Hynde] for a long time. Thefirst time I worked with her was on a Chris Spedding album; she didbacking vocals. Chris called her and a couple of other girls in, and ittranspired that the other girls couldn't sing and she could. So we gother back and tracked her to make up the parts, thus making her othertwo friends extremely annoyed. So I knew she had a great voice.
I remember one time she asked me, "Can you help me?" She wanted tobe a singer. I said, "You've got a great voice, but that's not reallygoing to be enough. What you're going to have to do is write. You needto write, and you need to get into a band." Then the next thing I heardwas "Stop Your Sobbing" on the radio, and I thought, "Great, she'scracked it. She's got a band." But she still wasn't writing. And thenshe contacted me and said, "Can you produce us?" And she sent me a tapewith four demos on it: "Tattooed Love Boys," "Up the Neck," "Brass inPocket" and "Private Life." It was a broad spectrum, from sort of newwave things to a sort of an attempted reggae thing, to "Brass inPocket," which I saw as being like an almost Al Green-type thing, withAl Jackson drums on it. I spotted that song and thought that was thesingle. But it was quite slow the way they did it, and it needed alittle bit more bounce in it. I went to see them live at the Marqueeand I thought they were fantastic.
But the other thing that happened was I'd been working with PaulMcCartney on Back to the Egg and that had gone on for a really, reallylong time, and I didn't want to get into the studio with another bandparticularly. So we decided we'd just cut a single [for ThePretenders], and we agreed we'd do a four-day week and I'd only workfrom 2 till 8. This was at Wessex. And that ended up working greatbecause instead of hanging around the studio and living there for 15hours a day, we'd go in and bang! we'd be down at the pub drinking at 9o'clock in the evening. There was fantastic energy at thosesessions.
That must have been quite a contrast working with McCartney, whoobviously had his own way of working well-established by then, and ThePretenders, who were this fresh, young band.
Well, at one point I was working with McCartney and The Pistols atthe same time!
But The Pretenders' album-it just got better and better as we keptworking on it; it was great. Then we went from Wessex down to AIRStudios with Steve Nye [engineering].
It seems as though so much of the best music in England came out ofjust a few studios: Wessex, AIR, Olympic, Townhouse.
Trident was very big in the early '70s, too. That's where TheBeatles had done "Hey Jude."
In America there were some very definable aesthetic changes instudios through the '70s-the rooms became deader, there was morebuilding tracks from the rhythm section up and less live playing. Didthat happen in England as well?
It did happen. I remember bringing a P.A. into Wessex for ThePretenders because it was so dead it used to drive me crackers. So Iused to put the drums through a P.A. just to give it some thump. Theyweren't going to allow me to rip the carpet off the floor.
You worked with INXS during what most people would agree was theirbest period. And they had a very identifiable sound, with the heavykick drum with lots of reverb on it and the slashing rhythm guitarcutting across the beat. How much did you influence that bandsonically, or is what we hear the way the band arranged itself in asense?
Well, those are two different things really. The way the instrumentssound is one thing, and I'm sure I influenced that a lot. But certainlythe rhythm thing-that interplay-all came from [guitarist] AndrewFarriss and the way he would write and demo his songs.
There's a story linked to that that sort of encapsulates the way Iwork sometimes. When we did our first album together-Listen LikeThieves -I was worried about the average and standard ofsongwriting that we had, and right at the end I thought, "Well, we'vegot to drop one song, and if we can get a new song that-if you gradethem from one to 12 and drop number 12 and replace it with a new onethat's, say, better than number seven, then you raise the average ofthe whole album. So there was some hemming and hawing about that, andthen Andrew brought in three demos-two songs that had been completedand he played me a thing that was just this riff-dink, dink,dink-a-dink-and it was great. I thought, "I could listen to that groovefor ten minutes!" I said, "Let's work with that groove." So we wentwith that and in just two days it turned into the song that eventuallybroke them, "What You Need."
I always thought INXS were underrated. It was obvious they couldreally play.
Oh, they were a great band! I remember before I worked with themseeing them at the Hollywood Palladium in 1984. That gig wasincredible; it was one of the best gigs I ever saw by any band. God,they were good. Michael [Hutchence, lead singer] was absolutelybrilliant. And the style of their music-it was funk but it was whiteand rock; a great mixture.
When you work with a youngish band these days, like Pulp, obviouslyyou bring years of experience and your impressive track record with youinto the studio. Is that at all intimidating to a band?
Well, they'd done their homework on me when they contacted me. I'vebeen fortunate in that it's always been a case of the band contactingme rather than me being hired through a record company. So it hasn'tbeen a manufactured arrangement. That's good because it shows theytrust me, and if you haven't got the artist's trust, it doesn't matterwhat you do in the studio, you're not going to get anywhere.
Do you generally learn early on in the relationship what the artistliked about your work? "Oh, I love that first Pretenders album..."
Sure, it's always because they liked this record or that record. Butthey don't normally refer to them saying, "We want our record to soundlike that." But your records are what you've done, and they give anindication of what you can do.
Do you find that musicians know more about recording than they did20 years ago?
I think so. There's obviously more information out there aboutrecording.
And more home studios, too. So the people who come into the bigstudios often have had some recording experience.
Exactly. That's true.
Has that changed what you do at all?
Not really. Because the essential thing, if you want to be crudeabout it, is people want to make a hit record. So that means I'm stillin there advising them to chop a few bars out of this part over here,maybe suggesting they change this riff, and that sort of thing. I'vealways been very interested in arrangements. The technical side isinteresting, as well, but that's more just a means to an end.
I don't want to imply that I'm in there all the time changing thesesongs around; not at all. Most of the time I don't have to say anythingabout that. That's one of the advantages of working with great writers.I love working with writers. That's the person I always respond to mostin a band.
Have you ever had a period of burnout?
Yeah. I'm probably in one now. The first record I did with Pulp,Different Class, is definitely one of the best records I've made. I'mreal pleased with that. The songs are fantastic-Jarvis is such a greatwriter. And they'd been around for a long time and for this success tohappen to them-in England they sold more than a million albums, whichis really a lot there. Then they went on the road for a year and theyfound that difficult. And being under the looking glass was difficultfor them, as it is for most people, and it made it difficult for Jarvisto write for the last album, and it went on for about 18 months. Infact, Bryan Ferry was in the studio at Olympic when we were startingout on this last Pulp record and he was telling me it had taken him twoyears, and I said, "I just cannot do that sort of thing." Well,ha-ha-ha. The next thing I know the record I'm working on drags on for18 months! Of course, you're not in the studio that whole time. Buteven when you have a weekend off, you're still carrying that recordwith you. You can't really mentally file it away until the record's inthe shop.
Do you know what you're doing a year from now?
How about six months from now?
No. I'm not even sure about next week.
Does that feel good?