Producer Chris Thomas: THREE DECADES ON THE CUTTING EDGE AND THE CHARTS

Jan 1, 1999 12:00 PM, Blair Jackson

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There are more famous producers than Chris Thomas, but few, if any, can match his incredible string of artistic and commercial successes since he broke into the English recording scene in the late '60s. For three decades he's worked with some of the most exciting and influential groups and singers in rock music, selling untold millions of records. Here's a hopelessly abbreviated list of some of the artists he's worked with: The Beatles (The White Album); Climax Blues Band (four albums); Procol Harum (five albums, including Home, Broken Barricades and Grand Hotel); Roxy Music (five albums, from For Your Pleasure through Viva); John Cale (Paris 1919); Badfinger (three albums); Pink Floyd (mixed Dark Side of the Moon); Paul McCartney (Back to the Egg); Sex Pistols (Never Mind the Bollocks); The Pretenders (first three albums); Tom Robinson (Power in the Darkness); Pete Townshend (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); and Pulp (Different Class and This Is Hard Core).

The reason you don't hear more about Thomas is that, unlike many producers, he has no interest in self-promotion and he doesn't like to do interviews; he kindly acceded to our request mostly because he's a longtime chum of Mix technical editor Chris Michie. When Thomas came to the Bay Area this summer to see The Pretenders perform, he graciously stopped by Mix's offices for an extensive interview, highlights of which appear below. Other nuggets from our talk will doubtless turn up in our "Classic Tracks" column down the road.

Did you come up in the recording world the conventional way-musician, tape op, tea boy, whatever?

Not really, no. I had been a musician, but really how all this came about was in 1965 I wrote to George Martin and asked him if he could give me any advice, and he gave me an interview at EMI. Then I went to see his managing director, because George was only an employee at EMI at 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 wanted to 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 Royal Academy of Music when I was a kid. I played the violin, and I studied piano as a second subject there; actually, I enjoyed that more than the violin.

How did you get into pop music from that world?

I discovered Buddy Holly and fell in love with his records. I saw a photograph of him and realized that when I did the same [fingering] on the guitar, that he was playing D. So my life started to change from there. After playing the violin, I found the tuning of the guitar a bit confusing, 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 down the basics. Then The Beatles came out and completely blew me away. I remember the first time "Love Me Do" was played on Radio Luxembourg and you just knew it was going to change your life. So I got really hooked.

From there I started playing in bands, started writing. Pete Townshend 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 before that they were The Detours. The Stones were playing down the road. The English Birds, with Ronnie Wood, were around. Jim Marshall [of Marshall amps fame] was the local shop. I used to know Mitch Mitchell. Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames had been disbanded, and one day Mitch came up 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 plays guitar behind his back and with his teeth and stuff." I thought this guitar player must be some kind of exhibitionist, so I said, "Thank you very much, I'll stay here." Then a few months later I was watching Ready Steady Go! and there was Jimi Hendrix doing "Hey Joe" with Mitch on drums. I thought, "Oh Christ!" [Laughs]

By now you could have written a book about how you were underpaid!

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 about three years. Then, at the end of 1967 I thought, "Oh-oh, I'm getting nowhere here." I realized that being in a band you were dependent on all these other people, and I also knew that if I'd ever been successful in a band, I would've wanted to stay in the studio and just make the records; I wasn't that interested in playing live.

So I contacted George Martin again. By this time he was at AIR London, before AIR Studios; when it was a production company. And I wrote him a letter saying, "I hope you remember me," and I explained what happened at EMI and he gave me advice again. I had another interview with George Martin, and then he fixed up for me to be interviewed by John Burgess and Ron Richards, and they put me on six months trial [employment]. That was obviously tea-boy, messenger boy, anything that was around to do. Basically they said, "Hang around. Come down to any session you like." So I went down to Hollies sessions with Ron Richards, and that was fun.

I'd been at AIR for two or three months when The Beatles started the White Album, so I asked George [Martin] if I could come down to those sessions and he said yes, so I sat in the corner for a couple of months.

How did it strike you? Most famous band in the world...

Exactly. It was ridiculous. Obviously, I was extremely nervous around them at first. But not as nervous as I was about three-and-a-half months later when George went on holiday. I had just come back from holiday myself, and when I came in there was a little letter 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 and Mal know you're coming down."

So I went down to the studio and didn't really know what to expect because I'd only been observing up to that point. I was scared stiff and couldn't speak for hours! Ken Scott was engineering. He was 21, I was 22. The tape op was probably 20. Here we were with the biggest band on the planet. But The Beatles completely ignored me, and I got quite worried. Then they had a little break after three or four hours and they were chatting about Apple, which was new then, and I was wandering around downstairs and I heard John [Lennon] say, "He's not really doing his 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 and then I'd get the bullet. George Martin would give me the bullet, and that would be the end of it.

So I went back upstairs and they started again and they were doing a take and somebody made a mistake, so I pressed the button to interrupt them to say, "Try again." And in that studio the interruption was a klaxon [horn]-this huge RRRRAWWWWK! [Laughs] And they didn't hear the mistake, so they came up to the control room to have a listen. And I thought, "God, if I've hallucinated this I'm in real trouble!" But they heard 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 point the door was open and I was being yanked out of it. So I said it and did it and at the end of the evening, maybe 12 hours later, they were leaving and I said to Paul, "What happens tomorrow? Should I come down tomorrow?" 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 few songs, actually. Up until then the progress had been going very, very slowly, but we managed to knock out about half a dozen songs in that period: "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," "Piggies," which I actually got to play on-I played the harpsichord. I stayed on the album right through to the very end, and towards the end things really accelerated to the point where one night we used all three studios at Abbey Road. John was working with George Martin on "Revolution #9," I was working with George Harrison on "Savoy Truffle" in Number 2, and Paul went into Number 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's being ridiculously presumptuous. But I did help on that record, and I played on a few songs. I've been very fortunate in the sense of having ridiculous fantasies come true-for instance, playing live [mellotron] with the other four Beatles on "Bungalow Bill" with George Martin up there 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 two days. They were quite good. Their guitarist, Pete Haycock, was really good. He does a lot of work with Hans Zimmer now. He lives in Germany and works on Zimmer's soundtracks. But when it came to work with Climax Blues Band, I realized that technically I knew almost nothing, so it was very hard to utilize any of the things that The Beatles had learned-how to use compression, the whole technical alphabet really.

The real breakthrough for me, though, was with Procol Harum. They wanted to work with somebody new rather than somebody established. And [keyboardist/leader] Gary Brooker had been in The Paramounts, which was produced 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 previous album, and that is an absolute classic record. The first record I worked with them on was Home.

It was quite funny: They were talking about how they'd been ripped off and didn't have any money. So I thought, "Well, I'll record them in stereo and that will be much cheaper than using 8-track." So the first thing we did was "Whiskey Train," and they came in to listen to it and Robin 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 second take. After that we went to 8-track.

But here's another example of one thing leading to another. I did the live album with them and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, and John Cale heard what I did. He'd done an album with an orchestra and he liked that, so he contacted me about producing 1919. Roxy Music, after their first album, contacted John Cale to produce them and they said, "Which studio would you like to produce us in?" And John said AIR Studios. Well, I was doing some stuff at AIR with Procol when Bryan Ferry came by to look at the studio. I met him, then the thing with John blew out, so Bryan asked me to produce them.

Now there was a band that had a strong frontman in Bryan Ferry, but also assertive and original musicians such as Phil Manzanera and Andy Mackay. How in control was Bryan at Roxy sessions?

Totally. Well, maybe not totally in control. He tried to be totally in control. But for instance, when we did Stranded [1973], the way we worked mostly was first we just put down backing tracks of keyboards, bass and drums. "What's this one called?" "Number 3." "Oh, okay, that's inspirational!" Half the time there were no lyrics written for these songs. Then, Phil would go in and put guitar parts down, and that actually was the point for me where the songs would turn into something. Then we'd build up these backing tracks to flesh it out, and that was always tremendous fun. Then Bryan would come in at the end and put his vocals on.

That seems like a real '70s way of working. It was that way in America, too, with a lot of bands-the lead vocal being put on the last day of the sessions as the record company awaited delivery of the record...

That's right. Of course, until you have the vocal, you usually don't have the full melody there, so it's difficult to make everything else sympathetic to what the song's going to be. So it made it a little hit-and-miss sometimes.

Did Bryan always write the lyrics?

Oh yeah. He did all the lyrics. And the lyrics he was writing on those first albums were just outrageous-they were fantastic.

What do you get from working with a band for five or six albums in a row like you did with Roxy? Obviously something happens after the first album you do with a group that makes them want to work with you again...

From my standpoint, the reason I'd want to keep working with an artist 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 applies on record five, then you do record five, and if it doesn't, and it seems 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 Dark Side of the Moon. Were all four of the Floyds involved in the mix, or was it mostly Roger Waters?

No, it was all of them. They were all there all the time because we were recording and adding things at the same time we were mixing. And contrary to some things I've read in the last ten years, there was a very nice atmosphere in the studio. They were funny, witty people to be around, and it was very productive.

At that time I had just done John Cale and I was working on Grand Hotel [Procol Harum] at the same time. What I used to do was, after I finished working on Dark Side of the Moon at midnight-because they never used to work past midnight-I used to go down to AIR Studios and add more stuff to Grand Hotel and leave AIR at about 5 o'clock in the morning.

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 they influence each other?

They're bound to. In a subtle way. I mean you're not going to put a horn 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 album before that was Meddle, which had "Echoes" on it, and I had hoped they were going to get into something like that, but Dark Side was just a bunch of songs. And bunches of songs are what I always did, so I thought, "Great-Pink Floyd. I'll get to do something strange and out of the ordinary." But that wasn't really the case.

How did you make the transition into producing new wave bands in the mid-'70s? At the time there was a real sense of these bands trying to break from the past, yet here you were-you'd worked with Procol Harum and 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, I thought, "This has the potential to be the best English rock band since The 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 managing the New York Dolls and first he asked me to produce them. Nothing came of that, but his next thing was he found the Sex Pistols; they tried working with Dave Goodman and it didn't work out for some reason, so Malcolm 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't invited, 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 when he was in this band Kilburn & the High Roads, a thing called "Rough Kids."

The first single was "Anarchy in the UK," which made quite an impression...

"Anarchy" has something like a dozen guitars on it; I sort of orchestrated it, double-tracking some bits and separating the parts and adding them, et cetera.

It sounded so raw I think at the time I assumed that it was live-in-the-studio.

Oh no, it wasn't like that at all. It was quite labored. The vocals were labored, as well.

Were they cool with that aesthetic? I thought they were into working fast, being spontaneous.

We did the backing track without John being there. John was being kept in the dark by Malcolm the whole time. He didn't even know they were in the studio...

To what end?

I don't know. That's to do with them, or with Malcolm at least. Then it came time to do the vocal and John appeared in the control room. He had this amazing presence to him. So he went in to sing "Anarchy," and he basically just screamed into the microphone. So I went in to speak to him, and I tried to explain to him that I didn't think it was going to work like that. And he said, "Well, what should I do? You're the one with the track record." I said, "Let's go down to the pub." He was nervous 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 we worked on it and it came together. And the reason it did come together as well as it did is they were serious. The publicity line is that Malcolm got these four no-no's and invented the whole thing, which is obviously not the case. John was quite brilliant. I remember when we mixed it, the others were asleep but John was sitting right behind me and he was really enthusiastic about it.

So they were disciplined enough that you could ask for multiple takes or whatever you needed?

Oh, definitely. But the whole making of the album was very weird because they kicked out Glen [Matlock, bassist] and we went into the studio on Boxing Day [December 26] and it was just Paul and Steve, and that afternoon we did "God Save the Queen," "Pretty Vacant" "EMI" and they put down a backing track for another tune, but they couldn't figure out what to do because it was just guitar and drums. I think they invited Glen in as a session guy, but he said no. So I asked Steve if he thought he could play some bass on it, and he went out there and first take he just plays the root notes of the chords he's been playing, because he's used to playing the bar chords. And that was it-that was the Sex Pistols sound. Because beforehand, when we did "Anarchy," we spent a day doing the backing track and edited it all up from different takes because it was very loose between bass and drums. Now it was just like a rock because Steve was just playing exactly what he did on the guitar, except on the one string. So suddenly it sounds like this tank rolling down!

Did your colleagues in the profession ask you how you could sink so low?

[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. The first time I worked with her was on a Chris Spedding album; she did backing vocals. Chris called her and a couple of other girls in, and it transpired that the other girls couldn't sing and she could. So we got her back and tracked her to make up the parts, thus making her other two friends extremely annoyed. So I knew she had a great voice.

I remember one time she asked me, "Can you help me?" She wanted to be a singer. I said, "You've got a great voice, but that's not really going to be enough. What you're going to have to do is write. You need to write, and you need to get into a band." Then the next thing I heard was "Stop Your Sobbing" on the radio, and I thought, "Great, she's cracked it. She's got a band." But she still wasn't writing. And then she contacted me and said, "Can you produce us?" And she sent me a tape with four demos on it: "Tattooed Love Boys," "Up the Neck," "Brass in Pocket" and "Private Life." It was a broad spectrum, from sort of new wave things to a sort of an attempted reggae thing, to "Brass in Pocket," which I saw as being like an almost Al Green-type thing, with Al Jackson drums on it. I spotted that song and thought that was the single. But it was quite slow the way they did it, and it needed a little bit more bounce in it. I went to see them live at the Marquee and I thought they were fantastic.

But the other thing that happened was I'd been working with Paul McCartney on Back to the Egg and that had gone on for a really, really long time, and I didn't want to get into the studio with another band particularly. So we decided we'd just cut a single [for The Pretenders], and we agreed we'd do a four-day week and I'd only work from 2 till 8. This was at Wessex. And that ended up working great because instead of hanging around the studio and living there for 15 hours a day, we'd go in and bang! we'd be down at the pub drinking at 9 o'clock in the evening. There was fantastic energy at those sessions.

That must have been quite a contrast working with McCartney, who obviously had his own way of working well-established by then, and The Pretenders, who were this fresh, young band.

Well, at one point I was working with McCartney and The Pistols at the same time!

But The Pretenders' album-it just got better and better as we kept working on it; it was great. Then we went from Wessex down to AIR Studios with Steve Nye [engineering].

It seems as though so much of the best music in England came out of just a few studios: Wessex, AIR, Olympic, Townhouse.

Trident was very big in the early '70s, too. That's where The Beatles had done "Hey Jude."

In America there were some very definable aesthetic changes in studios through the '70s-the rooms became deader, there was more building tracks from the rhythm section up and less live playing. Did that happen in England as well?

It did happen. I remember bringing a P.A. into Wessex for The Pretenders because it was so dead it used to drive me crackers. So I used to put the drums through a P.A. just to give it some thump. They weren't going to allow me to rip the carpet off the floor.

You worked with INXS during what most people would agree was their best period. And they had a very identifiable sound, with the heavy kick drum with lots of reverb on it and the slashing rhythm guitar cutting across the beat. How much did you influence that band sonically, or is what we hear the way the band arranged itself in a sense?

Well, those are two different things really. The way the instruments sound is one thing, and I'm sure I influenced that a lot. But certainly the rhythm thing-that interplay-all came from [guitarist] Andrew Farriss and the way he would write and demo his songs.

There's a story linked to that that sort of encapsulates the way I work sometimes. When we did our first album together-Listen Like Thieves [1985]-I was worried about the average and standard of songwriting that we had, and right at the end I thought, "Well, we've got to drop one song, and if we can get a new song that-if you grade them from one to 12 and drop number 12 and replace it with a new one that's, say, better than number seven, then you raise the average of the whole album. So there was some hemming and hawing about that, and then Andrew brought in three demos-two songs that had been completed and 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 groove for ten minutes!" I said, "Let's work with that groove." So we went with that and in just two days it turned into the song that eventually broke them, "What You Need."

I always thought INXS were underrated. It was obvious they could really play.

Oh, they were a great band! I remember before I worked with them seeing them at the Hollywood Palladium in 1984. That gig was incredible; it was one of the best gigs I ever saw by any band. God, they were good. Michael [Hutchence, lead singer] was absolutely brilliant. And the style of their music-it was funk but it was white and rock; a great mixture.

When you work with a youngish band these days, like Pulp, obviously you bring years of experience and your impressive track record with you into the studio. Is that at all intimidating to a band?

Well, they'd done their homework on me when they contacted me. I've been fortunate in that it's always been a case of the band contacting me rather than me being hired through a record company. So it hasn't been a manufactured arrangement. That's good because it shows they trust me, and if you haven't got the artist's trust, it doesn't matter what you do in the studio, you're not going to get anywhere.

Do you generally learn early on in the relationship what the artist liked about your work? "Oh, I love that first Pretenders album..."

Sure, it's always because they liked this record or that record. But they don't normally refer to them saying, "We want our record to sound like that." But your records are what you've done, and they give an indication of what you can do.

Do you find that musicians know more about recording than they did 20 years ago?

I think so. There's obviously more information out there about recording.

And more home studios, too. So the people who come into the big studios 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 crude about it, is people want to make a hit record. So that means I'm still in 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've always been very interested in arrangements. The technical side is interesting, 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 these songs around; not at all. Most of the time I don't have to say anything about 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 most in 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'm real pleased with that. The songs are fantastic-Jarvis is such a great writer. And they'd been around for a long time and for this success to happen to them-in England they sold more than a million albums, which is really a lot there. Then they went on the road for a year and they found that difficult. And being under the looking glass was difficult for them, as it is for most people, and it made it difficult for Jarvis to write for the last album, and it went on for about 18 months. In fact, Bryan Ferry was in the studio at Olympic when we were starting out on this last Pulp record and he was telling me it had taken him two years, 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 for 18 months! Of course, you're not in the studio that whole time. But even when you have a weekend off, you're still carrying that record with you. You can't really mentally file it away until the record's in the shop.

Do you know what you're doing a year from now?

Definitely not!

How about six months from now?

No. I'm not even sure about next week.

Does that feel good?

Definitely! [Laughs]

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