“I make records for people, not for other musicians. When people listen to an album, they want to hear passion. They want to hear the singer spilling his or her guts.”
Tony Visconti has been putting that philosophy into practice for the past 40-plus years. Best known for his groundbreaking work with David Bowie and Marc Bolan, the 67-year-old producer has manned the boards for some of the most important albums of our times. His work on Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy”—Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979)—would alone be enough to assure his place as one of contemporary music’s most influential figures. The fact that his resumé also includes such seminal albums as Joe Cocker’s With a Little Help From My Friends, Thin Lizzy’s Bad Reputation, and the T.Rex classics Electric Warrior, The Slider and Tanx only adds to his legendary status.
Visconti’s musical journey began in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he took up the ukulele at age 5 and went on to study classical music theory. In the early ’60s, while in his mid-teens, he began playing bass in jazz bands that backed celebrity singers who performed in the Catskill Mountain resorts. Upon hearing the Beatles, however, Visconti heeded the clarion call of rock ’n’ roll. Circumstances took him to London in 1967, where, under the tutelage of British soundman Denny Cordell, he immersed himself in studio work and honed his skills as a string arranger.
While Visconti is most often associated with the ’70s, his work in the decades since has been formidable and enduring. Among the recordings that bear his sonic touch are Justin Hayward’s Moving Mountains, U2’s Wide Awake in America, and the latter-period Bowie albums Heathen and Reality. More recently, he produced Angélique Kidjo’s Grammy-winning album Djin Djin as well as Alejandro Escovedo’s critically acclaimed effort Real Animal.
At his home in New York, Visconti shared thoughts about Bolan and Bowie, and explained why he feels the ’70s were the most creative period ever in popular music.
Is it true that The Man Who Sold the World—the 1970 Bowie album on which you also played bass—established the method of working together for you and Bowie?
That’s right. On [1969’s] Space Oddity album, we had no idea what we were doing. It was all over the map. But we met [guitarist] Mick Ronson at the very end of making that album and allowed him to educate us. We were scratching our heads, thinking, “How do we get a big ‘rock’ sound for David?” David felt very awkward up to that point. He hadn’t worked with serious rock musicians. Mick was the first person we met who had dedicated his life to being a “rock” guitarist and specializing in this genre. Mick’s favorite group was Cream, and he specifically told me to listen to Jack Bruce’s bass playing, and to copy him. That second album, The Man Who Sold the World, became the blueprint for the rest of David’s career. Virtually everything he’s done since, you can trace back to something on that album.
In what way?
Well, obviously it was the blueprint for [1972’s] Ziggy Stardust. It was the same band, except I was replaced by Trevor Bolder. And then there was all the experimental stuff. We used synthesizers and recorders in a very adventurous way. We had one of those 200-lb. Moog synthesizers. It looked like four black refrigerators, lined up by side by side. Chris Thomas, [a fellow] producer, was the one guy in England who could program it. In those days we were very naïve. We didn’t realize that a synthesizer was capable of making extraordinary new sounds. I was using the synthesizer to orchestrate things I would normally have written for live musicians. On “After All,” for instance, you hear something in the middle that sounds like a trombone solo. But then Chris enlightened us. He said, “Yes, you can make a sound like a trombone, but you could also put an ‘envelope filter’ on it.” That was complete Greek to us. After that, David started buying keyboards, went on to electric guitars and moved away from his 12-string. Everyone says he’s a chameleon, but to me, he’s always been the same guy, from album to album. In my view, he’s just going down another tangent that was sparked by those beginnings.
The next big project you did with Bowie was 1975’s Young Americans album. It has a sound unto itself.
David already had his musical education in his teen years, and he was living it out on these albums. Most British singers—and most English bands—grew up listening to early American R&B and blues. David was of that same ilk. He adored Little Richard and other R&B artists from the ’50s. He was also addicted to Soul Train. He watched it all the time and actually became the first non-black artist to appear on the show. So it seemed obvious to make an R&B record. And what better place to do that than Sigma Sound in Philadelphia? So yes, that album had its own world and universe. Before then, I don’t think we had worked with any black musicians. That album, to this day, sounds terrifically fresh. It’s one of my favorite Bowie albums.
That album gave Bowie his first No. 1 hit with “Fame,” but instead of capitalizing on that success, the two of you then made two very experimental albums. With Low and Heroes, were you concerned about the commercial prospects of what you were doing?
No. I’ve always believed that if you make a great record, people will buy it. We started Low on the premise that we might simply waste a month—that it might be a load of rubbish that, in the end, we would just throw away. But halfway through the making of the album, we knew we were onto something incredibly exciting. We couldn’t wait to release it to the public. Fortunately, the public and the critics reacted beautifully. They really felt the album was remarkable. It was the record company that hated it. They wanted “Young Americans Part 2,” and they said as much. But no, David doesn’t really care, and I don’t really care. It’s nice to have a hit record, but we want to have a hit record on our own terms. Everyone should have that philosophy.
Let’s talk about your work with T.Rex and Marc Bolan. George Martin used orchestration with the Beatles, of course, but the way you used strings on those T.Rex albums was something entirely new.
Marc was a very innocent guitarist, and sometimes he would play very strange things. In his mind he might be playing a blues lick, but it might not have the flatted 3rd, or something would be not bluesy about it. If I heard a nice phrase he played that was a little unusual, I would amplify it by doubling it on the strings. Suddenly we would have a motif—a motif derived from his playing. I would then write it up, harmonize it, double it in octaves and have the string players do their parts. I would even notate the bend, if Marc’s playing had a bend in it. The British string players who live in London are some of the best in the world. They would listen carefully to the way Marc played a phrase and would say, “OK, we’ll play that. That’s cute.” They would go along with the ride and double what he played. So in the end it sounds as if we were being extremely clever—like it was the original concept—but the string writing was always an afterthought. It was amplifying something raw and gutsy that I would then turn into a sophisticated sound.
Bolan’s guitar solo on “Ballrooms of Mars,” from The Slider, has a beautiful sound. How was that done?
That was one where we did about five guitar takes. Any one of them could have been the right take, or I could have made a composite from all of them. But just for laughs, I threw up all five faders. We had the solos on five separate tracks, and when we heard them together, Marc and I just looked at each other and said, “That’s it. That’s the way it’s going to go down.” So that’s how I mixed it, with all five takes mixed together. Marc had no idea, as he was playing these improvised solos, that we would end up using them that way.
Actually it was the same with Robert Fripp on “Heroes.” That lovely guitar line that runs throughout “Heroes” is the same thing. Fripp didn’t realize we were going to use all three takes. That’s why that line isn’t exactly in sync. It’s wavy and floaty, and very similar to “Ballrooms of Mars,” in that way. I certainly didn’t trademark that approach, but there’s a subconscious genius going on, with the guitar player, when someone plays five great solos and they fit great together.
Do you have a theory as to why T.Rex—which became a phenomenon akin to Beatlemania in England—didn’t break bigger in the U.S.?
Around that time, American bands were very proud of their musicianship. People in America could really play. There were very serious drummers and guitarists, and singers with great voices. They were also bearded, had long greasy hair and wore jeans on stage. Whereas with Marc, there was always a touch of fluff—a bit of phoniness—in the sense that he put a lot into his visual performance. It was the era of glam rock, and when Marc came over to America wearing glamorous clothes and makeup, nobody was ready for that. Bowie had the same problem, originally. Also, Marc wasn’t the world’s best guitarist. People saw something not genuine in him. And once that was sniffed or perceived, the American public and American media didn’t take him seriously.
You once said the ’70s blossomed into what was probably the most creative period ever in popular music. Why do you feel that way?
It was a groundbreaking period. A lot of things happened for the first time in the ’70s. For a while everyone felt they lived in the shadow of the Beatles. David, Marc and I all felt there was no way we could win if we imitated the Beatles or tried to emulate them in any way. It was more about coming up with wacky ideas of our own. And other people, simultaneously, started feeling that way, too. So what you find in the ’70s is a blossoming of incredible creativity and new sounds. Also, while today record companies are signing sound-alikes, in those days it was just the opposite. The more unusual you were, the better your chances were of getting a recording contract. That continued to be the case, for me personally, up through Bowie’s Scary Monsters, which closed out the ’70s. The ’80s became about something else, but the ’70s were about giving birth to a lot of genres.
— By Russell Hall
Lead photo © RecordProduction.com