Category Archives: Electronic Pioneers

Strange Things Happened To Richard Norris

Strange Things Happened To Richard Norris

To celebrate the publication of Richard Norris’s excellent memoir, we’ve exhumed this brilliant 2010 interview from our capacious vault. In this wide-ranging interview, we cover lots of ground that Richard writes so well about in Strange Things Are Happening, from his teenage punk band, the Innocent Vicars, through to Jack The Tab with Genesis P. Orridge, The Grid and his solo project Time & Space Machine. A vivid account of clubland and beyond (the wizard’s sleeve).

What thing are you most proud of?
The thing that I’m most proud of is generally just the ability to keep making records really. Looking at it as a long haul rather than instant gratification is the thing that I’m proud of and I think the way I make records now has definitely got that in mind. I’m aware of current trends but I’m thinking a little bit like what they’ll sound like in twenty years’ time as much as two weeks’ time. In terms of music, probably ‘Floatation’, The Grid’s first single, I would’ve thought would be up there just because it was quite a timely record in that it was sort of the peak of Balearic Ibiza period but just managing to kind of marry John Barry with Café Del Mar was quite an achievement. More recently, I think one of my favourite things has been the mix of ‘Roscoe’ by Midlake which, in terms of the Wizard’s Sleeve, is probably the one that, if we were going to do it again, we wouldn’t change at all. [Laughs]

How do you make sure the machines that you use don’t force you to make music their way?
I think there’s two parts to that. When people come round to my studio they’re quite surprised because I haven’t got racks and racks of gear. I only use very very minimal bits of equipment so my first thing is therefore melody and ideas rather than, ‘How does this computer’s internal logic work or how do I turn the reverb off?’ Also, I’ve been working on making a record and I’m writing the whole thing on just the one sound, which is just a quite, cheap Fender Rhodes copy, which is quite neutral. With modern technology you’ve got unlimited sources of sounds that you know that every time you do put up a sound it can lead you in different areas so I’m trying to pare it down to this one noise at the moment.

On the other hand, I like the machines talking as well so it’s like a bit of both. The thing I like the most is the bit where you can hear that it’s humans and machines, so it might be a very stark and very motorik rhythm but it’ll have a very human melody. That’s probably my favourite thing about music really, like Neu! where it sounds very machine-like but it’s actually quite human as well.

Do you always know when you’ve made a hit?
I don’t think so. I always think I’ve made a hit [laughs]. But yeah, I am an eternal optimist. When we [The Grid] did ‘Swamp Thing’ which was such a big hit, the record company said, ‘Right, well the last one’s got to number three so the next one’s got to be number one’. So we were going in to make a record with the pressure that it had to be number one. And you can’t really write like that and I think that if you do write about music thinking that it’s going to be a hit, it’s never going to be because it’d be just too contrived.

Do you think that’s because of who you are because I’m sure that someone like Stock, Aitken and Waterman would just knock them out, because that’s what they did.
Oh yeah, I think so. For me personally, it’s more difficult to make pop music than it is to make leftfield music but that may be just me, I’m sure Stock, Aitken and Waterman would tell you the opposite or Elton John would say the opposite. But I don’t know, I think because of the changing nature of the music business and also how I think about music, I’m not that interested in having a hit, but then success and a hit doesn’t necessarily have to be the same thing. Our [Beyond The Wizard’s sleeve] mix of ‘Roscoe’ was a hit to me.

Well, hit as in a song that has legs rather than necessarily getting into the charts.
I think you know when to finish, definitely. That can be quite hard if you’re working on your own, as I was doing with The Time & Space Machine record. There’s a natural period when you’ve done it and sometimes – particularly with remixes – if you do something and the record company come back and say, ‘Ooh, can you just change one little thing?’ It’s quite hard because you’ve kind of done it and the arc of it has gone to beginning, middle and end and you’re like, ‘Well, I can’t really…’

Why do you think DJing leads so naturally into producing and remixing?
The bit where it’s great is when you are remixing and then can go and play it out. I remember playing things out where the new T Bar is downstairs, they’ve got a lovely Funktion 1 system and just playing a few things on that before people were in the room and just hearing this great sound and how it’s going to work on the dancefloor really did affect what I did with the records. So it’s kind of hand-in-hand.

I mean, I started off aged fourteen playing guitar and shouting in a kind of Buzzcocks type band and so the music bit came first before the DJing. I’ve never really put myself up technically as an amazing DJ. I know how to do it but I’d say I’m much more a musician than DJ. They go together because of the process. If you are out and playing all the time and listening to other things and being in that environment and then you can bring that into the studio. And that kind of energy that you get on a Saturday night if you can bring that into the studio on a Tuesday morning then that’s great!

You said you were in a band at fourteen, what was the band?
We were called the Innocent Vicars.

Where did you grow up?
In St Albans and we did a little single and got my dad to drive me up to London, and it was the first time I’d come up to London. I’d kind of read about Rough Trade in the back of NME but I’d never been to any of them… So we stopped off at Rough Trade and they took half of the records and paid us money out of the till straight away so we paid for the whole pressing really with one stop at Rough Trade. And it was quite intimidating that shop. But, you know, they were great.

Then we went from there to the BBC and took the records to John Peel and just went up to the desk and asked to see him and he came down, took it and played it the next day so [laughs] so from then on I was like, ‘Right, this is what I want to do’. I think part of that was it was quite an interesting Undertones-y kind of record, but also because there was a little period of time where if you were really young and were writing and putting out records, it was really really encouraged by the generation above. There was a St Albans label called Waldo’s and they had bands like The Tea Set, The Bears and The Bodies and that became Bam Caruso Records which is the psychedelic re-issue label which I worked for later on. I remember going around to see them and they were really welcoming. As a little kid you thought they’d tell you to eff off but there was a definite period – I don’t know if it was particularly PC to encourage the kids? It was very open. It was lucky we hit that thing, I hope it’s the same for anyone that’s fourteen and making music. I hope the avenues are open like that. Because that was it for me after that, I knew what I wanted to do.

What happened to the rest of the Innocent Vicars?
Bloody hell! I don’t know actually! I think the drummer Cali looks after Nick Drake’s estate. The rest of them, I’ve got no idea. I haven’t heard from them in a long time. I have tried to track them down on numerous occasions. But I also found out that there’s another band called the Innocent Vicars in America who did a funk album but I’ve never found it. I’m wondering if this record actually exists because why would there be two bands called the same name when it’s such a ridiculous name?!

How did you wind up at Bam Caruso? Was punk your formative influence?
Yeah, pretty much. Just the excitement of it. There’s two things really. One was the DIY bit of it. But the other thing was the romanticism. Malcolm McLaren is looked upon as a bit dubious really but I like how he always seems to have a story, he has a romantic vision for everything. I really like that. I was always much more a Pistols person than a Clash person because of that. I just like the ideas he was bringing to it. Putting odd things together that didn’t really work, as he did later on with lots of other projects. I like the idea of DIY and of something dramatic.

I got into Bam Caruso through Waldo’s, run by this guy Phil Smee and Cali (who was the drummer in Innocent Vicars). Phil’s done a lot of sleeves for Ace and Charly; he did a lot of Elvis Costello records, designed the first Motorhead logo. He’s an amazing record collector. I used to go in the school holidays and work for him. He’s got this big house, there’s probably more records than furniture. I don’t know how many thousands. We used to sit there all day just making up cassettes of disco. I remember acquiring someone’s mobile disco collection and just sitting there all day making disco cassette tapes. We’d invent genres like ‘cosmic cowboy’, which was psychedelia but it had to have a slightly trippy edge to it. Phil invented the word ‘freakbeat’ which is basically mod gone a bit wrong. It was the most idyllic apprenticeship for 19 year old trainspotters. It was perfect. It was psychedelic university. Probably the most formative influence of my career was Phil. He was a very, very generous sort of character. Just allowed me to do what I want. We had a magazine called Strange Things Are Happening, which I was really encouraged in.

So after you were in the Innocent Vicars, were starting to produce in your bedroom?
Mainly guitars and little amplifers and…

TEAC four tracks and things like that?
Yeah a bit but I don’t think I even got that far. I used to get old radiograms from jumble sales. I used to get those and take the speakers out and weld them together and do different things with them. I used to do tape experiments with two tape recorders, very primitive double tracking.

Was that inspired by Cabaret Voltaire?
Pretty much. There was a record on Waldo’s called ‘X. ENC.’ by Nigel Simpkins, which was the same sort of period as Cabs. In that they cut up very old records and certainly Cali and Phil when they made tapes they would put in spoken word bits, I got really interested in that from then. By the time My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts came out I was fairly aware of using spoken word and stuff like that but that then was a big step for me. Even today there’s a strangeness about it that’s really appealing and it’s got a darkness but it’s got a funk to it as well. If there is one record that is most influential, I would say it’s that. It’s a fairly obvious one for people coming from sampling and stuff like that. But it was Phil and Cali that inspired me more than Eno.

What was the link between that and Jack The Tab?
Well we were writing this magazine Strange Things – it was a slightly more cult and fan-based version of Mojo. There’d be comics and books but anything that was slightly towards ‘60s psychedelia. I went to interview Genesis P. Orridge in about summer of 1987, ’cos we found out he was a fan of Bam Caruso and psychedelic records. Previously I thought he was some kind of strange Alastair Crowley nutter. I didn’t really think of him as being someone who was into the sort of records that he was. So we went to interview him about it and he was fascinating. I wasn’t a big Throbbing Gristle fan – they had a slight love/hate relationship with the press. But he was a real enthusiast. He introduced me to things like Martin Denny and he was really into Tiny Tim and he was massively into psychedelia as well. In terms of things like exotica, it hadn’t really surfaced yet and he was massively into that. He had a great dark sense of humour that was obviously being lost on people. People thought he was a po-faced mad magician or something. So we went to interview him and he said, ‘Have you heard of acid house?’ and I was like “No! but it sounds great… psychedelic dance music. Brilliant! Let’s do it.” He hadn’t heard any records either, he had just heard the words “acid house” because I don’t think there were any records then? There probably were some records. X-Ray’s ‘Let’s Go’ was probably earlier but we hadn’t heard anything. We just thought, “That sounds amazing, let’s go into a studio next week.”

So we went into a studio in Chiswick – it was probably September ’87 when we went in, there just happened to be this guy, Richard Evans, who went onto become the main engineer at Peter Gabriel’s studio years later. There was an Akai S950 and an Atari computer. I bought a load of people from Bam Caruso and Genesis brought a few of his mates including [Soft Cell’s] Dave Ball which is the first time I met him. We just sat there with piles of records and loads of videos and tapes and stuff and just put it all into the computer. And we had a rule that we had to record and mix a track in an hour. This guy was so fast on the computer and there were 12 of us in three rooms, including children and a dog and stuff and people sort of splicing a bit of tape over here and finding a bit on the VHS and throwing it all in. And everything was first take. There were a couple of keyboard players and so we just bunged it all in. And ever since, I always thought everything takes too long in studio because I was used to making records in an hour, which is such a weird concept these days. But it was great! It was just an amazing thing. So we made this record which we thought was acid house and by the time we’d finished it we’d heard some acid house. So we put out this one single which incorporated elements of an Adonis track, ‘No Way Back’. That was the first one we’d heard and by then we’d started hearing them and then we started going to Shoom just a bit after that.

Who’s ‘we’?
Me and Genesis P. Orridge, we all used to go to Shoom. And the first person we met was Andy Weatherall, walking down the stairs. Who very proudly showed off his Psychic TV tattoo which I think he’s since had covered up. And ever since Gen thought he was the King of Acid House because he thought he invented it. I really think he thought, ‘These are my people and this is my time’ and in a way, in his mind, it was. But I don’t know if anyone else would’ve felt the same. I remember everything was very kind of loved up at the time and he sent in his picture for his Shoom membership card wearing a T-shirt with “Hate” written on it and Jenni Rampling wasn’t very impressed. Didn’t quite fit into the peace and love manifesto [laughs]. We used to go down there every week. Lots of people couldn’t get in and we’d make sure we’d go before 12 and we’d always bring something, like a T-shirt or a record or something and they’d go, ‘Ah great, come in!’ It sort of dovetailed into going out really.

There’s something that I quite like about British music is when you hear something second-hand and you make up your own idea of what it would be like. The same happened in psychedelia, hearing about San Francisco and all that. To get the records it took quite a while, there was probably a delay of about a year.

Well, they all sound like Lewis Carroll Does San Francisco…
Yeah I think that’s partly ‘cause there wasn’t a war going on that affected the British people in that they might get drafted. We were allowed to revert back to childhood. It was our idea of what psychedelic music with sampling would sound like. And the weird thing about it is that it sounds like Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve. I’ve kind of gone full circle.

Obviously you saw the connection between psychedelia and acid house – it’s quite weird because it was a big break in dance music in this country because of all the old soul boys who had obviously been alienated by the psychedelic nature of it. But yet there were other people like Pete Tong who were quite straight in a lot of ways, embraced it. It was quite a strange time. Did the psychedelic aspect of it appeal to you?
Yeah, absolutely. Having worked at the psychedelic re-issue label and writing about that period, I was really disappointed that I’d missed it basically. So I thought, ‘Right, this is it, this is my time for something to go on.’ And it did feel really special. There was a self-consciousness about it, you knew there was something going on. Even though there weren’t that many people, not to start with anyway. The psychedelic thing, there are different strands that go together. I can definitely see it from Mancuso and his going to see Timothy Leary’s League of Spiritual Discovery talks and bringing that into The Loft. Because there’s definitely a psychedelic link there. Also there was a mix that we did of Findlay Brown’s ‘Losing The Will To Survive’ and Mancuso really liked it but he wouldn’t play it because the lyrics were negative. And I thought that was really interesting that there’s this thing that goes through all the records that he’s played. So there’s definitely a link there, although obviously I didn’t know it at the time.

Did it feel like it was going to be something massive when you were involved in it? Did you think it was going to explode or did it feel like this little secret thing that you liked?
The one thing that was really interesting about it was that it seemed to change very quickly. So from people going to this Gilles Peterson thing on a Sunday at Dingwalls where people were wearing very kind of Gaultier, uptight, black and white with very shiny shoes to completely the opposite: very loose, quite hippie. That was almost overnight; it was certainly no longer than two months. And because it was so quick, you didn’t have time to think of it as ‘your little thing’. But I do remember walking down the street in Euston Road at four in the morning in the early summer of ’88 and I was wearing a Shoom T shirt and someone over the road was shouting at me and they were wearing a similar T-shirt. There were like these lone beacons of acid house-ness and that felt like, ‘Oh right! There are more of us out there!’ I never wanted to keep it elitist even though at the time I was definitely quite snobby and wouldn’t go to the big raves because anything over 2,000 I thought was a bit too big – which was a shame because I’m sure I missed out on some great things. So I did have some elitism but mainly I wanted as many people as possible to get into it really.

I think it was so caught up in it, I didn’t really feel a need to keep it small. Even when the press got to it. Having read Sidney Cohen’s Folk Devils & Moral Panics: The Creation of Mods and Rockers and the way the press reacted to that and even that Marek Kohn’s Dope Girls about the 1910s to 1920s which is an amazing book about moral panic. It was the same thing – you could almost mirror acid house in what happened then. It didn’t really bother me, I thought it was quite funny. I think for a lot of people reading about it in The Sun was the first thing they’d heard about it. I loved how within days they had ‘Buy Our Smiley T-Shirts’ on the same page saying, ‘Drugs Are Really Bad’ and ’10 Bad Things About LSD’ by our doctor Vernon Coleman. They really went for it for a few days.

How did you get together with Dave Ball?
We did one track and we just got on really well…

Did he go to Shoom as well?
He was a big northern [soul] kind of guy and used to be able to the backflips and everything. Not sure whether he went to Shoom, he probably did. He’s always been a clubber really. We didn’t go that many places together actually, not until a bit later on. But I think he had his moments… and he still does. After Jack The Tab we were going to do an album as The Grid and The Grid was initially me and Genesis and…

Was The Grid named after the Lime track?
It wasn’t, but then we found the Lime track at almost exactly the same time and did a cover of it. We just had a list of names, including The Matrix, which was one of them and various other things. And Dave knew the Lime stuff and was very keen on that end of things. And stuff like Klein & MBO. Loved all that era. We were both massive Hi-NRG fans anyway. So it kind of fitted.

Genesis was going to be in The Grid and then we had some meetings with some record labels and Gen kind of didn’t want to do it because it was Warners and they’d had a deal with them before and it didn’t happen so we said, ‘Alright so we won’t do it’, and the guys from Warners said, ‘We want you to do it on your own’. So the plan was to do an album which would use house music or dance rhythms but as a kind travelogue. So you’d have an English one, an American one and a Latin one and do it with a load of different producers. But then Mark Kamins did something almost exactly the same and I was like, ‘DAMN! I really wanted to do that’, so that got scuppered. But I was signed to Warners (East West) on a solo deal and still was going to use loads of different producers but the first person I worked with was Dave and it worked so well we thought, ‘Sod it! We’ll just do it together’. So for the first album Dave wasn’t even signed, he was on the production end of it. But it changed from the second album.

So what was The Grid experience for you? It was sort of a changing era of music…
Part of it was great because it was coming from our slightly more ‘art school’ approach, slightly more experimental end of things. The bands that me and Dave really bonded on were basically the Hi-NRG, Suicide and Kraftwerk and a general art school mentality. But then that’s just one end of it. On the other end of it we had quite a lot of commercial pressure because we were signed to big labels. So there was always this kind of thing of ‘You’ve got to have a hit record’. We got signed and dropped from three major labels. It was quite schizophrenic really… our taste was quite broad. We loved pop music and we loved experimental music so it was trying to marry the two that sometimes worked really well and sometimes didn’t work at all. And a lot of the time we were putting those records out so we were making our mistakes in public. There is a great compilation album of The Grid to be had but there is also a not-so-great one as well!

The fact that that hasn’t come out is due to the three record label situation?
Yeah. We got dropped after we’d just done ‘Floatation’. We didn’t have a deal at all. The only reason we got a deal with Virgin was down to Boy George. We did a mix for him and he just completely championed us. No one was going to touch us because we’d just been dropped. It’s very rare to get dropped and picked up again. But he just really, really went with a real enthusiasm to Virgin and they picked us up for the second record and at the same time we got a new manager called David Enthoven. He hadn’t been doing anything for years – he’d been basically doing NA and AA and any kind of ‘A’ that you want. He had last been seen when he was managing Squeeze, being stretchered out of Madison Square Gardens for some kind of rock‘n’roll-related accident. In the ’70s he’d been this massive manager. He’s the ‘E’ out of EG Records, he managed Roxy and T-Rex. He was quite a player for the late ’60s through the ’70s but then had fallen into a bit of disrepair. But then we were signed to Virgin, he called me up and said, ‘I heard your first album and I cried’. A real posh, Chelsea, kind of slightly Austin Powers-esque type character. He said, ‘Yes, yes it reminds me of first Roxy Music, I have to manage you’. So I was like ‘Brilliant! Well, I’m not going to turn him down, he sounds amazing!’. So he started managing us. He was an amazing character and pulled in for the Four Five Six album, most of Roxy Music on it and Robert Fripp and loads of other people. Sun Ra did a bit on it, we got an insane list of people on the album, pretty much down to David. Who then went on to manage Robbie Williams and make stupid amounts of money! He met Robbie through us actually, through one of our guys. A fantastic character, worthwhile just for the stories.

Dave had quite a lot of success with Soft Cell so does he have an innate pop sensibility?
Absolutely. Certainly in terms of arrangement and simplicity and in terms of ‘hook’-iness. He’s very good at that. He’s a massive soul fan and also a massive Throbbing Gristle fan so quite wide Catholic taste. We are also drawn to dance music that’s based on a gay tradition. We’re drawn to ‘camp’, we’re drawn to artifice and to Hi-NRG; to Divine and Bobby O. Not in an ironic way. We absolutely love them. Some of those influences coming out and presenting them to the public can sometimes be misread as us ‘trying’ to get a hit. But actually we’re just trying to sound like an Italian disco record from 1982.

What’s the connector between The Grid, Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve, Time And Space Machine and acid house?
I think mainly it’s the music of ‘sensation’. That’s the main thing. All studio-based rather than performance-led. For me, lyrics wouldn’t be the number one part of the song. It’s the melody and the sounds. Using the sounds as thematic hooks as well. It might just be an echo noise or a reverb or a little backwards sound. And then repeating that and making that the focus of the record rather than the singer or the performance of the song. It’s probably something that’s tied to the late 20th century and early 21st century. Recorded music is only something we’ve had for a short period of time. Recorded studio music is the link.

So live performance is not something that attracts or interests you?
It’s something I’d really like to do but we’ve never really found a really satisfying way of creating a great electronic sound live. I’m sure people can do it but it’s personally not something I’ve found.

Time and Space Machine is the first thing you’ve done on your own. You’ve always collaborated with people. What’s the difference?
It’s good because I don’t have to second-guess it. I can go up on my own path quite a lot more. It’s bad because you can lose perspective and you can go up alleyways that probably you shouldn’t. I’m really enjoying it. It’s probably the only record I’ve made where most of the decisions are mine. Not in a controlled way but in that it’s more ‘me’ than any record I’ve done before.

Where does the self-discipline come in when you’re on your own? Because the self-discipline comes from the collaboration usually doesn’t it?
I work in short bursts – I won’t work more than about six hours a day on the music because I think I get as much done as I would in twelve. Because you have to be on it and focus. I’m quite good at that, it’s never been a problem. Same for remixes as well. I kind of set a time and get that done. I think sometimes the opposite. Sometimes the collaborative ones can be a bit more unwieldy.

A bit more unfocussed… I suppose when you get two people trying say something….
Yeah, but also great as well. Certainly with Dave and with Erol, I’ve always found the things that we’d do on our own would be different. Some part of two people creating something else is really really useful.

What’s the difference between working with the two?
With Dave, it feels more like a duo, felt more like a band. Wizard doesn’t feel like a band. Wizard’s definitely more like a project than a band. But maybe that’s because of the way we approached it.

In what way?
In terms of we’d do gigs, it felt more like a band thing. With the Wizard it feels something we come together to do occasionally. Me and Dave have very different backgrounds but me and Erol, it does feel like two people coming from different places and the things that we get out of it are very much what we wouldn’t get on our own. Other thing with me and Dave, we’ve worked together a lot longer. I think with me and Dave we would just go and do something, we’d go and explore and just try stuff. With me and Erol, it’s a lot more considered, it’s a slightly different method of working. It’s quite difficult to describe.

Is that just to do with the different personalities involved?
Yeah, yeah I think so.

[bandcamp width=100% height=120 album=4088249139 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 tracklist=false artwork=small]

Which comes first, DJing or producing?
For me, definitely producing, making records comes first. But then again I go through periods where I get massively into DJing again. And it’d be down to one great gig, with one great sound system. And you’re like, “Right! I want to do that again and again”. In fact that happened last year, I just hadn’t played any warm, analogue, big room, electronic sets for ages and I just did one at Cargo and it just worked so well I was like, ‘I want to do this all the time…’ So I’d say production really. Going into somewhere with silence and then creating something.

How did you get into doing the Richard Noise writing for the NME in the late 1980s?
I was still working at Bam Caruso and I used to go out and take them our albums and the Strange Things magazine and James Brown was really interested and like, ‘Oh! You’ve done a magazine? Tell me all about it…’ Then I did the Jack The Tab album and I took that up to them. As I was taking the Bam Caruso records, I was saying to them – this was probably from September ’87 until the summer of ’88: ‘You’ve got to write about acid house, it’s really really important because this is our punk’. And I just remember people like Steven Wells saying, ‘Ah, nah that sounds rubbish, like bad Gary Numan’. There was no-one really championing it. And then Jack Barron started but it took a long time. It took almost nine months. It took until it was almost on the pages of The Sun before they did anything about it because it was quite strange because you’d have thought they’d be really on it.

So, why did you do the Paul Oakenfold book? It’s a pretty epic task writing one.
It started off as an acid house book…

So did you get commissioned or did you start something first?
I just met someone who was working at the publishers at a party and said, ‘Ah, I used to write’ and they said, ‘We’re looking for some more music books’. So I just gave them a few ideas. I was going to do a Scissor Sisters book at one point. They basically wanted to do books around acts really other than subject books as I initially came in saying I wanted to an acid house book. And that kind of mutated into the Oakenfold book. And it was their idea to hang it around Oakenfold. In hindsight I would’ve rather done the acid house book. Not knocking Oakenfold but it does set it in one particular time and space. I could’ve done a more general history, and it would still be about. Having said that, his career was quite useful, he’d done stuff at Profile and Def Jam and been in New York quite early on and the Ibiza bit and Goa. It had kind of wrote itself in the timeline of his career and so every pointer along the way I managed to get in a bit about the southern soul scene, pre-acid house, which hadn’t really been written about much. But I found him very generous really. He gave a lot of his time and was a really nice guy and I really enjoyed working with him.

What do you do when you’re not making music?
Look after my daughter quite a lot at the moment. There isn’t much time, I do make music almost every day. I listen to music is the answer to that! I have got interests outside – I just got a qualification as a psychotherapist actually so that’s what I do. I’m interested in the brain and how it works.

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7pkjQZKRganbSyKPoeNRDa?si=629ea61b360f4a2e
The soundtrack to the book Strange Things Are Happening

How does that impact upon the music and making music?
I don’t know yet. It’s just a new thing. I’ve just got my first qualification. I think it impacts a lot on the way I just experience the world.

What do you use when you DJ?
I usually use CD and vinyl. I’ve not gone Traktor or Ableton as yet. It took me quite a while to even just work out how to be great at CD DJing. And then Andy Carroll showed me one trick, and that was it, I worked out the bit I was going wrong. I just thought of it as a Technics deck so when you’re trying to spin back and cue up. Basically he said, ‘When you do that start on the vinyl button and when you try to do the other bit and you just want a slight jog, switch it to the CD button’. That’s all I needed…

Where’s your favourite club that you’ve played at recently?
At Istanbul the other month. It was a tiny club, probably 100-120 people. It was run by about 8 people and it was the first night and there hadn’t really been anything like that in Istanbul for ages and so it was just an amazing atmosphere, they were all really, really up for it. And about 5 minutes before, they’d just finished painting it. They were all really, really nervous but it went really, really well. That was great. It’s ongoing and it’s quite a big thing. There’s some great DJs, there’s a guy called Baris K in Istanbul. A real kind of crate-digger guy for Turkish stuff. So we hung out together, looking for Turkish music…

What’s the most superstar thing that’s happened to you?
They did a decibel counter for the Smash Hits Poll Winners party in about 1994 when we were playing, it – the event, not us – got the loudest screams in history or in Guinness Book of Records or something. Probably when Take That were playing rather than us. I remember we were introduced by Superman, or rather the bloke who played Superman on the telly, so that was quite good. We’ve been introduced by some quite strange people. We’ve been introduced by Angus Deayton on TOTP, which was quite weird…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LavM8PLJ9-g
The Grid on Top Of The Pops, with added Angus Deayton

What’s the one record that never leaves your record box?
I really like that Hardfloor version of ‘Yeke Yeke’ by Mory Kante. I play that quite a lot. In fact, that has left my record box, in which case probably ‘Dirty Talk’ by Klein and MBO.

What do you hope to be doing in ten years time?
Music. I just recently decided that. I just want to still be making music in some way. Whether I get paid or not, it doesn’t matter, I’ll still be making music.

 

 

Pete Bellotte got everything in synth

Pete Bellotte got everything in synth

Is it true you bonded with Giorgio Moroder over facial hair?
It must have been ’74. I’ll always remember, I went to meet him and I had a huge, long moustache and I thought, because Germany was very conservative then, and I had very long hair, so I shaved off the moustache, just in case. Lo and behold he had the same moustache!

How did the meeting come about?
I’d moved from England to Munich and I met him through a mutual acquaintance: a photographer for Bravo magazine, Uli Weber. Bravo was the biggest German magazine for music, it sold over a million a week. And Uli told me that Giorgio was looking for someone to work with. I’d been a professional musician till then and wanted to move over to the other side. The very first day I started working for him he gave me his brief case and asked me to carry it and I said, I’ll do anything for you, but I’m not carrying your case. Maybe a stupid thing to do because I was desperate to get into the business. But he was okay. He took the case back and never asked me again.

I only worked for him for about a year or year and a half when Ariola Records in Munich offered me a job as an in-house producer, which was a great experience and while I was doing that I was still writing with Giorgio.

Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte up their moustache game

You wrote the lyrics to ‘Son of My Father’ which Giorgio sang in 1971, but which was a hit in the UK for Chicory Tip a year later.
I was actually at Ariola in my office when the phone rang and it was Elton John calling from London. He was one of my best friends and he said, ‘I’m in a record shop and I just bought this record and your name is on it!’ It was ‘Son Of My Father’. He said I’m so proud I’m telling everyone about it. Ironically, I was never proud of that song. After I’d finished working at Ariola, which was probably a year, Giorgio then asked me to go back with him as an equal partner.

How did so many international musicians wind up working in Munich?
There were quite a few backing singers, Americans, who were refugees of Hair the musical, which was touring everywhere. There were quite a few English musicians too. I think there were all there because, like Iceland and Holland, there wasn’t as much work. Munich was so busy and had so many studios so there was so much work going on for them. I guess it was the word on the wire. There were far more musicians in Munich than Berlin or Hamburg. When I originally went to Germany I was told to go to Hamburg because that’s the centre of the music industry, but when I got there, there wasn’t any work at all and they said, oh Munich’s the centre. So I went down to Munich and it was.

When was the first time you met Donna Summer?
I first met Donna in 1975 or ’74. She was a backing singer, singing with two Germans at the time. She sang backing vocals for me a few times. I’d written a song on my own, ‘Denver Dream’, and I paid her to come in and sing it as a demo. I sent it to a publisher friend of mine in France and within a couple of days he phoned me and said I’ve got a record company that wants to release it – but with the girl who’s singing it on the demo. Donna had been ripped off a few times but we knew each other quite well, she said I trust you, let’s do it. That’s when she changed her name from Donna Gaines to Donna Summer.

What was she like?
We weren’t like best friends, but we’d very often go out. We just got on really well, she was a lovely girl. In the whole time we worked together there was never the slightest bit of friction. And the reason we were so lucky is she wasn’t interested in the records at all. The productions didn’t interest her. She’d come in with the demos of the songs, lyrics all ready, keys not worked out yet, and she loved talking. So she’d come in the studio, usually at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and she would talk about the latest rumours and gossip. Then she’d look at her watch and say, ‘Oh I’ve gotta go,’ and she’d go in and sing it in one take – and be gone. The next time she heard any of these recordings was when it was physically a record.

The first time Donna came into writing was the Bad Girls album because she was with [future husband] Bruce Sudano by then and that was when Bogart had hired Rusk Sound Studios in Hollywood just to write in. It was so extravagant. We were writing in that studio, Giorgio and myself, and she was writing independently with her husband Bruce. And that’s where ‘Bad Girls’ and ‘Dim All The Lights’, they were her first writing efforts away from us.

Did you relocate to the States?
I would be there for months and months but I never lived there. ‘I Feel Love’ was produced in England. It was the Live & More album that took us over there in 1978. That was the first time we relocated. We only ever worked over there after that.

Donna Summer debuts ‘I Feel Glove’
Pete Bellotte, Roberta Kelly, Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder

Tell me about ‘I Feel Love’.
I’ll tell you the whole story. After the Love To Love You album the next album we did was A Love Trilogy. I used to go into the English bookshop to buy books and I’d bought Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy and the idea of a trilogy appealed to me, so I came up with the idea of one side with three songs and the fourth track would be the three songs going into the fourth. This was our first concept album. So the next one had to be a concept too. This was Four Seasons Of Love and that’s because I’d just read Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, and I thought it would be good to do one song for each season. By the next album I was reading Dance To The Music Of Time by Anthony Powell.

Which was the original title of the album, wasn’t it?
Yes. It became I Remember Yesterday. I came up with the idea of going from the past through various periods. So we started off with a dance band in ‘I Remember Yesterday’ and ‘Love’s Unkind’; then a take on The Shirelles ‘Back In Love Again’, a Supremes style funk thing ‘Black Lady’; an up-to-date disco track with ‘Make Me’. And then I said we’ve got to go into the future and have a futuristic song. That’s when we got Robby Wedel in.

He’s one of the characters I want to ask you about.
We’d used the Mini Moog quite a bit. Robby Wedel was the programmer for Eberhard Schöner, who was originally a classical violinist and later a very famous modernist classical composer.

He later worked with Sting, too, didn’t he?
He did, yeah. Brilliant man. He hired his Moog 3P out on a daily rate with Robby Wedel.

What did you get for your money?
There were three cabinets, each two and a half feet by two feet. And a fourth cabinet was the sequencer. The others were voltage control, oscillators etc. Everything to get the sounds in pitch as well. When we laid down the first track, Robby asked for something else to be put down with it but I don’t think we were paying much attention. So we got the first line down. So then Robby says, OK do you want to synch the next track? We didn’t know what that meant. So he says I’ve laid down a synch tone from this Moog so that anything we record on the next track is going to lock it into that. When we put in the next track it was absolutely spot on. It was a revelation for us. And the most astounding thing about Robby Wedel, who is the unsung hero of all of this is Robert Moog himself didn’t even know about this, had no idea that this synching was even possible. This all came from Robby Wedel. And it’s not known enough how important this man really was.

That’s basically inventing MIDI. Is it all synthesised?
The whole track is all Moog except there’s a bass drum from Keith Forsey, because we couldn’t get a big enough bass drum sound.

And how about recording the vocals?
All the track was finished and Donna was never interested in the lyrics because they were always done. But we had this deal that she was a co-writer on all the tracks, which everyone is nowadays but she was one of the first. It wasn’t a problem; we wanted harmony.

This was in Munich?
We were in Munich when we finished it. And Giorgio said, Donna wants to do the lyrics with you. I said fine. That night I went round to her house and it was 7.30. I knocked on the door and she opened it with a phone in her hand. She said, ‘I’m ever so sorry I’m just on the phone, go in the kitchen and make yourself a coffee.’ Half an hour went by and she came down and said, ‘I won’t be a sec.’ I had about four of these ‘I’ll just be a minute’. So she said, make a start.

Anyway, I finished off the lyric, because there obviously wasn’t a lot of lyric in there. Eventually at about 10.30 she came down and said, ‘Look I’m really, really sorry but I’ve been on the phone to my astrologer in New York. We were discussing my relationship.’ She was with a guy called Peter Nieuwdorfer and but she’d just met Bruce Sudano of the Brooklyn Dreams who she’d fallen for. She’s called the astrologer because she wanted to know Bruce’s star sign and they’d gone though all the charts and the woman had said, no you have to go with Bruce. She came down and said I’ve made my decision. Then she just came in, sang the song in one take.

Was it always meant to be in that style? It feels like an incantation more than a song.
Donna was very inventive with voices. We had to curtail it sometimes. She’d do all sorts of funny voices. But yes, this is the way she sang it straight off the bat and it sounded right. The honesty that has to be given to this song, is that it was part of an album, it was the last track on the album. It was just a track and neither Giorgio nor I thought it was a single.

It was released as a B-side originally wasn’t it?
Neil Bogart [of Casablanca Records] got hold of it, he said could you do three edits on it and he told us where they were. I’d be lying if I said I remember what they were but at the time they were really good and they made it flow much better. And out it came. It was a big hit in the UK but it wasn’t so big in the States. It established us in the clubs. But we definitely did not think at that moment, when it was released, that we’d done something special. It didn’t feel revolutionary. It didn’t seem anything. The only revolution was the synching.

Were there other electronic records you were inspired by? Like ‘Trans Europe Express’?
No not at all. It was just concocted in the studio and it happened very fast. The programmer Robby was so fast, he was brilliant.

The Moog was notoriously flaky wasn’t it? Had a tendency to go out of tune.
Yeah except this was more stable than the small one. He arrived there an hour early to warm it up. He was a programmer but a musical programmer so he had a pitch relationship so there was no way it was going to go out off tune with him. Even now, listening back on good speakers, the sound of that Moog is just unbelievable. Unsurpassable. We were lucky.

When did you have the sense that it was history making?
It took a few years to be quite honest. Records come and go but it stayed alive in the clubs. It got in films in the background. Then there was Marc Almond and Jimmy Somerville who covered it. Started to get a few covers. Then suddenly, every cover band was doing it.

How did ‘Macarthur Park’ come about?
We recorded her live album at the Universal Amphitheatre in 1978. Rod Stewart was supposed to be duetting with her but it didn’t happen. We did two nights there. She insisted on having her three sisters doing the backing vocals and when we came to mix they had to come off, that’s the only thing we doctored. When we finished it, Bogart wanted a hit single but this was all our old stuff with a few covers. We did a brainstorm down at Westlake Studios, loads of Casablanca people down there, Donna, myself, Giorgio, Greg Mathieson, we spent the whole day tossing and turning songs, trying to come up with something. Every time someone suggested something no one could agree on it.

At the end of the day I thought I’ll say it, so I suggested Macarthur Park, even though everyone always laughs at me when I say it’s one of my favourite songs. I knew it from Richard Harris’ album. He’s not the best singer in the world but I love his version. So I said it, it went silent and then Bogart asked to hear it. So we found a copy, sat and listened, and Donna said, ‘Yeah I’ve gotta do that’. So Greg Mathieson, the arranger, didn’t go to bed that night. We recorded it the next day with all the string arrangement, and within two days it was finished. It was the first time I’d ever seen Donna challenged with a song and she’s an amazing singer.

You always worked fast. The I Remember Yesterday album was done very quickly too, wasn’t it?
It was all done at Musicland in Munich. And everything happened so fast. We had an engineer Jürgen Koppers, who’s a brilliant engineer. He was so fast, the musicians were fast and we were too. That album evolved so fast, we never hung around.

A very efficient team.
I’ve never drunk or smoked in my life. I’ve never seen Giorgio drunk ever. He’d have a brandy maybe but that’s it. Koppers didn’t drink. We were a working team and we just got on with it. We’d start around 10 in the morning and we’d finish around 6 or 7 in the evening. Total efficiency. I would just wonder how people could take so long on an album! I guess we knew what we were doing to a degree. Obviously it helps having two producers to swap ideas with. And Giorgio and I never argued. We’ve always been friends. There was never any nastiness with musicians it was just everyone doing their job, enjoying it and having fun. It wasn’t the rock’n’roll drug world.

How well did you know Neil Bogart?
No one knew Neil Bogart. He was a fantastic music man. An incredibly flamboyant 100% music man. At one point we thought he was ripping us off and we had him audited, and he was totally honest, which surprised us. But he was a larger than life figure. A sort of Donald Trump of the music world.

But not as dim?
Oh no. But he was ruthless.

And extravagant.
This is typical Bogart. When ‘Love to Love You’ came out he wanted to launch it in New York. The reverse side of the cover is Donna in a negligee which always made us laugh because that’s not what she was about, and even she used to say that herself, she was a regular girl, not sexy. Bogart decided to have a replica for the party in icing on the top of the cake, of Donna in the negligee. But his favourite cake-maker was in San Francisco. Bogart was in LA, the party was in New York. He had the cake made in San Francisco, flown to LA in a first class seat of its own with a minder. Then someone from Casablanca flew it to NYC in another first class seat. It got to New York and on the runway an ambulance with flashing lights was waiting for the cake to take it to the venue. So that’s the kind of flamboyance of this man.

No expense spared.
We never ever had a budget the whole time we worked for him. We could do what we wanted. Fly on Concorde or whatever, you just did it. When the time came to be reimbursed for the flight tickets, you went to the office, there were no receipts, and you were just given the cash. It was extraordinary.

There were a lot of drugs, weren’t there.
It was a pretty coke-fuelled office. But he had ears, he really did. We had a couple of number ones in Holland before all of this, but without Bogart I don’t know if we’d ever have made it with Donna. He was totally instrumental in the whole thing.

It was his idea to make the three-minute original into a 17-minute epic
When ‘Love to Love You’ first came out it was in the UK with Dick Leahy and it didn’t do a thing, then Bogart picked it up at MIDEM and you know the story of the orgy? It’s a true story. [Bogart had been playing the song repeatedly at an orgy, and grew frustrated someone had to keep leaving the action every three minutes to put the needle back on the record.]

Drum magician Keith Forsey, aided by Mr. Bellotte.

Do you remember making that Norma Jordan album?
No. I’ve written 530 songs. I listened to it after you emailed and I remembered the song but not the session.

Norma Jordan’s Stay Change Your Mind

You were great friends with Elton John. How did you first meet him?
I met him in Hamburg at the Party Club, just around the corner from the Star Club. There were two resident bands there and every month there’d be a change. So for one month you’d be the band there. We’d played there once before. His band Bluesology came along. Elton had just left school and he was still in his school clothes. He was playing the organ at the back, he wasn’t singing, just accompanying a little. We became friends immediately. At the end of the first week, he got paid so we went up Karlstadt to buy clothes. It was the first time he’d got out of his school gear. We didn’t buy flamboyant clothes but they weren’t school uniform, so he was over the moon. We had a female singer at the time and he fell head over heels with her, he was besotted. That was before he found out what he wanted. So for many years we were close friends and I saw a lot of him.

What was it like working with him on his disco album, Victim of Love?
I didn’t work with him really. He just came and sang. It wasn’t my idea. I was at [Elton’s manager] John Reid’s house and he said we want to make a disco album; you write the songs and Elton will come in and sing them. I’d been in New York and there was this graffiti everywhere ‘Disco Sucks’ and I knew it was the end of disco at that point. I had the honour of using some great musicians, Elton came and sang it all but they didn’t do anything with the album. No publicity or anything. It was the wrong moment and I was the wrong guy. He shouldn’t have been disco-ing it, and I shouldn’t have been recording it.

 © Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Giorgio Moroder electrified us

Giorgio Moroder electrified us

The unstoppable beat of Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ marks a turning point: when synthesised sound showed it could rattle the bones of a dancefloor. With this 1977 hit, electronic music displayed a power over humans that was strangely different to anything made from wood, brass and steel. The mind behind this landmark tune was Munich-based Italian composer Giorgio Moroder. Before this he’d been creating sugary German ‘Schlager’ pop, and afterwards he would work on a long line of major movie soundtracks. But as disco hit the mainstream, Moroder’s Moog experiments defined the sound for millions and set future dance music on its way. In this 2015 interview, he revealed a little-known fact – while all the other sounds were electronic, the synthesiser hadn’t yet developed a convincing enough thump to deliver a kick-drum, and so for all their robotic intensity, those kicks on ‘I Feel Love’ are actually from a real, breathing drummer.

Tell me about how you arrived in Munich.
Well, before Munich, I was working in Berlin until ’69 or ’70. I was lucky because I had an aunt in Berlin where I could stay. That’s where my European career started. I had my first German hit in 1967, about three months after I decided to become a composer, a song called ‘Ich Sprenge Alle Ketten’, sung by an Italian Lebanese guy, Ricky Shane. But Berlin at that time was really claustrophobic. There was the wall, so you couldn’t leave. So I decided to move to Munich. I got a deal with a record company. And that’s where I continued. It was much closer to Italy, so I could go home [to Italy] much more often.

How did you meet Donna Summer?
I moved to Munich and I thought, OK I have to find some musicians. At the time there were two or three musicals, like Hair, going on in Europe, so there were some great musicians in Berlin. There was Michael Thatcher, who was an English great keyboard player. There was Dave King, an American great bass player; Thor Baldursson from Iceland; a great drummer named Keith Forsey. And among other those ex-patriots, there was Donna Summer, who was playing with Hair, which had closed, so she got married. And she was basically living in Munich without major jobs because there were no jobs.

So Pete Bellotte, my co -producer, one day we needed a singer with no accent, no German accent, because we did some demos for an American group. And so she came to the studio and, you know, Donna, all happy and enthusiastic, and she sang beautifully. We noticed immediately that she had a great voice. So we told her, if we ever have a song or an idea, we’ll call you.

Two, three months later, we had our first song together, which did okay, called ‘The Hostage’. And then another one, which did not do too well. And I told Donna, if you have an idea about a sexy song, really sexy, come in the studio and we work.

So one day she came and said, ‘Love to love you, ooh, love to love you,’ which we thought could be great. At that time I had a relatively famous studio in Munich, the Musicland, where we had Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Queen, Freddie Mercury. And that particular day, one of the groups was not playing. So I sneaked in. It was in the Arabella Hochhaus, a big complex. And the studio was down in the basement. So we did a demo with the idea of making it as much erotic as we can. I gave it to my publisher and the publisher brought it to Cannes for Midem. We thought there’s no way that anybody would possibly be interested. But she called me in the evening and she said, everybody loves it. You can sign her wherever you want now. And so Neil Bogart of Casablanca signed us and released the single.

The first version was just three minutes
Yes. It did okay, but it wasn’t a smash hit. Then one night Neil called me and said, you know, last night I had a party [by all accounts it was an orgy] and a girl kept saying, ‘Could you play it again? Could you play it again?’ And he asked if I could do a long version of it? So I did a 17-minute version. I composed some new parts, so it’s not just repetitive, but it’s one song. It was one of the first extended playing tracks…

And that song really made Donna and myself. First it started in the discotheques in America. For a DJ, what’s the best thing to do? You put the record on, 17 minutes, and you go out and have a cigarette. So that’s mainly the reason why this became a hit because everybody loved to play it. And it was a number one song everywhere. And thank God the BBC blocked it at the beginning. Later on they played it, they had to play it. But the BBC blocking it, that was a lot of promotion for the song.

What were you listening to that inspired the sound? It feels a lot like a Love Unlimited Orchestra production. Were you listening to people like Barry White at the time?
Yeah, I always liked Barry. I loved the Philadelphia sound? The kind of strings they use. It’s inspired by some of the songs, not so much of Barry White, but the Philadelphia sounds.

In the New Musical Express in 1978 you said that one of the things that inspired the long version was ‘In a Gadda De Vida’ by Iron Butterfly. Is that true or did you just make that up?
No. When Neil asked me to do it, I did not know about ‘Inna Gada Da Vida’.

I guess it’s important to put it in context. There was quite a lot happening in German dance music around that time.
Yes. A good friend of mine, Michael Kunze, had a big hit with the group Silver Convention? ‘Fly Robin Fly’, which was a German group at number one in America, which is extraordinary. All those dance songs coming out of Munich, they were all played by the same guys. The strings were all German, the Munich Philharmonic, the brass was Munich guys. Then there was Frank Farian who was in Frankfurt and he’d just get the Munich guys to come and play for him. Keith Forsey was happy to go there because they had a lot of girls there! He told me he always enjoyed going to Frankfurt and working with Farian. Then Harold Faltermeyer came a little later. He played with several groups. And we all used similar sounds, the keyboards, and especially the strings.

Tell me about setting up your record label Oasis? Did you do that specifically to market your own productions?
As a young producer, you always try to get your own label, which means you’re a made man. At the end it doesn’t mean anything. But it helped at the beginning. So the first three productions I did were on Oasis. Donna summer; I did an album called Einzelgänger; and there was a group produced by Pete Bellotte called Schloss. So those were the three things we offered to Neil Bogart. But the label just didn’t work out. We had a problem with the name because there was a very small label in America called The Oasis. So I gave it up. Actually, it continued, but not under my direction. It continued with Casablanca.

And did you build a personal relationship with Neil Bogart?
Donna moved to America. I was there for a few months or so. Then I went back. I think the second album was recorded in Munich with Donna. But I didn’t meet Neil that often. Pete Bellotte and I, we just did the recordings the way we wanted. He didn’t interfere at all. We would go there, ‘OK, Neil, these are the 12 songs.’ And he was always happy.

How did you move from that Philadelphia sound to using more electronic instrumentation?
Well, I discovered the Moog modular in ’71. I loved the Walter Carlos album Switched On Bach, where he – or now she – played all the classical instruments like violins, oboes, flutes, with the synthesiser. I thought I have to get to know this instrument, where could I find one? There was a German classical composer, Eberhard Schöner, who had one in Munich. I went to see him and he had a beautiful room, all quadrophonic, and he played me a composition of his. It was a bassline, it was beautiful, but it didn’t end. It was so long. It was at least a minute of the same thing.

Anyway, I rented the Moog and I rented Robby Wedel, who was Schöner’s assistant and engineer. Robby was the engineer on ‘I Feel Love’. He was the only person at that time who knew how to get any sound out of the Moog. It was a nightmare. Cables here, cables there. And so I rented him and I rented the synthesiser. I’d say give me a bass sound or a string and after a few minutes he was able to get me something. I needed him because even if I’d owned one i wouldn’t have been able to get any sound out of it.

The idea behind ‘I Feel Love’ was to deliberately create a song that sounded like the future. Is that right?

Yeah. In 1977 I came up with the idea of doing an album with Donna with the sound of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s. With a sound which you could possibly call the future. The only way to do it is to use the machines. I wanted to create all the sounds of an orchestra using the synthesiser. I had the Moog, the modular, plus another polyphonic synthesiser. I had the bassline, then we produced a white noise [click track], we cut it and we did the hi -hat, the snare, some other percussive stuff. Everything except the kick, which with the synthesiser I was not able to get to kick enough to make people dance. It had a beautiful low end, but not dumm dumm, dumm. So we used Keith Forsey, the drummer, who did quite a job. He was there just with the bass drum for seven minutes.

I never realised it was actually a live drummer.
It was a live drummer mixed with the really big low end of the synthesiser.

And what about the rest of the song?
When I started the song, I started with three notes. I told the rented engineer [Robby Wedel], give me two Cs, a G and a B flat. So he got me those four notes. And previously I recorded a click track from a Japanese drum machine. So by synchronizing the click, which was on tape, the computer would play the exact same time as the time of the click. I think we recorded 20 minutes of the click on to tape on a 24-track. And I told him put the four notes on one key so I could play [a sequence with one key]. It worked like a loop. If I pressed one key, say C, and it would play dung-dung-dung-dung [the ‘I Feel Love’ bassline]. So if I then wanted to go up to E flat, I’d hit one key and dung-dung-dung-dung and the whole chord would go up.

So really how a sequencer works.
Yes. OK, now let’s compose the song. Let’s do 16 bars, 16 bars of the same chord. Do you want to know all the details?

I’m listening intently here.
I started with major chords. But the bassline could work with major and minor chords. I remembered Richard Strauss with the beautiful song, ‘Also Sprach, Zarathustra’, where he has a minor which becomes major and it sounds so well. So I had the same. Bum, yum, yum. I did 16 bars with that and then I guess four bars with E flat. And so I built up the concept, the chords of a song, not knowing the melody.

It was really fun to work but the problem was the Moog would go out of tune every few minutes. It was a disaster. I’d have to do 20 or 30 seconds then stop. Go back, tune it and drop it in. It was quite a job. The other tracks were pretty easy. The hi-hat was just white noise and was constant and didn’t need tuning for a note.

It’s a difficult song to sing live, isn’t it?
Yes. It turned out at the end when it was mixed it was a little too numerical. And by singing, Donna and I came up with the melody. But it was quite difficult to keep time because if you sing it, you have to count [the bars]. And there are some sections where I still think now there are two bars too many. One day I asked Donna, how were you ever able to sing and count the bars? And she said that her husband, who was playing piano at the time, would count for her in the headphones. Otherwise, for whoever sings that song live, it’s really difficult.

When we started to mix it, the engineer, Jürgen Koppers, added a delay. Now, suddenly it became [the delay gives the bassline an echo, doubling it]. Which gave it a totally different feel. So that was really the moment where the song took over. Which is what gave it that particular feel, which I don’t think anyone had tried before.

Yeah, I guess it gives it the swing.
The swing. And then I made another major mistake. I had the original track on the left hand side bass on the left hand side. And on the right hand side I had the up [strokes] like dum dum dum dum dum and if you hear it it’s great but the first time I heard it in a discotheque I was on the right hand side of the of the stereo and I was not able to dance because all I heard is what the up instead of the down and since I’m not a great dancer I was not able to dance. So now when I when I play it as a DJ I put it I make it much more mono. I put them much more together so at least at least I can dance a little bit.

And when you finished the production and delivered it, did you know that it was revolutionary?
Not really. I remember at the very beginning Neil Bogart was interested but not as much as I would have liked. Then the song really started to play well in England. And I mixed it again slightly different. The moment where I really thought it could be something great is when Brian Eno told David Bowie in Berlin, ‘David, I found a record and I think this is the sound of the future.’ And coming from Brian Eno, that was like, ta-dang, I had my stamp of approval. That was the moment I thought, maybe he’s right.

Why do you think so many of the electronic pioneers came from Europe, especially Germany?I don’t really know. I know that I liked Switched on Bach. That’s why I got in. But Kraftwerk, I don’t know. There was Kraftwerk, there was Jean-Michel Jarre, Klaus Schulz, Tangerine Dream, a lot of Germans. A lot of electronics were done in Dusseldorf, Cologne, Berlin etc. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s in the German’s blood to have something more mechanical.

Maybe that’s why they make good cars!

There was a feeling in the post -war period in Germany of rejecting the R&B traditions of America. A lot of the Krautrock Groups, they were trying to create a new course for music in Germany.
I personally don’t go that deep. Let’s take Kraftwerk. They found this instrument. They said, ‘Wow, this is a great instrument. Why don’t we do something?’ There was no singer. They’re all just speaking. I don’t know how great they were as instrumentalists because what they play is very easy. So I think they just started. And Jean-Michel Jarre, he’s a good keyboard player and he had all those great sounds. I think there was just the possibility of doing something with a new instrument and that’s what they did.

When you were making songs like I Feel Love, did it feel inevitable that that was the direction popular music would go in?
Well, at the very beginning, I didn’t think that ‘I Feel Love’ would have that impact. But then, months later, you hear some basslines inspired by it. And I must say, it is quite difficult to have a electronic dance song where you don’t have some kind of, what’s the word… that feel.

The DNA of ‘I Feel Love’ is in so much music.

After your work with Donna Summer, you started to move into composing soundtracks. How did that come about?
Alan Parker, the producer, the director of Midnight Express, he liked ‘I Feel Love’. He called me and asked if I was interested in doing a score, and I was absolutely happy because I never did any. And to be honest I did not have a clue how to do it, but I said yes. The main thing he wanted is a song which has the driving feel of ‘I Feel Love’. He said, do whatever you want. There is a scene at the beginning where the kid runs away, and so that’s when I composed ‘The Chase’ and it worked very well. The guy is running and the music propels it. I think it was one of the first all synthesised scores.

Here’s my copy, Giorgio. £3 .49 from Our Price! Still got the price sticker on it.
That’s good.

I remember going to see the movie at the Empire in Leicester Square, which had a really great sound system. And you really felt the power of the music. The combination of the music and the visuals was quite stunning for the time.
It was so unusual, especially for Hollywood. And it was, I guess, for the Academy too, because they gave me my first Oscar.

How long did you work on it?
The main theme, ‘The Chase’ that was a job of like two days. And the rest I guess about three, four weeks. Alan Parker came to Musicland in Munich and we did a whole mix in a day or so. He was really concerned about the main theme. He said, this is all great but here, I hear an oboe. It was a Sunday, so I couldn’t find an oboe player. But in one of the synthesisers, there it was: the oboe. It only sounded a little bit like an oboe, but if you tell somebody, this is an oboe, then they believe it.

Obviously getting an Oscar for your first soundtrack meant you were offered many more. Which are you most proud of?
There are three. One is Flashdance, where I did the music and the songs. And American Gigolo. But then the soundtrack which had the most impact was Scarface. The movie did not do too well at the beginning. But then the video came out. And the video was a huge success.

But you know, I did not really want to do Flashdance when Jerry Bruckheimer first asked me, because nobody really knew what does ‘flashdance’ mean. Is it something slightly rude? I wanted to see a tape first. My girlfriend was in the living room watching the movie. And I came out and I see her crying. She said, oh, what a great movie. It’s so romantic.

Giorgio and friends enjoy their disco lifestyle, LA 1979

You’ve recently become the world’s oldest DJ. How did that come about? I think you did actually DJ in the early ’70s didn’t you?
In the late ’60s I would have four, five, six songs on tape and I would take some 45 records and I would play them, but that wasn’t really DJing.

So tell me about your recent entry into the DJ market.
As so often in life it came as a little bit of coincidence. A good friend of mine, an Italian in Paris, who works for Louis Vuitton, he and Kim Jones, asked me if I could do a 12-, 15-minute DJ set for one of his shows. So I did that in Paris, and it was a nice hit, people applauded. But on the same day, they asked me if I wanted to do a DJ gig for Elton John’s AIDS benefit in Cannes. It was an hour DJing, and I wasn’t really prepared. I had a friend of mine who was helping me out, and it was a disaster. It was this beautiful L‘Hotel du Cap’, and they had dinner, and then I was trying to make them dance, and nobody would dance. It was very Hollywood, all drinking and talking about what’s your latest movie, and they couldn’t care less about me playing.

There were quite a lot of famous people there weren’t there to watch your disastrous debut performance.
A lot, but I guess they didn’t probably even notice me, so the damage in Hollywood was not that bad. But that evening I got another offer from the Red Bull Music Academy, to come to New York and teach for an hour Q&A. I said, I can’t charge you just to come there for an hour, couldn’t we do something else? So somebody came up with the idea of DJing. They organized it at Cielo, but after a week, they said, no, no, Cielo is too small. Let’s go to Brooklyn to Output. And it was a huge success. It was absolutely fantastic. And since then, I’m traveling the world. Amazing. Yeah. God. Thank you.

What do you think has been the most important piece of technology for you in your career?
Well, I would say two. One is when Roger Linn came from San Francisco to Los Angeles and said, Giorgio, I invented a drum machine. It’s called the Linn. And he showed me this beautiful looking machine. It was analogue, so you could do all the sounds. You could play it by hand. That was one. And I overused that sound for too many productions. Once you find a great snare, a great kick, you use it over and over.

It was very popular with Prince too. He used it all the way through the 80s.
Now, if I hear some stuff from ’85, ’86, for example, Take My Breath Away, it still has that sound, I think I should have used live drums.

And the second piece of technology?
Obviously the main instrument was the Moog, the synthesiser. That defined a lot, I started in ’71. I had a hit with a song called ‘Son of My Father’, where I was one of the first, apart from Emerson, Lake and Palmer, to use the Moog as a solo. And then Chicory Tip in England did a cover and it became number one. But my song came out in America and went to number top 40. So that was a little bit of a revenge.

Did you stay close with Donna?
We became very good friends. She is – or was – an incredibly talented singer and not only for R&B. By singing in churches in Boston she was able to improvise but also from singing in musicals she had great discipline too. In a musical you cannot improvise; everything is very strict. So when we told her, don’t do that here, do this, she was very co-operative.

She was very funny. She always had a joke ready. Then of course when she left Casablanca it started to go a little down. It was definitely the time when disco was dying and then unfortunately she went with Geffen and that didn’t work. Even if disco was still on I don’t think it would have worked that well. We were still friends, although for a long period I didn’t see her because I was spending time in Europe and she moved to New York then Nashville.

But in the last ten years I saw her quite often and in the last six I saw her even more because she rented the apartment in a high-rise in Los Angeles where I was staying. So I could just tap the pavement with the morse code – dum dum dum dum – and communicate with her. I was playing the piano one day, just improvising and ten minutes later she called me: ‘What is it, what did you play? Play it again!’ I said, ‘I’m sorry I was just fooling around.’

I’ve read that before the disco era, when you were making German ‘Schlager’ pop music, you were a very strategic composer, you would analyse the hits of the moment, and try to adapt successful ideas into new songs. Is that right?
You know what? I don’t think that’s that right, because if that was right, I would have produced better songs!

Ha-ha
I did some good songs, but I did so many bad ones. An album came out a few years ago with a compilation of my very first song up to almost the last one. And it’s so bad. I was into bubblegum. I loved it. So that’s what I did.

I had one song which is exactly more than 40 years old, and it’s on that album. Two years ago, the company who owns the Audi, Volkswagen, they asked me if I could re -record a song called… Do-be-do-be-do… Do-be-do-be-do… And I said, no way. But then they said we want it for the big commercial of the Super Bowl. And that old song, which I completely forgot, made me a ton of money. I cannot even tell you how much.

I love your soundtracks. Which modern film composers do you admire?
Well, I love John Williams. John Williams is incredible. But the other guy is Hans Zimmer. He has these huge sounds. For example, for one of the movies he did not too long ago, he created a new drum sound. He had about ten, 15 people all with different sounds and a microphone in the middle. So he is really looking for new sounds. I worked with him on the song for the Academy Award about three years ago, and he’s incredible. Incredible. Very talented.

How long did you used to spend in the studio?
At the very beginning in Munich, I would spend a lot of time, like 12 hours a day, at least, maybe starting midday and then working until midnight, 1, 2, 3. Then later on a little less, but eight or nine hours. And I remember in 1987, 1986 when I did Top Gun, I worked all year. I would start around 11, 12 o ‘clock until 7, 8; then I went home for dinner. I had my guys finishing at night and I came back in the morning.

What is the best moment of the day for you?
For me to work it’s during the day. Maybe starting early afternoon. Once you get into 10, 11 o ‘clock, I think you lose a little bit. But sometimes you have to. The difference between songs for groups and movies is with songs, if you’re a week late, usually you don’t have a problem, but with movies you have to deliver on time. So it’s much tougher and that’s why with Top Gun, I worked so hard.

What advice do you have for musicians who want to pursue film scoring?
I think it’s a great time now for musicians. When I started, there was obviously much, much less competition, but you needed a certain amount to record a song. Even if you had friends who start with you, without money it was difficult to do a record. I didn’t have the money but I was lucky to have the first song, somebody produced it and I was able to get in. Now it’s almost a dream, for $2,000 you have a digital studio, complete with the best microphone, the best sounds, it’s all one package, you can take it with you, go on a vacation and still work.

What do you think of sample culture? There are songs that have sampled you that sold a lot of records.
I’m not really following it that much. I don’t really care. If somebody likes it, it’s okay with me. It’s not like ten years ago they would just sample, sample and not pay. I think they pay now because everybody’s checking now. I love one of the samples which Kanye West used in one of the songs, ‘The Mercy’. He did a very nice little trick. He used partially the chords from Scarface, but a slightly different sequence. He changed the order but you know immediately, this is the piece. I’m not like Keith Richard who says, why don’t everybody compose their own song.

It’s a bit rich given how much music the Rolling Stones have stolen and put their names on really. To my mind, sampling is a continuation of what we’ve always done in pop music, which is steal other people’s ideas.
The difference is if you steal a recording or if you steal a melody. If you steal a recording, that’s a little tougher, right, physically? There are so many articles which say this song has the sound of Giorgio here. Sometime I really listen to those songs, I think, how did that reviewer ever know it was a sample? They have much better ear than me. The writer just thinks, OK, there’s a little bit of Moroder here. But usually I don’t hear it.

There’s probably a little bit of Moroder everywhere. Thank you.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Don Lewis changed electronic music

Don Lewis changed electronic music

Although Don Lewis is not universally known, this quiet genius has played an extraordinary role in the advancement of electronic music. He was the first person to make a programmable drum machine, in the 1960s, when he hacked an Ace Tone Rhythm Box. Upon hearing him, Ace Electronics founder Ikutaro Kakehashi said, ‘It looks like my rhythm unit, but it doesn’t sound like it. What did you do?’ Lewis became a long-term collaborator with Kakehashi, from his days at Ace, through to his next company, Roland. Lewis helped develop iconic machines like the Roland TR-808 and, later, he aided Yamaha with their revolutionary 1980s synthesiser, the DX-7.

In the early 1970s, Lewis built a live project he called L.E.O. (Live Electronic Orchestra), bringing numerous synthesisers, keyboards and drum machines together, triggered by, as he described it, two feet, two hands and his head. This prefigured MIDI by several years. His work had echoes of the technology developed by Toto’s Expanding Headband for Stevie Wonder, but was perhaps even more advanced since it was intended for live performance (mainly at the Hungry Tiger in San Francisco) at a time when none of this was possible outside the walls of expensive studios. His revolutionary work inevitably caught the attention of numerous artists, including Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones and The Beach Boys, with whom he toured. His career, like that of early DJs, was nearly derailed by the AFM (American Federation of Musicians), who took umbrage with his performances with L.E.O., arguing that his creation was killing musicians’ jobs – Lewis eventually won out.  His career had almost been forgotten when Ned Augustenborg embarked upon his documentary, The Ballad Of Don Lewis, which was released in 2020, but is being shown in the UK for the first time at 2023’s Doc’N’Roll Film Festival. Don sadly died in 2022, but not before we managed to interview him. Some of the questions below are being asked by Ned (questioner is credited), who was present at our interview.


Interviewed by Bill on 06.04.2020

Bill: Can you describe to me the effect that Switched On Bach had on you and why?
[Chuckles] There’s a thousand things in that! First it was the sound of the synthesiser interpreting what I had been listening to most of my life up until that time: classical music. And starting out playing the organ, I could to play a little Bach. So I was very much in tune with the baroque stuff. When I heard this I was like, ‘Yeah oh my God… It’s like a DJ; a DJ mixing using other people’s stuff and putting it all together. This was other people’s stuff – Bach’s music – and putting a whole new texture and flavour of sound that…. My mind was just like [blown mind sign]. I thought: I gotta do that live! Then right after that she came out with another album and then everybody started to come out with albums using the Moog synthesiser. 

Bill: At that point which synths or organs had you owned? 
I just had an organ. I always thought that the organist would the first. You’re pulling and drawing out stops and getting different textures to play. It was not really the case that organists embraced the synthesiser but that was really the way you could get a sense of orchestration. There was really only one organist who I felt fulfilled that role and that was Virgil Fox. You heard that name before?

Bill: No I haven’t. 
He did this incredible tour of the United States playing this Black Beauty, which was an organ built especially for him by the Rogers digital organ company. He went to Filmore East and played for an all-rock audience and it was all Bach. He did in the west as well. These kids listening to Bach on basically a pipe organ but the way he chose his stops was just amazing. So it was all about playing music you’d heard before but just completely changing the framework; changing the textures of the sounds that would normally play those notes and that’s what struck me about Wendy Carlos and the Moog. 

Bill: At the meeting where you met Mr Kakehashi [founder and owner of Ace Electronics, later Roland] when you gave the keyboard demonstration, was that at NAMM? 
Yes. It was 1969 in Chicago. It was in the Conrad Hilton Hotel. This was before McCormack Place was built as the convention centre and so all the NAMM exhibitors met in different hotels. The Palmer House was one, The Sheraton and so forth. So that’s where I met Mr Kakehashi. 

Bill: And when did you start to hack his Ace Tone Rhythm Box? Or how long had you had that box before you started messing around with it?
This is really cool because I think I bought my X-77 Hammond organ in 1968. I was working as a salesman at a Hammond organ store in Denver, CO at Honeywells. And when the X77 came on the floor I said I gotta have one of those to play my gigs! So I bought one but it didn’t have a rhythm unit on it and i’d been used to using rhythm units. The first rhythm unit I used was built into a Seeburg organ. For a short while they actually built an organ, an electronic organ. They bought a company called Kinsmann who were making organs and they had developed a rhythm unit but they spent so much money that they had no money to market it so they filed for bankruptcy. 

Bill: Was that the typical unit where it had loads of presets?
The Seeburg was the first organ I played professionally. When I got the Hammond I asked the sales manager which rhythm unit I could buy and he recommended the Ace Tone. So I got it and played with it for maybe a couple of months and it just drove me up the wall. I couldn’t use any of the rhythms. And so I said, does anybody have a service manual for this because I needed the schematic to see what was inside. So I got the guy from the service centre to get me one. I opened the damn thing up and found out how they were actually making the rhythms happen. So I got a bunch of diodes and I switched. There was a reel, I think, that put out 24 pulses so 4/4 time would go into it evenly and 3/4 time would go into it and six and so forth. Then you could see on the rail there was 24, it was laid out that way. So I could pick out which pulses I wanted to draw from to trigger which instruments. So then I’d wire them up to these multi contact switches because they had at least six to eight different terminals on it. So then I noticed there were basically oscillators with what we call tank circuits so you could adjust the decay or you could adjust the pitch. So I changed a few of those to get my sound. When Mr K heard it in 1969 when I was doing my demo, he recognised the rhythm box but didn’t recognise any of the rhythms. That’s how we started out. 

Bill: What was the first thing he said to you?
‘It looks like my rhythm unit, but it doesn’t sound like it. What did you do?!’ I never traveled without my toolkit. Because the other thing that I did when I interfaced the rhythm unit with the X77 I ran the output of the rhythm unit to go into the input of the expression pedal circuit so I could vary the volume of the rhythm unit with my foot as I was changing like you would play a B3 [Hammond] so you could actually put accents on the rhythm. So sometimes I would do a rhythm solo and this one rhythm running, but I’d be running it so fast that I could pop my foot down [mimics sounds: Boom! chk-chk-boom!] and he had not heard that coming from his rhythm unit. He’d never even thought about putting accents on his rhythms. 

Bill: I guess also having a programmable rhythm unit seemed unusual at the time since all the rhythm units on organs just had presets. 
Right. Most organists at that time were doing the cha-cha-cha [laughs]. 

Ned: all those rhythms created by Mr K were just popular dance steps weren’t they?
Yes. Exactly. That points out a very pivotal thing about Bill’s book [he’s in the middle of reading Last Night A DJ Saved My Life] talking about dance being the most primal aspect of our existence and cultures. The DJ is the one leading the dance and that’s sort of what I had to do when I was playing L.E.O. [Live Electronic Orchestra] at the Hungry Tiger because a lot of the music I was playing was disco. 

Bill: When Mr K formed Roland, was that directly influenced by your experiments or if not what was his motivation? 
I would hate to think I had anything to do with his separating from Ace Tone, but it seems like if you’re trying to connect the dots back then…. He invited me to come to Japan in 1971 and that’s when we did a joint promotion/tour for Ace Tone and for the Hammond organ. I toured there for about three weeks. It was my first time leaving this country and it was the most fascinating thing. He invited me and I brought my rhythm unit that I had hacked. Evidently there was a run on the Rhythm Units at the factory after the concert tour. They couldn’t build them fast enough. In the interim, during the tour, he invited me to come to the Ace Tone factory, where he was working on another rhythm unit which happened to be the FR-7L which was the later one that came out. He asked me for input on that, which I have in the other room. I don’t know if it was after he built the FR-7 whether or not decided to leave the company. 

If I remember correctly he told me there was some things he wanted to do that the company didn’t, so he decided to start Roland, which was in 1972. I don’t know how much time there was between because i think I remember going to Japan in probably the fall of ’71 and he started in ’72. He decided to start his own company, Roland, and ads he told me he told the engineers that were working at Ace Tone he did not want to influence them when he left. But when he left, they came with him anyway. I think the engineers saw what he was trying to do. Ace Tone at that time was a subsidiary of a company called Sokada Shokei and they were the importer of the Hammond organ. 

Bill: Was the first Roland drum machine, the Compu-Rhythm CR68?
The 68 was the first that Roland built. 

Bill: And what was your role in Roland, was it ever formalised? 
Well I was always being compensated with whatever the product was. And he would pay for my visits to Japan. But it wasn’t until Roland really got going that they put me on a retainer with him. I didn’t work as closely with him as his counterpart here in the US. There was a very peculiar situation here once the company got started. In the beginning, there was a very amiable relationship between Japan and the American joint venture and then when Roland really started rolling [chuckles] and being popular there was an attitude change on the American side. It was almost as though it had designed and built the instruments. 

Bill: Was that because the sales in the US were so great in comparison to other territories?
Well, Mr K had to live with this relationship for a few decades before he could buy that partner out. 

Bill: What was your role in the design of the CompuRhythm?
OK everytime Mr K would come to the US. This is during the period 1973 to… wherever he was doing business, he would always stop at my home. And he would sometimes have engineers with him and we would spend two or three days going over ideas. 

Ned: I think it’s fascinating how you described your relationship with Mr K at that time since it was pre-computer and you guys would write ideas on cocktail napkins. 
If I was in Japan or if he was here. He didn’t drink. His drink was Coca-Cola until he found out it wasn’t so good for him. Whatever napkins we had to hand, we’d write on the back of them. That was an informal way of communicating ideas. He would go back to Japan and put these ideas together to the breadboard stage and he would then fly me over to Japan and we’d talk about what we could with what what they had come up with. This was the CR78 when this came out. And the they sent me a sample and I played around with it for a week or two then I’d send back my feedback. When the CR78 came out that was the one where you could store up to four of your own original patterns. Four?! I wanted to store at least 16! Memory back then was very expensive. 

Bill: I was going to ask whether the memory limitations of the time was a factor in the retail price. 
Well, they wanted to be able to sell these things. Roland stuff has never been entry level as far as cost. It’s always been a professional price point. 

Bill: You talk in the documentary about the additions you made to the Roland 808. What was your input during the lead up to its development? Was it 1980 it was released? 
I think it was ’80 or ’81. OK so the main thing was all of those things that had previously been inside, like the tank circuits etc, I wanted all of those controls on the outside where you could reach and change them. That’s the reason they had volume controls, envelope generator and pitch controls on various instruments. The other thing was how you input the rhythms. How are you going to control that? What would the visual be? There are only 16 buttons on the 808. I asked for 24! The engineers were ingenious about how they could structure something with limitations and still come up with the same idea. So they did that by having a switch there with four modes whether or not you were doing 4/4 time and there was another switch so you could have a variation on the rhythm that you built. You had four fill-in places but they put a switch on so you could have eight. They also had a fine-tuning on the tempo because they didn’t have a real read out as far as a clock that could tell you how many beats per minute so having the fine tune on that knob was kind of cool. The outputs of each instrument, I think you’ve got eight outputs of all these instruments and everyone has its own individual audio output or you could take the mixed output. They had some triggers on the back, one that say cowbell, handclap and accents and you could take a trigger from each of those and use it to trigger something else. And that ha[pened later when I used the triggers from that to go into the Jupiter 4. 

Ned: Do you want to tell Bill the cymbal story?! [They both laugh]. 
[The story is not true] the story is the cymbal sound came from spilling tea on the breadboard, a story Don spent years telling to everyone, even though it was a prank by the engineers at Roland. 

Bill: When did you go to work for Yamaha? 
So that happened in 1983 before the 1983 NAMM show which was in June. We must’ve started a little late 1982. To give you the backstory of this. There was a guy called John Chowning, who was the godfather of FM. I was asked in 1972 by the Hammond organ company executive who was the head of engineering, Ollie Moore, asked me to come out to Stanford University to observe what John was doing. So I came out to Stanford and heard this FM demonstration. He had a quadrophonic setup. And he played a tape because he couldn’t depend on the reliability of the big mainframe at Stanford. When I heard that sound I was like Oh my God this is going to be revolutionary in making sounds. I went to the Hammond organ company and made these grandiose recommendations: help this man with some grant money. Ultimately, they refused to do it. But later on when I moved to northern California, after I got married, I spent a summer down at their workshop in Carmel, so I worked with John, John Strong, Andy Moore, Leon Smith all these guys became legendary in their contributions to computer generated music. I was trying to do something and it so happened that Gary Lundberg was a big fan of mine so he brought down all these executives to where I was playing at the Hungry Tiger [in San Francisco] and they said we’ve got to bring this guy onboard. And then they found out I had this FM knowledge and that’s how I got pulled into programming the DX7 with Gary. 

Bill: What was revolutionary about the DX7?
[Laughs] SOUND! In high school when I built an FM radio receiver, I knew that FM existed but not in the same paradigm that we’re using it for audio. The same FM that was the carrier for radio frequency that you could broadcast on then the modulator was the actual audio. I never thought of it being audio to audio. So this was a whole revolution for me of thinking but I forgot about the fact that vibrato is FM. Frequency modulation WOO-WOO-WOO [makes modulation sound]. That’s FM!  So the two went together. So I’m already thinking that way. So part of the DX7 was to get down into the processors and doing that on a much more complex platform because instead of having two frequencies modulating each other, they had six oscillator components that you could use and then they had 32 collections of algorithms you could route these operators to get together. Well that was just like going into a sandbox and making up stuff! I was more fascinated by, not the sounds we could come up with that sounded like they were emulating real instruments, I was more interested in the sounds that were completely foreign to our ears but when I say the sound was the same, it sounded like there was an evolution of a natural way of sound modulating itself.  

Bill: I’m interested in the part of your answer where you said you were more interested in the sounds you’d never heard before because even though many synth inventors were often trying to emulate natural sounds, I think the more compelling sounds were often those that were unnatural. 
It’s like we finally got out of the woods of making a violin out of special wood. Those were the physical things we used to build musical instruments. I look at sound synthesis as this. There’s the natural sounds that come from maybe your voice. I call that the organic synthesis. Then you had the era of mechanical synthesiser, which are violins, horns, drums, and then we moved from that to electronic synthesis. 

Tell me about your LEO together. I guess it was a sort of proto MIDI [the computer language that enabled different machines to ‘talk’ to each other and synch].
Coming up with different ways of realising that dream. Mine wasn’t so much that I was trying to make a revolution out of it. I call it self-preservation because I had all of these things that didn’t work together and playing in a nightclub where you have an audience you don’t have the luxury of being in a studio where you can spend time twiddling this and twiddling that. And that’s what I felt like I was trying to do. I don’t know why my fanbase, even before LEO, even stuck with me. It was more out of convenience to create a more friendly way of playing the instruments live. All I needed was a mixer to mix all of these sounds that were coming from the Oberheims, the ARPs, the Hammond and all of this. But the mixers you’d normally see had too many knobs and so I had them built in but I used the same idea as the VCA (Voltage Controlled Amplifier) so that my foot movements would change the volume or the gain on each of those. That had never been done. 

Bill: I noticed in the film that your feet are doing as much as your hands and it’s kind of mind-blowing. 
One of the things that got me learning the foot pedals was on the big pipe organ and I had to learn…. my teacher was very accommodating but she was also very aware that I needed training on how to use my feet. I just played one foot all the time. But when you’re playing Bach, you’re going to be playing both feet, both hands… and your head [laughs]! You know you might not use them all the time but you have the training that you can. One of the other things I had the mixer over here with the gain but also had a mixer to go up to the space echo and come back down.

Bill: You mentioned in passing that you worked with the Beach Boys and with Quincy Jones. Can you go into more detail about what you did? 
The only reason I came to California, was to work with Quincy Jones. I loved Quincy’s music, the big band jazz arrangements that he did. I used to sit at home and put his albums on and listen to it. I thought Hell if I’m even going to grow musically, I gotta hang out with somebody like Quincy. By that time I’d accumulated a couple of [ARP] 2600s and that was 1974. So I came out to LA. I was living in Santa Monica, started out in Marina Del Rey for about six months but that little studio apartment I started doing synthesiser tutoring sessions. I don’t even remember how I got the word out there but I got a few bites and these bites led me to other people like Armand Pascetta who put together a polyphonic controller keyboard and Armand was the one who got me in touch with Quincy because he was working at the Record Plant.

Ned: How did the Beach Boys find you?
They found me while I was still in this little apartment. It was my first gig in LA and I was working at a place called Monty’s. It was a restaurant on top of one of the big bank buildings there in Westwood. My wife Julie got me that job. She recommended that I approached the manager there. I was there for about four weeks. The second or third week I was there, these three guys came in. I didn’t recognise them but they said they’d been coming in every night for three nights in a row. On the third night they finally approached me and they invited me to their table. It was Carl and Dennis and Jim Guercio who at that time was the manager for Chicago. Carl and Dennis asked me if I would consider being the opening act and also playing in the band on their next tour [he laughs uproariously at how unlikely this all felt] Well…. I was in shock. Just being in LA I was in shock. 

What was really almost providential was the fact that there had also been these entertainment lawyers who also frequented Monty’s… I also met Mark Spitz, Jean Stapleton and all these people who were in the movies and TV used to come in this place. So I had met these guys who were lawyers and when they found out that I had got this offer he said, OK we’ll take over from here. No charge to you, but we’ll write the contract. I’d never have thought about renting my equipment out, but they put that in the contract. On top of my fee. On a different plane. They chartered their own plane but on subsequent tours everybody went on the same plane! On my tour we had a chartered plane and limousines picked us up on the tarmac and delivered our baggage. We didn’t have to do anything. It was pretty cool but there were some things I saw on the road that I didn’t think I could deal with. So I did that one tour, but it was a grand experience to see on the inside what goes on. Having been a one man show up until that I’d never had that insight, especially the rock’n’roll world. 

Ned: What kind of venues was it?
You really couldn’t have that many big venues because the sound systems weren’t that good. So we were mostly in municipal auditoriums. About one or two thousand seater. First one was in Mississippi, like an indoor basketball place with bleachers. Second was New Orleans, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, then the midwest. 

Bill: I didn’t realise you’d had all these issues with the Musicians Union. The book you’re reading also has DJs battling with the same people. 
I was reading that in your book and I was trying to figure out whether that ruling that we got [banning him from performing] which was six or seven years after because DJs were starting to come in at that time. Then we finally got the union to disappear on that particular issue. We didn’t want this to happen to any single person for the union to come in and say you couldn’t come in and play. 

When you look at what has happened in electronic musical developments subsequently do you feel vindicated? How do you feel now about the struggles you went through? 
I have to say I’m happy and grateful that I did something that would help to change the way that the manufacturers built instruments and the way that the musicians have embraced those ideas and used them, it’s not that musicians haven’t always been creative, but the tools that they use are. Looking back I had no idea that I would be affecting or have any affect like it seemingly has done. It wouldn’t have been anywhere near as effective if nobody had told the story so I’m so grateful for Ned telling this story. The way he’s put it together fills in a lot of grey spots and brings out a whole lot of knowledge and backstory of how all of these instruments came into being and musicians have been able to use them. He’s like my little brother! I feel very humbled looking back and seeing kids, even after the screening that was done at the Museum of Making Music. And there were about five or six young kids, 20 years old, who were taking courses at local colleges there and these guys and girls came up and almost looked like they had tears in their eyes, ‘Do you know how much you have changed my life?!’ People don’t realise how much their contributions are going to affect someone else’s life. What I did, was without anybody knowing. Ned has helped me and helped others who are going to see the work of what he did in telling someone else’s story. 

Ned, how did you first discover Don and what do you think his contribution is?
I was working for a cable operator in the San Diego area and part of our obligation to the municipality was to provide grants. The Museum for Making Music was a stone’s throw away from one of the studios I was managing and I was advising them where some of this money should be allocated. So people would apply for certain grants and lo and behold these two women came in and said this guy Don Lewis created this revolutionary synthesiser many years ago, and is resurrecting this instrument and he’s gonna have a concert at the MofMM and they thought it was worth documenting. Well in the back of my mind since I was a little kid I was always interested in film. For some reason I had an incredible fascination with synthesisers. It probably came from television theme songs. And I always thought wouldn’t it be interesting if somebody did a film on the concept of a human being hearing sounds that were never heard before. That was always in the back of my mind. 

I thought I wanna do this someday and I also thought maybe this Don Lewis guy might be 30 seconds in this film. I ended up calling some friends and we did a three-camera production of the concert and that went just fine. It was the day after that we met and we had a pre-interview session and within two nanoseconds I felt like Don was this friend I had in this life but also some previous life. We just hit it off. That followed the first interview, but still not know what we were going to do with this. So it was a long drawn out process over the course of a few years of getting more and more serious. There’s an incredible trust factor. Here’s this guy that wants to document Don’s life story; that’s pretty serious. What was missing in this story, because I knew what was great about Don, what was lacking was conflict, so eventually Don and Julie were reluctant to bring up the whole union conflict because they’d worked hard to forget about it. Eventually we came to terms with that and as Don said earlier, this was a message that should be shared with the world. It was an opportunity for Don and Julie, especially Julie, to contact the people in the film, many of which they had not seen for many years. Without exception these people had so much love and respect for Don.

The Don Lewis documentary is screened Friday 27th October in London, as part of the Doc’N’Roll film festival. Tickets here –>

Richard Burgess built British Electronic Foundations

Richard Burgess built British Electronic Foundations

Richard James Burgess has been at the vanguard of electronic music for most of his musical life. As a founding member of jazz-rock band Landscape, he was instrumental in pushing the group towards electronic instrumentation, as on 1979’s self-titled set and the 1981 LP, From The Tea-Rooms Of Mars… To The Hell-Holes Of Uranus. As a drummer, he was involved in the development of what eventually became the Simmons SDS-V (most notably used by Cameo on ‘Word Up!’) and after switching to studio production, was the first person to employ the Simmons on a track: Spandau Ballet’s ‘Chant No. 1’. He subsequently worked with everyone from Colonel Abrams to Hot Gossip. 

How did you first discover electronic music?
I spent my school years in Christchurch in New Zealand, although I was born in England. I studied electronics as a teenager, and I bought a reel to reel tape recorder. I also bought an EMS Synthi A, the briefcase model, and I was always messing around with that. It was hard to keep in tune and I did eventually get a keyboard, but I was primarily interested in making sounds with it. I was a drummer, so, I was primarily trying to make drum and percussion sounds. 

I wasn’t so aware of other electronic musicians, although I knew a bit about the German school. I was aware of Wendy Carlos but the idea of taking classical music and doing it on synthesisers never fascinated me. Having said that I admire what she did. It was Tonto’s Expanding Headband that stood me on my head with the work they did with Stevie Wonder. 

Around this time I was working with a group called Accord – Chris Heaton’s band (the keyboard player in Landscape). Accord was an improvised, avant garde group with electronics, electric percussion, treated piano, clarinets, and synthesiser. Roger Cawkwell played a Synthi A and I played electric percussion, Chris was on piano and his brother, Roger played clarinets. I was studying jazz drums with Tony Oxley, who was an amazing straight ahead jazz drummer but he was deeply into the avant garde with Derek Bailey and the like. The idea of creating sounds out of an extended sonic and time palette was what really sucked me into electronic music. Gradually Landscape started to morph into that sonic area as well. We treated our acoustic instruments electronically. I was triggering electronics live from my drum set and everything opened up before us.

I used to set up our live sound at gigs because I always had a studio at home; i had a Revox A77 very early on. It occurred to me while I was setting up the sounds for the band that everything sounded great until I pushed up the drum mics. Once I did that everything else bled into the drum mics and the overall sound would dissipate. I started wondering why drums weren’t electronic. I started researching what was out there and I wrote an article for Sound International about this and as you know, when you’re writing: you think everything through so you can express yourself clearly and the idea unfurled before me on the page. That’s what started me working on an idea for what eventually turned into electronic drums and became the SDS-V. I went to all the drum companies and couldn’t get anybody interested. I worked a lot on it myself and eventually met Dave Simmons and we worked on making it happen. I never thought about manufacturing and all that, I just wanted one for myself. 

How did you know Rusty Egan?
When I first came to England from New Zealand, I played in an Irish group called the Bernie Egan Trio. When I needed to leave the group because my studio work had built up so much they didn’t have a drummer so I taught their 14 year old son to play drums and replace me. That was Rusty. We became lifelong friends. When he started the Blitz he invited me down. I went, and Rusty had assembled this amazing smorgasbord of electronic and electronic-associated music including our first instrumental album that we cut for RCA that had the track ‘Japan’ on it. That was the last recording of that phase of Landscape where we were purely instrumental and the drums on ‘Japan’ were mostly acoustic with triggered electronics and a Moog drum . After that we used the prototype SDS-V, added vocals and went all in on electronic instruments or heavily treated ones.

What Rusty was doing at the Blitz made us feel like we weren’t out on a limb anymore. We were suddenly part of a scene that we hadn’t even realised was brewing. That was exhilarating. ‘European Man’ was the first track from The Tea-Rooms of Mars album and that got a ton of play at the Blitz. It didn’t do so well commercially because we were too early with that sound. Rusty had an encyclopedic knowledge of all the electronic records. He spent his time picking up 12-inches and 7-inches. I was much more focused on making music but I was inspired by what he was playing for sure. 

Few people realise that the original use of EDM comes from a Landscape release. It’s now obviously a ubiquitous phrase. What inspired it? 
It was apparent to me that what was happening at the Blitz was a phenomenon. Obviously, everyone looked extraordinary, but the music…. I’d never heard music like that before. I’d been to Studio 54 and other great clubs around the UK and Europe but it was clear that what Rusty was doing was different. I lived in Camberwell and at the time [fellow Landscape member] John L. Walters lived around the corner, and we got together every day to write music. I said to him, ‘This is a movement. We need a name for it.’ We were tossing ideas around and somewhere in all of that there were three names that emerged.: Futurist, New Romantic and EDM. The New Romantic it wasn’t a perfect fit for us. We had decided to dress better on stage some time before this but we were older than the Blitz crowd. We were a part of it musically although our music was further on the electronic end. As we talked about it, EDM popped up. We gave ‘European Man’ the catalogue number EDM1 and on the back cover we wrote: Electronic Dance Music… EDM, Computer Programmed to Perfection.

You were also the man who termed the phrase New Romantic. How did that come about?
I felt strongly that every musical movement needed a name. It was clear that the Blitz was a new fashion and musical phenomenon. I’d seen Spandau Ballet early on and became friends with them. Punk was four years old in the UK and this needed a name. New Romantic came about as an expression of the look of the fashion rather than the sound of the music. 


How do you feel about acts like Shock now? They seemed to get overlooked at the time, but ‘RERB’ has been a club staple for decades now. 
It took about ten mins to write and produce that track. That’s the marvel of the MC- 8 once you got past the learning curve. RCA heard ‘Angel Face’ and we needed a B-side for the single super quickly. Rusty came over to my place, we talked it through, I programmed the drum part, threw in a 16th note digga-digga-digga and made it a 12-bar blues, because that was easy. The whole track was programmed on the MC-8 and then we took it to Mayfair Studios where I played those repeat echo piano hits live, and that was that. I think Shock was badly overlooked by the record label. They were an important group. I produced the Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap and there’s a hip hop track that says “we tick and we tock” and I wondered whether they got it from seeing Shock do their performances at the Ritz in NYC. Everyone who was anyone in NYC was there at some point that week. Shock had a wide influence, much greater than they’re credited for. 

Tik & Tok get overlooked, too, I think because they were seen as the funny robotic dancers.
You’re right, they were amazing. I had never seen anyone do the robot as well as they did. ‘Dynamo Beat’ was a brutal piece to program. I did a flamenco thing. I’m not a guitar player but I can play enough to figure it out. I wrote the part out on manuscript and programmed it into the MC-8. The MC-8 was the first machine that allowed you to copy, paste, and transpose whole sections – something we take for granted today but never possible before the MC-8.  The first bar was hard to program but arranging the piece was quick. I loved that track, but it got neglected by the label I don’t think they understood what we were doing. It was so fringe at the time, the gatekeepers’ and the public en masse were not ready for it. Artists who came two or three years down the line, benefitted. Shock was stupendous live, amazing, edgy progressive, musical theatre. 

Landscape, 1980, with Richard James Burgess far left. Pic: Paul Cox

When you were moving into electronic music and starting to do the Tea Rooms album, did it feel like you were on a sort of mission? 
You had to be. When Landscape started to become successful, I stopped reading our reviews because the British music press would go on tirades that were creatively destructive. I had our assistant collect our reviews and put them in a book so I could look at them later. I still haven’t read most of them although some of that material is in the Landscape A Go-Go box set. Human League and Heaven 17 were in Sheffield, so we didn’t have a lot of contact with them. We were somewhat isolated, which prevented outside influence creeping in but required a strong sense of mission to stay the course. Almost everything we were working with was unfamiliar. It was incredibly exciting. 

The Simmons drum you developed was that the same one that Cameo used? I saw them a few times and they had these hexagonal drums.
Yes, the hexagonal drum pads. I was driving to St Albans one day to work with Dave on the drums and was pondering what shape they should be? The original pad was triangular. Dave made a kit he called the Mount Rushmore. I used that on the ‘Einstein A Go Go’ video. I knew they shouldn’t be round because there was no sonic reason for that. I thought of the shape of the honeycomb and it was that shape that caught on and became the brand logo of Simmons. I used a production model on Spandau Ballet’s ‘Chant No 1’ [which Richard produced] and that was the first time it was ever played by an actual drummer on a record. The SDS-V drums on the Tea-Rooms… album were all programmed on the MC-8. It could be thought of as the first fully programmable drum machine.  

Landscape, with MC-8 Microcomposer, Richard James Burgess is at the front. Pic: Paul Cox

I remember you appearing on Tomorrow’s World, what were you demonstrating?
There were three Tomorrow’s Worlds that we did. One was featuring the electronics that we were all using at that time. On the other two – MC-8 MicroComposer and the Fairlight CMI – John and I were there, doing the programming, and talking through the script with the presenters who were on camera. The Fairlight CMI was the first commercial digital sampler, and it was so revolutionary that I flew out to Australia to meet with the designers. Of the first three machines to reach the UK, Peter Gabriel had one, I had one, and Syco Systems, the distributors, had the other. John and I used ours on Kate Bush’s Never Forever album, which, I believe, is the first instance of a digital sample being used on a record.

We put together a piece for Landscape, for the Tea-Rooms… album using the Fairlight because it arrived while we were finishing it up. That record took us a year to put together and we wound up not using the Fairlight piece, which was quite industrial and angular because it didn’t really fit the album. I am still looking for it in my archive. I certainly have it on an eight-inch floppy disk somewhere! For the other appearance on Tomorrow’s World, they asked us to programme a Bach or Mozart piece. It took us most of the day. The MC-8 was a laborious machine to use.

In what way?
The MC-8 looked like an adding machine. It had only a numeric keyboard for data entry and the display was a red LED display like digital clocks of that era – and the display just showed the numbers that you entered. Every note the machine played had to be defined by three different numbers, pitch, length, and duration. You could choose your own time base – we used 24 because it was divisible by 2, 3, 4, and 6 giving us quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenths, eighth note triplets, and sixteenth note triplets. Pretty much everything you need. But imagine going through a piece and having to type three numbers in for every single note. It was an amazing innovation – what we would later call a disruptive technology because it was the beginning of random access. It was the start of a new era of making records. We could cut and paste, move things around, and modify, which mitigated the slow data entry process to some extent but the machine was not what you would call user friendly. 

By way of comparison, around this time, the first digital multitrack machines came out. The first digital multitrack I worked on was a 3M 32 track that came out around 1978. It cost more than a £100,000 as I remember. It was great, it was quiet – no tape hiss and a very wide dynamic range compared to analog tape. I immediately preferred the sound of digital audio over analogue, but there wasn’t a big creative advantage of working on digital tape. It was quieter, the transient response was much better, you could bounce tracks with no loss of quality, and what you heard playing back off tape sounded much more like what went in, but there wasn’t much more creative flexibility than with analogue tape. Random access is really the thing that changed the way we all worked and that we take for granted today. 

Some people think analogue sounds much better than digital, but what they mean is that they like the way analogue changes the sound. Analogue tape doesn’t accurately reproduce acoustic sounds, especially those with big transients. Digital captures what you recorded more accurately. When I was working on an Adam Ant album at ABBA’s Polar studios in Stockholm in 1983, I was playing drums and producing, using two 3M digital 32-track machines. I walked in from the live room after playing my drum part and I wasn’t aware that the assistant had hit play – you don’t hear that analogue hiss when you roll digital tape. When the sound came out of the speakers it nearly knocked me off my feet. It was the first time that drums sounded the same to me coming back off tape as they had when I was playing them in the studio. When you are playing drums, they sound hard, with a sharp transient. When you play them back off analogue tape that big transient tends to get softened, like that characteristic disco drum sound? Nevertheless, the recording process with digital tape was much the same as with analogue tape. The MC-8’s copy, paste and transpose capability made it truly a composition tool. We could throw an idea in there and manipulate it as we went – a way of working we take for granted these days but completely revolutionary at that time. 

What was it like working with the Fairlight?
We worked with the Fairlight Series 1. It was revolutionary but, being first generation, it was a limited machine. The sample length was only a few seconds, with a sample rate of 24K which meant the frequency response only went up to 12Khz (if I recall correctly). It was an ornery machine [chuckles] I remember the first day we got it we had it up on the table in my home studio in Camberwell, and I remember thinking that it cost more than my house (at that time). We read in the manual (no YouTube in those days): ‘Initialize Fairlight.’ John and I were wracking out brains trying to figure out what “Initialize Fairlight” could possibly mean. I realised that the Australians were in the office by this time, so I called them, they laughed and said, ‘It means, turn it on.’ It had a key for the on/off switch, so if you left it in the studio nobody could mess with it. It was a mind-blowing machine for the time. It was command line operation, no GUI – again – not user friendly at all. If you got a letter or a space wrong or if you forgot a specific command, nothing would happen. We were diving into the manual frequently. But it was another life-changing machine because you could record anything into it and play it back in real time, change the pitch, play chords – things that had never been possible previously. However, it did not accurately reproduce an acoustic sound, but it did reproduce real world sounds with a very appealing quality. The Fairlight vocal samples were used for many years after much higher quality options were available. 

JJ Jeczalik (Art Of Noise) was one of our roadies at that time and was introduced to the Fairlight with us and then went to work for Trevor Horn after I had worked on the Buggles Age of Plastic album. JJ learned to programme it and that’s how ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart‘ and the Art Of Noise project came about. 

How did MIDI change how you made records?
It really did change things. Once we started programming things into the MC-8 and driving various synths with it we realised that a universal communications bus [a synching method that allowed different synthesisers to talk to each other] would really expand the tone palette. We discussed it with Roland, and they had a universal communications bus on the Jupiter 8, it was on a 16-pin connector. But it wasn’t universal. Various companies came up with different communications buses that weren’t compatible with the others so until MIDI we were limited to synths that used the same voltage-per-octave protocol. We couldn’t use some synthesisers for this reason. Fortunately, Oberheim, Moog, Roland, and other companies, all used one volt per octave. It was a complete shock when Dave Smith and Ikutaro Kakehashi released MIDI with no license fee. If they’d made a thousandth of a penny for every device that has subsequently used it that would have added up to a lot of money. 

Is it comparable with Betamax and VHS where one system would have eventually won out?
In the sense that you can’t play VHS on a Beta machine, yes. Two or more incompatible formats like that usually hurts the whole market. Standards are a good thing even though manufacturers tend to try to create walled gardens. Having said that, very few people were trying to connect multiple synthesisers at that time so if the Yamaha DX7 had come out without MIDI, it still would have been hugely successful because it sounded like no other synth. Likewise, the Korg M1, Roland D50, and the Juno 6. Once again, it was machines like the MC-8 that really exposed the problem. Before that if you wanted two different synths on a part you would just manually overdub them. When we started programming parts that seemed like a clunky way to do things and you couldn’t hear the result until the various parts were on tape. On the downside, MIDI enabled what I used to call MIDI hell where people would gang up multiple synths (because they could) and create some sort of non-descript string, brass, bell, Fender Rhodes type of pad sound that had zero character. 

There’s something beautiful about the earlier periods of synthesis where the sounds were distinctly synthetic. We never tried to make anything sound like an acoustic instrument. We were interested in extending the tone palette and the function of the sound in the track. But that wasn’t how some musicians looked at it and especially with sampling. Even when we did a horn section on tracks like ‘Shake the West Awake’ on The Tea-Rooms… album, we didn’t programme them out of necessity (because we had a horn section in Landscape), rather we were trying to use the MC-8 and the synths to do things we couldn’t or wouldn’t do as players. We were extending not only the tone palette but also going beyond what a human musician could play. I programmed drum fills that were so fast that they were unplayable.

The MIDI device I used on a lot of productions was the Linn 9000. It had such a classic sound and I love the feel that it generates – the timing feels really locked into the groove to me and that was true of all of Roger Linn’s devices. At one point, I moved to the Atari 1040 ST running SMPTE track because using a VDU was lot easier than squinting at that little LCD screen on the Linn. I could access all my MIDI preset changes on the computer screen, which was life-changing, but I still laid my drums from the Linn 9000 because it had a very stable clock and a better feel than drums coming off the Atari. The gradations on the shuffle function were very cool. Even a tiny amount of swing stops that rhythmic stiffness.

The 9000s had their issues, but persevering with them was worth it. I saw Roger Linn at the Grammys a few years ago and I said, ‘I still have a Linn 9000, Roger’. He looked at me with the most serious look and said, ‘I’m really sorry’ [laughs]. But that machine was another significant step forward in music tech and the basic design still underpins the Akai MPC series machines.

I always tried to make my hi-hat parts sound natural with a real feel. I spent a lot of time working on those parts on both the MC-8 and the Linn, so that the 16th notes wouldn’t be all the same volume and tonal quality. But, on many records at that time, Madonna for example, they would just hold down the repeat button, press the pad and all the eighths or sixteenths would all be the same volume and tone. It became a sound and style of its own. When more artists started using synths, we had a term in Landscape: “Page 1 Sounds and Page 1 Programming” meaning that they were using presets and doing the most basic programming. Some producers would get the synths early and use the basic presets before anyone else got them on record. You could hear immediately that they were using Sound 1, Bank 1 on machines like the Jupiter 8. For us that was unthinkable. We almost never used unedited preset sounds. But there are no rules and that’s a good thing. 

You said in another interview you’d been interested in experiments at Stanford and IRCAM and I was wondering what experiments they were? 
John Chowning was working on computer-generated sounds and music at Stanford. I used to read Computer Music Journal and I was completely fascinated by what was happening with the first digitisation and digital emulation of acoustic instruments. At the same time, I had been in touch with Andy Moorer, also of Stanford, but who was working at IRCAM in Paris during that period. These conversations and research were all about the digitisation and digital creation of musical sounds (as opposed to the analogue additive synthesis that we and everyone else was working with at the time). I went to a John Chowning concert, at St. Johns in Westminster. They set up a 360° quad system and a sound that started out as a trumpet, way off to the right and appearing to be outside the church, that moved across the church, through your head and then gradually mutated into a violin and disappeared out the other side of the church. These were computer generated sounds. That was intriguing and right on the technological cutting edge at that time. When you work with additive synthesisers you quickly realise that you need a lot of oscillators and wave-shapers to get close to the detail of some analogue sounds. Oscillators, Filters and ADSR/VCAs were expensive in that time of discrete electronics before all the circuitry moved to ICs (integrated circuits) or micro-chips as we referred to them in ‘European Man’. We were right on the cusp of that revolution, and it was very exciting. It was Chowning’s research into FM (frequency modulated) synthesis that led to the revolutionary Yamaha DX7 in 1983. The DX7 quickly became a definitive part of the sound of eighties music. 

Once we got into synthesis it became clear that we could create acoustic instrument-like sounds. There were two ways to approach this, one was recreating an acoustic sound that was imperceptible from the acoustic instrument, the other was to create sounds that functioned like acoustic instruments but had different timbres. The latter was my approach with the SDS-V drum synthesiser. I knew that relatively inexpensive digital samples were around the corner, but I also knew that the possibility of making digital samples responsive to a player’s touch was probably not within a year or two. It was not difficult to get very sensitive volume control, but acoustic instruments don’t just change in volume when you play them harder or softer or in a different place, other qualities change as well. I was more interested in the instantaneous control of the sound by the player than I was by the the sound being the same as a real drum. I also didn’t want it to sound exactly like a real drum, that seemed pointless to me. I wanted something that was like a drum on steroids out of the box without needing tons of processing. That was why I pursued the additive analogue synthesis approach with the SDSV and not a digital one. 

Some acoustic sounds are easier to synthesize than others, for instance: xylophone, marimba, steel drums. The synth sounds on ‘Popcorn,’ are easy. Sounds with complex harmonics either need many oscillators or high bandwidth digital samplers. It was only a matter of time before digital was perfected (based on Moore’s Law) and that’s why I was following CMJ, Stanford, and IRCAM. When the Fairlight came out it was like a bolt out of the blue. No-one was discussing the possibility of a portable commercial digital sampling device. The Fairlight CMI Series I, was not a desktop or laptop device it was a mini computer. It could barely fit in the trunk of my car and all the boards needed reseating every time the machine was moved. Stanford and IRCAM had much more powerful IBM mainframe computers and I’d imagined we were ten years from a device like the Fairlight, this is why I flew out to Australia to see it because it was so surprising and exciting. 

I want to ask you about ‘Trapped’ by Colonel Abrams, which you produced. Larry Levan had these different versions that he played. Do you remember anything about this? 
Colonel was signed to Arthur Baker’s label, Streetwise, before I met him. I believe that what Larry played for you might have been an early demo. I might have a cassette of it. Colonel didn’t have a deal and his manager wanted me to make a demo. I did it at Right Track Studios in NYC. I’d just moved to New York and all I had with me was a Linn drum, a Juno 106 and a DX7. It wasn’t my set up by any means, I had a home studio full of incredible equipment in London, but I used what I had in NYC. Interestingly, there’s a part I left off my mix which is that de-de-da flute thing. I recorded it but I felt that it interfered with the groove but when Timmy Regisford did his remix, he left it in. I learned from that to erase anything I don’t like. I tried every drum pattern I could come up with to make the groove not four to the bar kickdrum. I wanted it to be a funk track. In the end, I realised it came alive as a four to the bar, so I went with it. We recorded that track as a 12-inch version, and I had to cut it down to make the 7-inch/radio version. Cutting tape was always a bit fraught, you never knew whether the edit would work or not until you’d done it and then it was difficult to undo or fix an edit that didn’t work. I will say that that was a fun record to make. 

You know, that quote in your book [Last Night A DJ Saved My Life] about disco never going away is so true. Spandau Ballet’s ‘To Cut a Long Story Short’ was a four to the bar groove. That feel is a long running continuum. Gene Krupa used a heavy four to the bar on the kick drum – we don’t hear it very well on those records because they just couldn’t record kick drums so well in those days because they overloaded the equipment. Your book is so brilliant, and you nailed the fact that the DJs are the progenitors of these scenes. I developed much respect for DJs when I wrote the first Art of Record Production book. As I examined the reasons DJs become successful producers i realised they’re perfectly positioned because they are testing tracks on live audiences every night. I think a significant reason why I had success as a producer was because I played in top 40 bands as a kid, and playing all hits all the time imbues you with the sound and feeling of hit records. DJs get instant feedback from the dancefloor about a track. Eventually the qualities of a hit become intuitive – you know instantly whether something’s gonna work or not. 

I don’t think sampling is significantly different to the Stones ripping off blues licks, really though, is it?
Yeah, I agree with you, the law is out of step. Eric Clapton allegedly buried himself in John Mayall’s amazing blues collection when he lived with John and you’re right, where’s the difference between that and what happened in hip hop the way Kool Herc and Flash did it with sampling later. The reuse of recorded music is fundamental to hip-hop but made very difficult because of antiquated licensing systems. I tried to license a remix from Steinski for the Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap. With all those samples and the way they have to be licensed, I could not get the licenses. That is problematic in my view and does not respect the history and methodologies of hip-hop, which is especially egregious when you consider how much money the major labels make from hip-hop these days.  

Is it true you got Gil Evans to play on a Hot Gossip record? 
It is true. 

How the hell did it happen?
John L. Walters and I were commissioned to produce Hot Gossip. I think it was 1981. I worked nearly every day that year including Christmas Day. My production career was taking off like a rocket, and I wanted to take advantage of what was happening. Shock’s managers also managed Hot Gossip, they asked me to do it. We cleared our plan with Arlene Phillips, flew out to LA (where she was working on a movie) and used Harvey Mason on drums along with an incredible array of some of the top musicians in the world. We talked about the idea of getting Gil Evans in and when we got back to the UK it turned out he was in London doing a show. We were at the Manor Studios in Oxford finishing up recording. We called him and David Sanborn who was also there. We sent them a limo. David did eight solos. The first was incredible and the other seven just as good. Gil came up with him. and kept saying I’m not a pianist. He squatted down on the shag pile carpet underneath the grand piano in the Manor, smoked a pipe of hash and then got on the piano and nailed it. 

Sadly, the album was never released. When we were done, Arlene decided she didn’t like it. They re-did it with Heaven 17. They probably wanted a purely electronic record like the Shock tracks. We gave them a much more sophisticated record. One of the bugbears of being a producer is that you get stereotyped. I try to never repeat myself. Probably not the best commercial strategy but much more satisfying creatively. Our record did leak out and picked up some rave reviews. It was a lost opportunity for Hot Gossip.