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.