Jon Tiven talks to Gus Dudgeon about Elton, Bowie and recording in general.
Gus Dudgeon may well be the single most successful rock producer around today, writes Jon Tiven, but half a decade ago, he was slogging around, producing Ralph McTell, The Strawbs and the Bonzo Dog Band. Here he talks about his working relationship with Elton John and his recording track record.
You began your career working as an engineer at Olympic with Andrew Oldham and others. What was it like working with Andrew?
It was okay, though Andrew was a very strange character. In those days he stuck out like a sore thumb because there really was no one else, at least in this country, that was like him. He had a publicity company, I think it was called 'Impact' or something, so he wasn't strictly a producer. Somehow he fell into it, more by luck than by anything else.
Also, at the same time, I knew Glyn Johns. Glyn was working at IBC, which was the only other independent studio around – we're talking about twelve years ago – so naturally all the engineers at Olympic knew all the engineers at IBC, and vice-versa. And Glyn, at the time, was occasionally doing D.J. work in a church hall round the corner from where I lived. I went down with him one week, and I remember him telling me that he'd seen a band called the Rolling Stones and that he was furious with Andrew Oldham because Andrew had stolen them from him.
Was Andrew a capable technical producer or was it necessary for him to rely on the engineers?
He relied on us totally. He had absolutely no idea how to put a sound together, or what echo was – nothing. All he knew was that there was something happening which he liked. I was something rebellious, going completely against the grain. It wasn't your normal type of session. I mean, the sessions I was doing at the time were with people like Frankie Vaughan, and Al Saxon, very straight sessions. Andrew, on the other hand, used to dance on the mixer occasionally. I think that just because Andrew was in the box dancing about, it helped the musicians to be more enthusiastic. They felt that there was somebody who maybe didn't know how to get the best out of them but at least appreciated what they were doing. The two guys that really got me going, if indirectly, were Andrew Oldham and Denny Cordell.
What was the first thing you produced? Were you mainly an engineer or did you try to guide them musically?
I tried to guide them, but I am not a musician. I don't profess to be able to play anything, and I wouldn't know a B flat from a Z blunt. I've just always been buying records and I can't even remember a time when this hasn't been so. That's very much like Andrew, I suppose. So I was more like a 'glorified engineer' and not really a producer for those sessions.
It used to really piss me off to see these idiots who set themselves up as producers trying to conduct a session and tell the musicians what to do and when to do it. I just couldn't believe the complete lack of understanding between the producers and the musicians just couldn't control their own destiny.
The way I work is, first of all, I never go out and look for acts. Never. I've never said to anyone, 'You're incredible, I want to take you into the studio.' Anyone I've ever worked with has either come to me through someone else I've worked with or they've rung me up out of the blue and asked me to take a look at them. So I know that they must have liked what I've done with somebody else, otherwise they wouldn't call me. I then try to get the artist into a position where he feels he can tell me what he wants and feel comfortable knowing that's what he'll get. To me, nothing is worse than misrepresenting an artist on record. It's such an easy thing for a producer to do, and he can do it to the point that the artist is happy with what he's got while knowing that it's not really him or her.
Which Small Faces sessions did you do?
I did the 'Sha-La-Lee' sessions, which was actually my first number one record as an engineer. Kenny Lynch produced it. But the two people that impressed me the most as artists back then were Eric Clapton and David Bowie. The two of them just seemed so far ahead of everything else that was going on, not just in what they were doing but in how they looked and the sort of things they were interested in. They didn't seem to fit into the normal type of act that would walk through the door.
I got on with Bowie really well. He was very easy to talk to, but he was also like a fish out of water. I don't know how the hell he ever got a record contract with Decca – I mean that is so bizarre as to be ridiculous. Decca was completely the wrong label for him. Nonetheless, we did things like 'The Laughing Gnome,' if you remember that one.
Anyhow, after that Bowie got into mime and I went to see a show he was in which was called something like 'Shades Of Turquoise'. This too was a bit weird because he did sing two songs in it, which is hardly what one is supposed to do in mime. And David was a kind of roundabout, with his arts lab and all, and we sort of drifted apart gradually. When he finally got a deal with Mercury, the company in its infinite wisdom wanted David's song 'Space Oddity' as a single because the first moon shot was happening at the same time. He already had his producer, Tony Visconti, who was working for Denny Cordell at the time and we were all working in the same suite of offices. One day, David came into my office and asked me if he could play me a demo to see how I felt about it. I flipped for it and told him it was fantastic. Straight away, he asked me if I'd like to produce it. He said Tony didn't like it and thought he had better material for a single. When I rang up Tony, he said I was welcome to do the A and B sides of the single, and that he would do the rest of the album. I just couldn't believe my luck, because it was just the sort of thing I love to get my teeth into. It was in need of production. It needed thought and it needed planning.
We sat down and spent two days planning just how we were going to do it. It came out, and instantly the BBC banned it. They said they weren't going to play any records that had anything to do with space because if the astronauts didn't come back, it would be weird for them. They thought they might get sued or something. I couldn't believe it. But then the astronauts did come back, and we started getting airplay again. I remember the record went in at number 45 and I was really happy, but the following week the bloody record dropped out again because eight other records sold better than it did. David got pushed out and I thought it was all over. Then the next week, it was back in again only a bit higher. Forty-one or forty-two, I think. From then on it was no problem. David went on Top Of The Pops and the record climbing until it hit number two or three.
I went on producing bits of the album that Tony was doing, but I didn't think that there was one song that either fitted with 'Space Oddity' or even sounded anything like David Bowie. 'Space Oddity' was so obviously the best thing he'd written in that collection of songs that I could never understand why Tony passed on the single. And I think in some ways he might have regretted it, although he still says he never liked it that much.
How do you feel about Bowie's later albums?
They're patchy, very patchy. I don't think David Bowie is properly produced. I've never thought so. And it's always amazed me that he produces other people because when we were doing 'Space Oddity', he got bored! And he got bored within two hours after the session started! Where he gets the energy or the interest to produce other people is totally beyond me. We probably would never have worked well together because of the enormous amounts of time I use to produce. I think three or four days of mixing the same track would drive him completely up the wall. He couldn't take that.
Let's talk about Elton. When did you first meet him ?
Well, that all came about through David Bowie's 'Space Oddity'. What happened was that I had done that album, and also had about three or four other hits for various artists at that time. But it was beginning to look as if it was going to take years to find just one artist with whom I could work and feel like it was a long term project. Not in terms of how long it would take before the artist became successful, but rather, I was looking for someone with whom I could identify and rely upon to be professional and to understand their career. I wanted someone who understood what they needed to do to be a star, because the Bonzos didn't know how to become stars, and Bowie was very flippant about the whole thing.
Elton had already been to see George Martin, and Martin agreed to do it if it was in his studios with his arrangements, the whole bit. Elton's people said they really only wanted him to produce it, so Martin passed. It was Paul Buckmaster, who they had already asked to arrange 'Your Song' and another, that suggested they go to see me. The second I heard the tape I thought, 'Shit! This is a whole different story – this is the game I want to get into!' I couldn't believe that out of the ten or fifteen songs that they played me, at least three quarters of them hit me straight off. By the third or fourth playing, I was completely hooked.
Did Elton seem confident to you at this first meeting?
He was very quiet, although he always dressed like a traffic light. Bernie was even quieter. But that first album was planned down to absolutely the last, tiniest little detail. Every string note, every drum break; we practically wrote everything down on paper in longhand.
I think that week when we made the album was the most exciting week I've ever been involved in. Extraordinary. I'll be very, very lucky if a week like that ever happens again.
Were there many people in the studio during the recording of that album, or were the sessions closed?
There were quite a few people, but of course Elton didn't know many musicians. There were only a couple of people he wanted to try, one of them being Caleb Quaye. I already had decided which drummer I wanted to use – Barry Morgan. Most of the musicians were people I had known for some time through previous sessions I had done as an engineer. But quite a lot of those tracks were laid down live. 'Your Song' was recorded totally live, with the exception of the vocal. When he walked in and saw an orchestra waiting to play his song I think he lost five pounds on the spot. We couldn't stop smiling when we left the studio for the day. It was ridiculous! We used to go to the pub for a drink and ask each other what the fuck was going on.
I felt as if it wasn't real. First of all, it was exactly what I wanted it to be, which doesn't very often happen. Moreover, it didn't sound like anything else that had ever happened before. It was completely unique. Basically, the way that Paul arranged the orchestra together with the rhythm section was so extraordinary that it just seemed to be completely fresh. I really wondered how people would take it.
Was the atmosphere for the Tumbleweed Connection sessions at all different?
Well, you have to remember that the first album was not a big album in America. It got very good press, in fact I remember articles which said 'This is the year of Elton John' and that sort of thing. But it wasn't a big album as far as the public was concerned.
Tumbleweed was done in a peculiar kind of way. Elton and Bernie had already written a number of songs and together we decided that we wouldn't be so tight with the format. We opted for slightly looser tracks – sometimes doing four or five songs a day. 'Come Down In Time', for example, we did first with a rhythm section but then got Paul to write an entire string arrangement instead. It was all very haphazard. We recorded quite a few things that were never used at all.
In your role as producer, what was the extent of your involvement in the 11-17-70 L.P.?
Originally, that was never intended to be used as an album. I'm afraid what happened was a bit of panic. First of all, I didn't come over with Elton to the States. They did an EM radio broadcast which was recorded on eight-track at the same time. It went out as a stereo broadcast, but in a matter of weeks it was being bootlegged. Personally, I didn't give a fuck whether or not they bootlegged it, but the record company started freaking. Elton asked me to have a listen to the tapes and see if I thought there was an album in them somewhere. After listening, I told him I didn't think much of it but that I supposed an album could be taken from it. And in the meantime, he had already committed himself to do the film Friends, which was another pain in the arse, and Paramount had decided that they were going to market that as if it were an official Elton album. So suddenly, a situation which had been very well-controlled had gone out of our control totally. Record companies were suddenly making decisions that they hadn't made before, and we were facing a situation where albums were coming out about once every two months, which is ridiculous.
By the time we got to Madman, it was as if he had had a two year career in about two months!
So naturally, when we went for Madman, I decided that we ought to go back to a formula similar to the way we'd done the first album. I wanted to make it clear to people that what had happened with Friends and 11-17-70 was not really an official situation. Personally, and if I'd had my way, 11-17-70 would never have come out. All we did with it was mix it, decide what was to go on it, and finish it up. It doesn't matter now, but I was really very worried at the time. And of course we were being accused of 'milking it'.
Madman Across The Water is still Elton's best-selling album. How do you feel about it in retrospect?
I've always liked Madman. A lot of people have knocked it, which I can't understand, because I feel it's a really good album. Last night I heard 'Indian Sunset' on the radio and it sounded very weird to me, although I don't know why it should. It sounded very contrived, and I suppose in many ways a couple of cuts on that album were sort of contrived.
I originally cut the album with Mick Ronson on guitar, but it came out very untogether. It sounded like Led Zeppelin playing Elton John. It was a bit schizophrenic. We then did it again with the orchestra. I don't know... I don't like the whole of that album, but I like a lot of it. Elton is always putting down 'Country Comfort' from Tumbleweed, saying that he hates it, but I've always liked that track. He says that it sounds contrived; I don't think that it does. I think it's really good. And yet there are other tracks which I dislike for the same reasons and Elton is quite fond of. It's strange.
And Honky Chateau?
That was probably the next most obvious high point for me. First of all, we abandoned the studio which we had gotten used to. Secondly, because Davey had joined the band, having never rehearsed with them or even ever played an electric guitar. He hardly even knew the guys in the band. Also, we were using a new engineer.
The whole thing was we were finally using the guys in the band for recording. There had been a lot of resentment because they were playing on the road and not on the records. They did one or two tracks, but that was it. So this was like the big test to see what would happen. We took so many gambles when we made that album, and when it turned out so well, I was shocked. I would say the next high point after that didn't come until Captain Fantastic, the new album. It's easily the best album he's ever made. I mean, Caribou I don't even want to talk about. I just think Caribou is pure crap from every point of view. The sound on it is the worst, the songs are nowhere, even the sleeve was wrong. The original artwork was great, but it turned out wrong. The lyrics weren't that good, the singing wasn't good, the production is just lousy. It's embarrassing. And then when I got nominated for the best produced album and the best produced single of the year, I just couldn't stop laughing. I consider that record to be the worst thing I've ever done.
I'll tell you what really aggravated me about Caribou. Up until that point, we had never really made what I thought was a bad album. The people I like most, like the Beach Boys, the Band, Van Morrison, these people quite frequently made 'average' albums. Sometimes they make really bad albums. But, up until Caribou, Elton had never really sunk below a certain level. Occasionally, there would be a track on an album which wasn't too great, but generally the standards were very high. To me, there wasn't one redeeming feature on Caribou, not one. And fortunately, in many ways, it taught us a lesson. It was done at the wrong time; the whole band had just come off a tour and they were just about to start a whole tour of Japan.
There was a lot of tension in the band at the time, and it was the first time, in fact, that I had ever had a quarrel with Elton. Normally, we get on incredibly well – never is there a bad word between us. But on that album, we actually fell out very badly at one stage. In the end, I felt the album to be very much a salvage job. The thing that really aggravated me was that the bloody album went to number five its first week on the charts.
What are your feelings about the last few singles, 'Philadelphia Freedom', for example?
I was very happy with the way that one came out.
Is Elton ever in with you for the mixes?
Elton never comes to any mixes. He doesn't come to any orchestral sessions, backing vocal sessions, nothing that doesn't directly involve him. The backing vocals are always the last thing we do, and Elton usually leaves. When I've got three or four mixes done, I usually send him a tape. I would say ninety-five per cent of the time he says 'great!', and just occasionally he'll say the piano could be louder or there's too much echo on his voice, something like that. It's great for me because I don't have him breathing over my shoulder. Nobody comes at all, I'm strictly on my own.
Is the planning for a song done before the session or do you just cut it and talk about it later?
The only time we ever just walked in and cut a track was for a few things near the end of Yellow Brick Road. Elton wrote 'Danny Bailey' in the morning and we recorded it in the afternoon, put the voice on in the evening. But that's unusual.
You have to remember, Elton doesn't write anything until he gets to the studio. Not a thing. He takes a bunch of lyrics, sticks 'em up on the piano, plays a chord, and he's on his way! If he hasn't got a song out of it in twenty minutes, he just forgets it. He wrote 'Rocket Man' in a half-hour during breakfast one morning at the Chateau. I saw him do it. When I look at the lyrics afterwards, I just don't know where he gets the inspiration from to start. I mean, when he starts, what makes him choose a particular chord? I don't know. A lot of people would spend an hour and a half just deciding what the first chord will be, and how the feel and the tempo will be. Elton just bangs it out and it's there.
Many people have said that your production on 'Rocket Man' was very similar to 'Space Oddity'. Was that on your mind at the time?
Well, I think unconsciously it was, but I wasn't thinking about it then.
Do you ever find yourself working with more than one artist? Does business get very hectic for you?
This will sound terrible, like I'm blowing my own trumpet, but in the last two years I've been offered Barbara Streisand, Paul McCartney, Mary Travers, Ten Years After, only this week someone asked me if I'd be interested in Rick Nelson. I've actually been offered Jack Jones!
Rod Stewart has said he wanted to work with you.
Silly, twisted boy... I've never worked with big names. What puzzles me is if they're a big name and if they're being produced well, what the fuck difference can I make? I pass on a lot of big artists because I think they make great records anyway. I like to go into the studio with an artist no one's ever heard of and I like to see success come out of it.
I had two number three hits with a guy called John Kongos. Now, no one had ever heard of John Kongos, but it was good music and I'm proud of his records. Even if they weren't hits, they were still good. The thing is that they were hits... that's where I get my buzz.
I think one of the best records you've ever done is the Audience album.
Audience? Let me tell you. I have just done a solo album with Howard Werth of Audience. It's probably the best album I've ever made. It's so good I just don't know how to tell you. And here's something else: we have just signed him to Rocket Records in America. His album is just incredible – would you believe I spent two years on it? I imagine it'll be out within the next two or three months.
You see, I'd get more of a buzz out of Howard becoming a star than if somebody rang me up and said, 'The Beatles are re-forming tomorrow. Would you like to produce them?'
We are also in the process of signing Colin Blunstone, who's a perfect example of what I've been saying. He's not been produced properly, he's not been doing the right songs, and he's got a superb voice. Also, I've known him ever since the Zombies. I'm going to take Colin into the studio, and pull out every stop I know of to make the guy a star.
Can you elaborate on the reasons for Nigel and Dee's recent departure from the band?
The exact reasons seem to be a bit confused, but as far as I can discover, Elton's felt for some time that a change was needed. I think he felt that he had taken the Elton John Band as far as it could go. Captain Fantastic is really a pinnacle for the group, and I think Elton was worried that maybe that is as far as could be gotten with this band. Rather than go on another tour and do another album, and then possibly discover that he couldn't take it any further, he opted to fold it at that point.
But you better watch out for the new band – I wish I could tell you about it but nothing's confirmed yet. But they'll be absolutely red hot. When they're announced, you'll have heard of every one of them. Davey is staying in the band. Ray Cooper too. There'll be two guitarists and two keyboards, a bass player, three vocalists... look out! Also, there are at least two Americans in the band.
How does Captain Fantastic differ from other Elton albums, in your opinion?
It's better, that's how it's different. First of all, it's the best they've ever played, and it's the best collection of songs they've ever had. There's not one song on the record that falls below incredible. From every conceivable point of view, everything that could be better is better.
Captain Fantastic, of course, is Elton, and the Brown Dirt Cowboy is Bernie, and all the songs are about them and how they got together. 'Tower Of Babel' is about Dick James Music, needless to say, and there's one song just about their feelings toward writing. It's a concept album, but then again it's not.
The whole thing is absolutely perfect. I can't fault it at all. I've even managed to get the best sound I've ever gotten in the production, and I've gotten the highest mastering level ever, despite the fact that side one is twenty-five and a half minutes long.
Unfortunately, it is also the most expensive single album ever put out in England. I think Elton feels badly about this, because he's just been saying to the press that he feels ticket and record prices are too high. But I think when you consider a double-sleeve jacket with two booklets, and the amount of material contained on the disc, plus the fact that it took a month to record and two months to mix, I feel it's worth it. I went to four cutting rooms to try to get the best cut. The amount of money and time and love that's gone into it makes it worth every penny.
Because this one seems like such a personal record, was Bernie there for all the sessions?
No, Bernie doesn't come any more because he finds that he just gets very bored sitting 'round at the ranch. He doesn't like to hear the things when they're being done, he just likes to hear the finished product. When I first played him the song about him saving Elton's life, he really couldn't take it. He'd been enjoying the album so much and when I played him a rough mix of that at the ranch, he just had to leave the room after that. You think about it. If you wrote a song about how you saved somebody's life, and it was an event which took place quite some time ago, and then to suddenly hear this extraordinary song... he just couldn't take it.
Bernie doesn't hear Elton's songs until they're finished?
I think in some cases he's never heard the songs – I think some of Yellow Brick Road he didn't hear them until they were more or less finished. Sometimes he hears all the songs for an album before we record them. But quite a few songs are written while we're recording, and those he doesn't hear until they're virtually finished.
Does Elton usually take a long time on his vocal tracks?
He's a bloody nuisance because he spoils me. I go into the studio, and he's got a bloody vocal done in about a half an hour or something stupid. Then you go in with another act and the vocals take three or four hours, which is quite normal. But you start to get itchy thinking these people are so fucking slow.
I know this sounds terrible because everything I've said about him has been so great that people think afterward, 'the guy just cannot be that great'. But I don't know anybody, with the exception of people who basically don't like what Elton stands for, who've been disappointed by him when they've met him. He's easy to get on with, he's no problem. I can't fault him. He is, really and genuinely, a very extraordinary person.
He also seems to be very self-disciplined.
Oh, come on. He makes all his albums when he's supposed to, be looks after himself, body and mind. He just knows what he's doing. And when you work with people that aren't quite as together, it makes you appreciate him even more.
What's your favourite aspect of recording?
I think when you're about two takes away from an incredible master. The feeling that the master is just around the corner, just wait ten minutes and it's coming. It could be a master anything – guitar track, rhythm track... out when you know it's coming and you're encouraging it... that's the most exciting point, just that feeling.
When I make a record, I make it for myself. If I was working with somebody where I was constantly going to have to make records with the public tastes in mind, I wouldn't want to do it. I make records for my own satisfaction. This isn't a job for me, it's more like a huge hobby. That's what it is, a huge hobby.
Interview by Jon Tiven
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