Chas de Whalley chats to Chris Neil
When Chris Neil and I spoke briefly on the telephone to fix up the time and place for this interview he referred to himself as being 'basically a bit of a whore...' and the remark stayed bouncing around in my head for days.
What could he have meant by it? Obviously I had to ask.
"Did I really say that?" laughed this relaxed and down-to-earth Northerner.
"Ah, well, I suppose what I meant was that really you go out to the bidder, don't you? Being an independent record producer means you get hired and fired by record companies."
So the remark had nothing to do with the fact that, while some record producers are renowned for the 'seriousness' of their work, Chris Neil's name is invariably linked with out-and-out, shameless, ultimately harmless Pop music. The kind that is listened to and loved by millions but is hardly likely to change the face of Western Civilisation as we know it. After all, a quick run down the list of Neil's most successful clients over the years reveals names like Paul Nicholas, Dollar, David Essex, Sheena Easton, Leo Sayer, Dennis Waterman, and Shakin' Stevens. Only the inclusion of Marshall Hain, Amazulu and Genesis man Mike Rutherford's Mike and the Mechanics, suggests the kind of credibility with which a world class producer is supposed to be associated.
So could Chris Neil have been making the sort of value judgement on his own work he might expect from a vitriolic Rock paper hack?
On the telephone, maybe. But certainly not by the time we met face to face in the sumptuous surroundings of Andy Hill's Comforts Place studio deep in the heart of Surrey. Chris Neil spoke with the pride and self-assurance of a man who long ago realised exactly his own strengths and weaknesses and was not ashamed by any of them.
"I love Pop music. I've tried not to but whenever I hear a good new Pop record, even if it is on the lightweight side, it's like all my faith in Pop music gets re-affirmed.
"The fact of the matter is, you see, that there will always be a corner of the market there for Pop music. It will never go away because there will always be 13 and 14 year olds who want to buy records. That age group is by and large totally unaware of any artistic or ideological considerations. But that's fine. You can't follow people through life. If there is a permanent demand for that kind of music then I don't see why I shouldn't cater for it."
And the reason why Chris Neil is so successful, and has survived the blitzkrieg of Punk which, thankfully, wiped most of the old Tin Pan Alley Pop producers right off the map, is really quite simple. He rarely looks down at his audience or asks them to settle for some lowest common denominator. Instead he exerts the sort of quality control on every aspect of his work which denotes a true professional. If he were a tailor you might choose to dislike the men who wear his suits but you'd be hard pressed to fault the cut, the fit and the stitching that went into them. So what attracts this master craftsman to a new and unknown act?
"The first thing I listen for is songs. I couldn't care less about the image, whether there's a big buzz in the music press or how much the record company are committed. If there aren't the songs there to excite or titillate me then I'm not really interested.
"Funnily enough, over the years record companies have come to me to cast the songs for acts who can't write. They realise I'm a song man and so they come to me and say 'We've got this artist. He's written a few things himself, but they're not really strong enough for singles, can you go out and find some for us.' So like an old-fashioned producer I'm going round the publishing companies all the time because cassettes from publishers are like my life-blood. If they stop coming I'm knackered.
"You see, as Mickey Most used to say, you either record a song or make a record. What he meant by that was that some records are great as records because they're a collection of riffs with great sounds but you can't whistle them. Others are just great songs so all you need do is record them and leave them alone".
Chris Neil is a firm believer in great songs. If a song has been a hit once then he reckons it stands a good chance of being a hit again. And he points to Dollar's I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Shakin' Stevens' reappraisal of Ricky Nelson's It's Late and Amazulu's remakes of the old New Orleans classic Don't You Just Know It and the Chi-Lites Too Good To Be Forgotten as perfect examples. Then again he is also constantly on the lookout for brand new material, and it comes to him in all shapes and sizes.
"Unless you've written a Vincent, voice and guitar demos aren't really enough any more. But, nevertheless, demos should be taken for what they are and adapted. There's always a problem with a demo. The hook is too late or too early or simply isn't there at all. The trick is sorting out the problems and putting it into the perspective of a three minute single. Which is like a little one act play as far as I'm concerned. When you can do that and get the entrances and exits, the beginning middle and end sorted out then you've cracked it. The way I do it is to make a ¼" copy of the cassette and try out some edits, move the different sections into an order I feel will work.
"But a lot of people listen to a demo and think that is the way they've got to record it. Even A&R men who should know a bit better. I frequently go into meetings with A&R guys with tapes of songs I want to do with their artiste and I sing along with extra harmonies and they look at me sometimes as if I'm mad. But you have to do it.
Imagination is not one of your average A&R man's great fortes. But it has to be a producer's. You live on it. If you get a God-awful demo of a song like Dancing In The City which is 25 minutes long then you have to be able to wade in there, get the scalpel out and cut it down to three minutes."
Ah Yes. Dancing In The City by Marshall Hain. That atmospheric mid tempo dance classic from 1979 was by no means Chris Neil's first huge international success. But it was the one which made him decide to take up production full-time. Previously he'd spent much of his working years either as a songwriter for RAK or an actor, appearing in West End Musicals like Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. There he befriended Paul Nicholas and was soon reckoned to be the only man who could make this frantic and nervous young actor deliver as well in a studio as he did on stage.
"I was summoned to Robert Stigwood's office with Paul one day and Stiggy said: 'Paul here has more front than Selfridges, but he's just been through about 10 producers in the last seven days and can't settle with any of them. You've got some music and you're a friend of his. You have a go.' Quite by accident we met Dominic Bugatti and Frank Musker at a party and they wrote Reggae Like It Used To Be, Dancing With The Captain, Grandma's Party, Heaven On The Seventh Floor. And they were all hits for us."
Big hits too, in both the USA and on the Continent. But it was Dancing In The City which was the stylistic blockbuster. Julian Marshall and Kit Hain were newly signed to EMI when Neil was handed a cassette of demos in the hope he might care to produce them. Dancing In The City blew him away so much he never bothered to listen to the other tracks before accepting the gig!
"The demo version went on and on for about 25 minutes. There was nothing on it except these incredibly atmospheric two or three piano chords and the vocal. I thought it was absolutely brilliant, cos I love empty things with a lot of daylight in them. That record was the first in Britain to feature Syndrums. We cut it at Utopia, and Peter Van Hooke whom I always use as my drummer had just taken delivery of one of the first set of Syndrums in the country.
If I was making that record today, of course, I'd probably sequence the bass line and the drum pattern. Poor old Peter suffered on that because although it was sparse it was really quite a complicated drum pattern. In fact it was a steal from 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover. Nowadays I'd probably put the drums and the bass through the Fairlight and it would probably be even more atmospheric."
As atmospheric, but from a totally different perspective, was Dennis Waterman's I Could Be So Good For You, the theme from ITV's 'Minder' series, which is another of Chris Neil's triumphs. Recorded at Audio International, Neil remembers trying to give the song a ragtime bar-room feel by asking the large horn section to blow head arrangements, playing live with the rhythm section with just about everything going to tape through overhead ambience mikes. And he even made a cameo TV appearance, playing himself, on 'The Big Time' show which introduced Sheena Easton to the world. That association lasted three years, three albums and a brace of hit singles including 9 To 5, Modern Girl and the James Bond film theme For Your Eyes Only.
But all this is to dwell in the past, when we should really bring the Chris Neil story bang up to date. While we spoke he was enjoying regular UK hits with the all-girl Reggae band Amazulu as well as a Top Ten album in the United States with Mike Rutherford's 'debut album' as Mike and The Mechanics and the single Silent Running. Both projects prove that Chris Neil, in cohorts with his current engineer Simon Hurrell, has more than kept abreast of all the most recent studio techniques. And courtesy of keyboard programmers like Adrian Lee and Ian Wherry, Chris Neil seems to have discovered the knack of making almost totally sequenced records sound as dynamic and 'human' as possible. But that side of the production process is still very much of secondary consideration.
"I prefer to concentrate on the arrangement and the performance of the vocal because that to me is the most essential part of a record. Because it's the singer who makes you believe a record. When you first listen to something it's the singer who always grabs the attention. It's only on the third time of listening that you realise the LSO is on it in the background. Primarily everybody listens to the singer and the song."
Interview by Chas de Whalley
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