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The Producers

Terry Britten

Article from International Musician & Recording World, December 1986

The man who made AOR respectable? Terry Britten confesses all to Chas de Whalley

Terry Britten's the one with the beard

Being the facetious fellow that I am and being sat opposite Terry Britten, the bearded and notoriously straight-talking Aussie who wrote and produced Tina Turner's classic What's Love Got To Do With It — what can I do but put on my best Alan Whicker voice and ask how it feels to be the man who single-handedly made AOR Rock respectable? So how does it feel to be the man who single-handedly made AOR rock respectable Terry?

"Dunno," he replied through his beard. "I don't know anything about that categorisation crap. They're all just songs to me."

And one more smart-alec journalist chews the carpet. Nevertheless, Terry Britten is more than happy to concede the notion that the runaway success of Tina Turner's Private Dancer album, on which he shared production credits with Rupert Hine, John Carter and the Heaven 17 mob of Martyn Ware and Greg Walsh, reverberated seriously round the A&R departments of the world's major record companies.

"Before Private Dancer it was virtually unheard of to use four different producers on one album. If you did it was taken as a sign that the album had either been cobbled together in a hurry or else the artist wasn't really that good and all the producers involved had bailed out at the earliest opportunity. Now the record companies believe that it's hard for one person to get 10 or 12 great songs together. For years now everbody's complained about albums where there's only two good tracks and forget the rest. I'm certain that's why they came out with programmable decks and everything else so that you could skip the other six tracks and just listen to the ones you like."

So the brief for both Private Dancer and the recently released follow-up Break Every Rule wasn't just that every song had to be great but the each had to be good enough to be a single in its own right or else it wouldn't be included. According to Britten, all the production teams hired for Break Every Rule — which also meant Mark Knopfler and Neil Dorfsman, Bryan Adams and Bob Clearmountain, and Rupert Hine — were only too aware of the ground rules and accepted them. Terry Britten in particular rose to the challenge with six tracks, gracing the entire first side of the album. Of those, five were his own compositions, co-written with Graham Lyle and including the album's lead single Typical Male. The sixth track was a brand new David Bowie song called Girls.

"It was Bowie who first got Capitol interested in reviving Tina's career anyway. When he was in New York playing them the finished mixes of the Let's Dance album in 1983 he told them she was his all-time favourite performer and they remembered she was on their books. Bowie took Capitol's John Carter down to see her at a club date and she blew him away. That's how the story goes anyway. David had this song Girls for Tina but he was too busy to produce it himself. So they asked me to do it. That was pretty terrifying because the day we finished it they took it across to him and I had to sit and sweat to see what he thought of it. Fortunately he liked it. All I had to work from was a Portastudio demo with a drum machine and a keyboard and Bowie's voice.

"Otherwise I only want to produce my own songs, because I'm more interested in writing than producing. I've seen it happen with a lot of people. They start producing and go from one project to the next and the writing stops. I'm always worried that might happen to me."

When Terry Britten says he's seen a lot of people go down any particular route he knows what he's talking about, because he's been around long enough to have read the book as well as see the movie too. He came to the UK from Australia in 1969 and quickly established himself as a top session guitarist playing on big hits by the likes of The New Seekers, Alvin Stardust and Cliff Richard. Thinking on his feet became a speciality.

"At one stage I was doing three sessions a day, five days a week. I can't read music, but I got a reputation for having good ideas and so I used to get called in if anybody wanted a riff or a solo. I was on Never Ending Song Of Love for the New Seekers. I finished the rhythm tracks and the producer asked me to come back the next day to do a solo in a James Burton/Jerry Reed style. I'd never played Country guitar at all and I was really worried about it. I went home, switched on the TV and who should be guesting on the Tom Jones Show but Jerry Reed! What a coincidence. I think he was playing Guitar Man which he wrote for Elvis Presley. Anyway, they had a close-up of his right hand and I realised he was claw-picking between his thumb and first finger. I was fascinated. So I got my guitar out, taught myself the technique that evening, and then went into the studio the next day and knocked out the solo on the first take. It was my first Country solo ever and it went to number one in America."

Shortly afterwards Britten was offered a gig in Cliff Richard's band, toured with the man for almost eight years and had the pleasure of seeing him cover more than 30 Britten compositions as album tracks, B sides and A sides alike. Devil Woman was the first big hit, making Number 3 in the US in 1976. One of Britten's first productions was Cliff's Rock 'n'Roll Juvenile album, the one that spawned Alan Tarney's classic We Don't Talk Any More. Of course, that was also the only track on the LP Britten didn't produce. But he had 10 other songs there to his credit, including the tearful Carrie and the zany Hot Shot which were both co-written with BA Robertson. Consequently the Scot and the Aussie developed a writing and producing relationship which resulted in Robertson seeing himself on Top Of The Pops with singles like Bang Bang and Knocked it Off.

"That was really the limit of my production experience until Tina came along. And I only got offered the gig with her because they liked my demos and couldn't find anyone else to produce them. Obviously I jumped at the opportunity. Not just because of who she was but because I was fed up with people recording my songs, smoothing them all out, and losing all the atmosphere."

Again it was a case of the songs leading the way for the production. Songs written this time with former McGuiness Flint and Gallagher and Lyle man Graham Lyle.

"What's Love Got To Do With It was the first song we ever wrote together and Afterglow from the new LP was the second. Originally we wanted to cut it with Tina for the first album but we ran out of time and had to shelve it until now.

"Billy Livesy suggested that Graham and I get together. Graham came over with his acoustic guitar and even though I haven't written on acoustic for years I thought I'd give it a go. We were strumming away on some wishy washy stuff and both looking at our watches and yawning. It wasn't going at all well. Round about 4pm I said. 'This isn't happening. Have you ever written with a drum machine?' and he said no because he was basically suspicious of electronics. But I worked up a feel on the machine, got the electric guitar out with a nice sound on it and we wrote the music to What's Love Got To Do With It in a couple of hours and finished off the lyric the next day!"

Not only did the song win Terry Britten a Grammy, the American Music industry's most coveted award, but the great American public, on a Dick Clark phone-in, recently voted it the song of the decade 1975-85, ahead of anything by Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder or any of the other US giants. For Terry Britten the songwriter that was the greatest thrill of all.

As for Terry Britten the producer, he works almost entirely at Mayfair with studio boss John Hudson, constantly at his side in the engineering chair. Apart from the odd bit of knob twiddling here and there Britten has learned to leave the desk well alone to concentrate on the music. Which is something you have to do if you're drum programmer, guitarist, bass player, guide vocalist and back-up singer combined. Not surprisingly Terry Britten is the kind of producer who prefers to finish off a track to his own satisfaction before letting the artist anywhere near the studio.

"With Tina Turner I usually work up the backing track until I think that there's enough there for her to go on, without going overboard on the bits and pieces. Because the vocal will determine how much more the track needs and in my book the less that's required the better it is. Especially with a singer of Tina's calibre, you don't have to go for too many gimmicks because she's such a focus. She has such a powerful personality on tape. You want to build around her rather than have her fighting through loads of other junk.

"We enjoy a very good relationship now. She trusts me implicitly. When I've got the track ready for her she just comes in, gets her vocal down in a couple of hours at the most and then goes again saying 'You know where I am if you need me.'

"It was a little more difficult when we first started working together on What's Love because she really didn't like the song. Over the years she'd got herself locked into thinking she was nothing but a Rock 'n' Roll screamer. In fact she told me when we first met that she thought What's Love was a throwaway Pop number her manager and her record company wanted her to do.

"Of course, it opened up a whole new thing for her. She began trying to take the song at full tilt right from the start. But I said 'No. We've got to start it quietly and build it all the way through. You can wail at the end'. That meant she had to rethink her style of singing totally, and put lots of emotion in there while at the same time hardly singing at all. The song had to sound very intimate, and she'd never done that sort of singing before. Afterwards she told me that, it was the hardest vocal she'd ever had to do in her life."

For Terry Britten the secret of a good record lies in the vocal performance and, while he offloads many of the usual producers' burdens onto his engineer John Hudson, he gives vocals his full and undivided attention. And even when working with a singer as quick and professional as Tina Turner he's right there leaning on the talkback button.

"We discuss attitude and interpretation more than tuning or phrasing. I try to tell Tina where I feel the singer of the song is coming from, if you see what I mean. She is very quick to pick up on what I'm trying to say. Funnily enough, though, she had a completely different idea of What's Love Got To Do With It than Graham or I. She took it on face value. What's love got to do with it? Let's get it on. But we wrote the song from the viewpoint that love had everything to do with it but the singer just couldn't admit it. Tina's interpretation made it half humorous in a way but for us it had always been a tender love song."


Cliff Richard Carrie (EMI)
BA Robertson Bang Bang (WEA)
BA Robertson Knocked It Off (WEA)
Tina Turner What's Love Got To Do With It (Capitol)
Tina Turner Typical Male (Capitol)

Cliff Richard Rock 'n' Roll Juvenile (EMI)
Tina Turner Private Dancer (Capitol) (3 tracks)
Tina Turner Break Every Rule (Capitol) (Six tracks)

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Publisher: International Musician & Recording World - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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International Musician - Dec 1986

Recording World

Interview by Chas de Whalley

Previous article in this issue:

> Studio Diary

Next article in this issue:

> Track Record: Rain or Shine

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