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The Producers

Richard Burgess

Article from International Musician & Recording World, May 1985

Chas de Whalley interviews Richard Burgess


Burgess - stopped making records for radio

"I'm not a minimalist as such. But I do like to get to the essence of things and say just what's needed and no more. To make the the right statement with the minimum of effort. Like a good athlete who achieves a kind of beauty with the simplicity of his or her movement. That's really the way I think about record production."

Traditionally drummers are ridiculed as the dumbest of the dumb, not given to philosophy or theorising. Somehow or other over the years we've all received the same signal: singers, keyboard players, even guitarists are the bright boys in the band. Who needs a brain, let alone reasoning power, just to be the man who sits at the back giving stick to the skins? It's a mug's game and any fool can do it, right?

Wrong. Horribly wrong. And if there exists any one man in the world today to prove just how dreadfully wrong those petty prejudices really are then it must be Richard James Burgess. Yes, it may come as a shock to you, but the man who wrote Landscape's Einstein a Go Go and produced all Spandau Ballet's classic Young Romantic sides from To Cut A Long Story Short to Paint Me Down and Chant No. 1 is, or rather was, a drummer by profession with a long history on both the session and New Faces circuits before he ever sat behind a mixing desk. He was also in there on the ground floor with Dave Simmons, developing the original electronic drum kit back in the late Seventies. And, only a year or so later, he joined Peter Gabriel as one of the first two private individuals in this country to take delivery of the revolutionary Fairlight synthesizer. For a drummer Richard James Burgess is most certainly switched on.

But more of all that later because at this very moment our man is talking about King, whom he also produces, and whose Love And Pride made Number Two in the UK charts more than a year after it was made and a good nine months after it was first released. Quite by coincidence it's also playing in the background on the radio as we speak. Or is it coincidence? After, all there's something almost magical about Richard Burgess' piercing stare, his gaunt features and his mane of jet black hair. He could easily have been a wizard, conjuring up radio play out of thin air. If, that is, he weren't so charming, down-to-earth and given to conversation in an unusual Mid Atlantic accent which has blurred his native New Zealand almost completely.

I had ventured the opinion/criticism that both the single and the rest of King's Steps In Time album actually suffered from a lumpy production and that, rather than melding together into the grand designs that Paul King's passionate delivery seemed to demand, the various instruments and their parts existed instead like blobs of sound spinning independently of one another in rather too much space. At least that's what it sounded like on my home stereo. But listen to it over a quality sound system in a club, mind, and you really begin to appreciate the difference and relish the depth and dynamics of those sparse arrangements. Burgess was certainly hip to the critique.

"Obviously there are ways you work which are a mystery to yourself. But I do like space and I consciously work towards putting less on a record rather than more. I'm working on a new King single at the moment and that is about as close to a live thing as you can get without simply putting up the mikes and getting the band to bash it out. It may seem like non-production to some people. But production is a hot word in this business and a lot of people have some pretty strange ideas of what it all means. They think it's about operating this computer or that echo machine or simply getting an amazing snare sound. That is all a part of production, obviously, but for me it's more a question of getting the chemistry to work. There are some great pieces of production which are quite horrible sounding records. Like I really went for Van Halen's Jump. But if you listen to it on a good stereo it's terribly middly and the top and bottom are kind of weird. But the chemistry is right on that record. It has an electric quality to it. I always thought Love and Pride, the song, had a virile optimism and so that's a lot more stuff on the multi-track which never made it onto the final mix. For me a mix is a state of leaving things out and trying to do without stuff.

"But there is more to it than that. There are certain producers who adopt the attitude that they are more important than the artist who is making the record. But to my mind the producer is there to try to realise the vision that the artist has in his head but may lack the vocabulary to explain. You can make sure you produce good records by elbowing out the band and moving all your session musician mates in. I always felt a little guilty about it. But making the best record it's a priority. But if you're working with a brand new artist then you're helping lay the foundations of their future career and you have to remember that.

"I was asked to work with Spandau Ballet originally because I was about the only person in that Blitz crowd who'd got any real studio experience. But when we started they'd only done about a handful of gigs ever and none of them could play very well. Their equipment was a joke too. In fact I loaned them a few thousand pounds of my own money so that they could equip themselves properly. This was before they got a deal but I had this gut feeling they'd get one and pay me back. Which they did. Playing with a click track was especially difficult for them too. But we had to use one because the whole idea was to make 12" dance tracks for the club scene and as you know if you're doing that then it's a question of editing from the end to the beginning and so on. If the track speeds up anywhere then it makes editing really disturbing. As it was it was still a little tricky to begin with. But in the seven months between To Cut A Long Story Short and Chant No. 1 Chant the band improved immeasurably. And I put that down to the fact that I was really patient with them on their first sessions and explained to them what I was doing and why I was doing it. So next time they came in they were that much more confident because they were developing a real understanding of what it was all about. That was my legacy to Spandau Ballet, I reckon."



"To my mind the producer is there to try to realise the vision that the artist has in his head but may lack the vocabulary to explain"


Privately Richard Burgess expresses some disappointments at the way he feels the one-time stalwarts of the Blitz scene have dulled their edge over the last couple of years: the hard and aggressive approach to black dance rhythms which once endeared them so much to a dyed-in-the-wool Sly Stone and James Brown fan like Burgess having given way latterly to what is too often a mere bland Pop. As a close friend of Rusty Egan ever since he played with Rusty's parents' pub band the Bern Egan Combo back in the middle Seventies, Burgess was right in there at the core of the Club For Heroes clique which blossomed into the Young Romantic movement. And as his own band Landscape evolved from the full-frontal, atonal Punk Jazz outfit scuffling round London pubs into Britain's first fully electronic Futurist band, releasing the innovative European Man, they meshed perfectly with the extended robotic dance grooves which were pounding out every time Egan took his turn behind the turntables.

"We went electronic almost by accident. I had a Roland MC8 which I was fiddling about on round a tune which was originally called Route Nationale. At the same time I was helping Dave Simmons test his SDS V kit. It was very much at the prototype stage. Just pads with loads of wires hanging off them. The original idea was to hit them, obviously, but we very soon discovered we could drive them with the Roland, which is where Dave got the idea of the 15 volt inputs because that matched the 15 volts the MC8 gave from the MPX output. I rewrote Route Nationale to suit this 'new technology', put some words to it and it became European Man. I think the rest of Landscape were a bit confused by it all but they went with me and inside three months we'd written and recorded Einstein A Go Go too. So there was no looking back."

Einstein A Go Go and its album From The Tea-Rooms of Mars... To the Hell-Holes Of Uranus were huge international hits for Landscape. And round them hang some fascinating stories. Which Burgess relates with obvious enjoyment.

"I think we went to 10 different studios to record the album. We only had a small budget from RCA to work on which ordinarily wouldn't have stretched to the six or seven weeks we knew we needed to record it properly. We were a bit of a Do-It-Yourself group and we didn't have management at that point, so whoever wasn't actually involved in the recording at any given time would be on the telephone calling round all the other studios in town and picking up dead time or cancellations for the next day or the day after. So we'd get some great studios at £15 or £20 an hour. Consequently we'd never really know until 9 o'clock in the evening where we'd be recording the next day. But we had a lucky break when it came to mix because Jam Studios were just opening up and they needed somebody to come in and test the place. So we got a weeks' worth of mixing time for virtually nothing. The album ended up costing us slightly over £11,000 to record. Which was really cheap even then.

"We finished it in the middle of 1980, but we didn't release it until April of the following year. We had this strange feeling that we were too early with it, you see. I started working on Spandau as soon as we'd finished Tea Rooms and I knew that Visage would have their record ready soon and that Ultravox had Vienna up their sleeves because we all knew each other. We'd put European Man out the first time at the end of 1979 and it didn't really happen outside a couple of London Clubs so I just felt it would be better for us to wait and be part of the scene when it really took off rather than jump the gun and come out six months too early when people might not understand. So that's what happened. We waited until Spandau had released two singles and both Vienna and Fade to Grey were hits before we came with Einstein.

The rest, of course, is history. Landscape, essentially, are no more, although Burgess and one-time saxophonist, now producer in his own right, John Walters still share an office address deep in the heart of South London. But Richard James Burgess spends much of his time now in the United States where he's forging himself quite a career dance mixing for the likes of Melba Moore and Luba. As a measure of this new success he found himself asked to step up alongside the likes of Arthur Baker, Ray Parker Jnr and Michael 'Flashdance' Sembello and add the last couple of tracks to the forthcoming New Edition album. With a single Telephone Man up in the Top 5 Stateside the five little black boys from Boston now represent serious business and not Toytown Fun. And Richard James Burgess is initiated into the Big League in America. In many ways he claims to prefer working in the United States where change is slower and the market not so volatile; where a production can be aimed at a certain audience safe in the knowledge they will still be there when the record comes out a couple of months later. Most of all though, Burgess appreciates making records for American radio. Or should that read he's relieved not to have to pitch at Radio One any more.

"I used to find it so frustrating when everybody worried whether something would sound good on Radio One. Because the reality is that nothing sounds good on Radio One. A good American FM stereo station can make something sound better than the record itself sometimes. They hype up the tops and the bottoms and compress it all. It's a great sounding medium. So these days I don't worry about AM radio any more and strangely my records seem to sound all the better for not aiming at that middle frequency all the time."


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Studio Diary

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AES SX303 Sampler Kit


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

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International Musician - May 1985

Donated by: Neill Jongman

Recording World

Interview by Chas de Whalley

Previous article in this issue:

> Studio Diary

Next article in this issue:

> AES SX303 Sampler Kit


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