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The Producers

John Leckie

Article from International Musician & Recording World, September 1985

Chas De Whalley quizzes Fall guy John Leckie. Totally weird


It's only comparatively recently — within the last six or seven years in fact — that record producers have been incorporated into the music media star system. With the exception of men like Phil Spector or George Martin, virtual legends within their own lifetimes, the producer of the Sixties and Seventies was a virtual nonentity, recognised and respected by his peers, but regarded as little more than one more name on a record sleeve by the music press and the general public alike. One of the Backroom Boys, plain and simple.

But as the Seventies have moved into the Eighties and it seems like the industry has evolved into one long series of Personality Cults, any record producer who achieves the slightest measure of chart success finds himself elevated and celebrated as a Saviour who can turn water into Budweiser. Of course, the lucky few do manage to make a career of working miracles but the vast majority buckle under the pressure and fail to fulfil the personal potential which would have been theirs had they been allowed to develop at their own pace and without the spotlight shining down on them every time a single or album hit the reviewer's desk.

Somehow or other John Leckie is the exception who proves both rules. A quality craftsman of whom no more demands are made and nothing more expected of him but well-crafted records. He has been a recording engineer for fifteen years. For the last eight of them a fully-fledged, go-it-alone producer, and in that time has leant his elbows on a desk for some of the most exciting and hippest names in British Rock. Even if he is hardly what you might call a household name.

His start could hardly have been more auspicious. On virtually his first day as a tape-op at Abbey Road in 1970 John Leckie sat across from Phil Spector and watched as a world-class crew of session musicians including Eric Clapton, Carl Radle, Jim Gordon and Ringo Starr helped George Harrison lay down the backing track to My Sweet Lord. On eight-track in Studio 3. So on his first day at the job he learned something he has never forgotten and never forgets.

"I didn't have a clue what was going on behind the scenes but what those sessions taught me is that the basic backing track, whatever it is you record first, should always capture some magic and some interaction between musicians. If you have that then the track will always have a vitality which you can never lose, whatever else you do to it. Of course you always hope that the overdubs will enhance it, although sometimes they don't. But at least if you know the backing track has magic you can play the song through in its barest form and still get something from it."

Even now, after fifteen years spent working with a Who's Who of Thinking Man's Rock in Britain — John Lennon, Pink Floyd, Mott The Hoople, Chris Spedding, Steve Harley, Roy Harper, Bill Nelson's BeBop Deluxe, XTC, Simple Minds, Howard Devoto and Magazine, The Adverts, The Lost Jockey featuring ZTT's latest Wunderkid Andrew Poppy, Gene Loves Jezebel and The Fall — John Leckie still believes that it's the interaction of people in a studio, rather than the mere quality of the sounds or the strength of the arrangements which is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of a recording session.

"I believe that anybody who comes into a studio, even if it's the roadie's girlfriend, can have an influence on the proceedings. It's all a question of politics, egos and personalities. It's obviously easier if you have a dictator in the band in whom everybody is prepared to put their trust and let the record go ahead. Otherwise the way I work is to try to get the best out of everyone. Which isn't as simple as it sounds."

John Leckie is one of those quiet and unassuming characters who keeps a low profile, his head down and gets on with things regardless. Not the sort of man you'd expect to find wrestling with group psychology. But be not deceived by his laid back smile for there is more to this fellow than meets the eye. As a follower of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh John Leckie would doubtless claim an inner peace which helps him help others through times of stress. But I didn't ask him much about that since I was far more interested in one of his most recent productions 25 O'Clock by The Dukes Of Stratosphear, who, as all discerning fans of contemporary psychedelia will know, are really XTC in disguise.

Under his alter-ego Swami Anand Nagara, Leckie put his tongue firmly in his cheek for what is essentially a let's-pretend-we're-on-acid masterpiece. A wildly funny mini-album which fairly romps rather than tiptoes through the tulip gardens of The Electric Prunes, The Yardbirds, Keith West's Tomorrow, Country Joe and The Fish and Magical Mystery Tour Beatles. All backwards guitar and tape-phasing, as garish in its mix as in its spoof Disraeli Gears sleeve, 25 O'Clock is not only one of the best releases of 1985 but, says John Leckie, it's probably his favourite work to date. Leckie claims he got the idea after reworking The Strawberry Alarm Clock's classic Incense and Peppermints with The Fall and suggested it to Partridge after the pair of them were blown out of a Virgin Records production set-up.

"We were supposed to be making an album with a Canadian girl Mary Margaret O'Hara, but for one reason or another it didn't happen. So rather than get Virgin to pay us compensation I suggested they give us some studio time instead. We did it in two weeks at Chapel Lane in Hereford, and it cost about £5000 in all. It took a week to record and a week to mix and after we'd finished I was really worried because I didn't think we'd put enough Blues in it. I mean we all tried really hard to capture the spirit of that specific period of Psychedelic Rock, which is 1966 to 1968. Like a Nuggets brought up to date. Even though we recorded it on 24-track we tried to give everything the sound of three 4-track machines linked together. We refused to use any digital delays, so it was all Revox tape echoes and plate reverb and guitar effects units. We put the vocals through the tremolo channels of a guitar amp and soon. It was tremendous fun. The only problem was that the drum sounds were just too good so we had to try some outrageous things on mixing like only using the overhead drum mike tracks or taking out all the bass and all the high top and just piling in as much 1K middle as we could. After all that enjoyment and effort I really thought we'd messed up by not making the guitar Bluesy enough, cos if you think about it all the bands from that era were very heavily Blues-influenced. Andy wasn't worried though. He said we should wait for the Dukes Of Stratosphear live album for that!"

Of course, Leckie and Partridge go back a long way. To XTC's debut release in 1978 — the 3D EP — and the soon-to-follow album White Music. He did their next album too, the strangely conceptual Go2. John Leckie has nothing but good things to say about Andy Partridge whom he regards as one of the wittiest, energetic and freshest men around. And this despite the fact that he was dropped as XTC's producer before the Drums And Wires album which finally broke the band through. Steve Lillywhite produced that one but did that stop Leckie and Partridge sliding into the studio afterwards and remixing the album totally as a lateral thinking exercise under the title of The Lure Of Salvage? Of course it didn't.

"Steve did the real version. We did the unreal version. We simply put up the multitrack and dub-mixed it as the mood took us. We put tom toms on repeat loops and EQ'd bass drums till they sounded like cowbells. It was all very spontaneous. It was one big joke."

By then of course Leckie was busy grooming up another bunch of young hopefuls who, quite coincidentally, would also enjoy some of their greatest successes years later under Steve Lillywhite's control: Scotland's Simple Minds. John Leckie produced their first three albums Life In A Day. Real To Real Cacaphony and Empires And Dance and witnessed a group evolving almost overnight (or at least over a twenty month period) from post punk Psychedelicists with glam overtones into Technorock Futurists in a class of their own. Mind you, they did stagger and stumble here and there along the way.

"We did Life In A Day pretty quickly in the height of that bad winter of 1978/79 and basically they just recorded all the songs they'd been playing live the previous year. When it came to start Real To Real, the next one, about six months later, I went down to meet them at Rockfield for a few days rehearsing beforehand and Jim Kerr told me they didn't have any songs written at all. So we put the whole thing together in the studio. It was just at the time that drum machines were really taking off and people in Europe in particular were pioneering sequencers and different use of echoes and so on. It ended up as a real experimental album unfortunately. I learned a lot from that. It's one thing to get really new and exciting sounds in the studio but a finished album should never sound experimental."

Which doesn't mean to say that John Leckie has grown staid and conventional in his old age. In many ways he's quite the nonconformist. Unlike many these days he prefers to work fast, spending two or three weeks on an album for a label who may not pay the best money but whom he knows will put the record out, rather than waste months and a small fortune on a project for a CBS, an RCA or an EMI which may never get a release if the band in question don't crack the Top 75 with a single.

"It's far more thrilling to watch an album evolve really quickly and then see what the press and the public think about it almost as soon as it's finished. The idea of spending two weeks in Advision or Maison Rouge to mix a twelve inch fills me with dread."

And in what could be termed the Age of Direct Injection, Leckie makes a stand for amplifiers, microphones and 'live' sound. And not just for guitars or basses either. Here's a man who considers even the most sophisticated of modern synthesizers and sampling keyboards actually sound better fed through a 4x12 and recorded through an AKG or a Neumann at the other end of the room. Well, if not better, then at least excitingly different.

"I believe, if you're recording a band with a live kit and so on then everything should sound like it would do if they were playing on stage. Which means you must wind the levels on the amps up to something like live level. With instruments like electric guitars or basses you actually lose half of what they're about if you DI them. But put them through a box in the same room as you recorded the drums and they begin to have their own space.

"And as for something like a DX7 or a Fairlight... I found when I was working with Simple Minds in particular that the temptation was always to see the keyboard in terms of some sort of wash going on in the background. But again, if you put them through an amp in a room it sounds that much more tangible, much more like part of a real band which is playing. I really like that."

And so do a lot of other people, or else John Leckie would be out of a job.

HIT LIST

Modern Music BeBop Deluxe (EMI)
Quit Dreaming and Get On The Beam Bill Nelson (Phonogram)
White Music XTC (Virgin)
Go2 XTC (Virgin)
Real Life Magazine (Virgin)
Life in A Day Simple Minds (Arista)
Real To Real Cacaphony Simple Minds (Arista)
Empires And Dance Simple Minds (Arista)
Crossing The Red Sea The Adverts (Anchor)
Wonderful And Frightening World of... The Fall (Beggars Banquet)



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Studio Diary

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33 Recording Tips


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

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International Musician - Sep 1985

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Recording World

Artist:

John Leckie


Role:

Producer

Interview by Chas de Whalley

Previous article in this issue:

> Studio Diary

Next article in this issue:

> 33 Recording Tips


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