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The Producers

Wally Badarou

Article from International Musician & Recording World, February 1986

Wally Badarou gets together with Chas de Whalley and puzzles over their possible family relationship

Wally Badarou has the fingers of a concert pianist. Long, slender and subtly curving from knuckle to nail. The fingers of a man who has built his reputation on an exemplary sense of touch.

It's only recently that this quietly spoken French West African has exercised his digital skills at the mixing desk. Indeed you could probably count the number of records he has actually produced on the fingers of one hand. Starting with the Marianne Faithful album A Child's Adventure a couple of years ago and ending with Level 42's latest and greatest World Machine collection.

Nevertheless, mere mention of the name of Wally Badarou should be enough to make your ears prick up and shivers run down your spine. Badarou is a master of moods and atmospheres. You'll find evidence to that effect on those big 1979 dance hits like the Gibson Brothers' Cuba and M's masterpiece Pop Musik. Both featured Badarou's keyboards when he was little more than a lowly sessioneer on the fringes of the Parisian Jazz scene.

He came into his own, however, when his talents were recognised by Island Records' Chris Blackwell who introduced Badarou to the Nassau musical fraternity and set him to work on Grace Jones' classic albums Warm Leatherette, Night Clubbing and Living My Life.

And Wally Badarou very nearly put the Caribbean crew to shame. While the Eighties' most celebrated rhythm twins Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare were slapping out their now-legendary Reggae backbeat, it was left to our man, as the sole synthesizer player in the Compass Point All Stars pack, to truly mutate the music to suit the ice cool outrage of Grace Jones' image. An abstract painter in sound, Wally Badarou's sense of economy on those tracks like Private Life Drama, and Pull Up To The Bumper is quite stunning. With a dab of colour here and wet smear there he helped to frame Grace Jones' chillingly clone tones within three-dimensional dream landscapes which are still some of the most breathtaking and eerie ever put to tape or vinyl. And will remain forever some of the finest examples of Audio Art from the pre-MIDI age.

And so, having also given a good airing to his own, self-produced solo album Echoes and heard that the same sense of the surreal colours the Afro-Jazz instrumentals there, I must confess that I was expecting to meet a wild and rogueish fellow as I sat waiting for Wally Badarou's taxi to turn him up on time at Island Records one November morning. Someone not necessarily with a shot of Rock'n'Roll in his system, nor a spaced-out Spider from Mars sporting designer soul shoes either. But at least the kind of guy who would not come through as just like you or I or the next man. Someone just a little bit out of the ordinary. Just a little bit wacky.

Instead I met a Wally Badarou who looked and spoke more like a professional academic with two PhD's and a lectureship in the offing than an offbeat member of the music fraternity. And when he stared at me purposefully from behind his glasses and said that he considered himself to be An Intellectual I nearly fell off my chair in amazement.

But there you go. Others may choose to limit their mental and conversational capabilities to their music, while Wally Badarou could doubtless discuss the insight to be gained into contemporary software programming by applying Wittgenstein's philosophical overview to the brush techniques employed by Salvador Dali in his later years. Luckily he was prepared to limit his replies to the kind of questions an IM interviewer asks. And answer them with a command of English that belied the fact that he was born in Paris and spent the first 12 years of his life in the French-speaking West African country of Dahomey.

But I still had to know: can Intellectuals really make Pop records? Isn't that a contradiction in terms?

"Not necessarily, no. The point is that just being intellectual means nothing. It's simply a measure of brain activity. Of course, it is possible to think about things too much and not react in an honest way. If by being intellectual you build barriers for yourself and respect too many chapels then you'll probably never meet with any mass success. But if, on the other hand, it means that you can discipline your thinking so that you're free to follow any direction you choose, then it can lead you anywhere. For example, three or four years ago Level 42 wouldn't have been prepared to do a number like Something About You. It would have been too 'Pop'. They'd have scorned it and kept to just Jazz Rock. But we sat down and listened to some of the songs on the radio and in the charts and thought 'We can do that. Why can't that be us?' And we thought it through logically and intellectually."

Five or 10 years ago, though, that would have been called 'selling out' and 'prostituting your art', wouldn't it?

"Possibly so. But then maybe people these days are that much more open-minded."

Or else money is harder to come by without hit singles in the 1980s. But that's another question for another day. Right now you'll probably be wondering how come Wally Badarou can so glibly use the first person plural when talking about Level 42. 'We' this and 'we' that — and he's only just the band's latest producer. Except that his involvement is actually rather more than that as I would have discovered had I done a little more research.

"I've been playing and recording with Level 42 for years. Since the very beginning in fact. Mentally I think they consider me one of the band and I even nearly joined at one stage but I was already signed to a French record company and it would have been too complicated. Even though I've never toured with them I've always had a close involvement with their writing. I co-wrote The Sun Goes Down and others."

I made the observation that I felt the Badarou-produced World Machine album was altogether rather more successful in studio terms than its predecessor True Colours.

"I think the point was that we made sure that the material was right, which has rarely been the case with Level 42 in the past. They're such a hard working band who tour so much they don't get the time to concentrate on the material. So this time we agreed to have a few concentrated writing sessions with a few months in between and that way kept up an objectivity.

"Unless you're actually a singer it's very difficult to come up with a good melody. Musicians always write to suit their instrument and get carried away with a chord change or a rhythm which feels good as they play it. Then they force a melody onto it which never feels quite fresh and spontaneous enough. I think the skill lies in keeping that change or that figure and not developing it too much on an instrumental basis. If you put it down, just three or four bars of the pure idea, on a cassette and put it away and forget about it for a time, when you come back to it a melody always suggests itself immediately. That's what we did for the World Machine album. We aimed to get the songs out and across rather than just the performance."

So just how did Wally Badarou make the transition from session player to producer? He doesn't really know because he doesn't draw much of a distinction between the two.

"I never thought of myself as a session player because I've never really worked on hourly rates or anything like that. It's always been project by project for me. I came into the business in a very naive way and I try to keep it that way. I just know that my place in life is in recording studios — as a producer or a player, it makes no difference. I'm just a music maker.

"The point is: What does production really mean if not to be able to make decisions which other people will rely on? On the last Robert Palmer album I did some of the tracks as just a player and some I did completely by myself on the Synclavier system I've got in my own 24 track studio which is near Compass Point. Robert only came in to do the vocals. So, in effect, I produced but I wasn't really the producer. It used to be the same sometimes with Grace Jones; I'd be left alone with the tape to do the overdubs without Chris Blackwell or Alex Sadkin being anywhere near.

"I hate formality. I hate the thing you get, especially in France, where it's all 'Here is the engineer, here is the producer, here is the arranger' and so on. It's all so rigid and sterile. It's so different to the film industry where, even though everybody has a specific role, you get the impression that everybody is working hard to make sure it happens.

"Musicians can be just as bad in that respect. They try to make a big point out of their performance and so the whole record ends up sounding crowded with no soul. I learned a lot about that from Alex Sadkin on the first Grace Jones album. He taught me how to re-structure everything once it has been recorded. I would put lots of different ideas onto tape and he would keep just the first two bars, put it into a long reverb or something and bring it back sounding completely different to how I meant it. Initially I got very upset and felt that he didn't have any respect for what I was doing. But the end result sounded much more significant than my original ideas. That taught me to re-evaluate myself."

So was recording with Grace Jones a totally informal business or was there some meticulous planning involved?

"It was very much a matter of inspiration. A lot of the songs we did were covers so we'd all listen to the original on cassette a couple of times and then Sly and Robbie would start to play something. The tape would just keep on running and they'd do all sorts of different things and not keep to the song structure or plan at all. There might be eight bars to play before a change to middle C but they wouldn't worry about that. For them it was a case of after the best fill on the drums then they'd change up to middle C. I can respect that because that's the way they get the best feel. So we'd edit up the rhythm track afterwards and then I'd start to do my overdubs against that. At the beginning none of us knew each other very well, or what we were capable of. But I got close to Alex Sadkin very quickly because he realised that what I was doing had a lot of space in it which is what he likes. He likes things to be very three dimensional and places everything in the mix so it achieves depth and impact."


Marianne Faithful 'A Child's Adventure' (Island)

Level 42 'World Machine' (Polydor)

Wally Badarou 'Echoes' (Island)

Impact is the right word. I put it to Wally Badarou that the sound of those Grace Jones songs and their floating, apparently unstructured arrangement pioneered a move away from melodies locked into block chords and signalled the spirit of a new age where the Message is to be found in the Mood. Had he been conscious of being in at the start of such an important trend?

"No. You never realise it until people tell you. I've been told I've been at the corner of so many changes. Starting with Pop Musik. When I was working with Robin Scott I had no idea how momentous that record would be. And I've been asked so many times by keyboard players in the US how I came up with that oppressive motor horn figure on Pull Up To The Bumper. They never believe me when I say I hardly thought about it. I just did what seemed right.

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

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International Musician - Feb 1986

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Recording World

Feature by Chas de Whalley

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