Ken Scott muses on his journey from Bowie to Kajagoogoo. Chas de Whalley listens attentively
"The trouble with the music business today is that the attorneys have taken over the record companies. Back in the early Seventies there were still labels who had ears working for them and not just business brains. Nowadays what few ears are working in record companies simply don't have any power."
Ken Scott still sounds like a Londoner even though the occasional Americanism attests to the fact he set up home in Los Angeles 11 years ago. He still looks like a Londoner too, at 38 a little overweight and pasty-faced beneath the beard perhaps, but terribly British nonetheless. In town to line-up his next project and stopping off to talk to the old IM at the offices of the management company he now shares with Iron Maiden, Scott is certainly calm and collected. But that must be deceptive. He gives the impression his feelings run deeper than you might expect and that he is a man quietly but fiercely determined.
He knows a thing or two as well. Which is much as you might expect from a man who began as a second engineer at Abbey Road on the Beatles' Hard Days' Night sessions and ended up alongside Roy Thomas Baker and Robin Cable as one of the Trident Studio Triumvirate who made British engineering and production skills an international byword in the early Seventies.
The big bright feathers in Ken Scott's cap back then were four stunning David Bowie albums Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Pinups as well as Supertramp's wildly successful Crime Of The Century and Crisis, What Crisis? collections. A lot of people made a lot of money out of those records, so how, in all honesty, can Scott claim the music industry in the Seventies was any less cash-conscious than it is now? Quite easily it seems.
"The difference then was that it was all still being done out of a sense of music and fun as opposed to making money first and foremost. With David Bowie, even though he and his manager Tony De Fries were among the first to get into real marketing, it was still a case that he was going to do what he wanted to do and that was that. And there was very little of the 'we have to have three singles on the album before we can consider putting it out' syndrome."
Listening to Hunky Dory today it's almost impossible to believe that, when it was first released in 1971, only one song Changes was released as a single and only just managed to scrape into the bottom of the charts. Later, but years later of course, Oh You Pretty Things and Life On Mars received their just rewards. Wasn't that a source of frustration at the time? Ken Scott shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
"My history has been one of big selling albums and very low selling singles. Take Supertramp for example. Dreamer did fairly well but it was the only single on Crime Of The Century. By today's standards for that album to have done as well as it did it should have had two or three other big hit singles on it. Even much more recently... I gave up producing for three years in 1980 to manage a band called Missing Persons. Over in the States the highest we got in the singles charts was number 39 but we sold over 800,000 units on the album. You're not really allowed to do things like that but one way or another..."
I never asked Scott if his move to the United States in 1974 was to escape the London glam scene he had been instrumental in creating. Fact is that he stepped out of one cauldron and into the epicentre of a burning Jazz Rock explosion on the West Coast. There he produced albums with the likes of Stanley Clarke, Billy Cobham, John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra and renewed an old acquaintance with Jeff Beck from his old Abbey Road days.
"Musically and technically those guys are some of the best musicians in the world. But I knew they'd never really sell many records and have big hits, I just had to get something out of my system. It was like an ambition with me for a long time to record Stanley Clarke and Billy Cobham together. Eventually it happened on Schooldays. It took a day and a half to record the basic track because I had to calm them down. It was all over the place because they were both trying to outdo the other.
"Once you get away from that Jazz Rock thing though, I prefer to work with not quite as good musicians. I don't know how much David Foster means over here as a producer but in the States he's really hot at the moment. He will take a band into the studio and then bring in session guys to play just about everything. That has proved very successful for him. I prefer to use the band and if we have to struggle a little more to get the parts it will (a) be more 'them' and (b) you'll get much more of a feeling from them because they're trying. It's not just the 'oh yeah it's another gig boom bang boom bang' thing you can get from session guys."
When, in 1984, Scott decided to get back into regular production again, it was, perhaps not too surprisingly, to a British band with some definitely musical pretensions he turned. That was Mark King's Level 42 and the album was True Colours. Sadly it spawned no major hit singles but not for want of trying on everybody's part. Ken Scott's included.
"I feel I'm much more aligned towards the singles market than I used to be. It's happened automatically. Obviously I'm much more into what's happening in America than I am over here. And the radio has changed a lot in recent years in the States. What used to be Album Oriented Rock is now almost exclusively Top 40. As that's all you can get on the radio at the moment it kinda puts you into that frame of mind."
Nevertheless the True Colours LP exhibits many of the stylistic traits that were the hallmarks of Ken Scott's work back in those early, pre-digital delayed Seventies. Like crisp, clean engineering, arrangements that seem to develop in a curiously linear fashion and a laterally-thinking man's approach to rhythm sections which is as adventurous as it is non-conformist. There's a definite line to be drawn between Changes on Hunky Dory and Level 42's Hours By The Window.
"I suppose that a lot of that comes from the fact that I like to think in terms of making a whole album that will be listened to as such rather than simply a bunch of singles. If you're not going in specifically to do singles then it gives you a lot more freedom. But I'm not one of these dictatorial producers who say it has to be like this or not at all. Nevertheless I do like to hear arrangements which grow as the song goes on. Be it a string line with a single violin on the second verse which wasn't there on the first verse but which becomes a whole orchestra on the third. So that it's constantly changing, and keeping the interest."
A refusal to be categorised originally led Ken Scott to tiptoe his producer's way between Devo and Dixie Dregs, The Tubes and Kansas. And now that he's back in business again he shows no tendency to fall into any easy routine. His most recent projects have ranged between new American cowboy guitars courtesy of Rubber Rodeo and English dance Pop as served upon the now GooGoo-less Kaja's latest album Crazy People's Right To Speak.
"One of the reasons I keep changing is because you reach a point where you're not learning anything and it becomes boring. If you move about between lots of different projects you stand the chance of learning something new all the time. And also I feel I've been stuck away in Los Angeles a little too long for my own good. There's a story that Mark King likes to tell about me which illustrates how far behind it is possible to get in LA. We were recording something and it went wrong so I said 'OK let's try it again'. He said, 'No, we can AMS it in' I looked at him and said 'We can what?!?' I had no idea what he was talking about. He had to teach me how to do it. Very few studios in LA own an AMS and so nobody was using them on a day today basis. For that reason alone it would have been impossible for the Frankie records to have been in LA.
"Working with Kaja was an education too because it was the first time I'd really been closely involved with synths and sequencers. I was faced with problems I'd never met before. From day one we decided we would go for a live drum sound and a real drummer. Dave Mattacks came in and played to the click and did an excellent job. But when it came to do the sequencer parts we discovered that while he appeared to be right on the button, in reality there were slight variations of a millisecond here and there. I never realised that the human ear could detect such a tiny difference. It was quite astounding."
It would probably have been beyond the realms of credibility to the young Ken Scott who started at Abbey Road in 1964. At that time everybody. The Beatles included, were still recording onto two track, although four track was soon to take over.
"By the time we'd got round to The White Album we were working in eight track, but only because the Beatles kicked up such a fuss. The Abbey Road management believed that eight tracks were just too many for an engineer to handle. The Beatles persuaded them to buy two 3M machines. But then in typical Abbey Road style at the time the management insisted they should go through six months testing. The Beatles forced the issue and they were allowed to use one of them which hadn't been tested. They'd already had a go at recording on eight track when they booked three days at Trident, which was Britain's first independent eight track studio, to record Hey Jude.
I went down on the third day to hear the mixes and it sounded amazing. It was the loudest monitoring system I'd ever heard then. Which means it was probably the equivalent of a moderate sized hi-fi now since monitoring in those days was very quiet. It was taken back to Abbey Road the next day to be cut. I listened to it in the cutting room first thing that morning and it sounded awful. There was no high end at all. I told George Martin what I thought. He was very frosty and so were the band. I thought I'd blown it completely but luckily when they heard the mix later on they agreed with me.
"We spent all the next day trying to re-eq it so that it approximated the Trident sound. The trouble was that Trident's monitoring was just too flattering. Even when I started working there full time we heard much more high end than there really was. We learned how to compensate very quickly by putting more top onto tape than your ears told you was necessary. If you do that, of course, you run the risk of throwing your perception of the rest of the frequency range. We ended up throwing a couple of graphic equalisers across the system and rolling a lot of it off.
"There was a lot more trial and error involved in making records in those days than there is now. Sometimes you really had to stretch your imagination to create sounds or effects which you can get in a box now. That has taken some of the enjoyment away for me, and some of the laughs. I remember when we were remixing one of the tracks off Crime Of The Century upstairs at Trident. We had an answering vocal which was just too 'present' so we sent it from the remix room upstairs down to the studio, fed it through a loudspeaker and then miked up the room. This was at about five o'clock in the morning when there was nobody else in. Anyway we were halfway through an actual mix when we began to hear some very strange noises and it turns out that the cleaners have come in and the mikes are picking up the sound of them making tea and chatting and hoovering the corridors!
"Nowadays of course, you'd simply plug in the digital reverb and it will do the job. But it doesn't necessarily make it any easier for the engineer or the producer. One of the things I dread most these days, or maybe dread is too forceful a word, is the synth overdubs. It used to be that the sounds on a synth were so limited you'd only need to spend 10 or 15 minutes on the sound. You'd left it for a synth to do and you knew roughly the sort of sound you wanted. Now it's so variable it can take you a day to work up one sound. The same with the gadgets. You have so much of a choice and invariably the band will want to investigate every possibility and combination. It's supposed to make it all quicker and cheaper but I believe that's a fallacy.
"The same can be said for computerised mixing, but I don't find that computers can do all the things I want. The time I'll be happy is when they can control every function on the desk. When I mix I like to change echoes and cues all the time and the way I do it is to take one section at a time and edit them all together afterwards. So what's the point of having a computer look after levels when I'm still going to be changing things all over the place anyway. I have been told that the way to do it is to use a much bigger desk and parallel up the tracks so you can have different eqs on different channels and instruct the computer to mute them or bring them in according to the way you want the mix to go. But that sounds so unnecessarily complicated, I reckon I can do it quicker my way. I prefer the human touch."
Feature by Chas de Whalley
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