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The Producers

Sandy Roberton

Article from Sound International, June 1978

Sandy Roberton emerges from his record collection to talk to Fred Dellar.

In the second article in our series of interviews with top producers, Fred Dellar extracts from Sandy Roberton a few succinct comments on the producer's art.

Not so much a home, more a way of storing records in bulk. That, currently, is the state of play at Sandy Roberton's West London abode. It comes, says Roberton, from trying to run a record company from one's living room. Owner of Rockburgh Records, he's also the label's part-time publicist, A&R man, office boy and record producer.

'Here's something I'm working on with keyboardist Jon Gillaspie,' he enthuses, switching his Revox to playback. Through the adjacent speakers emanates the sound of massed synthesisers. The feel is decidedly funky — though the material is pure round-the-maypole folk. The whole thing is highly incongruous. But I like it. I'm a sucker for experimentation. Roberton's highly delighted with the Gillaspie sound.

'The entire album is going to sound like this — synthesiser versions of British folk tunes. It'll probably horrify some people but be greatly appreciated by those who like things a little different. So far, we've taken a Malicorne track, a Steeleye number and Fairport song. And what we've tried to do is to get a slightly disco feel to it all. Mind you, it's nowhere near finished yet — the tape I played was just a backing track, all Jon except for some drums... though there's even some synthesised drums in there somewhere. We've been using Gooseberry Studios, in Soho's Gerrard Street, to put things together. It's quite cheap there and they get a good sound. But we've got a delay now because Jon's going off to do a tour of Germany with John Betmead and Steeleye's Nigel Pegrum.'

Roberton is not your usual, everyday, larger-than-life producer. Many I've met promote themselves like the latest piece of K-Tel gadgetry. Every job's a world-beater, the next one will be bigger than the Bee Gees and Fleetwood Mac combined. Sometimes such ego-trips are necessary. Without this self-belief some producers wouldn't operate at maximum power.

But Roberton's an exception. Where others gush, he remains quietly confident. Perhaps it's because he's generally been associated with the 'rural' side of rock — Steeleye Span, The Albion Band, Decameron, etc — that something in the way of serenity has rubbed off on him. Not that every band he's produced has been folk-oriented. Far from it. But even the last couple of rock units he's worked with have possessed names like Finch and Arbre.

Sometimes you just can't buck fate.

So has this quiet man really managed to inject much of his own personality into his productions? The boyish-faced Roberton sits amid a pile of album sleeves and ponders.

'A few years ago I didn't think I influenced things much at all. But I've changed my mind now because on playing a lot of the records I've done, I've come to the conclusion that they all have a certain feel to them — even though they feature different sorts of artists — so I suppose I must have influenced things quite a bit. I know I used to let a lot of things go by though. An artist would say: Let's do this, or let's do that, and I'd agree to go along with a lot of things because I was like a fifth-member-of-the-band type and felt that we should all work together. However, upon reflection I think that in a lot of cases I should have taken definite steps to get certain things changed. But I've learnt — and nowadays everything has to be what I want. The thing is it's become expensive to make records and in many cases the producers are tied up in finance. Which means that you can't afford to take many risks.

'When I first started making albums at Sound Techniques, they would only cost around £1000 because it was just four or eight track recording and fairly inexpensive. But now you can quite easily spend £15000 putting a record together. The album I did with Finch (a Focus-like Dutch band) cost around £7000 to put together — but that was because we had no additional musicians to pay and the band did everything. Surprisingly though, the studio in Holland wasn't that cheap, but it was easier to record there than to bring the band to Britain, put them up at hotels and generally change their way of life in a manner that might have affected the record. The only real problem was that they wanted to work all night and we'd usually start recording at nine in the evening and work through to the morning, sometimes finishing around 7.30. We worked non-stop for three weeks — with just a little time for mixing and editing after that — but I wouldn't do that again. After changing my body cycle around for those three weeks it took me ages to get back to normal living again!'

Despite his youthful appearance, Roberton has been in the music business for many years. Born in Scotland and raised in Kenya, he became part of the local 'beat group' scene in Africa during the early '60s.

'Here's a photo of us in those days,' he says, proffering a shot of some ersatz Shadows. 'We were called Les Hombres — God knows why — and that was about the time I was finishing off school. It was a really professional band. We actually did gigs and had amps and a PA — not a proper PA, just a joke.'

Sometime later he came to England where, as part of a duo called Rick and Sandy, he recorded a Tom Springfield-produced single for Mercury before moving on to Decca, for whom he and his partner cut some sides under the supervision of Jonathan King.

'The first production that I ever did was for Gary Osborne, who now writes for Elton John. I did two singles for him. He had an outfit called the Chocolate Watch Band and they were on Decca. That was around '67. At the time, I'd been working a lot on the publishing side of things with Mike Vernon, who I think is a very good producer. After watching Mike work in the studio, I wanted to try my hand — and then Gary, who was signed to the company, came along.'

After gaining some experience in the production stakes, Roberton formed his own company, September Productions, and did a deal with RCA, supplying that label with albums from the likes of Shelagh McDonald, Keith Christmas, Liverpool Scene and others. Of the last named he says: 'I think I enjoyed managing and producing Liverpool Scene most of all — they were such a good band. They've all done very well since in their own fields... Andy Roberts... Adrian Henri... Percy Jones — I love the records he's making with Brand X. He's really improved beyond recognition. And then too there's Mike Evans — he's now in charge of the Musicians Union!'

However, it was with Steeleye Span that Roberton made his biggest breakthrough, producing Steeleye's debut album Hark The Village Waits in 1970. He remembers: 'I knew Ashley Hutchings had left Fairport and I was interested in speaking to him. And just as I was trying to contact him, he suddenly walked in the door! I think he'd been to Harvest and they'd turned Steeleye down — which is something they probably regret now. Anyway, we got together and it was all very enjoyable, great music from a great band.'

The first Steeleye album came out in Britain on RCA in the June of 1970. It featured the short-lived line-up of Gay and Terry Woods, Ashley Hutchings, Tim Hart and Maddy Prior, the Woods splitting from the others shortly after the recording sessions, convinced that the band had broken up and would be heard from no more. At this stage September Productions and RCA also parted company and Roberton negotiated a deal with B&C, providing that ill-fated concern with albums by Marc Ellington, Andy Roberts, etc, plus two further Steeleye Span LP's in Please To See The King (March 1971) and Ten Man Mop (November 1971). It was then that Ashley Hutchings decided to quit the band and form The Albion Country Band — at which point Steeleye left Roberton and B&C and headed for Jo Lustig, Chrysalis and further glory.

So Roberton lost his stars. One reason, he feels, may have been that he was just too busy to devote his whole attention to the band.

'When I look back on that time, I wonder how I did it all — I was doing so much production and running the management things too. I think that in 1971 I must have been working about 25 hours a day — certainly I overstretched myself.'

One of the most rewarding relationships he enjoyed at this time was with flautist Harold McNair.

'I was attracted to Harold through his Donovan connection. He was so good on those records and never really got much credit for what he did on them. There Is A Mountain for instance, that arrangement was bound around Harold's hook line. Indecision, one of the tracks on a McNair album that I recorded, was virtually the same thing. He had this great flair for coming up with melodic little riffs. I made three albums with Harold — Harold McNair, Flute'n'Nut — which was the record he wanted to do so that he could earn respect from all the jazzers — and The Fence, which had Steve Winwood playing organ and also featured a lot of other really good players, all friends of Harold, who just wanted to come in and play on the record.'

McNair, probably the best jazz flautist in Britain at the time, died shortly after recording his last album with Roberton.

'But he didn't know, right up to the last few months, exactly how serious everything was. With the advance he got for the last record, he went off to the Canaries or somewhere, just to get a bit of sun. His health was going and he couldn't figure out what it was. He was still playing with Ginger Baker's Airforce at the time and didn't realise that he was dying from cancer.'

Another artist who made some exceptionally good Roberton-produced albums was Marc Ellington. Originally an American draft-dodger, who worked alongside Joan Baez and Martin Luther King, he settled in Britain during the late 60s and eventually bought a Scottish castle, in which he still lives, making records for the Scottish tourist board. He rarely plays gigs which involve any amount of travel, Ellington's idea of a promotional tour being about six nights at various folk clubs. But whenever he's elected to make a record, good musicians have seemingly flocked in to be on the sessions. And on Restoration, an album that Robert on produced at Sound Techniques and Olympic in 1972, the studios were invaded by such Fairporters as Dave Mattacks, Ian Matthews, Simon Nicol and Jerry Donahue, along with Zoot Money, Dolly Collins and Mac and Katie Kissoon. Earlier, Reins Of Changes, another September Productions item (though one that Roberton did not produce) found the black-fedora-bedecked Ellington hanging out with Sandy Denny, Trevor Lucas, Richard Thompson, Fritz Fryer (of the Four Pennies) and Ian Matthews, plus Sneaky Pete Kleinow and Chris Hillman, who were then with The Flying Burrito Brothers. But Ellington, despite his star-studded recordings and own TV series, didn't sell a lot of albums. And after completing Decameron's debut album for Phonogram and Andy Roberts' Great Stampede for Elektra, Roberton decided to throw in the producer's towel and head purely into management, his roster of acts including Cajun Moon, Decameron and Gay and Terry Woods, the latter reestablishing the Steeleye connection.

But why the sudden rejection of the studio world? Roberton says there were a couple of reasons.

'There was the disappointment of the Andy Roberts album — both Andy and I were convinced that Stampede would be the one — but we've since learnt the reason it didn't get a big push was because Elektra left WEA at that time and came under EMI. Also, I felt I was getting no recognition. I know that sounds bigheaded but I was getting a lot of work offered to me that involved artists that even I had never heard of. I'd get three-quarters of my way through a record into which I was putting a lot of love and then I'd suddenly realise that after the record company had sent out the promotional discs, nothing else was going to be heard of that record again. In the end, things just didn't seem worth it. And though I was getting well paid, I just got more and more depressed and felt that I was becoming the backroom boys' backroom boy.'

In 1976, after a spell in the managerial wilderness, Roberton returned to the producing scene once more, providing Polydor with Gay and Terry Woods' The Time Is Right, described in Melody Maker as 'A beautiful, beautiful album — ideally it will sell by the lorry load.' It didn't, of course, and Roberton came to the conclusion that the only way to really market his own products was to form his own record company. So was born Rockburgh, the initial releases comprising two old albums, The Woods Band, the classic album that the Woods had made after leaving Steeleye, and The American Album, a set recorded in Nashville and Los Angeles by singer-songwriter Allan Taylor. 'It was just to get the label off the ground', explains Roberton. Since then, he's produced Spriguns, a Steeleye-type band, for Decca; and Arbre, a Newcastle based rock outfit, for DJM, also recording Finch and Tender Hooks, a new Gay and Terry Woods album for Rockburgh.

During the course of our conversation, Roberton has answered a myriad of phone calls, taken receipt of several parcels and generally tried to keep his one-man business flowing. He's also supplied the necessary cups of coffee and answered all questions, tactful or otherwise. Predictably he's happy to talk about the Woods' latest excursion into vinyl.

'We recorded Gay and Terry at Lombard Studios in Dublin — which turned out to be a nice experience because it's a good studio, 24-track and everything, and has a fine selection of mikes. We used this American device, the Aphex Aural Exciter — you couldn't buy them, you could only rent them from Pink Floyd — a lot of engineers say that they're a king's new clothes sort of thing and when the machine's opened up there's not a great lot in there. But it's a device which gives a lot of 'presence' to acoustic instruments and vocals and it's really helped with Gay's vocals on the record, given them an awful lot of clarity. Also at Lombard, we had a very good engineer in Brian Masterson, who used to work for Eamonn Andrews' studios before it got burnt down, and just about the only thing that wasn't so good was the monitoring. In my view, the worst things about some studios are the monitors because they often have bass or top deficiencies — which means that if the system is bass low, you automatically add more bass and when you get out of the studio... well! I think it's always better to familiarise oneself with studio monitors by just sitting around for a few hours and playing some tapes from home that you know really well, that way you can get to know exactly what the monitors are like.

'Cutting's another real problem. I mean, you can spend several thousand pounds making a record yet the cut costs about £54 and the whole record can be ruined at that stage. You've got to be so careful because a lot of cutting engineers know how they want the record to sound and make their own adjustments — and the whole thing can be changed by these adjustments. The last two stages, mixing and cutting, are the most important of all — you can really make an album on the mix. But to be honest, it's the process I like least about recording. To me, the most exciting part is when you're making the music and just encouraging people in order to get the best out of them. You know: ...It's nearly there... Let's get this other take... Why don't you try that? — that's all part of the great moment to me. When it's all there, the mix becomes a laborious process because it's just a matter of making final adjustments — though it is a very important thing and you've just got to keep slogging away at it.'

Arbre made their first album in 1976. Produced by Phil Sampson, it was a pleasant affair, all harmonies and West Coast — right out of the Crosby, Stills and Nash grab-bag in fact. Roberton agrees with this analysis.

'There was a lot of overdubbing on that first record and so they got a weak West Coast sound when really they're a raunchy rock band. I just tried to get it to sound like Arbre do when they're playing one of their gigs — with a lot of rhythm guitar, honky snares and so on. I remixed the album in the DJM studio — I originally mixed it at Britannia Row, the Floyd's studio, but didn't like the results. So we went into the DJM studio with Walter Samuel and everything turned out well. There are two studios there and marvellous copying facilities — even the copying room has a spare 24-track! And the studios are interlinked so if your machine happens to go down for a second in the mix room, you can just switch to the other room and use the machine there — it's really fantastic.'

Finally, I aim a below-the-belt shot. I mention the Roberton-produced tapes that Ian Matthews took to the States and had overdubbed, neglecting to provide the producer with any credit on the resulting Elektra albums. Roberton's answer is both honest and non-provocative.

'Yes — I hated his guts for about six months — due to the fact that Mike Nesmith had his name down as producer and hadn't actually produced those tracks, it was just that a few instruments had been added. But, as they say, time is the healer isn't it? By an odd coincidence, I was talking to Ian only last night and it seems probable that we shall get back together in the near future.'

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Publisher: Sound International - Link House Publications

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Sound International - Jun 1978

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman


Sandy Roberton



Interview by Fred Dellar

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