Would Your Mother Recognise You On The Radio?
...Is one of the producers responsible for the new wave of guitar-based pop. Paul Tingen finds he has plenty to say about modern music technology, not all of it favourable.
John Porter is one of the producers behind rock's grass-roots revival. So what is an R&B guitar player doing with a Yamaha CX5 computer and a LinnDrum?
WHILE YOU'RE READING these words, John Porter has just seen yet another of his productions reach a better-than-middling position in the UK's singles charts. The record in question is The Smiths' 'Ask', and its success proves there is still a market for simple, melodic, guitar-based songs. Producer John Porter - "What, are we really in the top ten?" - is obviously pleased to hear the news. A tall, thin man with a slightly hawkish look, this is his third hit single in a year, the previous two being Billy Bragg's 'Levi Stubb's Tears' and another Smiths song, 'Panic'.
Porter has worked with The Smiths from early on in the band's career, producing their first two albums and, after stepping back to let them do 'The Queen is Dead' all by themselves, moving into the frontline again with their latest singles. He also produced Billy Bragg's commercially and artistically successful 'Talking With The Taxman About Poetry', a project on which he left a strong imprint by introducing bass, mandolin, piano and trumpet - instrumentally a new development in Bragg's career.
So, what can one expect a producer, seemingly so far away from the electronic field, to say on the subject of music technology? Porter delves far into the past to answer that question...
"You remember Les Paul? He designed the Les Paul guitar, but he also invented multitracking and close-miking. One day somebody came up to him and asked: 'What are your criteria for recognising a good guitar player or a good musician?' Les Paul had only one reply: 'Can your mother recognise you on the radio?' I think that sums it all up. It doesn't matter what you're doing, or what noise you're making, if your mother can recognise it, then you must have something that's really yours.
"It's pretty hard for synth players to be that recognisable, especially if they're working with sequencers. Personality or 'feel' comes from somebody playing, not from a machine playing. I mean, get 25 people to program the same notes into a sequencer and the result will sound exactly the same. But have 25 guitarists or pianists play those notes and all those 25 versions will have slightly different inflexions and touches. It's harder to retain individuality on machines - unless you're a brilliant programmer.
"Take Billy Bragg. He's instantly recognisable. No way could you hear Billy and not know that it's him. Whereas you could hear OMD and you wouldn't be able to figure out who it is."
Now, before you all start to turn over the page in disgust, don't get the wrong impression. Porter is not advocating a prohibition of synthesisers, sequencers and music computers. Far from it. In fact, he actually owns a Yamaha CX5, a LinnDrum, and "a couple of sync boxes". He's also worked with the Fairlight and the Synclavier, and favours a pragmatic approach.
"Usually when I start working with a band, we discuss how we want to use music technology. Do they want to use drum samples, roll in a Fairlight, or whatever. A lot of young guitar-orientated bands don't like to use the technology because they think it's a cop-out. I don't agree. In my mind, whatever it takes to get the best result is OK, and I don't care what it is."
AS A GUITAR player himself, Porter started out a long time ago, playing with Bryan Ferry in a local band. Later he joined Roxy Music for their second album, For Your Pleasure, on which he played bass, and produced Ferry's first solo album These Foolish Things.
After that he started a career as a session player, playing bass, guitar, mandolin and slide, teaming up with, among others, Eric Clapton and Ronnie Lane. In 1980, he became a contract producer for the BBC.
"That was good for me", he muses, 'because the punk thing was just happening and as a guitar player it wasn't much fun for me at that point. I am a very blues and R&B orientated musician and people didn't really want to know about that kind of playing. So I decided to concentrate on producing. In my time with the BBC, which lasted about one-and-a-half years, I must have seen about 350 bands. Which was great, because I got quite a good picture of what was going on."
Since his time with the BBC, Porter continued to work as a freelance producer, working with the likes of the Monochrome Set, One The Juggler, Sandie Shaw, Makin' Time, Killing Joke, and The Opposition.
His roots as a guitar player explain his interest in guitar-orientated music. But what about his involvement with all those young bands?
Porter leans forward to explain: 'I like working with young musicians. I found the first time I went into the studio really difficult. I - and the other musicians with me - was never allowed in the control room. You'd just hear this impersonal voice over the talkback saying: 'Take 25, that's no good, do it again'. There was no explanation why it was no good, or suggestions as to how to do it better. That puts you right on the spot and it wasn't a nice experience. So, having worked as a musician means that I see things from a musician's point of view, and in that, I especially sympathise with young musicians."
"A tape-recorder is the biggest mute audience in the world. You know it's going to catch every nuance of what you do, but it doesn't give you any feedback."
Which in turn means that Porter goes into producing with a caring, sympathetic attitude, spending a great deal of time putting musicians at ease.
'Producing is a very fluctuating thing. Every situation is different and demands a different kind of method. Sometimes I might have to virtually write the song, arrange it and play bits of it as well. At other times it is just about finding the right place and the right time to do it and maybe making a few cups of coffee and that's enough to make things happen.
'I try to create a situation where the musicians feel relaxed. That's all-important. That's 90% of being a producer. To make musicians feel that they can do what they want to do.
"A recording studio is not the ideal place to make music. A tape-recorder is the biggest mute audience in the world. You know that it's going to catch every nuance of what you're doing, but at the same time it doesn't give you any feedback. It's an unnatural situation. It can be pretty daunting for musicians who've not been in the studio before to do their very best there."
On a similar tack, Porter explains some of the tactics he employs during the "getting to know each other" period.
"When you start to work with somebody, you have to give them the benefit of the doubt. Often, when they feel strongly that they have something to offer, at first you can't pin it down, yet at the same time, you don't want to stifle it. You have to let musicians express themselves to the full in order to pick up the flow of things and get into a groove. Then you can start steering a bit. You can't tell a young, inexperienced musician in the same way you can tell a dyed-in-the-wool session musician: 'That's crap, try something else'."
It WAS WITH this attitude as one of his main assets that Porter got a call, in 1983, from Geoff Travis of Rough Trade. Travis had heard a tape of the first Smiths album and didn't like it, so he asked Porter for a second opinion. The producer agreed, and ended up being asked to re-record the whole thing. This he proceeded to do - on an incredibly low budget - and the result was The Smiths - a beautifully crisp, clear document of the Manchester's band's early playing and songwriting.
Since then, Porter has developed a close working relationship with The Smiths which is characterised by methods that rely as much on spontaneity as they do on professionalism.
'They usually come in with a tune or a couple of tunes. We'll run through them without Morrissey, just the band. I'll make suggestions for, say, the bass and drums, weed out something in the bass drum part or something. The basis is very important; if it's OK, then half of the song is OK.
'Next we'll work out the riff, a middle eight, a bridge or a stop, but we don't actually know where they're going to go, because Morrissey is very secretive about his melodies and lyrics. At the moment we start working on a song, I might barely know the title. Of course, Johnny Marr and Morrissey do sit together beforehand and work out the melody and the chord changes, but basically it's quite hair-raising to work with The Smiths, because I often really don't know what's going to happen. They rarely use demos. So when Morrissey comes in, we have all the options there and he'll start singing over it, while we arrange the song as we go with it, shortening bits which are too long, expanding the middle eight, whatever needs to happen.
"I also know that Morrissey will only want to sing the song a maximum of seven or eight times, because then he'll lose his spontaneity. So there's that tension. It all has to happen in that hour. That's the time I've got to get it how I would like it to be, to get it how I think the song works better.
"It's a hit-and-miss attitude, but what you get is a very spontaneous thing. It's a bit like a performance. I usually record bass, drums and guitar together in one take and Morrissey's vocals go down in one go. We might patch up a couple of words here and there, or Andy might redo a bass line when he suddenly gets a new idea, but that's all."
All this sounds remarkably simple, and indeed it is - though Porter and Johnny Marr do continue working on a few tricks after the initial recording stage, sometimes elaborating the guitar part to 15 overdubs.
"People buy an instrument, plug it in, use the presets, and after three months buy another one... but you can spend six years really learning an instrument."
"I initially use the LinnDrum, though that never gets on the album. But we then use the Linn for guitar effects. I'll write a pattern on the Linn, link the guitar to a stereo noise gate, and trigger that off the Linn, which is linked to the timecode again. Johnny and I like working on that kind of effect."
The use of a triggered noise gate on the guitar is about the only similarity between recording The Smiths and arranging Billy Bragg's 'Talking With The Taxman About Poetry'. Porter explains how he helped Bragg to get his album together.
"When we started I think he had three songs that he was happy with. So it was a lot of coaxing it out of him. We knew that rather than him coming with a load of demos and then recording it, it was more a question of making the feeling right so that he could come up with the songs while we were recording.
"A lot of the time, Billy sat at the desk with a pencil and paper and I was kind of winding him up and playing him chords and saying: 'What do you think of this?' I wasn't really co-writing, I was just available. It was like, do you want me to be a bass player, or do you want me to make a cup of tea, or do you want me to play a couple of nice chords? And that was really all it took to get him the result he wanted."
Still, under Porter's seemingly altruistic attitude lay a desire to get Bragg into doing things he hadn't done before, and was reluctant to do now.
"I wanted to use a drummer and a band on some tracks", the producer admits. "But Billy kept saying: 'We'll do that next time'. In the end I played some guitar, bass and mandolin, and we also had a piano, a trumpet and a flugelhorn. I tried to be discreet (laughs). Billy is so strong, so much a one-man band, that the album sounds to me like a logical extension of his previous work, but other people say it is a lot different. It's certainly more polished, but it's essentially still Billy and his guitar."
Porter adds that one of the reasons he didn't use any synths on the Bragg album and hardly any - "we have been known to do the odd note" - on the Smiths albums, is that he feels he can do infinitely more with a good old-fashioned guitar, aided by new technology.
"You can get almost any sound you want out of a guitar nowadays. Trigger, MIDI, guitar synths, you can do it all. And the bands in this case didn't have a keyboard player, so it was more logical to do it with guitar, rather than hire a keyboard player. Still, I do like synths and sequencers. If someone would ask me to make a record saying, 'there's no band, but here is the song and you can use whatever it takes to do it', then I'd probably use a lot of the hi-tech stuff."
So why, in John Porter's view, is so much of modern, computer-based rock music stale and predictable?
"It's lack of imagination. It's partly because technology happens so quickly. People buy instruments, which are nowadays very sophisticated, plug them in, use the presets and after three months buy another one, whereas you can spend five to six years really learning an instrument. The Prophets are wonderful instruments, but you don't see them around a lot anymore. Very few people explore those instruments to the full.
"It all has a sort of novelty value. You hear a new sound, but after some time you begin to recognise it and it loses its attraction. Take the DX7s. You get sick of hearing the same preset sounds, but six months ago you thought: 'Wow, that's fantastic'.
"In the long run, there's only one way in which music can extend itself and that's by re-exploring its roots. Basically it all comes down to a tune and some chord changes. That's what counts, and I do think it will go back to that, otherwise it'll just get stale."
Porter's hope is that pop music will start looking back into R&B and blues again, after what he sees as a ten-year long denial of its own past. For John Porter, the punk movement and the hi-tech movement, each in its own way, have tried to reinvent the wheel. They've served their purpose, says Porter, and now it's time to take the best of both worlds and move on.
"Rock 'n' roll comes from R&B and blues. Those roots will never change. I hardly dare to say this, because a lot of young musicians don't have any knowledge of it, and if they do, it's something they reject because they think it's something from the seventies. But it will help to bring individuality back to computer pop. That's the challenge which technology puts to us, that we should be able to use it, and that we should retain our individuality when we use it. So far, we haven't even scratched the surface."
Author's note: If you're not too sure about all this, ask your mother.
Interview by Paul Tingen
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