The Producers | Hugh Murphy
Hugh Murphy — a strange case of former Connie Francis assistant publicist taking the Kilburn High Road to find a kind of fame and fortune on the fast train, City to City. Fred Dellar buys a ticket and goes along for the ride.
From under-assistant publicist for Connie Francis to producer of Gerry Rafferty's City To City smash, Fred Dellar investigates a Celtic career.
'All of a sudden I've had the pressure taken off me and I can do things the way I want to do them. At last the budget doesn't matter and I've got a bit of clout with record companies. This means that I don't have to put my mates in a studio at 10 in the morning and tell them that they've got to finish by one and do the old we've-got-four-tracks-to-go-so-eyes-down bit.'
Hugh Murphy, grey-eyed, 32, and the possessor of both a Celtic name and a slight cockney accent, is talking about his change in status since the success of the City To City album, which he produced for Gerry Rafferty. He stirs his cup of coffee-a-la-Maison Rouge and reflects that both he and his bank manager are both currently satisfied with the way things are panning out. 'Mind you, I've always done anything that's come along. A lot of people won't do this. They think every time they produce anything worthwhile they should put their money up. But that's not for me. Over these past 12 years, I've done anything for anyone — in fact, I did a single for Virgin just before I went on tour with Rafferty. And I charged them just £30 to do it!'
Murphy claims that it's only during the past year or so that he's dared to call himself a producer - prior to that, he only owned up to being a publisher. Initially though, he started out by helping to run the Manfred Mann fan club. 'That was about the time the band had a hit with 5-4-3-2-1. I did that job, roadied, made the tea, stuck stamps and other things like that. Then one of the assistants there became a publicist and began looking after Tony Bennett, Connie Francis and so forth. And I went with him until he got taken over. But the new people couldn't afford to take me over, so a friend found me a job with Shel Talmy, who was then running Planet Records. I worked there writing publicity handouts, plugging etc — and I also had to handle the publishing, which meant that I got a chance to meet people who came in with their guitars and played their tunes. I had to tell them why they were good or were bad, sometimes taking them into Regent Sound to do demos in stereo. So I began doing these demos - using some great players on the sessions.. . musicians like Nicky Hopkins ... and Shel heard one that I did and said 'That's good - I think I'll release that'. And he did!'
The single was Tick Tock by The Corduroys. 'I think it must have got to No 11 in Dance News or something,' remembers Murphy, 'it really didn't see the light of day'.
More demos and singles came Murphy's way - 'And somebody, somewhere, assumed that I was a producer - I just never said that I wasn't one.' Which meant that he eventually became involved with an album. 'Jon Mark had this band together and I met a couple of men who had a label called Tetragrammaton. We did a deal and went into Trident, which had just opened up, and there I was, working for Shel from 10 till six, and doing the album in the evening — I was knackered after about a week and a half! But there I was - after running a fan club and making a few demos — and all of a sudden I had this album out.' The album, titled Sweet Thursday, was released in the States. And so Murphy's reputation as a producer grew.
'At this time Shel was involved with Jo Lustig, working with Pentangle, Roy Harper, people like that. Anyway, Jo had this singer called Mabel Hillary and I got the brief: "Go and make an album for her today". So, one Saturday, I got a little jazz band in during the morning, and during the afternoon I had Jon Mark, Brian Odgers and the piano player from Blue Mink. We did this pretty bluesy thing — and that evening I mixed it and finished everything... all in one day. That album must have cost all of threepence-halfpenny. Transatlantic, who bought it, sold it in turn to some German company and made a lot of money.'
Transatlantic MD Nat Joseph was impressed and hired Murphy to produce a number of discs for his label, including a single We Can All Swing Together with Alan Hull, and albums by Stray and Jody Grind. Then in 1970 he was asked to produce Can I Have My Money Back, Gerry Rafferty's first solo album.
'Gerry brought in some tunes, some of which didn't have any words, and I told him that I knew some good players we could use. So we made this album for twelve hundred nicker. I got people who I thought were the best — people like Henry Spinetti, Gary Taylor and Tom Parker — who's ever such a fast geezer and a great country player — and we did about two-thirds of that album one Saturday. However, we weren't too happy with a couple of things, so we pleaded with Nat and got another 300 quid out of him - which meant that the budget went up to £1500. We went into Sound Techniques, because it was folksy, homey and comfy, and with the help of engineer Jerry Boys, did three more tracks. That album got great reviews and when we went on tour recently we found that everybody seemed to know every tune from it.. I was surprised and wondered why I'd only made about £48 out of it!'
Though the album brought Murphy little reward financially, he still regards Money Back as a turning point in his career.
'Rafferty was so good, such a strong songwriter, and the musicians were so good, that a lot of acclaim rubbed off on me. But still I was no producer - though I was learning how to get things together. All right, I was acting like a casting man — and I had to mix it, deliver it, etc. But I was still relying on a lot of other people. And all this time I was leading a dual life — I'd started a company called Hush Productions along with Shel Talmy and I was doing things for him as well. Strangely enough though, I learnt very little about production from Shel. I can't remember being in the same studio more than a couple of times — once with Pentangle and once with Amen Corner. So I didn't acquire much in the way of technique from him... though he made the opportunities available to me. In a way that was okay because I didn't mind being in at the deep end.
'I suppose I learned more by Nat Joseph allowing me to spend his money on his acts. Then I started doing quite a lot for Charisma - Jack The Lad, Gary Shearston... I did that I Get A Kick Out Of You hit, after which came a flurry of work, and even John Betjeman. There was a band called The Barrow Poets, who included Tom Parker's brother Jim, and they brought me along these poems. I was taken aback at this but eventually I thought I'd see if I could get a few bob out of someone and go in and make an album. So I got some money out of Tony Stratton-Smith - no, I lie, I actually took it out of Hush Productions, hoping I would be able to pay for it — after all it wasn't Shel's idea of making records! — and we did this thing called Doggerel Bank. At one point I mentioned that it would be a great idea to do an arrangement of Betjeman's Meditations On The ASO. "We know him," they said and so we all went round to Betjeman's place to see if he'd like to do an album — I was amazed when he told me that he'd quite like to do that. We then picked a few poems from his collected works, Jim put music to it and off we went. And the money for that came from Hush too — the album being sold to Charisma at a profit. It was great to make that album though — lovely.'
The list of acts Hugh Murphy has produced is mindblowing... Kilburn and the High Roads, Richard Digance, Shepstone and Dibbins, The Kursaal Flyers, Joanna Carlin (who's now known as Mel Harrold), Mark-Almond etc, etc. But he modestly says that he's still learning.
'One thing I do is to keep my eye out for good musicians. Drummers are one problem, I've had to go through lots of drummers, I don't know why. If you do find a good drummer then he's probably working all the time. A drum sound is dependent on one or two things. Some studios have a more live sound than others, but the kit itself is not that important; the sound is ultimately obtained by the person playing the instrument, whether it be a drum, bass or guitar. It's down to the intensity with which he hits it, where he hits it and so on. I always think of things as shapes. Drums to me are tall... cymbals up there and the bass drum down here. You can't possibly get a real drum sound unless you can feel the space between the top kit and the snare and bass drum. Consequently, you've got to get the sound you're losing to the ceiling as well as getting the sound that's coming off the instrument. Which means that you've got to have at least two ambience mics up there, high above the cymbals, from which you will pick up the snare — because that's very loud — and the cymbals, because they're not things you put your ear to... they're things that you hear from a long way away... their sound should grow as you stand further back. The tom toms are miked as far away from the cymbals as possible, keeping as much of the cymbals out as possible and avoiding too much splash, while the bass drum is on a separate track. I don't like that to be too padded — it's got to boom.
'There was a phase when everybody deadened everything down; Ringo used teacloths and everybody had that sound. But I was never into that, and neither was Dave Mattacks who I've been using since the early '70s. Nobody else sounds like Dave — he likes his drums to sound like drums and doesn't use padding or anything. I picked up a lot from him - he's a great man to have on a session. He shares what he's doing with you, talks to you about his drums. He doesn't just set up and say: Where do you want the mic? and then go eyes-down, bang, bang, bang. He'll suggest that you try different things and he works with other producers and tells you what they might do in certain circumstances. He's a great geezer. Like I say, it's not the kit, it's the person who owns it. The drummer is the backbone — if he loses time then forget it! If he's out, then the bass player can't get it on, which affects the guitar and so you end up with a nothing rhythm track. Really I like things big and mighty meaty - I look forward to doing a rock'n'roll album. Rafferty wants to be involved too, so maybe we'll go to somewhere like Rockfield and put the drums in the table-tennis room there — you can get a massive sound that way. Dave Charles, who drums for Dave Edmunds, says that he nearly always drums in that room. He played in there once just to demonstrate to me — and the sound was stupendous!'
Maison Rouge, the Fulham studio which Murphy has been using to record Mel Harrold's second DJM album, utilises a Helios desk. He rates Helios fairly highly.
'They're a bit noisy, but I like them — I like the EQs on them. I rate the MCI desks too - they've got those at Advision. Also, the new Cadac looks fabulous, really sort of comprehensive. I like desks that make it easy not to hear things if you don't want to — things like echo — just with the push of a button. I don't know why I'm not fond of Neve, though to be truthful I'll work in any studio that's got time. Really, the equipment doesn't matter to me to that extent as long as I know I can trust the speakers. I know that when I've got everything down and that everything on the tape is okay in terms of frequency, I can pull things out on the mix as long as nothing is distorted. A place's ambience is almost as important as the equipment because, when you get down to the nitty-gritty, it's all down to what the musicians are prepared to give at that moment. All you're doing is capturing a moment in time and if your ambience is good, then you'll find that your musicians will somehow inject more life, more humour, more of themselves into things.
'Ambience and fairly reliable speakers — that's all you really need. After that, you can do so many tricks with the mixing. I love that mixing room at Advision — I love Dec too, that quiet, gentle Irishman. He's very tasteful, demure even. Me and Rafferty are going to form a Celtic mafia and get all the Celts back together again! But Dec apart, I love Advision because it's true and comprehensive. They've got all the tricks, all the gadgets. In fact they've got gadgets twice over, two harmonisers, digital delays, two phasers, two of everything. They've got more than enough — and they've also got very nice echo. I hate cheap echo. Some sound cheap but theirs sounds very expensive — they've got the sort of echo where you can put the strings miles back and put a lot of echo on them and it kinda fattens up the track without sounding syrupy or swampy. Strings can kill a track, which is why you've got to sometimes keep the arrangers down - otherwise they'll just gyppo it up and they'll have that old gypsy thing just going away, trying to break your heart etc. Pop music just doesn't need it — strings should be used as a texture or tone.'
At this point the would-be chief of the Celtic mafia reverts to his sounds and shapes formula: 'When you do songs, you've got to have your singer right up there - after that, everything else is incidental. Strings, if you think of speakers being deep that way (he does his Magnus Pyke impression and extends his arms to illustrate a degree of depth) then strings are the things that are furthest back. The idea is that you still hear them but you're not really sure if they're there or not. Some people don't even realise that they are strings on Rafferty's album.'
Obviously, the Fulham coffee has had a great lubricating effect on the Murphy tongue or else one of the producer's ancestors has kissed the Blarney Stone along the way - one way or another Hugh Murphy is now in full vocal flight. I check to see there's plenty of tape left on my cassette-recorder and settle back to enjoy what is proving to be the world's easiest interview. 'String machines — they're wonderful — they make a poverty-stricken string section sound great... I love Sound Techniques, a charming place. John Wood, he did some great albums there... Richard and Linda Thompson, that's the sort of thing I admire...' The tape spools on.
On the album that Murphy is producing for Mel Harrold, she sings a Richard and Linda Thompson song called Hard Luck Stories, culled from the duo's Flow Down Like Silver album. The Murphy enthusiasm for the Thompsons bubbles over. 'I'm really into British songwriters — Americans sound much the same to me, so twinkly and syrupy - there's no heart, no sweat there. It's all so bland. Stephen Bishop sounds like Paul Simon and everything comes out just as if Richard Perry had produced it. Leo Sayer — the best thing he ever did was Moonlighting... and that was done here. It had nothing on it - just bass, drums and guitar. Now he's gone over there and made a lot of money, which is what it's all about, but he's lost a lot of what he had.
'That Rafferty album was never designed for the States — it never occurred to us to make it that way. Nobody was more surprised than us when everyone began telling us that it sounded so American. I mean, it's Tommy Eyre, a boy from Sheffield, on the old pianna; Gary, from Worthing, on drums; Henry 'Blodwyn Da Vinci' Spinetti, from Wales, on bass and guitar — the only American there was Jerry Donahue... and he's only on one track. We mixed that album at silly times, we were getting up at six to be in the studio at seven. Thinking back though, I suppose it came out a smooth album - but mainly because Rafferty's voice is like cream anyway. The dynamics are the great thing. On the Rafferty tour we used Liam Genochy on drums — he's got a great sense of dynamics — he can go up and down on a sixpence. He can suddenly go right down and yet it doesn't seem wrong — he's so tasteful.'
After the success of City To City and the Baker Street single ('That sax line was in Gerry's head, he sang it on the basic track when he did the guide vocal — then we initially did it with a soprano sax but found that didn't work') Murphy was asked to remix Rafferty's earlier Mary Skeffington for Logo, who had acquired Nat Joseph's Transatlantic catalogue. But then it proved that the master-tape had been lost.
'They couldn't find the master-tape, nor the 8-tracks either. So I had to do it from a copy-tape. Imagine, making a copy from a copy-tape and having to overdub on that! Anyway, that all turned out quite well.'
Murphy would have welcomed a similar opportunity to remix the Kilburns' Handsome before Pye remarketed the album.
'The band were originally signed to Pye by a man who left after we'd been working on the album for a week. I'd been told: It's a difficult band so spend what you need to spend and put in as much time on these tracks as you need — then the geezer we did the deal with upped and left the company. At which point I got a phone call saying: Finish that album — NOW! So all of a sudden I had to scurry around, get the overdubs done by people who could do them, slap things on and mix quickly, simply because the carpet had been pulled out from under my feet. So with just one mix — that was all I was allowed — it was shoved together and Pye threw it out like a secret. Nobody could understand what they were doing with this funny band — and this was a real funny band, strange people, a little short bass player and a geezer whose legs didn't work very well... and little Ian Dury... corr! Oh dear, they thought, what's all this? So it came out to terrible reviews and nobody liked it — mainly because there hadn't been enough thought put into it. More recently, I offered to remix it and bring Dury up, take some of the padding out — but no. They've sold off five of the tracks to Bonaparte Records so that they can make a 99p EP or something like that.'
Perhaps the only thing that Murphy dislikes more than memories of the Kilburn album is the thought of using a computermix. 'I used the computer at Advision a couple of years ago but that — because of the relationship with the artist as well — turned out to be a far from happy experience. Really I'm not happy unless I can feel things, have my hands on the controls. I like to be able to change things when I want. In the middle of mixes I change things. All right, that's unheard of — people usually just put up their faders, mark with their pencils and everything, get their sound, then sit back and do a little bit here or there. But not me! I've got me arms all over the desk, fingers on the faders — and I designate faders to the tape op and say: When such and such happens, pull that one up or put that one up to that mark.
I've got to have my hands full of faders and keep things going up and down and changing — so I hate computermix, it just does nothing for me. I can see that if you're making a disco record they can be useful — where you've got one of those synthetic bass drums on a tape loop up front all the time.
Then you can set it and have things coming in and out at certain times. But that's all regimented and boring. Disco music is boring. No content. I don't believe you can do good songs on a computer. Disco doesn't move me — songs do — and it could easily be just a little old lady singing her heart out in a pub!'
Interview by Fred Dellar
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