Chas de Whalley chinwagging with the man behind some of the best tracks by Toyah, Marillion, and Thin Lizzy — Nick Tauber
Nick Tauber began our conversation by telling me he'd been producing records in one way or another for over 15 years. He ended it by informing me that he was only two years short of his 40th birthday. I'm not sure which piece of information came as the greater surprise.
After all, I knew Tauber had begun the Eighties with his feet well and truly under the desk wherever Toyah Willcox and Marillion had recorded. I Wanna Be Free, and It's A Mystery, Garden Party, Punch And Judy and Assassin — they were all Nick Tauber productions. I knew, too, that he'd worked with Deep Purple, been involved with the likes of Spear Of Destiny, Stiff Little Fingers, The Armoury Show and assorted other outfits who had made headlines in post-Punk Britain. But I certainly hadn't realised that he'd begun the Seventies knocking Thin Lizzy's earliest albums into shape and helping them to their first big hit with Whiskey In The Jar.
We met at Battery Studios in North London. Not because he was working there but because this up-to-the-minute complex is owned by the Zomba Group who are Tauber's management. They also look after a brace of premier division producers like Mutt 'Def Leppard/The Cars' Lange, Martin 'Iron Maiden' Birch, Tim 'Talk Talk' Friese-Green and others. So you can take it as read that Nick Tauber's credentials are as good as his connections.
Nick Tauber began his musical career drumming in an R&B band in the late Sixties. But he soon gave touring up for something a little more sedentary, became a studio engineer and subsequently joined Decca as an assistant producer.
"Peter Collins and I were both there at the same time, doing all the running around and all the duff jobs. That was when I first met Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy. I remixed their first album and then made Shades of The Blue Orphanage at De Lane Lea which is now CTS. We did Vagabonds Of The Western World at Decca in Tollington Park, which is now Jam Studios. I reckon that was their best first album. It was at that point I feel they began to turn into a very fine band. They went on from strength to strength. Phil's death came as a shock. I know some people say it didn't really surprise them but it did me because last time I saw him he was in brilliant shape."
Strangely enough, Thin Lizzy's first blockbuster Whiskey In The Jar, was never on an album. As a single, of course, it cracked the Top Ten in 1973 and has remained a classic ever since, still sounding as good on the radio today as it did all those years ago. Tauber produced it on eight track at the Decca West Hampstead studio in Broadhurst Gardens. He remembered it had taken them little more than two days to record and mix.
I expressed some regret that it would now be virtually impossible to make a record in those sort of circumstances and get it accepted by a record company as a viable release, let alone deemed worthy of the sort of blanket Radio One airplay it would need to be a hit, and that, by the same token, the industry only had itself to blame for the escalating costs of master recording. Nick Tauber understood the point but he didn't accept the argument.
"I've made both kinds of records, the cheap ones and the expensive ones. Both have their own credibility. But it's like being in the film industry and dealing in special effects. In the old days it would be enough to superimpose King Kong against a backdrop. But today that looks really Mickey Mouse compared with the sort of effects in a Steven Spielberg movie. They all look so real. People still like the old films for what they were, but they wouldn't tell a modern director not to use the new techniques.
"Similarly there is a certain sort of record you can't make cheaply because, at the end of the day, you're competing with people who don't care how long it's going to take or how much they'll have to spend. That Tears For Fears album is a perfect example of what you're up against. Could Chris Hughes have done anything like as good a job on those songs if he hadn't got the budget to spend as long as he needed? Of course he couldn't.
"Those sorts of records take a long time to make because they are state of the art and so you're going for the best. The time goes into the programming and choosing the sounds and generally being more 'picky'.
"So you get caught in a spiral. But as far as I see it, if you resist, it's like saying 'Let's not evolve'. You can't do that. You can't stand in the way of progress. It's like saying 'Let's not have any space shuttles. Let's not fly to the moon. Why do it?' And the answer is because we can and because the technology is there. Why do you try to make better records? Because it's a challenge. So when you go in to make a record you try to make it the best you possibly can."
So if Nick Tauber is scornful of those producers and studios who, as he puts it, "tread water and are happy to stick with tried and tested formulae rather than go for new sounds and new technology" he is still more contemptuous of those who believe that production alone is what makes a good record.
"If you try to substitute the technology for the music then that's where you're going wrong. The technology should complement the song not supplement it. A lot of people make that mistake. If you've got great songs and a great band then you'll still do well even if it isn't a beautifully produced record. The whole essence is the players and the songs, not this big hooha about producers being gods from who knows where. A good producer like Mutt Lange or Jimmy Lovine or Bob Clearmountain can make a difference to a record and make it more accessible and more listenable. But they don't make the record completely. There has to be something to work on."
Which brings us down to people, players and tunes. Not for Nick Tauber the post-Gary Numan routine of simply bouncing a melody across suitably atmospheric synthesiser sequences. He prefers to work with crafted songs performed by a number of well-integrated musicians. And he makes a big point of the value of extensive pre-production. When we spoke he was in the middle of recording a new single with Bruce Foxton, and had spent four days in the rehearsal studio with the former Jam bass player and his band, routining exhaustively.
"I go into individual notes and beats, everything. It's very important to arrange a song properly. Obviously you have to get full co-operation and consent from the band. I believe the producer should be a catalyst. You can throw a lot of ideas at a band and they'll go 'Well, I dunno. But let's try this...' And what you've done is kicked off a question in their minds and invariably they come back with some real improvement."
Such a painstaking approach frequently pays real dividends. Tauber spent the Autumn of 1985 locked up in the Manor rescuing the reformed UFO who had parted company with another producer mid way through recording an album. On Tauber's arrival Mogg and his men were expecting to step right back into big stone room and work up the drum sounds. They were apparently quite taken aback when Tauber insisted that they spend at least a week reconstructing the songs before he wheeled in the Fairlights, the two 24 track slaves and anything went to tape. Ultimately, of course, both band and album Misdemeanour certainly benefitted from the experience.
I never thought to ask how he'd actually met up with Marillion. It probably resulted from the fact that, during 1982, Aylesbury's finest were regularly appearing at the Marquee club while Tauber himself was virtually cemented to the floor in the Marquee studio upstairs. Whatever the real truth the two parties were put together and the resultant albums Script For A Jester's Tear and Fugazi set the tone for world dominance by a tall Scotsman with paint on his face and a penchant for surreal lyrics.
"Most of the work on those two albums was done at The Marquee studios. I used to be based there and I still love the drum room. The only reason I moved on was because I felt they weren't updating the equipment enough. I had to get into 48 track and digital mixdown and SSL desks which they didn't have. I'm now told they're thinking of getting one of the new Harrison desks with total recall which are supposed to be very good. I haven't had the opportunity to try one yet.
"It must be one of the hardest things about running a studio, having to update the equipment all the time. I don't own very much myself. A few pairs of speakers and some bits and pieces, but that's all. There are guys like Mike Thorne and Peter Collins who own warehouses of gear. But half of what they've got is out of date, and obviously unsaleable for that reason. Especially all the old analogue gear and tape echo units and so on.
"The old Roland Space Echoes were very good. It's just that other things have come along that can do the same job better — without the tape distortion and the head wear. Mind you, I still use the Roland 505. It's on both of those Marillion albums. It's fantastic for guitars. It has a quality of its own. But if you want a voice echo... a voice is a sensitive thing to record. You can't afford any echo distortion. Digital gear is so clear and precise and it offers such control over length of echo, dissipation, colouring, everything. And with gear like the new Publison, the Quantec, the Lark and AMS, of course, there's nothing to wear out. It's a silicon chip. You can't wear a silicon chip out unless you tread on it.
"Ultimately the theory is the same. The guy who was making records in the 50s was still trying to do the same thing as a producer nowadays. Which is to bring the best out of the artist and the best out of the song. It's like travelling from A to B. You rode in a steam engine 50 years ago. Now it's electric."
Interview by Chas de Whalley
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