In the first of a series, Fred Dellar looks at the chequered career of Gus Dudgeon.
The producer's job is possibly one of the least-understood and most under-rated in the entire recording business. One usually thinks of a producer as providing a 'creative liaison' between artist and engineer, but in reality this is just one small part of the activities of a true devotee of the art. Gus Dudgeon is one of the industry's top men in this field, so Fred Dellar grabbed him for a chat one day at his new studio complex.
The last time I bumped into Gus Dudgeon, in November '75, he'd been pretty chipper. A reissue of Bowie's Space Oddity had provided the producer with a British No. 1 single, while in the States he was undoubtedly cock 'o the walk, Elton's Island Girl and Rock Of The Westies, both Dudgeon productions, heading the singles and album charts respectively.
Since that time, much has happened. A fine album with Colin Blunstone became sunk without trace, another with Dutch jazz-rockers Solution, creating but a ripple. And though Blue Moves provided yet another gold record with which to decorate the office walls, Gus finally became disenchanted with the whole Rocket Records set-up and ditched his directorship.
On the face of things then, luck would seem to have run out on Dudgeon. But nothing could be further from the truth. For the one-time Olympic Studios tape-op, having jettisoned his stage one Rocket both literally and metaphorically, had merely taken time out to set a course for new and even more adventurous star-paths than those already travelled.
Ground control for Major Gus is currently a self-owned, extremely plush studio set in the Thames Valley, not a punt ride from Maidenhead. Built obviously with no cash flow problems in mind, the complex has the air of a Heal's-fitted country club. Carpets you could lose a Kosset cat in, a kitchen that looks like God's gift to Fanny Cradock, small chandeliers in the control room itself — the place simply reeks of luxury.
Over a succulent lamb chop and a fine line in accompanying vegetables, Dudgeon licks his fingers and indulges in an after-dinner-chat-cum-interview that explains all: "It's been about three years since we first thought about this place — two and a half since the work physically commenced, the first sessions actually taking place last May. But the studio isn't a commercial one. We're only doing private stuff here — which is fine because it means we haven't got a situation where we have to rent out all the time. If I'm not working here, then nobody's working here."
Is Dudgeon then working mainly on production-company lines, creating his own tapes to be sold to, and marketed by, the highest bidder?
"To an extent — but other people are still asking me to work for them... thank goodness! No, what it really means is that whatever I happen to be working on ends up down here, as a rule — though I'm off to Rockfield next week to do some stuff there."
I observe that Dudgeon had appeared to favour Trident and Marquee in his pre-studio-owning era. He nods in agreement.
"But all the studios I ever went into, I got stale on eventually — just having to go in them all the time. Obviously when you build your own studio, you do it to fill your own requirements, keeping in mind that you want it to be as long-lasting to yourself as possible. So the place is fine now — but I know that every now and again I'll have to tart it up a bit, take the velvet off the walls in the control room to give it a different colour or something, just for the sake of a face-lift. However, I still go around to other places because there are a couple of very good studios about and I don't mind using them. I hear The Marquee has gone through a few changes recently. They've altered the control rooms there and the whole bass end of things has been tightened up a lot — though I haven't used the place since they re-did it. Mind you, I'd still be happy to use that studio because it's been great there — that's where we did the mixing for four of Elton's albums and worked on Kiki's I've Got The Music In Me single and album, plus other things. In fact it was so good that I eventually pinched half the staff from there!"
Dudgeon is extremely likeable, though he sometimes poses problems as an interviewee. For he's so forthright in his opinions on given subjects that repeating such views in print would surely spark off an impressive number of lawsuits — "I once ended up in court over an interview I gave the L.A. Free Press" — while his sense of humour often results in short bouts of total facetiousness, a tactic likely to unnerve those unwilling to wait for Dudgeon to come to earth again and taxi down the main runway once more. A question regarding the cost of the studio promotes one such joyride — but several gags and a helping of rice pudding later, Gus settles down once more and explains that while the building project cost a small fortune, the control room equipment came relatively cheap.
"We purchased the latest MCI desk, plus two four-tracks, two stereos and a 24-track all from the same company. At the time we placed our order with MCI, it was the biggest they'd ever had in Europe — consequently we got a really good deal. Also Phil Dunne (one of Gus's acquisitions from Marquee) and I slightly designed the desk. I know that sounds improbable, but it's a fact because we went over to meet the guys who were building the desk — at that stage it was still on paper — and were amazed at some of the things they'd done on it. I just said "My God! If you can take all of that and just add a few of the things we've come up with, then the desk would be really incredible." They took us very seriously and asked what sort of things we'd been thinking about. So we told them — and with true American efficiency, one guy worked all night so that MCI were able to come to our hotel the following morning and tell us they had something to show Phil and I. Then they pulled out this new design and told us that they could actually build it. And though this added to the original estimated cost, it all worked out a lot cheaper than having to add all those things at a later stage. So thanks to that bit of designing and the fact that we placed such a big order, things worked out extremely well from a cost point of view. And certainly MCI themselves were very pleased with the way the studio turned out for when they want to show possible clients projects they've been involved with, they tend to ring me up first and ask if they can take the people around this place."
It seems too, that the setting-up stage also proved relatively gremlin-free, with few real problems arising.
"We encountered no trouble in the monitoring department — which was unusual, because if you're going to have a major snag then it's nearly always in the monitoring. Our only problem was that we had buzzes all the time. We found that if we plugged in an amplifier we'd get a terrible buzz, which could only be cured by taking the earth off. But then another piece of equipment would be plugged in and everything else would start to buzz until we'd taken the earth off this and placed it back on the other amp... it was an insane situation. But we resolved it by sinking four extra earth poles — and now we've got four 35' poles plus the original dozen 10' jobs that were already in. And that seems to have cured things."
Technical time over, the inevitable question has to be asked. Just why did Dudgeon terminate his relationship with the Rocket empire? Again, Gus indulges in a spate of frivolity — "I was king at Rocket — not queen, you might have noticed"... and so forth, before coming up with the facts and nothing but the facts.
"Rocket was great in the beginning — but we all had a warped idea on how to run a record company. It's a mistake that lots of people have made — artist-run record companies are being formed all the time, but many fold and very few survive. Swansong hasn't done too badly but the Beach Boys thing was just a joke label. And the Moodies haven't really got a label — just another way of making extra bread. They've had a couple of artists but in the long run they've only been interested in selling their own records. The problem with people who know how to make records in a studio is that they don't know how to market them — and people who are supposed to know, don't know either. So you end up with a bunch of people who don't know how to market records in the hands of a bunch of people who don't know how to market records. I know there are some real professionals, the ones who know where it's at on executive level, but most record companies are staffed by wankers. At Rocket it didn't help that the managing directors were just about everywhere except in the office. I'd be in a studio doing something or other, Elton would be touring in the States with John Reid looking after him — and Steve Brown would be doing the best he could, though it wasn't really fair because he wasn't allowed to make decisions without consulting the others — so it all got very crazy. I used to be in a studio and thinking about things like 'I wonder if they've got enough money to pay for Kiki's advertising?' and 'I wonder if the switchboard girl, who's been ill for two weeks, is getting any better?' All those ridiculous sort of things are fine if you're purely into running a company but they don't help if you're trying to produce a record session at the same time."
Certainly some of the decisions that were made at Rocket didn't help. Colin Blunstone's very fine Planes album, available to CBS in Britain but to Rocket for the rest of the world, was shamefully neglected. Dudgeon's belief is that CBS didn't put too much weight behind the disc because they had it for such a limited territory and if the record did break in Britain then Rocket would only step in and reap the benefits elsewhere.
"But it ended up in the Rocket shelf series", wryly comments Dudgeon. "They didn't even release it in the States. And I was told it was too full of singles! At least, that's the info our American office cared to impart via Colin. Since then, Colin has made another album for Rocket, this time with Bill Schnee — but even that's been part of the Rocket shelf series for three or four months so far."
Perhaps at this stage, it's worth recounting Dudgeon's pre-Rocket exploits — the dates at Olympic that saw him working with The Crickets, Del Shannon and Roy Orbison, before becoming an engineer at Decca in the days when The Zombies, Small Faces and John Mayall were frequent visitors to the Hampstead studio. Later he became an independent producer — though he says that it wasn't until Space Oddity, in 1969, that he knew he was in the right business.
"They couldn't give Bowie away in those days. He'd just signed for Mercury and they practically had to pay the company to take him! However, the deal was that he'd got to record Oddity because the first American moonshot was coming up and they wanted something to tie in with it. Tony Visconti was originally signed as producer but didn't like the song and asked me to take a listen. So Bowie came over and played the demo to me and I thought it was unbelievable. I just couldn't believe my luck and had to phone Tony just to make sure he really wanted me to do it. But he claimed there was a lot of better stuff on the album he was doing with Bowie so I could go ahead with the single — at which stage Bowie and I sat down and planned the record — every detail of it. I've still got the original demo at home. On it, Bowie played acoustic guitar and stylophone and did some of the vocal harmonies — all pretty badly. But if he hadn't have made that demo we wouldn't have done the record the way it came out. Our planning consisted of writing the lyrics out, then leaving a gap of about four lines underneath in which we'd write things — maybe I'd draw a line that meant a stylophone swoop or a mellotron part. It looked just like a kid's map, covered in little drawings and stars. But when we hit that studio we knew exactly what we wanted — no other sound would do. And it proved to be a very quick session with everything happening very fast. I remember mixing it and some bloke coming in and whipping it off to the factory straight away — that's how things were on that date!"
Always something of a rule-breaker when accepted studio practice is involved, Gus avers that Bowie was one of the people who encouraged him to query any time-honoured procedures. Another was Eric Clapton.
"It was during my days at Decca. Mayall had done a live album at Klook's Kleek and it was pretty boring. So when he came in to do a studio album it seemed a good idea to do a little more with it. Clapton at that time was well-known, though nobody had the measure of him — all we knew was that we were faced with a red-hot guitarist. And guitar heroes were a brand new thing — in fact they were so new they just hadn't happened. Singers were heroes, bands were heroes, but guitarists just hadn't made it at that stage. Anyway, in he came and asked 'Where do you want my guitar amp?'. At that time I used to just stick a mike down in front of the guitar amp and the musician sat next to it, turned up and started playing — if you caught him on any of the other mikes you just asked him to turn things down a bit.
"But when Clapton found out where his mike was placed, he just walked off in the opposite direction and put his amp down about 40 feet away. 'I meant over here', I said. But Clapton thought he was okay where he was and asked if I wanted to check the sound level. 'I think this guy's round the twist', I told Mike Vernon back in the control room, and as I lifted up the fader Clapton's blasting away at gig level, something we'd never had in the studio. But I had to admit that it was a pretty amazing sound, distant but huge. Then the drummer came in and by the time everybody was playing it had turned into a different sound — one that Mike and I were knocked out with. We just kept thinking, 'Is this right?' So on a lot of those tracks, something happened that had never happened before — a lot of ambience was left floating around and instead of the normal quiet sounds that you then amplified in the box, people were playing loud and you just took them the way they were. On a lot of those tracks the guitar sound just picked up on the drum mikes and things like that. And that taught me a lot. Clapton, in fact, opened my eyes to rule-breaking because he just wasn't interested in rules."
The meal has reached coffee-stage and Gus's futuristic, ever-changing light-machine of a clock is registering half past cerise and yellow, which means that some sessionmen are almost due to add brass trimmings to "Legs" Larry Smith's version of Springtime With Hitler, Dudgeon's current undertaking. Cinema buffs will recall the number as being the most hilarious segment of Mel Brooks' The Producers, possibly the cult film of 1967 — and it seems that Dudgeon and Smith have been planning this zany venture for several years, Rocket rejecting the idea out of hand as being "in bad taste"; which, as Dudgeon rightly observes, was the whole point of Dick Shawn's screen rendition.
"Legs" Larry, who's perched himself at the end of the table, has been a buddy of Dudgeon's since that producer ended up as one half of the legendary Apollo C. Vermouth. Go on and tell us the story, Gus. "What happened was that Gerry Bron phoned me up and said 'I'm producing the Bonzo Dog Band but we don't get on very well — would you like to come around and talk to them?' Later he played me five songs, one of which had to be selected as a single, and then allowed me to take the tape home. But as soon as I heard Urban Spaceman, which at that stage was some sixty per cent finished, it was obviously the track we were looking for. Paul McCartney had apparently been around when they'd done the basic track and was destined to cop a production credit. Then I finished Spaceman off, putting on the vocals, tuba, tambourine, drums and one or two other things, mixing the whole thing in my lunch-hour because it was easy to mix, only being a 4-track job. But as they didn't want to upset McCartney — and I didn't want to either at that stage, though I couldn't care less today — the record went out as being produced by Apollo C. Vermouth."
A copy of Alan Parsons I Robot album adorns one of the nearby shelves. Gus says he rates Parsons highly as a producer.
"For what he does, Biddu does a good job too. And that Kate Bush single is a superb production — who does that?" Engineer-producer Martyn Ford, another of Gus's refugees from Marquee, blushingly proffers the name of Andrew Powell. "Yeah — well it was a fine record. Barry Blue has done a couple of good things too — Boogie Nights was a great record. Paul Simon, Arif Mardin, they're both great producers — some of the stuff Mardin's done with the Bee Gees is outrageous!
Arranger Bill Baxter, a Scot with an accent like a wayward haggis, has arrived to goosestep the band through Springtime With Hitler. But before we head out of the dining area, cross the stream that runs through the middle of Dudgeon's complex and take up our red alert positions in MCI-land, I ask Gus what he considers a producer's role to be be. The immediate answer is predictable.
"A producer's role. Oh, ham and cheese I should think. No — in my case not very much. I mean, I can't write or anything. Thom Bell is probably the best example of an all-round producer because he writes great songs, does good productions and arrangements and is very actively involved in an artist's career. But yours truly can't play anything at all except the drums, which I play reasonably badly. So I'm just like a punter — if I hear a song that I like, then over a 15-year period I've picked up enough around studios to be able to communicate with a musician without really having or knowing exactly what I'm trying to communicate. I know what I'm trying to say and they get the point after a while — d'you know what I mean? But it's obviously a lot easier for the guys who can just sit down at a piano and say 'Hey, the voicing on that one seems to be more like this — with a ninth in there instead of a seventh.' At times, things are awkward for me then. But from another point of view — because I don't know enough to be too clever — it's an advantage."
"Producer's roles are different though. If you're working with an artist who's really got his act together — like Elton — then the role has to be one of just providing studio atmosphere or maybe just being a person to bounce ideas off. In the beginning, and this may sound amazing, but right back at the very beginning, Elton wasn't very confident as a singer or a pianist and the best thing that I did for him was to give him confidence and add praise when he really needed it. Sometimes he would stand in the control room and sing something, but when he got in front of a mike he'd attempt that selfsame thing and fail to give it the same kind of impetus. It was always the problem of just breaking down that slight studio fear thing. Even now he says that he can't possibly do certain things and that there's no way he can possibly attempt them — but if you can get him to give it a go, he usually can. So that was his particular case — and it all depends on the artist you're working with. I'm very careful to work with people I know I can give something to — it would be pointless for me to work with someone like Van Morrison, even though I love him. I mean, I'd like to work with him in a way — but it would be quite useless because he wouldn't come out sounding the same. I'd probably clean up everything a bit because my instincts would want me to make everything better than it is — and that would be a shame, for it's the very shabbiness of some of his stuff that makes it so full of charm."
Interview by Fred Dellar
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