Mark Ronson, Amy Winehouse and that special chemistry
Artists from Amy Winehouse via David Bowie to U2 have had musical masterminds in the control room. Fiona Sturges looks at their influence
Friday 07 May 2010
There was a time, before the dawn of rock'n'roll, when record producers played a minor part in the music-making process. Their job in the studio was to organise and supervise, to hire musicians and arrangers and to make sure that nobody made off with the equipment. No one knew, or cared, who they were.
Nowadays it's a different story. Producers have become nearly as important in pop music as artists. In many cases they are stars in their own right who live and die by the success of their latest opus. Producers now take an active role in the creative process. While some write songs and play instruments, most provide the overall vision that shapes an album's sound. For the parties in question it's often a case of mutual back-scratching. While producers rely on starry singers to bring a little pizzazz to their CVs, singers hope that a new producer will afford them a cutting-edge cool that will ensure commercial and critical success.
To make it work, however, a certain chemistry is required. Get it wrong and the resulting album will bomb along with the careers of those involved; get it right and it can define an era. Take Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson who, according to reports, are back in the studio to record a series of songs for a Quincy Jones tribute album. Ever since the release of Winehouse's Ronson-produced, multi-million-selling Back to Black album in 2006, they have been the most bankable and talked-about names in music. They were pop's golden couple, a dream team that married Winehouse's heady vocals and seething lyrics with Ronson's super-hip retro-soul vision, and who yielded one of the most influential albums of the decade.
So what kind of strange alchemy takes place behind studio doors to create a musical masterpiece? What is the secret to the perfect artist-producer pairing? Often it's a matter of personality. By far the most fruitful artist-producer partnership was that of George Martin and the Beatles. Martin was often called "the fifth Beatle" (though there were a few of those) due to his work as producer of all but one of their records. Martin's background was in classical music, though, prior to being involved with the Beatles, he worked largely on records of comic dialogue with the likes of Peter Sellers and the Goons. Being comedy fans the Beatles were hugely impressed by Martin's history and a rapport was established. Under his guidance, they blossomed from being a derivative but promising provincial group to, as Lennon had it, a band who could give Jesus a run for his money in the fame stakes.
Friendship was also at the heart of Tony Visconti and David Bowie's working relationship. Visconti produced nine Bowie records between 1969 and 1980 including Diamond Dogs, Young Americans and Heroes, and co-produced more recent projects including Heathen and Reality. According to Visconti's autobiography, when the pair first met in 1967 they were supposed to talk about working together but ended up discussing obscure foreign films and their mutual fascination with Tibetan Buddhism. That evening they went to the cinema to see Polanski's Knife in the Water. Mutual respect was acknowledged and the pair went on to work together for the next 40 years.
Other apparently harmonious producer-artist partnerships include that of Radiohead and Nigel Godrich, who began working together in 1994 with the My Iron Lung EP and continue to this day. Eddie Kramer managed to negotiate the monstrous egos that propelled the rock band Kiss, working with them on and off for thirty years, while the Canadian record producer Daniel Lanois maintained a lengthy partnership with U2, co-producing several of their albums, including The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby.
In some cases, there's a clear reason why artist and producer hit it off. After all, there's nothing like a bit of sexual tension to get the creative juices flowing. In 1977 Emmylou Harris married Brian Ahern, who produced her major label debut, 1975's Pieces of the Sky. After they divorced, she married producer Paul Kennerley, who had worked on her album The Ballad of Sally Rose, and would go on to produce 1986's Thirteen and 1989's Bluebird. Shania Twain mixed work and pleasure when she wed producer Robert John (Mutt) Lange while Martha Wainwright married Brad Albetta, producer of her first two albums.
There was a similar tension in the air at the studio sessions of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood. Hazlewood was already a successful songwriter who had gone into semi-retirement before his neighbour Jimmy Bowen, who ran the singles department at Frank Sinatra's Reprise records, badgered him into producing Nancy. Following the chart success of their first collaboration "So Long Baby," the pair recorded "These Boot Are Made For Walkin'", with Hazlewood famously instructing Nancy to "sing it like you're a 16-year-old girl who goes out with 45-year-old truck drivers". Their subsequent songs contained some of the most scurrilous lyrics of the era. Both parties denied that they were romantically involved.
If the producer-artist relationship has certain elements of a marriage, then obviously it's not all hearts and flowers. There are the power struggles, the hissy fits, the walk-outs, the arguments about whose turn it is to make the tea. Patti Smith's sessions with Velvet Underground co-founder and studio supremo John Cale for the 1975 album Horses were described by Smith as a "season in hell" for both parties, with Smith ignoring all of Cale's suggestions as to what direction the album should take. During the sessions for the album Thriller Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson frequently came to blows, disagreeing on such fundamental issues the tracklisting, most notably on the inclusion of "Billie Jean" which, incredibly, Jones thought too weak to include on the album.
And while there was no disputing the musical merits of producer-turned-jailbird Phil Spector, his methods were certainly unorthodox. Ever the perfectionist, during his session with the Ramones, Spector reputedly forced the band to play the chords for "Rock'n'Roll High School" for eight hours solidly, and, when they attempted to leave the studio, had the exits locked and threatened them with a pistol.
Now, in the era of ruthlessly manufactured pop, the role of the producer has been further heightened. These days they come in teams, giving themselves sci-fi monikers such as Stargate, the gaggle of Norwegians responsible for hits by Shakira, Rhianna and Beyoncé, and The Matrix, the three-pronged hit machine behind the likes of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. And, of course, there's Xenomania, the British production team believed by some to have entirely re-shaped 21st-century pop. The demand for chart-friendly rap has also heralded the rise of the rap producer, from Timbaland, whose long-standing partnership with Justin Timberlake has propelled him to the top of his field, and Pharrell Williams, one half of The Neptunes and now the force behind hits by Kanye West and Gwen Stefani.
Whether the starry profiles of producers is truly justified a matter of opinion. But one thing that's clear, now more than ever, is that producers are apt to drift in and out of fashion just like their pop-star charges. All of which means that producers and musicians need to choose their working partners wisely, lest they find themselves at the back of the dole queue.
PRODUCTION MARRIAGES MADE IN HEAVEN?
The Beatles and George Martin
The ultimate dream team. Their working relationship, which lasted throughout the band's career, was based on a shared musical vision and a love of cult comedy.
David Bowie and Tony Visconti
When the pair met in 1967 they talked foreign films instead of work and their friendship formed the basis of a working relationship spanning 40 years.
Girls Aloud and Xenomania
Writing and producing all of Girls Aloud's six albums, the British songwriting and production team transformed Cheryl and Co from a guilty pleasure to a credible pop band.
Phil Spector and John Lennon
The Ramones weren't the only ones to find themselves looking down a barrel when recording with Phil Spector. During the sessions for John Lennon's album "Rock and Roll", Spector pulled out a hand gun, waved it in the former Beatle's face and shot a hole in the ceiling.
Gilbert O'Sullivan and Gordon Mills
The Irish singer-songwriter famously fell out with Gordon Mills, his manager and producer, and took him to court over a publishing agreement that he believed had been broken. O'Sullivan received £4m and the master tapes of his original songs.
Doves and John Leckie
Doves tend to find it hard to stay out of the studio control room. After two weeks with Kingdom of Rust co-producer Leckie, he told them to do it alone.
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