Martin Rushent: Synth-pop pioneer and innovative producer of the Human League, the Stranglers and Buzzcocks

In the late 1970s and early '80s, the innovative British record producer Martin Rushent helped alter the course of popular music as he worked with a succession of culturally significant and hugely successful bands in the punk and synth-pop genres.

In late 1976, he convinced Andrew Lauder, his boss at the United Artists label, to sign the Stranglers, a rather threatening group from Guildford, whose formation predated the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned and the Jam, and who went on to join them as the "Big Five" of British punk. Rushent harnessed the Stranglers' snarl and swagger and produced their first three albums, Rattus Norvegicus, No More Heroes and Black And White, as well as the six Top 20 singles they recorded during a prolific 15 months: the epochal "Peaches", "Something Better Change", "No More Heroes", "5 Minutes", "Nice'n'Sleazy" and their robust cover of "Walk On By". "Martin was a wizard of both technology and studio humour," said Jet Black, the Stranglers' drummer.

In 1978, the producer repeated the feat with another UA signing, Buzzcocks, the Manchester band who put the love back into punk and influenced the grunge groups of the '90s. Again, Rushent oversaw their original hat-trick of albums, Another Music In A Different Kitchen, Love Bites and A Different Kind Of Tension, as well as a peerless run of singles that kicked off with the controversial "Orgasm Addict" and peaked with the No 12 hit "Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)".

Despite being almost a decade older than most of the acts he worked with, Rushent had his finger on the pulse of punk and also produced 999, the Members, the Rezillos, the Yachts and XTC, as well as Generation X's eponymous 1978 debut and their anthemic 45 "Ready Steady Go" that set their front man Billy Idol on his way to a career as the New Wave answer to Elvis Presley. "In my experience, the longer you spend making a piece of music, the more likely it is to be a pile of shit! Stuff that's written, organised and put down very quickly seems to have an energy," said Rushent, who recorded several demos with Joy Division in 1979 but lost out to Martin Hannett when the band signed to Factory Records rather than UA.

However, he became "the man with the golden touch" – as the industry magazine Sound On Sound described him in a February 2007 profile – when he stepped back from producingguitar bands in London and pioneered a new approach to recording ashe moved into electronic music. In 1980, he bought a Roland Micro Composer and a Roland Jupiter synthesiser, which formed the basis of theGenetic Studio operation he established in the back garden of his Berkshire home. The Buzzcocks mainman Pete Shelley became the guinea pig for this new, unusual, and at the time rather costly, set-up.

"I programmed all the drums and synths, while he played all the guitars," recalled Rushent of Shelley's groundbreaking Homosapien solo album. "The initial plan was just to demo his songs because he was out of his UA deal, so we pumped it to people like Island and Virgin and they loved it. It was signed to Island, but Simon Draper of Virgin heard it and called me to talk about their band, the Human League.

"They'd done demos of 'The Sound Of The Crowd' and "Love Action' in a Sheffield studio, but Simon didn't think they were getting the punch theyneeded. He loved the drums onHomosapien and asked me to do a track. So the band turned up at Genetic with their multi-track for 'The Sound Of The Crowd'. Simon had conned them and told them that I'd mix it! I said, 'We're going to start again and do it better'. There were a few grumbles, but by the time we'd finished, they were really pleased."

Rushent's punchier, poppier production of "The Sound Of The Crowd" reached No 12 in the spring of 1981 and provided the springboard for the Human League's reinvention as the New Romantic, synth-pop Abba, with Susanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall flanking Phil Oakey, the towering lead vocalist with the lopsided hairstyle and the distinctive baritone. "Everything we put out was a bigger hit than the last," said Rushent of the 'Love Action' and 'Open Your Heart' singles. "When we sent Virgin 'Don't You Want Me', they went absolutely bananas. The song did hit No 1 for Christmas, which was nice. I mean, all producers have an ambition of producing a Christmas No 1. I know it's very cheesy, but it just has to be done." The League's groundbreaking Dare album, which featured all the aforementioned singles, topped charts around the world, repaying the hard work Rushent and the group had put into it.

"Everyone of us felt like we were on a mission," said the producer, who was named Best Producer at the BRIT Awards in 1982. "We had all this technology that was highly temperamental and barely held together, we had to make it do what we wanted it to do, and sometimes it felt like we were climbing Everest. In those days, making electronic music was a big job, particularly the way that I was doing it. To get the sounds I wanted, I was layering synths. I might have 24 synths playing one synth line, all programmed, all analogue and all drifting out of tune. It used to take hours and hours and hours, and I don't know how we ever got through it."

In 1982, Rushent created the remix album Love & Dancing, anotherinfluential and successful releasecredited to the League Unlimited Orchestra, in tribute to Barry White. Rushent produced the band's two subsequent hits, the Motown manqué "Mirror Man" in late 1982, and the infectious "(Keep Feeling) Fascination" the following year, but resigned during the sessions for the Hysteria album when Sulley complained about the amount of time he was spending creating a drum track. "I walked out of my own studio. Contrary to all the rumours, there were no fisticuffs," he told Sound On Sound in 2007. "And I'm also not dead, despite having once read my own obituary."

In fact, the producer was nearing burn-out. He had produced the "Happy Birthday" single and the Pinky Blue album – including the hits "I Could Be Happy" and "See Those Eyes" – byAltered Images in 1982, Shelley'ssecond solo album XL1 in 1983,Talk Show by the American all-girl band The Go-Go's, also in 1983, and sundry releases by The Associates and Hazel O'Connor in between his League commitments.

"I didn't know what clinical depression was, but that's what I had," he said. "I could barely make a cup of tea and for a year I drifted like a lost soul. I'd been working on mixing consoles since I was 16 and it had been completely instinctive, but suddenly I had to think about every move. I took on a couple of projects but had to own up that I couldn't think straight. I ended up a virtually bankrupt single dad with three kids, and had to sell my home and studio to pay off my bills."

After almost a decade in the wilderness, Rushent started a club called Gush at Greenham Common. He caught up with the latest developments in computer technology he had helped introduce and produced The Pipettes, as well as the indie band featuring his son James, Does It Offend You, Yeah?

Born in London in 1948, Rushent was a music- and technology-obsessed teenager who made the most of the reel-to-reel tape recorder his father bought for him. "I worked out how to bounce stuff so I would spend my days as a 14-year-old doing different versions of 'Stay' by the Hollies, multi-tracking my voice and the guitars," he remembered. While working in a chemicals factory and helping his father sell cars, he fronted various bands, and even cut a demo at EMI's Manchester Square studio, a momentous event that sealed his ambition to become an engineer and producer.

In 1968, he was mistakenly offered a position as film projectionist in the dubbing theatre at Advision in London's New Bond Street and made the most of the opportunity, not only mastering the job quickly but also beginning an unpaid apprenticeship as a tape-op and engineer in the evenings. He was soon assisting the likes of Tony Visconti, then producing T Rex's Electric Warrior, and went to work with acts as diverse as Shirley Bassey, Petula Clark, David Essex, Fleetwood Mac, the Groundhogs, Jerry Lee Lewis and Yes. In 1975 he went freelance and produced his first hit, "Why Did You Do It?" by the short-lived Stretch.

In 1979, Rushent issued a solo single on the Albion label entitled "Give It All You Got". This he most certainly did.

Pierre Perrone

Martin Charles Rushent, record producer, singer and musician: born London 11 July 1948; married 1972 Linda Trodd (marriage dissolved; two sons, one daughter), secondly Ceri Davis (one daughter); died Upper Basildon, Berkshire 4 June 2011.

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