Obituary: Bruce Fairbairn

Pierre Perrone
Tuesday 16 July 2013 23:01

RECORD PRODUCERS can create their own sound a la Phil Spector or do their utmost to enable artists to shine like George Martin with the Beatles. The Canadian producer Bruce Fairbairn, often called the "king" of heavy metal producers or "the schoolteacher" for his focused, methodical approach, belonged to the enabling school. "My job is to help a band create the album they want to make," he told interviewers.

In a rich and varied career spanning over 25 years, Fairbairn switched from playing with the band Prism to producing some of the defining multi- million-selling rock records of the Eighties and Nineties by Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, the Cranberries, INXS, Kiss and Van Halen.

Born in Vancouver in 1949, Fairbairn was a gifted child and took piano and trumpet lessons. While at school, he formed his first rhythm 'n' blues band, the Spectres, and met the promoter Bruce Allen, who played an important part in his later career.

By 1975, Fairbairn was fronting a new group, Sunshyne, without much success and approached the songwriter Jim Vallance (now more famous as Bryan Adams's writing partner and sometime producer). The two joined forces in an outfit renamed Stanley Screamer and cut four tracks which eventually got them a deal with GRT Records in Canada.

A natural move would have been for the pair to produce their first album together but Vallance backed out and Fairbairn took over the group and renamed it Prism. Between 1977 and 1982, Prism recorded five albums and toured extensively. Frustrated at not making more inroads into the American market, Prism broke up and Fairbairn hooked up again with Bruce Allen, the Vancouver manager who masterminded his switch to full-time producer.

Regulations increasing local content on Canadian radio had been introduced, giving a boost to the country's record industry. Fairbairn worked with acts such as Strange Advance, Honeymoon Suite and, most famously, Loverboy, who crossed the Canadian border in some style, scoring nine US Top Forty singles in the mid-Eighties. The power-charged sound of "Working for the Week-End", "Lovin' Every Minute of It" and "This Could Be the Night" became a staple of American rock radio. Around the same time, Bruce Fairbairn also produced Blue Oyster Cult's "Revolution By Night" and "Without Love" by Black 'N Blue.

Jon Bon Jovi, disappointed with the production on his group Bon Jovi's second album, 7800 Fahrenheit, was playing records by other acts. "I had the second Black 'N Blue LP with me," he remembers. "By accident, I began to compare the way our compact disc sounded alongside the ordinary cut of `Without Love'. And I was stunned by how much better the latter sounded. It was quite incredible. So I called up their producer! Something just happened when we met in Vancouver to do Slippery. It was like a comic strip phenomenon: Kapow! We became these rock stars!"

Indeed, Fairbairn and the young and eager Bon Jovi were a match made in melodic metal heaven. Slippery When Wet, released in 1986, sold more than 13 million copies world-wide. New Jersey, the follow-up, released in 1989 and also produced by Fairbairn, was nearly as successful.

The producer began amassing gold and platinum records. He worked with Aerosmith on their 1987 comeback album, Permanent Vacation, and also oversaw Pump (1989), which contained the transatlantic hit "Love in an Elevator" and sold an impressive eight million copies. According to Aerosmith's bass-player, Tom Hamilton, "the album saved our career".

Fairbairn recalled:

None of the songs on Pump would have flown if the guys in Aerosmith hadn't played them great initially. Once you have something good on tape, then you have a really solid basis to play around with, adding the production aspects, mixing in texture and colour to the tracks. All those songs can be stripped down - you can get rid of the horns, the piano, the accordion - and still have a good album with great songs. The production is just there to enhance what the band has done. It's like baking a great cake with a lot of icing. I like a lot of icing.

Fairbairn also supervised Get a Grip for Aerosmith in 1993. "He was very instrumental in birthing three of the greatest albums we've done," Aerosmith's singer Steven Tyler told Billboard magazine. "He was so good at being free and open and passing on ideas and arrangements. He could be a bastard and hard to work with. He'd push me but we did some great albums with his help. He helped relight the fire under Aerosmith after all these years."

Over the last 10 years, Bruce Fairbairn also recorded the Dan Reed Network, Poison, Motley Crue, the Scorpions and AC/DC (on The Razor's Edge, a Top Five album in 1990 on both sides of the Atlantic). This was a fitting collaboration since Fairbairn often used classic AC/DC material to check his guitars and drum parts were up to scratch.

Known for his polished, crystal-clear sound, his use of dynamics and his pop-metal sensibility, Fairbairn also trained the engineer Bob Rock who went on to produce Metallica, David Lee Roth and the Cult.

Fairbairn was a family man, playing soccer with his boys and working mostly in his beloved Little Mountain and Armoury studios in the Vancouver area of Canada. He discovered the Armoury in 1985 while supervising Night and Day, Chicago's big-band album, and subsequently bought the studio from his friend Jim Vallance.

Relocation to Canada for recording purposes proved ideal for tax-exile megastars, especially if they had been warned to stay away from temptation. "If a band feel they can't make a good record unless they're high, I tell them to find somebody else to get high and make a record with," said Fairbairn.

"I'm more of a pot-stirrer than someone who sits on the sidelines and waits to see what will happen. I like to get involved with a project right at the beginning, when the guys are still putting down their acoustic demos. At that point, I can identify those really strong ideas and encourage them, help them along, rather than wait until the last minute when it can be much more difficult to change things," reflected Fairbairn.

In 1998 he produced Psycho- Circus for the US hard-rockers Kiss. Kiss's bass-player Gene Simmons recalls that Fairbairn "wasn't trying to reinvent the wheel. He just tried to make it run better. He said: `Boys, you've got 30 albums but only five songs that anyone can remember. Here's a chance to move ahead sonically and with good songs.' He had a very light kind of touch."

But the relentless schedule took its toll. Having produced To the Faithful Departed, the Cranberries' third album, in 1996, Fairbairn worked with Atomic Fireballs last year and was behind the mixing desk as Bon Jovi recorded "Real Life" for the soundtrack to EdTV, the current Ron Howard film. Bruce Fairbairn was working with Yes in Vancouver at the time of his death; the members of Yes intend to complete their Beyond Records album as a tribute to him.

Pierre Perrone

Bruce Fairbairn, musician and record producer: born Vancouver, British Columbia 30 December 1949; married Julie Glover (three sons); died Vancouver 17 May 1999.

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