From early recordings at Abbey Road to becoming one of the world’s most in-demand producers, John Leckie has certainly made his mark in the world of music production. He produced The Stone Roses’ iconic debut album and Radiohead’s towering The Bends, just two outstanding moments from a CV that stretches back over five decades. MusicTech sits down to talk about his career, the milestones and some of the lesser-known works that are being rediscovered today…
It’s rare that a producer becomes almost as revered as the artist they are working with, but mention John Leckie’s name to certain Stone Roses, Muse, Simple Minds or Radiohead fans and you’ll get that kind of fanboy reaction. Leckie has helped those bands – and plenty more besides – come up with some of their finest works, or else he has produced albums by bands that have stood the test of time, only to be revisited now and cited as masterpieces.
What’s less known is he started his career at Abbey Road, working with three of the then ex-Beatles on solo projects before cutting his teeth engineering with Pink Floyd. Mention a famous recording and Leckie might well have been there or, as we shall see, possibly out at lunch having left the recorder running.
While he started out 47 years ago, we’ll discover that he utilises the latest technology to emulate a lot of the vintage gear he used back then, and while he has recorded pretty much every genre of music out there, you could argue that he knows a thing or two about getting a great guitar sound (“get a great guitarist!” is his advice, before you ask – more on that later). So join us for a lesson in music-production history, and there’s really only one place to start…
MusicTech: What are your fondest memories of working at Abbey Road in the early 70s?
John Leckie: I guess it’s the gear that was used there. I’m not really a musician and none of my friends were musicians, and when I got the job, I was never in a band. But one of my desires was to ‘fly in the spaceship’, because when I first saw a recording studio, that’s what it looked like, all the knobs and flashing lights. All the desks were built by EMI or Decca – this is before Neve or SSL. I think even the mic placement and other studio activity was also specific to Abbey Road, but you had freedom to do anything when I started, and do whatever you wanted.
MT: You worked with some pretty big names right from the off…
JL: I started in February 1970 and by April, I was working on the George Harrison All Things Must Pass record [produced by Phil Spector] as a tape op, which is what I was employed as. What I remember was the number of people there – I guess there were about 25 people there, being recorded at the same time. You sat at the back and pressed ‘Stop’ when they said. You had to be on the ball and concentrate and also work out what was going on with people in the room, who was giving orders and what I’d say was the ‘power structure’ in the room, with the band and the producer – so you learnt the process quickly.
MT: Tell us about working with Phil Spector…
JL: He was in control of the room, really – he told people what to do and play and when to do it again. He was in control of the situation. There’d be lots of lapse periods, where you weren’t actually focusing on the song, and there were a lot of jam sessions. That George Harrison record is three albums, two albums of songs and one album which I think is called Apple Jam – and it’s basically a jam session.
We’d have a dinner break, go down the pub around the corner for a sandwich and we’d leave the tape machine running at seven-and-a-half inches per second. I’d leave a new tape on it running that would last an hour – actually 64 minutes – and I’d go to the pub and keep and eye on my watch and then go and run back before the tape ran out! There were reels and reels of it recorded. Every day, that’s what they’d do and by the end of the session, there was probably 10 hours of them jamming, and George put some of it on the record.
MT: How did you move up to become an engineer?
JL: It was with Pink Floyd. I’d done some work with Roy Harper, who was an engineer on EMI and by October, I was actually engineering. Pink Floyd came in, in 1971, to do the recording for Meddle. It was only eight tracks at Abbey Road at the time and so they’d move to AIR Studios, who had 16 tracks, to add more.
It was lucky for me, because the engineer on the album, Peter Brown, was kind of an old guy – well 40, but I was only 20! – and when we got to AIR, it was different equipment to him and he said: ‘Well, you seem to know what you’re doing, so you carry on.’ So he went back to Abbey Road and I spent about two or three weeks recording all the overdubs, and singing on it.
MT: And you also engineered with Paul McCartney and Wings…
JL: Maybe at that time I wasn’t really worthy to work at that sort of level, but Paul could be good – he’d help out and he sat at the desk. We’d go through all the microphones for the drums and he’d tweak things up. He’d never touch the desk; he’d go: “A bit more bass,” “Try that,” or “Why don’t you move this microphone over there?” or something. He had a lot experience in the studio and a lot of enthusiasm.
Don’t You Want Me? Yes, we do!
John Leckie produced an EP for The Human League called Holiday ’80, not surprisingly at the dawn of the 80s. But it was recorded during the end of Version 1 of the band…
John Leckie: I had a loose thing where Virgin would use me for certain projects. Once they asked me to go up to Sheffield to do The Human League. I remember that it was a studio above a disused vet surgery. They had an eight-track with only seven tracks working and all the synths there. Everything was sequenced and then recorded. My input was really working with the singing, with Phil Oakey, and working out the overdubs with the other synths.
It was only a week or so and it was four tracks. Phil and Martyn [Ware] were arguing the whole time – it wasn’t a good-vibe record. After, I went to Berlin and mixed an East Berlin band called City. They lived in East Berlin and I mixed what they’d recorded at Hansa in the West, so every night, we’d take the tapes through Checkpoint Charlie!
Anyway, while I was there, I got a call from Simon Draper at Virgin, who said: “The Human League have split up, and now they have two girl singers and they have this great song that we want to do as a single, but it has to be done next week!” So I said I couldn’t do it because of what I was doing in Berlin, but he said: “Well, we really want you to do the album when you come back.” That was Don’t You Want Me and the album was Dare, which Martin Rushent did as he had a drum machine, but it’s nice to know that I was first choice!
MT: So when and how did the role of producer start?
JL: That was actually December 1975, a band called Be-Bop Deluxe – Bill Nelson. I’d mixed Axe Victim, his first album, which he’d recorded and we mixed it over a weekend. After that, he went to do the album Futurama with Roy Thomas Baker. He did it at Rockfield around about the same time as Queen did Bohemian Rhapsody there, in around 1974. Then I got a call from his management company, asking if I’d produce his next one at Abbey Road. I engineered it as well, so kind of did my normal job, but added a few more suggestions as producer. It’s how it worked; you might say: “Why not try that a little faster?”, or suggest things about a performance. As an engineer, you don’t suggest those things. If a musician is out
of tune, for example, that’s the producer’s job to call it.
MT: You’ve produced a lot of early albums by bands that have either propelled them to superstardom or, in the case of Simple Minds, have become almost more highly regarded in hindsight than their later work. Tell us about their trio of early albums…
JL: The first record they got signed with was the album Life In The Day. They had the songs, they’d rehearsed them and they had enthusiasm. We did the record at Abbey Road in Studio 3. With the second record, Real To Real Cacophony, they only had two or three songs and they wanted to do something different. They were keen to go in the studio, but there was nothing really prepared and every day we would sit down and say: “Okay, what have we got?” Invariably, they would make something up from the bassline or a drum thing, so it was very experimental.
MT: Did that make it more a creative experience for you, or more stressful?
JL: They have to be good if they want to make it up as they go along. They’ve got to have the ideas, and it’s often difficult to make it sound like a real record rather than an experiment – it ends up being like a studio trick, not an actual, passionate piece of music. It depends a lot on the band – where they’re at, whether the singer can deliver, whether lyrics are written, and whether the artist or band can execute their ideas. Very often, they have the imagination and fancy ideas, but then they have to play them!
Empires And Dance [Simple Minds’ third album] was kind of an extension of that. They had a few tracks that they’d been playing live, but half was made up in the studio. But by then they’d got better, they could play and were more confident, so they could execute their ideas.
MT: By this time, you’d started working with some of the acts on Virgin Records…
JL: Yes, when I was at Abbey Road, everyone was older than me and when I moved to Virgin at 28, everyone was younger than me! I was doing XTC, Magazine… Andy Partridge from XTC has such an imagination, but he can also exercise it. So, if he has an imaginative idea for a guitar, he can play that. At the moment, he’s writing a Christmas record for The Monkees – a whole album’s worth!
(Not just) anyone can play guitar
Having worked with so many great guitar bands, what are Leckie’s main recording rules?
JL: Well, get a great guitarist! But I tend to use two mics for the cabs and very close – so close that I sometimes regret it. But I’m always shocked when people move a mic away from the guitar amp. I’ll use a Shure SM57 and a Neumann to mic the cab.
I don’t bother too much with pedals, but then it depends what you want… If you’re more cosmic, then get some pedals and do all of those things – but most of the records we have discussed, I’ve recorded the guitar flat, with no EQ or other effects.
MT: You recorded The Stone Roses’ debut in 1989, which some people regard as one of the greatest records of all time (in our office, anyway). Tell us about the recording…
JL: We did some demos, so were very prepared before we actually got into the studio. Their record company was Zomba and part of the deal was that they used Zomba’s studio in London, which was Battery Studios – a bit like The Beatles using Abbey Road. They didn’t really know what sound they wanted, but they did know what they didn’t want. So we had to get to the root cause of what was wrong. So, if they didn’t like the drum sound, the chances are that there was something wrong with the drums. You might need a different snare drum, or a wooden snare drum… Or maybe it’s the room you’re recording in, or the way the drummer hits it.
Usually, a lot of it is excuses with bands. I’m quite experienced and if you’re in a proper studio costing a thousand pounds a day, you’re going to get a result over using a cheap studio with a student doing it. Usually, you find that when they say: “I don’t want that…” it’s them making excuses for not playing or singing well.
MT: Could you sense the album would be good from the demos?
JL: Yes, but there were a lot of other bands around who were good at the time. It was good, but it wasn’t sensational. The demos were good enough to get them signed to a major record company. They weren’t fantastic, or the greatest band ever. The reason people put them up on the pedestal now is because of the length of time that’s passed. At the time, they were just an indie band who had a good vibe about them, good solos, good drums, good lyrics – the whole thing was good, but not the most amazing thing ever.
MT: You became something of a Britpop producer after that…
JL: Actually, previous to the Roses, I’d already worked with The La’s and Woodentops. Then, after the Roses, I did Cast, which was John Power from The La’s. Kula Shaker I saw at a gig and talked to them. I had a manager and at the time, you’d go and see bands, usually in pubs in Camden.
The Verve is the only band that I’ve hung out with and said: “Please, please let me do your record.” I saw them by accident – they were a support band in Camden and what they were doing was fantastic… I couldn’t believe they were doing what they were doing, playing the same song for a whole set.
The Leckie tech
John has been recording music for nearly 50 years, but has very much kept up with the latest music technology.
JL: I record on a computer with Pro Tools, I know it inside out. I would edit things if they need to be edited. I don’t use a click track unless I desperately need to. I’d much rather have a proper drummer than a click track. I don’t understand why everything has to be on a grid like that, especially a Pro Tools grid which has no groove. Run any drum machine on Pro Tools at the same tempo as Pro Tools and it will never line up to the grid – it will always drift off the grid… I know it’s a lot of messing about, but I’d much rather use a drummer.
The other thing that is annoying with Pro Tools is the options it brings. You’ll get a young engineer who wants to use three or four mics. I’ll say: “Yes, but mix them down to one track,” and they say: “No, you need to keep your options open,” and I’m like: “No, you have enough options!” The whole process is about options and decisions. Just use one vocal mic: either a Shure SM58 or a Neumann U 87. I’ve been on sessions, though, where they’ve got singers to use both! You have to commit.
I use UAD plug-ins almost exclusively. My favourites are the Pultec Legacy and the Blackface 1176. The MAGG EQ is fantastic, it goes up to 40Hz. The Fairchild setup is great, as is the new Neve 1073 with the fader. I like the plate reverb, but I didn’t like the spring reverb. I love the Ampex tape machine and any of the precision multi-band EQs, if you’re careful.
MT: Let’s talk about Radiohead’s The Bends – what do you recall from that recording?
JL: They had already booked nine weeks in RAK Studios, with the accommodation – so seven days a week for nine weeks, and they would live there – so I knew that this was a big-budget recording. The brief was to do four tracks as singles and then the B-sides. This was the 90s, so every time you did a single, they wanted two or three B-sides.
You’d have CD singles then, with like a red version and blue version – so the same song with different B-sides – so you’d sell the same song twice. So we had to record four A-sides, six B-sides… and then start the album! So that’s what we did for nine weeks at RAK, pulling our hair out, saying: “This is too good for a B-side,” or “not good enough for an A-side” and so on and so on.
Every day, the managers would come down to listen to what we’d done – and often, we hadn’t done anything. So we might say: “All we’ve done on this song since Tuesday is put a tambourine on it,” but they’d still say: “Well, let’s listen to the tambourine, then.”
Then they had some gigs in places like Bangkok, Dubai and Hong Kong and they decided to play the new songs in front of an audience, which often makes a big difference. Between rehearsing and doing a gig with the songs, they might come alive in different ways; so they went to Bangkok doing these gigs and then an MTV show at the Astoria in London.
We went to the Manor Studios when they came back from these gigs, with the view to re-recording some of the songs, as they were now better. We’d already recorded and mixed My Iron Lung, but we played back the London Astoria version and it was better than the one we’d done in the studio. So we then had parts of the studio version and the choruses from the live gig edited together.
This was how anal we’d get: so the verses from the RAK version; the choruses from the live gig; edit them together; redo the vocal; redo something else… a pain in the arse, really, and all for this song My Iron Lung, which you knew wasn’t going to be a hit, anyway. I mean, what’s it all about?!
MT: Did the slow process of the success of The Bends surprise you?
JL: I don’t know, I’d moved on. There are all sorts of different reasons why records bomb, or don’t do what you expect. It’s usually to do with marketing. It’s different now, but there was MTV then. I think EMI got behind Radiohead and saw them as the ‘art’ band. It was after grunge and Britpop – they weren’t really pop, so EMI saw them as something new.
MT: You’ve worked with a heck of a lot of people, so is there anyone you’d like to have worked with, or anyone out there you still want to produce?
JL: I’ve worked with so many good people, so all I can say is Bob Dylan and David Bowie.
MT: And who are you most proud of having worked with?
JL: I think I’d go three from America: My Morning Jacket, Los Lobos and Dr. John. My Morning Jacket are very well respected over there. I did an album called Z, which we did all on tape and mixed it at Sunset Sound. In Britain, I suppose I’m most proud of the Roses’ album, as it continues to excite people and they still love it. I’m pleased people still like it, even young people.
Mind you, through the years, people have said: “It’s a great record but the mix is shit,” “There’s not enough drums,” “I can’t understand the words, what’s he singing?” or: “The guitar’s not loud enough”. They say the guitars aren’t loud enough, the bass isn’t loud enough, the drums aren’t loud enough… So I must have got it right, then!