What does a record producer do? Well, sometimes Phil Spector would be a commanding general, creating his "wall of sound" ... or Linda Perry would be trying to convince Christina Aguilera that raw-and-simple is best. Sometimes George Martin would let the Beatles blast; and sometimes he'd let them toy around for days.
It's all part of the producing world, featured in a new PBS series.At a couple Television Critics Association sessions, the music masters talked about it; here's the story I sent to papers:
By Mike Hughes
Sure, it seems like
everyone wants to be a rock star. But many people – including rock
stars – want to be something else ... a record producer.
“Being in a
studio, making records, is about the coolest place you can be,”
said Don Was, one of the people featured in PBS' sprawling
Peter Asher agreed:
“The first time I went into the studio, .... I knew this is what I
wanted to do.”
That was around 1963
and the studio (later renamed Abbey Road) only had four-track tapes.
But to teenaged Asher (then half of Peter and Gordon) it was
“super-high-tech .... The fact that you could hire musicians much
better than yourself and tell them what to do -- I thought that was
And at the core was
a distinguished-looking producer. “I would see shots of George
Martin,” Linda Perry recalled. “I didn't know who he was, but for
some reason, I knew that was an important guy.”
Martin produced for
the Beatles and others. He had 23 No. 1 singles in the U.S., 30 in
England. And he helped launch work on the “Soundbreaking” series,
almost a decade ago.
“It's not going to
be boring,” Martin told the Television Critics Association in 2008.
“It's going to be entertaining. It's going to be fun; PBS is like
He died in April, at
90. Four months later, producers talked about the series. They've
molded music for Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Stones
(Was); James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and Cher (Asher); Pink, Christina
Aguilera and Gwen Stefani (Perry); and Public Enemy (Hank Shocklee).
Yes, styles differ.
At one extreme, said series director Jeff Dupre, are the auteurs:
“Someone like Phil Spector has this dictatorial vision .... There
are some artists like Joni Mitchell who's like, 'I'm producing
myself.' There's a story that she hired David Crosby just to stay at
the door, to tell people to go away.”
But those are
exceptions, Was said. “The beauty of making records ... lies in the
Especially if it's a
collaboration of opposites. Johnny Cash thrived when he linked with
rock producer Rick Rubin; Public Enemy soared with Shocklee. “I
grew up on jazz,” he said. “Having that background allowed the
hip-hop producton ... staking it from various Motown records or even
doing some arrangements that were from the George Martin and Beatles
And the Beatles
themselves benefitted from a mismatch. “George Martin, with his
classical background .... They needed that,” Perry said.
Martin had spent
three years in music school, where he was a fan of Ravel, Rachmaninov
and Cole Porter. He contrasted with Paul McCartney, who couldn't read
Still, he told the
TCA, they all got along. “We respected each other. We worked as a
team .... Working with John and Paul and Ringo and George was
challenging, because they were four such strong individual
characters. We had a wonderful time.”
transformed, Asher said. “George Martin started when they made
their first album in a day, He was totally in charge, ran the whole
session – do a few takes, thank you very much, next song.”
the men often worked separately, trying studio tricks. To get an odd
sound in “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Martin said he had 16 loops on
eight playback machines. “George felt the best thing to do was to
leave them alone ... and see if it worked,” Asher said. “That was
part of his genius.”
Still, that can go
too far. “Sergeant Pepper” and “Pet Sounds” were great, Was
said, but then “a whole bunch of people (made) records that relied
on technology and were void of any emotional value.”
simple is best. Perry recalls Aguilera's first “Beautiful” take.
“I heard the vulnerability; I heard this whole thing happening. And
I was like, 'That's it.' .... Seven months, (she) tried to redo
And then that first,
simple take – lots of soul, little studio – became a classic.
Stories From the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music”
-- 10 p.m. weekdays,
PBS; Nov. 14-18, 21-23