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 Princess Stomper

Producers that make (or break) the band

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If there are some albums which sound like they could have been produced by just about anyone, there are others that sound like they really ought have been made by absolutely any other producer. The flat baking tray of production. This is usually just the result of a mismatch between what the album needs and what the producer gives it.

I recall back in the early 90s seeing a band called Poloroid who I thought were extraordinary. Within a year or two, they’d been signed by EMI under the name Inaura. Their live sound fell somewhere between Ultra-era Depeche Mode and God Lives Underwater, but perplexingly they wore casual “indie” clothes instead of black leather and found themselves lumped in with the short-lived “Romo” scene that never really got anywhere. I stood next to Simon Price at one of their gigs, and he muttered that they sounded “like bloody Nine Inch Nails” and was resolutely unimpressed.

EMI had absolutely no idea how to market their new act, and brought in Steve Osborne to produce One Million Smiles. Osborne would have seemed like a good choice on paper, with indie credentials such as Happy Mondays’ Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches. He was just a lousy choice for this particular act.

Without any point of reference, it’s difficult to demonstrate the disappointment I felt while hearing this, but this is Inaura’s debut album:

Weak. As. Fuck. Utterly insipid and soulless – and a complete insult to the band. The album sank without trace. Inaura were quietly dropped.

A year or two later, popular industrial-rock nightclub Full Tilt started playing the harder, heavier ‘Toytown’ remix of Inaura’s song ‘Soap Opera’ by Sank that was more reflective of their live sound. It was indeed embraced by Nine Inch Nails fans. At last Inaura found their audience – too late to be of any use.

In my previous column, I remarked how Iron Maiden’s low-key production had been detrimental, because they’d hired the worst producer of all (themselves). But even if you take what you think is the safest bet – the hitmaker Phil Spector – it can go horribly wrong if you’re Ramones. Their End Of The Century album is a bewildering clash between their punk ethic and Spector’s Wall of Sound. Their very basic songs were buried by a tsunami of brass.

Production was fraught, with Dee Dee being threatened by a pistol-waving Spector. The band claimed to have been working for 14 hours a day without recording a note of music. Dee Dee wrote in his autobiography that he has no idea how the album was made or who actually played on it. He hated the album.

[The first three tracks are genius! As are the three singles from the album – Ramones biography-writing Ed]

You can get a lot of things wrong with a cake and still end up with something palatable. Perhaps music is more like a souffle. Get one tiny thing wrong and it’s a deflated, turgid mess. Then again, a truly great producer can make a good record out of poor ingredients just as easily as the wrong producer can kill your wonderful songs stone dead.

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13 Responses to Producers that make (or break) the band

  1. Darragh June 22, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    No space for Steve Albini or even Rick Rubin?

    Bob Rock is the the devil as far as I’m concerned. He’s like McDonalds – food easy to get and consume but it’s unhealthy to eat in large doses.

  2. Nate M June 22, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    Hahaha, Bob Ezrin! I would love to see a “Some Kind of Monster” style documentary about KISS recording “The Elder”

  3. nomadiqueMC June 22, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    yeah i was hoping for a bit of a look at rick rubin too. such an aloof, hands-off guy who’s talent seems to be (if i can delve into the wank for a moment) helping flailing artists to ‘find themselves’ and make career-saving albums. with artists as diverse as Metallica, Johnny Cash, and the Dixie Chicks, certainly the sound isn’t the same, but the rubin effect is obvious. but it doesn’t work for everybody of course – Slayer were notably disappointed to never see rubin until the mixdown, only to have him make comments about photos and album sleeves, not the tunes.

  4. Princess Stomper June 22, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    I did consider Steve Albini and Rick Rubin, but they didn’t really fit into the context of the article, i.e. I thought there were better examples in the ones I picked. Perhaps another article. 🙂

    I’d say Bob Rock is more like Burger King – I’d never eat at McDonalds!

  5. Joseph Kyle June 22, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    Great article! I too was expecting to see Albini and Rubin, but it’s no big loss, either. Another good example is Todd Rundgren. Notoriously difficult in the studio, but produces excellent work, and even those who hate him at the time oft don’t argue with the finished results.

    Also interesting is the choice of “River Deep, Mountain High” for Spector’s work, as it was a puzzling failure for Spector, and he quit producing for a few years after it bombed…

  6. Roger Nelson. June 22, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    I was going to mention Todd, he made one of the worst sounding records ever in Patti Smiths Wave. Overproduced and flat. My two idols coming together seemed like a masterstroke but wound up a damp squib. Whoever produced Saxons debut seemed to insist that the drums sounded like wet cardboard being hit by knittting needles. And what of Eno? Managed to make U2 sound half decent (not Lanois, he likes adding layers of syrup).

  7. Matt June 22, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    Rubin should be a therapist – not a producer. Yes, he helps bands re-invigorate themselves but the guy knows next to nothing about sound design and, as a result, ninety per cent of his output is equipped with horrendously bland (Red Hot Chili Peppers Californication) or just outright incompetent (Metallica) production.

  8. Matt June 22, 2011 at 9:56 pm

    Martin Hannett?

  9. Darragh June 23, 2011 at 8:06 am

    Matt – Death Magnetic was actually quite good in Metallica terms. I thought Rubin did a good job here.

  10. hannah golightly June 23, 2011 at 9:05 am

    “Darragh says:
    June 22, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    No space for Steve Albini or even Rick Rubin?”

    Also, I don’t think Linda Perry did Hole or Courtney Love’s solo stuff any favours whatsoever… but 4non blondes was great and what she does for Pink and those pop stars with rock poses works, though I dislike it immensely. I don’t like what Phill Spector does all that much. I also dislike what producers in general have done to metal (emo etc)- it’s so clean and glossy it’s suitable to bring home to meet your parents. There’s more edge on a Timbaland record than in most of it. Makes me sick… it’s like it’s had it’s balls neutered and that does. not. rock.

    Anyone know any good alternative lo-fi producers working in the UK right now that I should be aware of?

  11. Everett True June 23, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    …what really struck me was how vital and exciting the Endino-produced stuff still sounds compared to most of those bands/albums who went straight for the contemporary radio-friendly studio sound.

    He’s also one of the nicest and most interesting fellows around. Weirdly enough, I never really knew him at the time. We only got to hang out from ’98 onwards.

  12. hannah golightly June 23, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    where does he live Everett?

  13. Scott Creney June 23, 2011 at 11:55 pm

    Always thought it was interesting that John Cale produced the first albums by the Stooges, Patti Smith, Jonathan Richman, Squeeze, and Happy Mondays.

    As far as I know, he never produced anyone’s second album.

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