John Leckie's handiwork has been on many ground- breaking recordings in the U.K. He has worked tirelessly for over thirty years on seminal projects like George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, Pink Floyd's Meddle, The Fall's Wonderful and Frightening World of..., the Stone Roses' debut LP and Radiohead's The Bends. For someone who fields incessant requests from top labels asking him to "wave his Radiohead wand" over their bands, John remains remarkably unaffected and passionate toward his work. His initial studies in filmmaking turned into a job at the famed Abbey Road at a young age — not bad for someone who "never really played an instrument" or "performed with a band".
You landed a job at Abbey Road?
My life changed of course, once I got the job at Abbey Road, because it was full-on seven days a week. Total commitment to the work, where everything else just faded away or stopped for the next seven or eight years. A tape op's job in those days — it was 8-track.
They were Studer machines?
One-inch 3M 8-track. There were dual Studer J-37 4-tracks going, all 1". The desks were TG 1234 desks, which were the EMI built-desks. The modules were called cassettes. It was 8-track for the first two or three years, I think. 16-track didn't really come until the beginning of '73, I think. The first thing you do at the job is they tell you, "Okay, you just sit there and just watch. Don't touch anything. Just watch, listen and see what's going on." The other thing at Abbey Road is you don't make the tea, because there's a tea lady who comes around with coffee in the morning and tea in the afternoon! So after a few days of sitting and watching, you'd be running tape. The thing with the tape op or button pusher in those days was there was no remote control for the tape machine. So the tape machine was at the back of the room, or even in the other room with a little glass window. One time at Abbey Road, the tape ops for all three studios, which might be a classical session or pop session, all sat in the same central room. It was all done by intercom, so you never actually saw the people you were working with. "Okay, run track four, go back, drop in second verse," all on intercom.
I can't imagine how you worked with no visual communication.
That's how it was just before I joined. I started about 1970, after the Beatles had split up, after the recording of Let It Be. I started in February. By March/April, they were mixing Let It Be in room four with Phil Spector and a guy called Peter Bown who recorded all the overdubs, the orchestra and the choir and everything. I was around in the corridor, but I don't think I saw any of The Beatles at all, until George Harrison, which was I guess in April/May of that year, the All Things Must Pass album.
Right. You tape op-ed the entire LP?
I tape op-ed that whole album. Never got my name on it [laughs] but I'm there on the recording sheets, no denying it. In those days, they never put your name on things, you know... So I did all the George Harrison sessions with Phil McDonald engineering and with Phil Spector. There was Derek and the Dominoes. There was two of everything of course. There was Ringo and Jim Gordon as drummers, Klaus Voormann and Carl Radle were bass. Gary Brooker, Bobby Whitlock, even Billy Preston a few times all played keyboards. The whole of Badfinger on acoustic guitars, just sittin' around one mic, really.
This was all tracked simultaneously, and sub-mixed down to eight tracks?
Yeah, sub-mixed down to the six tracks, because you'd leave two tracks for vocals. If you got those tapes out, you'll probably find tracks one and two would be drums, bass, acoustic guitar and piano mixed down to a stereo mix. And the other pair of tracks would probably be Eric Clapton guitar and George guitar. Very often, a few of those, the big ones, like "Awaiting On You All", were done in studio two with the horn section, which was Bobby Keys and Jim Price as well. You included the reverbs, in fact. A lot of what you hear on that record is actually there on the eight tracks.
I would imagine it was like baptism by fire working with Phil Spector.
He was fine, actually. It didn't seem that stressful. You'd do two or three tracks a day, they'll be very late. You start at four and finish at eight or ten in the morning. But I can remember always being kind of relaxed, really.
Your first experience on a 16-track machine was on Pink Floyd's Meddle LP?
That's right, yeah.
This was arguably one of their more creative, experimental periods, especially with "Echoes".
Well, that started again at Abbey Road in the following year, in January 1971, on 8-track. It was just little ideas that they put together. They were all called "Nothing". "Nothing 1", "Nothing 2", I think the guys went up to "Nothing 26" or something. They came in a few weeks later and I think we had one or two songs. I don't think we used much of the "Nothings". There were one or two things, which might have been, called "Fearless", "San Tropez". But the main track, "Echoes", was played all the way though. They'd obviously rehearsed it, and they found the piano-through-the-Leslie sound...
That sounds like it's underwater. Now you are engineering at this point?
Well, that was my turning point — I started as a tape op on those sessions. Because Abbey Road was only 8- track, and we filled up the eight tracks, we had a choice of either AIR or Trident, because they were the only 16-track studios. We went to AIR Studios, and just did a copy straight to 16-track, and continued doing the overdubs. I was quite lucky, because the engineer, Peter Bown, I don't think he'd ever worked on another desk. You know, AIR at that time was a Neve desk and me being all young, keen and enthusiastic, I said, "I can do this, I'll plug this in for you," and everything. And he just said one day, "Okay, well you can do fine here, I'm going back to Abbey Road," and left me to it.
What a great opportunity.
So I probably spent about four or five weeks doing all the overdubs and messing around, crazy stuff, like "One of These Days (I'm Going to Cut You Into Little Pieces)", which is a bass through the Binson [Echorec].
How about Dave Gilmour's guitar work on "Echoes"? That song really captures a broad palette of his playing.
I can't recall anything. I don't think it's any different than what we do today, really. One of the things I remember is that we didn't have any Shure mics, so we never had 57s or 58s or SM7s or anything like that. It was all kind of AKG D19s, D12s, 202s, 87s. As far as what was special about his recording, it was a lot of messing around for the sounds. Takes would be spoiled because the sound wasn't right, and that kind of thing. A lot of listening to mics, choosing, and they were fussy.
It sounds like this was a great period of innovation for you. Did they push you towards new things?
Of course. We probably spent a week or so doing the "Household Objects". I think it's written in books, the Floyd were very keen to do an album with just household objects. Popping bottles, thumping things, aerosol cans for high hats, and tearing bits of paper to create rhythms. We taped those going around the rooms.
You were involved in those sessions, too? I've heard about those....
I did learn a lot in those days from working with Roy Harper, who was on Harvest Records. He's not really a folk singer — more of a punk rocker. [laughs] He's one man and acoustic guitar. He went out during that time and supported Led Zeppelin and there's a track called "Hats Off To Harper", which is a Zeppelin track [off of Led Zeppelin III].
And he sang "Have A Cigar", off Wish You Were Here, right?
Right. So I did a lot of recording with Roy because they were crazy sessions. We did a record called Lifemask, and the first ten minutes is a poem, and it's Roy reciting a poem, and the idea was to put crazy but meaningful kind of effects, musical, or whatever we could find. It was very limited what we had. There wasn't sampling or anything like that. Everything was dropped in, sort of little effects and twists and stuff, live.
Going through your career, was becoming a producer always a primary goal for you?
I did have ambitions to be a producer. I certainly didn't want to stop even in the early days of just being an engineer. I knew I couldn't be a musician... I wasn't a songwriter or a musician so the most I could be was a producer. At Abbey Road there were all different types of music and different types of producers. There were house guys who were with EMI, or there was Mickey Most, Phil Spector, George Martin, crazy people like Wally Allen who was in The Pretty Things. He became an EMI house producer, so he'd come in with bands like Barclay James Harvest. Even Dave Gilmour would produce the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver and his own solo album when he came into Abbey Road and worked with me there. I also worked with Mott The Hoople, Robin Trower, and Wings were in studio all the time. I mixed "C Moon" and recorded "Hi Hi Hi" and stuff on Red Rose Speedway. It's quite easy to be an engineer really, if you kind of go with it. The producer thing is a lot broader scope. That's what my ambition was to be, I think.
And that took more of a risk to go out on your own versus having a secure position on staff?
Well, I didn't really leave EMI through choice. The thing with Abbey Road was that I could produce EMI bands, so I could work for an EMI band outside of Abbey Road, so I could go with Be Bop Deluxe to Townhouse or something, and I could produce XTC, a Virgin band at Abbey Road, and then when the Townhouse opened, they wanted to do XTC at the Townhouse, which was a Virgin studio. So they said, "Oh, you can't go..."
It was taboo...
They wouldn't hire me out. The idea of hiring me out for any fee was beyond them. They had never done it! I said, well "This is crazy." I'd produced and engineered seven albums the day I had the meeting with the head of EMI asking him to do something with me, I had three albums in the charts. Be Bop Deluxe's Drastic Plastic, XTC's White Music and The Adverts' Crossing the Red Sea — on Top of the Pops, they were like number 15. I worked for the company for seven years — I didn't want to leave. They said, "Oh, go to your place" kind of thing. "Maybe come see us in a year's time". That's when I left. It was kind of an exciting time, '77, '78 in London, you know, the whole punk thing was turning into new wave or whatever. I did a record with Magazine [Real Life], I did the [debut] Public Image single. It was okay becoming freelance.
The Stone Roses debut album was a landmark record for you, and a huge record in England. I don't think it was as big here, which always puzzles me.
Yeah, it was because they never got on the plane and came over. If they got on the plane it would have been huge. [laughs]
The one thing that strikes me on that recording is the drums. Obviously there is much more to it than that, but take for example the drums and guitar on the introduction of "This Is The One". How did you record the drums on that album?
It was kind of done in three different places. It was done at Battery Studios, which is no longer there. It belonged to Zomba/Jive Records, and Silvertone was a subsidiary of Jive. It was in the band's contract that they had to use the record company's studio, which of course they were charged for. And the sessions were evening sessions, we just started at 7 because it was cheaper. It was 7pm to nine in the morning. We kind of worked fast, you know.
But when you have a drummer as tight as Reni, I guess it makes it possible, huh?
When you say that about the sound of the drums, really, it comes from him, it comes from the drummer. We spent a lot of time and a lot of caring, but Reni, he's a great drummer and that's what he sounds like. The room was good, and the band — it was a case where everyone was on it, committed to it. Maybe it was because there was no pressure on them. All the stories of them being crazy, they're not that crazy. They're very conscientious, like brothers to each other. What's the last track? "I Am The Resurrection", the guitar play out on that on the end of side two, the whole guitar symphony at the end. The end of the song they wanted to kind of just jam and fade, and they'd often go off into these jams for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. There would be all these little bits. We spent three, four days rehearsing that in the studio to get that really tight and meaningful, like a proper arrangement. So every note there is meant to be there.
I didn't run tape until it was in shape. It was great, because it sounds really confident. It doesn't float away or get jumbled or anything. It kind of paid off doing that rehearsal time.
You spend a lot of time becoming familiar with the artists that you produce.
That's right, yeah. It's a twenty-four hour thing, really. If you get off with them, you just enjoy it — especially if you've been in the studio with them, because they're like old girlfriends or ex-wives or something. You tend to get that relationship with them, this love-hate kind of thing.
Recording the Stone Roses, Radiohead... bands like this all came off intensive tour schedules. Can you characterize the difference in recording bands with material that's worked up, versus, say Dukes of Stratosphear [XTC in psychedelic disguise], where there might have been more work from the ground up in the studio since they didn't tour?
Two different things really. It depends on the band. If they're going to work on something from the ground up, they've got to be creative, talented people. They've got to be able to execute what their ideas are. The danger in that is ending up sounding like an experiment. It's okay if you've got lots of time and lots of library space to stash it away and review it.
Were those Dukes of Stratosphear sessions done quickly?
The first six tracks were done at one studio in two weeks, and the other ten tracks were done in another studio in another two weeks. A few of the songs Andy [Partridge] [Tape Op #19] had already. He hadn't played them to the other guys, but he had the words and he could run through it in the morning. And some of them they made up... he'd just kind of pick an instrument up and play it. All of them were great musicians. They were great impersonators as well. They could put a mask on, and you'd really believe it was that person. Andy does a great Captain Beefheart impersonation. Or he can sing like Brian Wilson. When people ask me what was my favorite record I worked on, it was Dukes of Stratosphear really, because I don't remember anything about it. [laughs] Sometimes I do records, and I play them back. I remember exactly what it is. I can picture the mixing desk, and remember where all the faders were. But with Dukes of Stratosphear, we must have been on another planet or something.
Just a blur?
No idea what we were doing or how it was done. One thing I do remember is before we did the mix, Andy says, "Let's put on some sound effects!" So we got all these sound effects records, and we just took little snippets of all the crazy stuff... the thunder and lightning, the horses, the car horns, anything. I banded them all up a quarter- inch machine, ten seconds of one, white leader then another. Just in a professional way. When it came to the mix, we'd run this sound effects tape, just to a fader. And when we were mixing, if it got boring, we'd just turn the fader up. But you had no idea what was going to come through! [laughs] There's a track called "What In The World??...", the end of which is probably the most psychedelic thing ever recorded, and the end of it is just all these horses, and elephants screaming and crashes of thunder, voices talking. And they all just sit into the music as if they're there for a purpose. In fact, they're so random.
Can you talk about working with The Fall a little bit? The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall, Bend Sinister and This Nation's Saving Grace was a great period for them. What was it like to work with Mark E. Smith?
He was great. It was strange because from the moment we met we were probably quite different characters, but we kind of got on okay.
How did they find you?
The record company A&R man — Beggars Banquet. I don't quite remember how I got the call. And Brix, of course. Brix was his wife at the time. She was really bubbly, effervescent and enthusiastic and of course the rest of the guys didn't say anything. I don't think I spoke to the bass player at all until mixing the second album!
But you got along with Mark okay?
Yeah, yeah, Mark was great. We used to go out to dinner, he used to come 'round my house 'cause we lived close together in London. We'd go to parties with Psychic TV, Genesis P-Orridge and those crazy people. And what's the dancer's name, umm, Michael Clark. Just after that, The Fall did some music for a ballet.
I Am Curious Oranj. That was a great album too. How much of Mark's stuff is scripted? It sounds like it's just kind of random.
It is, yeah. [laughs] Basically it's all put down at the time, really. The band, they kind of have little ideas, little riffs, and Mark's got his pieces of paper in a bag, you know, notes and things. You set them up like a conventional band, and some of the songs they've been playing and some are just little drum things. The first record of course has got two drummers playing together on it. By the second record [Bend Sinister] there was Simon Rogers, who came in as a key- board player. I think him and Brix got on, but it was Mark who was always a bit weary of him. He had a ponytail. [laughs]. He was a sort of budding producer, so things were a little bit more formed on the second one. One thing I do remember about the second one was, there's a track there called "Drago's Guilt". We'd do a take and Mark's just like in the room with a '58 doing his vocals, his ranting and stuff. We do a couple of takes and he goes, "Yeah, the first one's really good, but the voice on the second one is what we want to do. Can't we put the voice of the second one onto the first one?" And of course you've got two tracks, there's loads of spill on his mic standing next to the drummer. So actually, all I did was copy the vocal from the second take and just flew it in by hand on a bit of quarter-inch. So the vocal on that is from a completely different take with a completely different arrangement and tempo, flowing in on the top of another track with the ghost vocal kind of taken out. With The Fall, you could kind of put the faders up, and you're going to go, "Yeah, yeah," and you just get a balance and it all works. It fits together. The worst thing I ever did for The Fall was tell them to tune up...
It's almost like their sound, untuned...
That's right, yeah. I suddenly realized when I got them to tune up, "Oh, fuck, I've destroyed everything now! Let's take a little break, guys." I'm going around sort of twiddling their guitars so they sound a bit different. But it was a lot to do with the resonance of the guitars. You never quite know what space you're in with Mark, really. I'll tell you an interesting thing is that on Bend Sinister — well by the time we got to Bend Sinister, where Simon was a keyboard player and he was playing a DX7 or something. He had great ideas and I sort of went along with them. We'd come to the mix and we'd say to Mark, "What do you think?" He says, "Oh it's great, but turn the fucking keyboards off, they're terrible!" It's like, "Mark, why did we spend all the time doing this? Why didn't you say you don't want keyboards? You don't like anything he does."
So Mark was actually very involved in the mixing process?
Oh yeah. He'd oversee everything. But I realized after doing about 30 or 40 tracks that all Mark wanted to hear was what he heard on the first playback. So when he does the backing track with his vocals, 'cause the vocal is rarely overdubbed, when he listens back, that's the finished mix! Everything else is just messing around. It's irrelevant. I said, "Look, we're wasting our time on the multitrack. Let's just do it straight down to stereo." We book a day at Abbey Road, and we do three songs in a day, four songs in a day, no multi-track, straight down to stereo. "Okay, great." So on Bend Sinister, there's the "Bournmouth Runner", there's "Mister Pharmacist", and another song, and they're all done in an afternoon. With no multitrack, that was the mix when they played, and came and heard it, and that was it. It was fantastic, because we went home at the end of the day early.
How do you start with a clean slate each time you produce a record, and not rely on "formulas" for your own sound?
It's because the people, really. The situation and the people involved and the material and the songs, and what their capabilities are.
So often a producer can pollute and really alter the nature of an artist. You seem to have a respect for their sound.
Well you've got to think that there's a reason why the band is together in the first place. What did they get signed for? What are they known for? Why are they together? Usually it's because of the songs, the singer's voice, the guitar licks or something.
It seems like you're aware of the boundaries between the artist and producer and what lines not to cross. Do the artists you work with generally respect your domain as a producer and are you given the liberty you need in return?
Not always. They always have the last say. All you can do is your best job with it. There's pressure... You do have feelings about tracks as a producer. I'm probably going to get into a bit of deep water here: I feel shit about being asked to record a track and not mix it. You know, someone else mixes it. Now I am often asked to do an album with a band, you produce 14 tracks, starting from the rehearsal room all the way through to cutting all the tracks and doing all the overdubs and working through all the ideas and experiments. And when you've done the last overdub, that's it. You put it in a box and you FedEx it to the mixer. What is all that about? Where does the producer stand? How does anyone know what his vision was? How can he create a vision if some other guy on the other side of the world's going to mix it and put it all together? It's like commissioning someone to paint a picture and giving it to someone else to finish off. They never said that to The Beatles, and when you look at the 50 greatest records made of all time, they didn't give it to some other guy on the other side of the world to mix because he does radio singles or something.
It doesn't seem to make any sense...
No, because the band's not there, and the guy who puts the faders up in New York City doesn't know what was going on in the room when it was being created. When I do work like that, I kind of almost make it so that you can put those faders up at level in a straight line and you will get a good mix, a usable product. I don't think the bands know about it at all, actually, because there's a couple of bands this has happened to, and they thought I was in the room. They said, "Oh, did you have a good time in New York?" I said, "What are you talking about?" They said, "Well didn't you go over and mix our record?" "No!" Then the record comes out, and the whole thing's done by someone else. I did a record by Cowboy Junkies [Miles From Our Home]. You know, melancholy, atmospheric. And a certain mixer in L.A. here mixed the single, and they decided to do most of the record with him for a radio sound. I couldn't believe it. It was just awful. It was just like tizzy, sibilant, thin, twizzle sort of brrrr. Everything was wrong about it.
That kind of takes the pride away from your work.
I can't play it. I can't say, "Hey, check this out, I've done this."
How do you negotiate with labels?
They have great expectations. They expect you to work miracles. Like after I did The Bends by Radiohead, every American record company was phoning me up asking me to wave the Radiohead magic wand on their band. "There's a new band I've just signed, and I want you to wave that Radiohead magic wand on 'em." [laughs]
How do you deal with the pressure?
You just lock the door and get on with it. That's really what you've got to do.
Can you talk about recording Baba Maal in Senegal?
We went out to Senegal, Daku about 100 miles south of Dakar. It's actually called Toubab Dialo.
Was that a good experience?
Fantastic. The best experience. It was really great. I don't know what it would have been like if we were in the city in Dakar itself. Youssou N'Dour has a studio there, which was just a regular kind of studio. Amek desk, quite okay, air conditioning. There's a bit of competition between Baba Maal and Youssou N'Dour so we didn't do it there, but I don't think I would have liked it had it been in Dakar. It was great being out in the countryside, the kind of village life, I suppose.
You were forced to a minimalist approach regarding which gear you used and such?
We were on the verge of taking a Pro Tools set up. This was two years ago. We just decided it might not be stable enough, whatever the circumstances were. In hindsight we could have, and now if I did it again, I probably would, but we just took DA88s. We took three or four DA88s and we had some Focusrite mic pres and APIs and monitored everything on a Mackie desk. But there's no electricity, so we had to take a little one-kilowatt generator, which was great. A half a gallon of petrol, and it just pumped out all day. We ran all the equipment and a couple of lights — that was all.
How would you rate the importance of your technical know-how in the big picture, compared to your intuition and personal skills?
Intuition and personal skills, much, much more. Ninety percent intuition and personal skills, I'd say. I'm not technically skilled in Pro Tools or Logic or anything. I mean, I can fiddle around, I can do stuff. But I couldn't run a session. I'm not a Pro Tools, Midi, Cubase wizard.
Are you seeing Pro Tools as the mixing platform of choice where you work these days?
Oh yeah. All the studios now are Pro Tools or Logic and you're considered a bit weird if you use tape. You really are. It's kind of, "Oh yeah, he's old school." It's funny, because it always used to be one thing together, you know, whatever tool you had was necessary, you would use. And now it seems like as soon as you use tape or get a 47, a tube mic out, or something, even a D12 instead of a D112, you're considered "old school".
Has your career afforded you the ability to cultivate any passions outside recording?
Yeah, I've got a family, that's a passion. Other than that, it's still pretty much full on. I still go to see gigs.