How Working With a Controlling Music Producer Can Make Or Break You

If you were given the opportunity to create music history with a brilliantly eccentric music producer, would you sacrifice your time, money and sanity?

Between the iconic opening drum phrase, the urban young female singer and the dense layers of instruments almost overwhelming themselves, you know this song. You know you’ve heard it before, but you’re not sure – could it be from the 50’s, or 60’s? You know it’s definitely not from now. There are several familiar elements at play here. To those more inclined to retro sounding hit records of recent times, you may hear similar traces of “Be My Baby.” The late Amy Winehouse, a diehard fan of this sound, utilized it in much of her musical catalog, most notably in her Grammy-winning album Back to Black. This sound, boiled down to a single phrase, is known as The Wall of Sound, created by music producer Phil Spector. Spector first found success with the 1958 song “To Know Him is to Love Him,” a track he wrote for his group The Teddy Bears. While Spector paid his dues learning the ins and outs of a recording studio during this time, music was transforming. Rock ‘n’ roll was becoming electrified, giving it a more powerful and alive sound in comparison to its earlier, slower R&B tempo whose blues roots were still on display.

To those perhaps unfamiliar with how The Wall of Sound was used to great effect, the layers of instrumentation were recorded in an echo chamber, with certain tracks treated with reverb, creating an extremely lush, full euphony. At that point in music, what people heard coming out of their radios, jukeboxes and record players were, by comparison, rather one-dimensional. Spector had introduced a brand new sensation which had never been heard before in music.

Spector quickly switched from performer to studio apprentice, where he met a key figure who was to help change the music industry: former promotion man Lester Sill. While Spector assisted on various small projects in New York, he was quickly becoming knowledgeable around a sound desk. After returning to Hollywood in 1961, Spector and Sill created their own record label, Philles (a combination of their first names). Now with the power to sign new acts, Spector brought on The Crystals, and quickly got to work. The Crystals featured Darlene Love, a young woman with an incredibly strong, solid voice. Love had established herself as a session singer on various Philles productions, but was never formally featured with The Crystals as a member. In fact, Spector created two side acts for the Philles label, Bob E. Sox and the Bluejeans, and The Blossoms – both of which featured Darlene Love’s light but powerful voice – which she was not always credited for. During this time, Gold Star Studios was the hub for Philles. Countless songs were written, composed and recorded here. The entire studio would be packed with enough session musicians to form an orchestra – layer upon layer of sound, doing take after take until exhaustion, until they had finally, in Spector’s estimation, captured the, as he described it, ‘Wagnerian’ sound he was seeking. Beyond the classical elements of the strings, Spector pushed for a entirely fuller sound from all of the instruments; instead of one saxophone player, there would be 4. Studio assistants who happened to be present were often recruited to provide backup vocals; two of these were pre-fame Sonny and Cher. Many of these compositions were arranged by Jack Nitzsche and engineered by Larry Levine, who later worked on the Beach Boys’ 1966 opus Pet Sounds.

The musicians Spector considered the most reliable were dubbed The Wrecking Crew. It was not at all unusual for them to be forced to play hundreds of takes; by take 80, the musicians were so drained, that the instruments started to sound like they were blending in with each other. This, along with the cavernous echo of studio chambers, created what is known as The Wall of Sound. Such harsh and exceedingly strict recording conditions produced a series of hits (“He’s a Rebel” by The Crystals, and The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”, among them). Spector’s delusions of grandeur was quite apparent to all that knew and worked with him; he was a Wagner fanatic who would blast the 19th century composer’s pieces in his home for inspiration. Spector, his engineers, his arrangers and The Wrecking Crew manufactured endless hits – as well as some admittedly rather empty cookie cutter duplicates (an attempt at further radio play). Many of the successful breakthrough songs were heard not just on the radio, jukebox or record stores, but used in commercials for decades to come. Some of Spector’s Wall of Sound hits helped create the mood and establish the period in a film. Martin Scorsese used several songs to great effect in both Mean Streets and Goodfellas.

Many can argue that Spector’s relentless ambitions to seek bigger and better productions were not for naught, but the idea of working with someone so challenging, so controlling poses an interesting question to musicians of today. Much like an actor working with a well known director with a difficult reputation, given the opportunity to create something potentially legendary, would you sacrifice your time, energy, emotional well being, and possibly even your sanity?

Over time, other incorrigible producers have come and gone in the music industry. Martin Hannett was highly innovative, influential and undoubtedly disturbed music producer. Hannett’s name (and sound) is synonymous with Joy Division, New Order and Factory Records, all hugely vital figures in late 70’s and early 80’s post-punk England. Joy Division remains the biggest name to come out of this rather short-lived scene.

Joy Division’s Mancunian background served as the basis for their chilly, industrial aesthetic. This working class setting provided the band with their stark, minimalist sonic tone.

Joy Division’s EP titled An Ideal For Living bares the mark of a first release; the band is clearly feeling their way through this lo-fi punk approach, and although interesting, it doesn’t entirely fit. After signing with Tony Wilson’s Factory Records in 1978, the band began their professional collaboration with Hannett. A skilled engineer with a somewhat mysterious reputation, was an as-yet unproven commodity as a producer – until his work with Joy Division, he had worked on only about 3 projects.

In April 1979, Hannett recorded Joy Division’s debut LP, Unknown Pleasures, at Strawberry Studios in northern England. Gone was the band’s early sound of bland pseudo-punk the early days of Joy Division’s sound was a bland, (and by then, already unoriginal) crack at punk. Now in a proper studio with a producer whose frenzied direction, exhibited traces of Velvet Underground and The Stooges to create alienated yet danceable, frenetic energy.

The band’s anxiousness and excitement at recording their first ‘real’ album in a ‘real’ studio was quickly tempered by Hannett’s bizarre, unpredictable behavior, which was only exacerbated by his drinking and drug abuse. Much like Spector, Hannett had a sonic vision that demanded to be realized, and God help you if you deviated from his expectations. The ‘Mad Genius of Manchester’, as he was later known as, made it clear from the outset that he was not open to any suggestion from the 4 young men of Joy Division, just barely out of their teens. In the studio, it was his way or no way. In fact, one time while working with The Ramones, he shot his gun to let them know who was in charge. In a documentary about Factory Records, Hannett is even seen playing around with a gun in a studio while nonchalantly discussing music.

The band knew their position of powerlessness; they had just signed to a label, and Hannett held the reins of their first LP. When the guitarist made a change to a guitar sound, Hannett not only berated him for his suggestion, but switched it back to how he originally had it. When someone in the band became frustrated enough to say something, he was met with stony silence. Hannett would occasionally randomly yell at band members to leave the studio and wait in the waiting room, without explanation. During one very late session, he instructed the drummer to play on the studio roof outside in the cold, simply to achieve a sound he was looking for. He would purposely make rehearsing schedules difficult for the band, to allow him fewer band members to argue with, and assure complete control over the production.

While Hannett clearly doesn’t have the same level of recognition as Spector, one can argue that his innovative sound and influence heralded a fresh early ’80s post-punk brand. Bands including U2, Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails have cited Joy Division as a huge inspiration to them finding their sound. (In fact, Hannett was to have been the music producer for U2’s debut studio album Boy, but after their initial recording experience with him, relations soured and they replaced him.)

Much like Spector before him, Hannett’s prowess in the studio is part mad scientist, part engineer; he created a sonic world some may describe as dark, melancholy, and cavernous. Sparse, and certainly evocative, many tracks on, Unknown Pleasures, carry these intriguing traits uniquely alone, as well as together. For example, each song is quite different from the one before it. In a single word, you could boil down Hannett’s intentions as experimentation. And much like Spector, his dictatorial aggression at the soundboard created a new realm of possibilities for future generations to come.

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