Tony Visconti Counts Down His Favorite Tracks
Tony Visconti has had a hand in the creation of some of the greatest records of the past 50 years: behind the boards, as a first call producer to the stars. His work with David Bowie would be enough to define any producer as a force to be reckoned with: from the late, great musician’s prog-folky late ‘60s forays to his farewell opus, Blackstar. The fact that Visconti also helmed era-defining records by T.Rex, Morrissey, the Moody Blues and Thin Lizzy seems merely icing on the proverbial cake.
On a warm spring Sunday afternoon, Visconti, spry and clear-eyed at 74 — no doubt the result of his rigorous Tai chi regimen — meets me for coffee and a long listening session at his studio-come-playroom in New York’s Chelsea, and he’s as mischievous as ever.
“That’s the couch David used to sit on,” he says, with a wry smile, as we settle in to discuss the 20 tracks that he has chosen as most representative of the arc of his remarkable career for the Tony Visconti: Legend playlist presented here. “In fact, that spot you’re sitting in is the very spot he used to sit in.”
No pressure, but the ghost of the Thin White Duke looms large as we begin our conversation.
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1980 “Ashes to Ashes” (David Bowie): ‘Ashes To Ashes’ is the culmination of both my career and David’s entire career up to then. Everything came together. When we started an album, as a joke, we’d always say, ‘Let’s make this one our Sgt. Pepper.’ And we made that joke at the beginning of this album — Scary Monsters — and it came through, because we pulled out all the stops.
We took our time, too, which is something we’d never done before. We used to do our albums all in one go, like the five weeks straight that we spent recording and mixing Heroes, which was similar to how we made Low. For Scary Monsters, we actually put a three-month interval in between doing the backing tracks and doing the overdubs, so David had time to write the songs. Besides ‘It’s No Game,’ I don’t think there were any lyrics written when we took that break.
When we reconvened in April of 1980, he was in good shape and everything was basically written. So we were fine-tuning and not rushed at all after doing the basic tracks in New York [when we got to] my secret studio in London. It was a ‘secret’ because everyone wanted to perpetuate the myth that they were recording overseas for tax reasons. So that’s why I love ‘Ashes To Ashes.’ It’s a very clean, hard-hitting track, and it hits all the points we were working toward. I’m very proud of it.
1977 “Blackout” (David Bowie): ‘Blackout’ is from Heroes. For to me, it has the most swagger of any Bowie track. We were working with Iggy Pop at the time, and Iggy had a big influence on David in the sense that he was a true punk artist. He did what the hell he wanted. He’d just take his clothes off, randomly. I mean, that guy has swagger!
David didn’t really have that; no matter how outrageous he was, he always had a touch of conservatism about him. One of David’s friends at the time said the whole album was very masculine. Too masculine. We disagreed, but we liked that we’d gotten across a different attitude, because David’s work was always more theatrical than masculine. Plus, it wasn’t just down and dirty swagger. So you’re seeing that coming out of David here, especially, and all over the album. It prevails on the whole album. But ‘Blackout’ is really the one for me.
1969 “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud” (David Bowie): ‘Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud’ is one of my favorite early Bowie tracks. I chose it for several reasons. First, I remember saying to David at the time, ‘This is so beautiful. It’s a tone poem. It’s an epic song. Let’s do it with as many musicians as we can. I’d like to get 50-piece orchestra!’ He loved the idea.
For some strange reason the record company agreed! I never thought that would happen, because it meant a huge budget for just one track. So I paid attention to every single line of that song. Every lyric. Every note. And I wrote an arrangement that took me five whole days to write. I wasn’t very fast in those days, but I was meticulous. I knew how to orchestrate, but I wanted to make sure I crossed every T and dotted every I. I wanted there to be a feeling of what the song was about even if you took the vocal away.
I had been writing arrangements for a few years in England by that point, but for string quartets, and with far less scope. When it came time to record it, there were so many players in the studio – Trident, where the Beatles had just done ‘Hey Jude’ because it had a 16-track machine – and David was intimidated, sat there in the middle of the 50 pieces, playing his 12-string guitar.
So we started recording, but when we played it back it sounded like somebody was frying French fries, because they forgot to buy a test tape, and it took two hours to get the machine aligned. But that meant we had loads of rehearsals, and by then David had calmed down – because we must have played it about 15 times over three hours – but it also meant that we only had about 10 minutes left with all these musicians we’d booked to get a take. So in a panic, the engineers just took a guess and they started cranking the little pots and all that, and they got the sound to the point where there was more music than noise on the tape.
In the quiet passages there was still loads of hiss, but we got it down in one take and one take only, with barely five minutes left in the session. And thank God! We were able to fix a lot of that on the remasters, by the way, but we still couldn’t make it glisten, because of the hiss. We couldn’t make it bright and shiny. If I could ever go back to the multi-tracks and put them all in the computer I could probably fix it, but we did make a lovely record.
Second, it’s kind of a curio in David’s catalogue, because there’s an intimacy to it, because all I had to work with was his 12-string and vocal.
And, finally, we managed to get up to the level of folk-rock, even though there’s nothing really very heavy going on yet.
So when we finished it, we weren’t very happy with it, and we said, ‘The next album has to be rock & roll!’ It was too late, but if we’d had the time, and we’d been able to start from scratch, Space Oddity would have been a different album. But very soon we’d moved on, and we met Mick Ronson and we started making a rock album, which became The Man Who Sold the World, which was the matrix for every future Bowie album. It was the Ziggy album in its infancy, and everything that came next.
1979 “Boys Keep Swinging” [2017 Remix] (David Bowie): This song goes back to the swagger element. I really liked David when he was being a real rock & roller, and ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ is swaggering rock & roll. It can’t be any more obvious about that, in fact, if you listen to the lyrics.
One thing I loved about recording that song was that we all swapped instruments, and honestly that was the best everyone could play on the swapped instruments. George Murray, the bass player, was playing the organ. Carlos Alomar, the guitarist, of course, on that is the drummer! On the new mix I’ve really beefed up his drumming, to make the song all that it could be. I mean, if you’re going to remix a song, you might as well pull out all the stops. Also, when they swapped instruments, Dennis Davis ended up on bass, but he’s left-handed! So we never ended up using his part. I ended up playing it when we were mixing the record later in New York at the Hit Factory.
David felt bad, so he credited Dennis, though. And Adrian Belew put the solo on in New York, as well. It was fun and memorable, too, because we did an experiment for ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ and ‘Fantastic Voyage.’ They have the exact same chord changes in the exact same key, but with totally different lyrics, so a completely different feel.
There was actually a third track, because we wanted to do three with the same sequence, but completely changing the character of each song with the approach. We succeeded on the two, but I don’t even remember what the third track was. But there were definitely no lyrics, so even if someone were to find it, it would be one take that was just miserable. But we were able to accomplish what we set out to do. I remember, when we finished, we said to each other, ‘We’ve done it! Fantastic!’
2014 “Pearl of a Girl” (Kristeen Young): Kristeen Young has recorded some of the most amazing songs. She is the arranger of the songs, too, so when anyone comes to me and says, ‘Tony, your arrangements on that Kristeen Young record are great!’ I always think it’s so unfair. People just think that the male is the one who does the hard work. I’m the producer, and, sure, I got great vocals out of her. And I played bass on some of the songs. But those recordings are pure Kristeen Young.
On ‘Pearl of a Girl,’ that’s Dave Grohl on drums. He told me that when he heard Kristeen, he said to himself, ‘I’ve got to play with this artist!’ He realized right away what a force she is, but because she’s not a band, I think, she doesn’t get the credit she deserves. But here she really shines. It’s her attempt at making something accessible, while utilizing her background, because she’s got a degree in composition from a university where they encourage composers to go as far as possible. Still, it’s not that she’s watered down what she does. But it’s been a long journey for her, and the genres she wants to write for are rock and pop, so she can’t do Stravinsky or whatever, but I love that she also found ways to include those elements here.
2017 “These are the Things I’m Not the Most” (Kristeen Young): What a beautiful song. And such a personal message of hers. For this song, we actually worked on the arrangement, because it was a different song, but I liked the passage where it’s got a kind of snap to it. So I played that with her — I played the bass part that I heard — and so that’s the only song I’m credited as a co-writer with Kristeen, because she said, ‘If you didn’t write that bass part, I never would have finished that song.’ It’s one of her favorite songs, too, so that’s why I included it.
1988 “Deep” (The Moody Blues): The Moody Blues and I made three albums together. Well, two and a half, actually, because on one I was only partially producer. ‘Deep’ was where we pulled out all the stops, which is a phrase I hate, but is so true here. We knew it wasn’t a single, and we couldn’t stop adding to it, so I don’t know how long it is, but it’s sure not single length! It was just a circular chord sequence that was a long one, and when we came around to the beginning again we just had to make it another cycle and another cycle. And it’s probably about five cycles!
At that point in their career when we worked together, they were kind of desperate. John [Lodge] and Justin [Hayward] had pretty much taken over by that point, out of necessity, I think. But we were able to get Ray [Thomas] back into the fold, and he really contributed some great work. The song that he did with Justin, ‘Never Blame the Rainbows for the Rain,’ is a great example of that. Of course, they were an enormous touring act when I worked with them, but the music we made together got them back in the charts.
I have to say, I love ‘Go Now’ and the early stuff they did with Denny Laine, and that by the time I got to work them I didn’t even know if they were together anymore, but it was such a great experience. I’d been waiting for an album like this to come along, because I have all these orchestral chops, but you don’t use them for a Thin Lizzy album, which is what I was doing at the time. It was really fun, and I’m so proud of the music we made together.
2006 “Ganglord” (Morrissey): Sadly, ‘Dear God, Please Help Me’ and ‘You Have Killed Me’ from Ringleader of the Tormentors, the album I made with Morrissey, aren’t widely available. But ‘Ganglord’ is available on an album called Swords, a B-sides album. I’m so proud of it, and Morrissey still plays it in his shows. It comes from the sessions for Ringleader of the Tormentors, which came about because they’d sacked their first producer. I was a substitute producer, but that doesn’t matter to me.
It was a funny situation, because the first evening, when I arrived, I got all the ground rules, especially about meat, because there was no meat in the studio. Morrissey can smell it on you, I was told! But I explained that I’m a diabetic, and I can’t just eat carbohydrates. So I ended up having to go to another part of Rome to eat. I don’t recall what the other rules were, but it was basically that they wanted to make sure I was in a good headspace.
So we made the album, but I started with the band. It was probably later that first night of work before I finally met Morrissey. He I arrived and he said to me, ‘Oh, Visconti, I thought you were dead.’ That was the way he greeted me.
I said, ‘No, here I am, unfortunately.’ So I knew it was going to be fun, because I think he’s a very funny guy. I mean, no one has ever intimidated me, and I wasn’t about to let him intimidate me, either, because you can’t work under those conditions. Other people might be able to, but I can’t work under those conditions. I’d rather walk away with dignity. So that’s the way we started off.
He came back after the first day of overdubs and closed his eyes while he listened to all our work — because I’d put all the guitar players through hoops — and opened his eyes at the end he said, ‘It’s beautiful.’ I thought I’d maybe be on the next plane back to New York, but he loved it and so we commenced to work that way.
2010 “Yet Another Midnight” (Richard Barone): I wrote tons of songs with Richard Barone. We went through a period where we must have written several albums’ worth in the early ‘90s. We’d originally met sometime in the ‘80s, and after I got back to New York from London in ‘89 we reconnected. I don’t know if I saw the Bongos, but I think he wrote me a letter and we hooked up. We did some really good work.
I had my home studio and that was the way we were able to make an album called Glow, because there were no funds as he didn’t have a label. But I had a full home studio. By the time we recorded this song, I lived out in Rockland County, and in those days Richard lived in Greenwich Village, and he would take the train and we’d have a writing day. I remember he came in and we started talking about something, and within 10 or 15 minutes we’d come up with an idea for the song.
I honestly can’t remember how ‘Yet Another Midnight’ happened, exactly, but I think it was around December and we said, ‘Yeah, yet another midnight is coming,’ because it’s all about New Year’s resolutions. I usually took over the musical part when we worked, but then I would start to contribute to the lyrics, as well, as things developed, and for this one I think it was probably Richard and I writing lyrics at the same time. It’s a fond memory and a great record.
1975 “Under the Table with Her” (Sparks): ‘Under the Table with Her’ was a situation where the artist gave me free rein. This was written by Ron Mael, all the music and the lyrics, too. We had pre-production talks, and I remember saying, ‘This is crying out for a Schubert string quartet.’ We did this in my home studio in London, the same one where I’d mixed Diamond Dogs for David. It was a really cool home studio. I had a live room and a drum booth and everything, and I did the whole Sparks album there, with the drummer in the drum booth with his five toms! He had to crawl in to make his way to the drum stool, but it was a really good studio.
I remember the day that the string quartet came, my son Morgan, who is now in his forties but was then about three years old, came down to watch. He sat on the steps of our staircase that went up to where we lived, and at one point I looked over and he was having the most profound conversation with the cellist, who really thought that Morgan was a bright young boy. But Morgan grew up with music and he just wanted to talk about the cello.
1975 “Tits” (Sparks): ‘Tits’ is just the most outrageous title, so I had to include it. ‘Under the Table with Her’ is a bit risqué as well, but ‘Tits’ is outrageous. It’s such a fantastic song. And it’s about tits, about the fascination with tits from the point of view of a young infant, all the way up to an older gentleman. It’s the history of tits, which I think they wrote just for pure fun. This is the way Sparks swaggers, with this subject matter, executed like this. But, really, it’s just for outrageousness, and it gets 10 points from me.
1975 “The Lady is Lingering” (Sparks): What a well-structured song! It’s lovely, too, and there’s a lot of sparseness — the verses are very sparse, with a creepy bass line that’s kind of creeping up on the keyboard — and then it opens up and explodes. It’s one of my favorites. I still just love hearing it. I don’t know if they made demos, but I remember we sat around a piano together when we first met about the record, and I took notes, and they gave me free rein as far as the production went.
As a kid listening to records, it never occurred to me what a producer did. I knew George Martin was a producer, and was very important to the process, but that was the Beatles. You don’t think of the producer in terms of bands like Sparks. So it’s very satisfying to be so involved in the creation of this record, because albums like this have made people’s careers, and this is a very important album for these guys.
That said, ‘The Lady is Lingering,’ that’s pretty much their arrangement, though I modified ‘looks, looks, looks.’ That was my idea. I know every member of the band had some difficulty following what we were doing, because until that point they were just a band a recording with hardly any external instruments, and this was the first time they’d used strings. They were pretty OK with it, though, even if they were a little bit bewildered. It’s one of my favorite albums.
And you know who else loves it? I’ll tell you! It’s one of Morrissey’s favorite albums. We were talking about Indiscreet in Rome when I was making Ringleader of the Tormentors with him and he said, ‘I adore that album, but I don’t have my copy with me and I want to hear it.’
The next morning I got up before everyone and I found a record store in Rome and I bought it for him. It was the only copy left in this Roman record store, and I gave it to him and he was thrilled. And I think it’s because Sparks really stretched out and were experimental. I think most of my UK productions haven’t made the crossover because I became very Anglicized in my style and my approach, and that’s a shame, because this was kind of their best shot. But it’s OK, because Sparks have got a huge following, of course.
1978 “No Spitting on the Bus” (Steve Gibbons Band): Steve Gibbons is a rocker from Birmingham, England. I’d worked with The Move from Birmingham, and John Lodge [from the Moody Blues] is from Birmingham. It’s like Liverpool and Manchester; Birmingham has produced many, many great artists. Steve Gibbons is like the grandfather of Birmingham rock.
This was such a soulful album. I mean, he made me cry all the time when we were working together! He’s a dashing, handsome man with jet-black hair. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was part Gypsy, he’s so charismatic. He can play and write and sing beautifully. ‘No Spitting on the Bus,’ though, is probably the most whimsical thing he ever recorded. I wish I could work with him again.
1971 “Cosmic Dancer” (T. Rex): ‘Cosmic Dancer’ is one of the most beautiful songs Marc Bolan ever wrote. It’s a classic, and almost as good as Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Stardust.’ Marc wrote some magic into those lyrics. And the melody is such an emotional experience to hear. We were a real solid team on this. He trusted me implicitly to write good string parts for music, which were always based around his guitar licks. He loved that. I would put a little Beethoven in there, and he’d go crazy.
I’m so proud of this track, though, mostly because it came out of mutual respect and mutual trust for each other, and because it was one of the best T. Rex records I ever worked on. By today’s standards, we had an A-list budget for that album, because we’d had an unprecedented single while he was touring in America – ‘Ride a White Swan’ was a big hit that went to number two in the charts – and the record company felt like T. Rex was going to break big. And, of course, they did.
1971 “Monolith” (T. Rex): We went to Power Station in New York and we did ‘Jeepster’ there and ‘Monolith.’ Then I flew with the band to L.A., because they had a Whiskey-A-Go-Go show to do. We went to Wally Heider’s studio there and, again, we had carte blanche to make a good album, and that’s what we did. We did ‘Get It On’ and we got Flo and Eddie to help us with the backing vocals. Mark and I liked the Turtles. They were just such wisecrackers; they were really ruthlessly cruel sometimes, too, but they just made us laugh. On ‘Monolith’ they did a doo-wop thing that I love. It was so high; later I wondered who the female singers were, but it was them!
1971 “The Motivator” (T. Rex): ‘Motivator’ is the quintessential T. Rex sound. Just a killer quartet. When I hear it, I think, ‘Man, that’s the matrix for the T. Rex sound.’ So once we’d hit on that sound, it spilled into The Slider. You can hear more similarities between The Slider and even Tanx here than anything else on Electric Warrior, I think. We were really up to some new tricks on that one.
1977 “Bad Reputation” (Thin Lizzy): ‘Bad Reputation’ started out at my house in London when Phil Lynott and Scott Gorham came, each carrying a bottle of Foster’s lager, and got blind drunk. We were in my home — where I recorded Sparks, Diamond Dogs, all that — but I had a young child. They came right into my living room blind drunk, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God. This is inappropriate.’
But we talked about how they wanted to make this great fucking rock & roll record, and how we had to do it in Canada for tax reasons. I thought, ‘A trip to Canada can’t be bad.’ And so we did our happy album together. I mean, talk about swagger!
It was pretty much a drunken album, too. We worked about maybe five weeks there and ‘Bad Reputation’ sums it all up for me. They were proud of their bad reputation as bad boys, and they got it on tape with that song. And they did it brilliantly. The playing on that record is just absolutely great.
1977 “Dancing in The Moonlight” (Thin Lizzy): This is a whimsical, Van Morrison kind of track. Phil [Lynott] was Irish, and he was the best kind of Irish poet: just absolutely great with lyrics. There are a lot of funny allusions in there, things that are just hilarious. Some people say they hear Springsteen, but I don’t think Phil was aware of Springsteen. I don’t think that was his source of inspiration.
He had enough inspiration from simply being raised in Dublin, which had some of the best bands around at the time. His tradition was Irish, not American. We got Scott Gorham’s brother-in-law, the sax player from Supertramp, who just happened to be touring at the same time and they happened to be blazing through Toronto, to come in, and he made that amazing part up right there on the spot. We realized, during the session when the sax went down, that we had a single, and it was. It was the only hit off that album.
1978 “Emerald” (Live and Dangerous) (Thin Lizzy): ‘Emerald’ is the quintessential Irish rock track. It’s got two guitars playing in thirds; it’s got the Irish drumming — which is usually played on a hand drum — with Brian Downey playing so beautifully on the drum kit. It just makes me feel like I’m Irish when I hear it. It makes me long for the Green Hills of Ireland when I hear that song. I love that track, and it’s one of the best live tracks off that album.
1978 “Rosalie/Cowgirl’s Song” (Live and Dangerous) (Thin Lizzy): ‘Rosalie’ is a Bob Seger song that Phil introduces. His introductions were witty and his accent was charming, so I left that one in. They were sometimes risqué, like, ‘How many women have a little Irish in them? Would you like a little bit more?’
And ‘Cowgirl’s Song,’ that’s a Thin Lizzy song. The way he joins them up is something. They had worked that out on the road for a long time, and it’s brilliantly executed. Thin Lizzy was probably one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life. They really did deliver. Phil had a Fender Precision bass that had a pick guard that was a mirror. He used to reflect the spotlight and shine it in people’s eyes. He could work the bass just on that level alone. But he was an amazing player and singer and front man, too.
The conditions we made that album under were difficult, too. I didn’t record a single track. The songs were taken from recordings of about five or six concerts, and each tape was recorded by a different engineer at a different venue, on a different console. The reason that album took six weeks to mix was because we had to constantly realign our tape machines. Songs were recorded at different speeds, some had Dolby, some didn’t, some recordings were done in America and some were from Europe, so it was a technical feat. We had to establish what the album sounded like in the first week.
Then we took the tracks that were in the best shape and they became the benchmarks. We had to get the tracks that had great performances, but had inferior sound, up to the level of those. Believe me, I pulled out every trick in the book. But the end result was fantastic. The funny thing is, I had to wrap it up, because David had been anxiously waiting to start his new album called Lodger. So it all comes back to David Bowie, I guess.
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