by Margaret Chrystall
JOHN Leckie – the producer behind many classic albums from the ’70s onwards – speaks quietly as he tries to explain the many roles a record producer has to play.
He laughs: "I’ve got to admit I’m not a songwriter and I’m not a real musician.
"I’ve been doing this job for over 40 years and got some success with it, but what a record producer actually does – that’s something worth talking about on our panel.
"It’s a difficult thing to define."
But however you do, John has overseen some of the most ground-breaking albums and artists of the last 40 years.
He got into music by accident – planning on being an underground film director after a course in film and TV at Ravensbourne College in Bromley – "an art college but we had a TV studio".
"I went to lots and lots of gigs when I was a teenager.
"I was lucky I was 18 in 1968 and I went to see all the bands that have now become all the great bands from then – Jimi Hendrix, the Stones, the Beatles the crazy Frank Zappa, people like that."
But though working as a runner for film companiesin the West End, John couldn’t get into the ACTT union where he could have prgressed.
"So I thought if I can’t be a film director I’ll be a music producer! And so I wrote letters to five studios at the time – including EMI, Pye, Decca and EMI gave me an interview.
"I’d done a thesis on electronic music at college when there were no books about it, synthesisers had just been invented. And I used to roam around record shops taking notes from the back of Stockhausen records.
"I think when I was interviewed at Abbey Road, I showed them that and that is probably what got me the job."
As a tape operator, later balance engineer, John quickly learned the important technicalities of the job.
"But what you were really learning was about the people in the room. Who was giving the instructions, the dynamics of power. If someone said ‘Go back to the second verse’ you have to know how – if John Lennon wants to do the second verse again," laughs John, who worked at the studio when the Plastic Ono Band, George Harrison, Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd’ were all recording.
John says: "I’m having a conversation with a studio in London and they are very short of tape operators – big studios still have tape machines, – but there are no tape operators."
With a roster of intriguing and important albums with his name on it, John reveals he tends to be chosen by artists rather than choosing them, though there have been exceptions.
"I think The Verve was the only band I’ve really chased," laughs John. "I saw – they were supporting someone – and I was amazed by them and kept going back to see if it was true, they were like nothing I’d heard."
John Leckie albums
The Stone Roses: The Stone Roses
Simple Minds: Real To Real Cacophony
Simple Minds: Life in a Day Be-Bop Deluxe: Sunburst Finish
The Verve: A Storm in Heaven
Ride: Carnival of Light
Cast: All Change
Magazine: Real Life
XTC: White Music
The Fall: This Nation’s Saving Grace
Radiohead: The Bends
Kula Shaker: K
Dr John: Anutha Zone
My Morning Jacket: Z
The Coral: Butterfly House
Though he doesn’t like talking about the individual acts he’s worked with, of the seminal Stone Roses self-titled album in 1989, John says: "I’m kind of known for that one. At the time it was great, but I don’t think when it was finished that I thought 20 years later I’d be talking about it.
"I was busy with a lot of good music at the time, when indie music became mainstream."
He’s not sure if he sees a link between the bands he worked with most successfully, that they were on the cusp of changing the times they played in.
Simple Minds was one Scottish band he worked with,but knew many back in the early ’80s, such as Stuart Adamson and The Skids too and through Simple Minds, Billy Mackenzie of The Associates.
"There’s a new re-release of Sulk and they found two tracks that I’d done at Abbey Road with them – Australia and Me, Myself And The Tragic Story and they’re on the CD as extra tracks.
John remembers the recording sessions: "The band wanted to start at midnight and I went ‘OK’ so they’d come in after the pub and a few pints and two hours later they were asleep on the sofa!
"So we abandoned that and reverted back."
At the moment John is working with a Belgian band Novastar and, when asked who he’d like to work with again, he says: "I’d rather move on to new things, but My Morning Jacket – anytime – and Los Lobos, they’re really a blues band but there’s a lot more to them."
The curse of the producer is "You always run out of time". Producers he rates include Mickey Most and the discipline of the approach of shoehorning three songs’ recordings out of two sessions a day for hired musicians and singers. There’s a nod to the "completely unnatural" world of Phil Spector’s soundverse and a moment to point out that though he worked at Abbey Road, John never worked with George Martin.
John’s still hungry for new music – Drake and Beyonce – "those records have fantastic soundscapes and tone".
But when you ask if a producer’s days are numbered thanks to technology, John laughs: "I’ve got GarageBand on my phone and there are apps for phones that make beats, so maybe that is a producer.
"But when you’re recording, you have to have someone who says ‘Enough!’."
John Leckie is on the XpoNorth Music Producers Guild panel on The Art Of Making Records (Eden Court, Thursday, June 9 at 3pm)