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Genius and Insane Music Producers
A look at some of the greatest music producers of modern times
Many people have a fascination with the myth of the rock star: the erratic, sometimes psychotic, and certainty drugged-out musical god whose subculture ethic makes girls swoon and mothers protest. But behind every great rock star lies a genius music producer.
He retreats to his lair of a studio and tinkers with his tools like a madhatter until discovering the perfect auditory palette. He sculpts the band's sound with his sonic weaponry, creating entirely new genres of music. And, much like the rock star, his crude, outlandish, and drunken behavior is perhaps a sign that limitless creativity goes hand-in-hand with insanity. Such is the case with three great producers of the dying era of albums: Manchester’s innovative and experimental Martin Hannett, the ultimate neurotic Phil Spector, and the creative Brian Eno.
Hannett, perhaps one of the most intriguing producers of his day, was originally a chemistry scholar. He employed a mad scientist approach when working with bands during the height of the seventies punk era. Teaming up with Factory Records, Hannett crafted the revolutionary post-punk sound of Joy Division. Directly contrasting with the fast, abrasive, and anti-production value of punk rock, Hannett molded Joy Division into a slower, more melodic band. Hannett favored the reverb echo effect and isolated specific sounds that gradually grew to fill up more space as the song progressed, creating a sophisticated but haunting composition. When his "spacious" production quality is coupled with singer Ian Curtis' morose lyrics and troubled tones, the angry sounds of seventies punk are transformed into seductively graceful despair. Although synthesizers were traditionally shunned by punkers as artificial substance, Hannett experimented with various industrial-sounding synths, eventually leading to New Wave, whose synth-based sound is so characteristic of the eighties.
Yet with innovative techniques come certain oddities. Constantly drunk and belligerent, Hannett's ramblings provided some amusing entertainment. The members of Joy Division described him as a being from another planet who just kept getting weirder and weirder. "He didn't give a fuck about making a pop record. All he wanted to do was experiment. His attitude was that you take a load of drugs, lock the door of the studio and see what you've got the next morning. That's how our records were made," guitarist Bernard Sumner once remarked. When the band suggested a slight change in his methods, he would scream, "Oh my god, why don't you just fuck off, you stupid retards!" Described by all as eccentric, Hannett would play with handguns during televised interviews while sporadically laughing to himself. Eventually the drugs caught up with him, and he died middle-aged and obese – sort of like Elvis, but way cooler.
American producer Phil Spector seemed just as demented as Hannett, but his admiration for guns made him literally trigger-happy and much more dangerous. Contrary to his subversive persona, Spector audio-engineered many of those "innocent" sixties girl groups, as well as hit records from The Beatles, Ramones, and Leonard Cohen. Spector invented the "Wall of Sound" method. The Wall of Sound is like one massive rock orchestra because dozens of musicians play simultaneously in an ensemble. The multiple, repeated instruments give the sound a deep, layered, and full effect so that the song quality isn't lost when heard on the radio.
As he became more and more successful, Spector detached himself further from society, and his absurd antics escalated to an uncontrollable level. According to rumor, he threatened Leonard Cohen with a crossbow when Cohen expressed his dissatisfaction with being ousted from the remainder of a recording process.
By the time the millennium hit, Spector was looking like a real life version of Sideshow Bob, with his crazy hair, dramatic theatrics, shaky mannerisms, and underlying murderous streak. He claimed to have a mental disorder, and some women accused him of holding them hostage. After cruising the House of Blues one night, he met a "D-movie" blonde actress, and when the two returned to his house to possibly shag, a gun went off, the blonde was dead, and the night ended with Spector covered in blood. He refused to take any responsibility for the murder by calling the death an "accident" and attributing it to the "drunken ineptness" of the police. He was found guilty by a jury, and he's currently serving a life sentence, a far cry from his chart-topping heyday.
Brian Eno is the only producer of the three who continues to make music today. As the synthesizer virtuoso of the glam seventies rock band Roxy Music, Eno pushed the boundaries of conservative mentalities with his long blonde hair, erotic feminine makeup, cheetah-feathered boas, studded diamond collars and overall freaky, flamboyant appearance. Eno had no interest in being a rock star. Instead, he quit the band and collaborated with the likes of Robert Fripp, while producing some of the most interesting albums to date including those by Depeche Mode, David Bowie and The Talking Heads.
Ironically, Eno began his career from a very unlikely path by going to art school. At school, he used to gather a bunch of stripped pianos in the hallways and bounce tennis balls off the instruments for fun. He even named the quirky sport "piano tennis."
His art education influenced his entire process of thinking and looking at music. He learned about properties of color and studied the great impressionist painters. He borrowed their aesthetics by producing music like a painting, and applying a minimalist technique to songs. Eno much preferred music theory over practice and noticed that music, like color, could blend harmoniously. His innovative approach spawned a whole new genre called Ambient music. Sometimes, he dabbled into the avant-garde. At other times, he experimented with eclectic sounds to create different moods and soothing atmospheres. Forever changing the way that music is understood, studied, and created, Eno's contributions to music can be felt across multiple genres.
Though Eno continues to carefully craft sensory audio, contemporary producers are being stifled by corporate record companies who promote profit over creativity. Producers are being pressured to compress records, losing the low and loud varying dynamics of a song, cranking out one monotonous loud level in order to attract the attention of consumers. But, thanks to audio programs like Pro Tools, independent bands can now produce their own records. The unlimited flexibility creates hundreds of underground genres, some good and some bad, but most of which are never heard by commercial audiences.
Hannett, Spector, and Eno were given full creative control to perfect some of the most infamous albums in rock music history. Lennon, Bowie, and the Ramones may be the household names, but the fact that they have stayed household names is largely due to the influence of behind-the-scenes geniuses. Do records have a future in the digital music age? The speculation continues, but whichever direction the industry goes, history points to an obvious deduction. Whether it comes from the self-made artist or the next generation of producers, it is that zealous creativity and unconventionality that the forgotten and crazy rock producers taught us to appreciate that will burn the new classics into popular music.