Stephen Street – exclusive interview
Over the last thirty years, one man has been behind the mixing desk for generations of great bands making classic albums, from the Smiths to Blur and more recently Babyshambles and the Courteeners ”â Stephen Street is a legend of British guitar music. On March 26th, the album that Stephen Street co-wrote, played on and produced with Morrissey, ”ËViva Hate’, is being re-released with a full remaster by Street himself. ”ËViva Hate’ shot to the top of the album charts in 1988 and contained many much loved Morrissey songs co-wrote by Stephen Street, such as ”ËEveryday is Like Sunday’ and ”ËSuedehead’. Stephen Street kindly took the time to speak to Louder Than War about revisiting ”ËViva Hate’, the past and future of Blur and his influences and inspirations musically.
Looking at the songs you co wrote with Moz you forget how many important songs in Morrissey’s back catalogue were made in such a short space of time, what was songwriting process?
Well initially, when the Smiths broke up I sent Morrissey a cassette of demos that I had, thinking that they could possibly be b-sides ”â I always thought that the band would get back together in a few months. I got married that year and when I got back from my honeymoon there was a postcard waiting for me from Morrissey saying that he loved the ideas that I sent him and he wanted to do a solo record. So that’s how it started, and once I knew that he wanted a record I basically dropped everything else that was on at the time and put all my time into making lots and lots of home demo’s so I could provide him with a lot of material to be working at.
At the time I felt we were honing it quite well, I mean if you consider that we didn’t really start our sessions for Viva Hate until October (1987) and that by Christmas it was all done and dusted. It was quite uncanny really how well it all worked out. It was hard work though.
Was it intimidating starting afresh with someone whose only other songwriting partnership had been the Morrissey/Marr partnership?
Absolutely, I knew that if it all went badly I would be one of the most unpopular people in the country, due to the admiration for the Morrissey and Marr partnership ”â and quite rightly. When we finished the sessions on Christmas Eve I drove home and didn’t hear from Morrissey for a couple of months so at the time, I wasn’t even sure whether he was having second thoughts or what, I had no idea what was going on. Luckily a few months later Viva Hate did come out, to completely cover to cover fantastic reviews. So then he got back in touch and we started writing again, I was really getting into gear, I mean if you look at the songs that were recorded for the b-side to ”ËEveryday Is Like Sunday’, songs like ”ËSister I’m a Poet’, ”ËWill Never Marry’, ”ËDisappointed’, they’re really fine songs. So I was thinking “Right, we’re really finding out feet now”Â, but around then I realised that you can never really relax with Morrissey and you never know where you stand and that was that.
What are your memories of writing those songs and recording them?
Well, the way I was working was how I gathered Johnny worked with Morrissey. Really, what you had to produce for Moz was a pretty finished backing track and then he would have a note book of lyrics or whatever and would get in some way inspired by the song, the music, and finish the song. We worked within that frame, but obviously I’d then have to change the tempo, the key etc. On that record I knew that I would have to be playing the bass guitar and the rhythm guitar but that I needed a really talented lead guitarist so that’s why I called Vini Reilly, who to this day says that he got the call from Morrissey ”â he didn’t, he got the call from me. He came in and he worked under my direction, but sometimes he wouldn’t play certain guitar parts and would say “That’s too simple”Â.
It must have been quite hard when a few years ago Vini Reilly claimed that he wrote all the songs on Viva Hate”Â¦
Exactly, that’s why I put the ”ËViva Hate Diaries’ together on my website, to prove quite clearly that I wrote them. I get really annoyed because yet again, the NME have put together another Smiths tribute magazine and yet again they’ve called Vini Reilly the co-writer, which he wasn’t. It’s just lazy journalism. So yeah, we did those sessions with Vini and Andy (Andrew Paresi, drummer) and it was very exciting but also pretty tiring. The control room was upstairs from the actual playing area so I’d set up the microphone, come down and play with the band, try and direct them through the basic backing track then run back upstairs, it was exciting but it was quite a lot to take on and I ended up with stomach ulcers by the end of it. But it was always exciting. There are some people who really inspire you to work hard for and Morrissey really is one of those people.
After 20 years of being out of contact, how did you and Morrissey come to build bridges?
Basically it was myself, I woke up in the middle of the night and just felt it would be a shame if, here we are in our 50s, and we never made contact again. So I wrote a letter and gave it to my manager to try and get it to Morrissey. The initial comeback from Morrissey’s representative was just “If this is a legal letter you need to get a proper representative”Â (laughs), and I was “No, no, honestly it’s a normal letter”Â. I just thought he either accepts the letter or he doesn’t. In the end he accepted the letter, I think it came as a shock to him but he was pleased, so he sent me an e-mail and we hooked up. And it was great, and we’ve stayed in touch for a bit, and it’s just been nice to be in contact again.
So what’s it like revisiting the tracks and going back to them?
It’s been great, the way things were mastered in the late 80s, early 90s ”â and I’m experiencing this with Blur as I’m currently remastering their entire back catalogue ”â and sometimes things were compressed in a certain way, in the bass sound or whatever. It was the same with when Johnny remastered the Smiths tapes, and I was there for some of them sessions, the tapes have to be baked to make sure they don’t shed. And it’s just as well they were baked now as if they were left much longer they would have deteriorated beyond repair. It’s just great to listen to the tapes and think that now they sound so much better. They sound fuller, and wider, and I’m really pleased to be focusing on it. I’m really chuffed as a producer how it’s sounding.
It’s quite unexpected to see a fan favourite like ”ËThe Ordinary Boys’ being dropped for a demo, ”ËTreat Me Like a Human Being’”Â¦
As far as I’m concerned, the album should not have been changed. I kind of argued this with Morrissey, as much as I can, and made it clear that it was a mistake. I really like ”ËThe Ordinary Boys’ and think it’s a great song.
”ËTreat Me Like a Human Being’ was just something I found in my archives, and it’s a great little demo but to take off ”ËThe Ordinary Boys’ ”â which was produced in that session ”â and put a demo in its place I personally think is wrong.
I think the album should have been left as it was. There’s also a big chunk of ”ËLate Night, Maudlin Street’ that’s been taken off, and I’m really not happy about that, but what can I do ”â it’s Morrissey’s album and I’m the producer. It’s like when Suedehead was put on the Bona Drag remaster and the intro was removed…
It really loses something taking off that glistening one chord intro to Suedehead”Â¦
I think so too, as a producer I put things like that in there for a reason and because they had a meaning. The fade-out section of ”ËLate Night, Maudlin Street’ was there for a reason and to take it out I think is personally a bit wrong.
It’s good that this year, with Morrissey going to court with the NME to set the record straight about the racism allegations, that he’s re-releasing an album with ”ËBengali In Platforms’ on (controversial track which the NME cited as reason for Morrissey’s racism), what are your thoughts on this track?
Musically it’s beautiful, I love the way it feels and the psychedelic section in the middle and everything, I’m really really proud of it. You know, it depends how PC people want to be about it. I never thought it was a racist song, I felt it was a song about being an outsider, because of ones colour in the same way Morrissey has wrote about people being outsiders because of, say, their homosexuality…
Or using the metaphor of the wheelchair bound girl in ”ËNovember Spawned a Monster’
Exactly, and for me it was a song about a character and his alienation. I never thought of it as a racist song and still don’t, I never turned around in the studio and said “Oh Morrissey I can’t work with you on this, it’s racist!”Â. I think it’s a very charming song.
The Outstanding Contribution to Music at the Brit Awards is usually wasted on very mundane artists, Robbie Williams, Sting etc; does it make you proud that an innovative, exciting band that you worked so closely with have got the award?
I’m really, really pleased for them, I’m really really chuffed. I love Blur; I think they’re some of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with.
Have you heard anything from them about a new record?
I’ve not been approached about a new record and I doubt I will be, I don’t think we should assume that they’ll make an album, I got the impression that they don’t want the pressure of having to make a new record. Obviously I would love to be asked to produce them again but, I don’t know, they haven’t asked me to do the ”ËUnder the Westway’ track ”â William Orbit is involved apparently ”â but I don’t know.
During the five albums you made with them, what was the chemistry between you and the band?
Well I did about a third of the first album and with the second album, they weren’t going to work with me, they were going to work with Andy Partridge of XTC. But I bumped into Graham one night at a gig in London, I think it was a Cranberries gig actually, at the Marquee, and he had a bit of a face on and was down about the sessions with Partridge. I just said “Chin up mate, you’re a great band, you’ll make a great record”Â. The next day I got a phone call from Damon, they’d obviously spoken, and that was it, I was back in the fold again. It was just fantastic, there was a great understanding of what each other wanted, I really clicked with them and got the best out of them. When you’re dealing with bands a lot of it is man management, you’ve got to make sure everyone’s doing their best and knows what they’re doing. That great relationship went on through ”ËParklife’ to the last one I did with them, which I consider my finest piece of work, the self-titled one.
If a lot of production is man management, there can’t have been many men more difficult to manage than Pete Doherty in 2007, how did you manage to make two coherent and strong albums with Pete (Babyshambles’ ”ËShotters Nation’ and Peter Doherty’s ”ËGrace/Wastelands’
It was bloody hard work, but again there’s genius there amongst the absolute fog of drug addiction, and there’s a really decent human being there, and I was just trying to save him basically. At the time I was trying to be one of the normal, non-vampire type influences on him. I’m not saying at all that the band were a bad influence on him, but there were a lot of vampires around him and I was just trying to redress the balance in the studio. Also I got on very well with Adam and Drew (Babyshambles drummer and bassist respectively), and although I was flying these threats at Peter I was really just trying to shake him out of his stupor. I think it’s a great record and I get upset when you see on internet forums people slagging the album off saying they preferred demo’s he did in a crack den or whatever, I get upset and think “God, and I did all that hard work”Â (laughs). Considering Peter was in quite bad shape at the time, it’s a great album, very coherent. I loved the way Mick (Mick Jones, Clash legend who produced both Libertines album and first Babyshambles album) produced Pete but I came at it from a really different angle, like with ”ËDelivery’ I tried to make it just sound like a really sharp, snappy 60s pop single.
At the time Mik Whitnall (Babyshambles guitarist) described you as ”Ëa ballbreaker’ in the studio…
I didn’t work Mik very hard at all, or the band really, I mean I didn’t have to with Drew and Adam as they were such a tight rhythm section, I think sometimes with Mik I had to work him hard just to make sure he was getting his guitar parts right. The hardest bit was getting vocals out of Peter because he just didn’t have many lyrics for the record, just half-baked ideas. So he’d come in and every time he’d do a vocal it would be a different lyric or a different vocal melody. I had to explain to him that he had to hone it, I said “You’re known as a songsmith now, they have to be finished songs. The two records with the Libertines were all about full finished songs, and you’ve got to deliver”Â. The songs had to be finished and couldn’t just be half-baked stream of consciousness.
One of your most successful albums of the last few years was ”ËSt Jude’ by the Courteeners, how did working with them come about?
Well their record label got in touch and said they had a great new guitar band from Manchester and would I like to work with them. So I went up to Manchester to see them perform, and I was just blown away. First, by the reception, they’d just put out ”ËAcrylic’ and they were playing at a University hall and people were singing their lyrics back to them the entire time, it was just like a Smiths gig you know. That gig was amazing. So we did ”ËNot Nineteen Forever’, and that went well, so I ended up doing the full album. I really enjoyed working with them and was quite disappointed I didn’t get the second album. C’est la vie, I guess. It’s just sad that they came onto the scene just as illegal downloading was happening, and along with bands like the Maccabees and the Mystery Jets, they’re popular but they can’t sell enough records. Too many of their fans aren’t willing to buy albums. Fans think that bands make a lot of money off albums ”â they don’t. They have to go to the labels and ask to tour, I remember Blur didn’t make any money off touring at all until after ”ËParklife’. Once you’ve paid for everything, it all adds up, once you’ve paid for the soundman, the support, the tour crew and so on. But at the end of that at least the fans would go out and buy your record. They don’t now. And all these kids are saying “I can’t pay 79p for a download, it’s too much”Â, yet they’re happy to spend ÃÂ£200 on a Glastonbury ticket. In this system where are the next crop of great bands going to come from?
What advice would you give to young bands starting out in this tempestuous climate then?
I really, really don’t know. With the recording costs going up and the budget of making a record getting cut, and bands are expected to give music away on their MySpace, it’s difficult. A generation of young kids are growing up expecting to pay nothing. You go on the NME site and see a news story about a pirate site being shut down and you see all the comments from these kids saying “How dare they!”Â. These people are criminals, they’re pirates. They’re taking music off the artists, who are getting fuck all. Like the Pirate Bay site, why has it taken so many years to get it shut down? It’s difficult.
What has influenced you as a producer?
I grew up as a glam fan, as a kid, it was all about Bowie and Bolan. And through that I discovered the exotic name of Tony Visconti and just thought “Wow, that sounds like a great job”Â. I most probably think the seed of the idea came with the punk thing and great producers like Martin Hannett, Martin Rushent, Steve Lilywhite…they were inspiring to me. It’s hard now though, it’s just about keeping up with the big boys. I used to make a record and hope it would get in the charts, now I know a great record is never going to make the charts, and it’s such a shame. The indie pop charts used to mean so much. The last few bands to break through into the charts were Kaiser Chiefs, Kasabian and Arctic Monkeys. And these bands now aren’t really getting the airplay.
You worked recently with Viva Brother, what was your reaction to the onslaught of abuse they got from the press?
My God, yeah, tell me about it, I was upset by it, I think the singer shot himself in the foot with the interviews he gave but they’re really nice people, and it’s a shame, and I really do think the album’s fine. We were proud of it. Yet it’s been slated, I think the music press just ganged up on them, it was similar with the Cranberries. They’ve been given such a big slap by the press.
Stephen Street, thank you very much
Cheers, thank you
With thanks to Stephen Street and Gail Colson.