Steve Levine – the man who produced and recorded the Clash and Culture Club : an interview
Steve Levine’s engineering and production career reads like a guide through the past few decades of music history.
He started as a teaboy in the opulent mid seventies – a time of denim and big record sales and a time of unimaginable post Beatles riches in a music business ripe on the rewards of its own juices.
His entry point was in that era when glam rock was floundering and those curious mid seventies bands like Sailor were bobbing about and the dark horse of punk was galloping in the distance heading towards music biz central. It was a comfortable time of Fleetwood Mac and British bands expecting to dominate worldwide.
It’s a career that leaves him uniquely positioned to understand the ebb and flow of music by being placed at the heart of one of the biggest changes in British musical culture- one minute it was working with the aforementioned Sailor album and the next it was the producing the Clash’s first album.
In the eighties he was one of the most successful producers in the world- riding high, producing Culture Club and many other projects and has kept his hand in ever since. He is back on the frontline right now with the fab Natalie McCool whose debut album is a great body of songs with a full production from Levine.
Impassioned and opinionated, Steve makes for great company as we sit in his home studio built in the out house of his Fulham house. He doesn’t hide his opinions and before today’s interview is annoyed about Haim being given loads of attention at the cost of several upcoming young British bands that he has been championing as a fan of new music.
‘Haim have had one EP out and it’s not even an album. I don’t have a problem with them as a band. It’s just that the business are in a unique position to help young British bands. I bet Haim are not even on the radar in America. It’s not a level playing field and it’s unfair giving them an award instead of young British talent.’
When you started in the studio you arrived at a very interesting time, a music scene on the verge of big change from the seventies rock to the new wave.
Steve Levine :
‘I can specifically remember when the old guard band of Supertramp were booked in to do a session and I remember I was not on the session but I went past the studio every day and all I could hear was the doof, doof, doof of the snare drum. That went on for a week and was going on continually. I was working upstairs with the Clash at the time in 1976, doing demos, and that was all done in a day. I remember at that time thinking that old way of working had to change.
Things were changing, people’s attitudes were changing. I remember the first conversation I had with Joe Strummer was when he walked into the studio and he said, ‘what are those?’ and I said that they are screens for the sound and he said ‘why are they there.’ And I said to stop the sound of the guitars from the amplifiers getting all over the place and Simon Humphrey, who was one of the CBS staff engineers who worked with me and was working on the session as well said that’s what they are for, to create separation and, I quote, Joe Strummer said to him, ‘I don’t know what separation is but I don’t like it!’
So we immediately moved the screens and that was the difference between the old and new bands at the time. We thought differently from them but we were willing to work in their way but Mick Jones, who is a little bit older than me had a lot more seventies music in his blood, with him being a fan of the likes of Mott the Hoople, and he really got it and was fascinated by the recording process.’
You worked on the Clash demos and the Clash album as well. What was the recording process like?
‘There were not many guitar overdubs on the Clash album and the backing vocals were double tracked. We didn’t spend a lot of time on Joe’s vocals. He just put them down. We did 2 or 3 takes on the lead vocals – and we spent not much more than one hour on the backing vocals, including any of the tracking. It was just a different approach to doing things but the recording quality on the Clash album is as good as any modern recording studio would be able to do with what is now considered to be state of art equipment Generation X recorded at a similar level studio and they had a similar technical level of sound. Most bands at that time were recording on either 16 or 24 track.
The other thing about the Clash was, because I was living in Hampstead at the time, I would take Mick Jones home after the sessions and on the way we would go and see several of the new bands play live at the Nashville or the Greyhound in Fulham or the Hope and Anchor and some of those other places and you would get to see bands who might come into the studio later on.
The way of working then was much more about capturing the live thing of what was happening. It was an exciting period and you got the sense that there was something really happening in music.
Previously I had not been so much into the pub rock type of thing of bands like Dr. Feelgood. For me there was a slight difference between the pub generation and the punk bands- the pub bands had missed the glam scene and seemed less exciting than the punk bands.
The new wave bands, despite what people said, were all also incredible musicians. Punk was less about the music but more exciting because of that in some ways.’
How long did you work with the Clash for?
The last record I did with the Clash was White Man In Hammersmith Palais. Simon and I were, by then, recording on multi tracks and we recorded a lot of overdubs on that song. There is a piano and acoustic guitar and a harmonica somewhere in the mix on that one. There was certainly a love of reggae in the band and its influence was really strong on that song which is a great song and still one of my favourites. Topper was a great drummer, I knew him from before the Clash when he was actually a session drummer and had come in and worked on some sessions I had been working on.
Later on there was a period when the Clash were not touring and Topper would come in and play more sessions for us. We were using an old Simmons drum kit for some of those sessions. At that time with or without Topper I did some really naff records that I’m really proud off because they actually sounded really good soundwise. There was a lot of pop stuff.
This is the legacy of being a young gun for hire. As a an engineer with a reputation I was getting a lot of work and it was very varied. People would say, I heard some of your stuff, can you come in and do some work for us. All the junk equipment from Abbey Road was put into a room and I just worked with people in there. I remember working with Honey Bane, who was really interesting and different and ahead of her time. When I look at PJ Harvey now, I think she is cut from the same cloth as Honey Bane who was really good and that was a couple of years after working with the Clash.’
So you remember your first sessions with the Clash?
The first sessions I did with the Clash were demos at the CBS studios in 1976. They came down to the studio at the weekend and I remember it distinctly. To be perfectly honest Mickey Foote, who was there and was credited as the producer was really their live soundman and not a studio person. It was Simon and I who did the work. The problem was that Mickey Foote didn’t really understand the studio. There was a big difference between being a live engineer in those days and the studio.
When we started recording the album, I remember going to get the sound effect of the police siren for the beginning of White Riot. The CBS studios had a massive sound archive because of its affiliation with CBS news in America and I was sent to find the sound of the siren for the front of the song. They had sounds of warfare and some quite ferocious sounds down there in the sound effects place!
The next track we recorded for the album was Janie Jones, that sits in my mind as being the next song and it was pretty much how we did it with White Riot, with the same set up. We just went in and recorded it. Weirdly at the same time I was also doing a Jags session.
In the last session I did with The Clash a year later, we recorded Jail Guitar Doors, Time Is Tight and White Man In Hammersmith Palais. We would just go in and record and not rebuild the tracks like you would do nowadays.
Joe later on may have said he didn’t have that much to do with the recording but he would certainly have his input. The Clash was very much about those two guitars and the two different vocals and he was key to that.’
LTW : And there was lots of other things going on there…
Steve Levine :
‘Lyrically they were amazing. There was some beautiful story telling going on. It was great to have that kind of feel in a song. White Man In Hammersmith Palais is one of my favourite tracks of all time, it’s certainly my favourite Clash track. I also really like Tommy Gun and historically White Riot because it was the first one we worked on together.’
LTW: You worked with several other bands in the punk and new wave era.
Steve Levine :
‘I worked with XTC on their first session in Feb 1976. It was really early in their career. There was a big gap before they came back again to do another demo. The scouts at CBS brought them back for another go but still didn’t sign them. They did rerecord the same songs for their album when they signed to Virgin. I love them, they are a really great band, really underrated. Their songwriting has influenced lots of people. They should have been much bigger. I remember that when thy turned up, they were not like rock stars, I remember they brought sandwiches to the session!
LTW : You started in the studio world in his teenage years the year before. It was not straight onto the controls but the more tried and tested method of being the teabag carrier.
Steve Levine :
‘I left school at 17 and started as a tape op at CBS studios. In fact I was just under the tape op. You started on the first day as a tea boy for the tape op and within the first couple of days of making tea you would get shown the basics of how to be a tape op.
For the younger readers I will explain what the tape op did. In the olden days of recoding the two inch multi track didn’t have a remote control- you were the remote control!
Some of the machines didn’t have very accurate counters so you would have to learn where, on the 2 inch tape, the verse and chorus was of the song you were working on and if the artist or producer said ‘Steve. you have to go back to the second verse’, you would have to know immediately where that was and go back to the second verse and play it.
For me, though, the exciting part of being a tape op was punching in something- this is something that the younger readers will take for granted these days with a laptop but in the olden days you would have to manually do it, particularity at the CBS studios where they would have a Neve desk.
Neve’s are very valuable now and they were great to work on but they had an odd configuration. The left side of the desk had the instrument inputs and the right hand side had the monitor section. The old desks did not have automatic switching from tape playback, so to line up, which is a very important part of overdubbing, the engineer would have to switch the desk from playback to line in and at the same time you have to switch the tape machine from stand by and punch in to record at the cue of the producer or, depending on what you were doing, then swiftly punch out.
The punch out was the absolute skill because punching out the song was very complicated and you had to anticipate it slightly because the tape was whizzing through and if you were a little bit slow it would wipe out what was there!
It was quite a skillful job and I got very good at it and that became a big part of my CV very early on. People would say, ‘let’s book Steve- he’s swift at punching in and out’ and that’s a skill that’s important even to this very day in the digital world because punching in a vocal is the same as editing a vocal in a digital environment because it’s about making sure that you don’t chop breaths off and things like that and keep it sounding natural.’
From this early start of learning the basic and important rudimentary skills, like making the correct cup of tea and not wiping out the lead vocal by dropping in at the wrong place, Steve started to progress.
Steve Levine :
‘After a few months, from when I started July 1975, I progressed to being the tape op on main sessions but they would also then allow you to be the assistant and then the full engineer on the demo sessions in the other studios.
CBS had three studios- studio one- which predominantly had classical based sessions and also big tracking days, which would often be a solo artist with a full band playing. Often there would be some of the more big name American acts that came over to record because CBS would have a lot of American stars who would come to town to do the odd session. Studio two was, the then, state of art studio that they had just installed and because, as I just explained, of my reputation as being good at drop ins I got plenty of work there. This is because, when CBS went to 24 track, they had to get rid of the Neve desk and Studer tape machines and install brand new MCI systems with brand new console multiple channels and, more importantly, the brand new MCI tape machine which had an auto locator and an automatic punch in and out and I became very proficient in that studio.
So now I had a parallel world as a tape op engineer working in the big studios on every single session you could imagine from classical to pop to rock and then I would work upstairs with what, was soon to become, the new generation of artists like the Clash, XTC and the Jags because those new artists would be doing free demo time in studio 3 which was the demo studio with all the old gear that was thrown out of the other two studios and by working there is how I started moving up.’
Learning on tape must have given you an interesting perspective on the analogue versus digital debate.
Steve Levine :
‘I think currently the myth is that when the younger generation listen to older records they say they sound better and they put that down to those records being recorded with analogue and on tape but what they miss is that the younger generation of engineers are, now, not as good as the older generation who learned their craft like I did. Recording on a laptop, the new generation of engineers’ engineering prowess is not as good and neither is their microphone placement or knowledge about the right cable or the right pre amps and a lot of modern recording is just not as good sounding.
For me, digital systems are as good as delivering everything you would expect from analogue but what you are looking at is a generation of engineers that are just not as good since the dance period of the nineties when home recording really took off. ‘
LTW: It’s not that Steve thinks that this is an ongoing downward spiral in music. Far from it, he is very enthusiastic about much of modern music.
Steve Levine : These days you have got a set of engineers and producers who are certainly very good at the programming which the previous generation were not as good at and you got some really good musicians these days. Today’s drummers are as good, if not better, than any drummers from before but what you don’t have with home recording is the knowledgeable production and recording techniques with regards to setting up the instruments properly and recording them properly.
These older skills of mic placement and all those things that go with it are being lost and the byproduct of this is the loss of basic techniques. These are the skills involved when you made a punch in during the performance and it had to be right and you could not do it a million times. Decisions had to be made because, if you had 16 or 24 tracks not everything could be left to the mix.
The multi track already had set things on given tracks and each thing already recorded. When you pointed your effects, for example, you had to be on the case. Many studios only had one echo pate and you had to decide if you wanted echo on the guitar or wanted echo on the backing vocals. Sometimes the producer would record that echo as part of the sound and sometimes, when you recorded that sound, the voice and layering of reverb could create quite an interesting effect, these are the sort of elements of the recording process where some of that skill has been lost.
One of the bad things about tape, though, was that you had horrendous tape noise and also, not every studio lined their machines up correctly.
These days people look at things from the past through rose tinted glasses but it could sound like shit then. Every playback of the tape meant it slightly wore out and if the band had loads of overdubbing the quality of tape would reduce dramatically over time compared to what was captured initially.
I remember working with a band, recording the backing track on one piece of tape and you would then make a mix and the backing track and the overdubs would be put onto a new piece of tape which saved the original drum track as one generation and was not played a lot to keep the tape good. Of course all those things don’t happen in the digital world, which makes things easier but may also contributes to losing some basic skills.’
LTW : Not that Steve is against modern technology.
‘I think the old skills are really good but, of course, modern technically is amazing. I’ve always been on the forefront of modern technology and the cutting edge and I fully support it.
I’m just fortunate in that I was trained by really skilled engineers and worked in a period of the late seventies with the old techniques and amps and early synthesizers and those techniques have stayed with me forever. They are really valuable when I have worked with younger acts who want to have some of that knowledge. Learning live in the studio was like a fast track and it was better than reading the manual.
Most bands want, not only, the sound but also the arrangement idea, which in some cases can be as important as a particular vocal or guitar sound.
What I think is pretty exciting about newer bands coming through like Alt J and Django Django is that they are traditional indie bands but sonically, they are pulling in elements from other places like dub and things that would be perfectly at home on a dub record but maybe not on an indie record, which I think is terribly exciting.
And that’s a very modern idea. It’s the technology of the style rather than the genre of the style that people are really interested in. I like this idea that you don’t have to be a dub band to use dub effects, know what I mean. It’s about taking the sound from the genre rather than the song writing or arrangement .
LTW : It seems like people are more fascinated with the sound than the style?
Steve Levine :
Sound always driven songwriting. Instruments drove song writers like the Beatles. When they got their hands on a new instrument like the melletron they wrote Strawberry Fields. The melletron created the sound at the beginning of the song and enabled them to create something new. Another case was when George Harrison discovered the sitar and it gave them another tone palate to play with. The Beatles were always looking to create a new sonic style that would not only enhance but also stimulate their songwriting and that is still true today with new groups.
When I work with brand new bands or a new artist like Natalie McCool I still see this. Natalie is a very good guitarist and has a lot of songs with different, alternative tunings. Her guitars are effectively playing lower. She also likes using chorus effects and using different mics on songs. If you play the same riff it’s still the same song but you don’t get that singing chorus effect. For so many artists, it’s what it sounds like that inspires the songs and that’s incredibly important.’
LTW: The sound is as much a key to the song as the chord sequence…
‘It’s like putting a guitar through a very stimulating compressor which I very often use which I think is very lovely and that’s one of the great things about the studio.
You take these new bands with their dub style effects and they are not singing reggae songs, they could also have the wah wah sound of the tremolo guitar associated with country and western and they use them together. I find that really inspiring.
With a young band like Stealing Sheep, their vocals have that sixties sound to them, the harmonies remind me of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and the Mamas and Papas with, what is actually a bed of reverb, as opposed to the sound of eighties reverb- the digital reverb of eighties bands like ABC and it’s those choices that are fascinating.
When I started producing we had new toys and new things to play with and artists loved that sound of the now. Thirty years later, you have groups who mix the eighties with the sixties. When you think of the classic vocal sound with the tape delay of people like John Lennon and the slap back sound on the Beatles records, that’s now added to a soundscape that is very much of the eighties.
It’s a fascinating mixture of sounds from different decades. I just got that LP from the Liverpool band, Wave Machines, who I really love. It has a really eighties sound but also that thing when a band take a genre or sound and make their own thing out of it. Now albums can sound like the Beatles or Led Zeppelin but also completely original like Tame Impala do by mixing it up.
A band like the Alabama Shakes very much have the sound of the sixties and seventies to what they do, sonically it’s got that vintage sound but it doesn’t sound like a covers band. They are not a sound-a-like band. They still sound modern and that’s a great example of this pick n mix modern way of music making.
LTW: When you started in the studios in the seventies who were your inspirations?
Steve Levine :
‘Well, I had always wanted to do this. I specifically didn’t want to be in a band. My thing was engineering and doing the production behind the scenes whilst my other friends wanted to be in bands.
There were a couple of very specific things in my life that were turning points though. A huge hero of mine was Phil Spector and there was there was this famous picture of him in the early sixties, which I saw when I was young, and it really struck me. The picture was, of course, Phil Spector in the studio with Larry Levine, his engineer, at the controls. Larry Levine was my hero and him having the same name as me helped! The picture was of when he’s got his hands on these four controls at a desk and I thought that’s really it..that’s what I want to do.
I saw that picture when I was in secondary school. I then got interested in how they recorded the music and I used to buy Electronic Engineer magazine which was all about studios and recording and stuff like that and I became really fascinated with the process.’
LTW : What were the musics you liked when you were growing up?
Steve Levine :
‘I had wide taste. I went to school in Muswell Hill in London and every day I was hearing new things. The Jamaican kids at school would listen to early Motown plus strange country and western singles which I got into and also my older brothers in my family were really into Jimi Hendrix and the MC5 and those really heavy groups. Muswell Hill was a real mixture of cultures from the Greek population, to the Jews, Greeks and West Indians and that fed into what we would listen to.
It’s just odd, I just kind of grew up with that and it’s fantastic, you don’t see any colour which is brilliant. I grew up in an incredibly open, tolerant, lovely situation- which is as it should be. It was forward thinking.
Motown and reggae were coming through and eventually when I was working with Culture Club they would contain all those kind of musical references as well. It was the perfect melting pot for all those people from that generation. George himself was also very open about these things which was unusual from his background.
LTW : Was this diversity reflected in Culture Club’s creativity?
Steve Levine :
‘On the demos for songs George would be singing to a drum machine to get the beat and I would work with the bass line and there would be Roy’s little guitar part. It was the sum of the parts in the band. George was at the beginning of the song and it was the way that members put their parts in made it as good as it was and there were so many diverse influences in there.’
LTW : You broke into the mainstream in the eighties with your production on all the key Culture Club releases. How did that come about?
Steve Levine :
‘The Culture Club came about because I had been working with the Angelic Upstarts and their manager, Tony Gorden, who was managing both bands at the time asked me to check them out . I was working on an Angelic Upstarts. In fashion terms, at the time, the Angelic Upstarts were past their sell by date but they were still doing some really good stuff. On the album there were really good songs and they wanted to do something modern with them. So we were working with the Linn drum that had just come in and I was one of the first people to use. EMI were really pleased with what I did with them and said we have this new band we are checking out, will you come and see them? And that was Culture Club.
Their manger was Tony Gorden and, like I said, he had already said would you come and see this band. He said, I tell you what I’m going to do, I will send Jon Moss, their drummer, to come and see you and that’s when I first met Jon.
He was so nice and so focussed when we met at Rondor Music in Parsons Green which was my publishers at the time because I’d written some songs at that point- like a real soul ballad that had very strong potential for being covered by from Peaches and Herb who had just had a big hit with How About Us and they were looking for a follow up. Previous to that, and a bit of trivia for you, was that me and Simon Humphreys, had co written a song that Three Degrees had covered and recorded but never released. Simon and I were doing freelance engineering but the first big money I earned was the £3000 advance from signing to Rondor Music as a songwriter and because of my budding career as a songwriter I earned some money which I used to buy the very first Linn drum machine along with Martin Rushent, who may actually have had the first one to work with the Human League. The Linn drum was an expensive thing to buy in 1981, it cost me £2600 out of my advance and with the other £400 Karen and I went on the first holiday I had ever had!
So, when I first met Jon Moss in November 1981 he had come to see me about working together. The first thing he said was that you know I’ve been in these other bands like the 1977 punk band London and briefly in Adam And The Ants- where he had been the drummer on their Cartrouble single which I had really liked. He said I’m working with this new band, Culture Club and, unlike Adam, we don’t want to have two drummers in this band because it’s too complicated but I’m really keen on that Bow Wow Wow Burundi beat thing and I said let me show you this Linn drum I’m working with.
I said it’s really easy to work, you just programme the beats and you’re away and you could play on top of it. I didn’t realise how complicated that was but because Jon is a fantastic drummer he made it look easy and that was great.
So we booked some demo time and that was the first time that I had met George in the first minute of the recording session in January 1982. At that session we recorded White Boy and I’m Afraid Of Me as two demos.
Sadly EMI didn’t want to sign the band so we spent the next few months demoing and thinking, what the fuck are we going to do! I was so excited by what we were doing. I loved the demos and I thought finally I have found my band. It was with relentless gigging up and down the country that eventually got Virgin Music interested and they signed them to publishing and then Virgin Records signed them by default. In the mean time we carried on recording whilst nothing happened! We were still sat there wondering what the fuck is going to happen.
Then we did a Peter Powell session. In those days the sessions were not live recordings, what people forget is that those sessions and the John Peel sessions were multi tracked and not live and that’s why they stand the test of time. Anyway we recorded White Boy, I’m Afraid Of Me and the eventual b side of I’m Afraid Of Me which was a rap song. We also routined Do You Really Want To Hurt Me and I said why don’t we cut that track live including the vocal so we did and the Peter Powell recording of the song is the first version other than the demo that we had done.
We then decided that we should go back into the studio to record it like that which proved to be a bit of pain because as we were recording I hadn’t realised that there were a few technical problems. So the master track of Do You Really Want To Hurt Me was George in the studio singing the master vocal in the corridor of Red Bus studio! Jon in in the studio playing the drums, Mikey on bass and Roy doing the guide guitar and it all sounded fantastic but we didn’t realise the piece of tape that I was using was slightly damaged. Certain parts of the tape were slightly bigger which slowed down parts of the song. I didn’t realise this until we overdubbed the electric piano on the track and it was really out of tune!
I always made sure everything was in tune on a session, and that was always a lesson learned. When it was out of tune I thought what’s going on! I thought everything we played sounded wrong and the tech guy came down and we thought oh no! look at the tape.
We did the front section with Helen Terry singing and we decided to cut the multi track so the tech engineer made the tape machine really slack with the tape running through so we could copy it. The second generation master stayed in tune, by the way the tuning was random, for some reason the tape didn’t move up and down on the initial recording and it was only when it got played back that the tension thing come into effect and the song was saved!
The master vocal was one single take- not the first take, but when George did the one that was the take, we knew that was the one and he would never get it better.
Did you work exclusively with Culture Club.
Steve Levine :
‘I was working with them exclusively in the first place but later on there was a couple of other tracks and projects that I got involved in. George was jealous actually! I was working with David Grant at the same time and he had some big hits around that time.
This year is actually the anniversary of my big year, which was 1983. Everything I did that year went really well. We recorded the Culture Club, Colours By Numbers album, which was massive and we had the two big singles still in the charts when the album came out. In January we started with Church Of The Poisoned Mind and Mister Man. We worked really hard on Church because it was obviously going to be the big hit. We didn’t cut Karma Chameleon till that May. The band were still touring and I was also their live sound engineer and every time we had spare time we were in the studio recording on days off. I produced David Grant and also Jimmy the Hoover.
I did a great record with the band Swinging Laurels, George was a big fan of them and they did a great song called Lonely Boy, which should have been a hit but for some reason wasn’t. I did the track in early 1983 when Culture Club were not quite the worldwide hit, that was in that autumn when things were building, George said I love that band Swinging Laurels and I will do the backing vocals on the song.
So George came to the studio and did the backing vocals on the track and I thought it was a hit. It was such a great record. We finished the record but meanwhile Virgin get wind of what’s going on with George singing on the track and they rang Warner Brothers who were putting the single out and said you have to take that vocal off or we will sue you. So I had to remix the song and put the band’s vocalist onto the backing vocal which was not as good to be honest and the record not a hit which was a shame. Incidentally a few months ago I found the original version with George on it and put it on the internet and I’m going to see if I can rerelease it because it was such a great record.
At the time, when it all went off, I had this period when David Grant was on Top Of The Pops and then, one week, I had had worked with all the acts on it . There seemed to be a record released every week with the music press saying, ‘Steve Levine single of the week’! It was all different labels releasing different tracks. I was a man in demand! The only odd thing was when George was having massive hits and I got no work because people assume you are too expensive! but when they found out I was reasonable I recorded lots of stuff.
My busiest time was before Culture Club were huge and that was the moment when Karma Chameleon was released and it was enormous and huge and the history of that album is that 30 years on that album has had millions of sales, a massive success. From then on I went and did a whole host of other things, diversifying into the things I’m doing today.
LTW : you certainly diversified! At one point in time you worked with Motörhead!
Steve Levine :
‘I think I worked with Motorhead in 1987. The reason I worked with them was because of the black leather jacket TV documentary on Channel 4. They approached me to do the music for the show. I was involved, working with Janet Street Porter who was going out with Tony James, from Generation X at that time.
The director came down and was very specific about what he wanted. He said to me, I know Lemmy really well, can you produce a track with him and I said of course, I would love to work with Lemmy.
It turned out to be a nightmare! I got on great with him- that wasn’t the problem. When Lemmy got to the studio, I said it’s a TV programme and there are very strict guidelines- guideline number one is that it has to be done to a click track and he said I can’t do that. He just turned up and said put I’ll put the bass down first and the rest of the track can go round that.
I was thinking, oh no! So he put down the bass and guide vocal and the other two members put down their guitar and drums at a different session which worked surprisingly well, however it was two and a half minutes long and the brief was for 4 minutes, so I had to try and edit the front of the song to the end without it being recorded to a click and I couldn’t loop the track because the tempos were very different.
We were going to a party so I couldn’t finish it by working through the night and I had to leave the mix set up and that turned into a bit of a row because Lemmy liked to work through the night. What was interesting was that he was very different the next day. He was really mellow and really nice because his son was there. Eventually, somehow, I got it finished but I have fond memories of doing it and I’m proud to have worked with Lemmy.
I was proud to put Lemmy on my CV and the eventual documentary was great. We did an interesting soundscape of guitar sounds. He wanted something like Steppenwolf mixed with other ideas. He was very specific about the sounds he wanted and I managed to capture what he wanted.
LTW: You also worked with the Beach Boys…
‘I worked on the Sailor album after their hits with Glass Of Champaign etc. It was at the same time that I had worked with XTC and the Clash. I was doing these the Sailor demos at CBS and I had started work on their third album on this brand new desk that CBS had brought in.
They had brought in Bruce Johnson from the Beach Boys as the producer and he had brought in his own engineer, who was a famous engineer who had been in great vocal groups like the Association- he was a great vocalist and sadly is no longer with us, he was also a very good engineer but the desk was so new they needed an assistant and Bruce said I want Steve Levine on the session. Bruce said if I can’t have Steve I’m not doing it and there was this enormous fight in the studio which was difficult because I was only 19 at the time and the other engineers were older than me and jealous but I knew my stuff so I got the job.
I worked with Bruce and he encouraged me and said do you want to come to California and work on some of my projects. So I went out to California in 1978.
That was an interesting time in America because they had no inkling of punk which was an East coast thing at the time. I remember Baby Come Back and Fleetwood Mac as well were very much in the ascendency and it was a very different music scene than in the UK. I could have made the decision to stay there because I like that kind of rock music as well. I really loved and still love the high level of engineering and production skill they had there. They very much appreciate an engineer there and they have great respect of good engineering practice and put a value on that.
Years later when Culture Club were successful I produced the Beach Boys album, the ‘Beach Boys’ because they wanted to make a record like that. It’s been a long journey with many highs and lows and a successful record for me is not judged in the market place although I’ve had many of those but I’m proud to say that I’m one of the few producers who did the Beach Boys outside Brian Wilson and that was a great experience.
LTW: Currently you have many projects on the go including the young singer songwriter Natalie McCool who we think is a really good.
Steve Levine :
I have been working with some young talent recently including Daytona Lights, who are on a hiatus at the moment as they are write new material, taking time out after Hollyoaks had promised them so much. I think if the truth be known that Hollyoaks really fucked us. They promised a lot and delivered nothing. They ripped the soul out of the band and me and I’m not sure if we got anything left. For some reason they have not had the lucky breaks they needed. But with Natalie we are really close. We have recorded the album. All the tracks are ready. I’m not sure how it will end up, these days the piracy levels are unbelievable and at ridiculous levels. Her track on Youtube has had 154 000 hits so far but we are not getting the proper radio support yet and that’s not helping and we deserve more support than we are getting…’
This sums up Steve Levine. Instead of resting on his laurels he’s still out there creating and working with new acts as well as putting a great radio series on Producers and a history of the craft .
Passionately concerned about many aspects of the music business he has moved nimbly into the elder statesmen role and is a voice to be heard into the confusing post Internet meltdown of a music business that has completely changed since he started in the mid seventies as a young rookie.
The only thing that has remained a constant is his prowess with sound…