Mike Bennett and Tony Gleed co-host ‘Kings Of Speed’ on Soho Radio at 5pm on Sunday 14th August: ‘a jaundiced but joyous examination of multi format rock’n’roll record bizniz over the years’.
Mike Bennett, producer, bon viveur, wit, architect of happenings, writer, roustabout and highly loveable rogue, tells Tony Gleed it’s all about being a hard-working, generic producer.
Whether writing bon mots for the likes of Frankie Howerd and Rik Mayall, or cutting out unnecessary drum rolls for Mark E Smith and The Fall, or remixing The Specials with an orchestra of car horns, the studio whizz whose favourite live room accessory is the vacuum cleaner, fixes LTW with his Golden Gaze and shares some Cerebral Caustic…
How do we find you this sodden Summer’s day Mike Bennett?
I’m sitting relatively comfortably. I have a Dr. and the Medics mix on the go in Simon Ding Archer’s studio around the corner. Ding is ex bass-player with The Fall and he’s also played with people like PJ Harvey and the Pixies. He’s on the sliders, which can only be a good thing!
Are you louchely adrift there in Salford enjoying a debauched rock’n’roll scene?
Sort of. Ding’s studio, 6DB in Salford, is fantastic. Extremely hi-tech, but with a wide and varied range of low-fi and high-end toys. Lots of guitars, every bit of kit a producer could dream of, and more. The live room is particularly superb. The acoustics are brilliant. No wonder a lot of bands are choosing it.
One of the first jobs you ever took as a producer was with the legendary Kim Fowley, someone who has subsequently turned out to be a fairly unsavoury character. How was it working with that particular rock’n’roll malcontent?
I knew him from his work with Alice Cooper, The Byrds, The Belfast Gypsies (a spin off from Them), Bee Bumble and The Stingers, The Runaways, who he bolted together as seen in the celebrated movie. Fowley was renowned not only as a writer and producer, but as a Svengali extraordinaire… but he was difficult. The first thing he said to my girlfriend was: “What’s your worst nightmare?” she replied: “I’m not sure” – at which point, he opened his mouth, unscrewed his dentures and said: “Suck my fucking gums”.
Whilst in England, and staying at my flat, he did albums with Trojan and Creation records. I ended up co-producing his solo stuff. With the record ‘Let The Madness In’ on Trojan’s imprint Receiver Records, he seemed to just be pulling out other people’s demos, messing around with them and shouting over the top of the mischievously contrived backing tracks. The second album ‘The Trip of a Lifetime’ was a lot more organised. With many fantastic guests like Teenage Fanclub, Roni Size, William Orbit and more, I was able to do pre-production at Battery Studios with superb session players. Anyway, for Creation records, we co-produced tracks, for ‘Theme Park’ with BMX Bandits and the single ‘We’re Gonna Shake You Down’.
Fowley’s manipulative, Svengali attributes were always well documented, but it now turns out he was almost certainly a rapist… did you see the truly unsavoury side of Fowley?
He used to make very nasty jokes… I did see someone set a dog on him after he’d been verbally crude to a woman; the woman’s boyfriend turned up and set this fucking dog on him. Kim Fowley went down on all fours and out growled and snarled at the dog, which ran out in Chiswick High Street, never to be seen again! By this time, he’d made his phone calls, was surrounded by his boys and was whipping his belt against the wall.
At least we have Ally Oop.
I did say bon viveur/wit back there… did you or did you not have a semi-secret past as writer of quips and jibes for all manner of daytime TV and radio fodder, from Cheggers to Ringo Starr, Matthew Kelly thru Tony Blackburn and Rik Mayall?
I wrote for Rik Mayall, these became audio books with music and animations. That’s me as a generic producer if you like, binding together all the elements. He was great – a very easy guy to get along with, sardonic and droll. I did twenty-four of these audio-books, and artists would come in and read through their parts with a coffee and a cigarette. Rik Mayall learnt it all as if he was going on stage. Lo and behold, he delivered them quick-fire without the script – hilarious spins on Grimms Fairytales. He delivered something slightly askew, off-centre and DIY… Exactly how I like my music! The original DIY by the way, was glam rock, not punk. But yes, I’ve worked with all those people and many, many more with great pride – no secret.
Does this mean Tony Blackburn’s jokes were not off the polyester cuff?
I actually trained originally as an actor – I popped a script in to BBC Radio 1 and to my shock they commissioned it: a five minute slot weekly, with myself, Tony Blackburn, Keith Chegwin, Maggie Philbin and David Ryder. Children’s stories with rhyming couplets that got aired all over BBC radio, being converted into books as we speak. So I’ve penned twenty-eight children’s audio-books!
And this lead to you writing for 1990s ‘yoof TV’ vehicle The Word…
I was involved in writing for Frankie Howerd – a techno track aimed at The Word, with Frank on lead vocals. It was a big hit on The Word, so it went from there; and Frankie Howerd went from being end of the pier to rather hip, headlining Oxford Union – with John Lydon in the front row at sell-out gigs. Some of the techno stuff I did with him and Sean from Bassheads, is on an album subtly entitled ‘Get Yer Titters Out’.
So the young Mike Bennett had thespian, theatrical type leanings. But you were also in bands?
Anyone we’d remember?
I was in a band called Hiding In The Tall Grass. Two members of which went on to be with Roger Waters. We had a Sugarcubes-cum-Plasmatics type feel. We were momentarily snapped up by Sanctuary Music – they appointed Kim Fowley as our producer. That’s how I met the Svengali in the first place. We were also produced by Simon Townsend, Pete’s older brother; on a track called ‘Under The Weather’. Then I took over the production as he got busier, which was my foray into fully-fledged production.
And you’re now playing again in a band called Stemz?
I’m currently working with various wonderful people associated with The Fall clan, the Stemz – which has drummer Simon Wolstencroft, myself, Ding, Tamsin Middleton and also briefly from The Fall, Jote Oshan (ex Elbow), Neil from Black Grape; plus Neville staple from The Specials and Fun Boy Three, joining us as toaster! He got behind the mic and conjured up a metamorphosis of the darker side of Fun Boy Three – incredibly creepy backing vocals made for a tremendous contribution. We turned the guitars up. I had a right-handed guitar thrust upon me, and I’m left handed… so that was interesting! The melèe of different musicians and the layers of sound seemed to create a unique cacophony. Producing with Ding, has been a tremendous experience. I enjoy the process of not quite knowing what’s going to come out the other end. I like to build a skeleton, but then let others decide what the flesh is to look like.
When I was a child I used to think that a record producer was somebody that came up with a bit of artwork – say there’s the Led Zep ‘Houses Of The Holy’ sleeve up on the office wall; you bring the band in and then guide the musicians through recording music, inspired by the artwork. I don’t know how that got into my head, but I’ve subsequently produced that way, particularly with Drum ‘n’ Bass artists, who seem to like feeding off dark shit. I like to do all manner of things backwards. But anyway, back in the ‘70s as a child, I would obsessively stare at these records – at names like Mickie Most, Phil Wainman, Mike Chapman. Pinstripe suit type guys, with cigars – this confused me, as that’s how I saw a film producer. But, it’s a useful hybrid, using both. I see my job as putting the frame around the painting, not so much applying the oil to canvas!
What was the first thing you worked on?
First artist of note I produced, was Toyah. The ‘Dreamchild’ album – BMG records, and Cryptic Records in Germany, where she had a huge following. I wrote the album in it’s entirety, apart from a couple of bonus tracks. I found Toyah a very generous spirit. My production techniques come from my abilities with top lines and chord structures, not virtuosity, and I’m an ideas producer, not so much an engineer.
Well what’s the latest thing, or things, you’re working on?
As we speak, Dr. And The Medics – a truly glamtastic track, draws inspiration from Slade, Sweet, Kiss, Alice Cooper… in a way we’re trying to put every clichè possible in there, but there’s so many clichès it out clichès itself – that’s the gag! Dr. and the Medics have just had a huge dance hit in the States – no.1 in the official club-chart, in fact. It had 300,000 views on YouTube, in the first week, so we need to capitalise on that.
I’m also producing ‘The Membranes’ new record with a twenty-seven piece choir; a brand new concept album.
I understand there’s a new Neville Staple record, with a bonus album full of dubs?
Neville is a genre hopping musical philanthropist. There’s a re-imagining of ‘Enjoy Yourself’ and we’ve made it gramophonic… like an old ragtime record meets Noel Coward, with a live double bass. We’ve made it sound like a 78 circa 1928; but the accompanying album ‘Dub Specials’ is really intense and progressive, so the fans get a complete contrast. Jessie Green from Foo Fighters is doing very filmic stuff on all manner of strings, and Neville’s wife Christine Sugary Staple is doing fantastic vocals that are like Elizabeth Frazer from Cocteau Twins meets Bernard Lakes. Lots of FX and samples and Ding with his glorious ‘space echo’…we can’t really go wrong. Ding and space echo are synonymous – it’s the King Tubby/Scientist real deal. I bring in a Cocteaus vibe and the combination is fantastic.
Neville and Christine are contributing too – they were calling me from Montego Bay saying “Listen to these crazy car horns… can you incorporate those?”, so on went the car horns through harmonizers, eventide, pedals, fuzz boxes. It’s been great fun doing ‘Dub Specials’. He has his world tour coming up – can’t wait to hear it over a big PA.
As a producer semi reliant on points for albums and the income they produce what do you think is the answer to the ‘Spotification’ and ‘YouTube-isation’ of recorded music and how it strips artists of much needed royalties?
The harder you work, the more luck you get. I think you can make it work to your advantage 100% if you know what you’re doing. You have to be more creative. I can’t change light bulbs or drive a car… I couldn’t open a pair of scissors the other day, I had to use a pair of scissors to open the pair of scissors! Getting back to the point, people need to think about embracing innovative collaborations, in form of practicality, learn how to do metadata, get a good support slot, find yourself a good honest aggregator and just work twice as hard. Become an insomniac – it always helps!
But you’re still a much in demand producer, and you do indeed have an impressive CV: from Toyah to ELP thru Wishbone Ash and The Stranglers, but I first became aware of you through The Fall. ‘Cerebral Caustic’ and ‘The Light User Syndrome’ – many would say the last two really good Fall records. They are both excellent albums.
Yes, I did ‘Cerebral Caustic’ and ‘The Light User Syndrome’ and ‘Inbetween The Chisellers’. With that record we went from Abbey Road to Shabby Road and everything in between. One minute we were chopping up tape, the next we were hanging antiquated boom mics from ceiling, capturing ambient sounds derived from a manner of unusual sources. It did very well on the indie chart – it was in fact, the last single ever to be released on the legendary Jet Records.
Can you scotch the rumour that MES was not happy that there were too many ponytails in the late 1990s line-up of Wishbone Ash, who you were producing around the same time as you were working with The Fall?
Mark E Smith is a very funny guy. His nail-bitten wit, has never eluded me.
Any likelihood of working with The Fall again?
I work with ex-members of The Fall. But at that time I went straight on to working with Ian Brown. Golden Gaze became a huge hit, got synced on to CSI was on lots of compilations, with a myriad of weird and wonderful remixes. I pressed a key that unleashed the sub bass as a last throw when the track wasn’t working and that was the happy accident that created the huge fuzz-synth on the record.
Are you a hands-on techy kind of desk-bound producer fiddling with technology ad-infinitum, or are you more the jump around the room arranging and deranging the artists Svengali type like, say, Guy Stevens was?
I call the control room HQ and the live room the factory floor. I like to mince around on the factory floor, but I do work hard with the artist on arrangements, lyrical ideas and that sort of thing. But the final say, has to be the choice of the people you work with; unless you are working directly for the label. The calibre of people you work with being consummate to your final sound. So I only work with talented people. I’ve worked with everybody from Lee Scratch Perry to Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, The Specials and The Beat. On the remixes I used the same team for decades. Bob Skeat from Wishbone Ash has played on more reggae records for Trojan than you could ever imagine – a very talented man.
I did see in a trade mag that your favourite piece of in-house equipment was the hoover? Please expand on that.
It was a Dyson actually. I sampled it and put it across a slave keyboard in order to play chords with it. Hair-dryers and coffee grinders can be good; the scraping of corrugated iron also sounds great. I recently scraped it with a jagged knife, and threw it onto an Ibiza record, through a random filter. I’ve recently been commissioned to produce a series of sound effects albums. It’s a pleasure when you hear the sounds used, and they are all royalty free. Myself and Chris Slade from AC/DC, have been in discussions to do a royalty-free album, entitled ‘Royalty Free Drums… Dirt Cheap!’
You were in-house producer for Trojan for a long period of time. Trojan actually being a whole umbrella for a myriad of labels rather than simply reggae – what kind of things were you doing there?
Allsorts – including remixing and mastering. Not just reggae; one day it would be The Korgis, the next Sham 69, The Stranglers or The Melodiums. Frank Lea (Jimmy Lea from Slade’s brother) gave me crazy stuff to do. K-Tel type stuff one day, and then the next day I would have the joy of being given Bionic Rats by Lee Scratch Perry and a free reign to remix it. It was the good, the bad and the ugly.
Tell us about some of your formative musical inspirations.
I had the pleasure of working with The Sweet, they were making albums in a week in the early years – the only band I know who did half an album with another band on the other side – (Gimme Dat Ding Pipkins), but The Sweet had a cult following for their B sides – their own compositions. So they began writing the A sides, which is when they started to do well in America.
My biggest inspiration was Alex Harvey – originally an orchestra pit musician on the musical Hair, but he drew from the drama and meta-morphosised it into sinister rock’n’roll. He would playfully morph stuff around. A classic example being his reworking of the Tom Jones murder ballad, ‘Delilah’, or Jacques Brel’s ‘Next’. He could inhabit space and use it – the theatricality came naturally to this gifted under-achiever. As with Mott the Hoople, they utilised a 1950s rock’n’roll ethos, but weren’t exactly planned – more like theatrical rock, with an edge. Mind you, glam got a bad rep from bubble-glam. Groups like Paper Lace and Racey – which is not exactly the glam model that influenced stateside artists such as The New York Dolls and The Stooges.
Polyfest is something you’ve developed. Now in it’s third year? Tell us about Polyfest…
It’s an all-star tribute to Poly Styrene, which raises money for Cancer charities. We’ve done three in the UK and one in LA in conjunction with the iconic station KXLU FM.
Polyfest into an art-house film and sound-track. There are so many great contributors from Youth to Glen Matlock to The Vapors, Judie Tzuke, Jona Lewie and Saffron from ‘Republica’. I use the small but noted venue, The Half Moon, Putney, as my platform for a multi media event. Every weekend right now, I’m mixing the sound-track, the list of luminaries is both eclectic and extra-ordinary. The Vapors! – they hadn’t played ‘Turning Japanese’ for decades, or even been in the same room for thirty-five years, So that’s the wonderful Poly Styrene bringing people together, through that great portal in the sky.
This year’s Polyfest, also tributed the recently, sadly deceased, Diane Charlemagne. I had the pleasure of attending and it was a superb event, with innumerable big star names in a tiny venue.
Diane Charlemagne is no doubt the most talented musician, vocalist, composer, visionary – there was nothing she couldn’t do, I‘ve worked with her. She could hit the high notes, hit the low notes, and was the first lady of drum’n’bass. Gifted and unique – she was a true visionary. ‘Inner City Life’ by Goldie would not exist without her contribution, both with her vocal textures and writing ability. Hence she was head-hunted by the likes of Moby. Watch Moby with her on old clips – Diane steals the show. People like Elton John backed her. I’ve recorded her with ska, rock, everything, from lover’s rock to opera and she was very meek and mild – her confidence came to life in front of a mic, and her charisma shone through. Diane and Poly had that in common – they shone a light for female artists in the UK. You can draw a line from Diane to Angie Brown or from Poly to Becky Bondage… true pioneers, interesting, graceful people to work with, and in that sense, completely un-music-business. Real artists.
And you’re also busy with a movie…and is this correct- Daryl Hannah is in it?
I got involved with that in L.A., through my lawyer Terry Marsh. That’s how I met Daryl Hannah, Jessie and others from Foo Fighters. The soundtrack I am creating with the collaborator goes into our movie ‘Laundry Mat’ – it goes into production in November.
The soundtrack is going to be fascinating! Some Dub Specials tracks, and other stuff re-worked from my back catalogue….
I’ve run out of questions so I’m going to finish with some Yes/No type queries….
Coronation St or Eastenders?
Corrie, as I’m working with Bruno Langley (Todd Grimshaw in The Street) on a great single. Watch this space!
Clash or Pistols?
Pistols every time – I’m not a great fan of coffee-table punk.
Bowie or Prince?
Philadelphia or Dairylea?
Jimmy Lea from Slade, great bass player – not sure that he eats dairy products.
World Of Sport or Grandstand?
World of snort!
Louder Than War or Fab 2008 Magazine?
LTW without a shadow of doubt
Wishbone Ash or The Fall?
Cheggers Plays Pop or Runaround?
Cheggars plays Runaround!
And finally, what’s the first rule of rock’n’roll Mike Bennett?
At first rock, but don’t necessarily roll… put your roll in a bit later, but not necessarily a drum roll… we don’t want too many of those. Swooshed and swirls will suffice. With a bit of ducking and diving for good measure!