For such an instant culture punk has a whole canyon of classic sounding records that have really stood the test of time. A lot of this is down to the energy and the clarity of the songs but also the great production on the songs with many key producers and studio mavericks getting the chance to shine in the open house and no rules rule period.
Many names like Martin Hannett, who cut his teeth on Buzzcocks and Slaughter and the Dogs as well as Joy Division, are well documented and Chris Thomas did a great job with the Sex Pistols turning punk rock into classic rock like Bill Price did with the Clash with both old hands making the young bucks sounding timeless.
There was a glut of great producers from the pre punk era who had a clear understanding of the new wave but for our money it was the late Martin Rushent’s work that made him the best sounding producer of the period with his work on the Stranglers, Buzzcocks, 999 and Generation X.
Along with the great engineer Alan Winstanley and the unlikely claustrophobic surroundings of TW studios in Fulham where he made the bands sound instant and timeless, capturing them live with great performances but also a punchy power and a delicious grubbiness.
The mixes are powerful and clear and you can hear every instrument threaded through the sound- a harbinger for the post punk period and its key constituent which was that the normal back up instruments like the bass guitar were pumped up in the mix and every member of the band had their sound threaded through the soup of the song. It’s a process that is far trickier to pull off than you think- with every rock group in history relying on the overbearance of the guitar to make their sound.
Could this break down in the traditional roles of the instruments that was to be such a hallmark of post punk start with Rushent’s ear for detail and subtle rebalancing of the key instruments of rock?
It is certainly true with the Stranglers first three albums which, for my money, are his finest achievements with a perfect balance between very strong contributions from great players- any other producer could have smothered the band’s natural brilliance and aptitude for multi layered melodies and it could certainly have been considered not punk to have this level of musicianship in a band but fortunately he allowed them to breathe and captured both their grubby power and their innate and natural intelligence in a series of tightly recorded and highly distinctive studio works that have really stood the test of time.
Buzzcocks really benefited from the same sense of dynamic with their great youthful rhythm section being allowed to match up with Diggle’s loud guitar and Shelley’s perfect guitar lines to make the band sound complex and simple at the same time- the Manchester band was also another example of his skill at capturing great vocal takes with Shelley and Diggle’s voices sounding raw and immediate and fantastically commercial and even radio friendly at the same time- the same could be said for Generation X whose first album coasts along with a vibrant punk rock energy but also an added pop sheen that they maybe never quite captured with later producers. Billy Idol’s voice is a brilliantly recorded sex yelp and the guitar and bass joust it out in perfect balance and the band sound of pure pop shocks and punk rock brinkmanship chaos is a perfect picture postcard of the period.
999 also benefitted from this and their records sound massive now years later and it was the sound on their recordings with Martin Rushent that made a young Phil Oakey book Rushent for the Human League stuff when they broke out of the underground with their Dare album that became and international best seller and a staple of early eighties pop- yet when you listen back to the synth pop pioneers you can weirdly still hear the hallmarks of the Rushent sound from the punk days and especially the Stranglers with the placement of the instruments being in oddly the same places as with the men in black. It’s all there from the bass spine and keyboard combinations of the punk heroes translated through the then modern technology into huge new bold pop vistas.
Rushent was one of the key players in the new tech era with him reportedly having the first electronic Linn drum in the UK and pushing forward with the eighties tech pop with his Genetics studio where he did some great work which outside his guiding vision was bad for music but in his capable hands was carved into great sounding pieces.
For that punk and post punk into synth pop Rushent was faultless and we would argue that he was the best producer of the time.