Uncut MARCH 2013 - by John Lewis


The versatile producer on his career highs, from The Fabs to The Pistols

There are more well-known producers than Chris Thomas, but few can equal his incredible run of albums since he began working at George Martin's AIR Studios in the late '60s. He's produced key albums by The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Roxy Music, The Sex Pistols, The Pretenders, Pete Townshend and Pulp, as well as Elton John, Procol Harum, Wings and INXS. And, as a trained violinist and pianist, he's also done session work for the likes of Brian Eno, Chicory Tip, Nico and George Harrison.

"The best albums are ones packed with hit singles," he tells us. "And my job is to turn as many of a band's songs into potential singles. You tighten their writing, create colour, work on the solos or middle eights. If someone's written a Top 20 song, my job is to make it a Top 5 song."

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THE BEATLES: The Beatles - Aged twenty-one, Thomas starts working for George Martin's Associated Independent Recording (AIR). After three months of sitting in on sessions, he is asked to cover for George Martin, a few weeks into 'The White Album'.

The Beatles were a bit prickly at first, not talking to me and instead addressing the engineer, Ken Scott. But, after a shaky start, they started to trust me. I'd sat in on early sessions for the album and they'd been working very slowly until then - grinding out one song a week - but we managed to bash out about six songs - Helter Skelter, Glass Onion, Happiness Is A Warm Gun, Piggies, I Will and Birthday - in twelve days. I also played piano on Long Long Long, harpsichord on Piggies and wrote the sax arrangement for Savoy Truffle, which took me ages. Never again! I'll never forget playing Mellotron on Bungalow Bill, live with the rest of The Beatles. Extraordinary! Increasingly, they worked separately. As the album neared completion, I was working with George on Savoy Truffle in Number Two while Paul did Why Don't We Do It In The Road? on his own in Number One, and John and George Martin did Revolution 9 somewhere else. I remember George [Harrison] playing me Something, which he'd just written, telling me he was going to give it to Jackie Lomax! I said, you're mad, you've got to record it! I got to know Paul well later, but at the time I got on very well with John and George. George gave me a lovely Gibson guitar - then asked for it back about six years later, ha ha!

JOHN CALE: Paris 1919 - Cale enlists most of Little Feat as his backing band, plus Wilton Felder from The Crusaders on bass, for this focused, song-based collection, his third as a solo artist.

l'd just produced a big orchestral album with Procol Harum and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, which was a big Top 5 hit in America. John Cale, coming from that classical background, was interested in it and sought me out. John was working in LA as an A&R man for Warners. Paris 1919 was an unusual album for him, in that it's very song-based - maybe John needs a bit of structure! Lowell George walked out halfway through, but the musicians on that record were extraordinary. There were some lovely little accidents on that LP. The band were recording Antarctica Starts Here and I went to the loo, walking through the studio, and noticed John was whispering a guide vocal for Wilton and Richie [Hayward, drums]. I said, "just keep that, it sounds brilliant!"

John is an astonishingly accomplished musician. On the title track, it was my idea to put an orchestra on it, one that followed his piano part. He said, what kind of thing do you suggest? Mahler would do it this way, while Wagner would do this... Ha ha! I helped a bit on the arrangement for The Endless Plain Of Fortune, but John could just breeze through them himself. That's where musicianship helps. On reflection I'd have kept Macbeth off the finished album - it doesn't really fit.

ROXY MUSIC: For Your Pleasure - Roxy originally wanted John Cale to produce their second album, but Cale recommends they try Chris Thomas at AIR Studios at London's Oxford Circus.

Roxy didn't seem like a band, just five very amusing dandies. Very witty. First track we did was Do The Strand - they came in at 7pm and we'd finished it by midnight. All done virtually live, apart from Phil [Manzanera]'s guitar. The rest of the album wasn't that easy, though!

In Every Dream Home A Heartache was a weird one. Bryan didn't lay down any vocals for that, it was just an instrumental. He said he wanted the end to be "psychedelic", so we just put some phase on it, ha ha. Then he comes in and sings this mad lyric about an inflatable doll! Unbelievable! The next album, Stranded, he did that all the way through. Eight backing tracks, just drums, bass and Bryan's keyboard at first - then he'd come in and do these remarkable vocals.

On the title track, I remember Eno helped me set up this loop for the echoes towards the end. People assume that Eno would have been very hands-on with production, because he went on to be a great producer, but he had no more say than Andy or Phil back then. It was very much Ferry's show. To be honest, I didn't notice any tension between Eno and Ferry at all - I think that may have come more with the subsequent tour, when Eno was getting a lot more attention than Ferry.

THE SEX PISTOLS: Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols - After turning down Malcolm McLaren's offer to produce The New York Dolls, Thomas horrifies his muso friends by working with the infamous wreckers of civilisation.

I saw them at Islington Screen On The Green: I went with my mate Chris Spedding, the one musician who championed them then. I wasn't that impressed, but when I heard the demos I thought they had the potential to be like The Who, a great British rock band, one drummer, one bass, one guitar, one amazing singer.

The first session, doing Anarchy In The UK, was difficult. John had been left out of the loop - he didn't know I'd replaced Dave Goodman as producer. So he screamed out this terrible vocal, and I told him I couldn't understand a word. He just snorted: "Well, you're the one with the track record, you sort it out!" So, deep breath... I said, "OK, fancy going down the pub?" Ha ha! Three Guinnesses later, we were back in the studio and it started to work.

The guitars are very orchestrated. After Glen [Matlock] left, Steve [Jones] would overdub the bass, playing the root note under the chord. So every chord was a massive harmonic sequence - root, octave, fifth, octave, third, fifth, octave. Which makes it very pure. Because of an ear infection when I was fourteen, I'm partially deaf in one ear. So I hate stereo records with, say, guitar on one channel and piano on the other. I specialise in "mono deluxe". So I'd doubletrack the guitar, put it through an Eventide Harmonizer - which doubletracks it, slightly out of sync, one in each channel. We'd overlay guitars like that, until it sounded massive.

One night we went drinking near Wessex Studios, on Green Lanes [north London] - me, John, [engineer] Bill Price and my girlfriend Mika [Kato], from The Sadistic Mika Band. John said, "The guys on that table are going to have us." When we left, about eleven guys kicked us to the floor. I saw one with a curved sword, about ten inches long, and they took turns to stab us. I've still got the shirt with a cut down the back. I managed to get under a car to protect myself, but Bill got a bit of a kicking. John got cut badly - we took him to hospital, and he had an altercation with the ward sister, ha ha. The police didn't want to know, neither did the pub landlord - I suspect he must have been in on it.

THE PRETENDERS: Pretenders - Thomas first met Chrissie Hynde while producing Chris Spedding's 1977 album Hurt. Three years later, she asked him to produce her own record...

She wanted to do a solo album, and I suggested she form a band and write her own songs. When she asked me to do the album, I was sick of recording studios, having spent a year with Wings, but said, "OK, let's do a four-day week, start at noon, finish at eight." And sometimes I'd have to break while working on Pete Townshend's Empty Glass. So we did it in short bursts over the course of eight months. It was frustrating for them, but it meant Chrissie kept coming in with a fresh supply of brilliant new songs, like Lovers Of Today.

I helped with the middle-eight on Kid, playing keyboards. I also remember the original demo of Brass In Pocket being very slow. It took a lot of work to get them to speed it up. I wanted a kind of Al Green swagger, with Al Jackson on drums. Someone reminded me recently that I also played keyboards on that - a kind of Stevie Wonder-style clavinet under the guitar. Was Chrissie attracted to destructive men? What, you mean Sid [Vicious], Nick [Kent], Johnny [Thunders], Jimmy [Honeyman-Scott], Pete Farndon... She was pretty destructive herself in those days. Amazing when she got pissed. She was nuts! But very good value.

PETE TOWNSHEND: All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes - Thomas worked on old friend Townshend's 1980 solo debut, Empty Glass, before returning for the follow-up.

I've known Pete since I was a teenager. I grew up in Perivale, just down the road from Ealing Art College, where Pete studied, and saw him play in The High Numbers and The Detours. Pete even wrote and produced an early single for my R'n'B band, The Second Thoughts, although it was never released. He loved The Pistols, and I'd previously got him involved in Rockestra, a track on Wings' Back To The Egg.

By the time we started Chinese Eyes in 1981, he was really in a bad way, I with all the drug and alcohol issues. Those sessions were very, very hard work. We took a five-month break and came back to it and he was a different person.

The problem with that album is that he'd booked a lot of people and wanted to do it live. That's not a problem if you're well-rehearsed, but this was really quite chaotic. I can understand why Pete still loves it, because songs like Slit Skirts are great. But I found it too schizophrenic, I'm not sure it hung together as an album. Maybe that's just that the experience wasn't cohesive - I'll have to go and listen to it, maybe it's more cohesive than I remember!

PULP: Different Class - First, Pulp sent Thomas a demo of Common People, then invited him to see them play the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in the Christmas of 1994.

I was impressed they'd erected a huge onstage staircase, like the kind Shirley Bassey would use on Morecambe & Wise. Jarvis made an entrance for every song on the stairs! I thought: this guy is a nut. I've got to work with them!

Common People took about eight days of hard work. On the last night, Jarvis suddenly told me it wasn't right, he wanted it to sound like Mr Blue Sky, and played me the ELO track. I said, "This is half the tempo!" So I reversed the bass drum part, and he said, "That's right." Then he decided to put an acoustic guitar on it! We put it through the vocal mic, with the compressor ready to burst, and it worked. It's the whip that cracks the track along.

We met a couple of months later, and Jarvis had written about seven amazing songs in a thirty-six-hour period, including I Spy and Disco 2000. Just an explosion of creativity. And we finished the rest of the album quite quickly. This Is Hardcore was more difficult - it took about a year. But the title track is astonishing, epic and very complicated, one of the best things Jarvis ever wrote.

Jarvis is very much the main person. He gets credited for the words, but never solely for the music. He writes every damn note!

PAUL MCCARTNEY: Run Devil Run - Thirty years on from Abbey Road, and two decades on from the final Wings album, Thomas resumes his partnership with Paul McCartney on this back-to-basics covers album.

Back To The Egg was hard work - no LP benefits from spending that much time on it! But this was completely different. Paul said he wanted it like the old days - turn up to the studio at 10am, bang out a load of songs, get back home for tea. Two or three days, max. And that's very much how it was. Way back in 1969, I remember producing Oh! Darling on Abbey Road, and Paul saying that his voice wasn't up to it. I was saying, come on, you're the guy who sang I'm Down, just do it like that! And he did. What I loved about Run Devil Run Run was that he managed to sing like that on every single track. I've never heard him sound better.

It was great to work with Mick Green, from Johnny Kidd & The Pirates, who died not long after this - we did some overdubs afterwards. The one track I spent a bit of time on was No Other Baby. I saw that as a potential hit, a kind of slow-burning Chris Isaak-style ballad. But, to be honest, a producer doesn't have a lot to do on this kind of record - I think Paul just wanted a sounding board!

DAVID GILMOUR: On An Island - After mixing The Dark Side Of The Moon and The Division Bell, Thomas resumes his long association with Pink Floyd.

On Dark Side, Floyd legend has it that I was umpire in some huge dispute between David and Roger [Waters] - with Roger wanting it dry, David wanting it echoey - but I don't remember that at all. It's possible that David was more sympathetic to some of my suggestions, like asking them to double up the guitar on Money, which possibly led him to ask me to mix [1994's] The Division Bell and also finish this album.

It's a wonderful record, and I loved working on it. They'd already been writing and recording for about a year, quite casually, before I got involved - I think it was Phil Manzanera who actually got me on board. It was very much an acoustic record. The title track was just fantastic, but the early versions were very short. I felt that it was begging for a couple of those trademark Gilmour guitar solos to give it more heft. I took it from a two-minute song to a five-and-a-half-minute track. David's solos are always worked quite intensely, to the point that they're not actually solos, they're almost like fully formed compositions, that are integrated into the songwriting structure - you really notice that on songs like Take A Breath and Smile.