I think this is a first…..an ICA in which the common link is the producer.
Steve Lillywhite celebrated his 66th birthday yesterday. He’s been working in the music industry since 1972, learning his craft initially as a tape operator, mixer and engineer. By the late 70s, he had emerged as an upcoming name for his work with a number of new wave/post-punk acts, but arguably his breakthrough, in terms of being a producer-in-demand, came in 1980 when he worked with U2, XTC and The Psychedelic Furs, as well as what seemed like a futuristic and innovative production effort on the third solo album by Peter Gabriel.
He’s now been credited in some shape or form on more than 500 records, and is estimated to have a net worth of more than $40 million (US), much of it made via various roles in senior management at labels such as Universal and Columbia. It’s fair to say that he’s worked with a lot of rock’n’roll dinosaurs over the years and there’s probably been more records to endure rather than enjoy. But there was a spell particularly in the late 70s and 80s, when his singular approach to production duties brought huge success to a lot of acts who are looked on favourably in TVV-land. Here’s a few examples:-
Steve Lillywhite was married to Kirsty MacColl for ten years between 1984 and 1994, and they enjoyed a fabulous professional as well as personal relationship. Her career had stalled somewhat after the initial successes in the early 80s, and she found herself dropped by Polydor Records, necessitating a return to the world of indies via Stiff Records. Her take on the wonderful Billy Bragg song, on which there are all sorts of multi-tracking backing vocals, remains her biggest ever hit (#7, 1985). It’s worth mentioning that Stiff Records went bankrupt the following year, leaving Kirsty in limbo as her contract was in the hands of the official receiver, but she was able to obtain a lot of work as a backing or co-vocalist on records being produced by her husband, not least with The Pogues with the perennial Xmas favourite, Fairytale of New York.
The Members were one of those bands who emerged from the London pub circuit just as new wave became a thing, and having been given some early airplay by John Peel, they were, like a number of their contemporaries, snapped up by the fast-growing Virgin Records. Steve Lillywhite had produced much of their early stuff for inclusion on punk compilation albums, getting the job as he came cheap, doing it for ‘mates rates’ as his older brother Adrian was the band’s drummer. When the time came to record the debut album, the band were keen to engage him, albeit it was easy enough for Virgin to agree given that he’d already made something of a name for himself in the post-punk world (see Side A, Track 4). I think this is the first big hit single with which he was associated, reaching #12 in 1979. It’s rough and ready and of its time, but huge fun.
It’s something of an understatement to say that the recording process for The La’s only studio album was a drawn-out affair. The songs were written in 1986/87, but the album didn’t see light of day until 1990 as there were at least 12 different sessions with as many as eight different producers, with nobody able to deliver exactly what singer and lead songwriter, Lee Mavers, was striving for. Steve Lillywhite worked on the final sessions, in December 1989, February 1990 and April 1990 at Eden Studios, London, producing some 15 tracks in total, before heading to one of his favourite locations, the Town House, again in London, for mixing work. This was the band’s last ever single, charting at #43 in 1991. And at under two minutes in length, it is a fine example of a producer keeping things tight and relatively straightforward.
Maybe a wee bit of a cheat including this as it’s technically a co-production by Steve Lillywhite/Siouxsie and The Banshees. Released in November 1978, The Scream is one of his earliest efforts and I think it’s fair to say his first masterpiece, one that acted as something of a calling card and which grabbed the attention of the former frontman of Genesis.
Peter Gabriel was the name given to the first three of the solo albums, Steve Lillywhite was the producer of the third of them, recorded in 1979 and released in 1980, and which proved to the album that stopped him being pigeon-holed as one simply for the post-punk/new wave acts. It was an astounding sounding record back in the day, and more than 40 years later it still holds up really well. This track was released as a single, and features Kate Bush on backing vocals, and I’ve often wondered if the results were partly the inspiration for the producer’s many works with Kirsty MacColl in later years.
At the same time as he was working with Peter Gabriel, our producer was also in a studio with XTC, the fruits of which would result in Drums and Wires, which is most famous for its lead-off single, Making Plans For Nigel. This album was recorded in what was then a relatively new studio – The Town House in Shepherd’s Bush, London, built by Richard Branson in 1978 as an affordable but modern location mainly for acts on Virgin Records, such as XTC, but which over the years until its closure in 2008 would be used by just about anyone who had a big hit in the UK. It’s interesting to listen closely to Drums and Wires and Peter Gabriel 3, for there’s a number of production techniques which are common to both.
Did Stuart Adamson really ask his producer to make his guitars sound like the bagpipes? If so, the studio wizard certainly achieved it on the debut album, and accompanying b-sides, such as Angle Park, with which Big Country took the UK and further afield by storm in 1983. Steve Lillywhite had really made it huge in the early 80s with U2, with the trio of Boy, October and War taking them into increasingly into the stratosphere. Every band with ambitions of making it big wanted to use the template and while many put in the phone calls, not everyone got a positive response. Big Country did, as indeed did another of Scotland’s biggest acts of the decade…..
Those who want to criticise Steve Lillywhite – and there are many – will point to the triple-headed beast of U2, Big Country and Simple Minds and say that much of what went wrong in the 80s can be traced back to his work with each of them. It was Simple Minds who wanted to work with Lillywhite on their sixth studio album, which would be released as Sparkle In The Rain, and indeed the producer was keen to work with the Glaswegians, dropping other planned activities to head into a couple of studios, including The Town House, in late 1983. The results were big, booming and, yes, anthemic, a long way removed from the sounds of what had come before. It wasn’t totally a bad thing and I’d argue there are still some great moments on the album, such as this hit single on which Kirsty MacColl’s contribution is immense. It was when the American producers got hold of Simple Minds afterwards that things went awry….
The bombastic stuff on this ICA has peaked and it’s time to head back to a new wave classics from the earlier period when Steve Lillywhite was working his magic, but the commercial success wasn’t forthcoming. A number of different producers worked on the self-titled debut album by The Psychedelic Furs, including Martin Hannett who is of course best known for his work with Joy Division and various Factory Records bands (and who, incidentally, also worked with U2 as they were emerging). Sister Europe is one of the highlights of the album and is one attributed solely to Lillywhite. An edited version was released as a single in February 1980 but failed to chart.
I make no apologies for closing with a second track on this ICA from Kirsty MacColl. Released as a single in June 1989, it really is hard to believe that it’s a cover of a song by The Kinks, dating back to 1968. It has all her trademarks and it is perfectly produced. To those who chide Steve Lillywhite for his Celtic-era work, I simply ask that you give this a listen, preferably on a good system or through headphones to hear what he really could do. I’ve even ripped the song at 320 kpbs from the 12″ single for the purpose…….(as indeed, I’ve also done for the opening track on this ICA)