I was asked to review the book, “Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust”, written by Ken Scott and Bobby Owsinski and published by Alfred Books for a local paper here in LA. I then pitched the interview to a British paper who came aboard and then essentially screwed me. Ken is an amazing guy with lots of good stories about rock ‘n’ roll – and one of the top engineers every in the business. Lots here for music fans and techies alike. Two thumbs up for the book. Here’s the piece -
The Beatles, David Bowie and Pink Floyd. All Grammy winners, all in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and all engineered and produced by the legendary Ken Scott. His new book, “From Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust”, co-written with Bobby Owsinski, is full of stories about the music industry during its 1960’s and 70’s heyday and showcases anecdotes galore about The Beatles, Duran Duran, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Supertramp and many other legendary musicians Scott has worked with since starting out in the tape room at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in 1964.
Scott soon graduated to button pusher, working on side two of “Hard Days Night” and then to engineer where his first job with the Beatles was on “Your Mother Should Know”. Scott came to work dressed in the EMI dress code of a suit, tie and cufflinks while helping John, Paul, George and Ringo record various singles and the albums Magical Mystery Tour and “The White Album”.
Scott notes that one of the most inspiring things about that time was the realness of the band, whose presence in the studio could be determined by the throngs of teenage girls waiting outside the studio door. “The truly great thing about the Beatles was that they were open to anything. While most bands came in to record two or three songs in three hours, the Beatles could take that long to fiddle with one. And it didn’t always have to sound great. They would come in and say ‘that’s terrible, we love it’ and we’d work on it some more. It was amazing training for a young engineer like myself.”
The Beatles as well, were quite ordinary guys, says Scott. “They’d order in lunch or set up the studio like a living room to feel more comfortable. We (the engineering crew) would help or go out and get lunch while they fooled around on the guitars themselves. I was constantly scared that something, anything I did wrong around them would cause me to lose my job but they were quite open and easy. George Martin sometimes gave me a side eye but they genuinely enjoyed the suggestions and interaction with the crew.”
Scott does remember that one had to watch what they said around the band because it was such an open environment. “They took everything you said seriously. There was a small room, no bigger than the size of a broom closet and we decided to suggest to John that they record in there one day. The next thing you know he was ordering it done and for classical instruments from a recording studio next door to be set up. We had to do it. It was John Lennon. But we had been joking. We ended up recording “Your Blues’ in there and luckily getting the instruments back to the other studio and set up for that session in the morning.”
The key to the success of the Beatles? “They had no fear of moving ahead of their audience”, says Scott. “It kept working for them so they kept doing it. With every single record starting with “Rubber Soul”, they progressed.” David Bowie, whom Scott later engineered and produced, “would adapt a persona like The Thin White Duke or Ziggy Stardust, then get bored and change. But he never took it so far that he lost his audience and neither did the Beatles.”
Scott left EMI after 6 years and joined the independent label Trident at the behest of Gus Dudgeon, the producer of Bowie’s Space Oddity. Though the process was just the same, the atmosphere was actually free and musical. Whereas at the staid EMI, artists would come in, record and leave as soon as possible, at Trident, musicians came and hung out; there was camaraderie amongst everyone and it brought a lot of collaboration.
During this stay Scott moved into production, the next natural move and as many are today, became an engineer/producer, allowing him to really be able to help control the sound.
“At that time, engineering was very high-tech and the producers came from the creative side. I was one of the first to cross over, and no longer had to sit there at the console, turn to the producer to make a suggestion, which if it was okayed, he would then take credit for”.
Scott’s first job at Trident was working for David Bowie on “Hunky Dory” and then proceeded to produce much of Elton John’s work of the early 70’s. Bowie enlisted Scott to co-produce many of his future albums, including “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust” and “Spiders from Mars.”
“Bowie was a true master”, said Scott, “He was completely aware of what he wanted to give and how to express it.” During all four albums he co-produced with Bowie, Bowie usually gave single takes only. “95% of the time it was done in one”, says Scott. “That was the master. It’s a performance he gives, not bits engineered here and bits recorded for later there. He sings his heart out every time. He is a human making good music”.
More work at Trident included Supertramp and the Rolling Stones amongst countless others. After a while Scott started to find his own musical voice and worked on jazz fusion, introducing the edgier part of rock ‘n’ roll drums and working with such notable jazz musicians as Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire, Visions of the Emerald Beyond and The Lost Trident Tapes and many, many others.
He did not lose his rock n’ roll roots however and went back to work on solo records with both John Lennon and George Harrison, spending many months with Harrison at his estate Friar Park before he died.
Looking at the mixed up state of the music business today, Scott says “I truly believe were coming to the lowest ebb and it will turn. Talent will take over and creative people will be in charge, not attorneys and executives. Right now, people are only interested in the bottom line and bank on a lot of one hit wonders”.
This begs to ask the question of what he thinks of all the manufactured music shows on television these days, such as “X Factor” and “American Idol”.
Scott answers, “You can’t knock “Idol”. There has been some incredible talent there but they are not guaranteed success. It does allow people who would never have the opportunity to make records to do so and it allows the chance for people to be seen.”
This is not only where the strength of the new dawn of music comes in though. Scott says, “There is a turnaround in social media and how people can hear great recording. The future is, I believe, Internet radio and the resurgence of more true DJ’s. We’re going to be seeing more John Peel’s, DJ’s with personality and taste. There will be a list of songs they have to play but they’re going to dig into their back pocket and introduce the world to new artists and those playing against the grain. With studios closing there will never be the opportunity to have as many labels as before but they will come in this new form. There is less history but new opportunity.”
Some things in rock ‘n’ roll will never change, says Scott, and that of course is the decadence of rock ‘n’ roll bands. Back when he was producing Duran Duran during the late 1990’s, he recalls a time when front man Simon LeBon was scheduled to come into the studio to record vocals at 2:30pm. By 5pm he had still not shown. Phone calls were made and it was discovered that LeBon had decided to jet set to Ibiza for some model’s birthday, telling no one, including his management that he wasn’t going to show up as expected. “ As always”, says Scott, “major acts have their own rules.”
“From Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust” is a true page-turner for fans of music and musicians alike. Filled with amazing stories of the world of rock ’n’ roll from the 60’s through to the recent past, Scott spares little detail and his stories are full of warmth and a deep love of all kinds of music. There are technical aspects to the book as well but are given in a sidebar so as not to interrupt the flow of the storytelling> Interestingly, as you read more and more of Scott’s stories and follow his ascendance to the acclaimed engineer/producer he is today, the technical aspects become interesting even for those who don’t know anything about music engineering.
The book was released by Alfred Publishing in mid-June in is available online and in bookstores worldwide. It has just been released as an e-book and for Kindle and other electronic devices.