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'Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust'

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Ken Scott on recording The Beatles, Bowie, Elton and more

On the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' first recording at EMI Studios and the 40th anniversary of Bowie's 'Ziggy Stardust,' engineer and producer Ken Scott shares all in new book.

More than 48 years on from the job interview that forever altered his course, legendary recording producer and engineer Ken Scott recalls his nervousness as he climbed the steps outside EMI Studios to meet with the assistant studio manager. 'I had never had a job before, so I was panic-stricken going for this interview,' he remembers.

Only five days previous, after a particularly grueling Friday at school, Scott sat down and penned approximately 10 letters addressed to various London-based record labels, television and radio studios in hopes of landing a position as a recording engineer. Exactly one week later, he received some news that stopped him in his tracks. 'I was offered a job and left school that day,' Scott told me. 'I started at EMI the next Monday. There were nine days between school and starting work at the greatest recording studio in the world.' Ken Scott was 16 years old.

After an entry-level position in the studio's tape library, Scott, a quick study, was promoted to assistant engineer for The Beatles' albums 'A Hard Day's Night,' 'Beatles For Sale,' 'Help!' and 'Rubber Soul,' while also recording a diverse lineup of artists including Judy Garland, The Pretty Things, Johnny Mathis, The Hollies and Manfred Mann. From there, Scott was off to EMI's mastering department for nearly two years before earning the coveted position of balance engineer as The Beatles were recording songs for 'Magical Mystery Tour' in 1967. Describing it as a 'baptism by fire,' Scott became one of only five primary engineers ever commissioned to record The Beatles.

At the same time, Scott was involved in his first 24-hour session working alongside original Beatles engineer Norman Smith for Pink Floyd's final tracks with original leader Syd Barrett.

EMI Recording Studios officially changed its name to Abbey Road Studios in 1970 to commemorate its association with the band whose body of recorded work - in Scott's estimation will be discussed hundreds of years from now. That virtually inarguable fact is one of the reasons behind Scott's decision to finally tell his story in the new book 'Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust: Off the Record with The Beatles, Bowie, Elton & so much more' (Alfred Music Publishing) co-written with Bobby Owsinski.

Scott's book is an honest, richly annotated, pull-no-punches account of his years spent recording the greats delivered in a style that puts you in the studio with Ken and the musicians. Readers can almost pick up the scent of George Harrison's ambiance-enhancing joss sticks wafting from atop his guitar amp in EMI Studio Two.

Throughout the new book, Scott calls it as he remembers it with unflinching honesty and much first-time information. Want to find out exactly what he thought of each of The Beatles, David Bowie or Elton? It's in the book. While not exactly a tell-all dish-fest, the reader is left with a better understanding of what these musical icons were really like to work with on a daily basis. The laughs, the quirks, the shockers they're all there.

More important for Scott than gossipy details is getting the facts straight an appreciated and admirable mission frustratingly absent in the book written by Scott's predecessor behind the Beatles' board, engineer Geoff Emerick. 'I was interviewed for Geoff's book (Here, There and Everywhere'),' Scott told me. 'When I heard that Geoff was dong a book, I thought, Finally somebody who was there is going to tell the true story.''

After a friend urged Scott to read an early galley copy of Emerick's finished book, he was incensed. 'Within three pages, I was fuming,' he recalls. 'There are so many errors. I, along with other people, wrote to the publishers saying, Hold on, you should rethink putting Geoff's book out and just correct the mistakes.' I never heard from them they didn't bother. They changed virtually nothing until it came to the paperback version, and then they corrected some of the mistakes but not all of them.'

Knowing that a Beatles-related book written by someone who was actually present will be quoted by many future writers, Scott felt compelled to speak out about the inaccuracies in the Emerick book. 'As someone who was there for a lot of the stuff, I had to call it the way I saw it,' he said.

In the process of detailing many of the sessions he produced and/or engineered, Scott shares everything he can recall in the pages of 'Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust,' and if he doesn't remember specific details, he is honest about that fact. Whenever he questioned a fact or story, Scott and Owsinski attempted to corroborate it with someone else who was present at the time. When you consider that some of these sessions took place in 1964, it is remarkable that Scott clearly remembers so many details. Many of us would have a difficult time recalling specifics that took place at our job last week.

When most writers chronicle the 1968 Beatles sessions that produced 'The White Album,' pages are filled with tales of bitter fights, tension and band members storming out. Ken Scott engineered much of that legendary double album and says that many of those stories are overblown. 'Yes, there were occasions of tension, but it certainly wasn't that down and dismal the entire time,' he told me. 'Most of the time, it was a lot of fun. Three of us who were there for a lot of the time agree on that situation. There was Chris Thomas, who was George Martin's assistant. There was John Smith, who was my second engineer for the majority of the recording, and myself. We all agree we had a blast working on that.'

Almost from the day he began his employment at EMI in January, 1964, Scott experienced several 'nearly fired' moments brought on by youth and sheer navet. It was a learning process to discover exactly how things were supposed to work in the carefully-managed confines of Abbey Road, where technicians abided by a dress code of white or brown lab coats when handling equipment. Eventually Scott was fired (despite being part of the #1 album in the world at that time), but he was later rehired. He carefully plotted his next step and, like each career move going forward, it would be on his terms.

At the suggestion of producer Gus Dudgeon, Scott met with the owners of a relatively new studio in London called Trident, where he was promptly hired. A number of Beatles songs had been recorded at Trident in 1968 thanks to their highly-coveted eight-track reel-to-reel tape machine. After experiencing the relative luxury of recording on eight tracks of tape at the hip new studio across town as opposed to four tracks at home, The Beatles forced EMI to get their new machine out of the box and in place for future sessions.

Ken was familiar with Trident and preferred its convivial atmosphere to the more sterile environment on Abbey Road. Not surprisingly, some of his earliest Trident sessions were Beatles related - mixing a new single for John Lennon called 'Give Peace a Chance,' recording Lennon's 'Cold Turkey,' and Ringo Starr's 'It Don't Come Easy' and handling overdubs and mixes for George Harrison's first solo album 'All Things Must Pass' in 1970.

Exactly 30 years later, Ken and George found themselves sitting behind a recording console at Harrison's Friar Park studio auditioning master tapes in preparation for a reissue of the legendary triple album set. 'We just turned to each other and burst out laughing,' Scott said. 'There we were, sitting in the same positions, listening to exactly the same recording. It was absolutely bizarre.'

More sessions followed: Harry Nilsson (whose drug use Scott described as 'over the top'), The Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger was quiet and sleepy), Jeff Beck (a sweetheart during Scott's 1968 sessions for the classic 'Truth' album but a terror when it came time to record the follow-up - 'Beck-Ola' in 1969). In 1980, Scott and Beck reunited for 'There and Back,' and the producer found Beck ('one of the greatest guitarists in the world') to be at a low ebb - uncertain of his abilities. 'He didn't think he was good enough to be there,' Scott remembers.

Scott's work with Elton John occurred during a crucial time in the creative development of Elton and lyricist Bernie Taupin. Scott mixed 'Madman Across the Water' and engineered and mixed 'Honky Chateau' and 'Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player.' His work on those records provided Scott with kudos from Elton, praise from fans and a lifetime of wonderful stories. While recording, Scott lived with Elton, Bernie, the band and producer Gus Dudgeon in a 230-year-old castle outside Paris (allegedly a former residence of Chopin) that had been outfitted with a 16-track recording studio.

During the creation of those classic Elton John albums, Scott witnessed some incredible moments. 'Bernie would go up to his room every evening at about 8,' Scott told me. 'He would sit down and put a bunch of lyrics together. The next morning, he would come down stairs and present them to Elton, who would go through the pages of new lyrics and pick out the ones he liked. Once he had finished breakfast, Elton would walk over to the piano, try a couple that might not work and then he'd suddenly hit one like Rocket Man.' It just flowed out of him. The whole song was just there within 10 minutes. It was amazing.'

During Scott's early Trident Studio days, he was assigned to engineer a record by a young, flamboyant singer-songwriter whose music didn't immediately grab the attention of the seasoned studio veteran. At that stage, the singer appeared to be somewhat of a 'flower power' hippie, and after working with so many A-list artists, Scott, not easily impressed, considered it 'just another gig.' The singer/songwriter in question was David Bowie, and his partnership with Scott is now the stuff of legend, with Scott engineering Bowie's first six albums - producing the latter four.

'Space Oddity,' 'The Man Who Sold the World,' 'Hunky Dory,' 'The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars,' 'Aladdin Sane' and 'Pinups' - these albums are, arguably, the most important of Bowie's career. There is something magical about the sound of those songs 'Life on Mars,' 'Changes,' 'Suffragette City,' 'Oh You Pretty Things..' They would not be the same had they been recorded by anyone other than Ken Scott.

In 2002, Scott was asked to revisit the multi-track tapes for Bowie's 'Ziggy Stardust' album to create a 5.1 surround mix for the home theatre market. The results were issued on the fledgling Super Audio CD format and went out of print after a couple of years, instantly commanding big bucks on the secondary market. Fortunately, Scott's 'Ziggy' surround mix is available again as of this week and in high definition to boot.

June 6 marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Bowie's 'Ziggy' album, and EMI has just issued a new version of the classic album prepared by the men who worked on it with Bowie in 1972. 'The person in charge at EMI contacted me and asked, Who do you think we should get to do it?'' Scott told me. 'I said, Why not go back to the person who mastered it in 1972? He'll do it the way it should be done.' Ray Staff did the original mastering and he did this new one at Air Studios. It sounds beautiful it's the best version out there.'

The 40th anniversary issue of 'Ziggy Stardust' is available on CD and 180 gram vinyl which also includes a DVD containing Scott's 5.1 surround mixes, bonus tracks and four previously unavailable mixes. When Ken Scott began his career, mixing in mono was the norm. Stereo mixes (if they were prepared at all) were usually an afterthought until the late 60s, when mono was gradually faded out. 'Ziggy' was Scott's first experience in surround mixing and he loved it. 'I came back after doing it and I wanted to do a whole bunch more,' he said.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Scott produced and/or engineered a staggering number of records covering a spectrum of musical genres. To this day, he's unsure why he was asked to produce the jazz-fusion brilliance of Mahavishnu Orchestra's 'Birds of Fire.' 'Why me?' Scott wondered. 'It was so different from anything I'd really done before. Why did they choose me to work on it? That was amazing what an experience.'

From Lou Reed to The Tubes, Kansas, Duran Duran, Dixie Dregs, Level 42 and many more, Scott worked his magic with all of them. He even took a shot as a band manager, nurturing and producing new wave poppers Missing Persons, and he hasn't ruled the possibility of managing an act in the future. 'I have very specific ideas of what it should be like,' he says. 'Whether that would work or not, I don't know. With the right band, under the right circumstances, I would do it again.'

While he doesn't often listen to music for pleasure these days, Scott says there are a few artists he would love to produce some day. 'The Foo Fighters I love Dave Grohl,' Scott says. 'They don't take themselves seriously. The music, their attitude they're great. And an artist here in LA called Carina Round. She's originally from England and she's just amazing. You should give her a listen.'

Scott has seen the music industry evolve from an artist-driven entity to one controlled by lawyers and money men concerned only with the bottom line, but he is optimistic about the future. 'It's ludicrous the way it's going, but I have a firm belief that talent will win out it always has,' he said. 'It's going to be different to the way it was in the past. Record companies the major labels are slowly but surely going to die a death. At that point, artists can take more control of their artistic lives. Things will get back to being controlled by music people, not by attorneys and accountants.'

As the years creep by, memories fade, documents scatter and stories become jumbled. Events that we now classify as historic transpired in such a compressed period of time, many of the participants barely gave them a second thought. Fortunately, a few including Ken Scott are still here to tell us how they happened, and as music fans we are richer for it. 'In some cases, we had no idea people would be interested in the music six months later,' Scott told me. 'It's just amazing that we're still talking about it after nearly 50 years.'

There And Back A Q&A with Ken Scott

Exactly 50 years ago, June 6, 1962, a white van pulled up outside EMI Studios in London. After being rejected by virtually every U.K. label, The Beatles had arrived for an initial recording test and were intent on impressing George Martin, head of EMI's Parlophone label. After listening and recording four songs, Martin not overly excited by what he had just heard hesitantly agreed to sign them. After a change in drummers (Pete Best was out, Ringo Starr was in), The Beatles returned in September for their first official EMI recording session.

Dow: You worked closely with George Martin during The Beatles years. Most of the books describe him as being almost like a 'headmaster' but sympathetic to their desire and demand to keep breaking new ground. What was he really like?

Scott: My feelings about George have changed over the years. I'll be honest when I was initially working with him, there were times when I didn't like him. There were just certain things about him. I reached a point while working as an engineer with The Beatles where I couldn't see what role he was playing. It didn't make sense to me. He didn't appear to be contributing anything.

Moving into production myself and doing so many records, I now understand that he was the one in control. He had the final say over everything, and at some point he would say, 'OK guys, that's enough let's move on.' He knew how to give The Beatles enough rope to hang themselves. I've done that on many occasions since and through my doing that, I see what he was doing. It must have been stuck in the back of my head and eventually moved forward 'This is what I'm supposed to do in this situation. Do the same as George did.'

When we finished The White Album, George Martin suddenly became a fatherly figure. He pulled me to one side and said, 'Ken, lookI don't think this album is going to win a Grammy.' The year before, Geoff Emerick had won a Grammy for his work on 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,' and understandably so. I never in a million years considered a Grammy for The White Album. George Martin took me aside and told me the album just wasn't what people were going to expect, but that had nothing to do with my work. It was just such a totally different type of album, he didn't think it would win a Grammy. It was wonderful for him to do that. It endeared him to me.

There is an English organization called APRS the Association of Professional Recording Services. It's the English equivalent to NARAS the people who give out the Grammys. Every year, they give out something called The Fellowship award. Two years ago, I was awarded The Fellowship along with Paul McCartney, Quincy Jones and Mark Knopfler. It absolutely astounded me. I went over there to receive this and the person that presented it to me was George Martin. Or, I should say now, Sir George Martin. It was so amazing that the first person I was ever in the studio with was the one who presented me with that award. It was mind-blowing.

Dow: Of the four Beatles, you felt closest to George Harrison. Would you say that he was the most 'normal' in the group?

Scott: I have always described George as the one who came out being closest to a normal human being after the whole thing of The Beatles went through. Going through what they went through was going to change anyone. It's impossible for anyone to go through that without being changed in some way or another. He came out the most normal, yeah.

Dow: I'm very glad that your 5.1 mix of 'Ziggy Stardust' is out again. Of all of the albums you've produced or engineered, is there one that tops of the list of records you would like to remix in surround sound?

Scott: Oh, 'Crime of the Century' (Supertramp). I wanted to do that, and I contacted the band's management about it. It was looked at very much like record companies tend to look at that kind of thing: 'Oh, we can do it very quickly and cheaply and put it out there and people will buy it and we'll start making money quickly.' It was that kind of attitude, instead of, 'Let's make it the best it can possibly be.'

Recently, Scott has been reunited with many of his favorite drummers for an ongoing project called 'EpiK DrumS A Ken Scott Collection.' It's available now as a virtual instrument plug-in that Scott says allows musicians to be more flexible by augmenting their recordings with the sound of real drums played by some of the masters.

'I went into the studio with many of my favorite drummers I've worked with in the past, including Billy Cobham from Mahavishnu Orchestra, Terry Bozzio of Missing Persons, Rod Morgenstein of Dixie Dregs, Bob Siebenberg of Supertramp and Woody Woodmansey of Bowie's Spiders From Mars,' Scott told me. 'We used the same drum kits, the same mics, everything.'

The results are more than 130 gigabytes of 24 bit drum samples played by the masters. Although this project is designed for home recording enthusiasts and drummers, there is a second part called 'EpiK DrumS EDU' aimed at audio students and engineers who have never actually worked with a live drum kit. Scott says he'll continue to tinker and refine the project. 'We're working on future releases of it with extra bits and pieces.'

Dow: This is really a wonderful idea making all of this material available for artists, drummers and even students and other engineers. Is it true that you put in some 16-hour days in the studio editing that material?

Scott: It wasn't in the studio, it was in my house. It was driving the family nuts because all they were hearing was 'bang, bang, bang' all the time (laughing).

Now, engineers who haven't worked with live drums before can practice mixing them and seeing the problems of what you go through when trying to deal with live drums. They don't have to do it in the studio they're not wasting musician's time. When the day comes when they do actually have to work with a live drum kit, they'll be able to go into it with a little more authority. It's also great for drummers because they can just listen to see how these different drummers tune their drums. Every drummer tunes them in a different way and it becomes very personal their sound.

Dow: When you hear some of the material you've worked on by Elton, Bowie, The Beatles any of them - are you able to listen to it purely for musical enjoyment, or are you reminded of the session or things that were going on while it was being recorded?

Scott: I don't listen as a fan - I can't. Music is my business so I listen to everything that way. Very, very rarely do I get to listen to something just for the sake of listening to it.

It just so happens that the other day, I managed to get into that frame of mind. It was raining here in southern California and it was beautiful I loved it. I just got into listening music purely for the sake of listening and it was wonderful.

Mike Dow is part of The Mike and Mike Show, airing each morning on Kiss 94.5. Check him out at www.Facebook.com/MikeandMike and www.MikeDow.net.

Last modified on Wednesday, 06 June 2012 12:44

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