Following KK Downing in my series of interviews is another UK resident: the legendary John Leckie.
I can already hear you asking: ‘Who?’
You may not know John Leckie’s name but you’ve heard his work. As a professional recording engineer and producer since 1970, he’s been involved with albums by seminal artists, mostly from the UK. A small sample: 1970’s-Pink Floyd. 1980’s, The Human League. 1990’s: Radiohead. And, oh yes, there are these four British guys he’s worked with individually; they used to have a band in the sixties. Their names? John, Paul, George and Ringo.
I met Mr. Leckie in Yxtapa, Mexico, where he was producing and engineering the Rodrigo Y Gabriela that I was privileged to play on, 11:11. After a late afternoon recording in RyG’s home studio, with it’s natural wood interior, multitudes of guitars, lutes, frame drums and other acoustic instruments, not to mention candles and Buddha statues (it feels like a cross between an instrument store and a Zen monastery), we had successfully recorded my track for the RyG tune, the soon-to-be named ‘Atman.’
One of the things I remember most about the session was a phone call John had received from the UK. He’d gotten word that an album he’d just produced, by a new British pop/rock group whose name I forget, had ‘almost’ gone to number one. Almost. It was kept out of the top of the charts by this new dance/pop artist with the silliest name any of us had ever heard; a name so funny, we were all saying it over and over, laughing in stitches. In fact, only in the UK, could an artist get away with a name this ridiculous: “Lady Ga Ga.” (Who knew?)
Afterwards, we went to a group dinner at a nearby Mexican tavern on the beach with seaside tables dimly lit by flickering torches. I’d only brought my MP3 recorder to interview Rod and Gab (that interview will come later), but while conversing with John over the fresh guacamole, mojitos and spicy entrees, I was so taken in by his stories, I realized I’d better see if John would let me interview him as well, for which he graciously obliged.
After the main courses were finished, Rod and Gab relocated to the other side of the large table to give us space for the interview and converse their friends and relatives. John and I set up camp on the opposite corner. With all of us still picking at dessert plates and sipping from wine glasses and coffee cups, he and I talked music. It was on this dark, hot night cooled by a slight breeze with crashing waves, clinking glass and china, faint conversation, laughter and squawking seagulls in the background, in Ixtapa, Mexico, that the following conversation took place.
Alex Skolnick: You’ve had quite a diverse career. Let’s start with Rodrigo Y Gabriela.
John Leckie: Yes. I’d done the first Rodrigo Y Gabriela record which was, I think, three four years ago. It took us about a week, ten days and was very successful, you know, maybe not so much on the record but more for their live performance and their shows and those things that they do. And I’ve been a producer now since, well, I started working in 1970 at Abbey Road. I was an engineer at Abbey Road Studios.
Yes, and you were telling me that back in those days, people just got assigned to different groups- you didn’t necessarily pick the band or get picked by the band- but Abbey Road would say “Ok, today we’re going to put you with this band, they’re called ‘Pink Floyd.’”
That’s right yeah. You just worked nine ‘till five, you know, you had to be there at nine o clock in the morning, you clocked out at five o clock and you were told who to work with you know? So sometimes, some mornings you might be on a classical session, you might be working with the London Symphony Orchestra or you know, a solo violinist or something, and then in the afternoon you’d be working with Pink Floyd or Argent or Mott The Hoople. I did a record with Mott The Hoople.
I met (Mott The Hoople vocalist) Ian Hunter a couple years ago.
Yeah? Well they’re gettin’ back- The Hoople, the original line up-is getting back together in the UK you know their playin’ serious gigs.
Oh cool. I didn’t know that.
Yeah, the original line up with uh, what’s his name…Daryl Griffin, Ariel Bender, Mick Ralphs you know, they’re all getting back together in December, yes.
So you worked with them…that was one of your first assignments?
Yes, well it wasn’t one of my first. I worked with a guy called Roy Harper who’s like a sort of folk guitarist you know, but he was good friends with Led Zeppelin, you know. In fact, there’s a Zeppelin track that’s in his honor, it’s called ‘Hats Off To Harper,’ um, I don’t now what album it’s off of (It’s the last track on Led Zeppelin III), but you know they were good friends of Roy. I did about seven albums as an engineer and I did one of them with Roy, then I did Mott The Hoople. I also worked as a ‘tape op’ really, you know, as just like, operating tapes with all the solo Beatles.
So one of my first sessions was with George Harrison, “All Things Must Pass.”
Very important album.
And John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. Which was the ‘Working Class Hero’ record. In fact, there’s just been a ‘Classic Album’ video series and I’ve been lucky enough to go into Abby Road and get the original tapes out from 1970, the original 8-tracks, and been able to sort of put the tapes on, solo the vocals, solo the piano and listen to all the tracks. It’s all on the video, actually.
And I worked with Wings, you know, Paul McCartney Wings, uh ‘Red Rose Speedway’ and ‘High, High, High.’
So you’ve worked with all the Beatles, just outside of ‘The Beatles.’
All four ‘solo Beatles,’ yes. Of course, Ringo was on John’s record and on George’s record. And then, the first record I produced was a band called Be-Bop Deluxe.
I’ve heard the name.
They were a British band-about 1976-Bill Nelson was the guitarist. And I ended up actually producing six albums with Be-Bop Deluxe, every album they did really. And then it got to like 1977, the whole punk-new wave thing was happening and I did records with XTC, Magazine, The Adverts…And I actually produced the first Public Image (Limited) single, which was a song called Public Image, right after The Sex Pistols.
And this was Johnny Rotten- John Lyden, of The Sex Pistols…
Yes, and Keith Levine who was in The Clash at some time. And I did lots of these New Wave bands. In fact, Magazine was a great band who may not be known in the States so much, but they just reformed and did some great stuff. And also Simple Minds- I produced the first three Simple Minds albums before they were ‘big,’ before they, you know, worked with Jimmy Iovine (note: one of the most powerful producers, music moguls on the planet).
‘Don’t You Forget About Me.’
Before ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ and at that time it was a very different thing, I mean there was a big European influence going on with Berlin. You know, David Bowie and Iggy were in Berlin and that kind of crossed over to what was happening in the UK at the time with Ultra-Vox and The Human League. I did two EP’s with The Human League, which was all electronics, you know.
Now what’s the main song we’d know by them? Wouldn’t that be “Don’t You Want Me Baby” (Note: actual title- ‘Don’t You Want Me’)
“Don’t You Want Me Baby” Yeah.
I think a lot of people know that song, but don’t necessarily know who it is.
They all know that song, yes. That’s The Human League. One of their things was it was all electronics, electronic drum machine, synthesizers, all the percussion and drum parts were done with an analog sequencer, you know, there was no midi or anything. And we did a track called ‘Being Boiled’ and a version of Iggy’s ‘Nightclubbing’ which Grace Jones did later and then they went on…actually I could tell you a story, it’s a funny story.
At the time I’d done the EP for the Human League, which was the four guys, and I then went off and did a record with a band that was based in East Germany, in East Berlin. This was about 1980. So the band came from East Berlin, and I was mixing the record in West Berlin, at a studio called Panzer, and the band couldn’t come to the mix, ‘cause they were in the East you know? So every evening, I would go through ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ at seven o’clock every evening, I would smuggle a cassette, because going through the checkpoint, you weren’t allowed to take any media- you weren’t allowed to take a book or magazine, a cassette, a record or anything to do with the West, really.
Yeah, this is when Germany was divided, ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ was the border between East and West. Things are very different today.
Yes. And the band kind of lived about, literally, six hundred yards from the studio. And in between was the border. So the band couldn’t come over at all. Anyway I’m in Berlin doing this East Berlin band and Virgin records phone up and say “Hey… Human League- the original band split up, now they’ve got these two girls singing and they’ve got this great song, we want you to come over and do their single.” I said “Well, I’m doing this East German band, so, you know I can’t get back for another month.” And they said “Well, ok, we’ll get someone else to do the single and, well, we’d really like you to do the album.” And of course, three weeks later I got back to the UK, and someone else had done the single, and the single was ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby!”
So I missed out! But that happens.
Yeah, it’s part of the business. So you did work with Pink Floyd?
Oh yes, that was back in the 70’s, I worked on Meddle, well I did about half of the engineering on Meddle which is ‘One Of These Days’ cut into pieces, ‘Echos’ and stuff. And at that time, this was the record before ‘Dark Side Of The Moon,’ so…they had kind of done a few American tours but they were really exploring new sounds. I didn’t do anything on ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ because I was doing Alan Parsons during all that. And I was always friends with the Floyd because the thing at the time in Abby Road- there were three studios with a corridor going down through the whole studio. So you could, you know, just wander in there. It was very free, especially at night time, you’d just go into each others’ studios so, you know, the Floyd were quite friendly- they’d always have a little bar, you know, some beers in the fridge and stuff. So I knew the Floyd quite well. And I actually started ‘Wish You Were Here,’ and I did the first couple weeks in the studio for ‘Wish You Were Here.’ And I actually recorded the backing track for ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond,’ and all the edits to make that backing track.
I never finished the record, someone else came in.
Did you have any idea at that time that it would be as long lasting and monumental an album as is became?
Oh, absolutely. Yeah. And also Syd as well, you know, Syd Barrett?
Yes, who was no longer there because he’d gone mad?
Well, there is a story which I can verify, actually and it’s this:
One day-and it’s this legendary story that is often talked about-one day Syd Barret turned up at the studio, while they were recording ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond,’ which is about..
Yeah, about him. And it’s actually true because I was working in the other studio and I walked into Studio 3 at Abby Road late one night, about one o clock one morning, helping myself to a beer from the fridge.
And Roger, I think Roger Waters, was in the studio doing a vocal and the tape stopped. And Roger said ‘Who’s that standing in the back?’ And I thought he was talking to me and I said “Oh, it’s ok Roger, I’ve just come to get a beer.” He said “No, no not you, that other guy.” And I look ‘round and there was this um, kind of fat guy with bald hair and dirty coat on and some shopping bags. And this guy walked forward and said “It’s ok, I’m with the band.” And I thought ‘I’d better go.’ And Dave…David Gilmour, was sitting at the desk and he said: “Syd, is that you?” And it WAS Syd!
The Crazy Diamond.
And it was Syd. So I left the room. And it’s true that Syd actually turned up at the time they were doing the vocal production on ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond.”
Did he think he was, uh, still in the band?
He did think he was still in the band!
Aww. Poor guy. Poor guy.
I’d worked with Syd on his solo album, his second solo album on Barrow. And then I got together with him, when was this, about 1976, and we tried to do some tracks- just by himself. And it never really happened, actually. And I think after that time, then he kind of just…disappeared from music really and went back to Cambridge and became an artist, you know?
Wow, that’s an amazing story. And you go from that, great classic rock, to very current bands such as Radiohead. Tell me about that- they’re one of the most important bands in recent years.
Yes. At the time I suppose I didn’t find them…I really didn’t think they were going to be special.
I don’t think I did either, initially. Now, I’m a fan.
I got the demos from the record company and they were this band on their second album. I didn’t really like the first album, but the new songs they were doing were really good. I went to a show in Gloucester, saw them at a gig and really got on really well with them and they wanted to explore different things and..you know, they had good taste. They didn’t just want to crank up you know and make noise. You know, there’s a lot to do with the lyrics and the passion in the music and that’s what kind of attracted me. And we just seemed to be on the same wavelength really and they wanted to spend a lot of time exploring new sounds.
Which they’ve been very good at.
We actually went into the studio, went into Wax Studios in London. Over two months we were locked in there.
This is ‘The Bends,’ right?
‘The Bends,’ yeah. And we lived in that studio well over two months and got quite frustrated, you know? Working everyday, trying different things, different amps, different sounds, different versions of the songs, different ways of recording, with loops, recording live, recording bits and pieces. And actually together we recorded about thirty, thirty two songs together. And at that time the record company was very desperate for a hit single, ‘cause they’d had success with ‘Creep,’ and so the priority that we were given was to come up with a hit single. And also, as well as the hit single, we had to deliver something like six B-Sides.
That’s a tall order.
And then when we finished that, we could finish the album. So you know, we had this funny kind of schedule where we had to do the hit single first, then do the B Sides and then do the album. And of course all we wanted to do was the album. And so this nine weeks kind of dragged on- various experimental stages- we did about thirty different songs. We didn’t know what was the B-Side, what was an A-Side and what was anything by the time we finished.
So the band went off on tour and played gigs in like, Bangkok and Singapore and places like that, and when they came back, they kind of got themselves a little more together ‘cause they’d played the songs live in front of an audience, that kind of helps. So we then went to The Manor Studios and we did two weeks, I think. I, just by myself, rerecorded them- about half of the album. A lot of the major tracks were done at The Manor after that kind of ‘simmering off’ period.
Another great story. You know, people often wonder what the role is of the producer. It’s kind of like the sports agent, someone they don’t see, but who is crucial to the process.
You’re not really meant to see the producer really, I mean, its kind of a service. Producers are all different types of people really; they can be the engineer that gets the sound, they can be the guy that helps to write the songs or someone who would play piano or something, or you know, come up with different ideas, different musical ideas.
Like a ‘Mutt Lange’ or someone like that.
Yeah. Or you can have a totally ‘sonic’ producer who’s just an engineer who wouldn’t even comment on the music or something.
I know, there are some that don’t touch the desk.
Yeah, some producers don’t touch the desk. Some producers- no one touches the desk except the producer, you know? For me, it depends on who I’m working with really. It depends on the band and what’s needed. Some bands you know, need a lot of musical guidance. They need to get their arrangements right, or they need some sort of scroll-like what they’re actually doing with their music. Some bands have the music together but their sounds are terrible- they have terrible drum sounds, they don’t understand what a guitar sound is about, that kind of thing. Some bands are really out of tune (laughter). And they don’t know it, that kind of thing.
Your job is to have ears.
Yeah, I’m like….I’m not really a musician, you know.
That’s what I’m wondering. How do you get into this, if you’re not a musician? How did you get to this level?
Because I’m a listener. I’d say I’m not a real musician- I’ve never played in a band. But I’ve always been into music, gigs, records. I can play a little bit but I’ve never played on stage or with a band.
So it’s about ears?
It’s about ears and experience.
Helping the process.
And knowing when to add some discipline to get some things moving, when to sit back and let creative things happen, you know, when to take a break, when to set a deadline, you know ‘Ok, by Friday we’ve got to finish this’ or ‘Hey, let’s have a week off’ or you know, ‘Let’s go to the park’ or ‘Let’s get our heads down- let’s stay up all night and finish it’ or…you know, you just got to pick up on the vibe of things and…I don’t know where that comes from. It comes from experience, I suppose?: And also having a professional attitude, knowing what’s going to appeal to a lot of people. You know, the producer stands in the way of the musician and the record company. It’s like a responsibility to both, really. You have to deliver commercial material, a commercial sound, radio play and that kind of thing. But you also have to make the musicians feel good, that they’ve done a great job, that they’ve achieved, they’ve played their best, you know?
I do, absolutely.
So there’s a lot of psychology involved, I don’t know how you do it, you know, it’s either a natural thing – you just get on with the people. Or you don’t get on with the people!
Well, from your track record, you’re obviously very good at it and working with you today was a pleasure. I don’t usually get to work with producers that are so diverse. A lot of the producers I’ve worked with stick with one genre- just metal, just jazz, just acoustic.
I suppose I’ve done all kinds of things.
Today- acoustic instrumental music, but you’ve done big pop bands, rock.
I’ve been to Africa- I’ve done Babba Mal, I’ve done Dr. John, I’ve done Los Lobos, I’ve done Muse.
And we were just talking about heavy metal bands in India.
(Laughter) Yeah, yeah that’s right. So I do all kinds of music. I get off on, you know, everyone saying to me ‘What kind of music do you listen to at home?’ And I can’t answer that question, it’s like, I listen to so many types of music, I just get off on music in general. Changing the vibe of what’s going on or what you can relax to or what you can get excited by.
Yeah! Well, it’s been great. Thanks for sharing with me and my followers. Hope to work with you again sometime!
Absolutely! Thank you, Alex. Cheers!
(Interesting footnote: although John and RyG had seemed like ‘peas in a pod’ the whole time I was there, some irreparable ‘creative differences’ arose a few weeks later. John was sent home, a replacement engineer was brought in and, most of the tracks were re-recorded.