Tony Visconti: ‘The thing with Phil Lynott was that he was visibly dying’
The veteran record producer on Bowie, Morrissey and his problem with Steve Albini
Tony Visconti: “Morrissey has a knack of pushing people away from him. It’s the way he lives his life.”Photograph: Cindy Ord/WireImage for NARAS
Two short years ago this Wednesday, David Bowie’s death stunned the world. Producer Tony Visconti began a creative relationship with Bowie in 1969, producing his eponymous second solo album and a string of influential releases, from The Man Who Sold the World (1970) to Blackstar (2016).
Visconti still sorely misses his friend. When doing promotional interviews for The Next Day in 2015, Visconti once referred to himself as “Bowie’s envoy on earth”, echoing when Kate Moss, resplendent in his original Ziggy Stardust outfit, accepted Best British Male on Bowie’s behalf at the Brit Awards in 2014 as “his representative on earth”.
“I’m still very much in a stage of grief,” Visconti says. “We went through a euphoric period of celebrating his music onstage, but I constantly go back into grief. I’m always reminded of him. I was working on remixes for Lodger as recently as six months ago. Also, when I work in my studio, I’m constantly reminded of David because he used to sit on the settee in the corner. It hasn’t been easy, but playing his music onstage helps.”
Visconti has worked with several Irish artists, including Thin Lizzy, The Radiators and The Boomtown Rats. “I’ve a strong connection with Irish artists,” he says. “I just worked with Imelda May and she was on my TV show for Sky Arts.” In his riveting and revealing autobiography, Bowie, Bolan and The Brooklyn Boy, the producer candidly shares his experiences of working with some of the biggest names in rock and popular culture, including Phil Lynott.
“Drug use was rife in the 70s and lots of people getting stoned out of their brains,” he says. “I did in my own time, but I couldn’t afford to in the studio. I had to be the sober one. It was like being a designated driver. The thing with Phil was that he was visibly dying. During the recording of the last album, Black Rose, his complexion was ashen. There were a few days when he couldn’t even get out of bed. I had more than one chat with him about this. It is very hard to tell one of your peers that they are doing it too much, when you do a bit yourself. You don’t want to come across as a hypocrite. I tried to reach out to Phil, but like a lot of people who have an addiction problem, he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got it under control.’ Thin Lizzy were probably the greatest rock band I ever worked with.”
Visconti’s autobiography gives a great sense of the camaraderie of rock n’ roll. “It is a very private and curious thing,” Visconti agrees. “It is kind of like a gentleman’s club, but I’m included in the making of an album. Other bands would come in during our sessions, but only the ones that we would approve of. Phil Chevron and the Radiators would come down when Lizzy where in the studio. Rock musicians are like a private club. I think members of the Boomtown Rats came down, and Paula Yates with Bob. You could see how much they helped and supported each other. I’ve often worked with bands where I would be asked to leave the room if they had a business or creative problem to discuss. You see a closeness and brotherhood that you rarely see in any other kind of occupation. It’s a group of four of five artists having a conference that is very exclusive, and I’ve been a witness and sometimes part of it.”
Albini the control freak
Visconti is one of music’s greatest producers – a little bit like a 1970s equivalent of George Martin thanks to his work with Bowie, Marc Bolan, The Moody Blues and Sparks. The American producer and musician Steve Albini has repeatedly said over the years that he prefers to call himself a recording engineer. “When I think of a producer, I think of one of those industry losers with a beard and a ponytail sitting in a chair telling the band what to do,” Albini once said.
“Well, I know people who have worked with Steve Albini and he is the biggest control freak I’ve ever heard of,” Visconti responds. “He says one thing and he does another. His whole philosophy is based on working with groups, so sure, he’ll let them play and he records them, but I’ve heard from people in Nirvana and Foo Fighters who said he constantly told them what to do. I would dismiss anything Steve Albini says and I’d challenge him face to face on that any time, anywhere.”
Since he first got in the game, modern technology has revolutionised record production and distribution. “The more technology you have the less talent is applied to making records because technology is full of magic tricks,” Visconti maintains. “You can do everything after a song is recorded: change the tempo, slow it down, whatever. You can take a mediocre artist and make them sound very good, but it is not satisfying and like fast food. It will fill you but then you will be hungry later. In the old days, you had to have a great voice and have good songs and everybody had to be sharp – the engineers, producers, brass players, you name it. The onus was always to play in tune. That’s why we still play records from the 1970s and 1980s and get misty-eyed and nostalgic for them.”
In terms of the proliferation of streaming platforms, Visconti has mixed feelings. “There is a glut of music and more than ever before and there is a good and bad side to this,” he says. “There are very creative artists out there and young people of a Bowie level, but the record labels won’t give them a chance. Sugar-sweet pop music produced by 10 Swedish guys is all the rage, but the only way these people can get heard is recording on their own and getting their music out via the internet and social media. That is good for the creative people, but unfortunately there are many, many more less talented people out there.
“The rite of passage in the old days with marketing and promotion was really good. That’s the climate Bowie, Thin Lizzy, Kate Bush and Morrissey grew up in. Kate Bush sent Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd a demo and he made it happen. These things don’t happen in the current climate. There wasn’t a lot of money in those days, so when you bought an album it was a big investment. I remember as a kid skipping a few school lunches to buy an album and play it to death.”
Morrissey’s great knack
Speaking of Morrissey, Visconti worked on his 2005 album, Ringleader of the Tormentors. Does he intend to work with the prickly Mancunian-Irish singer again? “I wouldn’t mind working with him again, and I’m very proud of the album we did, but we are not in touch,” he says. “I don’t know. He’s off on something else. That’s all I can really say. He has a knack of pushing people away from him. It’s the way he lives his life.”
Visconti doesn’t appear to be slowing down at 73 years of age. “I’ve produced an album for Perry Farrell, which will come out in 2018,” he says. “He is a very talented and smart man. I love his music. In the middle of 2017 I started working with Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz, and I’m working on his Good, the Bad and the Queen album with Paul Simeon [The Clash], Tony Allen [Fela Kuti] and Simon Tong [The Verve]. We’re two-thirds of the way through and taking a break as Damon is off on a Gorillaz tour, but we will resume in April and it will probably be out before Christmas. It’s a great album and I think people will be very impressed with it.
“I finished with The Damned only last night and the album is coming out in two months, which feels good. I was doing marathon remixing for three solid days. I didn’t have time to eat properly and I was subsisting on pitta and hummus, yogurt and blueberries and popcorn. It’s been a very busy year.”
As for 2018 and beyond, retirement isn’t on the agenda. “I can’t imagine myself retiring,” Visconti says. “First of all, I enjoy what I do too much. I’ve got all my facilities; my hearing is good, I’ve got good stamina and I still love making albums.”
- The Dublin Bowie Festival runs until January 10th. See dublinbowiefestival.ie
THE FULL VISCONTI : TONY’S PROUDEST PRODUCTIONS
David Bowie – Scary Monsters (1980)
Bowie’s first album after the Berlin trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger was another stone-cold classic, which earned an unprecedented seven stars out of five in the now defunct Record Mirror.
David Bowie – Blackstar (2016)
“His death was no different from his life – a work of art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us.
Thin Lizzy – Bad Reputation (1977)
In 1976 and 1977, Lizzy released three studio albums, Jailbreak, Johnny the Fox and Bad Reputation, which established them as a global musical force. The best-known tracks on their eighth album are its title track and the perennial classic Dancing in the Moonlight (It’s Caught Me in Its Spotlight).
T Rex – Electric Warrior (1971), The Slider (1972), and Tanx (1973)
“’71 to ’73 – golden period for both of us,” Visconti recalls. “I can’t pick a favourite from these. If I forget how I did something, I go back and I listen to it. I’m very fortunate. I am very grateful for everyone I’ve been involved with.”
Note: This article was updated to correct a reference to Visconti producing David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. That 1972 album was produced by Bowie and Ken Scott.