What does a producer do on a record? I have often wondered this, as the evidence suggests that they either do (i) too much, or (ii) not enough. The heavy rock producer Steve Albini legendarily limits his contribution to switching on the equipment and pressing ‘record’. The band bashes out the song, Albini switches off the equipment and everyone goes for a hearty lunch. By this studied policy of non-intervention, Albini seeks to reproduce a band at its most raw and primal. You don’t go to him if you want fancy keyboard fills or a symphony orchestra wheeling away in the background. Indeed, Albini is so fast that he ‘produces’ more records than anyone else would be able to. Not that he uses the word ‘producer’ any more. These days, his records are just ‘engineered by Steve Albini’.
At the other end of the spectrum lies Trevor Horn. So fantastically produced are his records — and I love them, have loved them for years — that what you can hear feels like only a small proportion of what’s actually there. Much as you try to pick apart the record in your head, you can’t do it: the countless different tracks all meld into a seamless whole. When this works, as on Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Left To My Own Devices’ or Yes’s ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’, it’s magnificent. When it doesn’t, as on some of Rod Stewart’s more flatulent recent albums, it seems like a lot of work for very little effort.
Horn works at his own pace, as they always say of someone who works so slowly no one can quite believe it. When commissioned to produce an album for Grace Jones he spent so long (and so much money) on one track, ‘Slave To The Rhythm’, that the album was made up only of different versions of ‘Slave To The Rhythm’. Paul McCartney once brought him in to produce a song of his, on the condition that they recorded, overdubbed and mixed it all in one day. Six months later the track was finished.
Sometimes, though, as all our record collections demonstrate, the right producer can achieve marvels. The best recent example on my playlist is Stackridge’s 2009 album A Victory For Common Sense. Forgive me for mentioning it yet again, but still no one has bought this, for my money the outstanding British pop-rock album of the past few years. Stackridge were always a shambolic outfit, over-reliant on whimsy and apparently changing line-ups by the day. But this album was produced by Chris Thomas, an old lag of the first water, and he helped them make something wonderful, full of memorable tunes, sharp lyrics and some surprisingly fierce guitar-playing. Oddly enough, their previous best album, 1973’s The Man In The Bowler Hat, was produced by George Martin. He wasn’t bad either. They obviously need someone in the control room who is strong and creative and can stop them bashing each other’s heads in with clubs. I do hope they rehire Thomas for the next one, if there is a next one.
The best producers never forget that pop is a collaborative medium, something their clients are often happy to let slip their minds. Nigel Godrich tried to provoke Paul McCartney out of his comfort zone when they were working on Chaos And Creation In The Backyard in 2005 (and it’s a comfort zone yet to be fully mapped by geographers). Their collaboration produced some of McCartney’s best songs and performances in a quarter of a century, but it hasn’t been repeated, and doesn’t seem likely to be.
The true value of the producer, though, is demonstrated on my new favourite album, King Creosote and Jon Hopkins’s Diamond Mine (Domino). Mr Creosote, real name Kenny Anderson, is a Scottish folk singer of extraordinary fecundity, who knocks out albums even faster than Steve Albini. Most have been painfully lo-fi. One or two were made with record company cash and were correspondingly overproduced. His rather plaintive voice may not be to all tastes but, it now becomes clear, all he ever needed was the right producer.
Jon Hopkins is a soundscapes man. He has worked with Brian Eno and clearly has a giant brain. Diamond Mine is a work of wide scope and shimmering beauty, and really should have won the Mercury Prize, for which it was shortlisted last year. All we can hope is that it represents the beginning of a glorious partnership, and not the end as well. This is the fan’s never-ending lament: more, please, more, and as soon as you can, if that’s at all possible.