❉ We Are Cult’s Eoghan Lyng chats with one of rock’s most prolific record producers about his work with XTC, Magazine, PiL and more.
1978 was a time of punk, new wave and other forms of exciting crests of music. John Leckie managed to capture much of it on tape. He had the credentials for it, having cut his teeth as a tape operator at Abbey Road, including capturing many of the vibes of the excellent All Things Must Pass record. “Phil Spector was fantastic” Leckie replies. “Very funny man, one of the first gigs I had. I think Phil brought a lot out of George Harrison, saying let’s have all our mates in, twenty-four people playing on it rather than just four Beatles. Eric Clapton brought the Derek and The Dominoes guys along, so there were was a lot of great guitars and equipment, very peace and love. I don’t know who else could have produced it, maybe Chris Thomas who did White Album stuff and was something like George’s assistant, but Phil was great. We were hard at work, we’d start at four in the afternoon, we’d continue until morning break with three or four hours sleep, recording two songs a day for the triple album. It’s a fantastic record”. Another seminal record he worked on in 1970, Barrett, was a different affair. “I never spoke to Syd, maybe I gave him a cup of tea as the tape op. He was very stoned and out there, not in an extroverted way, but an introverted one!”
With a number of notches under his belt (including stints with Roy Harper, Wings and Mott The Hoople), it was little wonder he was one of the go-to operators/producers of 1978. He helped hone the craft of two great Scottish acts, The Skids, and, before they were stadium wonders, Simple Minds.
“I met Simple Minds when they were very young, I was at a New Years Ball with a record person where I met them. I first stayed with Jim Kerr with his Mum in Glasgow, sharing a room with his brother. Fantastic people, we were close friends, probably still are. This was years before Promised You a Miracle and all that stuff. This was when Bruce Findlay owned an independent label, he had shops everywhere. Simple Minds were big fans of the Doctors of Madness, and they were relieved when they heard I’d produced them. All the Glasgow guys would go to gigs, if Simple Minds played at the London Marquee, they’d all go and that’s where I bumped into Richard Jobson. This was a time when Be-Bop Deluxe were big, really big, they were, I guess, quasi-Roxy Music, and Stuart Adamson somehow bought Bill Nelson’s white guitar from the Axe Victim sleeve. Stuart was a big fan of theirs. Dave Bachelor produced The Skids album and I produced the first three Simple Minds albums”.
Leckie would also produce the extraordinarily seismic and visceral sounding Real Life, Magazine’s superb debut. It’s a masterwork that features in nicely in perennial best of lists (The Guardian, Sounds, Uncut and 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die have all made reference to it). What’s the secret? “It holds up because it sounds cosmic and futuristic.” Leckie replies. “It’s guitars, vocals, bass and drums, electronics and guitars, I call it. Dave Formula does fantastic stuff there, in some ways it’s hard to be a keyboard player, either you have to do the virtuosity stuff or hit crazy buttons which Dave I think does and it’s a great record. John McGoech, who is sadly no longer with us, went on to play with Public Image Ltd later”. Howard Devoto, lyricist and frontman, had previously been in The Buzzcocks with Pete Shelley. “I never met Pete. As far as I was concerned Magazine were much more advanced, The Buzzcocks were just a Manchester punk band, Magazine had more colours to their palette, they pushed things musically”.
Leckie seems to have veered towards the art-centred throughout his career. XTC, a band he worked with on their White Music (1978) debut, were a band who had an interest in the innovational; as they changed from New Wave and Punk to songs more decidedly sixties and psychedelic in the mid-eighties, they changed their moniker to The Dukes of Stratosphear (a project, again, with Leckie at the controls). Leckie speaks very fondly of them.
“XTC were the best band I ever worked with” Leckie beams. “They were fantastic. Funniest band, greatest quality of music of any band. I mean, Colin and Terry and Andy were all fantastic in their own right, which Andy might not be able to deal with. I haven’t seen Colin for years, but I bumped into Terry Chambers when he came back from Australia recently, he and Colin have a new record, I believe. Lovely guys. The Dukes stuff was fantastic, very different to punk but very English, a Lewis Carroll kind of psychedelia. I think The Stone Roses [a band Leckie worked with in 1989] enjoyed the psychedelic sounds of the Dukes songs”.
John Lydon’s follow up band to The Sex Pistols Public Image Ltd announced recently announced the fortieth anniversary “The Public Image Is Rotten Tour” on their Twitter page. With ex Clash guitarist Keith Levene at his side, Leckie produced their first (and, perhaps, best) single Public Image. “I only did the one single. I produced it, but initially, I wasn’t credited for the single. I’d left Abbey Road, so I was freelancing for a bit, loosely freelancing, but I was doing a lot for Virgin, so they gave me the gig. I’d just done an album with Wilko Johnson, who’d left Dr. Feelgood and I was working like crazy, little to no sleep. I met PIL at Advision, this really big studio, an almost theatrical one, great equipment, I did it with Ken Thomas, no relation to Chris Thomas [Beatle/Sex Pistols producer], who’d go on to do stuff with Sigur Ros later. It was chaos, definitely, but these guys in PIL could really play”.
A lot has changed since 1978. How has recording changed, either for the better or the worse? “That’s a tricky question, you’ll be at either end of the fence or the other, some saying the old ways are better, others the new ways. Big question. I suppose recording’s more controlled and manipulated, which goes both ways, sometimes you want less control. We used to do records in something like six weeks in a studio, and now people can fiddle with music on their laptops for an age. Depends on what you want, really”.
Many of us at We Are Cult want the music of the seventies, and for his involvement with those great, indelible records, that’s something more than enough for us.
❉ Main image credit: John Leckie with XTC in the background at Virgin Manor Studios. © Richard Coward. All rights reserved
❉ Eoghan Lyng is a writer, part-time English teacher and full-time lover of life.