Tony Visconti: ‘I’ve been a better record producer than I’ve been a husband’

In the storied London rock scene of 1969, Tony Visconti was living a dream, even if he didn’t know the full extent of it at the time. “I used to have these soirees at my apartment in Earl’s Court and, on any given night, I would have Marc Bolan and David Bowie there, and the three of us would be jamming,” he said. “I never thought to record any of that because I had no idea they were going to become legends.”

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As it turned out, the music that Visconti went on to produce for both Bolan and Bowie is part of what turned them into legends. He oversaw the 10 best studio albums Bolan made with T-Rex, as well as many sets with Bowie, including such albums as The Man Who Sold the World, Young Americans, the famed Berlin trilogy, involving Low, Heroes and Lodger, as well as his final, revelatory creation, Black Star.

Those are hardly the only musicians that Visconti’s vision has encompassed. At the dawn of the 1970s, he produced albums that advanced the evolution of British folk, via recordings with Strawbs, Ralph McTell and Mary Hopkin, prog-rock, through bands like Gentle Giant and the Canterbury scene’s Caravan, and African music, courtesy of Osibisa, the Ghanaian-Caribbean rock group who became the first act from that continent to sustain a major career in both the UK and the US. In the decades since, Visconti hasn’t slowed down, working with significant modern acts like Kaiser Chiefs, Damon Albarn’s the Good, the Bad and the Queen, and Esperanza Spalding. “According to my lawyer, I’ve produced about 2,000 recordings,” Visconti said as we talked in his music-crammed apartment in New York’s West Village. “It’s a lot of work.”

Now, there’s finally a representative survey of it, contained in a four-CD, 77-song box set titled Produced by Tony Visconti. The sprawl of artists and styles it features – which includes songs by other key artists he worked with like Thin Lizzy, Procol Harum and Joe Cocker – speaks to the producer’s particular view of his role. “In listening, you’ll realize that there’s no ‘Visconti sound’,” he said. “I’m not Phil Spector, or someone who comes in and says, ‘We’ll do it my way.’ Producing should be a protective occupation. You’re there to make sure an artist’s ideal sound is recorded the way they would like to hear it.”

The artists Visconti has worked with, which often skew British, belie his true background. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he grew up listening to his mother, an amateur singer, perform Neapolitan folk songs and his father, a carpenter, play mandolin and guitar. He learned to play the ukulele at five and soon found he had a flair for a host of instruments.

As a teenager, Visconti sang and wrote songs, including a local hit, performed with his first wife, Siegrid Berman, titled Long Hair, whose lyrics defended young men sporting that androgynous style. (Ironically, Bowie pulled a parallel PR stunt in his youth by creating a fake movement called the “Society for the Protection of Long-Haired Men”). Visconti’s song landed him a job at the giant music publishing company the Richmond Organization, and there he made a crucial connection with Denny Cordell, who held a similar position at Island Records in London. Cordell hired Visconti to assist a session for Georgie Fame that included a complex horn part to be played by the jazz great Clark Terry.

Marc Bolan and Tony Visconti
Marc Bolan and Tony Visconti. Photograph: Redferns

Visconti’s ability to write charts for the musicians in the session saved Cordell an arranger’s fee, prompting him to invite him to work back to London. Inspired by the Beatles’ breakthrough, Visconti already had a strong anglophone streak. “The American bands at the time just played basic rock’n’roll, based on blues chords,” he said. “The British groups used diminished chords, augmented chords, the stuff of jazz. It was really sophisticated.”

Initially, some of the English groups Cordell assigned Visconti to work with were suspicious of him. “With Manfred Mann, there was great animosity,” Visconti said. “My accent and vocabulary was still very American, so every time I’d say a word there would be snickers. It took me a while to get them to trust me.”

From there, Visconti rose fast, becoming one of three American producers who would prove crucial to the development of British rock. They included Jimmy Miller (also from Brooklyn), who worked with Traffic, the Rolling Stones and Blind Faith, and Joe Boyd (from Boston), a linchpin of the UK folk-rock movement who guided the careers of Fairport Convention, Nick Drake and John Martyn. “We all gravitated towards each other,” Visconti said. He worked directly with Miller on the Stones’ 1968 TV special Rock and Roll Circus, writing its incidental music. Another early session he worked on yielded Joe Cocker’s debut album, which featured prominent guitar work from Jimmy Page just before he formed Led Zeppelin. “He was a player-for-hire then,” Visconti said. “For £12, you got three hours.”

Those sessions could be brutal on Cocker. While trying to get his classic primal scream on With a Little Help from My Friends, Cordell had the singer yell out 25 times, potentially breaking a vein. “I never saw anyone be so cruel to another human being,” Visconti said.

At the same time, Cordell encouraged Visconti’s growth, pushing him to scout new talent. His first find was a band then named Tyrannosaurus Rex. “I heard them on John Peel’s show, went down to see them at a club and fell in love,” the producer said. “Marc was like an angel. And his words were more than lyrics. They were poetry.”

On the band’s first four albums, their sound was precious, fey and acoustic, but after Bolan heard Visconti play electric guitar he was inspired to write the rocker Ride a White Swan, a song that shot to No 2 on the British charts in 1970. By the start of the following year, the band shortened its name to T Rex and Bolan created rousing songs like Hot Love, a UK No 1 many believe kicked off the glam-rock movement. Early hippie supporters like Peel were incensed. “He thought he was betraying himself and going for the big money,” Visconti said. “Marc was very hurt by that.”

Meanwhile, Bolan’s success only escalated, fired by Get It On, a worldwide smash, and followed by a string of other massive UK hits. “Marc was so canny,” the producer said. “He created the maxi single, which gave you two B-sides, so kids were getting, essentially, an EP for the price of a single.”

In America, however, T Rex were seen as a one-hit wonder. Visconti blames Bolan himself. “When he came over, he would play Get It On with a 20-minute guitar solo, like he was Jimi Hendrix,” he said. “The kids wanted to hear basic rock’n’roll. His attendance at shows dropped immediately.”

While Visconti loved T-Rex’s rootsy form of rock, he found a more sophisticated – if initially baffling – artist in Bowie. His debut album “was all over the place”, he said. “On some tracks, he sounded like Anthony Newley. Then there was this silly comedy song like The Laughing Gnome, where his voice is speeded up like a pixie.”

Bowie’s manager, Ken Pitt, who, Visconti said, was also Bowie’s lover at the time, wanted him to do West End musicals. “David would have gone that way had he not met me,” the producer said. “Pitt hated me because he felt I took David away from him and convinced him he could be a rock star.”

Tony Visconti works in the Allaire Studios Woodstock, New York, in 2001
Visconti in the Allaire Studios in Woodstock, New York, in 2001. Photograph: Tony Visconti/AP

Even so, Visconti passed on producing Space Oddity, the first single Bowie wanted him to oversee, considering it gimmicky and exploitative of all the attention around Nasa’s Apollo moon shot. Though they came together for the harder rocking album The Man Who Sold the World, Visconti’s hatred of Bowie’s new manager, Tony Defries, meant he didn’t work on the star’s peak glam albums, including Ziggy Stardust. He did, however, produce a live double set in 1974 that featured songs from that era and, the next year, he co-produced Young Americans. Bowie decided to record that set in Philadelphia to capture the city’s classic soul sound, only to find that the style’s creators, including Thom Bell, wouldn’t work with him. “They said, ‘We don’t want some blond guy stealing our sound,’” Visconti recalled. As a wry response, Bowie described his version of the sound as “plastic soul”. While the result became a success, at the time Bowie was deep into cocaine, imperiling his health. “The only thing he would take in was a glass of milk,” the producer said. “He was getting no nutrition. I said, ‘What the hell are you doing to yourself?’ I honestly thought we were going to lose him.”

Thankfully, he rallied for the Berlin trilogy, which Visconti believes represents some of his most adventurous work. The series kicked off with the highly uncommercial album Low, which represented Bowie’s reaction to the label constantly bugging him to make Ziggy Two. While its follow-up, Heroes, was more assertive, fired by what Visconti called “a Wagnerian energy”, it retained a great sense of daring. The duo reached a creative zenith on Scary Monsters in 1980, an album they considered “our Sgt Pepper”. Immediately afterwards, however, Bowie had his assistant call Visconti to tell him that, for his next project, he wanted to work with Nile Rogers. “I was crushed!” Visconti said.

Although he wasn’t a fan of Bowie’s breakthrough single with Rogers, Let’s Dance, “it became his first world-wide No 1 hit, which was its purpose,” he said. Soon, Visconti had his own massive hit in the UK with Best Years of Our Lives, by the pop group Modern Romance. He went on to produce a wide range of hit artists, from the Boomtown Rats to Elaine Paige, extending his will to create as eclectic a catalogue as possible. In that vein, Visconti is particularly proud of his groundbreaking work with Gentle Giant. “They were the most experimental band I ever worked with,” he said.

He’s proud, too, of his work with Hopkin, who became his second wife, and the mother of two of his four children. (His other two children are by his third wife, May Pang, known for her romantic relationship with John Lennon.) “When Mary Hopkin sings, she makes you a slave to her singing,” Visconti said. “It’s the purest voice, with the deepest sense of longing.”

He becomes emotional when discussing another stand-out work in his career: Blackstar. The day before recording began, Bowie requested a private meeting with Visconti, during which he took off the woolly cap he was wearing to reveal a head made bald by chemotherapy. He told the producer he was only strong enough to record a few hours a day. “There were days he couldn’t come in,” Visconti said. “But when he got in front of the microphone, he sang his balls off. I’d never seen him happier.”

Bowie was especially thrilled to be making an album with real jazz musicians in the Donny McCaslin Band, something he’d never done before. He fully expected to survive his cancer, so it shocked Visconti to the core when he died two days after the album appeared. “I did a lot of crying,” he said. “It was like losing a best friend.”

In that context, the producer has a special appreciation for his ability to keep working as he approaches his 80th birthday next year. “It’s almost 60 years that I’ve been doing this,” he said. “In that time, I’ve been a better record producer than I’ve been a husband. When you’re listening to this box set, you’re hearing my true love.”

  • Produced by Tony Visconti is out on 20 October