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I first saw the name of Tony Visconti on a David Bowie album, as a producer, and of all the records he has produced, the Bowie records are the most well known. Though he passed on producing the single, Space Oddity, and didn't produce Bowie's breakthrough album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, he produced many of David's best albums, from the beginning of his career to more recent ones like Heathen. The Man Who Sold the World, Low, Heroes, Diamond Dogs, Scary Monsters, Young Americans and Lodger were all produced by Visconti. Eleven of David Bowie's albums were produced by Visconti, along with lots of other projects over the years. Visconti played various instruments and did string arrangements, all part of his job as record producer. He was friends with Bowie from the beginning, and even played bass in an early Bowie band that might have been the first glam rock band, The Hype. Visconti was just a fledgling producer, young and hungry, and he couldn't convince the suits at his label that Bowie was destined for stardom. Once he became Ziggy Stardust, rock star, he turned to his old pal Tony time and again.
One of Visconti's other projects that would one day bear fruit was Marc Bolan and his band T. Rex, which began as just Marc on acoustic guitar and Steve Peregrine Took on bongo drums. Soon Bolan would go electric, and not long after, just two weeks shy of his 30th birthday, he would die in a car accident on September 16th, 1977. Visconti worked with the creative but egotistical Bolan on most of his best albums, such as My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair... But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows, The Slider, Electric Warrior, Tanx, and Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow (Bolan was tremendously jealous of Bowie, but was this last title a kind of tribute to Ziggy?).
While Bolan and Bowie were perhaps his best known clients, he produced an amazing variety of albums for other artists, such as Gentle Giant, Iggy Pop, Adam Ant, Badfinger, Morrissey, Linda McCartney, The Strawbs, Thin Lizzy, Osibisa, Mary Hopkin (who he was married to, and had 2 kids with), Rick Wakeman, and Sparks. His autobiography covers an amazing career, and also details Visconti's other interests, such as martial arts, Buddhism, The Alexander Technique, and reincarnation. As the book focused mostly on music, and music that I have loved and listened to for years, wondering how exactly it was produced, I found it to be hard to put down. For me, it was the ultimate page turner. I blazed through it in just a few days. When I was done, I felt like Tony Visconti was an old friend of mine, and I wished I could just call him up and talk to him. I found his website and joined his MySpace page.
Tony Visconti has been married four times and admits that music was his one true love, and that he bears most of the blame for the breakup of his relationships. He was married to Mary Hopkin, who was perhaps best known for her hit song, Those Were the Days. He loved her voice and recorded lots of material of her singing, but she hated touring, and no labels wanted to release her records if she wasn't going to tour in support of them. He had 2 kids with Hopkin, and he also had 2 kids with another wife, May Pang. May Pang was best known for being John Lennon's girlfriend during a turbulent period when he was separated from Yoko Ono, and Pang describes this in her book John Lennon: The Lost Weekend that she wrote along with Henry Edwards.
Tony's book begins with Tony as a boy in Brooklyn with a keen interest in music who worked in the Catskills and knew show biz people like Milton Berle, but when he heard The Beatles he knew that he wanted to go to London and learn the strange alchemy they used to get their sounds. Opportunity met preparation when he bumped into record producer Denny Cordell who was in New York to record with US jazz musicians for a track for singer Georgie Fame. Cordell didn't have any arrangements, thinking the jazz players could just wing it, but the eager young Visconti knew that wasn't the way it was done, and was able to sketch out some quick arrangements for the session. This led to his being asked to work in London in 1967, and soon he was assisting Cordell with groups like The Move, Manfred Mann, Joe Cocker, and Procol Harum. He was in the right place at the right time, and became one of the main movers and shakers during this fertile period.
While recording in Berlin with David Bowie he stopped by the Berlin Wall to kiss his girlfriend. David Bowie was watching from his window and was inspired to write the following lyrics:
I can remember
By the wall
And the guns
Shot above our heads
And we kissed
As though nothing could fall
1968: My People Were Fair And Had Sky In Their Hair...But Now They're Content To Wear Stars On Their Brows [Vinyl] - Tyrannosaurus Rex
1970: The Man Who Sold the World - David Bowie
1971: Acquiring the Taste - Gentle Giant
1972: The Slider - T. Rex
1977: The Idiot - Iggy Pop
1977: Low - David Bowie
1977: Heroes - David Bowie
1985: Vive le Rock - Adam Ant
2006: Ringleader of the Tormentors - Morrissey
Read all about it in tony visconti, the autobiography. Tony Visconti sums it all up with these three quotes from some of the artists he has worked with:
'Life's a gas.' Marc Bolan
'Life's a pigsty.' Morrissey
'We could be heroes.' David Bowie
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Bowie's longtime producer has his own tale to tell about a life in music. The not-so young American's been a respected producer since the days of Carnaby Street London, working with Denny Cordell on the brilliant early records by Procul Harum and the Move. As Morrisey attests to in his reverential introduction, it's the Seventies that will be always Visconti's decade, when he produced some of the best work by three crucial acts: T.Rex, Thin Lizzy and, of course, David Bowie. If there's a villain of the piece, it's Marc Bolan of T.Rex, glam-rock icon and mercurial, monstrous ego. Visconti nurtured his career from the outset, and the stories of their early friendship are painfully undercut by contrasting accounts of Bolan's extraordinary cheapness, such as browbeating Visconti to accept a lower producer's royalty or keeping his band on the same retainer even as record sales for classics like Electric Warrior and The Slider went through the roof.
Recollections of producing Thin Lizzy are less acrimonious; exasperating though Phil Lynott and his hard-partying band mates were to work with, a mutual love of rock `n' roll resulted in electric broadsides like Bad Reputation, Black Rose, and the mega-hit Live & Dangerous, the highly overdubbed nature of which Visconti now admits to in a detailed technical explanation/defense of studio trickery. We also get interesting encounters with Iggy, Jagger, Bono, and Linda McCartney -- Macca himself reenters the story periodically like a god descending from Olympus -- and a brief troll through various lesser productions over the past decades, from the sublime (Gentle Giant, the Alarm) to the ridiculous (Zaine Griff, Haysi Fantayzee), as well as heartfelt accounts of the passionate yet failed marriages to "Beatle babes" Mary Hopkin and May Pang.
Of course, no reader cracks this book without hoping for substantial insight into David Bowie, and here Visconti delivers the goods in style. Despite lengthy gaps later, Visconti was involved in Bowie's career from just after the release of David's quirky vaudevillian debut and was as much band member and music director as studio mastermind. We learn a good deal about David's writing style: lots of jamming and experimentation (melodies and lyrics always added later), his collaborations with Eno on the famous Berlin Trilogy, his perfectionism, and clearly his recognition that Visconti could be counted on to give frank advice and bring a cool head and consummate skill to the mixing table.
Visconti doesn't skirt the rupture in their relationship, when Bowie chose Nile Rodgers as producer for Let's Dance, earning a multi-platinum hit but beginning a period of musical exile for Visconti (and mediocre product from Bowie) that ended in the late Nineties with their collaboration on Heathen, a worthy return to form for both artists. One can see the mistakes that Visconti made to bring about that separation (ego, drugs, misplaced priorities), but given the solid records their partnership has since produced, and Visconti's role in breathing new life into Bowie's concert catalogue (Stage, Ziggy Stardust the Movie, and the utterly resurrected David Live), it's all water under the bridge - Visconti's own choice of phrase for many of the bad choices recounted, along with the good, in this fine autobiography.