James Attlee met up with hitmaking record producer ALAN SHACKLOCK to talk about his rock'n'roll origins and Christian faith.
I first met Alan Shacklock when he produced a band I was playing guitar with, back in 1983. The group was called Language, a fairly obscure dance-music outfit, who released a single on Stiff Records and a single on A&M in the UK, and a single and a mini-album, which had some success in the clubs in the States, on A&M America, before disappearing into the bargain bins.
Alan was different to the producers I had worked with up to that point. He ran a tight ship, with at least the early stages of recording restricted to civilized daylight hours. It was made clear from the outset that he didn't like drugs in the studio. His ego appeared under control - indeed, he appeared positively normal - and best of all, he seemed genuinely interested in us as people, and in encouraging us to give all we could creatively to the recording.
One evening, during a recording break, we went together to 'zap some aliens' on the studio Space Invaders machine. There was an in-house competition on at the time, and excitement was running high: when my little pink alter ego met his nemesis on the screen, I blasphemed. Alan gently but firmly rebuked me, explaining that I was taking the name of his Saviour in vain. As it happened, God already had his hand on my life, and Alan's words went home with some force, leaving me stumbling over an apology. It wasn't only the small pink people with wiggly legs who got hit that night. I lost touch with Alan after that, but within a year I had become a Christian myself. The Shacklock career remained on the ascendant and I watched it from a distance, always meaning to give him a ring, but never getting around to it. Then we both attended a conference for Christian musicians and worship leaders in 1988, and bumped into each other shortly after arriving, to our mutual astonishment and delight. Alan was thinking of getting involved more directly in the Christian music scene; the first fruit of that decision was the refreshingly contemporary production he gave to Graham Kendrick's "March For Jesus" single, and there are more projects in the pipeline. Meanwhile, he is one of Britain's foremost pop music producers, with a 10-year career and a string of gold records under his belt. The start of his music business involvement lies a lot further back than his first chart success as a producer in 1980, however. I asked him how it all got started.
"I started playing rock and roll in the 60s. I dropped out of school at 15, much to the dismay of my teachers. We got a deal with a record company with a little band we were playing with. I can't even remember the name of the band now - anyway it all fell through after about a year of trying, and then I happened to meet one of my teachers, and she said 'why don't you come back to school and finish off your 'O' levels' - so I said 'well, I'll think about it'. So I went back for an interview with the headmaster, and he said 'well, look - why don't you learn to play the guitar properly?' And I said 'But I can!' And he said 'No you can't, have a listen to this', and gave me a record."
The record was by the great classical guitarist Segovia. Alan took the record home and listened to it, and it was totally unlike anything he'd heard. For one thing, he was convinced there were three people playing. This was Alan's introduction to classical guitar; which became a fascination that led him into a different area of music. He returned to school, where he told the headmaster the record was "brilliant - who are these three guys?" The enlightened teacher convinced him that there was only one musician responsible for the sound, and that Alan should "take a crack at doing it himself." Alan began to study music at school, and won a scholarship to attend the Guildhall part-time, which, as his dad was a postman, would normally have been beyond the family's means. Meanwhile his rock and roll licks were not gathering dust after the discovery of the classical guitar. While still at school, Alan managed to find time to perform with a seminal 60s beat group.
"Not many people know that I was a Thunder-bird - as in Chris Farlowe and the Thunder-birds." [Farlowe was a white soul and R&B singer whose backing band was a training ground for some of the best-known musicians of the '70s.]
"When I was in the sixth form at school a friend of mine told me that Albert Lee, who was then one of my favourite guitarists, was leaving to concentrate on sessions, and they were going to be looking for someone. Of course I used to sit down with records and learn all the licks - or try to! Anyway, I ended up going down to have a play with the band, and they liked what I did." In this way the young Shacklock, unabashed at stepping into his guitar hero's shoes, got to play alongside such luminaries as Carl Palmer, (later to play drums for E.L.P) and John Bonham (tub-thumper for Led Zeppelin). "That was a real experience, two different drumming styles there; Carl was a much more technical drummer, and Bonham came in and stunned us with his volume and his bass-drum foot."
But far away from the clubs and smoke-filled dance halls, another world beckoned. Alan won a place at the Royal Academy of Music, which he was determined to take up, so his days as a Thunderbird were numbered. At the Academy he studied classical guitar, but soon took up the lute, under the encouraging hand of a teacher. This began an enduring fascination with early music, which periodically threatens to become Alan's first career.
Alan Shacklock: Roots of a producer extraordinaire Part 1
"I got very interested in that period of music - I liked the whole freedom of it - it's a bit like jazz. It wasn't so stringent that you had to play every note that way, in fact they don't really know how they played it, it's a very grey area. They've got lots of theories about how lute players played.. You could actually make up the notes in your pieces, which is what I liked about it - improvise a bit."
Alan also studied harmony, composition and orchestration, all of which later proved invaluable training. When he left the Academy, he didn't do the obvious and take up a music teaching job, but put his rock and roll shoes back on, and formed a group called Babe Ruth. While still at college he'd begun composing, and wanted a vehicle for his ideas. The bottomless recording budgets of the early '70s gave him plenty of scope to experiment.
"The freedom of the budgets was incredible - it wasn't like now, stealing every penny. They used to say 'Oh, you want a string section, fine, no problems, have a string section.' I used to write stuff for strings and brass all the time. I remember on our first record I brought in eight cellos. I'd heard the record of 'Bacchaeanus Brasilieras', which is a Villa Lobos piece for eight cellos, and I liked the sound of it, so we just brought eight cellos in to do some stuff. I was watching the production techniques and watching everything as one could in the early '70s, and coming through the '60s. I'd started even back at 4-track - I remember 8-track coming in. Finally we were going to get 16, and everyone was excited. Now of course it's limitless, as you know."
Alan began producing Babe Ruth's albums, and the band achieved stadium success in America and Canada, but remained firmly cult-status in the UK. The group came to a "natural halt" when Alan married his American wife Lee and moved to the States in 1975, where he taught classical and early music.
The last years of the 70s found Alan back in the UK, involved in record production, and at a turning point in his life. The Shacklocks met some Christians, who became very good friends, and Lee became a Christian. This was rather frustrating for Alan, who remained resolutely atheist. "I started to take her to church, sitting outside and waiting for her. I sat out there for an hour, an hour and a half sometimes, when they were having a really good time! And I got kind of annoyed about it. But what happened in 1979 was that a dear friend - we grew up as kids, he was a bass player who played with Jethro Tull, called John Glascock, and we played together in the very first band I told you about when we were kids, right from 10 - John unfortunately died in 1979 of heart failure. I wasn't a Christian at this point, but after the funeral people gathered as they do, and one lady said 'well should we pray for him?' And I, out of the blue, said 'how can we pray, none of us believe in God.' It just came out, I don't know why, and it dawned on me that God was talking to me at that time. He'd got His hand on my shoulder, and He was saying 'You don't believe, do you - but maybe you should'."
Meanwhile Alan's career was at an equally decisive point. He'd been offered a lucrative position teaching early music in America - but he'd just produced a song called "I'm In Demand. I Am The Beat", by a group called The Look and he felt that it might succeed. Which way should he jump? The record company had been trying for eight weeks to get the record on the radio without success. Still Alan was loath to give up on it.'
"It was getting into November-a crucial time when all the big guns came out with their records - everybody was out. Boney M had their white fur coats on, and nobody had any chance! So I got together with my Christian friends one night, and Johnny, my friend, said 'why don't we pray about your career?' At this time I hadn't given my life to the Lord - I was really thinking hard about it. I said 'do you really think it would do any good?' He said 'Sure - I'm sure God will give you an answer whether you should go back to America, or stay here'. So I said 'OK', so we sat down with another friend of ours and prayed. Then on the next Monday - we prayed on Thursday - the record company phoned me and said 'we can't believe this, but Radio One want to play the record now.' So I was almost shaking on the telephone, thinking 'this is the answer'. It came through that they'd done a whole 180-degree turn on it after eight weeks of trying. You can talk to any record plugger and they'll say 'three weeks and a record is dead'. A two-month turnaround is a long time. Then of course the record, against all odds, went right across Christmas. I think in February 1980 it got to number six, which set the record production career off for me, and the phone started to ring, since then it's gone on for 10 years. During this time, I meant to tell you, I did commit my life to the Lord - I don't think there was anything else I could do at this point!"
In the next issue, Alan talks about his work with the likes of Roger Daltrey, It Bites, And Why Not, Meatloaf...and Graham Kendrick.
Sunday 1st July 1990