James Attlee talked to top producer ALAN SHACKLOCK about everything from studio battles with Meatloaf to the questionable ethics of chart hyping by zealous evangelicals
The wall in front of EMl's Abbey Road studio bears witness to the fact that to many people, the place remains a kind of shrine. Thousands of rock and roll tourists over the years have walked the zebra-crossing immortalised on the cover of the Beatles' 'Abbey Road' album and have scrawled a personal message to their heroes on the low white wall outside the studio. They must keep some EMI employee busy with a whitewash bucket.
Two recent additions catch my eye: someone has written "John Lennon died for your sins." Below this, a visitor from Germany has added, "on the first day God made Liverpool. On the second day He made the Beatles. On the third day He gave up." Pop theology: concise, witty and off-the-wall.
Alan Shacklock is at work in Studio Two on the soundtrack of a film, called Buddy's Song, which will star an old friend, former Who frontman Roger Daltrey. A quiet, almost diffident man in personal life, Alan in the studio has the air of someone who knows exactly what he wants and how to get it. On projects like this film soundtrack this single-mindedness has led to him creating much of the music himself - with the aid of a battery of sophisticated equipment that would baffle the uninitiated.
As I arrive, the studio team are searching for an additional percussion sound for the rhythm track. The two engineers are full of bright ideas. "I've got a great sample somewhere," says one "it's of a car door slamming - when it's mixed back in the track it sounds great, honest." Alan hears it and dismisses it speedily. With digital recording techniques and an infinite variety of sounds to choose from decisiveness is a vital quality in a producer. Time is money - and money makes the records go round.
Alan's first hit as a producer was with a record called "I'm In Demand, I Am The Beat," by a group called The Look, in 1980 (see CR Issue 2). This was just the beginning of a production career that has lasted a decade and covered the spectrum of popular music, from punk through heavy rock to soul, musicals and mainstream pop.
The first group to approach Alan after his success with The Look were Dexys Midnight Runners. Two singles followed, but the project was robbed of success by wrangles between the band and their record company. Work with the Steve Gibbons Band followed, and then Alan heard from a group called JoBoxers.
"I went to see them at a rehearsal and I was very impressed with them - me being a 60s soul boy as I was, I liked what they were doing. I think the singer Dig Wayne - he was from New York if I remember - was very ahead of his time as far as the rap thing goes. He was actually doing all that then in his own way - incorporating it into the music. He must be flattered to be one of the innovators of it. Anyway we got on great and we had two top ten records - 'Boxer Beat' and 'Just Got Lucky'."
Today they may be the perfect candidates for a "Whatever Happened To..." column, but in 1983 Jo Boxers made quite an impression on a British public always hungry for a new look with their prohibition-era chic. The records were pretty neat too. In America, MTV picked up the video for "Just Got Lucky" and gave Alan his first American hit, and enquiries began to come in across the Atlantic. But it was British group The Alarm that next benefited from the Shacklock production skills.
Mike Peters, the group's singer, has made no secret of his Christian commitment - did this play any part in Alan's involvement?
"Mike and I got on well musically irrespective of being Christians - that was a bonus point really, that we're both working for the Lord as it says, wherever it says, Colossians or something - 'do everything as if working for the Lord.' I started to go and watch them play live, and there was a very exciting buzz about The Alarm in the early 80s - they were playing around in clubs. I think they had one record out, 'The Stand,' and I went to see them in a couple of London clubs and the audience were singing all the songs. That's very interesting, when you have a band who don't have an album out, but they have a really good street following. That helped us along with the first records because all those great kids went out and bought the records."
Alan's collaboration with The Alarm led to one of his more turbulent assignments, to produce American rock star Meatloaf.
"Meatloaf heard The Alarm and he phoned me at home, I don't know how he got my number, and said 'This is Meatloaf - would you consider coming and producing my record?'"
Alan did produce and arrange the "Bad Attitude" LP but word on the grapevine was that all did not go completely smoothly - something to do with the artist not being willing to give up artistic control to his producer?
"It was a stormy time in my career. Meatloaf and I didn't quite see eye to eye at times - musically it was tough towards the end. It happens on projects - it had gone on four months and I didn't end up mixing the record - A feller called Mac mixed it and did a very good job; we got a hit from it called "Modern Girls'."
During the making of the album Alan was asked to find another male vocalist to sing a duet with Meatloaf, and he rang up Roger Daltrey. He and Daltrey first met when Alan's group Babe Ruth supported The Who in 1974, and the two had remained in touch.
During the session Alan said to Daltrey "don't you make records yourself anymore?" That question led to a phone call from Daltrey a few days later, and eventually to an album, 'Under A Raging Moon', that was massively successful in the AOR charts in America.
"We took a small band out on tour in 1985. I played keyboards and we had Russ Ballard and Clem Clempson on guitar, Stuart Elliot on drums that was a good band. Roger was invited to do a Charity Show at Madison Square Gardens which was a lot of fun. We played all those old Who hits and our own album as well to promote it, and it got very big acclaim. To all intents and purposes that was a gold album, and I went on to do a second album with Roger. Now I'm working with Roger again on this film. He's starring in the film, he's not on the album - the artist on this record is called Chesney Hawkes, son of Chip Hawkes of the Tremeloes."
Other projects included the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical 'Starlight Express' - "Andrew's stuff was mostly Radio 2 so they called me up and said would you come in and hooliganise it a bit and get it onto Radio 1" - and a single with Jeff Beck.
"Jeff was a boyhood guitar hero, still is - he's a very special man on the guitar, he's pretty unbelievable. It's funny how he comes into the studio with grease on his hands all the time, all over his hands - he's a car fanatic, absolute car fanatic, and he'll come in and say 'sorry I've been working on the car.' He'll get grease all over the guitar - 'sounds better that way' he'll say."
Clients were not all from the dinosaur school of ancient rock heroes. In 1986 Alan's production made a hit out of the first release by a new group, It Bites, while 1990 has seen more chart success with another British pop outfit. And Why Not.
"Island called me about And Why Not, and I heard the music and I was very interested in the style. It didn't sound like a black group when I first heard it. They're three very creative guys - the lyrics are interesting. When we started the record it was their first time ever in the studio, they'd just done some little demos at home with their own manager, and they weren't quite up to playing a lot of it, so I helped them out with a lot of the playing - some of the guitar stuff, and I did all of the keyboards on the record, and I helped them with some of the solos."
Away from the spotlight there was another side to Shacklock the musician - as a member of a local church he was well aware of the new wave of worship songs being composed. He was also aware of the upsurge in contemporary Christian bands, and wondered if his production skills could benefit the Church in some way.
"I think it was Lynn Green and Lawrence Singlehurst from YWAM who put us in touch with Graham Kendrick, because we're friends of theirs - Lawrence said to me that Graham wanted to make a record for the March For Jesus, and I said 'well, who does he want to produce it', and he said 'how about yourself, and I said 'that would be great'. I was very flattered when Graham called, because being a musician in my church I was playing a medley of his hits every Sunday! Of course I'm a great admirer of the man. I think we should honour him really, an unbelievable songwriter for the Christian, the new Charles Wesley or whatever you want to call him.
"Of course, Abbey Road gave the studio time all free - about £4000 worth of studio time - and supplied all the engineers for us. Everybody did it for free as all the proceeds were going a children's' charity. I played all the instruments on it except the overhead cymbals - Graham had his drummer come in and do that. I did most of it at home with my friend Brian Smith the programmer, and we made the actual recording in a day - two days I should say, because the choir came in on the second day when I'd done the backing track."
The record certainly has a contemporary feel, with a big drum sound and a searing soul-gospel section that added a new dimension to the song.
"Carol was fabulous - she really added an air of cross-over to the record, which was the idea - I felt it would cross a few barriers with black and white. If Graham had sung the whole thing, bless him, fine, but I put a place in the record for this girl as I constructed the song - and then of course it developed into a big party at the end, which was wonderful, because obviously we're celebrating Jesus and that's hopefully how the record came across, how I wanted it to. It should have done better in the charts."
This was the second concerted attempt by the Christian community to assault the charts after Heartbeats' 'Tears From Heaven1 in 1987, and again the dreaded word "hype" was being heard with relation to the way certain church leaders and other high-profile Christians were encouraging the faithful to buy the record by the bucket-load.
"We all want to see Graham in the charts, don't we?" I remember one speaker urging the crowd waiting patiently in the drizzle to begin the London March For Jesus, as technicians struggled to achieve a satellite link-up with another crowd somewhere else in the country.
"Well yes, but only if he's made a decent record", is surely the only reasonable reply. The thinking seems to be that if a Christian can get into the charts and mention Jesus, droves will repent and revival will break out. Tell that to George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers - it certainly sounds easier than preaching five times a day and riding the length and breadth of Britain and America in all weathers on horseback. What did Alan think of the hype scandal?
"It's dangerous, because you can go round to all the churches and say 'come on' - I wish I could do it to all my records! But it's dangerous because it is hype and you don't want to get on the back of that. What you really want is a situation where everyone sees the cause, sees the record is going to be the theme tune for the march and then say 'look I'll buy it anyway because we know it's going to charity. It'll help somebody out, and we know by buying one it's going to put Graham on TV, because that would be nice - it would raise the profile a bit."
Don't you think that in the long run records by Christian artists simply have to cut it alongside the competition as records?
"The Christian market in this country is working on such a shoestring that it's tough for them to get good quality sounds - they're up against state-of-the-art studios like this one. Artists like Graham can afford a little more because they're selling some records, but the majority of Christian artists are working on such a low level of studio that it's tough for them to get into the state-of-the-art stuff. I wanted that record to sound like 1990, hence the drum machine - as opposed to the demo he'd given me which was acoustic, much more of a Fairport Convention effort. I felt it was okay but I really needed to raise it. I wish there could be a much higher level of work.
"I hope to work with Heartbeat - we've been talking with Ray and I've been down to see them and I'm hoping we can get some music done this year. That's exciting news - and we can worship God in our endeavours. I think Sue's great; she's a really good singer. I'd like to work with Graham again." Alan cups his hands to his mouth as if to shout - "I need the work, Graham!"
As readers of the interview in issue 2 will know, I first met Alan before I was a Christian, working in the music business. Alan witnessed to me, and I have nothing but admiration for the way he conducted himself. Years later looking back I sometimes wondered how he coped. Does he find it hard holding down a producer's job in the pop world that the tabloids so delight in telling us is one of corruption, drugs and sleaze? (Sounds like a job in popular journalism.)
"I think in any walk of life the morals aren't going to be great. If you look into business, peoples lives - peoples lives are shattered at times...I think there have been signs along the way, you being one of them, that have confirmed for me that God wants me in it. The singer of a band called Beltane Fire, his name is Clint Bradley, gave his heart to the Lord through me. He came to our church a couple of times, and came to our house. I've seen certain things happen - I don't know whether I'm in it because of that or because its part of my character to make music. I'm very pleased to be making a living from music - it's tough these days."
What reservations does he have about the kind of material he works with?
"I look at the lyrics first - I think I've got to make sure its right for me to do it lyrically - and I often talk to the artist about why they write things down which also gives me a chance to tell them my beliefs. I sat down with Kirk Brandon from Spear Of Destiny and talked to him - but I don't think there's anything there that is dangerously bad. I went to a seminar - Dave Fellingham gave a terrific seminar on music coming from God. All music comes from God but the devil corrupts it and can corrupt it.
"I was pleased to hear that Dave's children are now censoring their own records - they're listening and saying 'Dad I don't think I want to listen to this.' I hope my two will do that. My young one Jesse's already given his heart to the Lord - he's seven - and he's a drummer. If you ever need a drummer James, he's your lad! "I hope I'm in there as salt and light, I really do - I think God's shown me that I am - here and there. I think people have looked in on themselves a couple of times and seen right and wrong. I'm trying to think of something profound to say about this but I can't really - I just feel right where I am, I don't think I could feel more right. I'm pleased to have done what I've done, I'm sure it's been for a purpose."
Saturday 1st September 1990