Meeting with Tony Visconti, April 1985.
Posted: June 26, 2011 by culturedebunker
In the mid-1980s I was in a band called The Flaming Mussolinis and we got a record contract with CBS subsidiary label Portrait, after years of struggling. We never made it big, but we had moments when it nearly happened for us. But that is another story…We made some demos at Good Earth studios in London and while there I was thrilled and privileged to meet Tony Visconti, Marc’s producer for all of his best work. It was Tony’s studio after all.
There was talk of Visconti producing us (my idea of course!) and I met up with him to talk it over. Tony liked my songs – he could hear the obvious Marc influence in songs like ‘My Cleopatra’ (a very Marc chorus he said) and one called ‘Masuka Dan’ ( ‘a very Marc title – Marc would have liked that!’ Tony said)
Of course, I asked Tony about Marc Bolan. At first he was a bit reluctant, but then opened up as he could obviously see I was a big fan.
He agreed to meet me in private for a talk, which I did about a week later. I asked Tony if he minded some questions? He obliged.
First off, I thanked Tony for his part in Marc’s success story. Because Tony was very important to that, gradually making that T.Rex sound in his production, the one that would yield many hits for Marc. ‘Producers are often overlooked too much’ I said. Tony just nodded, smiled and said ‘Thank you’.
I asked him to talk me through the recording process of ‘Get it on’ as an example. Tony told me that Marc played him the song sometime around April 1971, having demoed it at home. (He had in fact written the song in America on the short tour there just after ‘Hot Love’ was a big hit) Tony said he knew it was something special – Marc’s own kind of tribute to Chuck Berry, as he was thinking of doing some cover versions in the ‘Electric Warrior’ sessions, but decided to write his own. ‘Marc ran the band through the song, and then when it was tight, we recorded a basic backing track of bass, drums, Marc’s guide guitar (which stayed on the final recording usually) and guide vocal Then we went to the overdubs: usually another electric guitar and two acoustics, with Marc double tracking his vocals…the other things, like strings and backing vocals were added later’ he told me.
‘I would use a kind of echo on Marc’s vocals, and put a reverb on the track, compressing the sound’ said Tony. Tony told me that Marc had not wanted strings on the track but then when Tony played him the part ‘a very simple one’ – Marc smiled and nodded ‘yeah great!’ Tony told me that Marc liked to work quickly and sometimes this frustrated bass player Steve and drummer Bill, as they often had not worked out their parts properly. However, on this occasion, the band were full on tight and the recording, according to Tony was ‘in the can quickly’.
What about Mickey Finn? I asked.
‘Oh Mickey was very easy going and went along with things. He had a great humour about him’ said Tony. ‘Marc wanted to keep things fresh, he was trying to capture an exciting rock n roll performance…and he was right, we did!’ smiled Tony.
How did Tony rate Marc as a guitarist I wondered?
‘Marc was no Jimmy Page, but he came up with really great and fitting lead parts…he would often just play along to the backing track and usually, that was the take’ said Tony. ‘He was a very good guitarist I would say and once David (Bowie) wanted Marc in his band!’ (This was when David had formed a band called The Hype and before he met guitarist Mick Ronson) Tony laughed ‘there was no way that was going to happen – Marc had to be the leader!’
I asked him how it felt when ‘Hot Love’ got to number one for six weeks – Marc’s first.
‘When we finished recording that song, I remember looking at Marc during the play back and he had a big smile on his face, with a look in his eye that said ‘this is gonna be huge!’…We were a little bit nervous of following up ‘Ride a white swan’, he admitted. But not Marc! He just knew it would be a hit but even he was taken by surprise at how big it all became’…
Tony said he was walking on air for the rest of that year.
‘We all were, the feeling with Marc and the band was pure joy…everyone was very happy during that time…it just got bigger and bigger’…
I then diverted a bit and asked Tony about Marc’s unfinished ‘Children of Rarn’ album that he has talked about making just before the big success. For those who don’t know it was going to be a concept album with a story book – a kind of mythological tale, very Tyrannosaurus Rex, but with some rock tracks like T.Rex.
Tony sighed. That could have been Marc’s ‘Sgt Pepper’…but he changed his mind, always saying he would come back to it. But he never did.’
Tony did manage to get Marc to record some songs for it (released on the posthumous ‘Marc’ double album in 1978) ‘Other songs he used as b-sides…’King of the mountain cometh’ was meant for ‘Rarn’.
I was amazed by this as I had never heard this information before.
‘That T.Rex album, with the Marc and Mickey colour cover…some of those songs on there were for ‘Rarn’ too’ said Tony. Tony however did not indicate which ones, saying he could not remember exactly which ones. ‘Marc followed his instinct and he was probably right. But it was a pity we never went back and recorded those songs for it’
Did Marc have all of the songs for ‘Rarn’? I asked. ‘Marc had notebooks crammed full of lyrics and poetry…I am sure he did!’
I then asked Tony what his favourite recording was. I told him mine was ‘Cosmic Dancer’.
‘Yes, that was a great one…Marc left the arrangement to me on that one’ said Tony smiling. Tony told me that in his opinion, ‘Get it on’ was something of a peak creatively, although he really liked the song ‘The Slider’ from the album of the same name too. ‘Marc considered that as a single, but changed his mind. Same with ‘Thunderwing’ but then he came up with ‘Metal Guru’.
I asked him if it was true that Marc was as prolific as he was made out to be. I had heard ‘fan rumours’ that Marc often wrote songs very quickly.
‘That is true. I once saw Marc write the words for ‘Solid Gold Easy Action’ right in front of me in about five minutes.’ ‘Marc was never short of songs. He would just take his notebook out and off we would go’ Tony said. It had frustrated Tony that ‘The Slider’ was recorded and mixed so quickly. ‘We could have spent more time on making that album great instead of very good’ said Tony.
He also thought that Marc should have put ‘Thunderwing’ on the album and left off another track for a b-side. ‘Flo and Eddie thought so too’ (Marc’s backing singers) said Tony. ‘Marc raced ahead with everything. He was already writing songs for the next album!’ said Tony. He also said that Marc’s ‘big success year, 1972’ was spoiled by legal problems.
‘Marc was managing himself for a while and that was a bad idea’ said Tony.
A court case to try and stop old recordings being released by ex-manager Simon Napier Bell was successful. ‘But these things drained Marc’ said Tony. ‘The pressure started to get to him during that year…’ revealed Tony. ‘But mostly, Marc was having a ball…we all were!’ he said.
I asked him about Marc’s friendship with David Bowie.
Tony said ‘They were friends, sure, but professional rivals…Marc said some silly things in the press about David, but they made it up. The press was a game to Marc’…said Tony. Tony had promised to show me some private photos and some tapes he had. And he did! I had never seen them before: candid studio shots and pictures of Tyrannosaurus Rex around Tony’s flat.
The recordings he played me were Marc talking through what he wanted for ‘The Children of Rarn’ that he never completed. ‘In this bit…strings come in…like (and he mimicked them with his voice!)’ It was a magical feeling and I felt time stand still. It was also incredibly moving to hear Marc’s voice like that – like he was in the room with us. Also, a song I had never heard, that sounded like an early version of ‘Children of the Revolution’, a blues rock song with a line that went ‘don’t give me bad news…I got the teenybop blues!’… Tony told me that Marc was probably just riffing and making it up as he went along. ‘He wrote songs, put down ideas all the time’ said Tony.
Tony told me that Marc was having dinner around his house and ‘suddenly leapt up from the chair saying ‘I got to get this down’…‘He was thinking about songs all the time, even when you thought he wasn’t, he would take out his notebook and write lines down’…
I had felt incredibly privileged to talk to Tony. He opened up to me although I could sense he was a little bit cautious too, which was understandable. My band never got to work with Tony though, which was my biggest single disappointment. The record company said he was ‘too expensive and not a current enough producer’. I remember arguing with my A@R man saying ‘This is crazy! Tony is a legend!’ But they would not go with it. I felt very embarrassed as I told Tony myself of the outcome. He was nice and understanding but his final words to me were: ‘Marc would not have taken that, you know Alan. Maybe you need to take a lesson from Marc and be more like a lion about things!’
I put down the phone and felt deflated. He was right. I did try again but my management said ‘leave it, they will not go with it, no matter what you say’…It had been like a dream to me to talk to Tony.
I am happy to share this with fans of Marc, even though Tony said to me as a joke ‘now don’t be going to the press with that will you?’…