BootLeg Betty

Interview: ‘It was wonderful…With Midler and Manilow we cut most of it live’

Buenes Aires Herald

Geoffrey Haslam, former Atlantic Records producer

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

‘It was wonderful…With Midler and Manilow we cut most of it live’

Geoffrey Haslam
By Jayson McNamara
Herald Staff
9-5-2012 6-59-46 PM

Born: Northumberland, UK, September 2, 1943
Profession: Music producer
Preferred genres: Jazz, Rock & Roll
Favourite instrument: Clarinet

The Beatles were about and ‘the Stones were already Rolling,’ when in the late 60s Geoffrey Haslam had a chance encounter with the president of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegün, who signed up for a job in NYC as a record producer. On a trip to BA to visit his daughter, Lorna, Haslam sat down with the Herald to talk business… the music business.You were born in the UK, but ended up scoring a job at Atlantic Records in the big smoke, New York City. How did that happen?

I had a very good friend who always had my best interests at heart. She met the president of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegün, and suggested to him that he interview me for a job. I was fiddling around in London, having left my computer job… He interviewed me at the Ritz in London. There was communication and at the end of the interview he said he’d take me on. That’s how is happened.

In essence you were leaving one big musical decade in the UK for another in the US. Do you think you took a bit of 60s Britain with you? Is that something they were looking for?

Smart guy! Apparently. I think there was an understanding in the US that the next phase of the US music business was going to come from England, or had already started… Ahmet’s thinking was, “Here’s Geoffrey, a nice English boy. Maybe he can be part of this English thing.” And it worked up to a point.

Ornette Coleman’s The Art of the Improvisers was one of the first records you worked on…

It was a historical remix from the archives. Ahmet, he and I trolled through the outtakes of the original albums that were produced for Atlantic.

Are you surprised that the genre has lost some of its commercial appeal?

No, I’m not at all surprised. Once jazz had become bebop and very technical, the audience for it became extremely small because very few people can understand what the musicians are doing.

And this could have something to do with the appeal of the type of jazz that preceded it…

Yes, that was the essence of Ornette Coleman, his trademark. He produced this jazz called free jazz. In other words it had no particular form. But like all art, it develops and goes into the next stage. They were experimenting. Where do you go? It’s like pop art.

Speaking of pop art, did you have anything to do with Andy Warhol when you were producing for the Velvet Underground? What’s the story behind that connection?

No, no. The Velvet Underground had been around for a few years. They were still playing in New York when they were signed to Atlantic, and I just had the good luck to bump into them and be able to produce them. The very first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, was produced by Andy Warhol and the Factory. It was an iconic album and just an extraordinary musical sound that hadn’t been heard before.

That album eventually gained cult status, but it’s referred to nowadays as a commercial flop. Your thoughts…

Yes, but then it may not necessarily have been a truly commercial record, even when it was made. There are songs that lend themselves to the thinking that it should have been commercially successful. It had a driving beat and good guitar, and so on.

Though I assume at Atlantic they were looking for commercial potential. Did they see that in the Velvet Underground?

Absolutely, absolutely. There wasn’t one act that was signed to Atlantic that didn’t have commercial potential. But like with all major record companies there are a few acts that are actually selling millions of records and making huge amounts of money, and then there’s everybody else struggling along underneath, still making money. And that Velvet Underground album that I did, called Loaded, apparently is their best selling album. It sold steadily. It was never a huge, huge hit but it was in the charts.

One big name to come out of the Velvet Underground was Lou Reed, who died last year to a huge outpouring of praise about his talent. What do you think he had that other musicians didn’t?

He was an extraordinary songwriter in a certain phase, but his real magic, I always thought, was the way he sang. The sound of his voice was unique, the way he sang was unique, and it was all somehow based around a connection between jazz, Rock & Roll and blues. He had all sorts of influences in his voice and its sound was absolutely magnificent. When he started to sing, you couldn’t stop listening to his voice. That’s him, that’s what the music business is about.

Bette Midler pops up on your CV in the early 70s with the album The Divine Miss M. What was it like making the transition to a Bette Midler record?

Wonderful, absolutely wonderful. Bette Midler was an artist and she had this voice, but she also had a personality. She had developed an act where she could entertain people, especially in gay clubs in New York. She just had a way of performing and at Atlantic, my boss Ahmet, recognized this and signed her. She was extremely lucky in having one of the most talented arrangers and musicians in the US at the time as her keyboard player and arranger, Barry Manilow, who as you know went on to be a superstar in his own right. The production of the record was just wonderful because everybody knew what they were doing. We came into the studio and cut most of it live in the studio, the whole orchestra there, everybody playing, and Bette with a microphone.

In all of this, you were working in New York. What do you remember of the city at the time?

It was hell. It was a dreadful place, filthy, falling apart, nothing worked, the pot holes in the road, indescribable, drunks everywhere and there was violence, it was a violent time. It was so violent that I actually got held up at gun point in the elevator of Atlantic, going to work.

There’s an image of the 70s as a bit of a wild, drug-laden period. How true is that?

It was ridiculous! The music business at that time was fuelled by this unbelievable amount of money through the sales of records. It was phenomenal, nobody had ever forecast or experienced it. Well, an awful lot of that passed into the private hands of the artists and groups… Their behaviour was insane. It was terrible, drugs, drugs, drugs. And a lot of people died. Overdoses happened quite frequently…It wasn’t a very happy time.

Would you agree with Joni Mitchell’s assessment that the birth of the singer songwriter in that era has been overlooked?

That’s absolutely true… The Beatles, they wrote their own songs. And so there began to be competition between groups that could write their own music and the music factories that still produced records the traditional way. And out of that came the singer songwriter… Joni Mitchell was a superb exponent of that. She had a lovely voice and wrote her own songs.

How many albums have you produced?

I’m not sure, around 35. I gave it up after about 10 years. It’s an incredibly intense and demanding lifestyle… After a while it gets too much.

And who would you have liked to have produced for?

Well, as a Brit, I’d have to say the Rolling Stones. I produced for a lot of hard-nose rockers like MC3 and Cactus, but the Stones, what can I say?

What’s your take on music in 2014?

I think it’s in a very dull period. It’s dull because of computers. Almost all the music you hear, especially in BA, they’re addicted to this bloody background sound, all of it is not very musical… It’s become a sort of boring, dull, beatless thing, with pounding drums. I’m not against computers, you can be musical on a computer. But today it’s not music, music is something else. For instance, we went to the Tango club last night, bloody brilliant!

Who are you listening to at the moment?

Lorde. She’s got something.

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