Last month Phil Spector was found guilty, after a second trial, of the murder of Lana Clarkson. The following day the Guardian’s Alexis Petridis asked whether “something inherent in the art of record production lends itself to, maybe even causes, deeply eccentric behaviour?” Spector, Brian Wilson, Joe Meek, Lee Perry, Martin Hannett; some of the greatest producers of the last 40 years run the gamut from eccentric to deeply troubled.
Although you don’t have to be mad to work in a studio, a bit of obsessive-compulsive certainly helps. It’s a job that welcomes monomaniacs with the ability to lose themselves in a degree of repetition and detail that would send most people doolally. Hannett famously made Joy Division play 40 or more takes until he was happy and even sent Stephen Morris up onto the roof of a Rochdale studio in the freezing night to capture a drum sound he wanted; when taken to such extremes perfectionism can start to look like sadism.
If the devilish pursuit of detail doesn’t get you the lifestyle might; working in artificial environments with no natural light (acousticians aren’t fond of glass) for longer hours than are good for anyone (90-100 hour working weeks aren’t uncommon). And some producers are as in love with the rock and roll dream as the worst of their charges; I’ve recently been regaled with tales of one (banned from many British studios for his extreme behaviour) so obliterated on a mid-session crack-binge that the band he was producing thought it would be funny to glue a witch’s hat to his head.
Headline-grabbing murder trials or drug habits aside, for the most part the listener remains blissfully ignorant of the mania involved, the sleep lost and the stress endured to get their records made. That sweat, effort and excess isn’t supposed to be there in the end result; it gets transmuted, leaving the music to appear fully-formed, effortless. It might take a toll on a few of the protagonists along the way. You don’t need to consider that. But when I hear the icy shimmer of Atmosphere’s pitch-shifted windchimes or the precision of Stephen Morris’ drumming on Shadowplay, I think of Hannett – junkie, perfectionist, alchemist, dead at forty-two – and I say thank you.