Off the Record with The Beatles, Bowie, Elton & So Much More
Ken Scott posed for this picture at Abbey Road in 2010. In his memoir, Scott takes readers inside studio sessions with The Beatles, Jeff Beck, Pink Floyd, and more. Ken Scott’s new memoir is a gift for recordists and music lovers of all sorts. In Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust (Alfred Music Publishing, alfred.com/AbbeytoZiggy), Scott generously shares his rich experience as the engineer and/ or producer behind legendary recordings by The Beatles, Elton John, Mahavishnu Orchestra, America, David Bowie, Dixie Dregs, Devo, Missing Persons, Jeff Beck, Lou Reed, and so many others.
While on staff with EMI and then Trident Studios, Scott worked with some of the most important artists and producers in the UK during the 1960s and ’70s, and along the way developed recording and mixing techniques that he’s carried with him through the years and still uses today. Lucky for readers, Scott considers it a duty and a privilege to share his knowledge. Toward that end, a couple of years ago, he created A Ken Scott Collection: EpiK DrumS, a library of classic drum sounds, carefully made with the original drummers on some of Scott’s best-loved tracks, so that today’s engineers can re-create and/or manipulate Billy Cobham’s (Mahavishnu Orchestra) drum sound or Bob Siebenberg’s (Supertramp) or Rod Morgenstein’s (Dixie Dregs), etc.
Scott says that his decision to offer these classic sounds to the masses stemmed from a conversation he had several years ago in Abbey Road Studio 2, where he became reacquainted with Brian Gibson, a maintenance engineer he’d worked with on Beatles sessions back in the day.
“He told me had specifically asked to work that day so we could have a chat about old times,” Scott says. “And he said, ‘Do you remember, when we started here, there were all these old timers who had the most incredible stories of the beginnings of recording? And we used to just sit there listening, fascinated by what they were saying.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ And he said, ‘Well we’ve now become them. The next generation now wants to hear our stories.’”
David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars Scott has kindly shared his stories with a number of journalists over the years, but his memoir, written with the help of Bobby Owsinski, marks the first time his career has been chronicled so comprehensively, complete with one-of-a-kind photos and input from creative colleagues on both sides of the glass. Here are just a few of Scott’s stories.
The Beatles in Abbey Road
Ah yes, time for a row with the studio management thanks to The Beatles. The band was working out the song [“Piggies”] in Number 2 when Chris [Thomas] happened to spot a harpsichord set up in Number 1. Once he started to play it he felt that it might be just the right sound for the song, so he immediately found George Harrison and said, “Come and listen.”
When George heard it, the track immediately crystallized in his head and he had to have it on the song.
As they started to wheel the harpsichord out of the studio towards Number 2, I learned what they were doing, rushed down and hit the roof. Number 1 was set up for a big classical project that had already started and was continuing the next day. All the mics were in place and everything was set up as they left it, so you just couldn’t change anything like the harpsichord in the middle of it. Everything had to match up with what they did the day before in case they had to make any edits. My solution? We just moved the whole band into Number 1 and recorded the basic there using the harpsichord, acoustic guitar, tambourine, and bass. We put up fresh mics instead of using the ones that were already set up for the session, I took a note of all the EQ settings so I could reset everything, and nothing in the studio ended up being moved. One of the great things about EMI was that they had so many bloody mics that you could double them up easily. We reset everything as it was after we recorded what we needed and moved back into Number 2.
The Beatles in 1968Ziggy
David Bowie in Trident Studios
As with everything Bowie, there are lots of myths and misconceptions, and the so-called “sax section” on “Suffragette City” is certainly one of them. The fact of the matter is that it’s not a sax section at all, but a synthesizer. We thought we had finished the song but, as these things often go, it was lacking something. I’d been spending a lot of time messing with the ARP 2500 synthesizer that Trident had recently purchased and suggested we give it a try. I got the sound, and Ronno [Mick Ronson] played the part that David came up with. We were not specifically going for a sax sound and to me it sounds nothing like saxes, so it always surprises me when people tell me they thought it was a sax section. Then, of course, came the really big surprise when David told American DJ Redbeard during an interview that he played all the saxes in the song. Then again, lest we forget, we’re talking about Mr. Bowie. One can never tell if he really didn’t remember or he was just telling the interviewer what he wanted to hear.
Lay It Back
The Missing Persons in Chateau Recorders
The 1970s, when a mustache was a mustache:
Ken Scott at Trident Studios circa ’72. Scott’s work at Trident included records from David Bowie, the Stones, America and Mott the Hoople. Once the 12-inch EP [Missing Persons] had been put out, it was time to finish the album [Spring Session M], so we headed back to Chateau Recorders in North Hollywood. It didn’t take us much time to record the rest of the album since we’d already gone through the songs in pre-production for the live show. In the end, it took us about three weeks of recording and another couple of weeks mixing.
Recording was unusual because more often than not, Terry [Bozzio] played the track by himself and then we’d start overdubbing from there. As he was co-writer for most of the songs, he knew exactly what he wanted to play without any help from the other bandmembers playing along. Then we would add the bass, then guitars or keyboards, depending on which was most predominant in the song, then it would be Dale [Bozzio], and then backing vocals.
By this time, Patrick O’Hearn had joined the band on bass and bass synth. Even though he was a great player, Terry would consistently tell him, “No, lay it back a bit. I want everyone to think the drums are pushing. Lay it back. Lay it back.” It was horrendous for Patrick, but he was certainly up to the task.
A perfect example of Pat’s ability was when we were overdubbing bass on “U.S. Drag.” He first laid down a Moog synthesizer bass, which didn’t quite do it for everyone. Okay, let’s try bass guitar then. Not just any bass guitar; he chose to use a fretless. Still wasn’t right. Someone suggested listening to both basses together. Crazy. How could fretless and synth basses ever sound in-tune, even if he’d heard the synth when overdubbing the bass? What we heard is what ended up on the final product, perfectly in tune and they fit the track amazingly.