With your handling of the press in the ’60s, could we say that you were a proto-spin doctor, and are you then partly responsible for the media tactics of New Labour in Britain today?
Oh, I wish. The press played me, we played them, then they reminded us who controlled the ink. At the time however, it was fun to clash and snarl at the system. Now it’s your turn.
What do you think the key requirement for a good record producer is?
The ability to make sure the best songs are being recorded in the best key in an environment where the work can be done and the space filled up properly.
I must be a philistine – I don't get Pet Sounds or why, as a record, it's so important. You've said a couple of times that it changed your life. Can you explain to me what I'm missing?
Probably because I was as stoned as he was[Brian Wilson]. It helped, I’m sure. However from the recording point of view it was a lesson and a super example of what could be done with the technical limitations of the day, which might serve so many artists better today than the endless journey pro-tools allows. I do not know how old you are but I guess you had to be there, in the middle of these changing times of competitive spirit in which music seemed to be leading the world to a better place. The sound of Brian Wilson was one of the sounds of that better place. On another level he spoke to the underdog of love in a voice that he or she did not dare to use. He was shy and afraid and it was okay.
You've produced plenty of legends in your time, from the Stones through Jimmy Cliff, to Donovan, Bobby Womack, De Gregori, Los Ratones Paranoicos and many others. Do you think you've been underestimated as a producer?
No. I stopped considering that one thirty years ago.
You've said of the Stones that “they wore the bad boy tag like a suit of armour, and drew a veil over how professional they really were”. Has that veil slipped over the last two decades? Nowadays we have two different Stones – the cool and dangerous ’60s band that wrote some of the greatest songs ever, or the Stones who are lauded for still producing records, however pedestrian, every couple of years and doing personnel loaded stadium tours.
We can bitch about them all we like when they are off the road but when they are on it it’s theirs. As for the stadium thing, it’s a fool who does not use the tools of the trade.
You worked briefly as a publicist for Bob Dylan, at the start of your career. What do you make of his biography Chronicles?
I loved it. Last year, in America at any rate, it was Bob Dylan’s year. With Chronicles he realligned the goalposts in the game of popular music and his 60 Minutes appearence was just sheer shuck’n’jive brilliant hustle for the masses. I don’t care to fathom whether fake comes into the equation, I was entertained with rythym and verve by a master of the game.
Nik Cohn once wrote, “the weird thing was, Jagger on-stage wasn't like Jagger off-stage but he was very much like Andrew Oldham” – did you recognise a glimmer of truth in that?
“Nik Cohn once wrote” says it all. He was Puck at best. That’s an absurd reach that in times of my unwellness I enjoyed but in my wellness I know the reality to be a far more evolved situation than Nik, as much as he led the pack at the time, was allowed to enjoy. Jagger is better than that and I hope I am as well.
You're remarkably candid about Brian Jones in your writing (both biography and interviews), and how, in a certain sense, it was inevitable that he would die young partly because of his own death wish, and partly because of the times and people's inability to acknowledge such forces. Did it surprise you when Kurt Cobain committed suicide, that thirty years on a young, talented musician surrounded by the music industry couldn't be protected from himself?
It’s the 27 club. Morrison, Joplin, Hendrix, Jones, Cobain and many more. It’s always been in the interests of the recording industry to have the artist in control of his music and stage appearances and out for the count in his private life. At the time Brian started to slip I was starting my own slip so neither of us was qualified to help each other or get help. The record industry prefers the artist to be out to lunch. No time to question, no time to audit, no time to be organized. That said, you cannot stop a cunt being a cunt. Look at that kid from the Liberteens, he is almost supported by the media in his insanity.
Look, even the Stones were refused permission to carry out a simple audit on Universal, when, as Allen Klein once said, “You can always find money in an audit”. George Michael was right when he took Sony to task for not being a recording company, and just a food machine depleting and spitting out art. He had to lose. It’s still the ’60s as regards us against them, except now there’s no big wins, just little victories. Record companies are a thing of the past whilst the artist, performer and writer still has an always amazing future. That, I guess, will be the final victory. If the major companies did not have the rock’n’roll catalogue business on little or no royalties they’d be out of business now. They certainly would not be getting by on the talent calls they have been making the past twenty years.
Finally, what are the plans for the future? Will there be a third installment of the biography? You mentioned wishing that Phil Spector would return to making great records. There seems to be a long overdue critical recognition of Andrew Loog Oldham as a record producer – can we expect new records in the near future?
Phil Spector is obviously busy. I stopped making records. You have to be in the business 24/7 to accomplish a result. A good record is not that hard to make. Songs, delivery and performance. But the selling… that takes an almost life taking will and ambition to accomplish now. I salute the Colombian artist Juanes and his manager Fernan Martinez for finally taking America by the throne this year after five well structured years making war and making great records and giving great shows. True soldiers of the road, the way Steve Earle is, the Stones are, the way of the greats and the gun, albeit zen these days. I’m glad that is what it’s still about. While we are promoting make sure you view Metallica’s Some Kind of Monster, now that really explains the game.