"Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust": Engineer/Producer Ken Scott Looks Back On An Amazing Career (so far).

Can a recording engineer's memoir be a "real page turner" as the book trade likes to characterize a suspenseful novel? Yes, if the engineer is Ken Scott and yes if you're a true fan of the art and science of recorded music and you revel in minutiae and historical perspective that adds depth to your appreciation of your favorite records.

Ken Scott's unlikely story alone would make for an interesting read: how at age 12 he asked for and got his first tape recorder, how he hated college and ended up sending letters to every record label and radio and television station (how many were there in the U.K. at that time?) looking for a job and how on January 22nd of 1964 a few months short of his 17th birthday he received a response from EMI studios and how within three days of being hired to work in the tape library he had in his hands a 4-track Beatles master tape (containing German language versions of some hits along with "Can't Buy Me Love" recorded in Paris at EMI's Pathé Marconi Studios)!

A month later he met The Beatles heading towards him in the studio to record the songs for A Hard Day's Night. Soon he met engineer Norman Smith and later graduated to becoming a "button pusher" in the studio where he witnessed the creation of more iconic Beatles albums, as well as albums by The Hollies, Manfred Mann and other EMI acts. Does the thought of reading a first hand retelling of this unlikely tale now interest you? If not, perhaps you're not a candidate for this book.

But read on first before deciding: from there, after the completion of Rubber Soul Scott became a cutting engineer, taught by Geoff Emerick. Remember, this was November of 1965 a little more than a year after his unlikely start at EMI. Scott's telling of that part of his career was rather flat. While it's of greater interest to us record fanatics, he was obviously more interested in getting to the next plateau.

One of the first startling facts Scott divulges is that EMI's Motown issues were cut from vinyl sent overseas from Detroit! The records were transferred to tape and then cut. No wonder those fold-over original EMI UK Motown records don't sound so hot!

In 1967 Scott was promoted to recording engineer and his real fun begins. Of course Sgt. Peppers... had already been recorded, so Scott started in the middle of MMT but he was there for the previous albums and there are many great stories you're sure to want to read. He was the mixing engineer for the mono mix of "I Am The Walrus" and there's a great story. Ringo turned the radio dial as the song was mixed and found the BBC production of "King Lear" heard at the end. John said "use it" so they did, mixing it in "live."But since it was for the mono mix, when Geoff Emerick later did the stereo mix, he was forced to splice in the ending from the mono mix, which is why at the end the song goes from stereo to mono. More recently when the song was used for the Love surround re-mix, permission was granted from the BBC, which supplied the "King Lear" audio so the end could be remixed in stereo and surround sound.

And of course he was at the controls for The Beatles ("The White Album") and there are some great stories there!

Scott's are effective because his are both technical and personality-driven. If you've read some of the other books on Beatles recordings, perhaps you know some of this, but the drums for "Mother Nature's Son" were recorded in a staircase and though they sound like tympani, they are not. About a minute into the song there's a clicking sound. It's Paul tapping a pencil on a book. It wasn't in the original recording. Paul tapped during playback and then requested it be added to the final mix.

I could go on but instead let me list some of Scott's other recordings: Jeff Beck's Truth, Procol Harum's A Salty Dog, George Harrison's All Things Must Pass (after being fired from EMI and joining Trident), the first America album, Son of Schmilsson, the orchestral dates for Sticky Fingers ("Moonlight Mile" and "Sway" (good sounding strings!), and of course David Bowie's Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust... and Alladin Sane and the Bowie produced Transformer for Lou Reed. Did you know that the "colored girls" who sing background were white and two were Jewish? Scott recalls how and why the background vocals go from way back to in your face.

Scott engineered Elton John's Honky Chateau and Don't Shoot Me, I'm the Piano Player and would have done Goodbye Yellow Brick Road too except for one of many money screwings he recounts in the book, which includes plenty of personal high drama along with the celebrity stuff, minus most of the bitterness that sometimes accompanies memoirs like this. Oh, he spews a few times but for the most part, he avoids the bile and he also avoids self-aggrandizement.

Scott also engineered The Mahavishnu Orchestra's Birds of Fire along with many other jazz and jazz fusion albums and of course Supertramp's Crime of the Century as well as The Dixie Dregs' What If? and so on.

Are you detecting a pattern here? Yes, Scott has recorded so many audiophile 'faves' it's difficult to keep count. How he did it and the background stories involved do make for a thoroughly engrossing "page turner" for the right crowd and that crowd includes analogplanet.com readers, that is for sure.

The story charts Scott's move from engineer to producer when he realizes he's being one and not getting the credit or the money. Eventually Scott and his wife move to Los Angeles and guess what happens? Drugs (not used by Scott by it's all around and affects what happens in the studio) and a divorce (Scott eventually remarries).

His time in Los Angeles makes for some of the most interesting reading (especially if you were there at that time as I was) as he takes on the job of developing, recording and managing the ill-fated band Missing Persons, and after doing all of the hard work helping them to "break," they 'reward' him by dissing him and making their own disastrous career moves but not before he hosted an infamous party for the band at which a party crashing kid gets his balls stuck in the swimming pool intake port.

One of the final chapters titled simply "George" recounts his final encounter with George Harrison, some thirty years after they'd last met at A&M during the making of Crime of the Century. Scott moved into Harrison's estate to organize his vast tape library and prepare for the 2001 reissue of All Things Must Pass. It's a poignant story because by that time George was seriously ill. Scott recounts being there the day he left his estate for the last time. Written with the help of writer/producer Bobby Owsinski, Ken Scott's "Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust" is one of the most enjoyable industry memoirs I've had the pleasure of reading, both because Scott's story is so damn interesting and unlikely and because he blends perfectly the celebrity "inside poop" and the technical recording trivia that add useful dimensionality to many of your favorite recordings. What's that telephone ring doing at the end of Bowie's "Life on Mars"? Read the book and find out.

Any criticism? Only when Scott writes about how music "used to be on vinyl". His stories about the difficulties working with tape will make you understand why so much today is done digitally, but he does write that transferring analog to digital track by track made him realize that something not so good happens in the process. Single tracks sound okay, he writes, but all together they lose the magic.

All I can say is, if you've read this far, you really need to read this book. It will expand your understanding of some of your favorite records and acquaint you with one of the most engaging and talented recording engineers of rock's "golden age." The book includes a discography, glossary and many photos and career documents and mementos.

I will post the audio of an interview I conducted at "The Fest For Beatles Fans 2013" in Secaucus, NJ with Mr. Scott earlier this month. Asked by a fan at the convention how he managed to get hired by EMI at 16 and become a Beatles engineer a few short years later he began by saying "I've been asking myself that same question for years". He then pointed to the sky.

Perhaps his beginnings were God's intervention but from there, if you're familiar with his recordings, you know his path was talent driven. He's also one of the nicest people you're likely to meet.

COMMENTS
gubarenko's picture

Finally a book about music that available as Kindle (and as Hardcover also).

http://amzn.to/Zwdwwo

PS. To all haters: I will continue to post links until Mr. Fremer will tell me that it's wrong, otherwise i still think it's helpful for people who doesn't want to spend time googlin/searching amazon. People don't have lot's of time, so i'm saving it for them.

Michael Fremer's picture

Only were I to find out you receive a commission for posting the Amazon link would I 'shut you down'. Otherwise I don't see why I would. 

Synaptic's picture

that all those amazon links posted here are 'affiliate program' links, so yes he makes a profit if anyone makes a purchase on amazon after being directed from here. very common.

Martin's picture

If true;

One vote for shut down and OUT!

Rayman's picture

http://www.amazon.com/Abbey-Road-Ziggy-Stardust-ebook/dp/B008A1C4GY/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1367336633&sr=1-1&keywords=ken+scott

Gubarenko!  Michael works hard  and should receive the benefits of that work.

Don't mess with vinyl lovers! (We still understand the digital world!)

Michael Fremer's picture

Are you part of an affiliate program and receive income when someone clicks through to make a purchase? I will be able to find out. If that's the case I will permanently remove you from this site unless you post minus Amazon links. 

J. Carter's picture

I am not an avid book reader and I usually take awhile to read them when I do. I flew this book and I am thinking about reading it again after this review reminded me about things I had forgotten about that were in this book. 

If you love music and the creation of it you have to read this like Mr. Fremer has said!

Jim Tavegia's picture

I was not much of book reader as I would rather listen to music, but since I've had my Kindle I've read over 25 books in under 2 years.  THAT is a good thing. 

I will enjoy this one as well. 

Thanks,

Jim

Paul Boudreau's picture

...on my list of books to buy.  I love the G. Emerick book and more tales of the recording environments in those days can't help but be fascinating.  I hope there's something about the recording of "A Salty Dog," one of my favorite records from back then.

Billf's picture

I read this last summer. I bought it (NOT at Amazon) for the description of working with the Beatles, but enjoyed more his stories of working with other artists, particularly the financial negotiations the preceded his involvement or prevented it. Terrific stuff!

Mazzy's picture

Ill forgive him for working on a Supertramp album.

Michael Fremer's picture

Funny! I can't say I'm a fan either. Someone took me to see them at their peak when I was living in Los Angeles and I eventually walked out of the L.A. Sports arena. It was incredibly boring.<p>

To its credit the band realized they didn't have much stage act excitement and they tried to "plump it up" but musically it was just too frilly for me....

Michael Fremer's picture

Funny! I can't say I'm a fan either. Someone took me to see them at their peak when I was living in Los Angeles and I eventually walked out of the L.A. Sports arena. It was incredibly boring.<p>

To its credit the band realized they didn't have much stage act excitement and they tried to "plump it up" but musically it was just too frilly for me....

Martin's picture

looks like an interesting read.  I'm looking forward to it, most likely on the beach in August. 

The only thing is I'll probably get the feeling that those days of fun and exploring, discovery are gone...   

and the sound on most of what I hear produced now basically sucks. 

Keith did a record in 1988, talk is cheap. that song he wrote about Mick, you could slot in the modern music industry, take the line

"you've lost that feeling that's so appealing; 

you just don't move me anymore"

soundman45's picture

It's amazing how many great engineers and producers came out of the original EMI studio system. Norman Smith, Geoff Emerick, Ken Scott, Chris Thomas. Glynn and Andy Johns. So many remarkable recordings and great careers.

Michael Fremer's picture

Ken points out in the book that the first time he went to work at Atlantic Studios on New York he noticed that the monitor speakers were connected <i>out of phase</i>! He pointed it out to the studio techs and apparently though they concurred, they were pissed off at him.<p>

My first thought after reading that was "Maybe that explains some of the recordings that came out of that studio."<p>

I know Tom Dowd is revered by some but I find many of his recordings just plain awful and sloppy. There's one of Bill Evans and Herbie Mann called <i>Nirvana</i> where the music is sublime but the piano is so horribly overmodulated the distortion is almost as loud as the music. There's no excuse for that. Someone was simply not paying attention.

Michael Fremer's picture

Ken points out in the book that the first time he went to work at Atlantic Studios on New York he noticed that the monitor speakers were connected <i>out of phase</i>! He pointed it out to the studio techs and apparently though they concurred, they were pissed off at him.<p>

My first thought after reading that was "Maybe that explains some of the recordings that came out of that studio."<p>

I know Tom Dowd is revered by some but I find many of his recordings just plain awful and sloppy. There's one of Bill Evans and Herbie Mann called <i>Nirvana</i> where the music is sublime but the piano is so horribly overmodulated the distortion is almost as loud as the music. There's no excuse for that. Someone was simply not paying attention.

Martin's picture

The New York Dolls debut album...

I wonder how it would sound if Glyn Johns had been at the desk instead of Tom Dowd...  

marcel_kyrie's picture

Right! Not to mention the many other botched recordings of what should've been some of the greatest albums in rock & roll, such as The Stooges Raw Power - an unlistenable recording of an incredible performance. We could go, couldn't we?

sluggobeast's picture

This book and thread bring up something I've wondered for some time: What is the best version available (sonically) of David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" album? I have the original RCA vinyl -- if I recall, on that crappy Dynaflex -- and always sought what i thought could be a much better sounding version. Recommendations?

Todd E

marcel_kyrie's picture

I have the Rykodisc versions of both Ziggy Stardust and Hunk Dory, but I bought those quite a while ago. They are analog mastered and sound quite nice, though I feel the bottom is lacking a bit. If you see one, I can recommend it.

I read that the EMI 40th anniversary edition was supposed to correct some of that, and is also an analog remaster. You might seek that one out. I'm seeing it for around $45 right now, and I think I will get one as well.

soundman45's picture

Although Tom Dowd was great producer and engineered alot of very famous artists, I agree with you Michael. His stuff does sometime appear sloppy. I think one area where he deserves credit is the early use of multitrack recording. He was engineering stuff on eight track when studios were only using two or four.

alan shulman's picture

I had the chance to interview Ken last year when the book came out.  He was a great guy, gracious and forthcoming.  It's in our "popular posts" section on the right side of the site with other interviews

http://www.highandlowpodcast.blogspot.com/

Jim Tavegia's picture

This is an interesting section to me as I know exactly what he is referring to. I hear it in my own recordings.

In my recordings for a saxophone ensemble, when I record fewer instrumentalists all is well and very clear, but when the full ensemble (20+ players) gets loud, there is a distortion that creeps into the mix that is hard to explain, and this happens even to a lesser degree with 2496, but it most prevalent at 16 bit redbook. I am very careful to not go over in digital.

Since Ken is describing it in his book and is using some very good equipment the fact that I hear it is most interesting to me. I'm sure they were using a pretty nice digital interface at Abby Road.

 

WaxtotheMax's picture

Great review from Michael..AGAIN! and this really has me wanting a copy. Anytime you can read about someones life, especially in the mostly open and often candid world of music biography's, you can't pass em' up! It also helps when its a guy like Ken Scott opening up about a career such as his. Can't wait to read this one!

Jim Tavegia's picture

I finished it today and it was a great read. It is kind of a sad comentary on an industry that produces most of the music we love and can only wonder what might ahve been if egoes and greed and not reigned supreme over the past 50 years. There is surely some great music that was never made.

Ken was lucky to have lived in a great time that was the music business. Thanks to him for writing this book.

Blue Note's picture

one of the greatest rock albums that sounds like a turd...

Jim Tavegia's picture

I owned nothing of Supertramp so I took a flier on the CD remaster of Crisis, What Crisis and was plesantly surprised and the sound is pretty decent for a cd. I also have Crime of the Century coming as well, the remastered version.  Bought both for under $4 + shipping off Amazon, new, which you can't beat. 

I was listening to my original lp of Elton and Honky Chateau and thought it was kind of closed in left to right.  One of my fav Elton pieces.  My SACD is nice, but the bass is overblown to me, but that was not Ken's fault I don't think. 

MarkCurioss's picture

I will intentionally makethings work by actually listeningto these. Totally liberating typeofmusic. -  James Stuckey

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