Producer Ken Scott on making David Bowie and Mick Ronson’s most iconic albums

by David Bowie The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars, to give it its full title, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It was the record that cemented Bowie’s status as an international superstar, selling over 7 million copies, and he is second only to let’s dance [1983] in terms of Bowie’s most successful records.

Key to Bowie’s rise to prominence was the work of guitarist Mick Ronson, the perfect visual and sonic foil to Bowie’s unique vision.

At the helm for Ziggy was producer Ken Scott, who had crafted a few Bowie albums when Tony Visconti was producing. Scott’s own story reads like the most unlikely of great stories. Applying for an apprenticeship in recording and engineering, his first job after leaving school was working as a trainee engineer with the Beatles.

He went on to craft most of their albums and worked on countless legendary rock, pop and fusion records. These days he is a visiting professor at the School of Film, Music and Performing Arts at Leeds Beckett University in the UK.

You first worked as a producer with Bowie on Hunky-dory before producing Ziggy with him. Tony Visconti produced the previous two albums with your engineering. How did you get into the producer’s chair?

“There’s something in general that happens to a lot of engineers where you sit next to the producer and you make an ‘artistic’ comment, which the producer will submit to the band. If it works, that’s always the idea. of the producer; if not, it is the idea of ​​the engineer. [Laughs] We tend to get fed up with it and I had gotten to the point where I had to think less and less about the engineering process; it had become second nature to me.

“I wanted to make the move and mentioned to David that I was planning on moving into production. He said he had just signed a new management contract and was about to start. enter the studio and [asked] if I want to help him. It was Hunky-dory [1971]and we went on for four more albums.

Having worked as an engineer while Visconti was producing, did everything he did influence your own process?

“It felt. I worked in a completely different way to Tony. On the first two albums he did with David, Tony was the bassist, musical director, arranger and producer. My feeling about from David, having worked on the first two albums, was that he was a really nice guy who obviously had some talent, but it ended there because the albums weren’t his.

“He wrote the material, of course, but I felt he had very little say. It became apparent, after David’s absence from the first two albums, that he wanted to put things back on track. He hadn’t had any real success since then. Spatial oddity [1969]which was very focused on David’s ideas.

David Bowie and Mick Ronson

(Image credit: Jack Kay/Daily Express/Getty Images)

“I learned my craft as a producer from George Martin and Gus Dudgeon. They always believed that the talent was in the studio and their job was to create, and the producer’s job was to allow that to happen. If something didn’t seem to work I would just encourage him to put all his ideas out there whether they worked or not, of course I would say they worked most of the time.

“David was so good at building a team that could convey what he wanted; at the time it was Ronno [guitarist Mick Ronson]Trevor Boulder [bassist] and Woody Woodmansey [drummer].

“Later on, he changed things up when he wanted to sound more American and put together an amazing American team. What was interesting about David was that he didn’t feel he had to control the team he had put together, because he knew what they were capable of and what they would bring to a project.

Was he more sure of himself than he was with Visconti at the time?

“Yeah, I think he sensed that I would be more receptive and open to things. But I think when you say ‘confident’ I don’t think David or I were the least bit confident when we first sat down in the studio for Hunky-dory, but as things fell into place and we thought things were really working, we started to gain confidence. But we were both extremely nervous at the start.

Most of the time, David would just walk into the studio, talk to the band through the song, play it on an acoustic guitar, and then they’d get going.

When David was preparing Ziggy’s songs, did you hear them in advance as demos?

“The whole Ziggy thing was weird. The moment my feelings about David as a talent really grew was when he, his wife and his publisher came to my house and we started going through demo tapes together for our debut album. It became clear there was a lot more to him than I had seen on the first two albums.

“I heard a lot of material and we whittled it down to what became Hunky-dory. I may have also heard some Ziggy stuff at the time, but I don’t remember. Thing is we went to Ziggy so soon after Hunky-dory, maybe a matter of weeks, so there was no time to listen to material. Most of the time, David would just walk into the studio, talk to the band through the song, play it on an acoustic guitar, and then they’d get going.

Was Bowie a fast worker?

“We had to be. Handsome and Ziggy were recorded in two weeks each. 90% of his vocals on the first four albums were first takes, start to finish, with no need to do anything else.

Did Mick invent his own plays?

“There were the occasional things David would suggest, but more often than not Ronno would just come down to the studio and write exactly what he thought was needed, and it almost always worked. When it came to solos, he nailed them. on the first take all the way in. He may have been working on ideas outside of the studio, like harmonic ideas and fills, but when he was there, he got straight to work.

“He was still [using] that big, old Marshall and the stripped-down Les Paul, to the Cry Baby. It was also his live rig. He would plug into the Cry Baby, slowly open it from the bottom, find the right spot, and leave it there. That would be it for the song, and that’s basically what he’s done for every track I’ve seen him record.

You’ve worked with a lot of great guitarists. How would you rate Ronson?

“I think he was very underrated. He was hugely important to David’s success. David was so talented that I think he would have succeeded no matter what, but Ronno was a very important part of the recorded sound. of David and of course he looked great on stage with David. Ronno was a little scared of the glamorous look and makeup at first but ended up going back to it when he realized it didn’t did not prevent him from having women. [Laughs]”

The shelf life of an album was less than a year; no one ever thought we would still be listening to these songs 50 years later

50 years later, how do you think the album is holding up?

“It depends on my mood. [Laughs] Some days I love it, some days I hate it and I want to change the sounds of everything. I think looking back, there are a lot of things I would like to change, but I would certainly never want to change David’s performance. Same with Ronno’s parts. I think, looking back, the drum sound is the main thing I would change.

“Perhaps, though, if we had done anything differently back then, it might not have turned out so well and we wouldn’t be here to talk about it half a century later. It’s a snapshot of his time. When I listened to it at the time, it was an album every six months, and if people were still talking about the previous album when the next one came out, you had done your job.

“The lifespan of an album was less than a year; no one ever thought we would still be listening to these songs 50 years later. Rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t even that old when we recorded it. There are tracks on some of Bowie’s other early albums that I think are better than some of Ziggy’s tracks, but this is definitely the album that holds its own and works best as a cohesive collection of songs. .

You have participated in countless historic albums, including a large part of the Beatles catalog. Were there times when you felt like a frustrated producer, thinking, “I would do this differently from George Martin”?

“No never. I was learning to be an engineer at that time, and I believe in focusing on one thing and doing it to the best of your abilities and knowledge and going as far as you can before moving on. to something else. to the next thing.

“When I was an engineer with the Beatles, I was just trying to learn what I was supposed to do. I had never even been behind a mixing console before working with them. Hunky-dory that I started to get tired of “just engineering”.

When I was an engineer with the Beatles, I was just trying to learn what I was supposed to do

It must have been a shock to the system to begin an apprenticeship in the recording industry with the biggest band in the world.

“Starting as an assistant engineer on the sessions – button pushers, as we were called – feels good, but your job isn’t that important, really. You are just loading tapes and pressing ‘play’ or ‘record’. But soon after, sitting behind the mixer to help get the sounds down was absolutely ridiculous, but luckily for me it worked.

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