What is it that you want from reading a music industry legend’s memoir? If what you are looking for is basically an expanded Wikipedia entry with a more detailed listing of events and characters … then stop reading now and just stay away from Ken Scott’s Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust. If on the other hand you are looking for something that has you diving for your vinyl record collection, trolling through your MP3 library, and hitting up places like Slacker and Spotify to provide the musical soundtrack to the stuff you are reading … then check this out.
Turn on any classic rock station and you’ll soon hear a song that Ken Scott worked on. As one of the preeminent recording engineers and producers of the 20th century, Ken has garnered Gold, Platinum, and Diamond record sales awards; multiple Grammy nominations; and even a Clio Award (for his recording of the classic Coke ad “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”). Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust shares Ken Scott’s intimate memories of working with some of the most important artists of the 20th century, while crafting a sound that influenced generations of music makers.
Ken’s work has left an indelible mark on hundreds of millions of fans with his skilled contributions to Magical Mystery Tour and The White Album. As producer and/or engineer of six David Bowie albums (including the groundbreaking Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars) as well as other timeless classics, the sound Ken crafted has influenced several generations of music makers that continues to this day. Ken captured the sonic signatures of a who’s-who of classic rock and jazz acts, including Elton John, Pink Floyd, Jeff Beck, Duran Duran, The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, America, Devo, Kansas, The Tubes, Missing Persons, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Billy Cobham, Dixie Dregs, and Stanley Clarke.
This is his story, complete with funny, provocative, and oh-so-honest tales of the studio, stage, and even an infamous swimming pool incident. Never-before-seen photographs and technical details make this book a must-have for every music fan.
You know Ken Scott. Trust me, even if you have never heard the name you know the sounds and the songs. In fact, before reading this book I had no direct reaction to the name ‘Ken Scott’ in regards to the music industry. Bobby Owsinski I know from his other excellent books, so between knowing to expect excellent writing from Bobby and seeing the incredible array of work that Ken had done as engineer and producer through the years, my expectations were pretty high.
And not only were my expectations met, they were exceeded. Reading ‘Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust’ took me much longer than I expected, but for a different reason than many books. The reason was that I turned the reading into a full experience. I listened to music, watched videos, fiddled with sliders on mixers – all things brought about by my intrigue at the stories and experiences on the page.
In terms of content, the book is full of technical information without being boring to non-techies; is full of anecdotes and stories but cross-references and uses added quotes enough that it reads like a ‘shared history’ rather than a tell-all; ditches a purely chronological view for a thematic look that is based on artists and eras rather than specific times; and at no time seeks to exploit the stories or memories of the very famous people he has worked with for sensationalist effect.
The story starts before he started working in music recording, but he quickly moves from his early childhood into his first days at the EMI studios destined to become Abbey Road Studios. As he notes, the ages for entering the work force compared to completing schooling were different in the UK compared to the US so he started with EMI at 16, and soon found himself helping out with the recording of The Beatles tracks for ‘A Hard Days Night’.
From there Scott and Owsinski take us on a trip through time and space, from classic recordings in the UK to tax shelter studios in France, to discovering the US and ending up in Los Angeles. We get some amount of looks inside his personal life including friendships, personal challenges such as alcohol dependence and divorce, hurts and broken promises, and personal triumphs.
I expected some of that – and to be honest I was glad at the balance struck, because without any personal information the book would be dry and cold, but with too much it would dilute the sharing of stories about his experiences and the technical details of the major accomplishments he has had in his career. One thing I hadn’t expected was the way so many business dealing were threaded into the stories. At the end as he was discussing one particular recording that the record company had changed the dealings and had the artists charged back at industry scale, which meant that the production costs for the album skyrocketed … and as of the book publication still hadn’t ‘recouped’, or made back the upfront costs! This despite being a huge selling album!
From the beginning the authors make a choice that is sure to split readers – rather than a purely chronological format, Ken Scott keeps his experiences together on a by-artist or by-studio basis and gradually moves through the years with occasional jumps backwards.
It was interesting reading Scott talk about his personal history, not really thinking much about his place in it in spite of working with some of the key figures in modern pop music and taking part in the development of the music studio as a ‘musical partner’. I look back on my good fortune at being able to work in my college studio at the dawn of MIDI, working splicing tape, developing loops and overdubs and struggling to keep noise under control, and from the second I could work with MIDI I saw the possibilities … but it all just sort of happened. So too did Ken Scott work as recording went from four-tracks to eight and sixteen, and mixing consoles got larger and more complex and not until later did he really look at what had happened while he was developing his craft alongside some of the big names in music.
When you look at the history of recording, from the earliest days the basic desire was to simply capture sounds being played. If you listen to pre-WWII recordings by Django Reinhardt & Stephane Grapelli made in France, you will realize that they often barely managed THAT! In contrast, Louis Armstrong recordings with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in the mid-20’s had enough audio quality that they have been successfully cleaned up to the point that you can hear the individual instruments pretty well above the natural static of the acetate recording process.
But in general if you were listening to recordings from before World War II, you were hearing single microphone recordings where instrument placement was critical to overall balance and what you ended up hearing on the recording. And if you watch movies of the era all you will hear in the music tracks is the lead instrument or vocalist and some amount of the backing tracks. Post-war music got more lively, with bebop featuring louder leads and more prominent rhythm section contributions. Again, listening to a few different selections from Charlie Parker from the 1940s will show you the breadth of quality possible. On some you can barely det anything from the bass and drums but ‘thub thub’, and the piano is often lost amongst the horns; yet on others you can catch the entire ensemble in detail.
As technology advanced significantly through the 1950s, the recording industry saw the benefits. 78 RPM acetates were replaced by 33-1/3RPM LP albums made of much more flexible and durable vinyl, which also allowed for a greater dynamic range in the music presented. By then multi-microphone recordings were more common, as well as multi-track taping of music, which resulted from decreasing recording head size and increased precision of the recording drive systems. By the 1960s when the Beatles were recording, four-track recordings were possible in many studios (though most Motown hits were recorded on 3-track recorders).
This is where Ken Scott enters the scene. He works with The Beatles starting with being low-person in the entire studio on An Hard Day’s Night (but capturing some cool pictures) and continues with them through the rest of their years, and works with George Harrison on occasion right up through his death. When working with the Beatles, they started using a technique called ‘bounce down’, which basically involves recording all four tracks, then mixing them down to a single track on ANOTHER four track machine, then adding more tracks, and so on! If you look at the history of multitrack recording, you see a notation that “the Abbey Road engineers are still justly famed for the ability to create dense multitrack recordings while keeping background noise to a minimum”. As I mentioned, even into the early 80s dealing with noise while bouncing tracks was not trivial!
Naturally there is a bunch of time in the book spent discussing The Beatles, but again it isn’t a gossip rag – so you get insights into the recording process, some of the shenanigans in-studio, crazy techniques and the repeated mantra that for the Beatles curiosity and experimentation never ended. For Scott, it was that pursuit of the perfect sound and the ear for experimentation that led to success after success.
As I read through the Beatles section I started a trend that continued through the book: I was reading on the iPad, so I just flipped over to iTunes and played the record being described, occasionally looping a song a few times to really get a feel for what Ken was saying about the drum sounds or vocal recording technique, or the guitar effects or whatever. It was amazing to be able to dig in and really hear the particular things as I read about their creation.
While Scott had the fortune of proximity to help him earn the Beatles gig based on being hired and present at EMI studios at a critical time, he also established further credibility working with a young David Bowie, Pink Floyd and many others. Soon after that he found his reputation earning him even more work as he moved from EMI to Trident. Some of the big names he worked with were David Bowie, Elton John, Supertramp and Missing Persons.
I learned quite a bit about Bowie through the book, which was interesting to me as a lifelong student of music to realize how little I knew about a major pop music figure throughout my life. The same was true to a lesser extent with Elton John, and I knew almost nothing about the pre-history of Supertramp or Missing Persons in spite of being a big fan of Terry Bozzio and Warren Cuccarullo from their time with Frank Zappa.
With regards to some of the Bowie stuff I have my singular criticism: in short Ken Scott (and many others) got royally screwed by the former management of David Bowie, and had to spend way too much time, money and energy on lawyers trying to get paid. That point was well established, and I really felt for Ken and the others because it highlighted so much of the seedy underbelly of the music business that we all know is there but can get lost when focusing on the art side. All of that was great – but then there was a short follow-up chapter that stands in my mind as ‘And Another Thing’, which really dragged the otherwise brisk pacing down for me and presented the only time I had no music playing. I definitely understand the need to get that important part of the story out there, but for me it was the only time I felt like I was working at reading.
As a recording engineer who was there for some amazing advancements and achievements in recording technology and history, there is plenty of ‘recording tech’ talk throughout. But Scott and Owsinski made a great decision in separating out the ‘deep dive’ tech stuff from the rest of the book. So if the already present talk about Telefunken, U67 microphones, A-class consoles, multi-track bouncing, speed matching, splicing and so on was enough, you could skip the added stuff; of course, if that stuff intrigued you, there is plenty of additional material to enjoy throughout. The way things are separated you don’t miss anything important by skipping the tech-dives, but you can gain loads of insight by reading them.
As I said, starting with the Beatles I was already grabbing music from my iTunes playlist. Growing up my brother and I shared a room, and a stereo system. By the time my parents moved south several years ago, my brother’s albums had already been moved with him several times, including many of mine (since I was all digital), but I did have a pretty decent number of jazz and fusion records that I saved even though I have them digitally. As I started reading and saw that Ken Scott had worked with Jeff Beck, Billy Cobham, Stanley Clarke, Dixie Dregs and more … I headed for my record collection! You can see a picture of a few albums above.
It isn’t that I have some audiophile turntable setup, but rather that I wanted to look at the records, check out the liner notes, see Ken Scott’s name on the back, and so on. And while I still used my iTunes and earbuds for most of the book, for one evening I sat on a comfortable couch in my living room listening to Stanley Clarke and Jeff Beck while reading.
As I said before, the book isn’t about a strict chronology or maintaining a balance between the amount of content per year, but rather about packing in stories that simply needed to be told and skipping or skimming through those that didn’t deserve as much space. So after finishing with Bowie and Elton and Missing Persons and hitting the 80s, Scott focuses on discussing those things that really need to be talked about. It is always intriguing to hear about remastering projects from early musicians, because as Scott says ‘nobody ever considered this stuff would be worth anything’.
That sense of rapid development without looking back is something that really struck Ken Scott as he went back to remaster George Harrison’s materials, and made him realize that no one remembers all of the masters who taught him or even WHAT they taught, and that was something he hoped to correct. In recent years he has toured giving seminars and talks about recording technology, techniques and history.
The only downside to having that compressed approach is that the book feels like it accelerates towards the end. I have already read about the amazing drum loop software he has been involved with recently, so when I got to that point I knew we were fast approaching the end of the book (well, the bottom of the page told me that as well)! It was a fitting ending to this story, a reminder of his place in recording history, and a reminder that what he contributed is of more than historical value.
I have thought – and talked – about this book a ton since I started reading, mostly with my kids. They grew up with the benefit of having my existing digital studio to play with, which has been updated and modernized in recent years. There were a few things I found myself talking about quite a bit:
- Why would someone in this digital era want to go listen to someone from the old tape era? Because sound is timeless, and generations of producers and recording engineers have made it their business to emulate some of the sounds and techniques he pioneered.
- Quality beats trendiness every time. Throughout the book are examples where Ken is pushed to do something trendy (usually by the record company), but instead sticks with the artist’s vision. It has cost him jobs, but the results speak for themselves.
- What is the biggest thing you learned? Digital editing and unlimited storage make you lazy. When you have to record live all at once and get very few overdubs or chances to fix anything, you need to make sure everything is correct up front.
- There is a section where he basically loses a second album because he spent 3 days getting the drum sounds right on the first one. In my work I always say that the more time you put into experimental planning up front, the easier and clearer everything else will be in the end.
- Inability to make decisions. He notes this happening more and more as the ability to keep everything comes along, and also with the roles of A&R and Producer shifting. There was an 80’s song called ‘Fix It In The Mix’, which is more of a techno-dance song, but basically parodies the tendency to put off dealing with mistakes and decisions and just wait to the final mix. In the Pro Tools era the situation is even worse.
- The strong belief that technology doesn’t make music, people make music. Those people can utilize technology, but the ideas come from them.
As I said from the beginning, this was more of an experience than simply reading a book. It is also more than just a memoir – I would describe it as a travelogue that takes the reader through the recording industry through the eyes of one of the key engineers and producers of pop, rock and jazz fusion. I knew I was loving it and being impacted when I started pulling out records, and spent a long time poring over the great photos that span the entirety of Ken Scott’s career.
Is this book for you? Do you love music? Are you interested by how it is made and recorded and brought to sound as it does on the radio? Do you want to know more about the technology behind the music and the people who made it happen? If so, this is a well written, solidly thought out, and thoroughly enjoyable trip through the annals of recorded music.
One final note – if you are buying this book I STRONGLY recommend getting it for a tablet device such as the iPad (though the Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet, etc are OK as well). Why? Because you simply won’t want to miss out on all of the cool images sprinkled throughout the book, and there is no better way than on the Retina screen of the iPad.
Here is the trailer for Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust:
Review: Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust
Price: $24.99 MSRP ($14.13 at Amazon, $14.99 at Barnes & Noble, and $19.99 at iBooks)
What I Like: Wonderful story; great structure; tons of tech and non-tech info; great separation of super-tech details; personal details without becoming gossipy; exciting flow that makes you listen to music as you read
What Needs Improvement: One chapter drags the pace a bit; if you read on an eInk reader you will miss out on great photo content
Source: Publisher provided review code
And I just couldn’t end without showing off a number of great songs that Ken Scott has engineered, produced or both!
While My guitar Gently Weeps
The Tubes World Tour
Mahavishnu Orchestra – Be Happy
Henry Nilsson – You’re Breakin’ My Heart
Missing Persons – Destination Unknown
Billy Cobham – Snoopy’s Search/Red Baron
Jeff Beck – The Pump
dada – Dizz Knee Land