Lowe life

By MICHAEL ATCHISON  |  October 7, 2009

SPEAKING OF GREAT VOICES, WHAT’S IT LIKE TO HAVE JOHNNY CASH INHABIT ONE OF YOUR SONGS? Well, that really is something. When people cut your songs, you’re always grateful. Sometimes, it’s not quite so good, or they follow too much what you’ve done. But occasionally, people really take your songs somewhere else. And that’s what was so great about what John was doing. It gives you a real thrill when that happens.

WHEN YOU WERE PRODUCING FOR STIFF REC-ORDS, THE LEGENDARY PUNK AND NEW WAVE LABEL, YOU HELPED DEFINE THE SOUND OF AN ERA. WAS THERE A MOMENT WHEN YOU THOUGHT “WE’RE REALLY ON TO SOMETHING HERE”? Oh, yes, but it was a very strange time back then. We looked at the state of pop music, and thought it was all over. It was these awful progressive rock groups and these sort of wet singer-songwriters. And so punk came along, and I never liked punk music — the thrashing, that awful, thumpy rhythm wasn’t for me — but I loved the mischief and the mayhem that ensued. And the fact that [there were] lots of powerful people in the music business who were responsible for messing it all up, and suddenly we played a small part in having these people lose their jobs. It was a wonderful experience. For a few weeks it felt a bit like the monkeys were running the zoo. Everyone was bursting with ideas. There’s no doubt that we were making it up as we went on. We didn’t feel that we were on anyone’s coattails, or that we were copying anyone. We were definitely making it up ourselves, and people were copying us. It’s a fantastic thing when that happens.

YOU’VE LONG SHOWN A REVERENCE FOR THE SIMPLER TRADITIONS OF BLUES, COUNTRY, AND POP. DID THAT CONTRIBUTE TO THE STRAIGHTFORWARD SOUND YOU CREATED AT STIFF? Yes, that’s always appealed to me. In fact, the older I get, the more straightforward I’ve wanted it to be. It’s a very strange thing with pop music now. The problem is that it’s possible for anyone to go down to the shop and buy a little piece of kit. You can make a pretty credible sounding record in your bedroom, and that really is where the problem is, because we’re drowning in this great sea of averageness. They used to say in the punk days, “Here’s three chords, now form a group. Anyone can do it.” But, in fact, anyone can’t do it. I’m sure there are really good records being made like there always have been. But they’re completely drowned in this sea of mediocrity. These records all sound the same because they’re all the same samples, they’re all the same beat, they’re all the same tempo because they all come from the same machine. So when you hear a record that’s really kind of crappy sounding, it sounds like a work of genius. It seems that between the end of the second World War and up to about 1974 or ’75 — just before punk rock, actually — that there’s no end to this incredible music that was made, most of which didn’t even see the light of day [until recently]. It seems to have been made by people from outer space. Now there is no evidence of them. They came down, made this incredible music, and then cleared off. And the only evidence is a few tired old recording studios, and a few old guitars in Japanese collectors’ hands for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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