Bolan, Bowie, Morrissey and me

by Mick Brown / The Telegraph

23rd March 2006

Producer Tony Visconti has worked with them all. He talks to Mick Brown

What a lot of people don’t realise about Morrissey, says the producer of his new album, Tony Visconti, is that he has a sense of humour. “We were talking one day early on in the sessions, and he said, I’ll bet you never expected to find your name in a song, did you? And he pulled out the lyric sheet, and there it was.”

The song, Morrissey’s new single, is called You Have Killed Me: “Visconti is me/ Magnani you’ll never be/ I entered nothing and nothing entered me/ till you came.”

The reference, of course, is to the Italian film director Luchino Visconti, not the American record producer. Tony Visconti has never found his name in a song; but it is to be found on the more than 100 albums that he has produced over the past 35 years, for artists as various as Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Thin Lizzy and the Moody Blues.

An alarmingly youthful 61 (“I do a lot of t’ai chi”), Visconti was born in Brooklyn, and played bass in rock and jazz groups before coming to Britain in 1967. His career was to become inextricably linked with two seminal figures of the ’70s, David Bowie and Marc Bolan.

Visconti produced two early Bowie albums, Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold the World, beginning an association that would last, on and off, up to the present day. But it was Bolan who would bring Visconti his first major success. He stumbled upon Bolan in 1968 in the club Middle Earth, and produced the first Tyrannosaurus Rex album for £400. Two years and four albums later, Tyrannosaurus Rex metamorphosed into T Rex, and Bolan into the biggest pop star of the day.

He was, Visconti reflects, a complex mixture of arrogance and insecurity, and totally obsessed by his rivalry with Bowie. “I remember when we were making the last T Rex album, and David had just said he was having bisexual experiences. A day or two later, Marc walked into the studio with some fan he’d picked up and said: ‘This is Arthur, I had sex with him last night.’ You’ve never seen a bunch of heterosexual people looking in five different directions at once!”

By the time of Bolan’s death in 1977, Visconti had resumed his partnership with Bowie. Then the producer made the mistake of talking in an interview about Bowie’s relationship with his son. It would be 15 years before they worked together again.

“The ’80s were very bad years for David, which he’s admitted; the worst time of his life. Things stabilised in the ’90s, and we all grew up. I wrote to him several times and said, whatever I did, let’s talk it over. Then one day I got a phone call from him. I just started to cry, because I’d really missed him. And he just glazed over the problem. It only took minutes to catch up on the past and we were talking about the future – and we’ve been friends and colleagues ever since.” In 2002 Visconti co-produced Bowie’s Heathen, and a year later Reality.

“If I have one talent as a producer it’s that I have a way of capturing someone’s essence. I don’t want to be Svengali, and I don’t want to work with people who need that – if they need that, they’re not really true artists. David has worked with other producers, illustrious producers, but they gave him their sound. My philosophy is always to defer to the alpha male: David, what do you want? So I think on the records I’ve co-produced with David, people are going to get a more real Bowie.”

Morrissey may be a very different sort of alpha male, but Visconti has been an admirer since the early days of the Smiths. They first discussed the possibility of working together 14 years ago, on Morrissey’s album Your Arsenal. It never came to pass.

He was staggered, therefore, when, last September, out of the blue, he was asked whether he could travel to Rome to produce Morrissey’s new album. He was on a plane three days later. The singer, the producer says, is “a very private person. I don’t know who he is or what he does when he’s not in the studio. He doesn’t show you that side. But his own personal feelings are obviously very much the source of his songs.

“His lyrics talk a lot about love, about death. The most important thing is emotion, and he demands that from his band and the music. It has to make you cry or feel uncomfortable. The lyrics will provoke you to think, but that’s not high on the agenda, and at the same time he’ll make big jokes about the songs – ‘Who the hell would write a song with all these Roman street names? Who the hell would use the term ‘retroussé nose’?”

Visconti laughs. When he took the job, he says, a lot of people warned him that Morrissey was trouble. “I was told he was moody, elusive and hard to work with in the studio. But what that usually means is that someone is professional. In the 45 days I worked with him, we did not have one single argument.”

What a lot of people don’t realise about Morrissey, he says, is that “the guy’s an angel”.

  • Morrissey’s new album, ‘Ringleader of the Tormentors’ (Attack) is released on April 3.
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