David Bowie Producer Ken Scott Remembers the Moment He Realized 'Oh Sh-t, He Could Be Huge!'

David Bowie
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David Bowie

The legendary producer/engineer looks back on his studio time with Bowie and the Beatles during the late '60s and early '70s.

Ken Scott has had one of the most enviable careers of any producer/engineer in the rock era. His career began at Abbey Road in 1967 with The Beatles (more on that below) and he was David Bowie’s co-producer or engineer during the era that yielded the albums Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Aladdin Sane, and the covers collection Pin Ups. Over the years Scott also worked with Elton John, Pink Floyd, George Harrison (on his classic All Things Must Pass), Duran Duran, Jeff Beck, Jon McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra – he even recorded the iconic Coca-Cola ad “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” canonized in the final episode of Mad Men. Scott is currently a senior lecturer at Leeds Beckett University in England, specializing, obviously, in production. Billboard caught up with him to talk about his career and his work with Bowie.  

You worked with Bowie from the late 1960s through the end of 1973. Obviously his songwriting matured enormously with Hunky Dory in in 1971, did your perspective on him change when you heard those songs? 
Ken Scott
: Absolutely! When we recorded [Space Oddity] and then The Man Who Sold The World, I thought he was a really nice guy who obviously had a certain amount of talent, but I could never see him actually being big. Then they asked me to co-produce what turned out to be Hunky Dory, and I thought, “Great! I’m gonna learn a new gig -- producing -- and I actually have the luxury of making mistakes because no one’s ever going to hear this record.” But then it was about three weeks later [I heard the songs] at my house and that’s when the light bulb went off: “Oh shit, he could be huge!”

Did you take a different approach from Tony Visconti, who’d produced his previous records? 
: Tony is a great, great producer, and he was also the bass player and the musical director of the band. So I think David had no input on [the production], I think it was all Tony. I think they wanted to sort of break away and work with someone who wasn’t going to change things too much musically -- I don’t know a D-minor from a B-minor, particularly. So that put David in the position where he could put his own musical ideas together, and that was what made him what he became on Hunky Dory and Ziggy. It was interesting seeing him grow -- he became fearless, it was working, and that gave him more confidence. And then when people actually liked the songs, that made it even better. He wasn’t bothered about taking the audience with him. It was, “I’m going to put my own ideas out there because this is what I want to do and this is what I think works.”

Hunky Dory and Ziggy were mostly recorded just six weeks apart in 1971, but they sound dramatically different. 
: David said to me [before recording Ziggy], “I don’t think you’re going to like this one because it’s going to be more" ... I don’t remember if it was The Velvet Underground or Iggy Pop, I didn’t know either of those acts at that time so it meant nothing to me. But he knew it was going to be slightly harder, more rock n' roll, and so that’s the way he approached it. But when I look at ”Queen Bitch” -- which is on Hunky Dory -- that could have fitted into Ziggy easily. 

Was it difficult keeping up with those changes?
: Generally the people he surrounded himself with were the ones he knew would work within [the ideas] he was thinking of. And I think that’s what started to change after [1973’s] Aladdin Sane, he realized he wanted to moved on to something different. So that’s why he got rid of [bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Mick "Woody" Woodmansey] -- and ultimately me -- after Pin Ups [in late 1973]. The last thing I did in the studio with him was [a medley of] two songs, “1984” and “Dodo.” And the entire time we were mixing -- that was only the second time he ever came along to a mix session -- he kept on referring to a Barry White album. He was already thinking toward that American soul/white-soul kind of feel [that he explored with Young Americans and Station to Station in 1974-75]. That’s what he wanted it to sound like, although it took him a couple of albums to actually get to that point, but immediately after Pin Ups he was already thinking about that sound. 

He was famously fast and impatient in the studio. Did the other musicians have a hard time keeping up? 
: He definitely wanted to do things quickly. He got very bored in the studio back then -- I don’t know if that changed over the years. I was talking to Woody about that, he said, “Yeah, Trevor and I felt we had to get it within maybe three or four takes or David might say, ‘No, it’s not working,’ and move on to something else.” Back in that time it was two records in six months so everything was recorded quickly. 

David has to be the best vocalist I ever worked with. Ninety-five percent of the vocals that I did with him on the four albums I co-produced were first takes -- from beginning to end. It’s amazing. 

Is it true that he broke down in tears after recording “Five Years”? 
: Yes. It is incredible to listen to, and these days that vocal would be rejected by most major labels: it’s not in time, it’s not in tune, you’d have to Auto-Tune it and move it around. All the great vocals from that period they’re not necessarily in tune or time but they come from the heart, and that’s what matters. That’s what we’re not getting today. 

There were a few songs from the Ziggy sessions that never saw the light of day: “It’s Gonna Rain Again,” “Only One Paper Left,” an early version of “Shadow Man.” Do you remember anything about those songs? 
: Not at all. I’ve seen [tape] boxes and labels that have those [titles written on them], but no, it means nothing. You have to understand, in some ways it was just another day at the office. These things happen and you move on. And it’s exactly the same with those songs from that period. They happened, they didn’t work, so we put them aside and then forgot about them

Bowie once said that you were sort of his George Martin, that you were sort of buttoned-up and “suit and tie.” Do you think that’s accurate? 
: You know, I don’t think he meant it that way, although maybe I’ve got it wrong. When I was working with George there were many occasions where I couldn’t see what the hell he was doing. He seemed to be doing absolutely nothing and I didn’t understand it. And when I heard David had said in this interview that I was his George Martin, I actually took offense to it, like “I do more than George ever did!” But it’s only in hindsight that I recognize how much I learned from George and how much it's a part of the way I work. George had this attitude that talent is put into the studio to create, and you have to allow them the freedom to create -- always knowing you can say things like, “You know what, guys? It was better five minutes ago. Let’s go back and work from there. You’ve gotten too far off.” That was the way George worked and that’s the way I work, as well. You have to allow them that freedom to have their ideas and then discuss whether it would work or not. 

Anything else that stands out about working with Bowie?
: He had this great ability to pull things from strange places. The example I always use is the solo on [Ziggy Stardust’s] “Moonage Daydream,” which is a baritone sax and a recorder playing the [melody] line. He got that from “Sho’ Know a Lot About Love,” the B-side of the Hollywood Argyles’ [Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit] “Alley Oop.” David said, “I love that sound! We have to recreate it!” He would pull in all of these strange things that you would never expect to be there.

Dick Barnatt/Redferns
Ken Scott and Billy Cobham at a mixing desk in a recording studio in 1970.  

Prior to working with Bowie, you cut your chops in the studio with another legendary rock act. Is it true that the first song you ever engineered was The Beatles’ “Your Mother Should Know”?
t: Actually, it was a version of “Your Mother Should Know.” They had recorded the basic track at another studio and Paul [McCartney] wanted to try a new arrangement. That only came to light on the Anthology [Vol. 2 rarities compilation, released in 1996]. But yes, the first time I ever sat behind a mixing console and pushed up the faders myself was for The Beatles, probably because I worked with them as an assistant engineer from Side 2 of A Hard Day’s Night through Rubber Soul. We’d built up enough of a relationship that they trusted me, and I think it was 11 days later that I did my first orchestral recording, and that was the orchestra and choir for “I Am The Walrus.” 

And you were how old?
Scott: I was 21. I actually started when I was 16. I received a tape recorder when I was 12 at Christmas and fell in love with tape. I loved everything about tape: the smell of it, the feel of it, being able to edit it. When I was 16 I got fed up with school and wrote about 10 letters to anyone I could find that might need a recording engineer. I mailed them out on Saturday, on the Tuesday I heard from EMI, I had the interview the next day, heard from them on the Friday and they wanted me to start the following Monday, so I left school that day. Within nine days my life completely changed. 

And they just dropped you in with the Beatles?
: Yes. The Beatles were changing everything, [including] the hours in the studio. EMI at that time was the morning 10 to 1, afternoon 2:30 to 5:30, the evening 7 to 10. But The Beatles were working until all hours and the older guys hated working with them because they wanted time with their families, so the only option was to get another youngster on, which was me, who hadn’t actually been trained at that point -- I had never done a session before, they just put me straight on. It was amazing, actually the most incredible training for a young engineer on working with a band that has absolutely no monetary restraints, a band that wants everything to sound different every time. So I got to experiment with every mic that EMI had in every position possible, always knowing that that’s what The Beatles wanted. And I didn’t have to worry, “Oh, it’s not working so we’re going to be wasting time”; they didn’t worry about that. They were pushing us the entire time to make things different, and you can’t get better training than that.

Is the famous dynamic true, that Paul would spend four days on the same song while John would want to make things weirder, saying things like “Make it sound more green”? 
: (Laughing) Paul was a perfectionist and John got a bit antsy in the studio, he was impatient. We knew that and we worked around it. There was one occasion with John, he came in and was trying to play something and he says, “It never feels the same as it does when I’m at home. It’s so much easier to do it at home.” So we actually set up the studio to look like a living room, we had an easy chair, we put a lamp up, a small table by the side so it was more like home. He came in and said, “Oh, that’s much better,” started to play and said “It still sounds bad!” And at that point he realized that [there was a reason why home and the studio were such different environments], he was there to try and make it right. And it was through that kind of thing you got through to John.