Originally from London, formerly from Christchurch, Richard James Burgess has forged a career in music, both here and internationally, that makes for a very illustrious CV. It includes musician, record production (Spandau Ballet, Kate Bush, Kim Wilde and more), recording artist, author of the books The Art Of Music Production and The History of Music Production, and a pioneer in electronic music with his band Landscape. These days he has gone from digital to dusty interests in a position he holds as Associate Director for Business Strategies at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the non-profit record label of the Smithsonian Institution – the national museum of the U.S.
Can you remember when, where and who took this photo?
I remember the situation like it was yesterday, what I was doing and thinking but not the exact date or who took the photograph. It was definitely 1972 (I believe the latter half) in the main studio control room of the HMV studios, Wakefield Street, Wellington.
These were the members of the Quincy Conserve with producer Peter Dawkins and engineer Peter Hitchcock. We were listening back to a track that we had just laid for the album that would be entitled ‘Epitaph’ (because the band broke up for a time). This was an amazing band to play with, they were great guys and incredible musicians. The phone call from Peter to audition for Quincy Conserve was my lucky break in the industry.
Were there childhood indicators that point to your adult passion for music and technology?
Oh definitely. I was obsessed with music and particularly drums and drumming as far back as I can remember. My family immigrated to NZ in 1959. We went to Christchurch because of a job offer that my father had and he had a childhood friend there.
I saw a marching band when I was two or three that really got me excited about drumming and my parents always took me to clubs where there were bands with drummers who totally fascinated me. We had a friend who was a semi-professional singer so we travelled with her and I can recall wondering how the whole music thing and being in a band worked. The radio was always on in my house and I would try to play the drum parts using chairs and whatever I could hit.
As far as technology goes, my father was a tinkerer, he could read a manual and make or fix anything and we always had a well-stocked workshop. He also won awards as an amateur photographer and he built a small darkroom that I used extensively as a young teenager to develop photos of local bands that I took. So I developed an early appreciation of how technology and art fit together.
How did your time in Christchurch contribute to your formative musical interests?
Christchurch was where I developed the beginnings of my career in music. My first instrument was a ukulele that I was given by a G.I. in the UK, and I began playing drums as a young teenager.
There were some kids at school who formed a band and needed a drummer for a gig that weekend. I had just bought a drum set and taken one or two lessons. I volunteered (owning equipment always opens doors in high school) and played the gig that Friday night. My first real band was with my friend John Purvis on guitar, Barry Saunders (vocals and harmonica), Mike Peterson (bass) and myself on drums. I left that band to join the Blue Nazz with Eddie Hansen.
The Christchurch scene was incredibly active at that time with many clubs. My favourite was the more underground blues scene at the Stage Door where I eventually wound up playing. I had quickly graduated from The Beatles and the pop music of the time to John Mayall, the Stones, Pretty Things, Graham Bond Organisation, Cream, Hendrix, Colosseum etc. The British blues-influenced groups were a major influence on me at that time. Nonetheless, there were many other great Christchurch groups at that time. Bands like Max Merritt and the Meteors and Ray Columbus and the Invaders had moved on by then, but they were a residual influence, and an inspiration too.
Back in those early days did you consider that music was going to be a career or did you feel your destiny lay in science and technology?
I told my parents that I was going to be a professional musician. We didn’t even know any fully professional musicians apart from music teachers – and I had no idea how to go about achieving my goal but I was determined to do it and everything else I did was a means to that end.
I did a vocational aptitude test as I was leaving high school and they said it came out equal for the arts and sciences and that I would have to choose one over the other. About 10 years later I was sitting behind a huge recording console and it struck me that I was in the perfect place for me – somewhere between art and technology.
The photo includes Peter Dawkins whose skills as a producer are well documented. Did this experience contribute to the skills you later developed as a producer?
Apart from recording experiments of my own, and a small amount of recording at a little studio in Christchurch, this was my first experience in the studio and with a professional producer. I have nothing but the greatest admiration for Peter’s skills. In fact, I was spoiled by how great the experience was. It was only later when I worked with lesser producers that I started to realise how great producers operate.
Sadly, I just got an email from Barry Saunders letting me know that Peter died early July. I had only communicated with him once or twice since 1972 but, strangely, I just spoke with him about a month ago and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to thank him for discovering me, for all those sessions at HMV, and for effectively setting my career on a solid footing.
What were your expectations when you returned to the U.K.?
I had a vague idea of hitting the big-time. I recall reading that Cliff Richard was making GBP1000 per week – and that was more than my father made in a year. It struck me that it would be cool to make lots of money doing something I was passionate about. At that time I hadn’t figured out where the real money was in the business and I loved studio work and the way the great session drummers played, so my initial intention was to become a studio musician in the UK. That’s where most of the great records were being made as far as I was concerned.
When I got there it was tough at first but I had a burn-the-boats attitude, I wasn’t going back until I made it. Fortunately I got a break early on. Frankie Stevens’ manager introduced me to other NZ musicians, we formed a band, went to Denmark and broke up on the way home. I did some gigs with Frankie and through his recommendation I started doing session work for CBS Records at CBS Whitfield Street studios. One thing led to another and before long I was working all the time in all the major studios in London with many of the best producers and engineers.
It was exciting. I was learning a great deal about the process and the industry as well as meeting key music business people and playing with the best musicians. At the same time I was trying to get my own band(s) launched and I was in several at any one time. That was another key period in my career and I have Frankie to thank for that.
You’ve had an extensive education, some of it in technology. Where did you first encounter and become inspired by the possibilities of computer generated music?
My education was very spread out (I am still working on it) because I didn’t go to university straight out of high school. I had either wanted to go to art school (my parents said a flat no) or to music school, but I wasn’t interested in studying classical music at that time (which is what they taught at the University of Canterbury).
All the schooling I did beyond high school I did while I was working. I would realise that I needed to know something and I would seek out a college, a resource, or a musician that could teach me that thing. I never suspected that I would wind up with a Ph.D. but that came about the same way – I realised there was stuff I needed to know and doing the Ph.D. got me up to speed. I did that while working also.
I always went to teachers whose work I admired. I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston after I had been in the Quincy Conserve and had spent a year doing sessions in Wellington. That was because I needed to know more about music composition, arrangement, and instrumental techniques. By then I was besotted with Tony Williams playing in the Miles Davis quintet and I found out that he studied with Alan Dawson who taught drums at Berklee – so I applied and got a scholarship.
Studying with Alan was transformative. I am still working on his exercises. When I went back to the UK I signed up for Guildhall School of Music and Drama to expand my abilities into tuned percussion and, by then, I had developed a deep appreciation for various forms of classical music, especially the 20th century and avant garde composers. For a brief moment there were some offers to move into the classical music world but by that time I was making more money as a studio musician than I would have as a classical player. I sought out specific professors, musicians, and teachers who had the knowledge I needed. Every one of them was incredibly receptive and helpful.
In 1974 you formed the band Landscape and in 1981 produced the hit Einstein A Go Go, a record that embraced and defined your passion for production and electronics.
I pursued a full boost at all frequencies philosophy, meaning that I did everything I could – played sessions, joined as many bands as I could fit in and formed my own things as well. I took lessons, practised, wrote songs, played in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and other big bands. Sometimes there were conflicts and I would have to make a decision as to which band or gig to leave.
Musically speaking I was working in many areas. I was in an avant garde electronic band called Accord that was featured on the BBC’s Music In Our Time and Improvisation Workshop programs. I played electric percussion on a self-built system but I also had an EMS Synthi A synthesiser that I experimented with in my home studio. Professionally, I played straight ahead jazz, all kinds of fusion music, classical music and various types of rock, r&b and funk.
I was in a great soft rock band called Easy Street that was initially signed to CBS Records and then moved to Polydor. We had a radio hit in the UK and in a substantial number of US markets called I’ve Been Lovin’ You. It got to about #56 in the Billboard charts. We won several rounds of New Faces (a predecessor of American Idol with Mickie Most in the Simon Cowell role as a judge). Then, in 1976, the punk movement exploded in the UK and Easy Streets brand of soft rock was suddenly not what was happening. I wanted to toughen up the sound and change the image but we couldn’t come to an agreement so they kicked me out. At that point I decided to put all my efforts into Landscape, it was my favourite project.
During the Easy Street period, Landscape was a Monday night rehearsal band. We played pretty obscure jazz and jazz funk music and we couldn’t get a ton of gigs. The punk/new wave scene was really taking off, pub rock was happening and we couldnt get a gig on either circuit so we decided to start our own.
We had won a couple of competitions. One gave us a pair of incredible PA speakers that we built into an amazing system and the other was a Greater London Arts Association grant that matched any money we made playing in London. From that point on we played pretty much every weeknight in London (so we could get the matching money and still do sessions during the day), then on the weekend we would hit the rest of the country. We didn’t get a lot of sleep but we played non-stop.
Within a year we had built up a huge following by putting on our own gigs at town halls and large venues. We had released our own live recordings (on our own label: Event Horizon Records) that I made on my Revox A77 two-track machine that I parked behind me while I was playing. We used old ¼ tape from studios that I was working in. We sold about 25,000 copies of these two EPs and by then we were pulling about 3000 people in the Music Machine in Camden.
We made an album for RCA of the instrumental jazz funk stuff that we had been so popular live and that LP didn’t sell as many as the EPs we released on our own label. We were working on material for the second RCA LP around Christmas time 1978. I began thinking about it and I thought that unless we added vocals this would be the last album we would make. By then I had an MC-8 MicroComposer – the first music computer and a very early microcomputer for that matter.
One of the early songs we worked on was called Route Nationale, after the main trunk roads in France. I also had the prototype built of the SDSV electronic drums and I figured out how to program those using the MC-8 (this was before the Linn LM-1 or any of the programmable digital drum machines). We wrote the melody and lyrics to European Man over the Route Nationale track and that methodology formed a conceptual basis for what became the LP ’From the Tearooms of Mars, to the Hellholes of Uranus’.
It took close to a year to finish all the tracks and even then we held the album back for many months until after my production of Spandau Ballet’s first single had been a hit. It was a scary move but I was pretty confident that the first Spandau single and album would do well and I knew if it did it would give our single and album a better chance at radio and that is how it turned out.
There was quite a debate with the label about the first single, but I always thought Einstein A Gogo was the obvious hit. The downside of having a big hit with Einstein and the ’From the Tearooms of Mars, to the Hellholes of Uranus’ LP was that the technology was too fragile to tour. Overnight we went from doing 300 dates a year to not touring at all, apart from doing TV and radio promotional sessions.
The US label didn’t understand what we were doing at all. Our A&R person at RCA in New York was Dan Loggins and he had no understanding of any band that didn’t have a guitarist. I remixed a bunch of stuff for him but he clearly did not get the concept of what we were doing, and the rest of what would become the second British invasion, the New Romantic, or the ,80s sound, hadn,t become established there yet. MTV didn,t start till 1982 so the videos had no outlet for two years.
When MTV did start up Norman Bates was on constant rotation for the first couple of years, but by then RCA had stopped promoting that album and I had started to focus my efforts on producing because the demand was there. It is always frustrating to put as much effort as you have to into making an album and to then watch the label miss opportunity after opportunity. Along with the endless promotional touring these were the factors that drove me further toward producing.
I had loved the constant creativity of being a studio musician, I love writing and producing new material but playing the same song thousands of times on TV and radio shows is not stimulating to me. I realised that being in the studio creating new recordings was what I really wanted to do. Furthermore, as a producer I could make many albums in a year whereas labels were tending towards one album cycle or less per year for individual artists.
How was it that you came to be credited with originating the term ’New Romantic’, and what did coming up with that term do for you, socially and professionally?
I always had a kind of marketing sensibility and I felt that it was important for a movement to have a name. If you look at the first single off the ’Tearooms album’ – European Man – it has the catalogue number EDM1 on the label, and the back cover of the single says Electronic Dance Music… EDM; computer programmed to perfection for your listening pleasure… That was many years before the term EDM began being commonly used.
The name futurist was floating around as well but never really stuck. ‘New Romantic’ didn’t really fit Landscape very well but it did fit the Blitz scene and Spandau Ballet, although most of the groups tried to distance themselves from it. Despite that, it created a descriptive coherence and sense of commonality to those directly connected to the Blitz and beyond. Adam Ant cursed me out in an article once for the term New Romantic – he was really a part of the punk scene but, perhaps, because of his later fashion sensibility was associated with the New Romantics – especially in the U.S.
Through the ’80s I was so buried in the studio making records that I was never really aware of it having any effect on my career. All I was ever really interested in was making music and I love recording and recording studios, so I largely tended to shy away from the limelight and focus on the work. At that time I got offers to be on TV celebrity game shows and so forth but I turned them all down – that wasn’t part of who I wanted to be.
What recollection do you have of some of the other bands and the venues you played in that period?
Once the New Romantic scene became commercially successful Landscape didn’t play live anymore. As I mentioned, the technology was unreliable and fragile. Leading up to that we played close to 300 dates a year some in London and the rest all over the country. We were doing self-promoted gigs at Town Halls and large clubs. We would put together circus-like packages with comedians and fire-eaters. Once Einstein… broke we were on planes a great deal doing TV, radio, and press all over Europe. I also started travelling to the US to try to persuade RCA to promote the records.
The Blitz, where the New Romantic scene started, was a who’s who of nascent bands, fashion designers, writers, managers and others who would become central to that movement. My longtime friend Rusty Egan really created the soundtrack for that club and Steve Strange was central to the look. Ultravox was there and so was Boy George (before Culture Club even), Visage, Spandau Ballet and many more. Duran Duran was part of the related Birmingham scene.
How did your skills as a drummer, your passion for electronics and science lend itself to designing the Simmons drum kits, a sound that could be said to have shaped the sound of the ’80s and MTV?
We had built our own PA system using the Vitavox speakers that we won and another pair that we added. It was an amazing system for the time using ganged Quad 405 amplifiers. We strapped two 16-channel consoles together, converted them to balanced line input and were able to run 32 inputs at a time when that size of console was rare. I used to set up the sound at the gigs and our crew (JJ Jeczalik – later of the Art of Noise) would oversee the mix during the gig. Chris Heaton, our keyboard player, would play the drums while I was setting up the EQs etc. Everything else was DI’d.
I quickly noticed that the sound was impeccable until I pushed up the drum mics and then there was a lot of bleed from the other instruments that significantly degraded the sound quality. I asked myself why drums were still acoustic when everything else was either electric or electronic.
At the time there were a number of devices on the market – the Moog Drum, Syndrum, Synare, Impakt percussion. They each had their strengths and I had owned several, none of them really did the job of a drum set, they were effects units really. They sounded cool but would not replace an acoustic kit. So that was my brief: build an electronic drum set that would perform the same function (not sound the same) as a full drum set. I had been experimenting with creating percussion sounds on my Synthi A but the rise time on the ADSRs was not fast enough. I wanted to do it using analog technology so that it would be fully programmable, I knew it needed programmable presets for live performance changes.
I had approached several drum companies with my ideas and they all dismissed it. In the end I came across Dave Simmons who worked for Musicaid – the UK distributor of the Lyricon that John Walters played in Landscape. Dave was interested and we mocked up the sounds using an ARP 2600. The conceptual basis was that a drum sound has several components to it and by individually synthesising and then combining those components it was possible to approach the functionality of an acoustic kit. The actual sound of the drums was based in principle on my Pearl Concert tom set of the time. I used to loosen one screw so that the tone of the drum would drop in pitch after the initial impact.
What inspired the iconic hexagonal shape of the Simmons pads – was that your idea?
The first pad (I still have it) was triangular and Dave experimented with batwing shapes and some that we called the Mt. Rushmore heads. That is the set I used in the video of Einstein A Gogo and I still have two of those along with the moulds. The hex shape came about when I was driving to St. Albans for a development meeting at Musicaid and I was thinking about shapes because it was obvious that the pads did not need to be round. It occurred to me that the hexagon was an interesting shape because the pads would fit together in various configurations and wrap around me ergonomically like part of
Your book, The Art of Music Production, is considered a benchmark publication. What makes for a good producer?
I categorise producers by function. I used to list four types but I expanded them to six in the fourth edition because the industry and profession are changing. The types I list are: artist, auteur, facilitative, collaborative, enablative and consultative. It would take more space than we have here to explain them, but these typologies describe the relationships between the producer and the artist and the methodology used to make the recording.
Perhaps the simplest way to sum up what makes a good producer is: one who makes a positive difference to the end result. Producers have to be skilled in many areas and people skills may be the most important of all. Producers operate at the junction of technology and art and, aside from some artist producers and some auteurs, they achieve much of their results through the actions of other people. Producers don’t have to be musicians or engineers but they generally need an ingrained sense of what makes a good record in their chosen field, and the ability to put together the necessary elements to construct one.
Tell us about working as producer for Spandau Ballet.
Spandau Ballet was my first full production as the sole producer. Previously I had always worked in a team with Landscape and other bands. I remember feeling that responsibility on the first day of the sessions with the band but once we got rolling it was a very comfortable process. When I am working with a band I favour a good pre-production process so that everyone knows what they are doing once we get into the studio.
This was Spandau’s first album so I was teaching them about the studio and its processes, which is something I enjoy doing. Its really a thrill to work with a young band and create an album that opens up a whole career for them. I enjoy it more than working with established artists although it is a lot safer career move to work with already successful artists. In my book I describe the producers role as being like that of a film director but its also a bit like the blank tile in Scrabble: you have to become whatever is needed to complete the project. Even working with different musicians from the same band can require you to take a different approach. Laying tracks is very different than doing vocal overdubs and so on. Certainly the first two Spandau albums were a lot of fun to make.
How was it that you broke through in such a hugely competitive occupation?
Outside of luck and we all need our fair share of that, I think determination and perseverance were the biggest factors. I always kept my eye on the prize and if one route was blocked I would find another way. There were many musicians I worked with who were far more talented than I am, but very few who were as dedicated or determined. To succeed at almost anything requires a great deal of deferred gratification and I was never afraid to do that.
Perhaps more importantly I try to examine and re-examine all assumptions i.e. going to the beach, the pool, or the movies is more fun than practising – not if you want to be a successful musician. I would practice all day and all evening if I wasnt working and it was my abilities as a drummer that opened all the other doors for me. I still practice most days – mainly because I enjoy it, but there is still a lot for me to learn. One of the reasons I have changed paths in the music business more than most is because the previous assumption or aspiration no longer held true for me.
Your interest in technology eventually lead you to working with Fairlights, which I guess was the catalyst that saw you working with the likes of Kate Bush.
Kate is truly impressive as an artist, a producer, and human being. She is very humble, yet she has a powerful creative compass and can be assertive in a positive way. She immediately grasped the potential of the Fairlight and used it, complete with its limitations, to its best effect on her album ’Never Forever’. She was co-producing with Jon Kelly on that album. He is an incredible engineer and I had known him for some time from AIR Studios. We did this at Abbey Road and I remember sitting in the back of the control room being completely overwhelmed by how good the record sounded – and by then I had spent more than a decade in top studios with great producers.
Pioneers don’t always get the recognition they deserve because they are so far ahead of the curve. Is that something you have experienced in your work?
It’s true that innovators often feed the next mainstream movement with ideas that the innovator is never able to capitalise on. I think Landscape suffered from that syndrome. A lot of the systems we evolved became standard working methodologies. Whether they would have been developed exactly the same way without what we did is impossible to say.
From my perspective, it’s hard to complain because I achieved a great deal more than I might reasonably have hoped when I was starting out in Christchurch. I am not sure that I have the patience or the temperament to be a star or a celebrity. I like the creative parts of the business but not the loss of privacy and the media circus. I experienced enough of that to know that it wasn’t what I wanted.
Your role with Smithsonian Folkways is incredibly interesting. Does it represent a full turn of a life cycle for you?
It is truly a full turn of the wheel. I was not looking for a job but I took it because I remember standing in the World Record International (I think it was called) in Christchurch, at the age of about 15, holding a Lead Belly LP cover and listening to this incredible music on the headphones in the listening booth. We have that Lead Belly LP in our collection and we are just about to put out a new Lead Belly box set.
My skills fit their needs perfectly and I knew that I may never have another opportunity to work with a collection of this magnitude. The label’s mission and commitment to artists is consistent with my ideals and principles and so it has been the perfect home for me for the past 13 years.
Does your work at the Smithsonian infer you are a record collector?
Probably so, I have thousands of CDs, LPs, tapes and even cassettes. I also have a substantial collection of instruments and electronics. Funnily enough, I do most of my listening on streaming services for convenience. I love the instant access to almost anything. I like the physical artefact for the notes, credits and artwork.
What’s the most important thing you can pass on to a young musician intent on a career as a professional musician?
You can do it. There are always naysayers, musicians who are better than you, and good excuses – but you can do it. Perseverance and determination can overcome all obstacles. Don’t sell your copyrights cheaply, ownership is best. Learn the business. If you don’t you may wind up broke. Compare yourself to the best. Practice. Follow your dreams.
What’s the best book about music that you’ve read?
I have so many shelves of books on music of all different kinds that it is very difficult to pick out one. I enjoy dipping into Paul Zollo’s book Songwriters on Songwriting. It is a book of interviews with many of the greatest songwriters of the past 60 or so years – full of wonderful insights. Likewise with Maureen Droney’s book of interviews entitled, Mix Masters: Platinum Engineers Reveal Their Secrets for Success.
The best advice you ever got was…?
Work a job you love and youll never work a day in your life.
How do you define success?
Success is a lot about achieving goals for me. It might be completing an album or a book, finishing my Ph.D. getting a deal done, even completing this interview. I enjoy the daily process of what I do but my satisfaction and sense of success comes from consummating the task, what ever it is, and producing the result that I visualised. It’s never about money or fame although I have had to make money in my life because I certainly didn’t start with any. I have generally found that when I achieve my goals money follows but if I chase money I dont necessarily get it and I find doing so unsatisfying.
I make lists of short, medium, and longer term objectives that change as I go along and as circumstances present themselves. I live by daily to do lists and I find it intensely satisfying to cross things off each day. I try to make sure those tasks feed into the short, medium, and longer term objectives. I am getting better at not committing to projects that are a diversion. Good things rarely seem to happen by accident. I have found that even when I can see no clear path from where I am to where I want to be, when I set my sights on a goal I usually achieve it.
Photo left to right: Dennis Mason (sax), Johnny McCormick (sax), Rufus Rehu (keys), Barry Brown-Sharpe (trumpet), Dave Orams (bass), Richard James Burgess (drums), Peter Dawkins (producer, seated), Malcolm Hayman (vocals, guitar), Peter Hitchcock (engineer, seated).