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Mix Online interview by Rick Clarke

Gus Dudgeon, 1942-2002

On July 21, 2002, the music world lost one of its finest production talents when Gus Dudgeon and his wife Sheila died in a road accident in England. Best known for producing many of Elton John's most critically and commercially successful albums, Dudgeon had also produced David Bowie, XTC, Ten Years After, Joan Armatrading, Audience and the Bonzo Dog Band, among many others.

Dudgeon came up through the ranks, starting out at the renowned Olympic Studios on Baker Street in London in the early '60s, and later joining Decca Studios in West Hampstead as a staff engineer. While at Decca, Dudgeon engineered The Zombies “She's Not There,” worked with the Moody Blues and Marianne Faithfull, and recorded the legendary John Mayall's Blues Breakers album with Eric Clapton. At the urging of producers Denny Cordell and Andrew Loog Oldham, Dudgeon decided to get into production, and by 1968, he had become an independent producer for his own Tuesday Productions company.

From that point on, Dudgeon produced a number of distinctive and now classic recordings. With David Bowie's first major hit, “Space Oddity,” Dudgeon took what could've been a rather noveltyish tune and turned it into a transcendent pop moment. His extensive work with Elton John covered everything from the larger-than-life orchestral sweep of “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon,” to hard-as-nails, hook-filled rockers like “Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting” and “The Bitch Is Back,” to more reflective numbers like “Daniel” and “Country Comfort.”

Elton John trusted Dudgeon's production instincts to the point that the artist basically left the studio after the piano and vocal tracks were laid down, leaving Dudgeon to create that unique synthesis of orchestral pop and Americana that defined many of John's best recordings.

Although Dudgeon was always a fan of organic recordings with real players, the Guinness Book of World Records lists him as having produced the first commercial recording that utilized a drum loop, John Kongo's “He's Gonna Step on You Again.” It was an acknowledgement that Dudgeon was proud of and also amused by.

During the '70s, Dudgeon joined Elton John in forming Rocket Records, which put out successful releases for Neil Sedaka and Kiki Dee. In the '80s, Dudgeon built SOL Studios and reunited with Elton for several more successful albums: Ice on Fire, Leather Jackets and Live in Australia. With XTC, Dudgeon produced Nonsuch (1992), one of the band's finest albums; during the '90s, he produced Menswear and committed himself to remastering all of Elton John's CDs for Universal.

My involvement with Gus began last year, when I received an e-mail requesting a replacement copy of a CD I produce every year for The Oxford American Magazine. Gus had loaned it to a friend who lost it. When Gus found out that the CD was one of a series I produced, he got me to send him the rest. From that point on, he sent me numerous and lengthy e-mails about every track on each disc; we wound up spending hours on the phone yakking about music and whatever else was on our minds. I was continually struck by how much he truly loved music, especially Americana and roots-type music. At one point, I asked him if he had ever considered, due to his love of American music, moving to the States. He replied that there had been a time when many of his English friends moved Stateside and had tried to get him to come over. Upon reflection, he'd realized that as much as he loved artists like Doug Sahm, Fats Domino, and newer artists like Nickel Creek and The Yahoos, his heart and soul were rooted in England and he knew that he would always stay there.

After one of our conversations, I casually mentioned to Gus that it might be cool to do an interview for Mix. He agreed and we did several lengthy interviews shortly before the tragic accident. This is very likely the last interview Gus Dudgeon ever gave, and I hope it conveys some of this legendary producer's enthusiasm for his work and his real love for great music.

How did you come upon the realization that you wanted to work in music?

Well, basically when I left school, I ran through 11 jobs in four years. I got fired from every single one 'cause I used to get bored and would leave without telling them. I worked in a toy store. I sold purple hearts on the streets of London — a pound for 100. I worked for a clip joint, an advertising agency. Just ridiculous jobs. I had no idea what I wanted to do.

My mother was doing PR for a company that was just opening, which found jobs for people, called ManPower. My mum came home and said, “Listen, we found you a job at a recording studio.” And I said, “Doing what? What do I know about recording?” She said, “Well, I don't know, but this guy got sent to a studio last week and I don't think he was that qualified either.” So I thought, “Okay, I'll go and do an interview.” I was 17 or 18 years old.

So I went to interview for this job at Olympic Studios, which at that point was just off of Baker Street in an alleyway that is now sadly not there any more. I walked into the reception area, and there was a series of Lonnie Donegan EPs on the wall, of which I had two and actually still have to this day. And, in true kind of cheap EP style, they had the same photographs on the front of each different jacket, only slightly tinted differently. One was tinted orange, one was tinted green, but exactly the same picture of him on the front with a microphone but behind him were these acoustic tiles. Right then, I noticed behind the receptionist were these same acoustic tiles. All of a sudden, I got this rush. I thought, “Wait a minute, people make records in here. I can't believe it!” By the time I had gotten up to the boss' office for the interview, I was already working in this place in my mind. He asked me certain questions, like did I know how a tape machine worked and so forth. By a weird quirk of fate, I actually did have a tape machine made by a company called Baritone. I was able to record little things at home and make a bounce on it, which is kind of nifty and it impressed my friends. I was the only person I knew who had a tape machine.

So, obviously, I was headed in that direction, albeit inadvertently. So he asked me questions and I waffled on a lot of crap. He asked, “Could you take a tape machine to bits and put it back together again?” I'm going, “Yes, of course I can.” [Laughs] It was completely untrue. A week later, he rung up and offered me the job. On the very first day, I made a decision: “Gus, this is it! This is your job. This is your life, and it is what you have to do.” When I sat in on that very first session and the engineer pushed the monitors up, I was like, “God, I can hear bass, I can hear things I've never heard on my Baritone machine at home.” It was just a thrill, and I was completely blown away with the power of it. I was hooked, and there was no going back from that point on. This was about 1961 or '62. I remember Del Shannon came in and did a session — I was wetting myself.

How did you transition into production from being a staff engineer?

What happened is, I was doing a 4-track Moody Blues session that Denny Cordell was producing, and I was really pleased with the sound we had achieved. It was difficult in those days to get a great sound on every single track. If you put a rhythm track together, you might have as many as five different people on one track. When you got a great sound and a really good balance, it was really not worth changing — I would fight for it. The Moodys got to the session first, and they wanted me to change the EQ and add echo all over the place. I was getting more and more pissed off. And then Denny came in about an hour-and-a-half into the session and said, “Play me what you've got.” Before I played it to him, I said, “Listen Denny, before you hear this, I've got to tell you that since you've heard it last week, the guys had me stick all kinds of shit all over it.” And he went, “Well that's probably what they want. Let's have a listen to it.” So I played it, and he said, “Well, it sounds all right to me.” And I said, “Well Denny, can I just play it to you without any of the effects on it?” He said, “No.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “That's what the boys want.” I went, “I think that's pretty stupid. A week ago when we did the session, you loved it.” And he said, “Well I think it sounds fine now.” So he got pissed off and rang the head office. They called me back and said, “Listen, you can't talk to Denny like that. We've just given him his own label. He's an important producer.” I said, “Yeah, but I have an opinion. Surely my opinion isn't valueless.” They said, “Well, you've got to go back into the control room and apologize to Denny.” So I put the phone down with my tail between my legs and went back into the control room, and he said, “Gus, do me a favor. Just let me hear what it is you're talking about.” So I took all of the EQ and all of the effects off and just played it flat. And he said, “You're absolutely right. That's 10 times better. The guys in the band are full of shit. Run it off the way you want to do it.” And I went, “Oh, great. Okay.”

As he was leaving the control room, after the end of the mix, he said, “You're bored with this aren't you?” I said, “Well, I've been doing it almost six years, and the challenge has gone out of it now. I'd like to move on to something else and I don't know what.” He said, “I reckon you should get into production.” I was amazed. He said, “I think you'd be good at it.”

About two weeks later, I did a session with Andrew Oldham [producer/manager for the Rolling Stones]. I used to always do his sessions at Decca. At the end of the session, Andrew said, “It's about time you went into production, isn't it?” And I thought, “Christ, you're the second producer in two weeks to say something to me about that.” I said, “Well, I'm kind of thinking about it.” And he said, “Well, good luck, mate. If you want any help, give me a call.” As he walked out the door, he stuck his head back in and said, “Oh, by the way, make sure you get a royalty.” This was like '65 or '66. I thought, “What a good idea.” But it was between Denny and Andrew pushing me that I kind of took the bull by the horns and went into production.

One of your most well-known production credits is David Bowie's first big hit, “Space Oddity.”

The only reason “Space Oddity” was done was because the label was looking for some kind of gimmick. At that point in his career, Bowie's manager couldn't give him away. So Mercury picked it up very cheaply and got in touch with Tony Visconti. Tony said he would do the album, but he hated this “Space Oddity” song. So he said, “Gus is in the next office. Pop in and see if he wants to do that. He can do it on the B-side, and I'll do the album.” And that's how it came about. I spent more time planning ahead of the recording more than any other I'd done. The demos I did for “Space Oddity” were bloody good demos. I also spent a lot of time planning the first Elton album, but it came out of habit from “Space Oddity,” and that approach proved to be so successful.

How did your work with Elton John come about?

The fellow who had produced the first Elton album [Empty Sky], Steve Brown, said to Elton, “It was great to produce your first album, but I'm not really a producer. I think if we're going to move this thing on, we really ought to be looking for a professional producer to take on the next album.” I think it was admirable that he had the balls to say that.

So they started looking around, and one of the songs they kept talking about was “Space Oddity.” Steve, Elton and Bernie thought the orchestral arrangements on it were really good. So they rang Paul Buckmaster and said they'd be really interested in me working with Elton John. So, Bucker rang me and said, “Do you know of Elton John?” I said, “Yes. He's got this great record out called ‘Lady Samantha.’ It's not a hit, but it's getting a lot of play.” He said, “Well, if he offers you a job, I suggest you take it. I think it would be well worth doing it. He's obviously a good writer.”

At the same time, they decided they wanted George Martin to produce their record. Everyone wanted him to produce their records in those days. So they went to George and apparently turned him down, because he wanted to do too much and he wanted to do the arrangements, as well. They said, “Well, we've already hired Paul Buckmaster to do that. He's working on three charts now.” Now, this was incredible — no one turned George Martin down. So they went back to the office and rang Bucker up and said, “Well, disappointing news, Paul, you're not going to be working with George Martin.” Of course, Paul was very touched that they would stick with him because he was relatively untried as an arranger. So they were talking to him about who they should approach, and he said, “Well, seeing as you like ‘Space Oddity’ that much, why don't you approach Gus.” They seemed to like that idea. Dick James' office was a five-minute walk from my office, so they came over and played me 12 songs off of a demo, and I just couldn't believe it. All of them floored me. Basically, my prayers were answered. Although I'd had four hits prior to this, it was with four different artists. What I really wanted was an artist that I could work with on a consistent basis. So I was like, “Yeah, I'm going to do this.”

In fact, that first album [Elton John] wasn't really made to launch Elton as an artist; it was really made as a very glamorous series of demos for other people to record his songs. It was kind of like Jimmy Webb making an album and everyone rushes in and covers all of the songs on it. That was kind of the plan behind it.

Is it true that Elton's live album [11-17-70], which quickly followed Elton John, was a form of damage control from bootleggers?

That was done as a radio broadcast up at Phil Ramone's studio in New York to an audience of maybe 100 people. It was being bootlegged like mad, so Dick James rang me up and said, “Look, if I send you a tape of this broadcast, do you think there is an album in there?” So I managed to find about 20 minutes to fill each side and he said, “Go ahead and mix it and we'll put it out as an album.” We did and it was ultimately one of four albums that were put out in one year, which was ridiculous. We also had the soundtrack to Friends and Tumbleweed Connection, which was the official follow-up to the debut album.

One of the most distinctive elements of your work with Elton had to do with Paul Buckmaster's huge orchestral arrangements.

Paul and I would lie on the floor of his flat for hours going over little sections of songs and talking about lines. We would take turns coming up with different lines, and he would be writing things down. When you finally got into the studio and all of a sudden you are hearing this orchestra running through the parts, and you actually hear it being played by 20 or 30 people, you think, “Wow, this is just magic,” because that would be the first time anybody actually heard it. Then you finally marry the string parts up with the orchestra, and it was such a buzz. It was such a white-knuckle ride. There's nothing like hearing an orchestra play a great arrangement. The bottom line was that Paul was an absolutely terrific arranger.

The challenge we made for ourselves was to try and marry a big orchestra with a rock 'n' roll section and make it work, and not have one of them lose out to another. We also had to make sure the piano, which is a difficult instrument to get through sometimes, still stood out on top. I was always trying to get Paul to write more cello parts, and he was always saying, “Gus, they'll get lost.” And I was saying, “No they won't, because if we pitch them in the right register, they are going to be perfectly audible. I can promise you that.”

I would almost always book two or four Arco basses as well as the cello to add the real weight to the bottom end. I knew the kind of beef that came from basses from being a tape jockey for quite a few classical sessions. I was confident I could make it work. I think “Levon” is one of Paul's best arrangements of all time. It's such a fabulous arrangement. That orchestra riff on the outro is fantastic.

There's also a great example of a really magical moment at the outro of “Levon.” It was when Barry Morgan, the drummer, played the drum fill in the wrong place when he misread the chart. He jumped down a complete line on the chart and played a written drum fill in the wrong place. He carried on playing, even though he realized what he'd done. When he came up to the control room to listen to the playback, I was grinning my head off. He said, “Oh man, I'm really sorry — I screwed up.” I said, “Barry, that was a brilliant drum fill. What on Earth made you put it there? It was a moment of genius.” He said, “No, no. We'll have to do another take.” I said, “No way, you've got to hear it.” So we played it back and everybody thought it was brilliant. That kind of stuff doesn't happen if you're programming — there usually are no happy accidents.

Madman Across the Water was the zenith of that larger-than-life sound. The follow-up album, Honky Chateau, was an earthy, folky, funky kind of effort.

That started a whole different thing, really. That's when we went to France for the first time because Elton was being advised by accountants to record abroad, but more importantly, to write the songs abroad, he wouldn't be paying English tax. I asked to see if I could find something in France and I'd almost given up when somebody tipped me off to Chateau d'Herouville where the Grateful Dead just did an album. As soon as I saw it, I went, “Yeah, this has to be the place.” And it turned out to be, as luck would have it, a very successful choice.

Wasn't Goodbye Yellow Brick Road also cut there?

Yeah. Well, I must admit, the only reason that it became a double album was because we'd been to Dynamic Sounds in Jamaica anticipating to possibly record there, and I just couldn't get a sound together at all. It was weird. The Stones had just recorded there and they were checking out as we checked in. They told us a few slightly scary stories like don't open the piano lid too fast or you'll upset the cockroaches that live in there — things like that. It took me three days to get a decent drum sound, and eventually we said, “This isn't going to work.” So we said, “Let's go back to the Chateau. We know we can work there and it will be fine.”

Now at this stage, Elton would write all of the songs for each album in the studio during the five days beforehand. He already had an album's worth of songs together that he wrote right before we started recording in Jamaica. But when he arrived at the Chateau, he felt like writing some more songs. It was like starting another album project. So he wrote some more songs, and all of a sudden, we had more than a double-album's worth of material. It was only because he wrote two albums — one after the other — because we cancelled the first one. So if we had gone to Jamaica and the sessions had been successful, it would have been a single album. I'm pleased to say that it still is his most successful album.

On Elton's Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across the Water, I loved the way you integrated orchestral elements with country Americana instrumentation like banjo and pedal steel.

If the record had been made in America with American musicians, it would have turned out very, very different. The difference was that we were using English guys who loved American playing as I did. I loved bands like Little Feat and The Band, who were one of the finest collections of players ever put together in one group in my opinion. Elton was always a pleasure to work with. He always left us alone to do whatever we wanted, once he'd done his bit; he never came to mixes, which was a blessing. He only asked me to remix one track out of the many I did with him. As it happens, I'd already decided to do it again anyway! Oh, and there was one other occasion when he didn't care for the banjo we'd added to a track.

One quality that was notable in many of your mixes concerned how totally dynamic they were. “Burn Down the Mission” from Tumbleweed Connection or “Indian Summer” from Audience's House on the Hill come to mind.

First off, I love that Audience album, and that singer is still one of my greatest friends. Audience is one of my favorite bands and I loved working with them. Concerning my mixing technique, I was trying to make CD-dynamic records before they had been invented. I used to do these ridiculous dynamics. To be honest, I did much bigger dynamics on the mixing than was actually apparent on the final vinyl on any of Elton's stuff. I hated the whole vinyl-cutting thing, which was one compromise from beginning to end. You have no idea how many times I had to cut albums like Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across the Water or Goodbye Yellow Brick Road to get anywhere near the kind of dynamics I had originally planned. I knew I would have a problem when it came to mastering, but I would just deal with it then.

You got to remaster the Elton catalog. That must have been nice to address that.

Well, I enjoyed doing it. The whole series is now called The Classic Years. The first few CDs of Elton that came out were dreadful. They were just terrible, because they basically didn't understand what they were doing. They looked for the loudest peak and set it up, and go have another cup of tea and watch a TV program while it ran off, and come back and do the other five albums. I spent hours on each of them.

When you think about all of the things you've done and seen, it must sometimes feel like it has been quite a ride.

In the '60s, there were really only three things you should be in England. It was either music, fashion or film. And I just happened to get in the music business at the time when it was absolutely the place to be. Obviously, I didn't realize that is what had happened till halfway through the '70s. [Laughs] I suddenly realized that I was actually in the best thing you could possibly be doing. I mean, how good is that?

You know, I remember after I had started engineering, The Zombies basically won a contest, which was a record deal with Decca. So having won the contest, at that time, they didn't have much original material — like so many English bands, they were basically doing mostly all of the American R&B stuff. I remember the band came into the session with this really odd off-the-wall song called “She's Not There,” and shortly after we recorded it, it went to Number One on the charts. I remember that session really well. A guy shows up from Cashbox magazine to present them with their award, and I remember seeing them being given the award and thinking, “God, I would like one of those one day.” But you know, it never was an ambition for me. I never got into this business to make money. I got into it 'cause all I ever did as a kid was spend all of my money on records. To be suddenly given the opportunity to actually work in that industry and be a part of making music was like heaven to me. I couldn't believe my luck.”


The loss of Gus Dudgeon affected an entire industry, but most certainly those who worked with him. On hearing the news, independent Website Elton John World (www.eltonjohnworld.com) assembled a Gus Dudgeon tribute, with comments from people who knew him best. Here are some excerpts, courtesy of EJW:

“I am devastated by the tragic news about Gus Dudgeon. He was an incredibly talented producer and a very dear friend for many years. I will miss him terribly.”

— Elton John

“Gus was a legend — and will live on as one — to all of us. As most of you know, Gus and I had always planned to work together again at some stage, and it had been suggested as recently as two months ago that we were going to work together in the very near future. I am lost for words and will miss him desperately.”

— Nigel Olsson

“I worked as Gus' engineer for three years but knew him as a friend since 1968, when he met Elton. Gus was a perfectionist, whether mowing the lawn or mixing Joan Armatrading. I'd been at Dick James Music studios for two years and was an Elton John convert. I became Steve Brown's assistant. Steve decided the production wasn't good enough. Then Gus arrived. Bloody hell! Gus made the production amazing! From Empty Sky to Elton John [Elton's first album with Gus] is a great leap, like chalk and cheese, thanks to Gus moving in.”

— Stuart Epps

“I had the privilege of working with Gus on several projects over the years, either as a studio engineer, live engineer or as co-producer, and learned a great deal from him. He loved all kinds of music and had an amazing ability to extract the best performances from singers, musicians and technicians alike, and thought nothing of working for hours through the night until he captured that perfect sound. The Nigel Olsson drum sound and Dee Murray's bass sound were classic examples of Gus' brilliance and were such a major feature of Elton's earlier albums.”

— Clive Franks