Question: What do The Beatles, David Bowie, Elton John, Supertramp, Duran Duran, John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra and jazz/rock fusion drummer Billy Cobham all have in common? Answer: They all had sound engineer Ken Scott in the studio with them. Now, with the help of Bobby Owsinski, Scott has written his memoir, Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust: Off The Record With The Beatles, Bowie, Elton & So Much More (Alfred Publishing).
There’s dozens of great stories here, written provocatively and bluntly, dealing with massive ego and massive amounts of cocaine. Scott is smart enough to put most of the technical stuff in gray-shaded sidebars and intersperses his prose with testimonials from many of the musicians, family members, friends and studio folk whose memories may be a little shaky but who add perspective.
“By the time `Back In The U.S.S.R.’ was recorded, Ringo had temporarily quit the band,” writes Ken, who goes on to explain that when Ringo simply didn’t show up, the other Beatles finished the track without him, stitching together the drum part by splicing drums tracks played by both George and Paul with John on bass. Then John wanted in on the drum action so he too got behind the kit. Ken wound up taking parts of all three of ‘em playing the drums and weaving it into a coherent whole and that’s what we hear on the record! (Ringo returned a week later and George laid the studio out with flowers for his return.)
Stories abound for the recording of such tracks as “Mother Nature’s Son,” “Piggies” and “Yer Blues,” even for George’s “Not Guilty,” which, in all their arrogance, John and Paul rejected, despite the fact that it would have been one of the best songs on the white album.
The author contends Beatle music was meant to be heard in mono, an assumption I’ve heard from others as well.
According to Ken, George came to hate Phil Spector’s production of “My Sweet Lord.” Upon the re-release of All Things Must Pass, George and Ken tried to “de-Spectorize” the echo off the album but failed. Scott makes mention of the fact that George wrote “Try Some Buy Some” for Ronnie Spector, a gal so preternaturally sensual in her every waking moment that various Beatles, Stones and other legendary rock stars all fell in love with her. Upon recording the song with Ronnie singing lead and Phil at the helm, Scott notices Phil regaling the assembled multitude with story after story making Ronnie wait hours standing there ready to do her vocal. “It was obvious she was terrified of Phil,” remembers Ken.
Todd Rundgren produced Stage Fright by The Band but when it came time to mix, they called Ken. On day one, Todd barges in and demands to mix the album. Ken steps back and becomes Todd’s gopher for two weeks, doing nothing but getting him tea. “I must admit I have not been a fan of his since,” he admits.
Ken is called in to engineer a Lennon session of the song “I Don’t Want To Be Soldier,” produced by Spector. Ken doesn’t see Spector there at all but notices John, bassist Klaus Voorman and drummers Jim Keltner and Jim Gordon freely indulging in massive amounts of cocaine. The take is terrible. John says, “That wasn’t very good, I know what will help,” and brings out more cocaine. The next take is even worse. John says, “Nah, it’s still not happening. We need a little more of this.” And out comes even more cocaine. Ultimately, Ken saw where this was heading and somehow extricated himself from the session, getting the hell out of the studio and going home. And even that amount of blow couldn’t compete with what Harry Nilsson and producer Richard Perry put up their nose during the recording of Son Of Schmilsson. Ken recounts a story where Nilsson, for a song called “I’d Rather Be Dead,” brings in 25 very old people, got ‘em all drunk, and had ‘em sing the lyric “I’d rather be dead dead dead than wet my bed bed bed.”
Ken Scott, besides being very good at what he does, has had the transcendent experience of having Paul McCartney collar him in a hall with an acoustic guitar, sit him down, and play him a song he had just written to see what Ken thinks. The song is “Let It Be.” Elton John does the same thing to him. Sits him down and sings a new song he had just written and wants Ken’s opinion. The song is “Candle In The Wind.”
And these aren’t even the best parts of the book! His Bowie chapters makes The Thin White Duke come alive and in this age where Bowie himself is a total recluse with rumors of ill health, it’s wonderful to read stories about the albums that established Bowie’s rep when he was young and hungry and one of the most creative rockers on the planet…and then, of course, came cocaine.