From The Beatles to David Bowie, engineer Ken Scott has worked on some of the greatest albums of all time. Now he’s teaching in Yorkshire. He talks to Grant Woodward.
KEN Scott is a witness to music history. He was there when The Beatles made their seminal albums at Abbey Road. He was present at the birth of Ziggy Stardust. He watched Elton John create Rocket Man over breakfast.
As he recounts yet another story of rock royalty, he pauses for a moment. “You know, I’ve been in studios for the last 52 years and I’ve probably worked for a month of that time. The rest has been just sheer joy. “There are no golden moments for me. My golden moment is my entire life.”
Scott’s career as a recording engineer and producer reads like a who’s who of music. He pushed faders and twiddled knobs on some of the most celebrated albums of all time, working with John, Paul, George and Ringo both as The Beatles and into their solo careers.
Then there were the records he made with David Bowie, Elton John, Duran Duran, Supertramp and Jeff Beck. In fact, it’s a disservice to say he was merely a witness to music history – he helped forge it.
Now 68, Scott has moved back to Britain after nearly four decades in America. Living in the village of Hampsthwaite near Harrogate, he is passing on his wisdom to record producers of the future at Leeds Beckett University.
The irony, as he freely admits, is that it was his own disaffection with school that got him started.
As a music mad 16-year-old, he sent off speculative letters in the hope of getting a toe hold in the recording industry. One happened to land on the desk of EMI Studios - soon to become the legendary Abbey Road - at just the right time. A little over a week later he had left school and was starting work in a new and exciting world.
His parents, he recalls, were “ecstatic” because they thought he might actually make a career out of his music obsession, although he did have to explain what a recording engineer did. “I always liken it to making a film,” he says. “The engineer is like a director of photography. In a film the director of photography picks the cameras, he picks the lenses, the lighting, he makes sure it looks as good as it possibly could.
“The recording engineer does exactly the same thing but for sound. He picks the mics to use, the placement of the mics, the kind of room and just making it sound as good as it possibly can. Then the producer is like the film director, whose job it is to get the best possible performance out of the actors.”
Incredibly - and such happenstance was to become a recurring theme in Scott’s career - his first duties saw him working with five lads from Liverpool. “Nine days to get my first ever job, the first thing I’m ever an assistant engineer on is side two of A Hard Day’s Night,” he chuckles.
“The first time I ever sat behind a recording console and pushed up a fader was for The Beatles. Years later, my first ever production was Hunky Dory with Bowie. My life has been blessed.
“I was a huge Beatles fan even before I started at EMI, but then actually being a part of it was incredible, knowing you were working on something special. Although we never realised at the time that we’d still be talking about these things in 40 or 50 years’ time.”
Soon life was getting even more interesting as the band made it their mission to redraw pop music’s boundaries. “Sometimes it was ‘what the hell are they doing?’” Scott admits with a laugh. “It was the perfect learning experience for me.
“Here I was, someone who knew absolutely nothing really about recording and I was in the studio with the most adventurous band in the world. They never wanted anything to sound the same way twice. Plus they had all the time in the world to make a record, so I could experiment as much as I wanted to without anyone pressuring me. What better way to learn?
“They just knew they wanted something different, that was why it was so good. I could completely screw something up, I could record a piano the worst way possible, and there was as much chance of them coming up and saying that sounds terrible as there was of them saying, that sounds terrible but I like it, we’ll use it. There was a tremendous freedom with something like that, it was incredible.”
But a fall-out with the studios’ new manager saw him leave Abbey Road shortly after completing work on the White Album. He headed for the independent Trident Studios and it was here that he got chatting during a tea break about his desire to become a producer. The person he was confiding in just so happened to be David Bowie, who was there to help out on a friend’s record. A job offer followed and soon the pair were beginning work on 1971’s Hunky Dory - and Scott was waking up to the singer’s true talent.
“I thought he was an exceedingly nice guy, I thought he had a certain amount of talent, but at that point I didn’t think he would ever be a superstar,” he reflects. “Tony Visconti, who had been his producer and bass player, had taken control of the musical side of things up to then.
“It was only when he came round my house a few weeks later and we started to go through demos of the songs to figure out what we were going to record for the album and suddenly I realise hang on, there’s a lot more to this guy than I thought. I realised at that point he could be huge.”
He was behind the desk for Bowie’s next three albums, including the iconic Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. Drafted in to work on Elton John’s records, he had a ringside seat as one of the star’s most famous songs took shape. The set routine was that lyricist Bernie Taupin would go up to his room early in the evening and come down the next morning at breakfast with a bunch of papers with lyrics written on them.
He would give them to Elton who would go through them while he was eating breakfast. One day there was one sheet in particular that grabbed his attention. “Once Elton had finished breakfast he went over to the piano and within 10 minutes he’s written Rocket Man,” says Scott. “To have been there to watch it... you just feel very privileged. It was one special moment among many.”
Now he wants to pass on his wealth of experience to the next generation and hopes they will kick back against the blandness he sees in modern music production.
Scott reflects that these days people have more control over the sound of the music they listen to on their iPhones than he did when recording some of the best loved albums of all time. But it’s not making the music sound better.
“Technology today is astounding, but the singers will only sing the chorus once and then they’ll copy and paste it across. Bowie performed every one of his vocals and 95 per cent of them were first takes. Those performances are just not happening today. You’ve got to Autotune it so everything is perfectly in tune, but I think the beauty is in the imperfections.” With his CV, it would take a brave man to disagree.