Martin Birch: Engineering History

I’ve got books on my shelves about Iron Maiden, Thin Lizzy, Rush, and Judas Priest. About The Ramones, Blue Oyster Cult, and Cheap Trick. Books about classic albums like Led Zeppelin IV, ‘Master of Reality’, and ‘Deep Purple In Rock’. I have bios written by Gillan, Iommi and Lemmy. One each by Steven Tyler and by Joe Perry. By all 4 members of KISS. The rock books in my personal library range from trashy tell-alls to insightful and historically accurate journalism. The career arcs of my heroes and critical analysis of their works is something I study with great interest. The one book I don’t have, and the book I am most anxious to read, is one that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been written yet.

Martin Birch: Write your bloody book already.

The name ‘Martin Birch’ appears on several of the most important hard rock/heavy metal albums of all time. At the end of this post, I’ve included a list of just some of Birch’s production credits. This gentleman has produced/engineered/mixed the soundtracks to our youths He has worked with many of our musical heroes for extensive periods of time; he could probably fill a book with his experiences with Deep Purple alone (seven studio albums), and make his work with Iron Maiden (eight) his Volume II… And still not even scratch the surface of his experience.

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You know he’s got stories to tell. Working with Ritchie Blackmore in the studio on a whopping 10 records… Witnessing the sad disintegration of legends like Bill Ward, Tommy Bolin, and Michael Schenker… And being present at the creation of new legends like Bruce Dickinson and Ronnie Dio. Dude was hand-picked to rebuild the stature of a born again Black Sabbath, and of a floundering Blue Oyster Cult. This guy was the first to record the harmonizing guitars of Wishbone Ash’s Andy Powell and Ted Turner, and the first to capture the harmonizing voices of Glenn Hughes and David Coverdale. Birch was behind the board in Munich as Ritchie Blackmore’s solo single became a solo album, and helmed the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio outside Festival Hall in Osaka, Japan in August of 1972… not just witnessing history being made, but recording it… And not merely recording history, but taking part in it; shaping it.

Birch was often credited as producer/engineer as well as for mixing, meaning he was solely responsible for the overall sound of his projects. This often meant getting workable performances from drug addicts, volatile personalities, and in some cases, people with very little talent. In other cases, it meant recording under extremely difficult circumstances, including sessions held in a barn in Steve Harris’ backyard (No Prayer for the Dying’), and in the freezing cold hallways of empty hotel in Switzerland (‘Machine Head’). Ya, this guy’s got stories.

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And nicknames! Birch appears in album/single credits with various band-bestowed nicknames sandwiched between his first and last names, such as Black Night, Sir Larry, Basher, Big Ears, Court Jester, Doc, The Farmer, The Wasp, Headmaster, Jah, Live Animal, Masa, Mummy’s Curse, Plan B, Pool Bully, The Bishop, The Juggler, The Ninja, and my two favorites: Martin ‘Phantom of the Jolly Cricketers’ Birch, as he’s credited on the Iron Maiden Single ‘Run to the Hills’ (Live)/’Phantom of the Opera’ (Live), and Martin ‘Disappearing Armchair’ Birch, as credited on Maiden’s ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’ lp. Note: This is not a complete list. A guy with this many nicknames has some great life experiences to share.

But what is it about this man that put him in the same room with these musicians time and again? What does he bring to the table that sets him apart from his peers? I would love to read his own take on why he was the go-to guy for so many iconic bands. Clearly the man has an excellent set of ears, but also must possess an extraordinary talent for inspiring and motivating artistic people. Deep Purple MkII dedicated a song to him on ‘Deep Purple In Rock’ (‘Hard Lovin’ Man’) and called him ‘a catalyst’ in the liner notes; high praise coming from one of the more creative and progressive heavy bands of the era. There is a compelling, historically significant story here: how one man helped mold and shape an entire genre for more than 2 decades.

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Is there a ‘Martin Birch Sound’? Birch’s productions do all share a similar overall ‘presence’; it’s all about sonic space, and balance within that space; much of it happens in the mix, and (as you’re noticing as you read this), it’s very difficult to describe. To my own ears, Birch creates a space where every instrument can clearly be heard perfectly, and where every element has exactly the ‘right’ shape and presence in the mix, and works together to create an almost solid, 3-dimensional sound. I would suggest Rainbow’s ‘Long Live Rock and Roll’, Iron Maiden’s ‘Piece of Mind’, and Black Sabbath’s ‘Heaven and Hell’ as prime examples of what a Martin Birch production/mix sounds like. Three very different bands with three vastly different sounds; one consistent sonic presentation.

After Whitesnake’s ‘Slide it In’ in 1984, Birch was commandeered to work exclusively for Iron Maiden. Some have called him Iron Maiden’s ‘Fifth Member’. Wouldn’t Eddie be the fifth? That would make Birch the sixth member, unless you acknowledge Janick Gers, which I don’t… But I digress. Martin Birch retired permanently in 1992, after his umpteenth album with Maiden, ‘Fear of the Dark’. Drastic changes in recording technology led to subtle changes in Martin Birch’s signature presentation, evident in Maiden’s ‘Seventh Son…’ and ‘Somewhere in Time’ albums, and perhaps Birch knew that his era was drawing to a close. He was a mere 42 years old when he walked away from the business; today, he’s a bit past his mid-60’s… Mr. Birch, we suggest you add ‘The Author’ to your impressive collection of nicknames.

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Deep Purple: Deep Purple In Rock, Fireball, Machine Head, Made in Japan, Who Do we Think we Are?, Burn, Stormbringer, Made in Europe, Come Taste the Band, Last Concert in Japan

Black Sabbath: Heaven and Hell, Mob Rules

Rainbow: Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, Rising, On Stage, Long Live Rock and Roll

Whitesnake: Lovehunter, Ready an’ Willing, Live in the Heart of the City, Come an’ Get it, Saints an’ Sinners, Slide it In

Blue Oyster Cult: Cultosaurus Erectus, Fire of Unknown Origin

Michael Schenker Group: Assault Attack

Iron Maiden: Killers, The Number of the Beast, Piece of Mind, Powerslave, etc etc etc.

Wishbone Ash: Wishbone Ash, Pilgrimage, Argus

 

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British Steal

I few winters back I was working a liquidation for a major national retailer, and was asked by a customer if we had ‘Slade’s Christmas song’ on CD. She had a strong British accent, and I assume she was from the UK, perhaps visiting the States for the holidays. When I told her the store didn’t stock any Slade product, she looked confused. ‘You haven’t any Slade?’ she asked, this time over-pronouncing the band’s name, in case I misheard her the first time. I repeated my answer, and politely offered that while ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ was a personal favorite of mine, Slade weren’t exactly a household name in America, remembered, if at all, for their fluke 1983 hit ‘Run Runaway’, or for supplying Quiet Riot with their 2 best-known songs, ‘Mama Weer All Crazee Now’ and ‘Cum on Feel The Noize’. She shook her head, no doubt thinking You Yanks just don’t get it, and said ‘No Slade! Amazing! Well, cheers!’ and off she went.

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Slade OWNED the singles charts in the UK from 1971-1975. In that 4-year period, they released a staggering 17 consecutive Top Twenty singles; 12 of which went Top 5, including 6 that hit #1. Six number one singles on four years… They were the first UK band to have 3 singles enter the chart at #1. By contrast, here in the US the band had only 4 singles that broke into the Top 100 during that same period; the highest of which reached #68. And at the height of their success in Britain, Slade made a concerted effort to break in the states by touring through the 2nd half of 1975 and the bulk of ’76 with the likes of Aerosmith, ZZ Top and Black Sabbath, to little avail. While the touring scored them points with concert goers in several major US cities, US radio never got behind Slade. In the US in the 70’s, radio play was make-or-break.

Pity; most of their early records are a hoot. Slade had a way with a ‘rousing chorus’, a infectious, football chant musicality and an all-inclusive generosity of spirit. Their music was custom built for audience participation. And, while they were capable of throwing in a pop balled here, a novelty song there, overall they rocked quite hard for the era. Noddy Holder was a world-class belter, with a voice that could peel paint, and they had one monster musician in bassist Jim Lea. There’s an awful lot of Slade in early Kiss, and tons of other bands from various genres have name-checked them as an influence. Cheap Trick covered “When the Lights Are Out” just a few years ago. Their glammy image would have fit into what was going on in the States nicely. One wonders: Why would a crap band like Quiet Riot have 2 consecutive hits with Slade songs that had previously failed completely in the US? What’s up with that? Were Slade simply ‘too British’? Or was it because they couldn’t spell?

If you’re interested, I recommend you check out the compilation ‘Get Yer Boots On’ (I hate recommending comps, but this one includes all of their non-lp singles, which are excellent and a huge part of the Slade story), their 2nd full-length, “Slayed”, or their ‘wilderness era’ album, aptly titled “Whatever Happened To Slade?”

The debate over who originated twin guitar harmonies, or who first popularized their use, will likely never be settled. Anyway, who cares? Most of the bands that made that particular trope famous (Maiden, Lizzy, etc) will tell you they copped it from Wishbone Ash. 

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Wishbone Ash’s sound was an interesting amalgam of prog, folk and hard rock. Don’t let the ‘folk’ tag scare you; this was the most interesting element of their sound: folk music played with electric guitars.

Lead guitarists Andy Powell and Ted Turner were well ahead of their time, not only in their development of harmonized leads but also in the intricate guitar arrangements found in just about every song. Both displayed a deft touch and knew when to crank it up and when to turn it down. Powell and Turner were arguably the finest pre-Thin Lizzy two-guitar team in hard rock, paving the way for many bands to follow. (See how carefully I worded that last sentence?)

Wishbone Who? Ash’s first 8 albums placed in the UK Top 40. Their 3rd record, entitled ‘Argus’, widely regarded as their finest hour, charted in the UK at #3, and earned the band both ‘Album of the Year’ award from Sounds magazine, and ‘British Album of the Year’ from Melody Maker in 1972. So, kind of a big deal. Here in America, however, Wishbone Ash made no impact at all, with only 2 of their records ever entering the Hot 100. Ironically, their classic-era material (certainly ‘Blowin’ Free’, from ‘Argus’) would fit in quite well on US classic rock radio today.

While neither heavy nor metal, Wishbone Ash clearly influenced several notable metal bands (hello, UFO) and iconic players (hey there, Michael Schenker). And make no mistake: their recorded output contains its fair share of certified (if under-recognized) hard rock classics; the epic ‘Phoenix’ from their 1970 debut comes to mind. Still, I suppose one might need to hear some music to fully grasp the Ash’s unique approach to 70’s hard rock, so I suggest the curious start with the aforementioned ‘Argus’. A rich combination of delicate guitar, intricate arrangements, soaring lead guitars, and sweeping progressive reach, ‘Argus’ is a classic of early British hard rock. From there, I’d hit 1974’s ‘There’s The Rub’, criminally under-rated record that showcases one of my favorite bass players ever, lead vocalist Martin Turner, and closes with the amazing instrumental ‘F.U.B.B.’ If it’s the crunchier stuff that you’re looking for, 1977’s ‘No Smoke Without Fire’ and 1980’s ‘Just Testing’ present with a much more dense, metallic sound, and are also recommended. 

Anyone reading this remember the 1967 hit (US #12) single by The Status Quo, “Pictures of Matchstick Men”? Yeah, groovy song, man. Too bad they were never able to follow it up… Depending on which continent you reside on, Status Quo was either a one-hit-wonder, or one of the most successful, long-lived rock bands of all time. Scoring a mammoth 60 UK chart hits, 22 of which reached the Top Ten, Quo have spent more cumulative time on the UK singles charts than the Beatles: 200 weeks. 25 of their 30 studio albums have seen the inside of the UK Top 40; 17 of those made the Top 10, including their 2013 album (#10!). Racking up 4 decades-plus of monstrous chart success, Status Quo is hard rock royalty in Britain and Europe. In the US? Nada.  

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If the only Quo music you’ve ever heard was “…Matchstick Men”, you’ll be floored by the band they became just 4 records later. It only took a few years for Status Quo to transform from British psychedelic pop princes into the heads down, hard-rocking machine they remain to this day. Imagine if Rush’s ‘2112’ and ‘Hold Your Fire’ albums were just 4 years apart, and you have some idea of the drastic stylistic change. The ‘look’ changed as well; gone were the colorful Carnaby Street clothes and acid trip album covers, replaced by jeans and T-shirts and earthy, street level imagery. No one who has heard their first live album ‘Quo Live’ could ever accuse them of faking it; the passion and commitment on display is palpable. Status Quo had finally a music that they felt and understood, and so took a left turn. Once Quo locked onto that 12-bar locomotive boogie rhythm, they never looked back. America, however, couldn’t be bothered.

Like the Ramones, AC/DC and Motorhead, Quo have been accused for decades of making the same album of simple, unimaginative music over and over again, but the standard response from the faithful remains: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In that regard, methinks their chart success speaks for itself. They’ve weathered the decades without changing their sound a whole lot, ignoring trends and sticking to what works, and are always amply rewarded by their British fans. That a band this ‘heavy’ had such success in the mainstream charts, in a music scene where what’s ‘fashionable’ changes every hour, on the hour, says a lot about the powerful loyalty of the British rock fan.

Do yourself a favor; check out any of the ‘classic-era’ albums ‘Piledriver’, ‘Hello!’, ‘Quo’, ‘On the Level’, or ‘Blue for You’. It really doesn’t matter which one of them you chose, ‘cause they’re all the same anyway, right, mate?