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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‘Snakebitten

Rainbow, Gillan, and Whitesnake: three bands that filled the void between Deep Purple’s 1976 break-up and the Mk II reunion in 1984. All achieved great success in the UK and Europe, with charting albums & singles, Gold records, TV appearances, etc. However, while Gillan (the band) never made any serious waves on this side of the pond, Rainbow and Whitesnake did. Blackmore and Co. did it the old fashioned way: touring America incessantly in the late 70’s, and later retooling their sound for FM radio. The story of Whitesnake’s road to fame and fortune in the US is a tragic one. If handled differently, Whitesnake could have been another Bad Company, maybe even an Aerosmith. But sadly, this was not to be. In an effort to break into the lucrative American market, Whitesnake dove headlong into the empty glitz and glam of the of the MTv era. When the dust settled, we’d lost another fine band in the great Hair Metal Wars of the 1980’s.

Whitesnake had evolved out of the post-Purple career of David Coverdale, who, after 2 solo albums, decided to make a go of it with a proper band. ‘David Coverdale’s Whitesnake’ debuted with the ‘Snakebite’ E.P. in 1978, and by their third album, had absorbed former Purps Ian Paice and Jon Lord into their ranks. Alas, almost five years/albums into their career, despite major success in Britain, a breakthrough in the States continued to elude a band that was three fifths Deep Purple Mk III. Guitarist Mickey Moody, frustrated that a band with several Gold records could be 20,000 pounds in debt, quit the band near the end of sessions for Whitesnake’s fifth lp ‘Saints an’ Sinners’. The Coverdale/Marsden/Moody triumvirate was no more.

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David Coverdale knew some major changes needed to be made if the band were to break outside of the UK. The singer abruptly called a halt to the recording sessions and put the band ‘on hold’ in an effort to cut ties with manager John Coletta. During this enforced hiatus, guitarist Bernie Marsden left the band, as did the rhythm section of Niel Murray and Ian Paice. David Coverdale and Jon Lord were the last ‘Snakes standing…

So ‘Saints an’ Sinners’ sat unfinished for most of 1982. By the end of the year, Coverdale was managing Whitesnake himself, and had rebuilt the band from scratch. The new ‘Snake was comprised of bassist Colin Hodgkinson, ex-Trapeze guitarist Mel Galley, and Cozy Powell. Not exactly blooz-rawk legends… Recognizing this, Coverdale invited Micky Moody and his down-and-dirty slide guitar back to the band. Moody accepted.

As it turned out, all the unfinished ‘Saints…’ album needed was backing vocals, so Moody and Galley contributed vox and the sessions were wrapped. (Some believe the album was actually finished, with Coverdale holding the completed record hostage during his efforts to separate the band from Coletta.) ‘Saints an’ Sinners’, recorded by a version of Whitesnake that no longer existed, hit #9 in the UK. The record, um, missed thd charts completely; this latest failure of Whitesnake to crack the American market infuriated the band’s new manager…

Just before starting work on album #6, Coverdale scored a major record label upgrade, moving the band in the US from Atlantic to Geffen. The band began recording a new album in earnest. If anyone could guide Whitesnake to their US breakthrough, it was proven starmaker David Geffen. Geffen often acted as career advisor to the artists on his label, with outstanding results. What would this new high-powered ally advise Whtesnake’s new management?

Mickey Moody, back in the band he helped found, felt like a stranger in a strange land. Throughout the recording, Moody sensed his time was short. While on tour with Thin Lizzy in 1983, Coverdale struck up a ‘friendship’ with guitarist John Sykes, while Moody’s own friendship with the vocalist had all but evaporated. After a backstage incident between Moody, Coverdale and Sykes, Mickey decided to once again quit the band. He called a meeting to make his announcement, which everyone in the band attended… except singer/manager David Coverdale. John Sykes, available after the demise of Thin Lizzy, was immediately announced as his replacement. Imagine that.

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After ‘Slide it In’ was completed, David Geffen continued to work his magic behind the scenes. Geffen demanded the record be remixed for the US market. He also demanded that new guitarist John Sykes overdub guitars, and that Hodgkinson’s bass be re-recorded by ex-member Niel Murray. The resultant album is not really much different, with all of Moody and Galley’s work intact; Sykes’ more 80’s guitar tone is apparent but not obtrusive (though Murray’s new bass tracks were a vast improvement over Hodgkinson’s). The real difference would be in how the album looked on TV.

Both promotional videos for the ‘Slide’ album featured only Coverdale, Sykes, Murray and Powell (oh– and bimbos; lots of bimbos). Jon Lord had left to take part in Deep Purple’s Mk II reunion; Mel Galley had injured his arm and would never fully recover, forcing him to leave the band. New boy Sykes was now the band’s sole guitarist. Once again, the band people would experience would be vastly different than the one that wrote and recorded the music they were hearing. And so we see John Sykes pretending to play Micky Moody’s classic slide guitar parts, as well as Mel Galley’s solo on ‘Slow and Easy’ (Moody’s slide solo was edited out of the video). Sykes looks positively dreamy aping Galley’s solo in ‘Love Ain’t no Stranger’. And from the looks of the video, no one was playing the keybords.

Whitesnake’s new front line looked great in the videos, if you liked hair… and apparently America did. ‘Slide’ reached the American Top 40, a feat that no Whitesnake album before it had achieved. How? What was the difference between ‘Slide it In’ and all previous Whitesnake albums? Presentation. David Geffen knew what was coming. He knew that what music looked like would be just as important as what it sounded like to rock fans in the age of MTv. And let’s face it, Micky Moody, with his ever-present stovepipe hat and questionable facial hair, was hardly a match for the flowing locks and heroic posing of John Sykes. Geffen helped revamp Whitesnake for the MTv generation, and it worked. ‘Side it In’ went Gold in America, and Whitesnake had planted one foot firmly on the road to Hair Metal. David Geffen’s impact and influence on Whitesnake was undeniable, and after the success of ‘Slide’ he urged the band to ‘start taking America seriously’. Uh-oh.

It took Coverdale and Co. took more than three years to complete a follow up to ‘Slide’, mostly becasuse, as a band, Whitesnake was a mess. Cozy Powell quit after the last date on the ‘Slide’ tour, and was replaced by Aisnley Dunbar.
The Coverdale/Sykes writing partnership yielded two hits in ‘Still of the Night’ and ‘Is This Love’… but not much else. Unimpressed with bulk of the writing, producers Mike Stone and Lieth Olsen suggested re-recording earlier Whitesnake UK hit singles ‘Here I Go Again’, and ‘Crying in the Rain’. Then Coverdale developed a serious sinus infection, forcing the band into another extended hiatus. Sykes actually urged the band to replace Coverdale (!!!), which led to his firing by the band’s manage(Coverdale!)ment. Adrian Vandenberg was hired to replace Sykes. This was no longer a band, it was a goddamn soap opera.

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By the time the ‘Whitesnake’ album was released, Coverdale had rebuilt Whitesnake yet again, with Tommy Aldridge, Vivian Campbell, Rudy Sarzo (oh, for Christ’s sake!) and the aforementioned Vandenberg. What is this– Rainbow??. Nobody in this line up (except Covs) wrote or recorded any of the music they were fronting. And how ironic seeing Adrian Vandenberg ‘play’ John Sykes’ guitar parts in the videos for ‘Still of the Night’ and ‘Is This Love’… Somewhere, Micky Moody was smiling.

The ‘Whitesnake’ album defied all logic and was a smash hit everywhere. Riding high on the the Hair Metal wave, it charted higher in the US than in the UK, eventually selling 8 million copies, and pulled it’s predecessor from Gold to Double Platinum status. And the most important factor in this album’s success was not even a musician: Tawny Kitaen, Queen of the Video Bimbos. You know it’s true.

The transformation was complete: from a solid band of bluesy hard rockers to glam metal fops in just three albums. Whitesnake had reached its goal of conquering America. But mega success like this does not come without a price. Whitesnake’s road to success in America was littered with bitter ex-members, covert machinations and ridiculous videos. A once-great band had sold out and become a revolving door of hired hands with big names, big hair, but no soul. There would be one more Whitesnake record (featuring Steve Vai on guitar… the polar opposite of Micky Moody; look it up) before Coverdale folded the band ‘for good’. Some consider this to be the wisest management decision David Coverdale ever made.

Gillan’s Hat Trick

So this morning I’m setting myself up for the next week of my commute, dragging and dropping a bunch of albums into my ipod, when it strikes me that 3 of the choices I’ve made feature the one and only Ian Gillan on vocals. Not surprising, I guess. Ian Gillan features more prominently in my music collection than any other single musician. That’s not only because I think he’s one of the greatest rock singers ever. It’s also because the guy has been so damn prolific throughout his almost 50-year recording career. His discography is enormous. Thankfully, with Gillan, it’s just as much about quality as it is about quantity.

A big chunk of Gillan’s recorded output is rightly regarded as ‘Classic’. Just being a part of Deep Purple MkII seals that deal. But while his first stint in Purple surely cemented his legacy, it’s hardly the entire story. That Ian Gillan was able to create or co-create so much stellar music in so many different (and sometimes difficult) situations is nothing short of miraculous.

It could be said that Gillan’s most significant post-Purple period was a 3-year span during the early 1980s, as the Deep Purple MkII reunion slowly became a reality. Gillan knew he would have to break up his own band, and wrote and recorded their final album while keeping his fellow band members in the dark. He then found he’d have to wait a year for Ritchie Blackmore to wind up Rainbow, and decided to kill time fronting what was arguably the greatest Heavy Metal band of all time. But all of this was just the build up for DP MkII’s triumphant return. This tumultuous chain of events gave us three fantastic albums; three more stellar entries into the colorful Ian Gillan catalogue.

And now, back to my iPod…

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Gillan/’Magic’, 1982
‘Magic’ was Gillan’s (That’s Gillan-the-band, not Gillan-the-singer) sixth and final album. While it is perhaps their most commercial record, it’s also their most interesting. The frenetic, off-kilter vibe of previous albums such as ‘Glory Road’ and ‘Future Shock’ is largely absent, mainly due to the departure of Bernie Torme in 1981. By the following year, the band had apparently decided that replacing Torme with Blackmore-clone Janek Gers was a mistake, as there are few guitar solos on ‘Magic’, and the overall sound is keyboard-heavy. The record thus became a showcase for keyboard player Colin Townes’ decidedly left-field musical vision, culminating with the cinematic epic ‘Demon Driver’ (7:16). Gillan’s trademark screams do sound a bit ragged… Overall, there’s enough of the Gillan magic (sorry) here to ensure the album stands as a solid (albeit more commercial) follow-up to the previous year’s excellent ‘Double Trouble’, and a fitting farewell to a great band.

Lyrically, almost every song on ‘Magic’ is about moving on from a bad situation and toward a better one… which is exactly what Ian Gillan was about to do. ‘Magic’ was the band’s lowest-charting LP in the UK, peaking at #17. Ian must have seen this coming. The NWOBHM that had supported the band’s launch just a few years prior was over; while writing the songs for ‘Magic’, Gillan had apparently decided that the band had run it’s course as well. The lyrics to songs like ‘Long Gone’, ‘Living a Lie’, ‘Caught in a Trap’, and ‘Breaking Chains’ seemed innocuous enough when taken at face value, but took on a new clarity after Gillan broke up the band, allegedly to undergo surgery to have nodes removed from his vocal cords. There’s even a song called ‘Purple Sky’… Hmmm… Could there have been an ulterior motive for breaking up Gillan?

The vocal chord issue proved to be bogus, as Gillan’s next move created much bad blood among his ex-band members when he resurfaced the following year, screaming his ass off on…

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Black Sabbath/’Born Again’, 1983
With its garish, primary-colored cover, often-ridiculous lyrics, and dense, murky mix, ‘Born Again’ has a ‘special’ place in the Sabbath canon. Either loved or hated by the hardcore faithful, there’s no middle ground with this record. It’s not the complete disaster that its detractors claim, but neither did it live up to the potential of what initially seemed like an absolutely brilliant pairing. Bill Ward is back, so 3/4ths of the original Sabbath are on hand, and legendary Deep Purple screamer Ian Gillan is in fine larynx-abusing form (a truly miraculous recovery…?) But: the overall result just doesn’t gel into something deserving of the Black Sabbath name. Geezer has said that they had planned to put it out under a different name, but the record company did what record companies do: interfere.

There are moments when it all works beautifully: the uber-riffic drone of ‘Zero the Hero’, the super-heavy chug of ‘Digital Bitch’, and the sludgy dreamscape of the title track all impress, while ‘Trashed’, ‘Disturbing the Priest’ and the aforementioned ‘Zero…’ are all excellent Gillan/Sabbath hybrids. But Gillan’s lyrics just don’t work in this context, and the album is short on songs and long on filler. Two atmospheric instrumental pieces, ‘The Dark’ and ‘Stonehenge’, were edited considerably from much longer pieces (both originally clocking in at almost 5 minutes each); both work well as intros to the songs they precede, but giving them titles and track numbers of their own does little to hide the fact that there are only 7 songs here (and only 3 or 4 real keepers). An outtake from the sessions, ‘The Fallen’, was recently released on the Deluxe Edition of ‘Born Again’; this tune would have really rounded out the album.

Overall, ‘Born Again’ will go down in history as a flawed experiment, a missed opportunity, a ‘classic’– not only because of the music within, but also because of the controversy, baggage and backstory that came along with it. Like Motorhead’s ‘Another Perfect Day’, it exists as a separate entity completely outside of the band’s discography, an ‘asterisk album’, a creation that doesn’t quite fit but also cannot be written off entirely. It’s also worth noting that this was Bill Ward’s final album with Black Sabbath, and the only Black Sabbath album with Jesus Christ on vocals.

One comes away from the ‘Born Again’ experience with the feeling that the next one will be better… But alas, there was to be no ‘next one’. Gillan would later reveal that he joined the Sabs to kill time while Ritchie Blackmore wrapped up Rainbow’s commitments and the Double-Secret Master Plan could finally reveal itself (‘Purple Sky’ indeed!) the following year: A reunion of Deep Purple MkII and the release of…

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Deep Purple/’Perfect Strangers’, 1984
And so, the planets finally aligned, and one of the greatest heavy rock bands of all time reunited after a decade. Each of the MkII members had found varying levels of success in several different situations. Their individual writing and playing styles had all evolved. Could they come together and create that caustic MkII chemistry once again? As it turned out, the individual members weren’t all that far apart after all. Roger Glover had been beside Blackmore in Rainbow for several years. Jon Lord had been playing with Ian Paice in Whitesnake. And Ritchie Blackmore had actually invited Ian Gillan to join Rainbow in 1978 before hiring Graham Bonnet, so it wasn’t impossible to imagine the two headstrong alphas reconciling their infamous differences.

Wisely, ‘Perfect Strangers’ doesn’t attempt to continue where DP MkII left off (with 1973’s ‘Who Do We Think We Are?’); rather it sounds like a less commercial Rainbow fronted by Ian Gillan. It would have been unrealistic to expect a true follow-up to ‘WDWTWA?’ over a decade later. That record would have found an audience, but would not have earned the band a new generation of new fans, as ‘Strangers’ so effectively did. So this wasn’t a slavish return to a classic sound, but rather an updated, revamped version of that sound. Clearly Purple didn’t feel the need to remind anyone that they’d helped invent heavy rock; instead they’d re-invented themselves for a new generation.

And this approach worked. The album is rock-solid. Blackmore, Gillan, Glover, Lord & Paice had no problem transforming Purple into an 80’s hard rock powerhouse. The older, wiser DP was about tight, direct, impactful hard rock; precision riffs, catchy choruses, nimble drumming, and dynamic performances. The excesses of the 70’s were left behind in favor of a more compact, muscular, hard-hitting style, with Blackmore leading the overall sound in a slight neo-classical direction throughout. Keyboard and guitar interplay? Check. And with a confident and fully-committed Gillan singing over It, ‘Perfect Strangers’ sounded like Classic Rock from day one.

Without having to keep up the frantic histrionics and madcap pace of his band in Gillan; no longer under pressure to fit his lyrics and bluesy vocal approach into the doom-and-gloom universe of Black Sabbath, Ian Gillan sounds truly at home on ‘Perfect Strangers’. Gillan strides across the album, sounding relaxed, confident and comfortable. The Master of Ceremonies for one of rock’s greatest comebacks. Lyrically, Gillan was once again hiding secret messages in his band’s songs; a quick read of the words to ‘Gypsy’s Kiss’ (Cockney rhyming slang for ‘taking the piss’, which in turn means ‘not taking something seriously’) reveals his inner thoughts on the reunion and the biz surrounding it. Hey, this is the guy who wrote ‘Smooth Dancer’, remember.

Gillan had maneuvered his way out of his own successful solo band, maneuvered his way into one of the biggest bands of all time, then took his rightful place in one of the most successful comebacks in rock history. The fruits of these machinations? Three consecutive albums in three years for Ian Gillan. Three different bands, three different sets of writing partners. Each record a milestone in each band’s career; each historically significant. I’ve been trying to come up with another notable rocker who has accomplished this same feat, but have thus far come up empty. And this is just a 3-year slice of a creatively restless and somewhat daring career that started in the 60’s and continues to this day. This must be what the phrase ‘storied career’ means.

(Now, if only someone would explain the significance of the phrase ‘grey plastic retards’, which appears in the lyrics for both ‘Born Again’ and ‘Wasted Sunsets’…Anyone?)