As a producer, you’ll be the artist’s best friend; sometimes their worst enemy. You’ll be the shrink or the bully – you take on so many roles through an album.

Interview by George Cole

Part 1: Mahavishnu Orchestra & Billy Cobham

When most people interview Ken Scott they want to talk about the B-word – the Beatles or Bowie, two of the many artists he has worked with. But we were more interested in discussing the F-word – fusion. Ken has played a significant part in the history of jazz-rock fusion, aka jazz-fusion, aka fusion. He is the only person to have worked in the studio with both the original and second line-ups of the Mahavishnu Orchestra; he engineered Billy Cobham’s ground breaking album Spectrum; co-produced Stanley Clarke’s seminal album School Days, and co-produced There & Back, the final album in Jeff Beck’s trilogy of jazz-rock releases.

Not bad for an Englishman who was born in London in 1947, and whose career had up until then, involved pop and rock artists such as, The Beatles (Ken calls Studio Number 2, Abbey Road, where The Beatles did most of their work, the Sistine Chapel of popular music) , David Bowie, Jeff Beck, Pink Floyd, Elton John, Procol Harum, The Rolling Stones and The New Seekers (their single, ‘I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing’, was better known as the Coca-Cola advert song).

When Ken was given a radio at the age of 12, it sparked a lifelong interest in electronics and recording. In 1963, aged 16, he wrote to a number of studios around London looking for work, and three days later, landed at job at EMI Studios in North London (now better known as Abbey Road Studios). From there, he worked his way up from the tape library to assistant engineer to engineer. As well working with Beatles’ producer George Martin, and being involved in many the band’s sessions (he recorded much of the 1968 album, The Beatles, better known as the White Album), Ken was also fortunate to learn his craft from EMI engineers such as Norman Smith, Ken Townsend and Geoff Emerick, who developed new and innovative recording techniques, many of which are still being used in studios today.

In 1969, Ken moved to Trident Studios in Soho, London. It was another fortuitous move, because Trident was at the cutting edge of recording technology, being the first UK studio to use Dolby noise reduction and eight-track recording. At Trident, Ken worked with artists such as David Bowie and Elton John, and also moved into production. And it was at Trident that he first got involved in jazz-fusion.

Mahavishnu Orchestra

Miles Davis didn’t invent jazz-fusion, but he undoubtedly influenced its development. Many people think that his 1970 album Bitches Brew was a milestone in jazz-fusion, but it could be argued that an album Miles released a year earlier had a much greater impact on this genre. In A Silent Way saw Miles shifting his musical direction, with a greater use of electric guitar and electric keyboards. But what makes this album particularly special is that almost every musician involved in the sessions would go onto form influential jazz-fusion bands.

Miles used three keyboardists: Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea; electric guitarist John McLaughlin; saxophonist Wayne Shorter; bassist Dave Holland and drummer Tony Williams. Herbie Hancock formed Headhunters; Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, Weather Report, and Chick Corea, Return to Forever. Tony Williams formed Lifetime, and John McLaughlin founded the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

The first incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra comprised of John McLaughlin on guitar; Jan Hammer, keyboards; Billy Cobham, drums; Jerry Goodman, electric violin and Rick Laird, bass. The band had a power and an energy that blew audiences away – the band didn’t just blow the cobwebs out of your ears; they blew your ears off. The music was loud, intense and intoxicating, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra was soon a musical phenomenon that would influence countless rock and jazz musicians.

The band’s first album, The Inner Mounting Flame, released in 1971 by CBS Records, also made great waves, although ironically, not with Ken – at least not on initial hearing. “I was in France at the Château d’Hérouville studio working with Elton John and [producer] Gus Dudgeon,” he recalls, “when Elton and Gus were raving about this album by the Mahavishnu Orchestra. We were listening to the record over dinner and there was a large group around the table talking and eating, so I just heard snippets of it. I wasn’t impressed – I thought: ‘what crap is this?’”

Later on, Ken was back in London working at Trident, “I was mixing an album and I got a call from CBS telling me that the Mahavishnu Orchestra were coming into town to do a BBC TV show and were interested in working with me on the next album. It was purely because Gus and Elton had raved about them that I thought, ‘There’s got to be something there’, so they sent me a copy of the album. I listened to it and it blew my mind – the energy, just everything about it. That energy continued all the way through, it almost became too dangerous for them.”

The move from pop to fusion was well-timed, adds Ken, “Working across the different genres has been perfect for my brain, because I get bored. I cannot be one of those people who make the same record time and time again. It has been a curse and saving grace for me. The curse is that the A&R guy [artists and repertoire, who are responsible for finding and nurturing talent] would like to pigeon-hole producers – if you have a successful heavy metal album, they will throw all sorts of heavy metal at you, but I was all over the place, so never on the top ten list for anything. I just wanted to jump around.”

When Ken is asked whether he was influenced by Miles’ Bitches Brew album, he laughs, “No – I don’t think I’ve even heard it! I remember doing a session at Electric Lady [studios in New York] with Bill [Cobham], and Mick Jagger and Keith [Richards] stopped by. They were both drunk. Mick came up to me and started telling me about a new Miles Davis record, and when I told him I hadn’t heard it, he lost his temper! He went over to Bill and said, ‘How can you work with someone who hasn’t heard Miles?’ I think because of that, I purposely stayed away from Miles, because maybe it would pull me in a different direction. I try not to listen to too much, because I don’t want to think, ‘I’d like this track to sound like that.”

Returning to the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the meeting with the band at BBC studios went well, but one thing perplexed Ken for years – why did the hottest jazz-fusion band on the planet want to work with a man who had absolutely no track record in jazz? “I asked every member of the band and they have never given me a complete answer,” says Ken. However, in Ken’s 2012 autobiography, From Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust, John McLaughlin told Ken that, “I wanted to record at the ‘world famous’ Trident studios and you were the man. I believe I was the lucky one in this deal!”

The first Mahavishnu Orchestra record Ken worked on was as engineer for Birds of Fire, released in 1973. The album was well-received (it went Gold) and was another showcase for the band’s talents. Billy Cobham’s studio drum kit was enormous, with two large bass drums, four racks of toms, three floor toms and nine cymbals, but Ken was unfazed, “I miked it in exactly the same way as I miked all other drum kits – I just used more mikes.”

The band played live in the studio and at high volumes, but this wasn’t new for Ken, who was used to this way of working from his days at EMI. However, when the band gathered in the control booth to hear the first playback from the sessions, Ken was somewhat put out when Jan Hammer came up to him afterwards and called him a “Bad motherfucker.” Cultural differences meant that Ken mistakenly thought that Hammer was being highly critical of him, rather than praising his audio expertise!

By the time the band came to record the album, Hammer had acquired a Moog synthesiser, which added new textures and effects to the sound. The album’s centrepiece was the ten-minute ‘One Word’, which includes solos by Laird, Hammer and Cobham. Although the impact of Birds of Fire was less than with the band’s debut album, it was nevertheless well received and highly influential, as Ken recalls when chatting to Jeff Beck at an awards ceremony in 2013.

“Jeff had just been presented with an award by George Martin and he was clearly moved. So, I went up to Jeff afterwards to ask him how he felt and he said, ‘You do realise that you changed everything?’ I didn’t know what he meant, and then he added, “Birds of Fire – that just changed everything.’ I thought, ‘Jeff Beck has just said that!’”

But sadly, Birds of Fire also laid the seeds for the band’s demise. The album includes a curious 24-second track, ‘Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love’, which is basically a band jam, with feedback, drums and electronic effects. When Birds of Fire was released, the track was solely credited to John McLaughlin, which did not go down well with most members of the band. Jan Hammer, Jerry Goodman and Rick Laird, in particular, were frustrated in not getting their compositions recorded by the band, and relations between the musicians deteriorated.

By the time the band arrived at Trident studios in late June 1973 for the recording of a planned third album, the atmosphere within the band was toxic, as Ken recalls, “I remember Jerry Goodman putting his fist through a thick studio door. I don’t know how he didn’t break his hand.” Mahavishnu was a band of virtuosos, so is it possible for a band to have too much talent? “No,” says Ken, “everyone knew their place. Rick Laird played so simply underneath them and that’s what it needed, because there was too much else going on; it’s knowing when to shine. That’s what worked with the Mahavishnu Orchestra – it was a great team. I think the team fell apart because they felt that John was taking more from the team than anyone else.”

Many bands fall apart because of money issues, especially when it comes to writing credits. For the first two albums, all songs were credited to McLaughlin. “Writing is the downfall of so many bands,” notes Ken, “because it’s the writer that makes the most money.” Despite the sour atmosphere, the band recorded an album’s worth of material, including three compositions by McLaughlin and one each by Hammer, Goodman and Laird. But there was little motivation to release the music. Instead, the band recorded a live album the following August, Between Nothingness and Eternity, which included most of the songs recorded at the sessions.

The music from the Trident sessions was finally released in 1999, although Ken is a little sceptical about the way the album was promoted as ‘The Lost Trident Sessions’, “I was not surprised it was released, because the music was good. Before the album came out, I was getting so many phone calls over the years, asking if I had a copy of the recordings, because the tapes were supposed to be lost. But tapes don’t get lost that easily.”

The original Mahavishnu Band continued until the end of 1973 before breaking up in acrimony – whilst flying to Japan for a tour, McLaughlin was shown the transcript of a magazine article that featured interviews with the band – Hammer and Goodman were highly critical of McLaughlin. This was the final straw.

McLaughlin formed a second line-up for the Mahavishnu Orchestra, featuring Jean-Luc Ponty on violin; Narada Michael Walden, drums; Ralphe Armstrong, bass and Gayle Moran, keyboards and vocals. Their first recording was the 1974 album Apocalypse, an ambitious project that saw the band recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. The album was produced and engineered respectively by two of Ken’s ex-colleagues from Abbey Road, George Martin and Geoff Emerick.

Their follow-up album, Vision of the Emerald Beyond, released in 1975, included a string trio and additional horn players. Ken co-produced the album with McLaughlin, so had Ken been influenced by the work of Martin and Emerick on the previous album? “Not in the slightest. I’m not over-keen on Apocalypse. Geoff was almost too clean an engineer for them. There needed to be that rock and roll edge that I don’t think Geoff ever had. I think that’s the big difference between [The Beatles Sgt] Pepper and Abbey Road, and the White Album in the middle – that’s why the White Album works. I’m a dirtier engineer – I like rock and roll, and I like that that rough edge, which is what The Beatles were after on the White Album. They wanted to go back to basics to what they used to be, and that was a rock and roll band.”

He adds that when recording Apocalypse, “Apparently they started off trying to do it all together in one studio. Now, there’s no way you are going to get anything with Mahavishnu playing with a large orchestra. They stopped recording and had the band in one studio. I’m not sure whether they tried recording live with the orchestra or whether it was overdubbed later. I think it could have been better.”

John McLaughlin had a strong vision for the band and the music, so what was it like co-producing an album with him? “You really didn’t have to put forward too many ideas with them and that’s the way I like it – it comes from them. Most of it was live – it was very easy.” How did the original and second line-ups compare? “Mike and Ralphe were funkier. Bill was jazz moving over to rock – he played unlike any other jazz musician. The first band had more energy.”

The second version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra was not only funkier, but also more melodic, and the music was more diverse. The opening number, ‘Eternity’s Breath’, featured haunting vocals by Moran, while her ethereal vocals graced the beautiful Earth Ship. The funky numbers included ‘Can’t Stand Your Funk’ and Walden’s ‘Cosmic Strut’, while frenetic tunes like ‘Be Happy’ and ‘On the Way to Home’ were more reminiscent of the first band. The aptly named ‘Pastoral’ highlighted Ponty’s melodic violin playing. McLaughlin says Visions of the Emerald Beyond is one his favourite albums. Looking back at his time working with the Mahavishnu Orchestra Ken says, “It was a remarkable band and its influence lasts to this day. I am very proud to be a part – it’s absolutely one of the proudest things for me.”

Billy Cobham

Billy Cobham’s debut solo album Spectrum, released in October 1973, is quite simply, a fusion masterpiece. Cobham produced the album and Ken is credited as “recording and remix engineer, and all-round objective ear.” Many artists – including Jeff Beck and Stanley Clarke – have been influenced by its sound. Spectrum consists of ten tunes, although four are short musical interludes. Two songs – ‘Spectrum’ and ‘Le Lis’ – are straight ahead jazz tracks featuring Joe Farrell on sax and Ron Carter on bass, but the tracks that made the biggest waves were four jazz-rock tunes recorded by Cobham, along with twenty-one year-old rock guitarist Tommy Bolin, Mahavishnu Orchestra keyboardist Jan Hammer and session bassist Leland Sklar.

Spectrum opens with ‘Quadrant Four’, a double bass shuffle featuring thundering drumming from Cobham, blistering keyboard work by Hammer and lots of fiery guitar from Bolin. The playing is so fast, furious and wild that someone once asked Cobham if the band had been on drugs – he assured the interviewer that it was definitely not the case. The other three tunes recorded by this quartet: ‘Stratus’, ‘Red Baron’ and ‘Taurian Matador’ have all become part of the jazz canon.

The four fusion tracks were recorded live in the studio and very quickly – the sessions, recorded in New York at Electric Lady Studio, lasted just three days. “The sessions were great. Tommy Bolin was just a joy,” recalls Ken, “we just left him to it. It was that perfect team – he just fitted in so perfectly. He had an echoplex [a tape delay effect] and said, ‘let me just try this.’ We had no idea what he was going to do and it just worked.”

Cobham told Ray Shasho what the sessions with Tommy Bolin were like, “It was beyond fun! It’s like being in a room with your best friends. You have Jan Hammer, Tommy and Lee Sklar …it was more like, okay, what do we do now? We did that, okay, do you have anything else? This is one thing that I learned from Miles … match the people with the music.”

Ken describes how he recorded the sessions, “There was no variation – I recorded it like a rock session. I started work on four-track [recording] and equipment that was very limited, so I learnt early on that everything happens in the studio and not in the control room – we’re there to add the icing on the cake. Through that, I’ve come up with mikes and the placement of them that work for me. And it’s what changes in the studio – the different musicians, the different instruments, that’s what different.”

Ken believes that Spectrum is the epitome of jazz-fusion, “You ask, ‘what makes jazz-fusion special, and what did jazz bring to rock, and rock being to jazz? I say, ‘listen to Spectrum – and you’ll get it.’ You’ve got the jazz musicians Jan and Bill, and you’ve got the straight forward bass session guy and you’ve got Tommy Bolin – he wanted to be a rock and roll star. He wanted to die that way – rock and roll was everything to him [sadly, Bolin would from a drug overdose aged twenty-five]. What Tommy brought to the album was phenomenal. I’m sure that if Jan or Bill had said certain musical things to Tommy, he wouldn’t have understood what they were saying, but that didn’t matter – he was the perfect fit for the music.”

Ken went onto to co-produce several more albums with Cobham: Crosswinds (1974), Total Eclipse (1974) and a live album, Shabazz (1975). On all three records, Cobham’s core band consisted of guitarist John Abercrombe, along with Michael Brecker (saxophone) and Randy Brecker (trumpet).“I’m very much a believer that most – if not all – good things come from having the right team and the team Billy had for Spectrum was perfect,” says Ken, “After that, it became a little too jazz. John Abercrombie is very much a jazz player. The electric guitar is the epitome of rock and roll and if someone is playing it the right way, that’s what gives it the real rock and roll edge, and that’s what Tommy brought and that’s what Jeff Beck would bring to it, but others wouldn’t necessarily. John Abercrombie is a great musician, but he’s a jazz player adding distortion to try and make it become more rock and roll, and it doesn’t. Michael Brecker was amazing, and Randy is a great player, but I tend to think that he relied a bit too much on electronics.”

Going back to Spectrum, it’s hard to believe that a masterpiece like that could be conceived under such difficult circumstances – when Cobham went into the studio to record the album, he realised that the Mahavishnu Orchestra was disintegrating and that his position in the band was precarious, as he explained to Ray Shasho, “I knew the jig was up with me and Mahavishnu Orchestra; I needed something to try and get me back into the studio scene. I never considered myself to be any kind of leader, so if I could just get a record out or some kind of calling card.”

The critical response to Spectrum was overwhelmingly positive and what’s more, it got lots of radio play and sales were beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Cobham explained how the album’s success took him by surprise: “When Atlantic Records told me six months later that I had a hit record, I’m thinking … oh, you mean that thing [session] I did with Jackie & Roy? [a jazz vocal duo] I wasn’t thinking about me. I’m thinking …[singer] Esther Phillips, Jackie & Roy, [jazz pianist] Mose Allison … anybody but me. And all of a sudden, ‘no, it’s your record.’ I thought they were joking because I never listened to the radio.”

Did Ken know he was making a special record at the time? “I like to think that every record I do is special, but whether the general public will think so, that’s in the laps of the gods. I want to make something special for myself and the artist – that’s the way it’s always been. Over time, I was surprised by the success of Spectrum – I didn’t realise it would have that kind of effect on people. I knew it was a good album, but from there, it’s down to what the record company does and what the people like.”

Part 2: Stanley Clarke & Jeff Beck

Stanley Clarke

When bassist Stanley Clarke heard Billy Cobham’s Spectrum album, he was fascinated by the drum sound. As he explained in Ken’s autobiography, he contacted Cobham to find out more, “I called Billy and I said, ‘How the fuck did you get that drum sound? That doesn’t sound like a jazz drum sound where you go in and the whole album is done in three hours and you spend like five minutes on the drums.’”

Cobham explained that the sound was down to Ken and the way he used microphones in the studio. “The music just had a certain sophistication sonically that other jazz records didn’t,” added Clarke, “the other records in those days sounded like you put up two microphones…but on Ken’s, you heard little subtleties. You heard a lot of detail…Man that was great, so I said, ‘I gotta have that.’”

The first time Ken worked with Clarke in the studio was as engineer on the 1974 album, Stanley Clarke, with a band that included Jan Hammer (keyboards), Tony Williams (drums) and Airto Moreira (percussion). Ken’s recording techniques soon made their mark. “Stan played an Alembic bass, which had a stereo output, so I could separate the low- and high-end, so you could really play with the sounds, unlike with a Fender [bass] which just had one output,”  he explains, “I also introduced Stan to half-speed recording. Stan played so fast that the notes lacked clarity. So I told him, ‘I’m going to play the tape at half speed. You’re going to play that part down an octave. So he could play it more slowly and get it really clean. And when we played it back at normal speed, it went up an octave, but you also got that speed; you had that low-end, but you could also hear every note. I used this technique on all the albums I did with Stan. It was the willingness to go through things like that and to try and experiment, which was great.”

Ken also worked on Tony Williams’ drum sound. Williams played on several tracks but his drumming was lacklustre. When Ken asked Williams what the problem was, he explained that it was the way his drum was miked. The front head of the kick drum had been removed and a microphone placed in front of the drum kit. But Williams was used to feeling the rebound of the kick drum pedal with both heads in place, and this was affecting the way he played. Ken asked Williams to give him a little time to work out a solution. The answer was to suspend a microphone inside the drum and leave both heads on – Ken subsequently used this technique when recording other drummers in the studio.

Clarke’s next album, Journey to Love, was released in 1975 and co-produced by Clarke and Ken. The album featured many leading jazz artists including, George Duke and Chic Corea on keyboards; John McLaughlin and David Sancious, guitar, and Steve Gadd and Lenny White on drums. Another guest musician was Jeff Beck, who played guitar on two tracks, the title track and ‘Hello Jeff’.

Journey to Love was well received, with songs such as ‘Journey to Love’ and ‘Silly Putty’ becoming firm favourites, but it was the third and final collaboration between Ken and Clarke that created the greatest waves. The 1976 album Schooldays is a jazz-rock classic and in addition to featuring Duke, McLaughlin, Gadd and Sancious (now on keyboards) from the last album, the line-up also included Ray Gomez and Icarus Johnson on guitar, Gerry Brown, drums and Lew Soloff, trumpet.

The anthemic title track took bass playing to a new level – “I was aware that this was a different style of bass playing,” says Ken. Funk bassist Larry Graham had developed a style of plucking and thumbing on an electric bass, and is universally known as the father of electric slap bass, but Clarke built on this foundation to create a sizzling tune that features furious slapping and wild, screaming guitar from Gomez. The track was recorded in a single take, with just vocals and bell overdubbed.

“One of my friends said that everyone should have a ‘career song,’ and I would say that ‘School Days’ might be just that for me,” Clarke told Joe Bosso, “It’s kind of a bass anthem. Wherever I go and play anywhere in the world, people still want to hear that song.”  He added, “Of all my albums, this one has the most attitude. I wasn’t really angry or anything, but my playing was fierce and unapologetic. I was very passionate about what I was doing. Maybe that’s why this has been one of my biggest sellers.”

Other highlights include ‘The Dancer’, which has the joy and feel of a Latin festival; Clarke and McLaughlin’s acoustic duet on ‘Desert Song’; the smoking ‘Hot Fun’, with Steve Gadd’s skipping drum track, swirling violins and staccato horns. The album’s epic closer is the nine-minute ‘Life is Just a Game’. A grand, baroque-like opening disguises the fact that this is a funk track which showcases Clarke’s virtuosity on the bass and the power drumming of Billy Cobham, who plays acoustic drums with some electronic effects. George Duke on keyboards and Icarus Johnson on guitar also lend great support on the track.

However, Ken recalls that recording the track was not easy. “I thought it would be great to have Bill and Stan playing together. If I recall correctly, it was just the two of them in the studio. So, we started the recording and they both started overplaying! They were competing with each other and trying to outshine each other. When they came into the control booth I said, ‘Come on guys, calm down the showing off!’ So they both say, ‘Okay Ken,’ and they go back and bang! They’re off again! Finally, they calmed down and that track is phenomenal.”

The School Days album was originally going to be released in a four-track surround-sound format, Quad, and Ken had prepared a Quad mix of the album. “There were never any plans to release the album in stereo,” explains Ken, “But just as we were about to send the album off for mastering, I got a call from the record company asking for a stereo mix. Fortunately, we were able to fold down [create] a stereo mix from our Quad mix and it all worked out well.”

Jeff Beck

Throughout the 60s and early 70s Jeff Beck was already known as one of the leading rock and pop guitarists, playing with The Yardbirds and releasing albums under his own name. But in 1975, he released Blow by Blow, a jazz-rock album that is considered a classic. The album was produced by George Martin (with much input from keyboardist Max Middleton) and included Beck’s beautiful cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers’.

Several jazz musicians had inspired Beck to explore jazz-rock. Beck told Kory Grow, “The Mahavishnu Orchestra was a clear lesson that there was life after singers. I thought if I could make a more simplified version of that…it would be good.” In a much quoted statement, Beck states that Billy Cobham’s first album also influenced him, “Spectrum changed my whole musical outlook..[It] gave me new life at the time, on top of the Mahavishnu records. It represented a whole area that was as exciting to me as when I first heard Hound Dog by Elvis Presley. They were so inspirational to me that I started to adopt that type of music. Tommy’s [Bolin] guitar playing on Spectrum is fantastic, while Jan [Hammer] can flatten you with the first few notes.”

When Beck was asked to name his top six albums for a newspaper article, he cited Jan Hammer’s 1975 album The First Seven Days, “The music on this is so graphic. Jan became my hero when he was in John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. He was playing bendy notes with a keyboard so it sounded like a guitar and I became obsessed with how he did it.” Also on the list was Miles Davis’ Jack Johnson, “I was working on a car outside my house when this amazing free-form shuffle came on the radio. Davis’s trumpet comes in randomly with the melody and that freedom appealed to me. McLaughlin played on this as well and gave me my next career move.”

He reinforced this view in an interview with Graham Reid, “Miles Davis’ Jack Johnson album made me realise that highly rated world class players were making the sort of music I felt attached to strongly, and that enabled me to dismiss any temptation to get involved with mainstream rock.” Talking to Guitar World, Beck said,“I would have loved to have had the chance to play with Miles, but it was never brought up. I don’t know if he even knew who I was. If he were to come back, I’d definitely knock on his door.”

Blow By Blow is Beck’s biggest selling album, with more than one million copies sold. In 1975, Beck toured the US, supporting the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Beck’s next album, Wired (released in 1976) was his second jazz-rock album. Although George Martin was once again the producer, it was dominated by two ex-Mahavishnu musicians, Jan Hammer and Narada Michael Walden, who between them, wrote five of the eight tracks on the album – Hammer wrote a Beck concert favourite, ‘Blue Wind’, and one of Walden’s four compositions was ‘Love Is Green’, a song that could have been written for John McLaughlin, featuring Beck on both acoustic and electric guitar. Wired also includes Beck’s superb cover of Charles Mingus’ ‘Goodbye Porkpie Hat’ – Mingus was so impressed that he sent a congratulatory letter to Beck.

Another production engagement forced Martin to leave the project early, but Ken says he heard rumours that there had been some issues with Martin’s production on the album, “I was getting phone calls during Wired to go in and I said, ‘I can’t.’ I know they were going in after hours to do parts without George. It was all slightly weird. Then he teamed up with, Jan [Hammer] who was taking it in a more jazz direction.”

Hammer confirmed to Art Connor that he took over the project, “Some of the basic tracks for Wired were done in London, and then Jeff came over to my studio, he brought the tapes over from England, and we did the soloing and overdubs here. And then I did final mixes on four of the tunes.” In 1976, Beck and Hammer toured the US as Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group, and a live album was released the following year.

So when Beck was ready to record his next jazz-rock album, There and Back (released in 1980), Hammer was in prime position to produce it. Hammer recorded a number of tracks in his New England studio and then flew to England. Also recruited for the studio band were twenty-two year old drummer Simon Phillips, who had previously played with artists such as Jack Bruce and Ray Russell, and bassist Mo Foster, one of Britain’s busiest session musicians. But Hammer soon vacated the producer’s chair. In his Jeff Beck biography, Hot Wired Guitar, writer Martin Power reports Phillips’ recalling those early sessions, “We recorded some of the songs with Jan…but Jeff was not totally happy with the outcomes.”

However, Ken says he heard another reason why Hammer left the project, “The story I got was that Jeff and Jan were on stage together, and when Jeff was doing a solo, Jan – who was wearing one of those keyboards that go around your neck like a guitar – decided to do a duck walk. Jeff was offended. That’s when I got the phone call.” Ken travelled to Beck’s home to discuss the project and was asked to co-produce the album.

Despite the fall-out, three of Hammer’s compositions would be used on There & Back, including the opening number, ‘Star Cycle’, a synthesiser-driven tune that includes plenty of pyrotechnics from Hammer and Beck. It was also used as the theme tune for the 1980s British TV music programme The Tube.

The rest of the album was recorded at Abbey Road studios, and keyboardist Tony Hymas, a classical and jazz musician who had played with Jack Bruce, Sam Rivers and Cleo Laine, was brought in to replace Hammer. Hymas had also toured Japan and Europe with Beck, Stanley Clarke and Phillips in 1978, and over the next decade or so, would forge a strong musical partnership with Beck.

Hymas and Phillips composed four of the remaining five tracks that completed the album (Hymas also composed the last track, ‘The Final Peace’, with Beck). The songs included ‘Space Boogie’, which was inspired by Billy Cobham’s Quadrant Four from the Spectrum album. A double bass shuffle, Space Boogie has alternating time signatures of 4/4, 7/4 and 6/4, and includes some ferocious playing by both Beck and Phillips. ‘The Pump’, a concert favourite, is driven along by Foster’s funk bass groove and features some exquisite guitar playing by Beck.

Ken was very impressed with Simon Phillips, even before he had heard him play a single note. When Phillips’ drum kit arrived in the studio, Ken was preparing to suspend a microphone inside the bass drum (a technique he had first used with Tony Williams) only to find that Phillips had already installed one. Phillips had heard about Ken’s miking techniques and had had a suspended mike installed in order to save time. When Phillips recalled his time during the There & Back sessions, he said, “Working with Ken Scott was wonderful… that was a major milestone in my career.”

Ken had previously worked with Beck on the guitarist’s 1968 album Truth, and had enjoyed the experience of working with the guitarist. But when it came to recording Beck’s follow-up album, the guitarist’s demeanour had changed, and in Ken’s words, “his ego was out of the door.” Ken swiftly left the project.

However, when it came to recording There & Back, Ken faced a new challenge – finding ways of boosting Beck’s self-confidence. Even the most talented artists can have doubts about their ability, and Beck is one of them. Despite his illustrious track record, he admits to still being nervous about performing. This insecurity manifested itself during the recording of There & Back.

Beck biographer Annette Carson records Beck’s remarks about the sessions, “I was surrounded with really hot guys and it made me a bit nervous…I always worry about that, whether I’m living up to expectations.” The change in Beck’s personality was a shock for Ken, “Jeff had played on a couple of tracks on Stan’s album and he was fine – the old Jeff was back. This was quite a chilling experience, because I was used to drawing-in egos, but with Jeff it was the opposite. He was one of the world’s greatest guitarists, but he didn’t think he was good enough to play with the other musicians. His manager and I managed to pull it out of him.”

Most of Beck’s playing on There & Back was overdubbed, with the keyboards, bass and drums tracks already laid down. It took Beck dozens of attempts to get the right take for ‘Space Boogie’ (in Beck’s words, “I had about 50 tries”), and ‘The Pump’ was another number that required a lot of work, “I remember that took a while,” says Ken, “and we did his guitar part while I was mixing the album. It was pieced together – it was never a single take.”

The track sequencing for There & Back places all of Jan Hammer’s tracks at the beginning, followed by the five Tony Hymas’ compositions, neatly the separating the album into two parts. Ken can’t remember whether this was a deliberate policy or just a coincidence. Likewise, he’s not sure where the album title came from or what it refers to.

There & Back was Beck’s first album for four years, and after the peaks of Blow by Blow and Wired, expectations were high. However, the album received a mixed critical reception, although it achieved some commercial success – it reached the top ten of Billboard’s US jazz album chart and peaked at 21 in the pop chart. The main criticism was that Beck seemed to be treading water, but in this writer’s view, There & Back builds on the foundations of his previous jazz-rock albums and features some his best tunes; some of the finest playing from this era, and one of his best studio bands.

However, Beck had some misgivings about the album, as reported by Annette Carson, “If I had the knowledge about recording that I have now,” he said, “it would not have sounded that way. I would have gone much more edgy. It’s so beautifully recorded it sounds tame.”

When Ken is shown these comments, he is quite sanguine, “I understand what he’s saying. The only song I listen to is ‘The Pump’ – that one works amazingly well for me. The other tunes are okay. I do some teaching and one of the questions I get is ‘when is the mix finished?’ because these days, they’ll go back in and do it and do it and do it. I just say, ‘there is no such thing as perfection’. At a later stage – it could be a couple of days later, it could be a year later, you are going to listen to it and think ‘I wish I had done things differently,’ and to a point, it is with that album. I think because there was some stuff that had already been done with Jan, it had to go in that way. It’s not one of my favourite albums that I worked on, but I do love ‘The Pump’.”

The fusion express hits the buffers

The decade between the early 70s and early 80s was the high-water mark for jazz-fusion, but the genre became a victim of its own excess, with technical prowess and lots of notes replacing heart and soul. Others went down the path of smooth jazz, and while some smooth jazz musicians retained the integrity of the music (like Grover Washington Jr) many others produced bland, easily digestible music that was a world away from the dizzy heights of fusion.

Ken notes, “Even the excitement of the jazz-fusion era died quickly – it’s all elevator music now. I don’t think many people understood what made it what it was and they just tried to emulate it, and the emulations were never as good as the original. Much as I love Return to Forever and Weather Report, they don’t compare with Mahavishnu and [Billy Cobham’s] Spectrum. To me, Spectrum is the perfect amalgamation of rock and jazz – it’s the epitome of jazz-fusion. Mahavishnu  was certainly up there, but it was jazz musicians who were trying to play fusion. You needed you have a rock and roll musician somewhere in there. They might not be as good musically as a jazz musician, but they had that edge.”

Part 3: Ken Scott on producing

In addition to engineering and co-producing a string of jazz-fusion classic albums, Ken has produced many pop and rock acts, including three David Bowie albums, Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, and Aladdin Sane. He also produced Supertramp’s 1973 album, Crime of the Century. In 1976, Ken moved to the US, where he worked for the next forty years. He now lives in Yorkshire, and is a senior professor at Leeds Beckett University School of Film, Music and Performing Arts, where he lectures on music production.

How did you evolve from being an engineer to a producer?

I like to joke that as an engineer, I was very proactive and coming up with suggestions to make the music sound better. Sometimes the producer would try out my ideas, and if the idea worked, the producer would take the credit; but if it didn’t, it was Ken’s suggestion! Also, engineering had become too easy and I needed a new challenge.

What are the biggest challenges in being a producer?

Getting the sound right is the easy bit for me these days. I’m a creature of habit: I do everything the same every single time and it’s what happens in the studio that changes it. You never know what is going to happen at any given time. As a producer, you’ll be [the artist’s] best friend; sometimes their worst enemy. You’ll be the shrink or the bully – you take on so many roles through an album. The one thing I’ve always wanted as a producer is to make something that the artist and I like and can be proud of. If no one else likes it, that’s fine, as long as you can look and think, ‘yes, we worked our asses off and got a good end product.’ That’s what you can be happy with.

What would you say are your biggest strengths and weaknesses as a producer?

The weakness hasn’t shown itself too much, but it’s the lack of musical knowledge. I have a musician’s soul but not a musician’s brain. I play very little – I can tinker around on a keyboard or a guitar, but I can’t say, ‘You know, what it wants is for you to play a D-major as opposed..’ It could have been detrimental, but I haven’t noticed it.

One of my strengths I think is patience – it will take as long as it takes to get what you want. I learnt from the best [producers], George Martin and Gus Dudgeon. Their way of producing is knowing that an artist is put into a studio for one reason and that’s to create, and you have to allow that talent to create – ‘you know what? It was better ten minutes ago. Let’s go back and carry on from there.’ As an engineer, I’ve worked with producers who say, ‘it’s my way or the highway,’ and that’s not me in any way, shape or form. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to work in so many genres.

Some producers – like you – have a technical background, and others have a musical background. Is there is benefit in being one or the other?

It’s different strokes for different folks. I don’t think there’s a preferential way; it’s whatever works for the producer and the act. I have turned down acts that I didn’t feel I could bring anything to and that’s what it’s all about. That’s why the musical aspect hasn’t been detrimental because I’ve chosen to work with talent that will give me everything I need and I can give them something without having to say musical things to them.

Looking at your CV, it’s interesting that almost the first time you work with an artist is as an engineer, but on any subsequent collaborations, you are either producer or co-producer.

The one that broke the mould for me was Bowie. I worked with him as an engineer and Tony Visconti was the producer. The first two [Bowie] records I worked on [1969 Space Oddity and 1970 The Man Who Sold the World] I really feel were Tony’s albums and not David’s. David wrote the songs but everything else was Tony. The one thing that wasn’t part of that was the single, which Tony refused to produce, so David worked with Gus [Dudgeon]. As I said, Gus was the type of producer who relies on the talent in the studio, so Space Oddity was very much David’s ideas and the rest of the album and the next one were Tony’s ideas and they were failures.

I think after taking a period of time off, David realised it was time to put up or shut up. If it was his ideas and it was not successful, then he was not meant to be doing what he was trying to do. He knew my background; we had worked together and got on well, and he asked me to co-produce with him. Because of the way he worked, he knew he could throw ideas around with me in a way that he could never do with Tony. That’s how we worked together.

Thinking of jazz-fusion acts like Mahavishnu and Bill [Cobham]; the business side came in. It’s all very well being paid as an engineer on an hourly/daily/weekly basis, but if they’re successful, you want a bit more say. It wasn’t necessarily that I would say anymore, but as a co-producer I just started to get paid more.

You’re not one of those engineers or producers who believe that you can ‘fix it in the mix,’ in other words, it doesn’t matter how badly recorded something is, you can always use technology afterwards to improve the sound. You, on the other hand, are a strong believer in getting the sound right before recording starts. This means you can spend a lot of time setting up mikes, checking levels, etc. Do artists generally appreciate the amount of time you spend during this process?

Generally yes. The calibre of musicians I’ve worked with are professional, and if I want to change something, they will go along with it. The first time I worked in LA with session musicians, Jeff Porcaro happened to be the drummer [during the 1970s and 80s, Porcaro was one of the most in-demand session musicians]. In the UK, we were moving towards a more live drum sound in the studio, whereas LA was still at the dead drum sound stage. So, I go into the studio and ask to hear Jeff’s drums and they are really dead. When I asked him to take all the damping off, Jeff said, ‘Why? It’s taken me years to get this and it’s perfect.’ I tell him it’s not what I’m looking for and so he rips all the damping off. After the recording, he listens to the playback and the next time he’s in the studio, he tells the producer, ‘I’m not putting any damping on my drums and I’m using these mikes,” so he obviously liked it!

Looking back at your long career, what works would you like to be remembered and how would you like to be remembered?

I’ve been blessed with doing what I love for 55 years. My favourite stuff of what I’ve done tends to be individual tracks rather than an album. Ziggy  [Stardust] as an album, holds together better than anything else I did with Bowie, but I think there are better things on both Hunky Dory and Aladdin Sane, like ‘Time’, ‘Aladdin Sane’ and ‘Life on Mars’, of course. I can’t fault [Lou Reed’s] ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ – to me, there’s nothing I would change about that; it worked out perfectly. ‘A Salty Dog’ by Procol Harum, that particular track. ‘Night Meets Light’, Dixie Dregs. A band I worked with from the east coast called Happy The Man, who to me, were the best prog band to come out of the States. How would I like my own contribution to be remembered? I can’t answer that; that’s for other people to decide.


Main source:

Ken Scott From Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust: Available from Amazon


Walter Kolosky Power, Passion and Beauty – The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu

Jeff Perlah Guitarist John McLaughlin Talks Mahavishnu, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Yoga Newsweek


Under Investigation: Billy Cobham’s ‘Spectrum’ Jesse Gress Guitar


Joe Bosso Interview: bass legend Stanley Clarke on his early solo albums Music Radar


Still on the Run: The Jeff Beck Story DVD documentary

Annette Carson Jeff Beck: Crazy Fingers

Martin Power Hot Wired Guitar: The Life of Jeff Beck

Kory Grow Jeff Beck Talks Eric Clapton Rivalry and What Motown Taught Him Rolling Stone

My Six Best Albums: Rock guitarist Jeff Beck Daily Express

Graham Reid Jeff Beck Interviewed and Reviewed: If truth be known Elsewhere

Jeff Beck Talks Hendrix, British Blues and His “Poor Man’s Pedal Steel” Approach – Guitar World

Jeff Beck Still on the Run DVD documentary

The Jan Hammer Interview  Art Connor Tommy

Geoff Nichols Simon Phillips on Jeff Beck, Toto and Protocol II Music Radar