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Alternative Applications of an Oxford Degree

In this article, written for the Winter 2008 issue of Oxford University’s Hertford College Newsletter, Mike Thorne talks about how a desire to “make music I liked with people I liked” and a physics degree from Oxford University led him to work with artists as diverse as Kate Bush, the Sex Pistols and Soft Cell.

Tensors to Tainted Love

The original title was How To Squander An Oxford Physics Degree

Music was an interest initiated by my parents, a tribute to their innocence and bad judgment. They bludgeoned me to the piano at age eleven, sighed when my teacher reported that I hadn’t practiced and bought a Bush tape recorder (3 ¾ ips, quarter track) so that I could record from the wireless and acquire a taste for serious music. Come age 15 (mine) they may have regretted it. That year, all Bruckner’s symphonies were serially broadcast (on the Third Programme) for the first time. I was there but, unfortunately, so were they. The clangor of the piano downstairs at 8am (even after bedroom delivery of a nice cup of tea) and my recording obsession gave them an alternative viewpoint, something we were all looking for in the sixties…

Physics was my subject, thanks to Neil Tanner ’s inspired raiding of northern grammar schools in the 60s for bright sparks who hadn’t dreamed of dreaming spires, although my choice was thoughtlessly passive: I was good at it. But I did love it, along with the Sunderland religion of football (playing for Hertford’s second team and occasionally for the first when fellow centreforward Paul Watts had an essay crisis). But music was a primary drive. Arriving at College in summer ’66, I didn’t know the names of the Beatles. That changed quickly, leaving me with scattered attractions to highbrow, pop and science that would serve me very well. We get lucky.

Mike Thorne grappling with modular electronics, 1998Mathematician Michael Gerzon became one of the audio industry’s foremost thinkers and writers and we met through the OU Tape Recording Society when I was part of Pandora, a ballet/mime presented (controversially) in the Chapel during my finals term (when else?). A good friend and facilitator, he’s gone now, victim of asthma. Our paths crossed again when I was editing Studio Sound, then the world’s leading professional audio magazine. Over a curry in the city, after he sang part of a Charlie Parker solo and opined on serial techniques of Webern and Barraqué, I raised the music/physics/math connection. He said: ‘Don’t be so naïve – it’s just pattern recognition.’ Thanks. I wasn’t being ironic. You may wonder where this is going – Bruckner, deceased theorists, the Third Programme? I cared about it all, being young, and absorptive: apparently directionless. Whatever next? Whatever might be trouble.

When I sent off my naïve 1969 job application letter to recording studios and record companies, some were tender enough to educate me beyond Oxford. However, my first studio job ended with the sack (partly because I was enjoying the boss’ secretary’s company, on whom he had a crush). Gerry Bron, creative brother of star Eleanor, at his progressive studio next to the Camden Roundhouse, was encouraging but had no next job for me. “Mike: most people look for the bandwagon coming around the bend, to jump on board. I think that when it comes around, you’ll be riding it.” It took me years to realize the depth of his compliment. We all need such perceptive support.

Being fired rattled me badly, and I spent four years as a journalist and writer until a fracturing disagreement with the publisher of Studio Sound. Time to go back to practical music. New York was just about to lift off, but I didn’t know it, so looked for an Artists and Repertoire position in London and Los Angeles. Eventually, one blissful weekend was spent choosing between offers from Chrysalis and EMI. EMI offered a wider range of music, which I would augment after five months with the Sex Pistols. It was a stimulating, enormously creative time, and I also worked with Kate Bush: a big stylistic stretch. Most assignments required recording demos for in-company enlightenment. The itch was scratched.

Entering the big league, my first production for EMI was 120 saxophones playing White Cliffs Of Dover in 1976. Seemed like a good idea (long story) and it achieved Single-Of-The-Week on Radio London. Early album efforts included Live at the Roxy, an unlikely Top 20 hit of live recordings of players and punters at the only London establishment to tolerate (exclusively) punk rock. Another three productions followed in 1977: Wire’s first album Pink Flag; a live Soft Machine from Paris and the first (gold) album for Téléphone, who would become one of the biggest French rock groups of all time. A nice start.

Outside CBGBs in the 1980sWork became overwhelmingly hectic, by the early eighties, split evenly between London and my New York home. My sole criterion, (to make music I liked with people I liked) led to playing midwife at the births of some decidedly left-of-centre recordings without regard to fee. Business was brisk, but the 1981 offer to write and record a film score, Memoirs Of A Survivor, after Doris Lessing’s book and starring Julie Christie, couldn’t be refused. Production involved hauling many of my exotic noise machines back to London, including my Synclavier: the first digital synthesizer, serial number 6. It’s part of the reason that Tainted Love still sounds fresh and different.

Conveniently in town, I was asked to produce a couple of offbeat singles for the progressive, independent label Some Bizzare, funded by Phonogram. For budget reasons, I interleaved recording schedules, which provided perspective for the groups but long days for me. B-Movie’s and Soft Cells singles both made the charts, one more notably. Each was managed by Steve O, the entrepreneurial operator who had earlier attended a festival of new electronica and signed up participating ingénues for a flagship compilation record. For the foundation of Tainted Love, I borrowed Kit Hain’s drum machine, since the group’s was broken. Star quality sprinkled star dust: Kit’s singular voice had fronted the beautiful worldwide hit Dancing In The City. Since Tainted Love hit Number 1, Kit hasn’t held a grudge despite my subsequently producing two solo albums for her which went nowhere, and we continue close friends. (I would achieve that distinction just once more, in 1986 with the CommunardsDon’t Leave Me This Way). As I sweated to corral B-Movie’s Marilyn Dreams into coherent radio and extended dance versions, two distinctive people in raincoats and pork-pie hats materialized at the back of the studio control room: Soft Cell. Steve O clearly thought it cool to wheel them through the sessions of his other hit-potential protégés. Not a sympathetic, personal move, I thought.

Tainted Love coverHaving finished the rock-lineup tracks with B-Movie, who wrapped their stylish scarves in that New-Romantic way, I transferred downstairs to my Synclavier installation to prepare Tainted Love. I forget the eventual hours, but those sessions delivered two hit singles and a distinctive movie soundtrack, shuffling between two expensive recording rooms in the West End of London. How casual was that? I’m being economical with the truth. The sessions were so tight, proscribed and rigorous that it’s surprising popular music escaped. Each single was granted a full studio day for ‘definition’, then another half day (extending in practice into the early morning). Then a full day for developed recording ideas and a day for mixing. Doesn’t sound short until you try to provide for two sets of over-intense newcomers, with Soft Cell’s extended club mix lasting just short of ten minutes. Nevertheless, those exhausting days persist among favorite memories of warm, creative times.

We didn’t fret about limitations. We made a record within the conditions, with available resources. Mixing at 2am, we didn’t initially notice our unconscious movements: we literally danced. Out danced Tainted Love. Relaxing afterwards, we agreed that it surely stood a good chance of infiltrating the lower end of the singles chart. We didn’t see it coming. It knocked me, and millions of others, for a creative loop. I was that naïve. The single was the biggest seller of the year in the UK, was number one in 17 territories and broke the record for the longest stay in the US Billboard singles chart.

There’s a pattern to recognize in there somewhere. I wish I could identify it. But the next record would always be different again. Could have used some good advice.