The keynote interview with legendary record producer Tony Visconti was undoubtedly a real highlight of 2016 Canadian Music Week.
It ended with Visconti first receiving a standing ovation from the full house (one attendee was Gordon Lightfoot), and then receiving the Third Annual Nile Rodgers Global Creator's Award. The Award was presented by CMW head Neill Dixon, following a video tribute from Rodgers, who termed Visconti “a musical visionary, my neighbor, and one of the coolest dudes in the world.”
Visconti was clearly moved at what he termed “an amazing honour.” The 72-year old stressed that “I’m not finished making music. I love Canada and I want to work here too.”
He then outspokenly declared “I’m only interested in making quality music, not crass commercial pop. I do love deep pop music, like David Bowie. We have to put out quality music again. It never died, but it has been repressed.” His passionate rallying cry drew another standing ovation.
For the 40 minutes prior, Visconti was ably interviewed by Larry LeBlanc, and plenty of informative comments and interesting anecdotes were presented.
Unsurprisingly, much of the conversation revolved around the producer’s personal and professional relationship with David Bowie. Visconti was arguably Bowie’s most important collaborator, having produced 13 Bowie albums, including his last record, Blackstar.
Visconti was actually in Toronto when he heard the news of his good friend’s death. The producer/musician was preparing to play here with his group Holy Holy, a project built around reprising Bowie material. The show did go on, as a memorial (Holy Holy also played a CMW concert on Saturday).
During this interview, Visconti dispelled the notion that Blackstar was conceived by Bowie as his swansong deathbed album. “Three weeks before he passed, he phoned me to say he’d written another five songs. In his mind, Blackstar was not going to be his last album.”
Don’t expect a flood of posthumous new Bowie material though. “He was not as prolific as many artists. He wrote just enough for each album,” says Visconti.
One amusing Bowie story revolved around the making of his breakthrough album The Man Who Sold The World. “We made the album while he was on his honeymoon. He would only do one or two takes of a song and then he and Angie would go shopping for antiques for their apartment,” Visconti recalls.
Also fascinating was Visconti explaining his refusal to work on “Space Oddity,” noting that “I called it a novelty song.”
Visconti’s discography is incredibly diverse, ranging from The Moody Blues, Procol Harum and The Strawbs to Morrissey, Iggy Pop, The Dandy Warhols, and Esperanza Spalding. Bowie aside, some of his greatest commercial success came with T-Rex, a group he helped morph from hippie-ish folk-rockers to rock ‘n roll stars. “If elves made music, it’d sound like Marc Bolan,” says Visconti of T-Rex mainman Marc Bolan.
Despite T-Rex’s chart success, Marc Bolan tried to stiff Visconti on his production royalty, halving it from 2 to 1 per cent, not a promised 4 per cent. “This can be a shit business,” Visconti told LeBlanc.
A classically-trained musician from Brooklyn, Visconti was inspired early on by George Martin’s ability to fuse classical and pop music. He got his first real taste of the studio world by working under English producer Denny Cordell on records by The Moody Blues, Procol Harum, Manfred Mann, and Georgie Fame.
He remains as passionate about music as ever. When a young questioner in the audience asked about certain new recording technology, Visconti lamented that “technology is the message these days. There is more focus on technology than the actual creation of music. Don’t play with the recorder, play at making great music to put into it.”