Photo credit: Mike Thorne
Most of us are familiar with Mike Thorne from his production work on records throughout the ’80s and early ’90s. From Soft Machine to Soft Cell (not to mention Blur, The The, Bronski Beat, Peter Murphy, ‘Til Tuesday, John Cale, Siouxsie and the Banshees, China Crisis, Laurie Anderson, and Marianne Faithfull, among many others), his credits read like a who’s who of some of pop and rock’s more intelligent and distinctive artists.
But before that, in the late ’70s — during a period that Thorne calls his “third childhood” (the second was in the late ’60s) — it wouldn’t be overstating the case to say that he also played a crucial role in events that forever changed popular music in Britain and beyond. In the space of a little more than a year, Thorne saw a band called the Sex Pistols, bet his shirt on them, and brought them to EMI; conceived and produced one of British punk’s defining albums, The Roxy London WC2 (Jan-Apr 77); and began a collaboration with punk’s fly in the ointment, Wire.
Now in his “fourth childhood”, Thorne runs the Stereo Society, a record label, multimedia company, and recording studio in New York’s Greenwich Village. Still embracing punk’s Do-It-Yourself ethos, still “looking for trouble”, and still committed to working with artists who, like him, don’t play entirely by the rules, he’s produced and put out CDs by such diverse talents as Hilly Kristal, BETTY, the Reds, and Johnny Reinhard. 1999 saw the release of a Thorne solo CD, Sprawl, and another one is in the works.
The Stereo Society describes itself as “the club that burned the velvet ropes”. And that’s just as well, since it meant I was granted admission and given the opportunity to reminisce with Mike Thorne about his role in punk’s revolution. What follows is part one of a two-part interview. Here, Thorne takes us on a fascinating journey from the hallowed halls of Oxford University to punk’s primal scene, the Roxy London WC2.
PopMatters: Could you talk about how you got into the music business? What had you been doing prior to 1976?
Mike Thorne: The music business is a bit of a contradiction in two terms but, like everybody else that stumbles into it, I suppose I was naïve at the time. I graduated from college at 21 with an enthusiasm for music and a certain amount of training and decided that the records I was enjoying — this was in 1969 — didn’t sound as good as maybe they could. So, I cleared off to London and spent a year following up on a letter that I’d sent around the recording studios and record companies with embarrassing phrases like “I want to break into the creative side of record production”. Of course, I didn’t get very far with that. But after a year I joined with De Lane Lea Music, which was then underneath the corner of Kingsway in High Holborn, and fell straight into sessions with Deep Purple, Fleetwood Mac, Country Joe, lots of people, Peter Green’s first solo album. So, suddenly going from an Oxford physics degree to one of the grubbiest rock and roll studios in London was a very quick introduction to what music was really about and, in those days, there was a very anti-intellectual feeling. The academic background that you often see in recording now simply didn’t exist then, so it took them three months before they found out I had a degree — let alone one from Oxford. Then I got fired from the studio — that’s a colourful story — and I spent about four years as a journalist, eventually editing Studio Sound which went to being probably the prominent worldwide publication in its field at the time. I was also studying composition at the Guildhall [School of Music and Drama] and so what I realised I was doing by the mid-’70s is that I’d put together a piecemeal selection of qualifications that looked like a record producer. I didn’t intend to be a record producer but I went looking for a job in A&R. I looked in London and Los Angeles. Los Angeles was much more interesting than New York at the time. New York was just about to wake up as it did in ’75/’76 and I wound up at EMI in London. I got the job at the beginning of ’76; I worked out three months at Studio Sound and ended up in A&R. Still being naïve, I fell in with all the punk stuff, which all the traditional business was ignoring.
PM: So what was your sense of the music scene at that time in London?
MT: I didn’t have a clear perception of it. I wasn’t even a regular club-goer but it was exciting, it was something brand new to get going on. When I arrived at EMI, punk was just a twinkle in a few peoples’ eyes on the King’s Road but once I’d got there (I think it was some time in April or May) all of a sudden it was getting going and just with an open mind — or a naïve mind — it seemed like the thing to fling yourself into and before I knew what I was doing, I was talking to everybody concerned and I was one of maybe two or three A&R people on the scene at the time. I fell into that. I went through quite a few A&R endeavours, the extreme versions being the Sex Pistols and Kate Bush — rather different people. Several people asked me to produce for them and I declined because I didn’t treat it like manufacturing baked beans. I thought it was quite tricky to be dealing with somebody’s personality and psyche but, after a while, I just thought I could do it at least as well as all the people I saw coming through my office, so I said yes and in 1977 I did five albums.
PM: Given your background — having worked with Deep Purple and Fleetwood Mac and being a classically trained musician — did you feel that you were part of the Establishment that punk was targeting? Did you see any irony in that?
MT: Absolutely not. There was a message that was being put across in very simple music. I suppose it was ironic but I never thought of myself at Oxford as being part of the Establishment, quite the opposite. That was the mid-’60s when people were making an awful lot of noise. No, the Establishment was something that, in my mind, was somebody else.
PM: You became involved with the Sex Pistols. How did that come about?
MT: I picked up the phone when Malcolm [McLaren] called EMI.
PM: You actually took the call?
MT: Yes. And one thing led to another and I saw them in various places — the classic gig being the 100 Club in Oxford Street. [Part of the legendary two-day “Punk Festival” held in September 1976, also featuring Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Subway Sect, the Damned, the Clash, the Vibrators, the Buzzcocks, the Slits and the Stinky Toys.] So I spoke to them and they seemed like good clean fun to me. Then I hauled my boss, Nick Mobbs, up to Doncaster to see them — not the most glamorous of gigs. There must have been about 70 people in the audience, some of them cheering, most of them booing. Nick liked them.
PM: Nick Mobbs was an old hippie and Johnny Rotten wore that infamous “I Hate Pink Floyd” T-shirt. How do you think it was that someone like Mobbs understood?
MT: Well I was an old hippie too. My first childhood was in the ’60s and I came over here and embraced the whole lot very thoroughly. But, you know, there are some people who get stuck and some people who just look for something new all the time. Nick was looking for something new all the time, as I was.
PM: The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle gives the impression that Malcolm McLaren orchestrated the competition to sign the Pistols. Was that an accurate portrayal?
MT: There were really only ever two people in it. There was EMI — and that was relatively late — behind Polydor. No, he didn’t really orchestrate it. He had two options and EMI, being the Establishment, was certainly the most ironic option. We were very keen, the whole company was very excited about the prospect. So, no he wasn’t really the Machiavellian, running around all the companies in London. Very few people were interested and a lot of people were either scared or disgusted by the whole scene.
PM: The Sex Pistols’ first sessions with Dave Goodman at Lansdowne Studios in October ’76 were pretty chaotic.
MT: Well, those were two consecutive weekends and what had happened was that Chris Parry had booked them on behalf of Polydor and I, the naïve little angel, thought that since we’d booked the Sex Pistols we’d probably booked their sessions and Malcolm didn’t disabuse me of that fantasy. So, in they went and the Friday before — I think — I picked up the phone again at EMI and it was Chris Parry on the phone. It’s rare that I’ve had quite such an abusive phone call. Anyway, we went ahead and we took over the sessions. I think I left them to their own devices on the Saturday and then arrived on the Sunday and I realised that, in Malcolm’s theatrical mind, I was part of the Establishment because, as I was coming in the door, Malcolm got his shaving foam out and sprayed “EMI’S HERE” on the control-room window as the group was playing. I walked in and everything was well-meaning and all but Dave Goodman [Sex Pistols roadie] really didn’t know how to produce a record. He basically pressed the record button — those are the rough demos you’ve probably heard — and he was just reeling off tape after tape after tape and justifying it saying “Well, EMI’s paying for this and it’ll be a useful way of just stacking it up for later if we don’t use it”. He had no idea how to direct them and it was of course really their first time in the studio and people need a little helping hand — and so did Dave — but there was nobody around to give it and I was in no position to do it. So it just went on and on and on. Two weekends, four days, and nothing was really done and then Chris Thomas came on the scene. Chris came on the scene for the single “Anarchy in the UK”. That came out and was very successful and he was humming and hah-ing about whether he wanted to do it again and, for one fun period, I almost produced the Pistols’ second single but then Chris decided to do it and so off he went again. But to go back to your original question, those sessions really were just the blind leading the blind. Dave’s OK, he’s a nice guy, but he was really out of his depth at that point.
PM: When you had the Pistols demo, how did you pitch it to your colleagues at EMI?
MT: I just pitched it to my boss, to Nick. I gave it to him, he liked it and so off we went to Doncaster.
PM: Isn’t it true that you told EMI that you would bet your shirt on the Pistols?
MT: That was after the remix at Wessex Studios in North East London, Finsbury Park. There was a weekly meeting between the A&R and marketing departments where the A&R department would present new stuff and I’d been up ’til about three or four and had got a copy of the mixes at three or four o’clock in the morning and it was sounding pretty good by this point, so I took it along and played it. I was just exhausted and I was the last into the meeting. There were no seats, I was just lying on the floor presenting it and I just said I would put my shirt on it and that wasn’t really a very good offer because my shirt was really filthy and stinky, it had been on all night….
PM: But it worked.
MT: Yes, but some of the people there were aghast. Eventually, though, the company started enjoying the fun and the action and the games and very much got into it.
PM: And did that extend to the point where the Pistols were on Bill Grundy’s Today television show in early December, or did people start to back off after that appearance?
MT: No. In fact it was building and building and building. Actually, the Pistols were on the Bill Grundy show as a short-notice replacement for Queen.
PM: The sense you get from the Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, and from statements McLaren has made, is that the Bill Grundy debacle was just the kind of scandal he was looking for. Do you think that’s mythmaking, after the fact?
MT: I think it is. Although, to give Malcolm his due, he’s a very sharp and intelligent person and he knows a lot. Talking about Malcolm and the degree of direction he was giving at that point, I’m reminded of the day after that Bill Grundy episode (Bill Grundy was just a drunken oaf basically). I had a meeting with the group that morning to talk about the second single and I was coming in a little bit sleepy around 10.30 or so and I had to push my way through a larger number of kids than usual at the front of the building. There was always somebody hanging around, just to catch a glimpse of a star, but there were a lot this time and I got in and the security guard said “Didn’t you see, didn’t you know?” I said “No”.
PM: You didn’t watch it?
MT: No, I didn’t see it at all. I didn’t even know it was on. So I pushed my way through and I was due to have a meeting with the group and that didn’t work and then Malcolm showed up a little bit later and I said “What’s next, do you suppose?” and he said “I don’t know, it’s completely out of control”. Those were his words. So I thought that was sort of the opposite of the question you asked.
PM: Pretty soon after that, the band was dropped.
MT: Yes, but only because a few people were a bit worried about their MBEs [Member of the British Empire medals, awarded by the Queen]. It was nothing to do with the company, it was just dealt from a great height. And that really was a collision with the Establishment, people really were concerned about their knighthoods, well not knighthoods, their recognition.
PM: It’s hard to imagine that kind of outrage being generated now, in Britain that is.
MT: You’d have to go so much further. You’d have to be genuinely unpleasant as opposed to theatrically unpleasant.
PM: Yes, watching film of the Pistols now, they seem like a bunch of naughty schoolboys.
MT: They might be wearing swastikas and bondage trousers but…. Not everybody wore the swastikas, by the way, that was more a Siouxsie and the Banshees thing.
PM: To many, the Roxy club was the epicenter of punk in London. In 1977 you produced the live album The Roxy London WC2 (Jan-Apr 77), one of the foundational documents of British punk. How did that come about?
MT: As an A&R man for EMI, like everyone else I was down the club every so often and I heard through somebody that they were intending to do a live album with just a 4-track at the back of the club. I thought “well this is a good idea but probably a better idea would be to do it properly”. So I introduced myself to the club owners — there were three of them — and proposed that we do it with a 24-track. I sold the idea to my boss again. So we set it all up and we did it over a period of four or five nights.
PM: So, after the Sex Pistols had been fired by EMI, there was no difficulty getting the label involved in another punk project?
MT: Oh there was no problem with EMI but the three club owners were a little bit circumspect. Barry Jones (who was really the musical end of the three of them) walked in, looked around and said, “So this is the record company that fired the Sex Pistols”. But we went on to do that and the rest is history.
PM: When you were making this record, did you have in mind the idea that it would be a response to the Live at CBGB’s album that had come out in 1976?
MT: Very definitely. I knew the CBGB’s album as any self-respecting punk would and it looked like a good idea but I also decided that this was not really the way to do punk because punk was as much about the audience as it was about the music itself, a blending of the two of them, without wanting to get too intellectual about it. Live at CBGB’s was just like a series of tracks with no relationship to each other. They all sounded different, as they should have done, and I needed something unifying just to give the Roxy album a coherence, which it wouldn’t have had if I’d just had a series of singles. So I just came up with the idea of sticking a few microphones around and that worked out rather well, as you heard, to the extent of somebody stealing a microphone to give me the end of the album.
PM: What were your impressions of American punk? As a kid, I remember being told by someone’s older brother that punk was originally American and that I really ought to find out about bands like New York Dolls and the Dictators but when I saw pictures of them I really didn’t understand because they had long hair — and they sounded a bit “metal” to me. I didn’t get it.
PM: Nor did I. Well the New York Dolls obviously were the pioneers and I didn’t really get them at the time because all I had was the records, which were pretty atrocious. It wasn’t really until I actually got to know them personally and saw Johnny Thunders, in particular, in action — he was on the [December] 1976 Anarchy Tour with the Damned, the Clash, and the Pistols — that I realised where it was all coming from. I realised that to an American, punk is about an attitude. It’s a derogatory expression — some worthless person — whereas it had become a movement and, to some extent, a style in England, so it meant two very different things.
PM: The Clash were on the Anarchy Tour, what did you make of them?
MT: I certainly enjoyed their rock and roll, but I thought their politics were rather shallow and rather convenient….I’ll get thumped for that one! Nothing’s off the record.
PM: Which of the performances on the Roxy record is your favourite?
MT: Well, Wire’s was certainly up there…but it’s hard because some of them were utterly charming in their incompetence and some of them were from groups like Wire and the Buzzcocks who were very capable indeed.
PM: Looking at the tracklist now — obviously there are names like Wire, the Buzzcocks and so forth, but then you have the Unwanted….
MT: Well the Unwanted were almost fillers, they’d just put themselves together for the occasion. They’d started off calling themselves Smak, which didn’t go over very well. Then they changed to the Unwanted. They actually showed up at EMI to sort out the tapes one day, poked their heads around the corner and announced themselves to security and said “We’re the Unwanted” and security said “Oh, very sorry to hear that sonny”. They were quite enjoying the procession of brightly coloured people coming through up to my office. “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” [by X-Ray Spex] is such a naïve, cheerful shout — that’s probably the most entertaining piece of — anarchy’s the wrong word — again, it’s a sort of brats-at-play idea, isn’t it?
PM: Some bands didn’t want to appear on the album, like the Slits and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Why was that?
MT: They were just a bit self-important. The Slits were actually pretty incompetent. They did need to go a little bit further before they did anything but, again, they had a marvellous bratty presence. But Siouxsie was always a little bit serious, a bit self-important.
PM: Do you still listen to the music from the 1976-’79 period? Has what you like from that period changed over the years?
MT: I still listen to the Wire albums every so often. Some people claim they never listen to the records they make but they give me real pleasure. As for the rest of it, yes, I do listen to records from that period — I listen to records from the early ’60s too — and I don’t think my affection for them has changed at all. I think records that were good then continue to be good. I wasn’t really seduced then by a particular style. I wasn’t a subscriber to a particular school. I was quite old then. It was ’76 and I was 28 already, so I came to all this quite late. At age 28 I’d also been studying at the Guildhall and done all sorts of things and I didn’t keep records and keep listening to them because I fell in love to them or whatever, I just decided what I liked then and it hasn’t really changed.
PM: How would you characterise punk’s legacy?
MT: I’d like to think of it as the enlightened Do-It-Yourself attitude, the importance of the message over the medium although, as we know, they’re inseparable. It’s as simple as that. I find it very disappointing that punk in the 21st century has turned into a style and something to be worn like a jacket, rather than something which has a specific attitude to it. Now the specific attitude is just being obnoxious, there’s nothing supporting it — well not even obnoxious, just loud and fast, which was invented before 1976, for that matter. That’s really my regret, seeing punk being taken on as just another style. In the ’60s we used to talk about “weekend hippies”; we’ve got “weekend punks” now.
PM: Do you think that’s particularly so in the US?
MT: I think it’s everywhere. Music is much more universal and global than it was 25 years ago but I think that the “weekend hippie” analogy is the one I would stick to. People should try it. We all try on ideas for size and we try on styles for size when we’re young. At any college dance there are people with hormones raging just trying on attitudes for size, styles for size and good luck to them…but I don’t have to listen to the results.
PM: What role has the work you did back then played in shaping your career?
MT: It put me on the map. Well, it did dump me into a musical corner which proved very profitable for me, in many senses of the word. I became, as Andy Ross the Blur A&R man put it, “the moody, arty little fucker” [Thorne produced several tracks on Blur’s debut album Leisure]. And I suppose in some respects I was, but it meant that I got the interesting acts, which were the ones I wanted. I think any idiot can make a record that just reflects standard styles and standard attitudes and that does it by the book — I don’t think that’s difficult at all — but I didn’t want to do it that way. I always wanted some change, some new approach, some new attitude, some new sound. As technology developed from the mid-’70s onwards, there were several waves of new ways of doing things. This was always very exciting and I always wound up with the fringe people — whether it was the Bronski Beats, the Soft Cells, the Wires, or the ‘Til Tuesdays over here. There was always people who were slightly different and this suited me just fine. It linked with another hobby horse I drive, which is that most arty music should be as accessible as possible. Linking slightly different music — or very different music — with a concern for accessibility makes for a very distinctive record if it works and so, because of the perception of my work and because of that attitude, it meant that if I’d make a record, it would either sink without a trace or really go all the way because it was different and accessible. That’s what punk has done for me and my career since then.