Icons: Mark Opitz Pt 1
If it was a platinum-selling record in the late-’70s, early-’80s, chances are Mark Optiz had a hand in it. In part one of a two-part “Icons” interview, the legendary producer talks to DOUG WALLEN about working with AC/DC, re-branding the Angels and the time tragedy struck during a session with The Reels. Part two tomorrow.
Whether it’s his career-shaping work with The Angels and Cold Chisel or his general dream run in the 1980s (INXS, Divinyls, Models, Australian Crawl, etc.), Mark Opitz is one of the most iconic producers Australia has given the world.
Born in Melbourne and growing up in Brisbane, Opitz made his way to Sydney in the early 1970s to land a job with ABC TV. His dream as a teenager had been to be either the best film director or the best record producer in Australia. With the ABC, he went from inauspicious visual work to – by a stroke of luck that his superiors regarded as punishment – handling sound for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra during the Sydney Opera House’s first-ever season in 1973.
After that early peak, Opitz left the ABC and played in bands for a year. Then one day, while having a joint with a friend, he made a list of recording studios where he might find work. At the very top was EMI’s Studio 301, which promptly hired him as a mastering engineer. Getting along great with all the A&R types he met on the job, Opitz soon found himself promoted “about 20 steps” to label manager of Capitol Records in Australia – another dream fluke in his young career.
In his new role he worked on early albums by Little River Band and Dr Hook, helping make the latter’s Sam Cooke cover ‘Only Sixteen’ a worldwide hit single. Then EMI managing director (and later Paul McCartney manager) Steven Shrimpton granted Opitz’s wish to work in music production. He began as an assistant producer and worked on plenty of records until an album he’d recorded at EMI in his spare time (which wasn’t against the rules) wound up released by another label without his knowledge (which was). He got sacked. “My career is over before it even really started,” he recounts. “Being sacked by the biggest record company in the world, where am I going to go now?”
The answer: Easybeats legends turned producing team Harry Vanda and George Young. They hired Opitz as an apprentice to handle the engineering side of their work for Albert Productions. His first job was mixing Rose Tattoo’s song ‘Bad Boy For Love’. Later he worked with them writing and producing John Paul Young’s 1977 disco hit ‘Love is in the Air’ and helming two AC/DC albums before striking off on his own – at their behest – to produce The Angels.
In addition to his Australian smashes in the late 1970s and ’80s, Opitz has worked with many musical heroes from his youth, including Bob Dylan, Ray Charles and The Beach Boys. He passed on a chance to produce Guns N’ Roses’s Appetite for Destruction, which he laughs about now. Last decade he worked with KISS and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for the concert album and movie KISS Symphony: Alive IV, on which a two-day job turned into six months. He has also worked as head of A&R at both Warner and Mushroom during his career.
Opitz is now based in Melbourne but regularly travels to places like France and Turkey to produce bands. He spent about two years living with his family on the Italian island Capri, which made for easy access to work in Europe. At the same time, his focus has diversified: he’s as happy giving workshops and master classes as producing actual albums, and his latest project is a consumer-level iPhone app all about his personal methods of recording, mixing and mastering music. He’s also speaking soon at the industry conference Face the Music, which kicks off in Melbourne next Friday (November 18).
Sifting through the Australian highlights of his illustrious career below, Opitz was enthused and articulate. He describes working closely on arrangements of famous songs by Cold Chisel, INXS, Divinyls and many more, while also striving to stay true to the artists. The word “feel” comes up over and over, as in this tidy summation of his musical bearings: “I don’t have any one favourite genre, as long as it’s emotional and it moves you. I’m big on melody, of course. Melody and feel.”
AC/DC’s Let There Be Rock (1977) and Powerage (1978)
You’re credited as Vanda & Young’s engineer for Let There Be Rock and Powerage. So were you just working the equipment?
Yeah. Previous to that, they did all their own engineering. They’d put the microphones up and do the desk. Having me there [took] that off their shoulders.
We rehearsed [for Powerage] about two weeks, with George [Young] playing bass. With Bon [Scott] coming in every now and again to see what was going on. Because the way AC/DC works is: “You’re the singer, Bon. You’re responsible for the melody and lyrics. You go and do it. We’ll do the feels.” Everyone had a job, and Malcolm [Young] ruled with a semi-iron fist.
It was a really interesting time, particularly during Powerage. I only came in at the end of Let There Be Rock. Everyone had to bring in two packs of Benson & Hedges every day because every time anyone wanted a cigarette, they threw one to everyone in the room. Quite often at 9 in the morning, after we finished a session, Malcolm Young, Phil Rudd and I would hire a tinny in Rose Bay and go sailing across Sydney Harbour fishing, smoking joints and drinking beers. Watching everyone go to work.
It was a brilliant time for me because I learnt so much. Just to work on a song like ‘Riff Raff’, which I still consider their best song, was unbelievable. In those days Angus didn’t drink and would never have his guitar out of his hands. The first time they brought in remote leads for the guitars, Angus would be in the control room with me while I’m at the console, ripping out these amazing solos.
The Angels’ Face to Face (1978) and No Exit (1979)
Vanda & Young produced the first Angels album and you did the second and third.
That’s right. That first Angels album did nothing. They had a turntable hit with ‘Am I Ever Going to See Your Face Again?’ George said they’d like me to take over production. They said if I didn’t want to do it, they’d drop the band because it’s obviously not successful. I went over to my mate’s place and he was listening to Graham Parker’s first album. I was thinking, “What the fuck am I gonna do? These guys need a sound.” Listening to Graham Parker, I thought, “Gee, punk music’s really moved on from The Sex Pistols. It’s become more sophisticated.”
Then it struck me: sophisticated punk music. That’s what we should be doing. The Angels were already heading towards the rock genre anyway: they were sort of country-rock on that first album. So I made this phrase in my head: “Sophisto-punk.” I didn’t know what it sounded like, but I knew that was the light at the end of the tunnel. I didn’t say that to the band; I kept it to myself as a watch word. Because every time I make a record, I try to come up with a phrase that I can make a decision by: “Does it suit this?”
We’d go into the studio every spare [moment] and just continually record. One day they came in with a track with no lyrics. I went, “Bingo, that it’s.” It turned out to be ‘I Ain’t the One.’ It had this “nick nick” eights [guitar] feel. As soon as I heard that, I thought, “That’s a signature sound. That must be sophisto-punk.” I don’t normally get excited in the studio, but I got excited that day and said, “Now we need to transpose all the other songs into that [format], interspersed with a few other rock songs so as not to overdo the feel.” We did it to five or six songs. After working with them for 18 months or so, we went to record the album. Which took a very short time because we knew exactly where to go. And knowing full well this sound was gonna kill.
We talked about a lot of things in the studio. The manager wasn’t in the studio. [For example] on the cover of Face to Face we made them sophisticated. Those [ideas] we generated ourselves. I came up with one idea: If [guitarist] Rick [Brewster] doesn’t move, when the lights are down, why not replace him with a giant cardboard cut-out? That way the song would go to crescendo and [singer] Doc [Neeson] would pick up the mic stand and slice Rick in half. Which was totally unexpected. Little things like that.
I remember Fifa Riccobono [from Albert] coming up to me and saying the album had gone gold. This was my first gold album. She said, “Well, aren’t you excited?” I said, “It’s gonna go a lot further than gold.” It did. It went five-times platinum the first year. It basically changed the music scene in Australia, somewhat similar to what Nirvana did many years later. All of the sudden satin jackets were out and new rock was in.
It was a darker, moodier thing.
And energy. My thought during that whole album was that I wanted a record for the apprentice butcher on a Friday night, as he’s getting ready to go out. He’s making 20 bucks a week and he’s gonna go out to the pub to see his mates in the western suburbs of Sydney. As he gets into his HQ or whatever Holden, he slams that album into his cassette player to vibe himself up on the way. That was it: to psych himself up. We pretty much achieved that, I thought.
We went on with Vanda & Young as production consultants, but it’s very much our record. Then we went on to do No Exit. I said, “The first thing we’re going to do is turn the Face to Face tapes upside down and play them backwards.” To find songs. We got two or three songs out of that. One was ‘No Exit’, which I think was ‘Marseilles’ turned upside down.
The band got another five-time platinum and got really huge. The manager said, “Let’s do a new deal” and they went up and joined Epic. Epic said, “We need to convert you to the American sound,” so they sent in John Boylan, the guy who produced Boston. The Angels said they wanted me to work on the record, but the label wanted John Boylan. Boylan showed up and said, “Look, I want you guys to do exactly what you do, okay? Don’t worry about what I do.” And he went promptly upstairs to sleep every night while we were in the studio. Which didn’t go down well with me, obviously. I did one song called ‘No Secrets’, although I didn’t get credit for it. That was enough for me.
The Reels’ The Reels (1979)
I interviewed the bassist [Paul Abrahams] and he mentioned doing sessions in a van on a farm.
They were so far ahead of their time in a lot of ways. I’d done a demo session with them at Albert and it was fantastic. All these songs had this amazing rock/reggae feel. By the time they went to do the album, they’d decided they wanted to be a pure pop band, which I couldn’t understand.
We ended up going to Dubbo. I took a recording van up there and we recorded in the tour manager Harley’s house. Which was quite bizarre. I remember walking into the house the first day and hearing the Little Orphan Annie soundtrack. There was [Harley’s] parents, tap-dancing to Little Orphan Annie. That really marked the whole album, in a lot of ways. Halfway through, [Harley’s] father went to town to get the paper and on the way back got hit by the train out of Dubbo and was decapitated. This is during our recording: some fellow walks in and says, “I think Harley’s dad has just been killed.” So Dave Mason and I jumped in the car and raced out to identify him, which was just horrible. We confirmed it and then went back to inform Harley. Harley said, “I’m going to be in shock in a minute or two, but whatever you do, don’t stop recording.”
So while we were doing ‘Love Will Find a Way’ – that really up [tempo] one – I remember looking out the back of the recording van and seeing all these tearful people start walking up the driveway to wish their condolences. And they’re in the lounge room doing this happy little pop song. Very bizarre.
Years later I did ‘Bad Moon Rising’ with them, with vocoders. That’s The Reels: their ingenuity and intelligence puts them in that air where they kept reinventing themselves all the time.
Cold Chisel’s East (1980), Circus Animals (1982), Swingshift (1981), Twentieth Century (1984)
Dave Sinclair, who was head of A&R at Warner Brothers, wanted me to go into the studio with Cold Chisel for a week and just go through their songs to see what we could come up with. They had two albums before that that hadn’t gone gold. So I went in and got them to record all their new songs like a [live] set.
We came up with two songs I said we should work on: ‘My Turn to Cry’ and ‘Choirgirl’. We produced ‘My Turn to Cry’ all the way up to a finished article and played it to a few friends, who all loved it. But I thought about it and the band thought about it and we said, “Y’know what? Too slick. Can’t do it. It’s too good.” So we went back and found ‘Choirgirl’: medium pace, interesting lyric. Chisel really trusted me because I was from the Vanda & Young department and they weren’t making a lot of headway.
Great live band. You could see all the guys who worked in radio cheering them on at gigs. And you could see written on their faces: “Gee, I wish they’d give us something to play on radio.” That’s why I chose ‘Choirgirl’ in the end. That was their first top 10. Very briefly after that, Warner Brothers sacked David Sinclair as head of A&R and asked me to take over. I did that and simultaneously produced East. They didn’t have a lot of songs, but they needed to have chart success. So my brief to myself was: “I don’t want to sacrifice the credibility of the band, but I still need hits.”
Of course, the band at that stage were letting me have my total way with them. [Laughs] Because they weren’t a successful recording band. So I divided everybody up into rooms all over Paradise Studios and got them all writing the best they could. Don [Walker] didn’t need any help. The good thing about Don is that he let me rearrange his stuff to be more palatable to radio. I had a lot to do with the arrangements. [Bassist] Phil Small had never written a song. He was halfway through ‘My Baby’ and couldn’t finish it, so I sent [guitarist] Ian Moss in to finish with him. Then Ian did a couple songs: one we turned into ‘Never Before’. Jimmy [Barnes] wrote ‘Rising Sun’ one day in about 20 minutes, when his girlfriend went to Japan.
Paradise being the preeminent studio in Australia, manufacturers would send all their new equipment there for people to try out. On my first day of mixing, sitting on the desk was the first digital reverb unit ever made. I was worried about the drum sound, so I figured out if I pushed a really short reverb time on this thing and put a pre-delay in front on them – a little delay before the short reverb hit – and added that to the drums, it made a really cool sound.
I sat there mixing East, and I noticed ‘Standing on the Outside’ ended with the drum fill ‘Never Before’ started with. So I just butted them together like one song. I kept the first three songs going bang bang bang. Hit ‘em with a sledgehammer the first three songs in a row. They went really, really well: another five-time platinum album. I was on a bit of a roll. Then Don came to me six months later and said, “I never want to have another commercial album again.” Which I thought was really funny, because what the fuck? You wouldn’t be Cold Chisel without East. It crossed barriers. It went right across the board. Y’know, [ARIA’s] Album of the Year. I think I won Producer of the Year. All that sort of stuff happened.
I was still head of A&R. On East I was getting my wages at A&R plus an advance and royalties from East. The head of Warner Brothers said, “Cold Chisel want you to do the next album, but we’ve decided to just pay you your wage and all your profits will go to us.” I said, “Alright, it’s time I left Warner Brothers.” Because I didn’t think that was a very fair deal. These days, of course, A&R get royalties and advances all over the place, but back then record companies were making so much money and yet they still thought that was a good idea. So I resigned and did my own deal with Cold Chisel to do Circus Animals.
Didn’t you sign the Divinyls when you were head of A&R at Warner?
Correct. On my very first day, INXS was the band I tried to sign. I went to see [manager] Chris Murphy at a gig in Paddington and he said, “Aw fuck, I wish you’d come two days ago. We’ve just signed with Michael Browning’s label, Deluxe.” Anyway, I did Swing Shift with Cold Chisel because I saw their record contract was about to run out. I just turned up at gigs with recording equipment. Half the band didn’t know I was gonna do it. I didn’t want them to know too early because I didn’t wanna get them gun-shy.
You don’t want them to be stiff.
Exactly. That went really well. Then for Circus Animals Don said he didn’t want to do another commercial album, but thank God [for late drummer] Steve Prestwich. I remember being at Parramatta Leagues Club, and they did this killer fucking song. I went backstage and asked what the hell that was. It turned out to be ‘Forever Now’. Beautiful song. Bang – I had a single. [Prestwich said], “Oh, you like that? Let me play you this one.” He had a tape recorder. “This one I call ‘When the War is Over’.” Then I knew – bang bang – I had two hits. That’s all I need.
So on Circus Animals I really limited myself to arranging and working on those two songs, and letting the band have more of their way with the rest. Because I knew they would be the singles. They went really, really, really well.
Mark Opitz will appear at next week’s Face The Music conference in Melbourne. He’ll be speaking at the “More Cowbell” panel on November 19, 3pm. For more information click here.
PART TWO: Opitz on INXS’ Shabooh Shoobah, The Divinyls’ Desperate and The Models’ Out of Sight, Out of Mind.