Photography by Frank Buddenbrock
From his musical days with Peter & Gordon through his careers as a Grammy-award winning producer, artist manager, Apple A&R man, and record company executive, Peter Asher has witnessed and participated in the entire spectrum of the record-making industry. Rock Cellar Magazine sat down with this artistic legend in an informal interview covering highlights of his five-decade ride.
RCM: You’ve listened to a lot of music, judged it, and obviously found some of the best. Do you think that rock is tapped out?
PA: No. They’ve thought it about every kind of music. “How many bloody melodies could there possible be?” There are only 12 notes in the world. At least in our culture; there’s a lot more in some Asian interesting-quarter-tone world, but there’s no question every time you think “is the novel finished? Is music over?” No. Somebody will invent something new.
RCM: Do things come across your desk where you say “there’s something that I’ve never heard before?
PA: Yes. Is there something as special as the Beatles? Hardly ever, but that’s just the way life is. It’s the same again, if you refer to novels or plays. Shakespeare or Harold Pinter, only pop-up every now and then. But will there be another one? Of course there will.
RCM: So your view of the future of rock music is optimistic.
PA: Music in general, art in general, creativity in general. Of course people will come up with new stuff. It’ll be something new and different, and some people will hate it. Inevitably, and they should hate it. It should be scary and put people off.
RCM: Hip-hop has, to a certain extent.
PA: Yes, exactly. Let’s not forget the Beatles did. People would go “oh it’s all noise and rubbish.” It’s significant to remember that someone as genius as Nelson Riddle, dismissed the Beatles as noise and garbage, and then realized he was completely wrong. So with any luck it will be something I hate that will actually be the really great stuff, and then I’ll realize I was totally wrong. Same in drama same in novels, when Shakespeare or Harold Pinter first popped onto the scene, everyone thought they were rubbish ‘cause they weren’t doing what everyone else was doing.
RCM: Do you watch “Glee” or “American Idol?”
PA: I confess I don’t. I have seen Glee. I’ve never seen this current incarnation of American idol actually, though I’d like to because I like Steven (Tyler). We’re quite friendly, but I haven’t seen him for a while, and I gather he’s doing incredibly well, but I haven’t seen it. And Randy I’ve known forever, ‘cause Randy and I were at Sony together, and he’s a brilliant musician and great producer, and I’m glad there’s somebody real on there.
That to me is the one odd thing about American Idol is that they make a virtue of versatility. Whereas actually the people I tend to end up liking aren’t the ones– I mean people come up to me and go “Let’s make a record, I can sing anything,” I lose interest immediately. It’s the people who go “here’s what I do, this is who I am, take it or leave it” that I’m interested in. So the very fact that they say “we want someone who can do country one week, Broadway the next, rock the next” tend not to be the kind of artist I’m fascinated with. Which isn’t to say some great people haven’t come out of American Idol – they have – but kind of by accident, because the people who are really good say “no I’m not gonna sing that, fuck off!”
(Photo by Richard Chowen/Evening Standard/Getty Images)
RCM: Are there any artists recording today that interest you?
PA: Oh lots. Muse, I think they are totally, totally genius. They’re not new, but they’re new-ish. And there’s an amazing amount of people who don’t realize what an unbelievably great band they are. I like The Script, I like One Republic. Patrick Stump’s new record is going to be great – he’s brilliant. I went to see his live show, his new live show, you know since ex-Fallout Boy; fantastic, amazing musicians.
RCM: These are people you have no business relationship with?
Patrick Stump? No, no business relationship with. I mean Patrick, I’ve done one track with for the Buddy Holly album, but I don’t manage or have anything to do with the rest of his career, no. I’m very much cutting back on management. I’m working with these girls the Webb Sisters, they’re pals, and I think they’re great, but that’s all. I’m basically getting out of management. Doesn’t mean that if a new James Taylor walked in to the room or phoned me up like the first one did, I wouldn’t change my mind. But I get an awful lot of people going, “will you manage me? and the answer’s “no.”
RCM: How do you listen to your music? iPod, in your car?
PA: I tend to listen to the radio a lot, cruise around the satellite channels, half the time in the car I’m listening to BBC World Service, not listening to music at all. I’ve a got a thumb-drive full of current stuff, but it comes and goes and I always forget to change it; it’s not very representative necessarily. Right now, it’s got a lot of Bartok String Quartets on it. Bartok is new but, old. (laughs) The hits channel I like, which has just current hit records – because I like hit records. And deep tracks is good, “60s on 6” obviously occasionally I’ll listen to, to hear me. And the bluegrass channel I listen to, the real jazz channel I listen to. Those are the ones on my presets so, not terribly helpful for finding new bands.
RCM: You’re listening to the radio and a Peter & Gordon song comes on, or something you produced, do you still get a little…
PA: Oh it’s always nice to hear it, yes.
RCM: Is it the same as the first time?
PA: No it’s not the same as the first time, but it’s exciting and it’s still good that someone else is listening to it. And some days you like it and some days you don’t; depends on what track they’ve played. There are some that I’m really pleased with and some that you kinda go,”ooh, never did think that came out quite right.” I’ve always said one of a producer’s jobs is deciding when to stop. When to stop doing more vocals, when to stop over-dubbing, when to stop mixing, when to stop doing takes. At every stage of the project there’s a kind of “that’ll do, stop.” The artist often wants to carry on and spoil it.
RCM: Back in the day engineers would point to the recording room and say “if it’s not out there, it’s not in here” (the engineering room). The old “fix it in the mix thing.” There was only so much that someone at the board could do. That’s clearly different now.
RCM: Is that limiting the amount of artistry when you can have a bad performance… and a couple of tweaks on Pro Tools and it becomes a good performance? Is that cheating?
PA: No I don’t think it’s cheating at all,
RCM: Even if it’s Kim Kardashian…?
PA: Even if it’s Kim Kardashian. I mean, the tools are different yes, and creating a great performance on record may have less to do with how good a singer the person is actually in person, but it’s not cheating no. The question’s arising of course again, in every art form – in movies in particular. Now they don’t know what to do about this motion capture business. They’re trying to decide what’s an animated film, and what’s a live-action film, ‘cause there used to be a clear distinction. Now they can make computer generated things that look so real you think they’re real people. They can take real people, and do the motion picture thing, and you think they’re cartoons.
Do you know what you’re listening to or do you know what you’re seeing in the same sense that you used to? No. But it’s not cheating, ‘cause you’re just creating a work of art any way you can. As you know there’s this Japanese pop star that doesn’t even exist, who’s had hit records and made videos, and she doesn’t exist. Again it’s not cheating. It’d be cheating if you pretended that she did, or if you pretended that Kim Kardashian was a great singer, that might be cheating. But if you make a great record with Kim Kardashian then good luck to you. It’s still a great record.
I mean one of the mysteries of our business was the Milli Vanilli thing. The album was selling like crazy, everyone loved it, they exposed that the two guys didn’t sing it, it stopped selling. What’s that about? I mean, it’s a great album, it’s still a great album. Some of those songs are fantastic and some of those tracks are great. And I know how you can say “I’m pissed off I was deceived”, but you don’t go “it sucks now.” Some people did. It’s annoying to be deceived.
In the Monkees case I’m not sure they really ever pretended that they played, people just guessed, from the fact they’d play along on the TV show, because they didn’t have time to play more than anything else. But yes, you can do anything in the studio, you can make anybody sound good, if you’re good.
RCM: So these days when you produce, you will embrace all the technology that’s available to you?
Yes, but at the same time, is it always wise to do so? No. Do I automatically tune everything and fix everything? Absolutely not. But I have nothing against it, if I think it makes for a better record. But sometimes by fixing a vocal too much, for example, you can take the emotion out of it and make a less compelling record. What’s weird to me, is when you hear an Usher record – his new single – the thing’s tuned within an inch of its life, I mean it is totally auto tuned, and he’s a fantastic singer — it kind of makes you go, “what a shame, it’s a cool record but what a waste of Usher.” It could gave just as well been an Enrique Iglesias record, who can’t sing and who’s tuned within an inch of his life. So occasionally I get a bit annoyed because I might be missing a really good singer, because they’ve been put through this automatic process. So the people who don’t sing that well, like Britney, are being treated exactly the same way as the people who really do sing well like Beyoncé. And that’s kind of weird, that’s kind of a waste but there’s nothing wrong with it. I don’t object to it.
RCM: In your show you mention that you felt that your production was heavy-handed on James Taylor’s first album. Do you only say that now after how his career developed, or did you feel it instantly afterwards, or…?
PA: I think probably within a matter of 6 months or a year I was looking back on it and thinking I kinda attacked it a bit too vigorously. In my desperation to make people pay attention. And to make every song different. And that’s why I back-tracked a lot on Sweet Baby James and did it much simpler. Some people still love the album. Sometimes you look back and you see things you could have done better one way or the other, done more or done less.
RCM: You’re 24 years old and the biggest band in the world (The Beatles) entrusts you with A&R for their new company. You were friends with Paul McCartney, but was there another reason? That they did that just to be the “anti-corporate” record company?
PA: I don’t think that much thought went it to it. There I was, I seemed to know what I was doing. I was Paul’s friend, I’d produced some records, it made sense, you know? “He’ll do.” I mean, there was no audition process. There was nobody else up for the job that I’m aware of. It just seemed logical.
RCM: Most of Peter & Gordon’s hit songs were written by others, specifically Paul McCartney. Not much mention is given to you two as songwriters for your other material. Speak a bit about your own songwriting, specifically “If I Were You.”
PA: We knew enough to know that it would be better for us to write the b-side than to have someone else do it. “If I Were You” was written clearly for the b-side of “World Without Love.” And we had never written a song before. So we just sort of sat down and did it.
RCM: That was your first?!
PA: Mm-hmm. We never did write a hit. But we gradually figured out how to write songs – everybody does – you just sit down and try and do it. And something comes out whether it’s good or bad.
RCM: Were songs chosen for you or did you them and bring them in yourself, or…?
PA: Case by case. If you look at the hits I guess we came up with almost all of them. ‘ Course “World Without Love” Paul gave it to us. “Nobody I Know” he wrote, as a follow-up. “I Go To Pieces” – the Del Shannon one. There were no song suggestions made to us for that particular first session. “I Don’t Want To See You Again” obviously Paul wrote. “Lady Godiva” was brought to us by our producer. I think “True Loves Ways” might have been Gordon’s suggestion – I’m not sure – might have been John Burgess our producer’s suggestion as well.
RCM: Did you and Gordon sit around writing songs regularly, like Lennon and McCartney?
PA: Well they didn’t sit around writing songs together on that regular of basis. They mostly did it on their own. Only in the very beginning did they actually sit down together and write songs. I don’t know how often we sat down to write songs to be honest. Every now and then, usually when we needed something. We had a session coming up, we’d try and write something.
RCM: As a musician yourself, do you still play and compose music?
PA: Not really, no. I think of arrangement ideas and stuff for existing songs depending on what I’m working on like this Buddy Holly project. (“Listen to Me: Buddy Holly.”) I often present the band with an idea of how I think they could do the song. When I asked The Fray about the Buddy Holly thing, they were going “I don’t know, I don’t think so,” so I sent them kind of a treatment: “here’s how I would do the song if it’s you,” and changed the song completely and they went “oh okay that’ll work,” then we did it that way. So I do more of that than actually writing.
RCM: Your singing voice is still so strong and melodic. You still sing in the shower?
PA: Yeah my voice is pretty much the same. My voice is better the more often I sing – the more you sing the better.
RCM: Do you remember the cover of “Something In The Way She Moves” by Matthew’s Southern Comfort?
PA: Yes, I think they covered it because Tom Rush had done it, first.
RCM: Is it autobiographical? James Taylor having some issues?
PA: It’s about a genuine affection for his sister. That’s what it’s about but it could be about anyone – friend, or relation who makes you feel stable.
Everything’s autobiographical in one sense. “Fire And Rain” is the one obviously everyone assumes is autobiographical, and it is. They (The Flying Machine) never had a hit, not the band James was in. They had one record out which had some of James’ songs on it. I don’t think it was the same band, because if they’d had a hit they might have survived. But a lot of the songs you see people James’ people subscribe all sorts of meanings to them, like “Suite For 20-G”, and “Fire And Rain:” There’s whole story out there on the internet how it’s about he loses his girlfriend in a plane crash or something like that, or about a girl who kills herself — “Suzanne the plans we made,” “I always thought I’d see you again,” that kind of stuff. But “sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground,” it’s not a plane crash; it’s the band breaking up. So because people didn’t know about the Flying Machine Band, they go, “oh yeah she died in a plane crash.”
RCM: How much of a role did you play in picking songs? For example, with Linda Ronstadt, there’s always been the debate: “She should never have done Elvis Costello’s ‘Alison’.”
PA: Elvis Costello said so. In Rolling Stone he said he hated our version. He cashed the check, but…(laughter). He came close to apologizing to me, years later. I love Elvis Costello. I know him well but he just kind went “well ya know – mumble mumble” – one of those things. He didn’t actually go “you’re right it was a stupid thing to say,” but he came damn close.
RCM: Did you bring it to her?
PA: I honestly don’t remember. We both loved Elvis Costello. I tried very hard to get him to do a track for this Buddy Holly album – actually had him talked into it at one point – but then he has so many things going on. But T-bone and I had him cornered in the studio, I was going to originally – before I thought of Jackson – I was gonna get him to do “True Love Ways,” which would have been great. But Jackson did it great so were okay.
RCM: Getting back to Linda Ronstadt, the production, the playing the vocals – everything was top-tier. But part of that was the song selection. You always picked such great songs.
PA: Generally, I’d be leaning towards the rock and roll songs but she never wanted to sing the rock and roll ones; she liked doing ballads all the time. Left to her own devices she’d never do a fast song. But she sings anything. She’s so great.
RCM: You’re now touring with your new multi-media show (Peter Asher: A Memoir of the ‘60s). What made you want to go out and do that again?
PA: I didn’t perform at all in the 38 years Gordon and I were not performing. I sang and played on records a lot and would occasionally sing a harmony part live if I’d sung it on the record for somebody. But when Gordon and I got back together for the benefit, and following the success of the benefit, and the fact that people seemed to like it, we did a number of concerts. And the last big one we did was the Santa Monica Pier one out here which was quite successful – had about 15,000 people. I enjoyed doing that and then Gordon died.
During that time I had also done some lectures I’d got asked to a lot of keynote speeches and addresses, and in particular I’d put together a couple of lectures actually for a cruise ship.
This show derived from those two elements. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do anymore Peter and Gordon shows ‘cause Gordon was dead, I wasn’t quite prepared to go, ”I’ll never sing those songs again.” Plus I had put this thing together two separate one hour lectures: One about the 60’s, one about the James Taylor period. Like an insider’s view of that stuff, which the audiences loved.
RCM: Was the buzz of being back on stage the same? Did you realize how much you had missed that?
PA: Did I miss it as such? Not really. I never particularly missed being out onstage. Did I enjoy when I started doing it again? Yes. Discovering that you can actually make the audience laugh or have a good time, that’s good.
RCM: You’ve been quoted as saying you’ll never write an autobiography. Does this show perhaps take the place of that?
PA: I’m not interested in writing a book; that part is correct, and remains true. Everyone else has written a book, particularly in the Beatles era. Everybody – the guy that shined their shoes – has written a book. Literally, if you look up a book about the Beatles era there’s hundreds and hundreds, thousands. Everyone who worked at Apple has written a book: Chris O’Dell has written a book, Tony Bramwell has written a book. I don’t think there’s anyone there who hasn’t written a book, so it makes you not want to. My sister and I are the only people who haven’t written a book. Pattie Boyd has written a book.
RCM: And you don’t feel impelled to share that.
PA: Absolutely not. And once you write a book, they want more sex, drugs and rock n’ roll – as we all do when we read them. The ones that don’t put it in are kind of boring. So, I’m not gonna talk about my sister and Paul and all that stuff – absolutely not. There’s one reference I made in the show which was “they went out together for a while,” that’s it. So there’s a lot more people want to know that they’re not gonna know.
RCM: Perfect segue! An “undercover” Peter Asher question: Peter & Gordon also experienced the hordes of manic, screaming girls as you rode the wave of British-Invasion Beatlemania. Since the Austin Powers comparison to you has already been made… were Peter and Gordon getting shagged as much as Austin Powers?)
PA: Yes. (laughter)
RCM: And you were the nerdy intellectual.
PA : Yes. Yes. Let me qualify: There were an awful lot of little girls screaming, chasing you… who if they caught you, had no idea what to do. You’d actually get to your hotel and girls would find a way to get up to the room and all that stuff. But when they actually get in the room you’d suddenly realize these are two little girls, 15 or whatever, and you’d kinda go “no way.” Nor did they mean it, either. None of you meant it. It was a ritual. But there was also a little later perhaps a whole other breed of girl who knew exactly why they were trying to get in your room. And you knew they knew, and it was all part of the deal. But that happened a lot more during the James Taylor years as it did as in the beginning of Peter and Gordon. When girls were jumping in the pool at the World’s Fair in 1964 and swimming across to get to us.
In the Linda and James era, there was probably more mayhem going on then, even though I was just a manager, it didn’t seem to matter. Did we sleep with a great many women? Yes. That was the era when sex and drugs was still good for you, no one had found any downside. Neither sex or drugs were gonna kill you. And then a few years later everyone went “OH! They’re both gonna kill you!” Too late.
RCM: So were there women who wanted Peter of Peter and Gordon to check off their list?
PA: Yes. Happy to oblige. (laughs) It wasn’t Led Zeppelin. It wasn’t mad, evil, multiple women and whippings and stuff.