Ken Scott: A life in music

Ken Scott, who now teaches at Leeds Beckett University, has worked with some of the biggest names in music.
Ken Scott, who now teaches at Leeds Beckett University, has worked with some of the biggest names in music.
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He’s worked with The Beatles and Bowie, now Ken Scott is teaching in Leeds. Grant Woodward reports.

Ken Scott was there when The Beatles made their seminal albums at Abbey Road. He was present at the birth of Ziggy Stardust. He watched Elton John create Rocket Man over breakfast.

As he recounts yet another story of rock royalty, he pauses for a moment. “You know, I’ve been in studios for the last 52 years and I’ve probably worked for a month of that time. The rest has been just sheer joy.

“There are no golden moments for me. My golden moment is my entire life.”

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Scott’s career as a recording engineer and producer reads like a who’s who of music.

He pushed faders and twiddled knobs on some of the most celebrated albums of all time, working with John, Paul, George and Ringo both as The Beatles and into their solo careers.

Then there were the records he made with David Bowie, Elton John, Harry Nilsson, Duran Duran, Supertramp and Jeff Beck.

Now 68, Scott has moved back to Britain after nearly four decades in America. Living near Harrogate, he is passing on his wisdom to record producers of the future at Leeds Beckett University.

The irony, as he freely admits, is that it was his own disaffection with school that got him started.

As a music mad 16-year-old he sent off speculative letters in the hope of getting a toe hold in the recording industry.

One happened to land on the desk of EMI Studios – soon to become the legendary Abbey Road – at just the right time. A little over a week later he had left school and was starting work in a new and exciting world.

Incredibly – and such lucky breaks were to become a recurring theme in Scott’s career – his first duties saw him working with five lads from Liverpool.

“Nine days to get my first ever job, the first thing I’m ever an assistant engineer on is side two of A Hard Day’s Night,” he chuckles.

“The first time I ever sat behind a recording console and pushed up a fader was for The Beatles. Years later, my first ever production was Hunky Dory with Bowie. My life has been blessed.

“I was a huge Beatles fan even before I started at EMI, but then actually being a part of it was incredible, knowing you were working on something special.

“Although we never realised at the time that we’d still be talking about these things in 40 or 50 years’ time.”

Soon life was getting even more interesting as the band made it their mission to redraw pop music’s boundaries. “Sometimes it was ‘what the hell are they doing?’” Scott admits with a laugh. “It was the perfect learning experience for me. Here I was, someone who knew absolutely nothing really about recording and I was in the studio with the most adventurous band in the world.

“They just knew they wanted something different, that was why it was so good. I could completely screw something up and there was as much chance of them coming up and saying that sounds terrible as there was of them saying, that sounds terrible but I like it, we’ll use it. There was a tremendous freedom with something like that, it was incredible.”

But a fall-out with the studios’ new manager saw him leave Abbey Road shortly after completing work on the White Album. He headed for the independent Trident Studios and it was here that he got chatting during a tea break about his desire to become a producer.

The person he was confiding in just so happened to be David Bowie, who was there to help out on a friend’s record. A job offer followed and soon the pair were beginning work on 1971’s Hunky Dory – and Scott was waking up to the singer’s true talent.

“I thought he was an exceedingly nice guy, I thought he had a certain amount of talent, but at that point I didn’t think he would ever be a superstar,” he reflects. “Tony Visconti, who had been his producer and bass player, had taken control of the musical side of things up to then.

“It was only when he came round my house a few weeks later and we started to go through demos of the songs to figure out what we were going to record for the album and suddenly I realise hang on, there’s a lot more to this guy than I thought. I realised at that point he could be huge.”

He was behind the desk for Bowie’s next three albums, including the iconic Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. Work with Elton John, Duran Duran and a host of other huge names followed.

Now he wants to pass on his wealth of experience to the next generation at Leeds Beckett – and hopes they 
will kick back against the blandness he sees in modern music production.

“Technology today is astounding, but the singers will only sing the chorus once and then they’ll copy and paste it across,” he sighs.

“Music is supposed to create emotion in someone. Bowie performed every one of his vocals and 95 per cent of them were first takes.

“Now you’ve got to Autotune it so everything is perfectly 
in tune, but I think the beauty of music is in the imperfections.”

With a CV like Ken Scott’s, it would take a brave man to disagree.

A free talk, From Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust with Ken Scott, takes place at Leeds Beckett University on Wednesday at 6pm.

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