Classic Tracks: Tom Petty 'Learning To Fly'

Producers: Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne • Engineer: Richard Dodd

Published in SOS February 2014
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Technique : Classic Tracks

A young Richard Dodd at London's Marquee Studios, 1977.

While Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne's songwriting partnership was certainly successful, it was the partnership between Jeff Lynne and engineer Richard Dodd that gave the records their distinctive sparkle.

Richard Buskin

"Well, I started out down a dirty road / Started out all alone / And the sun went down as I crossed the hill / And the town lit up, the world got still / I'm learning to fly, but I ain't got wings / Coming down is the hardest thing...”

Some say the lyrics are about heroin withdrawal; Tom Petty himself has said they were inspired by Gulf War TV images of bombings and blazing oil wells, together with an interview in which a pilot described the difficulties of landing his plane. Either way, they kick off a classic heartland rock number that, written by Petty and co-producer/fellow musician Jeff Lynne, spent six weeks atop the Billboard Album Rock Tracks chart following its July 1991 release, equalling the run of his 1981 single 'The Waiting', on its way to becoming one of his signature songs.

Tom Petty on stage, 1990.Photo: RedfernsThe opening track on Into The Great Wide Open, the eighth studio album by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 'Learning To Fly' carried on in the same Byrds-inspired, 12-string-guitar-adorned vein as 'Free Fallin'' which had led off Full Moon Fever, Petty's 1989 solo debut (even though it, too, had featured contributions by the Heartbreakers). Both albums, co-produced by Petty and Lynne, feature several of their co-compositions as well as the latter's trademark, ELO-infused sound. The man with his fingers on the faders for the second of those records was Richard Dodd, who fulfilled the same role on a number of their other joint projects, including those as members of supergroup the Traveling Wilburys alongside George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison.

"That was an amazing period,” says Dodd, the recipient of five Grammy Awards, including that in 1995 for Petty's second solo excursion, Wildflowers, being voted 'Best Engineered Album (Non-Classical)'. "All of these incredible musicians were working on each other's records and I was there to record most of them.”

Pilot's Licence

The producer and/or engineer of records by a long list of other rock luminaries — including Harrison, Orbison, Freddie Mercury, Uriah Heep, Joe Cocker and Ringo Starr — Richard Dodd commenced his music career in 1970 at central London's Recorded Sound Studios. Mentored by engineers Mike Weighall and Gerald Chevin, he learned the ropes of operating the eight- and 16-track equipment, as well as miking assorted instruments. This resulted in jingle work, engineering on albums by anyone from illusionist Uri Geller to comedian Charlie Drake, recording the strings on Kiki Dee's 'Amoureuse' and Roger Daltrey's self-titled 1973 solo album, engineering sessions for Rick Wakeman, Stephane Grappelli, Leo Sayer and Cockney Rebel, and tracking and mixing Carl Douglas's 'Kung Fu Fighting'.

Dodd co-produced the Blues Band after going freelance in 1976 and assumed solo production reins for the first time with Clannad in 1983. He did the same with the Little River Band in 1986, and that same year, having recorded the strings for George Harrison's 'Here Comes The Moon' back in 1978, he received a call to engineer some of the ex-Beatle's music for the soundtrack of the cinematic fiasco Shanghai Surprise, starring Sean Penn and Madonna, produced by Harrison's company HandMade Films. This, in turn, led to Dodd engineering Harrison's widely acclaimed 1987 album Cloud Nine at the latter's home facility, FPSHOT (Friar Park Studios, Henley-on-Thames), with Jeff Lynne sitting alongside Dodd as GH's co-producer. This was after some unsatisfactory recordings had resulted in the American originally filling that role (and who, in line with Harrison's wishes, shall remain anonymous) being granted a permanent leave of absence.

"George had invited Jeff over for dinner and played him what we'd been doing,” Dodd explains. "Knowing Jeff, I can imagine his blood boiling when he heard the recordings, thinking, 'How dare someone do this to a Beatle!' Well, now he was supposed to work with me, who he'd never met, and all he knew was that I had recorded what he'd heard. That meant I was immediately off to a bad start, but George insisted I remain as engineer and, as it turned out, I'm sure Jeff could see how relieved I felt every time he asked me to do something. It was much more interesting and so we didn't have any problems at all. In fact, the more we worked together, the easier it became, and it was great fun.”

The following year, 1988, after working on — among other projects — the pop-operatic opus Barcelona with Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé, Richard Dodd handled the overdubbing and mix of The Traveling Wilburys Vol 1. at FPSHOT. The only exception was the opening track and lead-off single 'Handle With Care', which was recorded and mixed by Bill Bottrell at Bob Dylan's Malibu home studio before the idea of an album came into view. Don Smith tracked all of the other songs at Dave Stewart's Encino home studio.

"I engineered all of the second album [Traveling Wilburys Vol 3], which was done without Roy Orbison,” Dodd says. "I got to meet Roy during the process of finishing the first one and we worked on some of the tracks for [his 1989 comeback album] Mystery Girl. That was just incredible. So was working on albums with Duane Eddy and Del Shannon. As for Tom, I didn't meet him until we started the second Wilburys album and evidently I didn't annoy him. He really wanted Jeff to be his co-producer, and by then Jeff and I were kind of a package deal, working well together.”

Rumbo Recorders

"Rumbo Recorders in Canoga Park had a big studio — the one used by Captain & Tennille, who owned the facility at that time — a smaller one down the side, and a storage room at the back. They'd just purchased a new console, so they had an extra board and had converted the storage room into a cheap little studio that Tom decided to book for five months. We were scheduled to start recording Into The Great Wide Open in January 1990, and just as I was about to fly to LA — having put all that time aside — I received a call from his manager, Tony Dimitriades, saying, 'Richard, this rate of yours is a bit high. We can't afford that.” I think I was charging $600 a day and he told me the most they could afford was $400, meaning that over five months I'd be missing out on about $20,000. I told him I'd think about it, and after I did I called Jeff and told him it just wasn't going to be economically viable for me to do all that time out there and lose so much income.

Richard Dodd with Tom Petty."I said, 'I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to let you down,' and he said, 'You're not going to let me down. Don't worry about it. If Tom doesn't pay you enough, I'll pay the difference.' Well, the next day I got another phone call from Tony: 'Er, there's been a misunderstanding, Richard. No problem with your rate whatsoever. Someone gave me the wrong figures, but it's all been taken care of and Tom doesn't have a problem with that money.' Jeff had obviously called Tom, and Tom had called Tony and told him to take care of this in no uncertain terms.”

Tracking In A Tight Space

Rumbo's Studio C was equipped with a 24-input Trident 80 B console — modified so all 24 monitors could be dumped into the mix — and an Otari MTR90 MkII two-inch, 24-track machine. Jeff Lynne and Richard Dodd used Tannoy Little Red monitors inside the 20- by 20-foot control room.

"A live area didn't exist,” recalls Dodd, who has been based in Nashville since 1991 and has his own studio there ( "There were two booths: one of them triangular in shape, about six inches deeper than a Yamaha upright grand, about 40-square-feet total size, and used for the piano and all the guitars; and, next to it, a drier, narrower area that was about five-feet wide and eight-feet deep, used for doing vocals. Its door had a window, so you could see into it. The drums were recorded in the kitchenette/lounge area upstairs or down in the control room. None of that album was done live; it was all done to a click with an Oberheim DMX drum machine, recorded to tape and then overdubbed.

"If that sounds cramped, don't forget that the previous album, the musically brilliant and great-sounding Full Moon Fever, had been done in an even smaller environment; the control room being the smallest bedroom in [guitarist] Mike Campbell's then house and the recording area being its two-car garage. For Into The Great Wide Open, Mike still recorded the occasional guitar solo there on his own. Sometimes, the demos were recorded there or at Tom's house, and among them was the one for 'Learning To Fly'.

"A lot of deciding the right tempo, key and song structure fell on Tom and Jeff — with Jeff initially making those decisions — and to start with we'd have a drum loop with downbeats on the kick drum, backbeats on the snare and eighths on the hi-hat. I'd print them discretely onto three tracks of the 24-track and print more than we needed: in this case, say, four-and-a-half minutes for a song that ended up running just over four minutes. Then we'd go back and record a basic chordal instrument; either a Fender Telecaster or, on rare occasions, a pad out of an Oberheim OBXa synth. There's an OBXa on 'Learning To Fly', with Jeff playing something like a root fifth instead of a full pad. However, the acoustic guitars were the basis of that song, with Mike, Jeff and Tom playing simultaneously. Sometimes, they'd all go down on the same track and, if three guitars were enough, we'd record them in stereo.

"For this song, Stan Lynch overdubbed snare, tom-toms and cymbals in front of us in the control room. He replaced everything but the kick, which acted as a trigger for a sample from a TC or AMS sampler; depending on whether or not the AMS was working. The AMS would be the first choice because Jeff was very, very familiar with it, whereas the TC would be my choice because it sounded better and was more accurate. As he had an affinity for the AMS, I developed an affinity for it, too.”

Mics & Miking

"Electric guitars would typically be played in the control room while the amps were in the booth, so there was easy communication. Both Jeff and Mike would have their opinions, and Mike was really creative and quick with everything he wanted to do. So, like all great things, the process appeared to be pretty automatic; these guys coming out with the right things at the right time. I didn't know if they'd been lying awake at night, struggling to find something to do, but certainly whenever one of them said 'How about putting this on?' it seemed to magically come out of thin air.

The Traveling Wilburys in 1990. From left to right: Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and George Harrison.Photo: Neal Preston/Corbis"One of the amplifiers Mike was using was an open-back Ampeg, and I had a Shure SM57 on that while, to capture some low end, I had the bright idea of also sticking one of those flat PZM microphones onto the amp. It was the Radio Shack mic, not the posh Crown version, and I just blended that in. Being omnidirectional, it gave a little of the environment, and those mics were blended together and went through a Urei 1176. Typically, the pre would be an outboard Neve 1073 or an API, and only things like percussion would use the preamps on the console.

"The same recording method was used for the other guitars, with the exception of the PZM. I believe Jeff played the bass on 'Learning To Fly', DI'd as usual, and the drums would have been miked with a 57 about 18 inches away from the snare, an [Neumann U] 87 on the cymbals and the same 57 on the tom-toms. Pretty basic stuff. Tom would play his guitar in the control room, too, unless it was acoustic, and in his case I might have had two mics on his amp: a 57 as well as an AKG 251, just in case it sounded better, although it very rarely did. Tom's a great rhythm player, so he definitely played rhythm on acoustic and on the Tele while I think Mike played the more lead-type 12-string stuff.

"When it came to his vocals, Tom had an affinity for the AKG C12, whereas Jeff tended to prefer the 87. So, we'd go between those on any given occasion, but in this case I'm pretty sure we used the C12. Tom was pretty automatic in terms of his vocal performances, although the final take was the only time he did the bird whistle at the end of the song. I remember laughing when he did that and telling him I loved the bird when he came back out of the booth. He said, 'You like that? Well, maybe we'll keep it.' Again, he might have been planning it for weeks, but it came across as if he just did that on the spur of the moment.

"The main reason we'd ever redo a vocal was because he'd written new words that he preferred — usually it was a content thing rather than a performance thing — and any hesitation or delay in doing the vocals was typically due to him considering whether or not he had the right lyrics. Because, as any singer-songwriter will tell you, it's OK having them down on paper, but they've also got to sound right and sound like you. Those guys have their standards and 'moon in June' doesn't work for them all the time. They often want the lyrics to really say something to someone.”


"As co-producers, Tom and Jeff were both teaching each other their limits. They were both already extremely successful people who had collaborated brilliantly on Full Moon Fever as well as with the Wilburys, but Into The Great Wide Open was not only Tom's record, it was also the Heartbreakers', which is why Stan was playing the drums instead of Jeff or anybody else. So, it was a different dynamic for Jeff, but rarely were the musical or recording aspects a problem. The only problems came from their own personal lives, but fortunately they didn't impact the recordings and I think the results speak for themselves.”  

Artist: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Track: 'Learning To Fly'. Label: MCA. Released: 1991. Producers: Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne. Engineer: Richard Dodd. Studio: Rumbo Recorders.

At Home With The Wilburys

Working with superstar super-egos like George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Petty is never easy — especially when they're all in the same room at the same time — but Richard Dodd retains treasured memories of his collaborations with those artists.

"I learned a lot about loads of things from George and I actually considered him a friend. Whereas I didn't really know much about Bob, George could recite every syllable of everything that Bob had ever written. I don't know if Jeff held Bob in that kind of high esteem, but I certainly know he admired and respected him greatly. During the second album we were together every day for six weeks. During that whole period, the longest I ever heard Bob speak to me was on the last day. I was in the kitchen and heard somebody calling my name: "Richard, Richard! Hey man, it's been great working with you. We've got to do it again, y'know.” That was the most he said to me throughout the entire six weeks.

"At one point during the sessions for that album, they wrote and recorded seven tracks in a single day. It was a Thursday, and they laid down four acoustic guitars and Jim Keltner's drums. When it came to 'If You Belonged To Me', Bob had an idea for the lyrics and George said, 'Well, just go and sing it.' So, that's what he did, singing this perfect, absolutely amazing vocal; like you'd expect a superstar to do. When he came back into the control room, Jeff was pretty impressed and George was just drooling. However, he made the mistake of complementing Bob in some extreme way, Bob put that in the back pocket of his mind, and the next day he came and said, 'I want to have another go at that song.' George said, 'Fine,' while looking at me as if to say, 'Keep the one we've already got. Don't lose it, whatever you do.'

"Bob then went out to the studio and sang the song again, and we could hardly understand one word — I think the melody perhaps drifted into three notes, eventually. It was just a blur. We were all shocked and stunned, and Jeff said, 'Well, obviously we've got to use the other one.' George was nervously going, 'Let's see what Bob has to say,” and when Bob came back into the control room he said, 'That's the one we're using.' It was then up to George to convince Jeff that 'Bob is right because Bob knows best. The reason we don't like it so much is because we don't understand. It'll grow on you, you'll get it eventually and you'll love it.' Well, Jeff never did love it. He hated it. And Tom was wise enough to stay out of it. He just said, 'Whatever works.'

"Now fast-forward to when we were back in England, mixing that song, and Bob was in town. Jeff was tearing his hair out because he hated the thing: 'Has it got to be on the record? Maybe we don't need this one.' When Bob came in, George said, 'Have a listen. See what you think of the mix.' When we played it to him, he said, 'Yeah, that's all right.' Then Bob put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Hey, Richard, do you like this?' I said, 'You know what, Bob, I prefer the first vocal you did.' Panic was written all over George's face and Jeff's expression was like 'Oh, my God, what's going to happen now?' Bob said, 'You do? Why?' George didn't say a thing, but I could just feel him trying to tell me 'Shut your mouth, Richard.' In my blissful ignorance, I replied, 'The first one you did sounds like you. The second one, I just don't get it.' I know Jeff was thinking, 'Oh, my God, I wish I could have said that,' because he'd tell me as much afterwards. But then Bob turned around, looked at George and said, 'We'll use the other one.'

"That was all to teach George a lesson. I think he felt that George needed to stop adoring him and just treat him like an equal, because he gave me the impression that he considered George to be a worthy talent. Meanwhile, I got away with it because, instead of jumping on me for interfering, Jeff was like 'That's great. Don't say anything. Put that vocal on, let's do the mix again and get it done. Burn the other one!'”

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