Classic Tracks: Electric Light Orchestra 'Don't Bring Me Down'

Producer: Jeff Lynne • Engineer: Mack

Published in SOS September 2013
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Technique : Classic Tracks

'Don't Bring Me Down' marked a departure from Electric Light Orchestra's trademark style, but also gave them their highest chart position. Long-term ELO engineer Reinhold Mack was at the controls...

Richard Buskin

Melding Beatlesque pop melodies with symphonic strings, multi-layered vocals and leader Jeff Lynne's generally overblown production of his own compositions, Electric Light Orchestra were one of the world's best-selling groups from the time of their first UK hit in 1972 to their effective disbanding in 1986. During that period, the English outfit sold more than 50 million records worldwide while accumulating 20 Top 20 singles in their homeland and 15 in America, where their 20 Top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 is still a record for an act that never had a number one there. So it's ironic that the track which came closest in that regard — reaching number four, while peaking at three in the UK — was the first to depart from the tried and trusted formula of utilising the band's own three-piece string section. This was 'Don't Bring Me Down', which, quite aptly, was dedicated to the NASA Skylab space station that re-entered the Earth's atmosphere on 11th July, 1979. ELO’s Jeff Lynne (standing) and engineer Reinhold Mack at Musicland, 1979.ELO’s Jeff Lynne (standing) and engineer Reinhold Mack at Musicland, 1979.Photo: Redferns

Indeed, although violinist Mik Kaminski and cellists Hugh McDowell and Melvyn Gale appeared in the promotional videos for the multi-platinum Discovery album, they didn't contribute to any of its songs. In yet another musical departure, many of these catered to the dance floor in a manner that prompted keyboardist Richard Tandy to dub the record 'Disco Very'. However, even though 'Don't Bring Me Down' also boasted a very danceable up-tempo beat that appealed to the contemporary club scene, it was rooted much more firmly in the rock vein, as Jeff Lynne, backed by ELO's trademark high-harmony vocal chorus, sang about a party girl who was giving him the runaround.

"Jeff always says that the words to his songs are no big deal,” says Reinhold Mack. "At that time, however, they were usually aimed at his wife, Sandi.”

It's Gotta Be Mack

A producer and engineer who worked on half a dozen ELO studio albums (as well as four by Queen and recordings featuring the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, David Coverdale, Led Zeppelin, Uriah Heep, Rory Gallagher, Black Sabbath, Meatloaf and the Scorpions), Mack received classical training on the piano, clarinet and acoustic guitar while growing up in Munich, Germany. At the age of 14, he discovered the electric guitar and subsequently earned "fairly decent money” playing in a school covers band before being drafted into the army.

"After the army, I desperately wanted to get the band back together,” recalls the man whose name is referenced in the 1980 Queen song 'Dragon Attack': "Gonna use my stack. It's gotta be Mack.”

"However, my folks had gotten rid of all my equipment, thinking this would help me to become a decent person with a decent job,” he continues. "So I then looked for work at a studio, in the weird hope that being close to a recording situation might give me the chance to step in and save the day if somebody dropped out. That was extremely naïve of me, but at least I did get a job at a studio.”

That facility turned out to be the well-known Union Studios, where Mack commenced work in 1970 and learned the ropes of engineering over the course of the next two years, while the recording equipment was upgraded from four-track to eight, and then to 16.

"I did a lot of cigarette commercials, brass bands and oompah bands before graduating to work with big German stars like the singers Ivan Rebroff and Peter Alexander, as well as with underground krautrock bands like Amon Düül,” he says. "My first break came with the band Ihre Kinder, and I was really lucky to get into that. Back then, engineering was still full of rules and regulations; 'You cannot put an expensive microphone closer than a foot in front of the bass drum,' things like that. Everything had to be done 'properly', and so one day, when the guys in Ihre Kinder were telling the engineer how they wanted their record to sound, he walked out, saying, 'Look, I don't have to do this job. Do whatever you want.'

"At that point, the band members looked at me and asked, 'Can you do it?' 'Yeah, I guess so,' I replied. I then excused myself, told the studio manager what had happened and, since everything was already pretty much set up, he told me to just run the tape machine and say, 'That was pretty good. Can you do one more?' So, that's what I did and the guys in the band bought it. Diplomacy, together with smoke and mirrors.

"One of my mentors as an engineer was Martin Fouqué, the head of audio technology at the Teldec classical recordings label. He'd come by to watch some sessions and he told me, for instance, that he'd get more crack from the snare drum by positioning the microphone parallel to it, not angled on top. Also, looking at the console, he asked, 'Why are you EQ'ing the guitar at 1.4kHz? Since the key in which it's being played is A, adding that EQ brings out the completely wrong overtones.' Not having a proper answer, I just said, 'It sounds cooler,' and he was kind of fascinated by how I was doing things the wrong way and still coming up with powerful results.”

Moroder & Musicland

The old control room at Musicland.

Mack's next big opportunity arrived in the form of Italian songwriter/performer/producer Giorgio Moroder turning up at Union Studios and asking him to mix a track by Scottish singer Lulu. Happy with the result, Moroder — who had enjoyed German chart success with his 1969 recording of a song called 'Looky Looky' — then proposed that Mack work for him full-time.

"All of the studio musicians warned me against this,” Mack recalls. "They said, 'He's unreliable, he's an air-head, he's all talk.' Still, I went to see his teensy little studio in the basement of the huge, 23-storey Arabella Hochhaus hotel/apartment building in Munich, where he had a 16-track machine and a Helios console. This was situated next door to the building's central heating system, so it was about 100 degrees [Fahrenheit] in there the whole year round. Clearly, this would be a challenge, but since I always liked challenges I decided to go work for Giorgio. After about seven or eight months, I then told him, 'I can't keep doing this. It's too hot in here, it's too small.' If you ever wanted to see session musicians in their underwear, that was the place to be, because everyone would start undressing while complaining how hot it was.”

Armed with funds from a recording contract with Phonogram and the proceeds from 'Son Of My Father' — which, co-composed with Pete Bellotte, was a 1972 UK chart topper for Chicory Tip — Giorgio Moroder responded by having Mack help him expand the basement facility into what, the following year, would become Musicland Studios.

"I did most of the wiring without really having a good grasp of how to do it,” Mack admits. "A lot of it was common sense. I also looked at a couple of books, and although there was so much more to it, I kind of got it together. At first, the headphone situation was terrible because I didn't take the monitoring situation into consideration, but during the course of Musicland's existence I redid the wiring five times and it became an excellent studio. Also, I should point out, it had really good air conditioning!

"The first guy who walked in there while it was still just raw concrete and a couple of wires was Marc Bolan. He was staying over the road at the Sheraton and he asked, 'Do you think this place will be done by June? That's when I want to record.' That was completely out of the question, but I responded, 'Absolutely it will be done,' and, as things turned out, he did the first recording sessions to take place there.”

These were for the T-Rex album Zinc Alloy & The Hidden Riders Of Tomorrow — A Creamed Cage In August, produced and engineered by Tony Visconti, who sat behind the Helios console while Mack assisted him in recording to a Studer A80 16-track machine and monitoring on JBLs in the 35-square-metre control room that looked out onto the 150-square-metre live area.

"When we realised that 16 inputs weren't enough on the console, [Helios owner] Dick Swettenham built a 16-input extension and came over to hook it up,” says Mack. "At that time, modular built wasn't really a term that existed, so it was pretty much about doing mid-air soldering.”

Musicland's (then) new Harrison Westlake console. Following the Bolan sessions, Mack was also involved in those for Deep Purple's albums Stormbringer (1974) and Come Taste The Band (1975), Led Zeppelin's Presence (1976) and the Rolling Stones' It's Only Rock & Roll (1974) and Black & Blue (1976). Meanwhile, in May and June of '75, he worked with ELO for the first time, engineering the group's fifth studio album, Face The Music, before doing the same a year later on A New World Record, the UK breakthrough which — courtesy of hit songs such as 'Telephone Line', 'Livin' Thing' and 'Rockaria!' — mirrored the success that it had already been enjoying in the US.

"It was during those sessions that we installed a new Harrison console,” says Mack. "We now had Westlake monitors, and during a meeting with Paul Ford, Glenn Phoenix and Tom Hidley I said I'd like to have a console on which I could push a button to play the six two-track machines, two four-tracks, two 16-tracks and two 24-tracks. Monitoring would be in there — I didn't want to do any patching — and everything would be switchable for different configurations. Tom said, 'I might just have the console for you,' and he hooked me up with Dave Harrison.

"The Harrison had a matrix in each channel, with diodes enabling the switching. The faders were VCAs, you could flip the whole thing so that the path was from the preamp, you could have EQ in or out, you could monitor two four-track machines, and you could pretty much do anything at the push of a couple of buttons. It had a very clean recording sound. You'd go from the preamp over the monitor port onto the tape machine, and that was it; a really short and clean signal path.

"The console arrived in the middle of the sessions for A New World Record and I initially managed to wire up the first 16 channels so we could at least record through it that same night, while I told Jeff, 'We can't really hear things too well'. An assistant and I were soldering away until the early hours of the morning, and I wired up more channels as we went along and recorded the backing tracks. Until then, Jeff would go back to England to record the strings, but after we had the Harrison up and running, the strings were recorded at Musicland with members of the Munich Symphony Orchestra.”

This was the case for 1977's Out Of The Blue, the multi-platinum double album that spawned the Top 10 hits 'Sweet Talkin' Woman', 'Wild West Hero' and 'Mr Blue Sky'. The last of these closed side three of the record, comprising the four-song musical suite, 'Concerto For A Rainy Day', that turned out to be Lynne's farewell to symphonic rock.

"I told Jeff, 'If you want to record the strings here in Munich, the people from the Munich Symphony Orchestra will charge you either by the hour or for the session, and there will be no demands like in England for tea breaks, union fees and exactly how long the sessions will be,'” Mack recalls. "That way, he could tell the musicians precisely what he wanted them to play or what he wanted them to redo and nobody would complain.

"Before Out Of The Blue, Jeff already had a winning formula. Still, despite the saying 'Don't change horses in midstream', I thought we could do things bigger and better, so I suggested recording the strings on a huge sound stage at Munich's Bavaria Film studio. We got a 54-piece string section in there, but it was a complete disaster. I could not get the right sound to save my life. In the orchestral sense, it was fine, but it wasn't tight enough and I therefore had to tell all those guys, 'Look, it just isn't working. Can you go over to Musicland? We don't have enough chairs, headphones or music stands there, so whoever wants to come should please bring a chair, a pair of headphones and a music stand.'

"Some of those classically trained musicians, feeling like they were back in kindergarten, clearly weren't going to stand for this, but about 80 percent of them said, 'Sure, see you there in an hour,' and they all turned up. As there was also a 32-piece choir, it had to perform in the lobby while some of the orchestra musicians played their instruments lined up against the walls. The place was mobbed, and in those circumstances the sound we got on tracks like 'Mr Blue Sky' was pretty good.”

Anglo-German Relations

The control room at Musicland during the recording of Discovery. From left to right: Richard Tandy, Reinhold Mack, Jeff Lynne and Bev Bevan.Photo: Redferns

Mack describes the dynamic between him and Jeff Lynne as "the typical relationship with an Englishman. Every morning, his attitude would be cold, as if I'd never met him before; walking straight past me without even saying hello, whereas at night, after about 12 pints of beer, he'd be sitting on my lap, kissing me good night. In between, he'd leave the engineering completely to me and ask things like, 'Can you get a big piano sound?' After I tried my best to do that, he'd then say, 'OK, that's really good. Now can you screw it up?' 'What's the point of doing this?' I'd ask. 'I could have screwed it up in the first place.'

"We had close to a love/hate working relationship. In fact, if you ask him he'll still tell you that the most annoying thing about me was when he'd ask me to do something and I would reply, 'For what purpose?' Not the most diplomatic approach, I know. Jeff loved having the total freedom of doing weird things, putting mics in strange places, hearing unusual sounds, then changing his mind and doing something completely different. However, he'd never explain his ideas, and until he began overdubbing his vocal onto a song's rhythm track, I'd have no clue about how the melody would go or where the singing would be. This made it hard to foresee if the sounds we were creating were in the right place.

"Jeff asking me, 'Can you make the song sound weird?' or 'Can you make it sound more weird?' was about as specific as he would get. Sometimes I'd ask him what 'weird' meant, and another of his standard comments was 'You said you could do it when you were retained for the job.' There was always way too much stuff on everything, and after Jeff kept adding and adding and adding, I'd be thinking, 'How in hell am I going to mix that?' It was a challenge to make sure the various elements could be heard. The mixes were extremely convoluted, and it therefore came down to a choice of what should be featured at which point. Then again, if I was struggling with something, Jeff would just say, 'Never you mind, you won't hear any of that'.”

The recording sessions for ELO's eighth studio album, Discovery, took place at Musicland in March and April of 1979, with all of the backing tracks being laid down by guitarist Jeff Lynne, drummer Bev Bevan, bassist Kelly Groucutt and keyboard player Richard Tandy within a couple of days.

"Before recording the live rhythm section, Jeff normally rehearsed each new song with the band,” Mack explains. "We'd occasionally come to a standstill whenever he had to work out a melody or try to get the words together. Nobody really knew what he was thinking about when that happened, but the backing tracks came together quickly and we then overdubbed endlessly.”

Looking out to the main studio area through the control-room glass, Mack would have seen Bevan behind his drum kit in the far left corner, Groucutt on DI'd bass next to him, and then Tandy's DI'd keyboards. The drums were miked with a Neumann U47 on the kick, a Neumann KM84 on the snare, a Sennheiser MD421 on the toms and Neumann U87s as overheads.

"All of the drums were double-tracked,” Mack says. "The overdubbed kit was in the bathroom, and I just stuck one mic up there and compressed it with a Urei 1176, overloaded. We did that on every album, but on Discovery we just recorded the bass drum, snare and toms in there for more control. Otherwise, it would have been too messy.

"To this day, Jeff insists that he doesn't mind reverb on other people's recordings but he doesn't want it on his recordings. So I'd have to capture the real room sounds and then I'd always cheat a little bit by adding some reverb. Often, he would go over to the tape machine and stop it running, in order to hear if any reverb had been added. Well, whenever I saw him walking over to that machine I'd have my finger on the mute button, and as soon as he stopped the machine I'd hit the mute button so he couldn't hear what I'd added.”

Two Sides Of The Story

One of the final songs to be worked on during the Discovery sessions was 'Don't Bring Me Down'. However, this boasted an atypical approach to both the conception and execution.

"It's a great big galloping ball of distortion,” Jeff Lynne remarked about the number in 2001, at the time of Discovery being remastered. "I wrote it at the last minute 'cos I felt there weren't enough loud ones on the album. This was just what I was after.”

"I once read an interview with Jeff in a music magazine where he described how 'Don't Bring Me Down' came about, and it was quite interesting, because his recollection was the complete opposite of mine,” Mack now says. "He was trying to figure out what to do next and I said, 'Jeff, let's just do something fun. Let's do away with the strings, let's do away with the choirs and let's just boogie out for a night.' He said, 'Yeah, okay, maybe you're right. Bev, do you want to play something?' Bev said, 'Nah, I don't want to jam around for no reason,' so I then figured I'd make a tape loop of two bars of drums.”

This was extracted from another of the album's tracks, 'On The Run', slowed down and then sped up slightly, as per Lynne's request.

"Jeff asked me, 'What next?'” Mack continues, "so I said, 'Well, I guess you'll have to go out there and count the bars to provide us with some kind of structure.' That's what he did, and then once again he asked me, 'What next?' At that point, I could tell he liked the idea of experimenting and was following my lead. 'Let's put down some piano,' I suggested. 'Twelve-bar blues.' There were two grand piano parts playing the same thing, then three, after which I suggested the obvious: bass and guitar.

"Gradually, Jeff started getting into it, and, as there was a plan for ELO to start a concert tour in Australia, the song was originally titled 'Don't Bring Me Down, Bruce'. This was meant to be a joke, referring to how many Australian guys are called Bruce, but we couldn't leave it like that, so eventually we replaced it with 'Gruss', based on the Bavarian greeting Grüß Gott — 'greet God'. Gruss, not Bruce, is what you hear in the song immediately following the title line. A bit like Freddie Mercury joking around at the end of Queen's [1985 single] 'One Vision', singing 'fried chicken'.

"Still, according to Jeff, he came into the studio with the idea of doing something different, putting together the tape loop and then adding the various elements. That fits his personality; it's always him who conceives everything, sings everything, produces everything and so forth.”

Certainly, it was Lynne who overdubbed all of the guitars on 'Don't Bring Me Down', including an Ovation acoustic 12-string and a Gibson Les Paul Goldtop running through a Marshall amp.

"I had three or four microphones set up in the studio at various distances — very close, medium, far, very far — and, depending on the song, used them in combination to get the required sound,” Mack says.

No Run-throughs

Once Lynne had figured out the precise structure of 'Don't Bring Me Down', he then added the vocals. As usual, this marked the first time that anyone — including his engineer and fellow musicians — actually heard the lyrics and vocal melody.

"That was the big problem,” Mack reiterates. "We never had a clue what was going on or where things would be going. When everything was overdubbed to the hilt and the tracks were completely full, then Jeff would say, 'OK, I'll have a shot at it,' and start singing. That's just the way he worked. There weren't any guide vocals. In fact, the backing vocals would almost always be recorded before the lead vocal, which was the last thing to go on. On 'Don't Bring Me Down', Jeff and Kelly did the backing vocals around the same mic.”

It wasn't the easiest way to work, considering that there wasn't even a guide vocal to sing backing to.

"It was all inside Jeff's head,” Mack asserts. "He'd tackle the backing line by line, saying, 'This goes here,' and 'Let's put a harmony on that'. Then I might say, 'Can you do a descending high harmony?' and he might say, 'Oh yeah, that's a pretty good idea! Let's try it.' Either it would be retained or he'd come up with something completely different, and the whole would evolve out of whatever he had in his mind.

"When I first worked with Jeff, he sang into a U87 because he was used to that, and then I used an AKG 414, while always employing a little slap delay. I really like that microphone and I've used it on a lot of people, such as Freddie Mercury. It just has something special, whereas the Neumann had a honk in it that I didn't like.

"Recording Jeff's singing was very easy but he made it hard for himself. He'd sing something that would sound good, and then he'd want to redo it in a completely different fashion. Sometimes he'd be in his hotel room and come back the next day and say, 'Wipe everything for each chorus, I'm going to redo it.' That was a task in itself — trying to drop in and drop out at the right points — because there was always something overlapping. But that was his style and probably still is today.

"Often, I couldn't figure out his train of thought, and there wouldn't be any run-throughs. He'd just go for the real deal.

"As it happens, he completed his vocal for 'Don't Bring Me Down' very quickly. The whole track was done that way and that's probably why it is so great. It reflects fun, and although at the start it was a little tedious to get it going, once it did get going it was just like boogie night. It was done bang-bang-bang, really, really quick, and that includes the mix. It was taken as a monitor mix, putting two compressors for left and right, and it was pretty much done in a day. That's because it's a very simple, straightforward track, especially compared to the complexity that Jeff usually went for, and clearly people liked it.”    

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