'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...
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.
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.”
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
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