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Classic Tracks: Duran Duran 'The Reflex'

Producers: Duran Duran, Alex Sadkin, Ian Little • Engineers: Phil Thornalley, Pete Schwier By Richard Buskin
Published July 2004

Nick Rhodes, Simon Le Bon and John Taylor (left to right) at AIR Montserrat during the recording of Seven And The Ragged Tiger.Nick Rhodes, Simon Le Bon and John Taylor (left to right) at AIR Montserrat during the recording of Seven And The Ragged Tiger.Photo: © Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis

When Duran Duran began work on their third album in 1983, they were already one of the biggest bands in the world — and with eight months of studio time and half a million pounds spent, huge expectations surrounded Seven And The Ragged Tiger...

It was during a three-year stint at the Gallery Studio facility of Roxy Music lead guitarist Phil Manzanera in Chertsey, Surrey, that Ian Little got the call to work with Duran Duran. Having already engineered Manzanera's Primitive Guitars album and served as assistant producer on Roxy's Avalon, Little appeared to fit the bill when Britain's leading New Romantics were searching for a new producer to collaborate with them on their third album. After 1982's highly successful Rio, which had spawned hit singles 'Hungry Like The Wolf', 'Save A Prayer' and the catchy synth-rock title track, the Roxy-inspired, Birmingham-based quintet of Andy Taylor (guitar), John Taylor (bass), Roger Taylor (drums), Nick Rhodes (keyboards) and Simon Le Bon (vocals) opted to part ways with producer/engineer Colin Thurston before embarking on Seven And The Ragged Tiger.Those were the days: Ian Little as he appeared in the pages of Melody Maker at the turn of the '80s.Those were the days: Ian Little as he appeared in the pages of Melody Maker at the turn of the '80s.

Initially, Ian Little was asked to remix a track off Rio at Tony Visconti's Good Earth complex in London's Soho, and when he realised that no members of the band were even bothering to show up he was, as he now recalls, "really pissed off". The result was that he completed the mix in double-quick time, making it sound as rough-eged as he could, and departed the studio thinking that he'd never hear from Duran Duran ever again. Wrong... Over the course of the next week, each of the band members contacted him to say that their material had never sounded so exciting, and this in turn led to his co-production assignment on the ensuing album.

"They'd left me to mix that track alone because they wanted to see where I was at," Little explains. "They wanted to know what I would do given a free rein, and I suppose that was the right approach and my own reaction was also right — I did exactly what I wanted without any concern for what they might think. I mean, when I left the studio that evening I thought 'That's the end of that,' because to my mind the mix that I had done was like giving them the finger. It was so punky compared to how their music had sounded before — Colin Thurston's production was very musical, whereas I didn't approach things from that direction. My technique was much more rhythmic, much more percussive; a snare that cut your ears off, distortion on Andy's guitar, taking John's stereo chorused bass and wacking it into mono. I wasn't interested in pansy music, so I got sounds that I myself liked, and my attitude was also a little dismissive because I was so pissed off, proving that things can be a lot easier if you're true to yourself."

After co-producing the single 'Is There Something I Should Know?', which debuted atop the British charts (and would eventually be included on the CD release of Duran Duran's eponymous debut album), Ian Little and the band commenced sessions for Seven And The Ragged Tiger. Leaning more towards a synth-dance sound than their previous two records, this album would eventually achieve double platinum status while featuring another trio of hit singles: 'New Moon On Monday', 'Union Of The Snake' and transatlantic chart-topper 'The Reflex'.

Going South

Initial songwriting and demo sessions for Seven And The Ragged Tiger took place during a three-month spell in the South of France that began in March 1983, where everyone lived and worked in a three-storey chateau while a 24-track mobile studio rented from North London's RAK Studios was parked outside. With the band set up alongside a 14-channel mixer in a large, open room on the top floor with a pitched roof and bare floorboards, Ian Little sat behind the truck's API console and recorded the jam sessions to a 3M M79 two-inch tape machine running at 15ips, while monitoring on Tannoy Red speakers.CLASSIC TRACKS: 'The Reflex'

"The mobile came with a load of outboard gear, including Drawmer gates, AMS delays, Lexicon reverbs and an Eventide Harmonizer," he recalls. "When it came to the miking, I used Neumann U87s for Simon's lead vocals and Andy's BVs; an AKG 414 inside the bass drum and a Shure SM57 in front; an AKG C451 pencil mic on top of the snare and an SM57 underneath to capture the rattle; two flat black PZMs behind the kit as well as a pair stuck up on the ceiling, mainly for drum ambience; and SM57s on the guitar and bass amps — the guitar was DI'd and Andy's effects were like an insert on that line."

Roxy's Songwriting Methods

With feedback from Ian Little as to what parts of their jam sessions he considered worth developing, the band members wrote songs for the new album. And they did so while adhering to a deadline — as the project was geared towards a Christmas release, they knew that the longer they took to write the material, the less time they'd have to record it.

Ian Little with his present-day writing setup.Ian Little with his present-day writing setup.

"Nothing had been written in advance, so the biggest starting point they'd ever have would be another song," Little remarks. "For example, 'Union Of The Snake' was built and written on the bass drum pattern of David Bowie's 'Let's Dance'. Everyone loved that track, so Roger, Nick and I analysed it and realised that the bass drum pattern was quite unusual — although you think it's just a regular old two-bar loop, it actually doesn't repeat for eight bars. It's quite tricky. However, it's a great beat, so Roger started playing it, got it right, John joined in and came up with the bass riff, and then the song was pounded on top of it.

"I didn't know how the band members had written in the past, but I did introduce them to some of Roxy Music's songwriting methods. I mean, Bryan Ferry would often come up with a chord sequence and record 15 or 20 seconds of that sequence, put it on a cassette and number it. After a few weeks, he'd give a cassette to their producer Rhett Davies containing, say, 75 20-second sequences of just two or three chords, and Rhett would then say 'Well, we could merge number 32 with number 74 and make a song.' That taught me a way of optimising your output — whatever you come up with, keep it, look at it again and use it. And if you're able to combine some of those elements to make a song, all well and good. As soon as you've got a structure, you'll then write parts that blend those sections together and there will be a homogeneity to the entire song.

"The other method that both Phil Manzanera and Bryan Ferry employed in terms of their writing was to have me program a Linn Drum, put some delays on it and create a groove. Bryan would then vamp on the keyboard and produce what he called a 'moody synth' sound, which was like a pad sound with plenty of movement and character. That would enable him to get a lot of feeling out of a couple of chords, and Duran Duran did the same thing. They initially used a drum machine when composing 'Is There Something I Should Know?' before Roger took over, and we also had a Linn in the South of France. I don't recall using it that much, but once in a while, when ideas dried up and everyone was sitting around scratching their nuts, I'd create a groove and they would just bounce off it."

Head Honcho

After three months of using the RAK mobile, Little and the band moved to AIR Montserrat for a six-week-long round of recording sessions. And Alex Sadkin, who had previously taken over the mix of 'Is There Something I Should Know?' was brought in as the head production honcho on Seven And The Ragged Tiger. A protege of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, the American-born, London-based Sadkin produced and engineered recordings by Bob Marley, Grace Jones, Robert Palmer, Talking Heads, Joe Cocker, James Brown, the Thompson Twins, Foreigner and Simply Red. He would die in a car accident just four years later at the age of 35.

The writing sessions for Seven And The Ragged Tiger took place in a French chateau, and were recorded to a RAK mobile truck, as Ian Little's diagram shows.The writing sessions for Seven And The Ragged Tiger took place in a French chateau, and were recorded to a RAK mobile truck, as Ian Little's diagram shows."I'd helped the band write 'Is There Something I Should Know?' and so by time of the mix I didn't know it from Adam," Little admits. "It could have been a sausage. You lose any objectivity when you've been listening to something that long, and so it needed Alex to come in and get the thing mixed properly. When we'd recorded it, I hadn't overseen this young engineer who was really just a tape-op, and he'd recorded the drums without compression and with no consistency of level. That's why nobody was able to mix it — we did a mix at Good Earth, one at Eel Pie, one at the Gallery and one at the Power Station in New York with Bob Clearmountain, before Alex and Phil Thornalley finally did the job at RAK by replacing the drums with samples triggered out of AMS's. Well, can you imagine how much all that cost?

"EMI was really beginning to get nervous about me and the band co-producing the album, and to be honest I was a little bit out of my depth, so the decision was taken to use Alex. I was devastated. After all, can you imagine what that would have done to any career hopes I had? After producing one single, someone was brought in to mix it with me and then I was gone? I'd be dead in the water. I went to the band's management and said 'You can't do this to me. I'll be finished,' and they said 'We're sorry, but this is a big project and we can't risk it, so you're out.' Then I canvassed the band members and they all appeared to want me involved, but they weren't prepared to stand up to their managers or to EMI, so I went to Alex and he said 'From what I can see you're like a sixth member of this band. I won't do it without you.' He needn't have done that — from a financial standpoint he would have been better off if I wasn't involved, but that shows what kind of person he was; an absolute gentleman. But he also wasn't an idiot, and this signalled a recognition on his part that I was an integral part of Duran Duran's work process at that time. I didn't get writing credits and I don't believe I ever deserved writing credits, but I know I helped them to come up with the ideas during that time.

"Alex didn't lord it over me, and he never thwarted my creativity or my input one little bit, but I relied on him to make sure that everything was being done to the right technical standards. For instance, when we started work on 'The Reflex' and adopted the drum pattern from the demo, I knew the part much more intimately than Alex. I therefore told him what the groove was about, what I felt we needed to do with the bass drum, the snare and the hi-hat, and how I heard the groove working — when you're producing a drummer, you've got to relate to what he's doing with each of his limbs, because the groove's success depends on how he interweaves the various elements. So, I conveyed that to Alex, who was quick on the uptake, and he then took charge of getting the right sounds. Since I was more on the band's side of the fence, making all of them more aware of the rhythmic quality of their performances, he provided us with a perfectly balanced production approach."

Contrasting Abilities

While Ian Little loved every minute of his interaction with Alex Sadkin, he also enjoyed working with band members whose respective musical abilities stood in sharp contrast to one another. "Nick was a soulmate of mine, insofar as he could play something totally out of tune and like it just as I could," Little says. "If, for example, you listen to a lot of the synth parts on 'The Reflex', they're borderline in tune, yet they work. He was more concerned with the effect a part had on the track than whether or not it was perfectly in tune, and that has always been my approach. You can't have things that stick out like a sore thumb, but in the same way as a blue note is bent off what it should be, you can play notes that aren't traditionally meant to be there. And if they create a bit of tension and have the right effect, then so be it. I suppose what I'm saying is that Nick was not a classically trained pianist. His ability was in his taste. He knew what he wanted to hear and I think that's what it's all about. It's about having the vision and the ideas, and knowing when something does and doesn't work.Those were the days: Ian Little as he appeared in the pages of Melody Maker at the turn of the '80s.

"Andy, on the other hand, was the most traditional of the bunch. He had served his time touring air force bases as part of a rock & roll outfit, so as far as musical ability was concerned he could have played in any number of bands, whereas I don't think that was necessarily the case with the others. They needed each other, they needed the vehicle that Duran Duran presented them with. Roger was a very competent drummer, he could keep good time, and John was somewhere in between Andy and Roger. He could sometimes amaze in terms of the bass lines he'd come up with, but I don't think he'd ever stand up and say 'I'm a great technician.' He could do what he had to do.

"One of the things that intrigued me about all of them was that they didn't have an encyclopedic knowledge of rock & roll. They knew what they liked and they knew what was going on, but it was clear that their knowledge of music history had plenty of holes. My image is of Nick as the arty-farty one, Andy as the rock & roller, Roger as your down-home boy who had learned how to play the drums, John as the no-nonsense musician, and Simon as something of a misfit in that regard, with a less of a musical background."

The Days Before Auto-Tune

Indeed, while the band's rhythm section tracked various parts, Simon Le Bon would often sit around until a song's melodic structure took shape and he felt comfortable hearing a particular chord sequence. At that point, he would vocalise and contrive his own melody lines before later writing the lyrics.

"Out of the five of them, Simon was the least involved and the least active," Little confirms. "Although he was always chucking in his two pennies' worth while the others were playing, he'd tend to be ambling around the room. He'd 'la-di-da' and maybe have a few words or the odd line here and there, but he wasn't terribly keen on committing himself to his melody until he knew what lyrics he wanted to sing. If he could avoid tying it down, he would, and I think that was probably the best way for him to work. He wrote all the lyrics on his own, nobody else was involved, even though the others would tell him if they thought something was terrible.

"There are some vocalists — including Ferry and, at the most extreme, Bob Dylan — whose voices aren't very tuneful but have plenty of character, and Simon falls somewhere between the two. He doesn't have a very characterful voice although it's certainly recognisable as him. It's a bit nasal and a bit forced, but I admire the way in which he stuck at it. He had to really work hard to develop a style, and eventually people grew used to him — he knew what he could and couldn't do. He is not a naturally gifted singer, and as I'm sure he himself would admit, he doesn't have great pitch. It's not unusual for him to sing out of tune, so when I worked with him we would use quite a lot of effects on his voice; mainly Eventide Harmonizer with a very small percentage pitch-shift up or down or both, in addition to the normal step delays and reverbs and possibly even some chorus. Remember, these were the days before Auto-Tune. By making the pitch ambiguous, the Harmonizer helped disguise the fact that his singing was flat.

"A major issue for Simon was that if nothing on a track really defined his melodic line, he would struggle. For instance, with some of today's R&B material or even Prince's stuff from Sign O' The Times where there's very little to pitch against, Simon would be lost. He needed something like a pad to which he could link himself. I mean, I can't sing in tune to save my life, so the fact that he could pull himself close enough to be acceptable was pretty amazing. That's not an easy thing to do. I don't think he lacked objectivity in terms of his own output, and I don't think he would have been at all musical if he couldn't hear his own limitations, but one of the things about Simon as a person was that he didn't want to show any sort of vulnerability, so he'd never come into the control room after doing a take and say 'Wow, am I out of tune!' Instead he'd go 'Cool, how's that?' He'd always try to put a positive spin on it, and yet if you said 'Simon, go and do it again,' there was never a problem. He was realistic.

"We'd do three or four takes of his vocals and comp words, lines and half-lines. Still, listen to the way in which Nile Rodgers sampled and used Simon's 'Reflex' vocal when he did the mix for the single. Samplers were very, very new back then and we weren't using them, but for the intro on that single version Nile sampled Simon's singing and pitch-shifted it really low. I'd never heard a vocal pitch-shifted in such an overt way. What's more, we got some black session vocalists in from New York for 'The Reflex' — BJ Nelson and Michelle Cobbs — and I told them to sing like little girls: 'La-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la-la...' Well, Nile picked on that part and stuck it right at the front of the song. That was all part of the funky vibe."

Genius Of The Peas

In addition to tracking the drums, bass, rhythm guitars, key melodic guitars, synths and backing vocals for 'The Reflex' at AIR Montserrat, percussion was also provided by way of Nick Rhodes' keyboards and the ingenuity of one Raphael Dejesus. "Raphael was the genius," asserts Ian Little. "He had a rubber wrist, and he could do things with a film-canister shaker that you just wouldn't believe. He would take those little 35mm plastic film canisters and fill them to different levels with variable-sized dried peas and beans to produce a variety of sound and pitch, as well as different speeds of shaker, because the more peas there are inside, the quicker the recoil, and vice versa. This guy had it all down to a fine art. Depending on the beats-per-minute and how busy we wanted him to be, he would choose his weapon, and it was just magical. He would be in some sort of zen state when he was doing his thing and it was just like applying glue, covering up all the jerkiness and all the stiffness in the rhythm track. I've been an addict of shakers ever since, but I've never found anybody like him."

Reflex Response

Harbouring a desire to be taken more seriously in the clubs, Duran Duran liked the idea of being a more danceable band by the time of their third album rather than just a synth-based outfit. To this end, just as 'Union Of The Snake' kicked off with a 'Let's Dance' bass drum pattern, so 'The Reflex' lent itself to a much more rhythmic feel.

"If there was something really irreplaceable on the two-inch tapes that we had used in the South of France, we'd build up the tracks on there," Little states. "However, 'The Reflex' was started from scratch because it was a song that needed excellent technical quality with really sharp drum sounds and so on. That is, aside from the steel-drum part in the bridge section of 'The Reflex', a synth part that Nick found. He had a Jupiter 8 and I know we tried a Fairlight at one point, tooling through all these presets and not liking any of them. Neither of us could be bothered getting into editing, so we just left it. That's what he was like and I was quite happy to do that. What we would tend to do, rather than spend hours and hours editing a sound, was find a sound that we liked but that had something lacking. We'd then try to find another sound that would make up for the deficiency, before combining the two and layering things up.

"Some people learn how they can edit synths down to the nth degree and then they try to sculpt the sound that they want to perfection, but I never had the patience for that and Nick certainly never had the patience for anything like that. I remember spending hours with him, going through these sounds, until we found something, and there'd be unrestrained joy. It was just wonderful. We'd get all excited, jump around like kids and then figure out where we were going to use it. Or how we were going to use it. Well, whenever I hear that steel-drum part it always brings a smile to my face because it's so out of tune. Steel drums always are, but it was exactly right in terms of rhythm and tone. So a wood-block sound was mixed in to make it even more percussive and, Bob's your uncle, it did the job.

"One of the things that I did was get a pad synth sound, put it through a Drawmer gate on an external trigger, and then have the gate triggered off a percussive part like a side-stick which was already being played or programmed specifically to trigger the gate. Sequencers were still pretty new and cumbersome in those days, so this provided an alternative way of getting a pulsed synth sound, but the type of sound was also very, very different. If it's sequenced, each note is being triggered individually, whereas a pad that is held down for a sustained sound that is then gated and triggered is a totally different animal, because there's no attack at the front of each note other than that provided by the gate opening. The Drawmer was the first gate I used that had frequency selectivity, and that meant you could really isolate the part of the rhythm that you wanted to accent. What's more, the attack and release times on the gate could totally change the character of the pulse that you heard. This was something that I introduced to Nick and you can hear it both on 'Is There Something I Should Know?' and 'The Reflex'; more like an organic version of a sequenced line, being more rounded while boasting a certain degree of randomness."

Out Of Tune

Once Roger Taylor's drums and John Taylor's bass had both been recorded for 'The Reflex', it was time to track Andy Taylor's lead guitar. However, a few minutes into the first run-through Alex Sadkin and Ian Little looked at one another across AIR's console and stopped the take because the tuning was out. Andy quickly retuned his guitar and began playing from the top, only for the same thing to happen, and it was only after this routine was repeated several times that the true cause of the problem was discovered: the tape machine was varying its pitch as it ran through the reel.

"Anything that was in tune at the beginning was out of tune by the time we got to the end, and if Andy then tuned up at the end he would be out of tune when we returned to the beginning," Little explains. "We went on like this for a long while before we told the studio that their machine was knackered. Their technicians then tested the machine and insisted it was fine, before we eventually persuaded them to sit down and listen to it carefully with us, at which point they had to concede that, although their equipment illustrated it was consistent across the reel, this just wasn't the case. As the reel decreased in size on one side and increased on the other, the tension arms should have adjusted to keep the reel tight and to keep the playback speed consistent, but this wasn't happening, and eventually the studio had to fly someone out from MCI in Miami to fix it.

"It meant we had a torrid time trying to get the guts of that track down, and in a sense it relates to the in-joke about the steel drums: the girls' backing vocals were tuneless at the very best but they were quirky and they did the job — theirs was a rhythmic part — and the steel drums likewise. I often think the gestation period of the track was so full of these tuning issues, they just became part of it. There were tuning issues all the way through it. Even Simon's vocal, some of the harmonies that he did were very dubious, but it all seemed to come together in the end. Just as I think of a blues bend as being sideways, 'The Reflex' to me is a horizontal track. Still, I have to say that I personally don't give a toss about tuning if the character and atmosphere are right. The thing about Duran Duran is that they knew what they were doing, and they were all fantastic individuals and fantastic characters. The band was driven by that quirkiness, and I personally think that when they started to break up and work with other people is when they lost that magic."

A Faceful Of Garbage

After Pete Schwier had perfomed the engineering chores in Montserrat, Alex Sadkin wanted his RAK sidekick Phil Thornalley to fulfill that role during the final sessions at EMI 301 in Australia, where Simon Le Bon's vocals, Andy Hamilton's saxophone, and a few synth and guitar overdubs were to be recorded prior to the mix. Nevertheless, the cost-conscious record company initially balked at this suggestion. After all, £20,000 had been eaten up simply flying Sadkin, Little, the five band members and their two managers first-class one-way to Sydney, and EMI didn't want to spend £900 a day for Thornalley's services. Instead, a succession of three local engineers were hired to sit behind 301's Neve console, none of whom fit the bill.

"The first guy was useless, so we got rid of him within a couple of days," Little recalls. "However, the guy who replaced him would hear us talking, saying 'It would be good to hear that through an amp,' and instead of setting up a mic he would just sit there looking at us, scratching his balls. We'd then have to wait for three minutes while he tried to organise things. So, we got fed up and told him to get lost. Then the third guy came along and his habit was that he'd play the track through to the end and hit Stop, and when we'd discuss it and ask him to play it again he'd say 'Oh, I haven't rewound it.' We'd say 'Don't you think we're going to want to hear it again? Weigh up the odds!' This kept happening, so that same night Alex and I stayed behind in the studio, attached a cardboard box to the ceiling directly above where the guy sat, filled it with the smelliest, wettest, dirtiest rubbish we could find, and attached the closed lid to a piece of string that went across the ceiling and hung down in front of the sofa where Alex and I sat behind his chair. The next day we came in and we sat there, the bloke played the track and he stopped it, and we said 'Play it again.' Then, just as he said 'I've got to rewind...' I pulled the string and saw him look up and get a faceful of garbage. That was him out of the door. He was furious, but at least EMI agreed to get Phil Thornalley."

Taking It Seriously

After Seven And The Ragged Tiger, Ian Little went on to produce Belouis Some's debut album Some People — including the classic 'Imagination' — and Sparks' Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat, before in the late '80s family concerns kept him out of the music business for a number of years. Since his return to production last year he has joined forces with manager David Ravden of MGR and has been working with Jez Larder at Skyline Studios in Epsom, developing new bands and songwriters including Nathan Quist. Yet he still values the lessons learned from the Ragged Tiger sessions, and in particular, the example set by Alex Sadkin.

Ian Little today.Ian Little today.

"The reason a producer gets royalties is because he takes responsibility, and Alex was one of the people who taught me that during the course of the Ragged Tiger album," Little remarks. "He came to me and said 'Look, you and I are responsible for how this turns out. You've got to take this seriously.' For a while I hadn't done this. I'd been having a laugh, I had really enjoyed myself, but I hadn't taken it seriously in that repect. Alex, meanwhile, had the weight of the world on his shoulders, and I did eventually share that with him. The budget was half a million quid, and at the end EMI came to us and asked 'Is the record any good?' How did I know? I'd been listening to it for eight months."

Towards the end of the Seven And The Ragged Tiger sessions, the impending release date necessitated Ian Little working in one studio at EMI 301 in Sydney (see 'A Faceful Of Garbage' box, above) while Alex Sadkin toiled in another. Indeed, one record company deadline had already been passed by the time they got around to mixing at the same facility.

"In those days, EMI had to lock out the pressing plant for three days to create enough product for the stores by the scheduled release date, and it was therefore a big deal for them to make that booking. Well, we went through two deadlines, and by the time we were approaching the third one EMI said 'If you don't deliver on time, the record won't be released for Christmas, and that is not going to happen.' Having been quite flippant about the whole thing, Alex and I had sailed through the first two deadlines, but we now knew the third one was for real, so we actually flew back to London with the compiled masters and headed straight for the cutting room. It was a close call, but we made it..."