Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust
By Ken Scott and Bobby Owsinski

Alfred Music Publishing 2012, $24.99, ppxvii-414

All things considered, selling books in the current climate is never gonna be easy anyway, but things get really difficult when the book in question is the autobiography of somebody whose one and only claim to fame is his large contribution to the creation of a lot of music that's now history, a role he fulfilled working "from the other side of the glass" as a record producer and engineer. Things get even more difficult if we take into consideration the fact that this man's fame is "of the old kind", which means quite "selective", and reflected from the quality of the works he helped come to life, not the kind that goes hand-in-hand with being a media figure who combines high sales and "a colourful personality" (think: Kanye West and Jay-Z, right now; or, if we look back: Phil Spector).

While at the same time making a promise that his story will be thoroughly investigated (just have a look at the simple but elegant graphic design which chromatically highlights "A to Z"), the cover of Ken Scott's autobiography chooses Abbey Road - which here obviously stands for "EMI Studios", and so: "The Beatles" - and the world-famous, extremely influential album Ziggy Stardust, while adding the easy-to-recognize "lightning" straight off the cover of Bowie's Aladdin Sane - as its main selling points. It goes without saying that the book's release is tied to the release of the 40th Anniversary edition of the album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, the new releases - with new/old mastering on CD, vinyl, and DVD by the album's original producer and engineer: Ken Scott - inundating shops all over the world (ok, I exaggerate; let's say one can easily find the album all over the Web, and also in a few "selected shops").

And talking about Ziggy Stardust (the album), there's a funny thing that comes to mind: that while Tony Visconti is the first name to appear when the topic at hand is Bowie & his Producers, it's on those albums produced and engineered by Ken Scott that Bowie's career firmly stands (the same being true, say, of Supertramp's Crime Of The Century and Missing Persons' Spring Session M; readers fill find the whole list in a Discography appearing at the end of the book).

Ken Scott's career has been a long one - which in a way it's only logical, given the fact that his "fingerprint" is quite transparent, an "invisible" meticulousness being a strong feature of his work - and it's in a way surprising to notice the sheer variety of the music styles he was involved with (here I think a parallel can be drawn between Ken Scott and Chris Thomas); I still remember my surprise when I noticed the name Ken Scott - who at the time I strongly associated with artists such as David Bowie, Elton John, and Supertramp - appearing on the cover of albums by "New Wave" groups such as The Tubes, Devo, and Missing Persons.

"Well", I hear you say, "Who's gonna buy this book?". As a joke, my answer could be "Adults", given the fact of the print size being quite large: "No need to wear glasses, Sir!". The narration here makes use of two font sizes: a larger one for the main story, with (as it's customary for technical magazines such as Sound On Sound) a tiny one reserved for those technical details which appear inside boxes and that only a certain type of readers - this writer included - will regard as being of interest.

Those technical detail inside the boxes, the tale flows smoothly, with a nice balance of notes about past times, curious stuff, anecdotes, facts, tales about the act of creating music in the studio, some (minor) technical details, and a few "ex post" musings. In my opinion Ken Scott - here ably assisted by co-writer Bobby Owsinski - is not terribly interested in narrating a vision that's "king size" - or at least, not overtly so, since by the end of the book one can clearly detect his ideas about the way the music world has changed. I have to confess I would have liked to find a few more thoughts about the production side of the way music is made nowadays - the Pro Tools de facto standard, the sound of those plug-ins, the home dimension of creating music "in the box" - but there are a few thoughts here and there.

There's one important aspect of this book that is not to be forgotten, and which can be easily talked about by describing my reaction to a specific episode. Ken Scott was the sound engineer on my favourite album by Procol Harum, A Salty Dog (which I bought at the time of its original release). Since this is an album that's seldom mentioned and discussed, I have to confess that it was the first thing I looked for in the general index. Well, there's almost nothing of interest about it, the same being true of albums - by groups such as Happy The Man and Dixie Dregs - that I would have preferred to see discussed at length. It turns out Scott decided only to talk about stuff he remembers with a certain degree of certainty - and by having his recollections corroborated by means of independent sources being interrogated. (Here it's my impression that this is the consequence of seeing a book by Geoff Emerick about The Beatles published a few years ago, Here, There And Everywhere, carrying quite a few mistakes - hence, the pandemonium in the Beatles community.)

I have a feeling the only readers who will find the book not being entirely to their satisfaction will be those who have spent quite a long time reading Ken Scott's past interviews (they're not many, but I suspect they can be easily found on the Web) won't find here tons of revelations and new facts. The rest will have a lot of fun. Quite a few fine, also interesting, old photos appear.

Let's have a quick look at what's inside. There's a fine - also useful when talking about the history of the craft - narration about Ken Scott's apprenticeship period at EMI recording studios. There are excellent chapters about The Beatles, both as a group - just check the parts about the album The Beatles, aka The White Album - and as individual artists, with a few insights about John Lennon and George Harrison. After a fundamental chapter about the famous Trident Studios, it's with the appearance of David Bowie that the book really takes off (it has to be noticed that it's at this time that Ken Scott made the transition from engineer to producer). There are fine chapters about Elton John; more than a few jazz-rock albums by familiar names such as The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Billy Cobham, and Stanley Clarke are talked about. There are long chapters about the group Supertramp and their albums Crime Of The Century and Crisis? What Crisis? (fans of the group will have a lot to read), while for this writer it was the chapter about The Tubes that proved to be the funniest in the book. Another extended narration features US group of former Frank Zappa sidemen Missing Persons, whose members also offer more than a few new (to me, at least) details reminiscing about those times and those albums (it has to be noted that Ken Scott was also the group's manager).

From now on - it's 1982 - there's really not too much that's as good as what went before, when it comes to both the narrative and the main characters. A cycle goes to its conclusion, but we're quite lucky to have Mr. Scott himself tell of those times.

In closing, it's time for me to add a few personal observations. I'd like to stress the fact that in my opinion this is an important book, for two main reasons. First, because the lively first-hand recollections that appear in the book bring us back to a time when music was created collectively; which is a fact that was quite a common notion in those days but which for a long series of reasons - think: money - it's quite likely will be totally new to the majority of today's listeners, who are unaware that a process that gets interrupted - studios closing, microphones and desks getting rusty, the apprenticeship tradition being no more - can't be restarted at will.

And there's also another main aspect, which is common to all narratives that share this framework. This book talks about creation as a process, and music as a "thing" whose creation, though obviously "artistically driven", can be filed under "rational endeavor" - just think about the notion called "the intention behind the result". This is simple stuff that nowadays appears as being difficult due to the change for the worse in the critic profession and to present times which prize irrationality, hence Scott's work with David Bowie being reduced to articles bearing titles such as "Bowie the Chameleon". Bringing the music back to a more empirical plane won't be easy, but - given the fact that readers will find themselves quite familiar with at least a few albums featured in this book - here Ken Scott presents attentive listeners with a whole series of points of entry which will greatly help them achieve a change of perspective.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2012 | July 4, 2012