Producer Ken Scott on David Bowie

The famed engineer and producer of The Beatles, Supertramp and more talks about his time with David Bowie


In 2013, we welcomed producer Ken Scott to the RBMA lecture couch. Scott was a co-producer on four David Bowie albums and, after listening to “Life on Mars,” he discussed his first impressions of the superstar – and how they eventually changed.

Originally, you didn’t think this guy had what it takes.

No. [laughs] I first met David Bowie when he’d recorded “Space Oddity” as a single and it had done fairly well, so at that point the record company, Mercury, decided they wanted to do an album with him. I had recently moved to Trident Studios and they put me on some of the sessions with Tony Visconti. He was producing, I was engineering. And we did the album and, yeah, yeah, David was a nice guy, he was very pleasant, obviously had a certain amount of talent, but superstar? Nah. No way.

Then I got to work with him on The Man Who Sold the World. Once again, Tony was brought in to do some overdubs and mix. Once again, David was a nice guy, obviously a certain amount of talent, but never a superstar. The album didn’t do very well at all, so David took some time off and he started studying with a mime artist called Lindsay Kemp. And he came in again after that with a friend, obviously been writing, still had the music bug in him. Because I had worked with David before, I was put on the sessions with him. Now, that particular session is always going to be in my dreams, both as a nightmare and as a very pleasant experience. The nightmare comes from the fact... How many of you know what “hot pants” are? [laughs]

Hot pants, for those who don’t know, are very short tight shorts. The thing was that David’s friend was wearing the shortest, tightest hot pants any of us at the studio had ever seen, and he shouldn’t have been. [laughs] We were awaiting a wardrobe malfunction the entire session. Luckily it never happened. So that’s the nightmare side of the story.

The very pleasant side of it for me was, I’d reached the point that so many engineers reach where you’re doing a session, you’re sitting next to the producer, and you suddenly have an idea and you say, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great to have 15 roaring elephants doing the solo here?” And the producer says, “Hey guys, why don’t we try 15 roaring elephants doing the solo here?” “OK, if you think so.” And you try it, and if it works, the producer will always take credit. If it doesn’t work, it’s, “Oh, that was only Ken’s idea anyway. I didn’t think it work, but I had to sort of calm him down a little.”

David was in tears at the end of “Five Years.”

I had decided I wanted to make the change to have more of the artistic say and move into production. The pleasant dream experience. I happened to voice my feelings to David about wanting to move into production and David said, “Well, I’ve just signed a new management deal. They want to put me into the studio to record an album. I don’t know that I’m capable of doing it all on my own. Will you co-produce it with me?”

So here’s my mind taking over. Here’s a very nice guy who has a certain amount of talent, but I’m going to do my first production. I can make all the mistakes in the world because no one’s every going to hear this record because he’s never going to be a superstar. So, “Yeah, David, I’d love to do it. Of course.” Then a few weeks later David and his wife Angie come around to my house and we’re going through material for the album and suddenly the light bulb goes off: There is every possibility that a lot of people will hear every single mistake I make on the production of the album. That finished up being Hunky Dory. So, you can now all blame me for the mistakes on that.

David Bowie - Five Years

One of the things I found really fascinating about Bowie is that he would do one or two vocal takes per song, and that was it.

I co-produced four albums with David and I would say that 95% of the vocals that we did were first takes, from beginning to end. I would get the level, take the tape back, we’d go through, and that’s the vocal you hear. They’re not perfect, they’re sometimes slightly out of tune, sometimes slightly out of time, but they’re real. They are emotional from him. David was in tears at the end of “Five Years.” He’s screaming, he is feeling such emotion. It wouldn’t be allowed today. It would have to be auto-tuned. It would have to be moved around. But I think that’s one of the reasons that we’re still talking about these albums after all this time. They’re real, they’re human, and they reach you here [points to his gut] more than they do up here. [points to his head]

By Todd L. Burns on January 11, 2016

On a different note