Although he started out as a rock-and-roll performer, finding success with a string of hits in South Africa, Mickie Most made his mark in music as one of the most successful British producers of the 1960s and 1970s. He discovered and was the first producer for the Animals and Herman’s Hermits, and he also produced for Donovan and the Yardbirds, helping to create hits on both sides of the Atlantic. He focused more on singles than albums, especially at RAK records, which he founded in 1969. After retiring from active record production when the punk movement swept England in the late 1970s, he has stayed active with song publishing and talent scouting. The value of his legacy has been debated, lauded by some for the landmark music he produced and reviled by others for the commercial nature of his work.
Born Michael Hayes, Most knew early on that he wanted to make a career in show business after he lasted less than a day at a factory job. He changed his last name when he joined up with Alex Wharton to form the Most Brothers, a late 1950s act that got a recording contract but didn’t generate any commercial success. Most’s life took a turn when he fell in love with a South African girl whose family returned to their home country. Her parents made clear that if Most was serious about her, he would have to follow them. He did so, and spent four years in South Africa performing with Mickie Most and the Playboys, recording several songs that were hits there.
Once married, he and his wife returned to England, where he again took up performing. But he had spent his studio time in South Africa learning the ropes of record production, and he watched for the chance to get into that end of the music business. His opportunity came in 1963 when he spotted the Animals playing at the Club-A-Gogo in Newcastle. He made them a unique offer: he would pay them royalties if they let him produce their records. For that arrangement to pay off for either of them, he needed to make a deal with a record company, which he was able to do, thanks to his connections in the industry.
The big breakthrough for the Animals and Most came out of 15 minutes in the studio and plenty of perseverance on Most’s part. “House of the Rising Sun” had long been a part of the band’s stage repertoire before they committed it to tape in 1964. But clocking in at over four minutes, the song defied conventional wisdom about hit singles, which had a standard length of three minutes at the time. Most persisted, though, and the label relented. The song went to number one on both sides of the Atlantic and became the band’s signature tune.
Despite the song’s success, later singles showed that the Animals’ rhythm and blues sound didn’t necessarily translate into pop success. Most turned to a solution that would become one of the keys to his hit making: tirelessly searching the song writing factories for potential hits. He told Richarrd Buskin in the book Inside Tracks, “I used to spend every other week in New York or Los Angeles, scouring around places such as the Brill Building for material.” For the Animals, he brought back such songs as “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “It’s My Life.” For the first time, but not the last, Most found himself in the position of having produced hits in both England and the United States with songs that the performers disliked. Even as these songs made their way up the charts, Eric Burdon of the Animals decried them in public as being too pop, and the Animals split with Most when their contract expired in 1965.
By this time Most had found other acts who were more willing to perform the songs that he had been snatching up from songwriters in the States. He had signed a new group, the Nashville Teens, who had a huge hit in 1964 in the United States and the United Kingdom with “Tobacco Road,” but they never rose to such heights again. Most’s other new discovery at the time, Herman’s Hermits, had more staying power. Unlike his discovery of the Animals, this time Most had the songs first and then looked for the act that would make the right vehicle for them.
For The Record…
Born Michael Hayes on June 20, 1938, in Alder-shot, Hampshire, England.
Changed his name while playing in the Most Brothers, late 1950s; moved to South Africa, 1959; had eleven number one hits in South Africa with Mickie Most and His Playboys, 1959-63; returned to England and signed production deal with the Animals, 1964; produced the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” and the Nashville Teens’ “Tobacco Road,” both of which went to number one on the charts in the U. S. and U. K., 1964; produced first Herman’s Hermits work, 1964; began producing Donovan, 1966; formed RAK records, 1969; started producing Hot Chocolate, 1975; sold RAK label but kept ownership of music publishing, 1983.
Most purchased the rights to a Carole King and Gerry Goffin song, “I’m Into Something Good,” and started looking for a youthful band to perform the song. He saw a picture of Herman’s Hermits lead man Peter Noone, and went to watch them. He liked what he saw in Noone, but before agreeing to produce the band, he requested that two members of the group be changed. Noone complied, and Most produced “I’m Into Something Good” for them, starting a string of hits in both the United States and the United Kingdom. When the demands of a song proved too much for the Hermits’ musicianship, Most would bring in session players such as guitarist Jimmy Page and bassist John Paul Jones, who would later play together in Led Zeppelin.
With his reputation as a hit-maker established, Most began to expand his stable of talent, taking over production duties for some acts who had already established themselves. One such group, the Yard-birds, became known for starting a trio of innovative and influential guitarists—Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Page—on the road to stardom. Most produced the band through the period that saw Page briefly in the line-up with Beck before the latter moved on to his solo career. While Most recorded songs that showed off the inventiveness and skills of the Yardbirds’ guitarists, he usually consigned those songs to the B-sides of the singles, putting more generally accessible tunes on the A-sides.
He did the same for Beck after he became a solo act, and although Beck scored some hits in Britain under Most’s production, some of the B-sides contained material that became part of rock and roll legend, such as “Beck’s Bolero,” which featured Beck, Page, and Jones playing with the 1960s most prominent session pianist, Nicky Hopkins, and Who drummer Keith Moon. But when Beck formed the Jeff Beck Group, with Rod Stewart and future Rolling Stone Ron Wood, no American label showed interest in releasing their debut album, Truth, until a member of Most’s staff sent a review of one of the band’s shows to Epic.
Although Most tried to pick the most accessible songs for his artists to release as singles, his approach wasn’t formulaic. His work with Donovan revealed Most’s flexibility. When the two joined forces, Donovan’s reputation had taken a beating. Having started out in the folk-rock mode as a more gentle version of Bob Dylan, he had reached a lull in his career. In the studio with Most, he proceeded to turn out a string of folksy yet psychedelic hits, most notably “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow” in 1966. Their collaboration would continue to be lucrative throughout the rest of the 1960s. At the same time, Most kept active in the pop mainstream, also producing for Lulu, who had several hits in the United Kingdom in the late 1960s.
By now Most had earned widespread recognition for his talents. In 1969, critic Nik Cohn wrote in his book Rock from the Beginning,. “In the whole of pop, he’s the only man I can think of who has unnatural powers, who really knows what will hit and what won’t. He rarely misses.” Most decided to make the most of his powers by starting his own record label, RAK records, in 1969. He also knew what market he wanted to corner. He told Buskin, “I decided that, as all of the major companies were now leaning towards dumping singles and signing artists with the album concept in mind, I would take care of the singles market myself.” While few of the acts that he signed to RAK made it big in the United States, he claimed that the first 27 records released by the label made it at least into the top 50 in Britain.
RAK developed a reputation for producing bubblegum pop, most notably written and produced by Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, who had been Most’s rivals for the catchy pop market in Britain. However, Most himself produced the band that had the largest commercial success for RAK: Hot Chocolate. Their singles “Emma” in 1974 and “You Sexy Thing” in 1975 became international hits, and the latter experienced a resurgence in 1997 when it appeared on the soundtrack of the movie The Full Monty. Throughout the 1970s, Most remained an active figure in the British music industry, appearing as a regular panelist on the British talent-scouting television show New Faces.
In the late 1970s, though, the music environment in Britain underwent a significant change with the rise of punk. The entire punk culture stood in rebellion against the kind of music that Most had produced. Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, the first big punk band, took on Most in an interview for Melody Maker, as recounted in Nicholas Schaffner’s The British Invasion: “I don’t believe in love, and I never will. It’s a myth brought on by Micky [sic] Most & Co. to sell records.” Most evidently had a similar distaste for the music that Rotten and company made, and in 1983 he sold RAK’s catalog to EMI and became much less active in the recording industry.
Though less active, he never left the recording business entirely. He continued to buy songs for RAK music publishing, remaining on the lookout for the tune that could break out and become the next big hit. He even went back behind the board a couple of times in the 1990s, but the public and press paid little notice to the acts that he produced. Still, 35 years after he first entered record production, Most remained certain of what makes pop music work. In 1999 he told Nigel Hunter of Billboard,. “Music is very important to young people because it’s their language and a good way of communicating.” He had an uncanny understanding of how to make records that successfully pulled off that communication on a large scale throughout the 1960s, making him an integral part of rock and roll history.
The Best ofMickie Most & His Playboys, Rock-n-Beat, 2000.
Animal Tracks (U. K. version), Columbia, 1965, reissued, EMI, 1999.
Complete Animals (contains all of Most’s work with the group), EMI, 1990.
Truth, Epic, 1968.
Beck-Ola, Epic, 1969.
Sunshine Superman, Epic, 1966, remastered and reissued, 1996.
Mellow Yellow, Epic, 1967.
Gift from a Flower to a Garden, Epic, 1967.
Hurdy Gurdy Man, Epic, 1968.
Barabajagal, Epic, 1969.
Introducing Herman’s Hermits, MGM, 1965.
Both Sides of Herman’s Hermits, MGM, 1966.
Blaze, MGM, 1967.
Their Greatest Hits, ABKCO, 1973.
Hot Chocolate, Big Tree, 1975.
Man to Man, Big Tree, 1976.
Every 1’s a Winner, Infinity, 1978, reissued, EMI, 1993.
Tobacco Road, London, 1964; reissued, Repertoire, 2000.
Little Games, Epic, 1967; reissued in expanded version, EMI, 1996.
Buskin, Richard, Inside Tracks, Avon, 1999.
Clarke, Donald, editor, The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Viking, 1989.
Cohn, Nik, Rock from the Beginning, Stein and Day, 1969.
Larkin, Colin, editor, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze, 1998.
Schaffner, Nicholas, The British Invasion: From the First Wave to the New Wave, McGraw-Hill, 1983.
Billboard, July 10, 1999, p. 31.
“Mickie Most,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 10, 2000).
“Mickie Most, Man of Many Millions,” Capetown Sunday Times, http://www.suntimes.co.za (April 10, 2000).