During the height of glam rock in England, Tony Visconti produced some of the most important music of the 1970s. He discovered Tyrannosaurus Rex in the late 1960s, and collaborated with David Bowie on groundbreaking albums like Young Americans (1975) and Scary Monsters and Super Creeps (1980). Visconti, however, also transcended the glam scene, working with a wide variety of artists including Adam Ant, Debbie Gibson, and U2 in the 1980s and 1990s. "Visconti continues to exude a childlike enthusiasm for his craft," wrote Paul Verna in Billboard, "which has grown to encompass production, orchestration, arranging, songwriting, and performing on various instruments."
Although Visconti would become a noted producer on the British glam rock scene, he was born in Brooklyn, New York, on April 24, 1944. His father, Anthony Visconti, was a carpenter who played the accordion and harmonica, and his mother, Josephine Visconti, was a housewife. Visconti learned about music from his father, who sang Italian songs at home. At the age of six he started playing the ukulele, and several years later he also learned to play the guitar, studying under the noted classical guitarist Leon Block. Under Block, Visconti improved his skill as a guitarist and also learned to read music. Along with his classical training, he started listening to rock-n-rollers like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. Visconti also joined Ricardo and the Latineers before he was out of high school, adding South American rhythms to his ever-expanding musical knowledge.
Visconti worked in a number of New York City recording studios after high school and then formed a duo with his first wife, Siegrid. The couple found moderate success with the single "Long Hair," but a second song, "Up Here," did poorly. The future prospects for the duo were looking dim when Visconti received a call from his publisher at the Howard Richmond Organization. "He said, 'I love your demos, but I don't like your songs,'" Visconti told Verna. "I was very depressed, but the next minute he said, 'But I would like you to be the house record producer. I'm starting a label, and I think you're the guy to do it.'" Visconti had found his vocation. He even sneaked into recording sessions at Atlantic records, which was upstairs, and learned from the famous team of Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler.
Visconti moved to London to work at Essex Music, a Richmond affiliate, at the urging of producer Denny Cordell. Visconti made the rounds on the London club scene, and there he discovered his first artist, singer Marc Bolan. "I went into a club called U.F.O," he told Verna. "I finally went up to the front of the stage, and I looked at this beautiful little guy with this strange voice, and I thought, 'This guy is a star!'" Cordell gave Visconti a mere 400 pounds to record Bolan's band, Tyrannosaurus Rex, on the album My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair, But Now They're Content to Wear Stars. But the album became a critical and commercial success, and soon other underground acts were seeking out Visconti's skills in the production room.
Shortly after completing the album, Visconti met a little-known singer named David Bowie, who had previously recorded an album. "The day we met," he told Verna, "we hit it off as incredibly good friends. We spent the whole day together and discovered we had many common interests. ... We also liked many of the same underground bands, like the Mothers of Invention and the Velvet Underground." Beginning in 1969 with The Man Who Sold the World, Visconti produced a number of Bowie classics. Their first effort together, however, was not a commercial success, and the two would not reunite until the mid-1970s for Diamond Dogs and Young Americans. The height of their working relationship came in the mid-to-late 1970s with Low and Heroes, both recorded in 1977. "As for the Bowie/Eno (Brian Eno) collaborations," wrote Aidin Vaziri in MusicHound Rock, "Heroes is the highlight, incorporating some of Bowie's finest melodies into the atmospheric soundscapes."
Visconti and Bowie's work culminated in 1980 with Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, the last album they would collaborate on for over 20 years. Recalling his work with Bowie, Visconti told Ken Miller and Matthew Kelly in Tokion, "what's really good about it is that we didn't make every album together. We take periods of time off away from each other. ... This is very, very healthy."
Visconti also produced many other bands during the 1970s. He continued to work with T.Rex, producing the popular Electric Warrior, and helped craft albums for Badfinger, the Strawbs, Gentle Giant, Paul McCartney, Ralph McTell, and Thin Lizzy. Although Visconti would always be associated with the glam rock movement, he continued to expand into new areas in the 1980s, producing albums for the Boomtown Rats, Adam Ant, the Moody Blues, and U2. "I'm always keeping my antenna out to somebody who could use my ... years of experience," he told Verna. "If I find a young band or a young artist that's talented, that would be an equal turn-on for me."
Visconti re-united with Bowie in 1998 to record "Skylife" for The Rugrats Movie. Although both artists enjoyed renewing their working relationship, a full-blown collaboration would wait until Bowie's 2002 album Heathen. The album, interestingly, found Visconti and Bowie revisiting the styles they'd first explored in the 1970s, albeit with a difference. Whereas the music had once been pervaded by paranoia and a certain cool distance, the newer work exuded warmth and what Stephen Thomas Erlewine of All Music Guide called an "undercurrent of happiness." The success of the project led to a second collaboration on Reality in 2003. "Both records are testaments to the fact," wrote Erlewine, "that veteran rockers can make satisfyingly classicist records without resulting in nostalgia."
As if to come full circle in 2004, Visconti remixed many items in the Bowie catalog. "Visconti is a very generous spirit," Bowie told John Soeder in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "He allows me to make all kinds of goofy mistakes when I'm working. ... He's always the one to say, 'Yeah, it might be a mistake. But it works really well.'"
For the Record . . .
Born on April 24, 1944, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Anthony Ferdinand and Josephine Visconti; married Siegrid (a musician; divorced); married Mary Hopkin, 1971 (divorced, 1987); married May Pang, 1989; children: Jessica Morgan, Sebastian, Lara.
Formed duo with first wife, Siegrid, mid-1960s; hired as house producer for the Howard Richmond Organization, mid-1960s; worked as house record producer at Essex Music in London, 1967-69; worked as free-lance record producer in London, 1969-71; managed Good Earth Productions in London, 1972; directed Unique Records and Roar Music in London, 1988; continued to work as an independent producer, 1988–.
The Move, The Move, Regal Zonophone, 1968.
Tyrannosaurus Rex, My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair, But Now They're Content to Wear Stars, Reprise, 1968.
David Bowie, The Man Who Sold the World, RCA, 1970.
T.Rex, Electric Warrior, Reprise, 1971.
David Bowie, David Live, RCA, 1974.
David Bowie, Young Americans, RCA, 1975.
David Bowie, Heroes, RCA, 1977.
David Bowie, Low, RCA, 1977.
David Bowie, Lodger, RCA, 1979.
David Bowie, Scary Monsters and Super Freaks, RCA, 1980.
Adam Ant, Vive Le Rock, Epic, 1985.
U2, Wide Awake in America, Island, 1985.
Moody Blues, "Your Wildest Dreams," Polydor, 1986.
Moody Blues, Sur la Mer, Polygram, 1988.
Moody Blues, Keys of the Kingdom, Polygram, 1991.
David Bowie, Heathen, Columbia, 2002.
David Bowie Real, Columbia, 2003.
Graff, Gary, editor, MusicHound Rock, Visible Ink, 1996, p. 91.
Billboard, September 16, 1995, p. 43.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), January 2, 2004, p. 4.
Tokion, November, 2004.
"Tony Visconti," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com/ (December 16, 2004).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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