Feb. 15 – A Drum Roll Please, For Hugh Padgham

Happy 63rd birthday to one of the most important people in ’80s music – Hugh Padgham. Granted, Padgham may not be a household name. But if you’re a musician, he is that and if you’re a fan of ’80s music, he should be. Padgham is one of the most successful record producers of all-time… a fact that probably came about because of Elton John.

Padgham always liked music. “When I was growing up, music was the only thing really that you could spend your money on…everyone was obsessed with it,” he told Chaz Lipp a couple of years back. But liking music doesn’t necessarily mean making music and might not have for the young Brit had one of the records he bought as a teen not been Elton’s Tumbleweed Connection. It was that 1971 LP which blew Hugh away and made him want a career in music.He got what he wanted, winning four Grammys and producing some of the biggest records of our lifetimes in the process.

After hearing the Elton record that changed his direction, he got a job in London as a tape operator before he was 20. In 1974, he was in the studio for a Yes album. He got good at it, became a record engineer, and eventually segued into a producer.

He was the engineer on several of the first new wave albums that caught the ear of large numbers of people and avant garde stations like CFNY Toronto and KROQ LA, such as Peter Gabriel’s third solo (“Games Without Frontiers”) and XTC’s Drums and Wires (“Making Plans For Nigel”). These were important records, and important connections he’d be making.

Having a desire to expand his responsibilities to producer, Phil Collins (whom he’d met through Gabriel) and XTC came calling. Proof of what I often say, that boundaries between genres are a bit too arbitrary.

One of the first times he got to produce a record was XTC’s 1982 masterpiece, English Settlement. For that record, the band and Hugh, bunkered down in an old house which also doubled as a recording studio. Andy Partridge of the band had grown tired of , and possibly paranoid about, touring and wanted a record of more lush-sounding songs as opposed to songs designed to be played live which he’d concentrated on before. Finding someone in the studio to complete the sonic vision was a challenge, but Padgham delivered.

Colin Moulding recalls the recording sessions. “Camaraderie…Hugh played a part in this. He was in tune with the band, an easy person to work with and never tried to dictate a sound like some producers can.” Of course, having a band which got along together and already had an idea of what they wanted helped.

Says Padgham, “They were a great bunch of guys. There was absolutely no ego at all. They had quite a clear idea of what they wanted and I just made sure that this could be translated as clearly as possible. “ The resultant album was XTC’s best-received album to that point, giving us the memorable singles “Senses Working Overtime” and “No Thugs In Our House.”

Quite unlike the smooth sessions and ego-free rooms with XTC, Padgham had to play part-time referee as well as producer on what was perhaps his biggest success, The Police’s Synchronicity.

After working with them on 1981’s Ghost In the Machine, which had expanded the band’s range and sound considerably, he was called back to work with them at George Martin’s Montserrat studio.

By the time of Synchronicity, they were sick of each other,” he recalls. “Sting was writing most of the band’s material and he saw fit to define the musical direction and this attitude was less than warmly received by his colleagues.” Sting and drummer Stewart Copeland got into actual fist fights and Sting insisted that Copeland’s drum kit be set up in an entirely different room so he wouldn’t have to watch him. What’s more, “Sting… he’s a terrific musician, but his playing could be quite sloppy. This wasn’t helped by him bouncing up and down (when playing bass), and asking him to bounce a little less would only encourage him to do it more!”

Eventually Padgham and the label took the band to Quebec, Canada to finish and mix the album since Hugh really liked the SSL Console at Morin Heights and the nearby ski hills gave Sting and Copeland a diversion. The result of course, is history, being one of the biggest-selling albums of the decade. While it marked the end of the tumultuous time together of The Police, it didn’t end Sting’s association with Padgham. Despite having the producer tell him how to behave in the studio and argue with him, he obviously liked the final work created. He brought Hugh back in to work on his solo albums Ten Summoner’s Tales and The Soul Cages.

Padgham had great success with The Police and Sting, worked with classic rock icons like David Bowie and Paul McCartney (while he was a big Beatles fan, he described working with McCartney as one of his least favorite experiences of his career) as well as new wave acts like The Human League, Kate Bush, Julian Cope and The Fixx. However, he probably influenced the sound of our lifetimes with a bang – or a series of bangs.

While working on Peter Gabriel’s 1980 solo album, he met Phil Collins. Collins asked him to produce his first solo record the next year (Padgham also went on to produce several Genesis albums including the very commercially-successful self-titled one). The producer admired Collins drumming but found much of the sound of the day boring. “In the ’70s, people were making studios that were very, very dead and therefore there was little ambiance on the instruments.” He also noted that “If the rhythm section doesn’t sound any good, then the band won’t sound any good.”

The solution was to use a device called a Noise Gate to add resonance and reverb but then clip it off – eliminating the echo while adding layers of sound to the notes. The result was the booming, iconic drum solo on “In The Air Tonight”, a sound that became synonomous with Collins and the ’80s. “When he stopped playing, it sucked the big sound of the room into nothing,” he says.

Today the resonant drum sound is commonplace and can be produced digitally, but back then… wow. That technology can do so much today doesn’t always please the easy-going but opinionated producer. In 1996 he commented “I still don’t say music is any better now than it was 30 years ago when they were recording onto 8-track tape. The Beatles, their records still sound good.”

Yes they do, and so too do many of the albums he crafted. So thanks, birthday boy Hugh Padgham for that.

Padgham lives in London with his longtime girlfriend and their daughter.

3 thoughts on “Feb. 15 – A Drum Roll Please, For Hugh Padgham

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