With a CV including work with the Beatles, David Bowie, Jeff Beck and the Rolling Stones, he’s played an integral, if largely back-room role, in steering the course of pop music from its earliest beginnings.
Now in his sixties, this important figure in Abbey Road Studios’ history is taking part in the latest season of The Sound of Abbey Road Studios lectures. Alongside authors Kevin Ryan and Brian Kehew, Ken will be giving his insight into his work at the legendary studios. Visit the Abbey Road website to find out more details on the sessions and how to get tickets.
We quizzed Ken ahead of his appearance about what made the Beatles so much better than the rest…
What are your first musical memories?
Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly – they are my first pleasant musical memories. Before that it was singers like Eve Boswell and Mrs Mills. That was the type of music my parents listened to and I hated it.
How did you start recording music?
I got a tape recorder when I was young and recorded the radio. We’d record radio plays and take the tapes into English lessons and listen to them. I just enjoyed it so much. I saw a TV programme with a singer called Carol Deene who I completely had the hots for. They panned up the camera over the studio and I knew then that I had to get into that room. That very room turned out to be number two studio at Abbey Road.
After that I spent all my time working towards getting the gig. I wrote to as many places as I could find asking whether they needed a recording engineer. I wrote on the Friday, heard back from Abbey Road on the Tuesday, interviewed on Wednesday, got the job on Friday and started the following Monday. Within nine days my entire life had changed.
How long did you work at Abbey Road?
I started in 1964 and left in 1969. So I was still fairly young when I encountered the Beatles. I first saw them a few months after starting. I was walking along the corridor and coming towards me was George Martin and George Harrison. I was just like ‘my god’. I got promoted from the tape library to second engineer and the first session was side two of a Hard Day’s Night. As an engineer, the first session I did was a remake of Your Mother Should Know. All my firsts were with the Beatles.
I couldn’t conceive of a better way to learn what I was doing. Normally you start recording tests and you don’t get the chance to experiment. You just have to follow what you’re supposed to do. But the Beatles just wanted to experiment. It was the perfect education.
What made the Beatles stand out?
The amazing thing about them in retrospect was how they always tried to move forward. And always managed to take their audience with them. These days so many successful bands have to make their second LP the same as the first, they’re always imitating themselves whereas the Beatles changed with every single record.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when working with them?
The challenge was more set by myself, just learning what I was doing. I was wet behind the eyes. The first time I sat behind a board and pushed up the faders, I had no idea what I was doing. The Beatles were the perfect band to learn with, although every band you work with is a learning experience. You have to try and work out what works for them.
Have you a favourite production you worked on?
I always put it like they’re your kids. You love them all equally. I have good and bad feelings about every single one of them.
You’ve worked with a whole host of other artists – what have been your career highlights?
I love the majority of what I’ve done although I’ll find fault with it too. Working with David Bowie was amazing. I haven’t worked with another vocalist quite like him. I co-produced four albums with him and 95 percent of the vocals on those records were first takes. Each one was the performance. And that’s why it has lasted. It was real, unlike so much of today’s music which is just processed crap as far as I’m concerned.
Are there any producers/engineers out there at the minute who you find inspiring?
There are things I like and dislike about all of them. But the majority of it I can’t stand. I look at today like the time just before the Beatles. A time when so much of what was coming out was manufactured. The Beatles came along and changed everything. In the not too distant future, someone will come along and do this again.
It’s that processed thing. I think modern technology is amazing but the problem I have is the way we use it.
What have you learnt from the talks you didn’t know before?
It’s the whole history. Kevin and Brian came up with pictures of me which I didn’t know existed. For me it was very much a personal history of the studios. It’s such an incredible place. Every time I go back there, particularly at the top of the stairs in the studio, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. To hear those stories in the studio itself really brings it all to life.
Have you any advice for aspiring producers?
If you have any doubt whatsoever that this is what you have to do, then don’t bother. If you’re not prepared to give up everything then you should become a doctor or an attorney. You need to have that sort of passion for the work. And enjoy what you’re doing as the likelihood of making any money is slim to none. If you think you’re going to make any money or become famous then don’t even bother.