John Leckie on Recording with The Stone Roses and Radiohead

Photo by Mike Prior

"One of the things that attracted me to working at Abbey Road was the gear that was in the studio. At the time, I thought, 'I'm never going to be in a spaceship going to the moon, but at least I can work in a recording studio!'"

John Leckie is talking about the start of his career, one that would ultimately lead to him producing some of the most important albums of the last four decades, including Radiohead's The Bends and The Stone Roses’ self–titled debut. These are two of the most significant rock records from the end of the 20th century.

Leckie has been on sessions for various Beatle solo projects and has produced the best bands of Britpop. He has lent his touch to everyone from stadium fillers like Muse to American icons like Los Lobos and Dr John.

One of Leckie's first jobs was as the tape op on the George Harrison album All Things Must Pass, when he soaked up the process of studio work. "It was a little bit scary. I think when you've been in any job only a couple of months, you'd be a little nervous. And there I was in the room with George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Phil Spector."

It was a 24–hour, seven–day–a–week job. That's what you do. And even now when I'm producing, that's what I expect everyone else to be — as devoted as that. There's no time for other things when you are just focussing on the music and recording."

Leckie also worked with the Plastic Ono Band and quickly learned the ropes of recording gear.

"It was a 24–hour, seven–day–a–week job. That's what you do," he says. "And even now when I'm producing, that's what I expect everyone else to be — as devoted as that. There's no time for other things when you are just focussing on the music and recording."

It was Leckie's quick learning speed that landed him his first role as an engineer with none other than Pink Floyd. "They came in in 1971 to do the recording for the album Meddle. At the time, Abbey Road was 8–track, so when they filled up all eight tracks, we went to Air Studios to use their 16 tracks."

Luckily, Leckie knew how to operate the 16–track equipment, so was left to record overdubs and vocals for the album. Soon after, he was engineering another ex–Beatle, Paul McCartney. They worked together on the single "High High High" and tracks from the Wings album, Red Rose Speedway.


In 1974, he mixed Axe Victim, the debut album by influential band Be Bop Deluxe. He made such a great impression on the band that he was invited to produce its next album, Sunburst Finish. It would be his first as producer.

Since then, Leckie has produced early and iconic records by new wave bands including Simple Minds, The Human League, and XTC. The three Simple Minds albums he produced — Life In A Day, Reel To Reel Cacophony, and Empires & Dance — are now seen as the more experimental and ground–breaking recordings by a band that would go on to be known for more of a stadium rock sound.

"They eventually realised how good those records were, and there is a pride about them," Leckie notes. "Simple Minds even toured a few years ago playing songs from them."

Yet it was The Stone Roses debut album that arguably made the biggest impact for both producer and band. Leckie recorded "I Wanna Be Adored" and "She Bangs The Drum" at Battery Studios in London under less than ideal conditions and completed the album at Rockfield Studios.

"The whole record — including the mixing — took 54 days, which might sound like a long time, but most 12–track albums take between 50 and 60 days of solid work, so it wasn't a lengthy process. We got the job done, and they were great. They didn't know what they wanted in terms of the sound, but they knew what they didn't want."

The Stone Roses - "I Wanna Be Adored"

Leckie would quickly become an in–demand producer for many of the guitar–heavy bands of the time, including some of the most high–profile Britpop acts like Suede, Kula Shaker, and The Verve.

Of the latter, he says, "They were one of the few bands I actually begged and chased to do their record. I saw them play at a pub in Camden. One song, stream of consciousness lyrics, loud and quiet parts for 30 or 40 minutes! They were jamming, improvising, totally uncommercial but totally commercial as well."

And then there was Radiohead's The Bends, which ended up being a huge project.

"I recorded about 34 songs, which was the album and all the B–sides. The band were very good at recognizing events in the music. It wasn't so much about the sound or what was going on, it was about the interaction of the instruments and the music — capturing the vibe."

The album was a slow burner but eventually shifted over a million units each in the UK and US. "It didn't surprise me that it eventually did so well. I knew the record was good."

In the 2000s, Leckie produced three notable US artists: My Morning Jacket, Los Lobos, and Dr John. "To me, they are the three American heritage acts, and I'm pleased and delighted to have worked with them." More recently, he has completed albums for The Coral and Bellowhead.

A Great Guitar Sound

Leckie has worked with some of the best guitarists to get some of the great guitar sounds. He would agree that the player is the most important part, but then comes the instrument...

"You need a Fender or a Gibson," says Leckie. "I know it sounds really awful, but you really need a vintage one. Some people might say a new Fender, but I say you get what you pay for. One thing is, you won't get a great guitar sound out of a shit guitar.

"Then you need a good amp: a Vox AC30, Fender Twin, or Marshall. They all have different sounds. They're all good, depending on your style and what you're playing."

You need a Fender or a Gibson. I know it sounds really awful, but you really need a vintage one. One thing is, you won't get a great guitar sound out of a shit guitar."

"You don't need lots of pedals," he continues. "You shouldn't really need overdrive, maybe just a delay. For a straightforward guitar sound, know whether you are a Fender or Gibson man, a Tele or a Strat or an SG or what your style is. And be in tune. A good guitar will be in tune and stay in tune."

As for micing the cab, Leckie mics close up and goes for a mix of cheap and expensive classic mics.

"I use a normal Shure 57 or 58. I prefer a 58, as the 57 has more top in it. Put it up close to the grill and slightly off centre to the cone. And I also preferably use a Neumann U67 (which is a valve version of an 87) again, right up close. Even if it's a deafeningly loud Marshall amp, you should be able to put a 58 and a 67 right up close to the speaker.

"Then record it flat. If I have to EQ it, there must be something wrong, so I'd need to change the sound of the amp. Very often, guitar amps usually work better flat with all the controls up at say 5, 5, 5. If you start fiddling around with graphics and those on the pedals, it's not such a good thing."

And for vocals, again, it's a mix of more expensive and cheap.

"I sometimes go with a Neumann U47 or a FET 47, but I'm happy to use a Shure SM 57 or 58. Quite often, a 57 can be a salvation, as you can have a very dense track with guitars and keyboards and you come to put the vocal on and with a 47 or 87, it can be civil and too big. But as soon as you use a 57, it can fit into the track dead easily."

Leckie is a huge fan of the UA plugins that emulate all of the equipment he has used over the years. He particularly likes those that emulate the Neve 1073, Pultec EQ, and 1176 compressor. But if the actual vintage equipment is in the studio, he'll use it, without doubt.

"I just did 12 songs in five days with The Levellers at Abbey Road. We had three singers, each one with a valve Neumann U47 worth about $8,000 and a Fairchild on the end of it. So you had three singers miced up with 15 to 20,000 dollars worth of vintage gear on every voice! Where else could you do that but Abbey Road?"

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