Earlier this week, we lost one of the greatest rock producers of all time.
You’ve only got to look at the list of bands Martin Birch worked with to recognize his impact on rock n’ roll. He cut his teeth engineering for Fleetwood Mac and Wishbone Ash before moving on to producing such legends as Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Rainbow and Iron Maiden.
Today, in honor of the late, great production wizard, we’re taking a run through five classic Martin Birch-produced tracks and talking about what makes them so great.
Deep Purple – Burn (1973)
For many, the idea that Deep Purple could continue without Ian Gillan and Roger Glover was improbable. Burn not only silenced the doubters, it gave Purple one of their best records in the process. The title track is a bonafide monster, and showcases Birch at his engineering and mixing best. The raunch, yet clarity of Blackmore’s guitar, the precise attack of Paicey’s drums and the tight harmonies of Coverdale and Hughes; it’s rousing stuff.
Rainbow – Stargazer (1976)
Purple may have imploded in the mid-‘70s, but Birch was still on hand to produce the group’s myriad spin-off projects. Indeed, it’s testament to Birch’s shaping of the mighty Purple sound that Richie Blackmore and other Purple alum (more on them in a second) were so keen to tap the producer again. Stargazer from Rainbow rising was opulent, epic baroque-rock at its finest.
Whitesnake – Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City (1980 – Live)
As I’ve already mentioned, Martin Birch had a knack for getting a band’s live feel down in the studio. It’s perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that he was also a live album producer par excellance.
When it comes to Birch’s “in concert” work, Deep Purple’s Made in Japan and Iron Maiden’s Live After Death are routinely cited as the classics. I’m not going to dispute that – they’re two of my favorite albums of all time – but, I’d also cite Whitesnake’s Live in the Heart of the City as another gem.
Dave Coverdale’s boys were always better in their earlier, bluesy incarnation than the hair metal posterboys they became, and the version of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City that appears on Live… is living proof of that.
Blue Oyster Cult: Veteran of the Psychic Wars (1981)
Veteran of the Psychic Wars is a fascinating number. Coming from the soundtrack to the movie Heavy Metal, there’s nothing particularly metal about it – surprising given the myriad hard rock clients on Birch’s CV (as well as BOC’s panchant for dabbling in the almighty riff). It’s a classic, though; hypnotic, moody and instantly captivating.
As AV club put it:
“The drums are tribal. The synths hum like incantations. The guitar is minimal, applied with ritualistic precision.”
An ethereal gem from a band that dabbled with heaviness and soundscapes in equal measure, Veteran is also testament to Birch’s versatility behind the mixing desk.
Iron Maiden – Powerslave (1984)
Iron Maiden’s Egyptian epic is brought to life in all its opulent glory by Birch’s production. The relentless punch of Steve Harris’s bass, the thunder of Nicko McBrain’s drum kit (and one of my all-time favourite tom sounds on a rock record) and the sublime, layered Bruce Dickinson choir in the chorus – it’s a phenomenal capturing of a bombastic track.
RIP Martin Birch and thank you for the music.
Cal Jam doesn’t get the same love as festivals like Monterey Pop or Woodstock. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t have the late ‘60s countercultural cred, happening a full five years after the summer of love reached its peak. Maybe it’s because it was staged to be filmed for television (as part of ABC’s legendary “In Concert” series). Why do I love California Jam so much? It is because it established the record for the largest concert sound system ever assembled? Was it because it featured the first ever appearance of the Good Year blimp at a music festival?
Guitar lessons eventually followed. But, classical guitar didn’t grab me in the same way that my own freeform compositions had. Firstly, I didn’t know any of the songs I was supposed to be learning. Secondly, it required the kind of co-ordination and finger dexterity that I was – at that time at least – far too impatient to master. “I read somewhere that there are these things you can use to hit the strings so you don’t have to use your fingers. I think they began with a P,” I once told my guitar teacher. “The thing that begins with a P is called practice,” he replied. He was right, of course, but that didn’t mean I wanted to hear it.
This week, to satisfy my yearning for live music, I’ve taken a deep dive into my record collection and rediscovered some live favourites. Given how much joy I’ve got out of these records, I thought I’d share them with you today. Putting together this list, I’ve tried to take the road less travelled. I didn’t want to put together a list of classic live albums that everyone already knows like the back of their hand. Instead, my three picks serve as alternatives to some of those classic albums, offering a new look at some legendary bands.