Thorne's standing within the Sex Pistols' saga cannot be understated. Mike
was the first EMI employee to seek out the Sex Pistols. It was on Mike's recommendation
that A&R man Nick Mobbs would eventually secure the band's signature to EMI.
Mike became the group's A&R man for their turbulent stay on the label.
release this year of the box set 'Sex Pistols' has made, demos produced by Mike
in December '76, available officially for the first time.
offers a fresh, honest and unique insider's perspective on a fascinating period
in rock history.
Interview conducted by
What was your music industry background prior to becoming involved with the Sex
I had been six months on EMI's payroll - that was my mainstream biz total experience.
But I had studied piano and flute, and also composition part-time at the Guildhall.
Got fired from my first recording studio job in 1971 under slightly lively circumstances.
Wound up writing about pop and contemporary classical music for the Guardian among
others, and edited Studio Sound, which became the world's leading professional
studio magazine on my watch. Then off to EMI.
my first record company, I didn't know how to behave. I tried the time-honored
method of hanging out at the Speakeasy and talking to publishers, exchanging gossip,
but the schmooze didn't suit (still doesn't). When the punk scene grew, I didn't
know any better than to jump in. It looked like real action. However, having studied
music and worked on sessions with Fleetwood Mac, Deep Purple and others had given
me a useful piece-meal practical education by the time I encountered the Pistols.
were to become instrumental in the Pistols signing to EMI. When did you first
become aware of the band?
picked up the phone when Malcolm called, then saw them at the 100 Club in Oxford
Street. Couldn't persuade anyone else from EMI to walk over from the Marquee where
their signing Giggles had just played. They weren't hot property then, despite
having featured on the cover of Melody Maker (I hadn't noticed since I never read
the comics nor listened to the radio, and was just pursuing my naïve musical
nose as ever). To many, it was probably just another of Mike's crazy projects,
and since the punk movement was quite esoteric at that time they weren't unjustified.
That said, after three months the company's swing in support of the group was
remember the first real meeting with the group, but it was probably after they
joined EMI and I was their designated A&R man. In my tiny office (I had a
nice corner one by the time of the Roxy album, although more thanks to a quick
move and a nod from the departing occupant than to status). Everything moved fast,
thanks to Malcolm's shrewd management and then the drunken Bill Grundy. I enjoyed
being around the group. They weren't hard to deal with, although John took a while
before relaxing his professionally cynical stance. Since we were all interested
in simply furthering the musical action, there was a common goal and we settled
comment in the new CD release notes that I did so well to get so much music out
of them on a demo Saturday afternoon is flattering. But I found them to be very
applied and hardworking if they felt with the program. Might be awful for credibility,
but there you go. I never really figured out what happened at A&M (I was buried
in the studio by then, producing five albums in 1977), but apart from occasional
edginess there was never any functional madness at EMI. They would quite happily
hang out in the main open A&R area, along with other similar characters. That
central A&R area became quite a pleasant drop-in social scene until the fall
(of high management, some might say).
only recently listened to the demos we did, for the first time in 15 years. They
do sound good, but the most striking thing is the energy in the playing. Everyone
was relaxed, and the three instrumentalists were loose and throwing in extras
that probably wouldn't have been part of the 'playing the notes' rule in the big
studio. John had a sore throat, and was as usual bickering with Glen, but despite
this his vocals still have force and character.
I correct in thinking the Pistols were your 1st production job? Following in the
footsteps of Dave Goodman, Chris Spedding, & Chris Thomas, must have been
intimidating, especially as Anarchy had already been released as a single. How
did it all come about?
Pistols' was not a production job. All I did was go in and record a few demos
for internal consumption and backing tracks in anticipation of future TV action.
I was exhibiting production skills, sure, but producer was not my role and it
wasn't my intention to usurp Chris Thomas (not that I ever could have). The Dave
Goodman demos were energetic but their sound was, I thought, not very palatable
to the record company crew, and I wanted to gather as much support for the music
as I could. Bear in mind that this music was very different from that of other
acts at EMI in 1976, and that punk would not become vaguely mainstream record
biz fashionable until 1977.
Chris was dithering about whether to continue working with them (that was how
I heard it from Nick Mobbs, my boss) I asked if I could be considered if Chris
passed. He didn't, so asking was the closest I got. I wasn't intimidated by the
prospect at all. But it would have been a challenge, which is all I ever ask from
the next task I tackle, those in 2002 included.
with the energy they produced in the studio, what did you find were the individual
band members particular strengths in terms of group dynamics?
difficult to comment on individuals within a working group. To work, a band needs
social glue elements as well as the music, and individuals will fill them as appropriate.
In the studio, often when you look back over a project with some good ideas, you
can't actually remember who proposed what, just that some inspiration arose out
of the encounter.
obvious comment is about John and Glen's differences, the subject of so much chatter
and enduring for John with remarkable bitchiness in his memoir. But they were
the two poles driving and defining the group, and it worked. They were the Sex
Pistols' Mick and Keef, their Roger and Pete. Creative tension can yield a lot,
although it can degenerate into shouts and fights.
of the recording of backing tracks for TV, which I take would be used for the
band to perform along to, leads me onto the commitment of EMI to push the group.
The recording session took place on 11th December in the wake of the Bill Grundy
interview. Did the Grundy incident lead to a noticeable shift in support within
EMI? If so, how did it manifest itself?
was a big shift in support on the shop floor within EMI, completely towards the
group. This august institution hadn't had as much fun in years, and it was exciting
even for the most reserved employees to be connected to something which was clearly
noteworthy and making big waves.
senior management, however, took a different approach. They were part of the establishment
which the group was baiting, and a connection with the Pistols would not help
progress towards a mention in the Honours List. Nick Mobbs had a meeting with
Sir John Read one evening, for which he dressed in a dark suit. The august Sir
John apparently asked a few bland questions and then it was over. Clearly, the
decision was pretty much made at that time a few days before Christmas.
the group was dropped, the workers were disgusted. What were we doing trying to
find and develop bright new and novel acts when one of the most promising in years
was kicked out by the bosses? Among others, both Nick and I considered resigning,
but we realized that it would accomplish nothing: they were gone, and the regime
would not change its attitude. So we came back with the live Roxy Club album just
five months later with which the toffs might have had some problem if they ever
listened. (I had to remove some curses because the quality control department
at the pressing plant refused to handle it otherwise.) But post-Pistols punk was
relatively inoffensive to the super-bosses because it wasn't targeting the establishment
with which they identified. No OBEs were at stake.
apprehension within the company, did you feel you were on some personal mission
to, as you said, make them more palatable to EMI? Did the demos you cut with them
help gather more support within the company?
was no apprehension within the company, just skepticism. When I delivered one
of several iterations of Anarchy to the weekly marketing meeting (where A&R
would present its new recordings), there was shocked silence from most present.
I said I would put my shirt on this one (not too attractive since it was an old,
smelly blue T-shirt which I'd had on all through the previous late-night session
recordings were intended to make the songs more accessible than Dave Goodman's
initial demo set, which captured energy but whose recording I thought fairly erratic.
I didn't want the recording to come between the company and the songs and for
it to be put off, so I recorded them in straightforward rock+roll fashion, the
approach of the eventual album and which (of course) suited the music. I don't
think the demos were circulated since I didn't mix them for a week after they
were recorded (on the 18th), by which time the holidays were starting. In any
case, we would only let a few select people listen to demos since (as now) many
couldn't make the mental leap from a demo to a final recording and would treat
everything as if finished and judge accordingly.
you recall why particular songs were chosen for recording during your session?
songs with vocals were candidates for the second single, to follow Anarchy In
The UK. The instrumentals were thrown down as potential backing tracks for TV
performances, where only the vocal would be live. The group had done this performance
mime already, but with the building anarchy a little mayhem might have been expected
in the studio when they were asked again to go through this artificial and stifling
TV production process.
Save The Queen/No Future is of particular interest as the recording you made catches
the song in its embryonic state. Were you already aware of the song? What are
you memories of its recording and the groups approach to it?
Save The Queen was tangled up with and as No Future at the time of these recordings.
Obviously, I already knew the song in this form, but it would be streamlined later
to its punchy final version. Although John was feeling his way with the lyrics,
I rather liked the 'God save Windolene' line and thought it appropriate ('Wipe
in on/Wipe it off/That's how to get your windows clean' was the fatuous contemporary
with all the songs, there was so much to get down that there was no discussion
about the music. This was how they played it then, and I wasn't interfering (I
didn't think it was my place at the time, anyway). Since there was no external
meddling, the energy in the session delivery was unusually high, translated straight
from their recent club performances.
you aware that four of your demos (No Feelings, No Future, Liar, & Problems),
had been broadcast on Italian radio in 1977, & as a result eventually turned
up on an unofficial CD The Italian Job?
hadn't given the tape a second thought after the Pistols were dropped by EMI.
That year (1977) I produced five full albums and a few singles as well as fulfilling
A&R duties for EMI, and was effectively buried in work. I can't resist buying
any Pistols CD that shows up, and have a fair collection of Sexpistolploitation
disks, but I never came across The Italian Job. Sounds like an Ealing comedy film,
The Lavender Hill Mob Part 2.
Future also appeared on a bootleg CD, Aggression Through Repression. Did you have
any idea that the demos had attained an almost mythical status amongst Pistols
the group called it quits in 1978, I didn't pay any attention to the legacy. It
had been a fun and stimulating time, and I was glad of the chance to grow and
develop in those extraordinary social and musical times, but new exciting things
lay elsewhere. The recording was nothing special, just all in a day's work. Engineers
Ron and Dave at the studio in Manchester Square didn't like me doing my own engineering,
since it compromised their overtime. But by engineering I could get very close
to the people I was working with, in a relaxed situation with no-one else around.
Later, such sessions would pay off when we were more easily able to speak the
same musical language. And it helped to demonstrate that the guy at the record
company knew where the on/off switch could be found on the big electrical recording
Ron and Dave never wanted to work Saturdays, so most of those afternoons I would
work with some prospect or, as with the Pistols, put down demos to help clear
ideas about the next master recordings. I always made sure to leave the studio
spic and span so that Ron and Dave would have nothing to grumble about. Come Monday
morning, you wouldn't have known anyone had been there, let alone the band with
the most destructive reputation in the solar system. It might have been the same
with a Wire or a Kate Bush, or anyone else with whom I was working in A&R.
the release of the Sex Pistols Box Set (Virgin) this year has made the recordings
available to the wider public and in pristine quality. In addition, three more
backing tracks from the session are tucked away as 'hidden' extras (Anarchy, God
Save the Queen and Pretty Vacant). No one knew about their existence. It was clearly
a productive afternoon. Are there any more we don't know about?
extras? I didn't know they were there. Should I be that ashamed of them? [Goes
fishing around the CDs.] Oh, I get it, at the end of each CD without a separate
index. Didn't think that rather easy-going version of Submission that ends disk
two merited over eight minutes, and took the disk off. The backing track of Anarchy
that follows maybe isn't the most musically conclusive way to finish disk one
after the whole of the finished album tracks - its pace and energy sound a bit
past sell-by date, although the sound is fierce and gritty. It was a long afternoon.
The other two are pretty sparky, though, vigorous enough to be masters.
I first heard the 'new' backing tracks, I felt not only that the power of the
tracks was amazing, but that they gave perhaps the most clear indication of what
Bollocks might have sounded like with Glen Matlock still on bass. Exciting, tight,
& importantly, inventive, something which was lost once he'd departed. Is
this a viewpoint you share?
Musically, I thought the group stopped developing when Glen left, and lost its
musical coherence. Sid played better in the shock/horror department but to be
effective you need more than that. With Sid on bass, the video looked great but
the musical strength failed. The most plastic MTV pop video still has to start
with a good tune.
did play on some of the Bollocks tracks, although I forget the background to his
being asked back. I get embarrassed for John when reading his self-consciously
strident comments about Glen's helping out in his book. Glen's book has a measured
and extended commentary on the events leading up to his departure (he wasn't fired,
that was just Malcolm's spin on Glen's resignation when John's pop star poses
got a bit too much to stand). Musically, the band could have gone on to develop
and keep innovating creatively, but that was a complete social non-starter. That
breakup was coming was pretty clear in December 1976.
you think the band itself would fall apart, or did you feel that Glen would be
the one to leave?
didn't really give it a second thought since I was absolutely at full stretch
dealing with the records I was producing, starting just after Christmas 1976.
In early January, while working seven-day weeks and 14-hour days at the Manor
studios, near Oxford, my boss Nick Mobbs phoned to say that they had been dropped.
I gave myself a few minutes of being pissed off, then did the professional thing
and went back to work. I was exhausted almost to the point of breakdown by the
end of that month, at the ripe old age of 29. If they had still been my A&R
responsibility at EMI, then obviously I would have been involved and concerned.
But they'd gone.
did of course court Glen during this period, with a view to signing him independently
of the Pistols, which is what happened with the Rich Kids. What was the inside
view on this?
courtship, if that's the right word, was only when it was confirmed that Glen
had left the Pistols. Since I had been the Pistols' point man at EMI, I was straight
to work with Glen. The nucleus of the Rich Kids was Glen, Steve New and Rusty
Egan, but Glen wanted a classic guitar band with two front men. He contacted Midge
Ure at the time, as the rather teeny-rock band that he fronted (Slik) was disbanding.
new group was cemented by a spring expedition the two of us made to a Rezillos
gig at a small town just outside Edinburgh. We connected with Midge there and
he drove us to Glasgow, his home at the time. By the following morning, the band
was in place and heading to EMI. I produced the first single with Midge taking
lead vocals on one side, Glen on the other, which was then reproduced by Mick
Ronson, whose pedigree was obviously significantly higher than mine. There was
some debate within the company about which was the stronger version. I never played
the two back to back, since I accepted the decision of the boss (for Ronson) and
just went on the next project.
interesting that you use the term 'a social non-starter' regarding their musical
development. Did you feel the Pistols were already embalmed by their cultural
worked with several initially raw bands, such as Soft Cell five years later in
1981, who found themselves suddenly and disconcertingly thrust into the limelight.
It's very difficult for anyone in that position to handle the wild ride and to
keep a level creative head. I've found it difficult enough in my own position,
at times. You're surrounded by people who say how great everything is, everyone
likes to hang out. You can easily lose perspective and you can start believing
your own press. The Pistols were even more exceptional and pressure-prone since
they (and the punk movement) were big daily news as well as hit recording artists.
Sends the head spinning.
happened at high speed. Somewhere back then, the generating music got lost in
a pile of self-reinforcing attitude. It's a version of complacency, and it stops
you developing. You just go through the motions and can't escape to gain a sense
of perspective. Embalmed is a good way of putting it, although they were worthy
cultural icons, I thought. And even though the group came on as institutional
bad boys, they got absorbed comfortably by the media as happens to all rebels.
I dimly remember the public transition of the rough early Beatles into the loveable
mop-tops. When the Pistols finally broke up, they seemed (from my distance) to
be verging on caricature, a form of which you can see in many 'punk' groups now.
Act tough, jump up and down a bit, turn up your lip. But you might as well smoke
pot, and wander round amiably mumbling, 'Love and peace, man' for all it matters.
was the extent of your involvement with the Anarchy Tour?
had no practical involvement with the Anarchy Tour. I was just the guy from EMI.
The company wanted a representative to be around to help and to observe as necessary,
and as their A&R man I was only too happy to oblige.
my biggest contribution was suggesting to the General Manager, Paul Watts, that
it would be an appreciated gesture if EMI treated the whole party to dinner at
our hotel in Leeds (after several canceled dates). He thought it an excellent
idea, even when the bill came in at over £300. It might have been even more
expensive had the occasional flying roll hit one of the Leeds city councilors
quietly dining across the room, near the ever-attentive press corps (who didn't
get their dinner paid for by EMI). The shock-horror possibilities were contained
by everyone's good mood, although some hack goofball had earlier talked Steve
into knocking over a plant pot downstairs for the cameras. It was a good night,
and a big relief from the stress of the non-tour so far.
are your abiding memories of the Tour?
was in Derby where the wheels really started to come off. I showed up at the gig,
which was deserted except for Dave Cork, the distraught tour manager who was by
then facing serious financial losses. The city councilors had proposed that the
Sex Pistols play privately for them so that they could judge the act for themselves.
That could have been one surreal and memorable scene, but the appropriate reaction
was 'piss off'. I'm sure Malcolm was very polite.
I went to the hotel just outside Derby where everyone was staying. I think it
was a Saturday. The group, Malcolm, Tom Nolan (EMI press) and I were jammed in
one tiny room with the phone going every few minutes and the press literally banging
on the door. Good money was offered for a story, but none changed hands as far
as I know. One tabloid scribe had a Sunday double-page spread reserved for his
story, and was getting really desperate. He probably made it all up when he couldn't
get anything real. Most of them did. It was a shock to me to see how venal, dishonest
and cynical many of these journalist characters were.
became very busy in 1977 with production work. Did you feel the Pistols had helped
shape your own perceptions of the type of musicians you wanted to work with?
The work with
the Pistols was an integral part of lessons many of us were learning in the mid-
to late-70s. In music, since the sixties and the raucous, revolutionary behavior,
there had been an almost imperceptible move (but inexorable) to 'experts', people
who could make a guitar rear up on its hind legs but, once the notes were spent,
were saying nothing. With my classical music education and wholehearted subscription
to sixties idealistic chaos, I was well-placed to deal with and see through the
empty experts. But they still got up my nose. So the change in musical values
to the importance of message rather than medium, embodied in the punk movement,
was enormously sympathetic. The Pistols were figureheads, and that was their major
made my own qualifications, however, for myself and of the scene. As in the sixties,
the baby often went out with the bathwater. Revolution is a messy business. As
a producer, I brought sympathetic expertise to raw musicians who might have expected
a raw deal from a previous regime. It got wearing justifying myself and trying
to demonstrate that my interest in production was to facilitate the agenda of
someone else's music which I admired. But I can't think of a quick test of an
'expert' which will show quickly and conclusively that expertise is sincerely
at the service of the music and message, rather than being used to further social,
political or career agendas.
afraid many producers don't see the long-term benefit of facilitating a novel
and radical point of view. There's a parallel with the wonderful English politeness
which is supposed to have come from the need to be socially considerate. As we
well know, in some circumstances it can be used as a weapon. So beware of experts
and polite people. But don't think they're all shits because just a few would
aspire to be cynical and manipulative.
I was established as a producer, my formula was very simple. I would work with
music that I liked with people that I liked. By coincidence, I prefer tough, up-front
music in any style, pop or classical or whatever. So there was the resonance.
projects most reflected this?
about all of them. I just looked for music that didn't compromise and that posed
a challenge to me to deliver on its own terms. Just about everything I've done
reflects this. When it got dull, I quit. Even though being a successful producer
is (ahem) glamorous and lucrative, after a while I found myself going round the
same block and teaching the same lessons. Getting bored. It became time to find
the trouble and disturbance that had I enjoyed in previous years, which I eventually
would enjoy in the new technologies for a time (and was more than I bargained
a crucial period for me towards the end of the eighties where I took on increasingly
challenging projects as the record business was moving more towards the 'marketing
specification' project, which would kill me with boredom. Eventually, no viable
projects seemed to reflect this ideal. I decided to quit hired-gun production
in 1993, finishing in June 1994 with delivery of a Marc Almond solo album which
I thought was among the strongest work we had done, separately or together (as
did Marc at the time). Then the whole lot was remixed/reworked in London and came
out to my ears sounding like limp Brit synthipop and tired old cabaret, not the
powerful guitar/techno concoction we had developed. There goes marketing and norms.
Could have used a bit of bollocks back then. QED.
you bring us up to-date with recent, current, & future projects?
from hired-gun production didn't mean stopping recording, and certainly not from
being active musically. I created an online presence during the .com optimism
wave which continues as www.stereosociety.com. Out of this emerged fresh ideas
for new and niche artists to be self-supporting with the newly-optional assistance
of the new technologies and the powerful home computer. At this point, no fresh
ideas can come from a new artist burdened with the marketing and promotion and
distribution concepts/precepts of the successful generation before. We need to
rethink. The business confuses support with money, since in the integrated system
of ten years ago more money would imply stronger support. No longer. More intelligent
use of resources is needed, with an acknowledgement that we must work on time-scales
longer than next quarter's financial results.
wrote an 18-page white paper on the issues involved, which I believe to be crucial
both to our evolving culture and a self-sufficient music business. It's in private
circulation at this point, but I'm almost ready to publish it on the site.
for music, I haven't stopped. Between now and next March I expect to deliver five
diverse new projects:
- my second CD, The Contessa's Party, dance-oriented
but with a depth of music development to wave the brain around as well as the
- Lene Lovich's new CD, which I am mixing and will help as necessary
- the new, definitive performing version of Charles Ives' Universe
Symphony, realized by Johnny Reinhard.
- a collection of ambitious club remixes
of Stereo Society music, among others'.
- an as-yet unconfirmed recording
of a special live event taking place in downtown New York just before Christmas.
enough. I'm exhausted. It flattens you even more to think also of all that energy
26 years ago, breaking out and breaking the rules.
makes punk, something that was supposed to be iconoclastic, survive to become
worshiped in its own right? Beats me.
on your career so far, which achievement are you the most proud of?
can't distinguish. About my recordings, people ask which is my favorite, and I
can't answer. I've had a really good run, and it hasn't stopped yet. I can only
point to my full body of work, as this integrated blob which is me, as a cumulative
contribution to various team efforts. I've learned a lot along the way.
had some really good laughs.
by Phil Singleton/Mike Thorne.
& Sex Pistols 'Bravo' poster © Mike Thorne:
Pistols (Virgin - SEXBOX1) contains Mike's demos from 11th December 1976:
No Feelings (instrumental); No Future; Liar; Problems; + instrumentals of Anarchy
In The UK; God Save the Queen; Pretty Vacant (the latter three are 'hidden' at
the end of discs 1,2 & 3).
Phil Singleton / www.sex-pistols.net
God Save The
Sex Pistols ©2007 Phil Singleton / www.sex-pistols.net.
All rights reserved.