Tony Visconti: the Autobiography: Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy by Tony Visconti

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Tony Visconti: the Autobiography: Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy by Tony Visconti

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: An intriguing peek behind the scenes of British rock music in the 60s and 70s through the eyes of a legendary producer.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: February 2007
Publisher: HarperCollins Entertainment
ISBN: 978-0007229444

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Tony Visconti is a record producer. Apart from Phil Spector or George Martin, the profession hardly registers in the public consciousness in the same way as that of, say, film director. That's because a producer's role is usually more collaborative than dictatorial. They inspire and encourage; their names are in small print, if they appear at all. Which means that few, if any, have exciting stories to tell.

Visconti is an exception. He is revered by musicians and fans alike due to his involvement in some of David Bowie's most artistically successful and influential albums. The telling subtitle of his autobiography is "Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy". That, and the book itself, leave no doubt about Visconti's claims to fame.

Before Bowie or Bolan appear, the book begins with the classic lucky break. This pitched Visconti from a lowly apprenticeship with a record company in his native New York, straight into the heart of London's 1960s musical revolution. The break in question was a chance meeting with Denny Cordell, an English producer. Cordell was already working with groups like The Move, Procol Harum and Manfred Mann. Visconti became his assistant, his energy, ambition and musical talent soon establishing him as a key player in the careers of many up-and-coming stars.

The story then winds back to the Brooklyn of the producer's childhood. He progresses from toy ukulele to cabaret bands in the Catskills, and mixes with the mob, heroin and Tony Bennett. By the age of 15 he already had recordings and TV appearances under his belt. Although his first love was jazz, his life was changed by the advent of The Beatles.

Fast-forward to late-60s London, where his focused enthusiasm, coupled with an impatient, impulsive character, soon earns the young arranger a reputation in the nascent pop industry. Encounters with Bowie and Bolan cement his place in rock legend. He nurtures their move from acoustic folk to early glam rock, a genre he can claim to have invented.

Wisely, the book concentrates on this period. Visconti rightly realises that its audience, if any, will be 40-somethings whose first single purchases were, like mine, T Rex's Jeepster or Bowie's Space Oddity. His ructions with the egotistical, bullying Bolan, and friendship with the more gentlemanly Bowie make fascinating reading to fans whose musical taste developed in the early 70s.

The stream of anecdotes covers hippyish gatherings, plentiful drugs (Visconti is ambivalent about most substance abuse, but defends LSD) and music biz machinations. They impart a convincing flavour of life at the world's musical epicentre. Many of the stories quaintly involve nudity, but there's little hard-core debauchery. They are held together by Visconti's personal story - the collapse of his first marriage, and subsequent domesticity with wife number two, the singer Mary Hopkin.

The book's greatest value to music fans is the insight into the creative recording process. Visconti does this best through his work with David Bowie. His contribution to Bowie's 'Berlin' trilogy of albums, and the singer's 'Sergeant Pepper' - the astonishing Scary Monsters album - guaranteed Visconti's place in rock history. He uses the recording of the latter to describe exactly what the process involves.

His subsequent break with Bowie steered Visconti's career into the doldrums. In the 80s, his personal and professional life fell apart. Divorce, illness, work with less-than-stellar artistes, and involvement in a cult-like organisation damaged his credibility and spawned bitterness and disillusionment. The reader's interest inevitably falters during this part of his story. But his recent artistic rebirth - through work with Morrissey and a reconciliation with Bowie - restores him to his rightful place in the rock firmament.

Throughout, Visconti comes across as fairly principled, sensitive, generous with his talent, but occasionally naive and overly susceptible to mystical mumbo-jumbo. As open about his flops as his hits, he, like Bowie, deserves respect for simply surviving in a milieu which has claimed many lives.

His writing style is matter-of-fact and unpretentious. Co-written with friend and editor Richard Havers, this book, while lacking wit or literary frills, is pacy, fact-filled and packed with stories about the biggest names in the music of the last 40 years. These are supported by scores of revealing pictures (Visconti is a keen photographer).

Its insight into Visconti's life and work will intrigue any serious fan of mainstream rock. It portrays a man keen to experiment but whose priority has always been the artists and their music, rather than any 'sound' of his own. For that alone, many of us have reason to thank Tony Visconti. This book gives him the credit he deserves.

Our thanks to the publishers for sending this book.

If you're interested in rock autobiographies, you may also enjoy Light My Fire by Ray Manazarek.

Buy Tony Visconti: the Autobiography: Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy by Tony Visconti at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Tony Visconti: the Autobiography: Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy by Tony Visconti at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Tony Visconti: the Autobiography: Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy by Tony Visconti at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Tony Visconti: the Autobiography: Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy by Tony Visconti at Amazon.com.

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Jill said:

Actually, I could have said "comes across as fairly principled, sensitive, generous with his talent, but occasionally naive and overly susceptible to mystical mumbo-jumbo" about Ray Manzarek in my review of Light My Fire!

Paul replied:

It's probably a fair working definition of hippydom then!