“I don’t consider myself a super-technician,” once said Martin Birch, the rock giant producer who has sadly died at the age of 71. “What I do is to me pretty simple, but the fact that I’m used to the bands I have worked with helps me to know instantly what they want, or even what they can achieve, even if they don’t realize it clearly themselves. Or maybe bands trust me over long periods of time just because they find me a particularly likeable character!”
Over a multi-decade career the Woking born producer worked with many of hard rocks greatest ever bands. From Deep Purple to Iron Maiden, Fleetwood Mac to Rainbow, here are some of the man’s greatest ever hits.
Fleetwood Mac, ‘Oh Well’ (1969)
The best – and last – Fleetwood Mac record before mercurial guitarist Peter Green was lost to schizophrenia, psychiatric hospitals and resulting electroconvulsive therapy, ‘Then Play On’ also demonstrates the most methodical approach to record making the band had practiced up until that point. Whereas they had previously relied on jamming to create blues rock magic, this time editing and overdubbing played a much more crucial role. ‘Oh Well’ is perhaps the best example of this new process; a taut blast of thunderously bluesy proto-heavy metal.
Wishbone Ash, ‘Time Was’ (1972)
It’s unquantifiable how influential Birch’s work on Torquay band Wishbone Ash’s third, medieval-themed album ‘Argus’ was in helping Iron Maiden to shape their sound. Though The Yardbirds’ Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck might take issue with such a statement, Andy Powell and Ted Turner’s harmony twin lead guitars are essentially the year zero for the British heavy metal that would rule the 1980s and this, said record’s nine-minute opener, provides an excellent showcase for that claim.
In the words of Iron Maiden founder Steve Harris: “I think if anyone wants to understand Maiden’s early thing – in particular the harmony guitars – all they have to do is listen to Wishbone Ash’s ‘Argus’ album.”
Blue Öyster Cult, ‘Burnin’ For You’ (1981)
It’s fair to say that New York rockers Blue Öyster Cult were on their arse prior to the release of ‘Fire Of Unknown Origin’, their eighth studio album. Enter Martin Birch and a revival of the band’s canny knack of writing hard edged pop rock, of which Top 40 bothering single ‘Burnin’ For You’ is an excellent example. Wanna hear something bananas? Check out Lisa Marie Presley’s smokey throated cover version on her 2005 album ‘Now What’.
Iron Maiden, ‘Murders In The Rue Morgue’ (1981)
The first album in a relationship with Iron Maiden that lasted until Birch’s retirement in 1992, ‘Killers’ – the last album to feature firebrand singer Paul Di’Anno, who would soon be fired for an indulgence of booze and cocaine – courses with a punk influence that would diminish on future Maiden releases. Frontman Bruce Dickinson’s operatic wail would increasingly dominate and the songs would become slower, the guitar solos longer. This theatrical, macabre punk blast is that of a band long gone, but serves as a document of their fleeting, incendiary brilliance.
Whitesnake, ‘Here I Go Again’ (1982)
Birch loved to work with bands over multiple albums. He told Best magazine in 1983: “I certainly think that you can only make the most out of a band if you know it really well, very much in depth. Occasional producers who make an album with a band, then move on to another, are bound to do something pretty shallow. The results are always brilliant, excellent at the time, but you realise later that the true colours of the band don’t come out and the album loses quickly its prestige.”
Alongside Maiden, Whitesnake were one of the producer’s long-term projects. Solid gold power ballad ‘Here I Go Again’ – first heard on 1982’s excellent Birch-produced ‘Saints & Sinners’ album; later poorly re-recorded for the band’s self-titled 1987 LP – is proof of said methods’ spoils.
Deep Purple, ‘Mistreated’ (1974)
The first of Deep Purple’s record to be produced by Birch, 1974’s ‘Burn’ is an album that would introduce the world to the throaty rasp of a then-unknown David Coverdale. The title track would remain the band’s opener for the next two years. “It’s progressive blues,” the singer has said. “I wasn’t raised in a shack by the railroad tracks, but I’ve still had emotional hassles and that’s the only kind of blues I can interpret.”
Rainbow, ‘Stargazer’ (2016)
Remarkably, Hertford rockers Rainbow’s second album ‘Rising’ was recorded in either one or two takes (it was the ’70s; nobody quite remembers the details) with just some subsequent overdubs, which explains why no alternate or demo versions exist, just original or rough mixes. It’s testament to Birch’s ability to capture the essence of his clients in a simple and effective manner. The record also features many of heavy metal’s greatest singer’s greatest ever vocals; consider album showstopper, the eight-minute-26-second ‘Stargazer’, in which the late, great Ronnie James Dio does battle with none other than the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra.
Black Sabbath, ‘Children Of The Sea’ (1980)
Speaking of Ronnie James Dio… When Black Sabbath binned off Ozzy Osbourne in 1979, in came in the New Hampshire born singer to provide vocals for the Birmingham band’s second coming, 1980’s ninth album, ‘Heaven and Hell’. Sabbath were in chaos: bassist Geezer Butler mired in a messy divorce and drummer Bill Ward soon to follow Ozzy.
“Sabbath was a band that was floundering,” Dio said, “and, with my inclusion in it, we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps, cared a lot about each other and knew that we could do it again – especially under the banner of a band that had been so successful.”
He wasn’t wrong. The record sold more than a million units in the US alone. This was a less heavy Sabbath, still music powered by girth and thrust; the remarkable ‘Children Of The Sea’, recorded by Birch at Deeside Leisure Centre on 20th May 1980, is testament to the record’s quality.