My afternoon at Reading Festival with an invisible rock legend

 

Reading Festival, August 1999. Day two surrounded by trash and trustworthy Brits in high places. I mean, where was he going to run off to with my cheap camera up on that tower?

As a music information junkie, my first days surfing the world wide web led to complete and total brain overload. I was late to the game (1996) and everything was new to me, so there was always a never-ending list of rock topics for me to research until the sun came up. If I couldn’t find what I was looking for, I would sometimes put something up on my primitive all-text personal website in the hopes that someone would find it and give me some answers. One subject I couldn’t seem to find much information on was producer John Leckie.

Leckie’s name had popped up on a lot of modern albums I loved by Ride, Trash Can Sinatras, the Grapes of Wrath & Radiohead’s The Bends but, most importantly, he’d produced two of my favorite records of all-time: the Stone Roses’ 1988 self-titled debut LP and the Posies’ Dear 23. A few search engine queries (this is years before “googling”) led me to dozens of other groups he’d worked with, from Pink Floyd to XTC. It turns out he’d been a house engineer at EMI’s famous Abbey Road Studios which put him at the controls for some very famous recordings by solo Beatles, Badfinger, Mott The Hoople and more. In the late 70’s and 80’s he helped shape the early works of Simple Minds, the Human League and Magazine. After the Stone Roses record became a sensation, he was in demand with a whole new generation, producing and mixing groups like Elastica, the Verve, Kula Shaker and My Morning Jacket on their incredible Z album.

John receiving Producer of the Year award in 2001 from some guy.

This was still before the days where the web gave you discographies with a click or two. If allmusic.com was around, I hadn’t found it yet. I put up what little info I had on a page I modestly titled John Leckie: Studio Stud. I started to get people writing to me about things I’d missed but I got busy with my own music projects around this time, so keeping the page updated wasn’t a priority for long. One day I got a very short, cryptic email that read “I am sitting here and next to me is John… He says what about the Roy Harper albums? and also the KarmaKanix? He said he will be in touch soon and thanks for webpage.” It was like getting a letter from another world.

A few years later, in 1999, I found myself finally taking my dream vacation to England’s Reading Festival. As long as I could remember, I’d wanted to stand in a cold, wet field, surrounded by the various accents of the British Isles, watching some amazing band that Americans could care less about with people who actually knew how to clap in unison and sing loudly. I got the courage to drop a note to the stranger who’d shown John my webpage to see if they could pass the word along that I’d be visiting soon and would our boy be up for a drink? Within a few days, John himself replied that he’d be happy to see me and gave me his number to call him when I arrived.

Photo from musewiki.org

The day I touched down in England, I called John and he immediately picked up the phone. I remember wondering if he could hear how much I was smiling as the payphone cut in and out. It turned out that he was going to the first day of Reading to see a band he’d recently produced called Muse. We agreed to meet by the soundboard after their set. The band was incredible but sounded more and more like Radiohead with each song. I started to worry that they’d be seen as nothing more than a ripoff, especially with them getting the man who produced The Bends to do their record. Their set ended when their singer jumped up over the drumkit and took out the drummer, leaving everyone wondering if either of them survived.

After a few minutes of awkwardly scanning the crowd near the soundboard, I found John. In the pre-cellphone-era, it was funny to look around for this man whose photo I’d only seen on a few music sites. We both seemed surprised when we did finally find each other. “John?” “Adam?” I didn’t fit the mold of a crazed fan/stalker and John didn’t look like a rockstar at all. He reminded me more of Terry Jones from Monty Python. Even as one of the famous British producers of all-time, he could go completely unnoticed in a sea of music fans.  Such is the life of a notable behind-the-scenes figure.

I’m just sayin’.

He took me back to meet the band, who had, luckily, survived and were as nice as everyone else he ran into and introduced me to. We spent a few hours walking around, seeing bands and talking to people he knew, some of whom had heard about or even seen my site. I almost felt like a disappointment by not being a raving American lunatic but I did manage to ask him quite a few questions without sounding ridiculous. He was more than gracious and full of great stories. We barely discussed his musical past but talked plenty about his family, going to festivals, visiting America and on and on. I was surprised to find that he was not a musician himself. Not at all.

We went and watched Echo & The Bunnymen for a bit because there had been talks of them working together in the future (it never happened). When I asked him if there was anyone he’d like to produce, he mentioned one of my favorite groups, Soul Coughing. We walked up just as Echo started the epic set closer “Ocean Rain” but Ian had had enough of something unintelligible and stormed off, leaving the band to play two beautiful chords over and over. “Well, that’s that,” John said and we walked on.

At one point, we ended up outside of a tent and, from far away, I couldn’t tell what band was playing. As they started their next song, I rolled my eyes when I realized it was Guided By Voices, another big fave of mine. I started to tell him their story and he was shocked that they were American. I’ll never forget him saying “They HAVE to be British. Listen to those chords…and that accent!” I grinned just like their singer, Bob Pollard, did when I told him this story years later.

The most memorable part of the afternoon came when we went to go see the Fall, whom John had worked with in the early 80’s. The band was taking a ridiculously long time to come on because, unbeknownst to us, Mark E Smith, their notorious oddball lush of a singer, had got in a fight with their drummer earlier in the day and said drummer promptly quit. Someone with the group was running frantically around the main backstage area asking everyone if they knew a drummer. Eventually they found the Chemical Brothers’ manager, Nick Dewey, who was a drummer for a band called Revolver in the early 90’s but hadn’t played in five years. Still, he was up for it and became part of a legendary Reading Festival tale.

Meanwhile, we stood and waited and waited…and waited. I’d just shown John an XTC interview I’d read that morning from American magazine The Big Takeover where Andy Partridge had mentioned him, when I heard some guys next to me talking about the Stone Roses. I quietly smiled as they went on and on about how incredible the first record was until I couldn’t stand it. I elbowed the guy next to me and said “Guess who’s standing next to me. The guy that produced the record you’re talking about.” Once he got over the initial shock, he turned to his friend and said “This guy says the guy standin’ next to ‘im produced the first Roses record,” to which his friend exclaimed, “Wot, JOHN LECKIE?!’ “Yes?” John replied, not having noticed that I’d been talking to them.

In a second, the lads were all over him with backslaps and handshakes. It was a hilarious cacophony with all of them congratulating him at once. I could make out little bits of “Well done, mate!” and “Roses!” and “Legend!” and “The Bends!” and then they quickly left him alone. One of them was simply shaking his head in disbelief as he walked away. John was clearly shocked and overwhelmed, but touched. I asked if that had ever happened to him and he laughed a little and simply said, “No.” I stood there grinning, knowing I’d done my good deed for the day. Doing some silly bare-bones webpage that praised him was fine but giving him a quick celebrity moment on home turf made the entire trip worth it.

The band finally came on and Mark E Smith’s face was bloody from having to be punched awake out of a drunken stupor. Class. They turned to their poor new drummer, gave him a tempo and he’d play something until they’d signal him to stop. After a couple of songs, we’d had enough and left. John was ready to head back home and so we said our goodbyes, ending a fairly low-key afternoon at a massive rock festival with one of my musical heroes. Still, it felt more like catching up with an old friend, with the same lack of autographs and awkward fan photos.

The rest of the festival was a blur of bands, bodies, Brits and….well…Bluh (correct pronunciation of said band). Seeing Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Elastica back to back in a tent full of people losing their minds is still probably my favorite concert experience ever. I did manage to sing karaoke once or twice in the Melody Maker tent and taunt a huge crowd by asking them who won the war in 1776 but that’s a story best saved for a Myspace blog. Seeing Pavement, Beth Orton, Flaming Lips, the Charlatans, Cornelius & Hepcat in merry ol’ England was everything I’d hoped that it would be, though I did feel that the lack of rain deprived me of the true UK festival experience. It’ll do.

Funny enough, at the end of the trip, I saw a Stone Roses tribute act in Glasgow called the Complete Stone Roses. The Roses had only split up three years prior but I talked to a few fans who couldn’t believe that I’d seen the real deal in San Francisco. In a scene that was sad, surreal and fantastic all at the same time, Roses bassist Mani DJ’d before the simulators took the stage. Then, because the crowd was so mental, he got up and played “She Bangs The Drums” with them. I couldn’t tell you if their singer was as good/bad as Ian Brown because the entire club was singing so loud. Hell, they were singing the GUITAR parts.  “I Wanna Be Adored” started with the whole place chanting “Duhduh duhduh duhduh duhduh….”  A great ending to a great trip.

I emailed with John every year or so after that. In 2001, I started a band called Rookie Card.  A few years later, I got up the nerve to send him our first album. He didn’t have to say something nice about us but he did. A friend who insisted I also send his band’s shoegaze record along didn’t fare as well. “I don’t know about that one,” John said. “It’s a bit down.” I can’t remember exactly what he said about us, though I have it somewhere on a backup disc. Our producer, a fellow fan, was knocked out that John mentioned the production and those “cracking American amps”. It was only a few short sentences, but it meant more to me than any other review we got as a band. I should’ve exploited it in exchange for being such a mediocre webmaster. Ah well.

Cheers, John.

————————————————–

I’m honoured to say that this story will soon appear in an upcoming issue of the soon-to-be-revamped online music magazine Caught In The Carousel, run by Alex Green, who wrote the Stone Roses book for the 33 1/3 book series.

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3 thoughts on “My afternoon at Reading Festival with an invisible rock legend

  1. “I almost felt like a disappointment by not being a raving American lunatic…” Who said you’re not? lol. WOW! Amazing story. Definitely one for the books.

  2. Pingback: TOP 11-20 91X ACTS OF ALL-TIME | "Yer doin' great." (a muzak clickclack)

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