Peter Asher,
The TVD Interview

Peter Asher has had a long and storied career, initially as a musician, briefly as head of A&R for Apple Records, and later as a heavily influential producer and artist manager. Through records he produced by James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, he helped create the ‘70s singer-songwriter sound which is still influencing artists today. He was at the center of ‘60s Swinging London and with his musical partner Gordon Waller, made records that distilled the essence of that heady era.

He is preparing to tour several U.S. cities as part of the British Invasion 50th Anniversary Tour with Denny Laine, Billy J. Kramer, Mike Pender’s Searchers, Chad and Jeremy, and Terry Sylvester of The Hollies. Asher will act as master of ceremonies for the concerts as well as performing some well-loved hits from the Peter and Gordon catalog.

I know that producer Andrew Sandoval put the British Invasion tour together. How did you get involved?

Andrew is a friend and he works with Keith Putney who books a lot of my shows and runs that part of my career. They came to me with this idea and asked me to be a part of the first British Invasion tour. Unfortunately, I was already booked for that period so I was only able to do the first date, which was L.A., and the last date, which was somewhere on the east coast. I couldn’t do the tour properly, but I enjoyed the two I did. I MC-ed the show, introducing people and sang some of the old songs. This year, they asked in plenty of time if I could put two weeks aside to do the full tour and I was delighted to say “yes.”

Take us through the structure of the show. You’ll be the master of ceremonies and I understand the acts will share a common backing band.

Yes, we have a wonderful band, most of whom are members of my band. Everyone will do some of their own hits and we’ll work up some numbers to sing together. It’s fun! I tell stories about how I met certain people and how I first heard these records. It all fits together in the picture of the so-called “British invasion” which just had its 50th anniversary last year, so it’s now ancient history (laughs). When it comes my turn, I sing four or five of the Peter and Gordon hits.

This whole thing began in a way when Gordon (Waller) and I got back together after a thirty-eight year gap (Ed. note: Peter and Gordon reunited as part of a 2005 two-day tribute concert for Mike Smith, lead vocalist and keyboard player for the Dave Clark Five. Smith had recently fractured his spinal cord and was paralyzed. He died in 2008. Waller died of a heart attack in 2009). At the time, I confess that I wasn’t sure if singing the old songs was going to be a cool and rewarding thing to do. But, in fact, it was very interesting. The audience was a mixture of people our age, who were around at the time and remember it and young people for whom it is historical research, I suppose (chuckles). They’re visiting the living remnants of a period of history that they have read and heard much about.

For those our age, you could see people crying in the audience when we played certain songs. They explained afterwards that “Oh, that was song playing when I met my wife” or “…when our daughter was born” or other significant life events. It made me realize that this was not an unrespectable thing to do, to sing these old songs from time to time and have fun doing so. That’s what this tour is going to be and there’s a real sense of camaraderie among the artists involved. One of the advantages of playing smaller halls and theaters is that we get to hang out afterwards and meet the audience members and find out who they are and why they came. It makes for a fun evening and I’m really looking forward to it.

Speaking of “historical research,” what record really grabbed your imagination as a kid and made you think, “This is something I might like to do.

I’m not sure it’s quite the same thing but the first record I remember loving is “Rock With the Cave Man” by Tommy Steele, which you may not be familiar with. I think it was his first hit in the UK. He was a rock & roller before he became a musical comedy guy. Interestingly, the song was written by Lionel Bart who went on to write the musical Oliver.

I also loved (Bill Haley & the Comets’) “Rock Around the Clock” and (Elvis Presley’s) “Heartbreak Hotel.” I don’t know the order in which I bought them, but those are three early singles I remember owning and loving. I don’t think I necessarily had any ambitions to do it myself although I did eventually get a guitar and once you have a guitar, you stand in front of the mirror with it and try to look like Elvis, at which I was singularly unsuccessful (laughter).

I was a music lover already. I had grown up in a classical music household so I was surrounded by music being played and taught and written from birth. I remember going to record shops and listening to records in the listening booths they had then. We didn’t really hear records on the radio unless you listened to Radio Luxembourg at night because the BBC controlled everything, as you know. We didn’t get to hear rock and roll on British radio until Radio Caroline broke the monopoly.

It’s interesting that you mentioned Tommy Steele because I was recently talking with someone about the pre-British Invasion music scene in the UK. The prevailing notion in the U.S., at least, is that it was a pale copy of what was happening in America.

It was, but it was our pale copy. We loved them and that applied to everything. When I was a kid, I thought “In the Mood” was a tune by the Ted Heath Orchestra (laughter). I’d never heard of Glenn Miller until I started reading Melody Maker. Yes, much of what we heard were British covers of American hits. I think Tommy Steele’s second hit was “Singing the Blues.” We never heard the Guy Mitchell version. I don’t know why, but the BBC didn’t seem to play American records.

Ultimately, it was Cliff Richards, “our Cliff,” who we all still love desperately. He’s a god in England as well as a Knight. “Move It” was a really cool record even though he was copying Elvis, basically. It didn’t stop us loving him and we still love him to this day. No one there has a bad word to say about Cliff Richards.

I remember Keith Richards doing an interview with Guitar Player magazine and they asked him about his major influences. He said they were Steve Cropper, Albert King, and (Cliff Richards and The Shadows’ guitarist) Hank Marvin. The interview replied, “Who?!” (laughter) Cliff was our Elvis and Hank was THE guy if you were a guitar player. We all tried to play like him.

I have the Capitol U.S. versions of the Peter and Gordon LPs. Did Capitol U.S. issue them just as they were released in the UK or did they do the same “creative rearranging” that they did with the Beatles’ catalog?

No, they moved things around a lot. I’m not even sure what is on each album in the U.S. They weren’t the same as the UK albums.

Whatever the track order, these records do sound fantastic. I really like the arrangements, especially on your cover of “True Love Ways.” Were you involved with the band and orchestra arrangements for the tracks?

Yes, I was. Our first record was produced by Norman Newell and he stayed out of it, for the most part. Waller and I arranged those tracks pretty much completely. (Producer) John Burgess was more hands on and he certainly played a role in the arrangements. Making “True Love Ways” bigger and more orchestral and having the bridge be a huge crescendo was my idea.

One or your albums I particularly enjoy is Peter and Gordon Sing and Play the Hits of Nashville, Tennessee.

Yes, exactly as titled. That was fun. We had always loved those songs and we got to work with the legendary (producer) Ken Nelson. It was amazing! We were in awe of the Nashville musicians and we heard later that they were all worried, saying “We don’t know how to make a British-sounding record.” They didn’t understand that we were coming there to do what they knew how to do. They were so good and we cut the record very quickly, singing live with the band. I was listening to it the other day and it sounds pretty good, I must say. The kind of harmonies we sang, which were Everly Brothers-style harmonies, sound really good on that type of music.

I have a mono copy, which sounds terrific. I generally prefer the mono versions of those ‘60s Capitol albums.

Oh yes, invariably, for all the early ones mono is the only way to listen to them. We hated the stereo mix, it was an afterthought. With four-track recordings, there was nothing decent you could do with a stereo mix.

Peter and Gordon started out covering songs but, as you went on, the two of you started to write some of your material. How did that process develop?

Same as everyone else, we thought, “Well, we’d better start writing our own songs because it will give us more of an identity.” It was also a way to make more money and all the usual crass business reasons. Just like The Beatles and everyone else, we’d start out using existing songs we loved as templates, “Let’s write something a bit like so-and-so,” you know. We wrote some decent songs. We never wrote any hits so our career as writers was a modest one but we enjoyed writing and couple of them still sound okay. One of my favorites is the very first song we wrote, actually, “If I Were You” which was the b-side of “World Without Love.”

As you’re making these records, are you keeping a close eye on the producer with the idea of transitioning to that role?

I think, gradually, I realized it was something I wanted to do. The very first time I was in the studio, when we were recording “World Without Love,” I knew I loved it. I think even then I had a clear eye on the role of the producer because I realized what you could do, sonically. Also, you could hire great musicians and tell them what to play. I thought that was brilliant!

Of course, the recording process has changed immensely since the ‘60s. If you are recording a group, do you have them all play together in the studio or do you build it track-by-track?

It’s totally case by case. If it’s a band that plays together well, you might want to capture that magic by recording everyone at once. But, certainly, many records you do the other way. I’m in the middle of the next Steve Martin and Edie Brickell album and, in a case like that, I did record Steve and Edie on their own on the East Coast. Now, I’m back in L.A. overdubbing everything in layers. But, as I said, if it’s a working band with a sound of their own, you may well want to capture it live and amend what you want to amend. It’s project by project and even song by song as those decisions get made.

Recording now is primarily done digitally. Where do you stand on analog versus digital?

I’m totally fine with digital, I love it. I don’t care if I ever see tape again as long as I live. I know there are many people who remain tape aficionados and, in the beginning, digital did have problems. It was brittle and thin and the criticisms of it were true. But that’s no longer the case, digital sounds fantastic. The only issue is making sure that all the sound recorded gets to the consumer and that gets into the hi-res digital discussion, which is an interesting and large subject.

Do you still listen to records?

No. I don’t have a record player.

The records you produced in the ‘70s remain hugely influential, to my ears. I hear echoes of them constantly, particularly in contemporary country.

Absolutely. There was that funny moment when Terry Clark did “Poor Pitiful Me.” I met her, she was charming and I thought her version was good but it was OUR arrangement, which was fine. However, I was tempted to say, “Hello, have I produced your records?” (much laughter) I don’t see anything at all wrong with that. We were flattered and delighted. But yes, there are certain records that Linda (Ronstadt) and I made which seem to have a become a template for modern country. We thought we were making pop records but evidently, we weren’t.

When you were making those albums with Linda, how much influence did you have in the song selection? That was one of the most interesting things about those records for me.

It was a joint venture. Very often, the rock and roll ones, which were my choices, she wasn’t keen to sing. She much preferred singing ballads. She’s brilliant at finding songs herself, though. The first time I heard of Warren Zevon or Jack Tempchin or even Jackson Browne, maybe, was through Linda. She would pick out a John David Souther song or a McGarrigle Sisters song that wasn’t necessarily a secret but she would bring it to a much wider public knowledge. It was unprecedented. She was really good at that and remains so.

As a kid, I would pour over the liner notes of those LPs and one line that stood out repeatedly was “This album was recorded using the Aphex Aural Exciter.” I thought, “I don’t know what that is but I think I need one anyway!” Can you please educate me on exactly what the AAE was?

It was a gizmo that added back a certain high end, a phase thing. We used it occasionally on the piano and the vocals. It was a tool. But the manufacturers had the prescience to include the condition that if it was used, it had to be credited on the album. To be honest, it didn’t deserve a credit much more than, say, the great Fairchild limiter or the great LA2A or the great API EQ or any of the other gizmos we were using to make the records sound as good as they could be. The very fact that they managed to get themselves a credit means I am eternally asked what magic thing it was! (much laughter) It was a great name, though. “The Aural Exciter” was a killer name.

You’ve worked on so many records over the years, both as a performer and a producer. Do you have any favorites?

Yes, I do. Of the Peter and Gordon records, “I Go to Pieces” is the closest we came to a record I was totally happy with. That’s my favorite from our catalog. Beyond that, it’s primarily the hits. They were hits for a reason, you know, whether it’s (James Taylor’s) “Fire and Rain” or (Linda Ronstadt’s) “You’re No Good.” I hear them today and I can understand why they took off like they did. They charm the ear and have a certain something that sets them apart. I’m sure if I looked at the albums, I’d find some songs I’ve forgotten about that I liked as well. In both James’ and Linda’s cases, the hits brought to prominence artists of quite exceptional and extraordinary talent. It had nothing to do with me.

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The British Invasion 50th Anniversary Tour Dates:
Feb. 22 – Annapolis, MD – Rams Head Onstage
Feb 25 – Rahway, NJ – Union County Performing Arts Center
Feb. 26 – Boston, MA – Wilbur Theatre
Feb. 27 – Lancaster, PA – American Music
Feb. 28 – Tarrytown, NY – The Tarrytown Music
March 1 – Alexandria, VA – Birchmere
March 4 – Kent, OH – The Kent Stage
March 6 – Milwaukee, WI – Pabst Theater
March 7 – Chicago, IL – City Winery
March 8 – Minneapolis, MN – Pantages Theater

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