Lillywhite grew up in a musical family. Both his parents played instruments and encouraged him to do so too, and while he did have a general enjoyment of music and musicianship his chief interest initially was to emerge as engineering. As a result, on leaving school he took a job as a tape operator at a Phonogram studio in London’s Marble Arch. Although a lowly position, the exposure to different genres was invaluable experience for his future career as a producer: on the same day’s recording he might observe an orchestra with a full string section, followed by an experimental rock band, followed by an operatic vocalist. Another benefit was that when the studios weren’t being used for commercial recordings, the team could experiment with their own projects and it was during these periods of downtime that Lillywhite started to practise his craft.
But it was via Island records that he got his ‘break’. He was invited to assist on some demos for their new signing Ultravox, which led to his first credit as a (co-) producer on the debut Ultravox album and an offer of a job as a staff producer for the label. But Lillywhite’s interest in the burgeoning London punk scene meant that this deal was limiting: artists he was interested in weren’t signed with Island, so there was no opportunity to work with them. He managed to get himself released from the contract and has been freelance ever since. This allowed him to work with Siouxsie Sioux and her Banshees (producing their debut single and first album The Scream) and his brother’s band, The Members. The latter group was signed to Virgin and that label then offered him a chance to produce a record for a ‘name’ act, in this case, XTC.
Thereafter, he was in demand to produce records for established artists and newcomers alike. The first album released in the 1980s to credit Lillywhite as producer was Peter Gabriel’s third LP; by the end of the year, U2 had made their long-playing debut with the first of three Lillywhite-helmed albums, Boy. His long association with an act was rare though; in general, he believed it better for him and better for the artist if he worked with an act on just one album. That way his sound, and theirs, was kept fresh. An example of an artist who shared that view was Joan Aramtrading, whose Walk Under Ladders Lillywhite produced in 1981. Having worked with Glyn Johns for several album in the 70s, Armatrading selected a different producer for almost every one of her 80s LPs until she decided to produce herself. The exception was Lillywhite, who also produced 1983’s The Key, although significantly Val Garay was chosen to produce that album’s big hit single, Drop The Pilot. And when Armatrading completed her first self-produced album Sleight Of Hand in 1986, Lillywhite was brought back to mix the completed product.
Lillywhite’s production suited all the artists mentioned for two keys reasons. Firstly, although working with analogue equipment, the digital age was coming. His clean, crisp recordings sounded good on vinyl and just as good when they were transferred to compact disc, and as these acts had loyal fans this meant that the albums could still be enjoyed when reissued later in the decade on the new format. Secondly, they all gave ‘big’ live shows, filling large venues with powerful sound, and something of this was captured in Lillywhite’s studio sessions.
The diversity of artists he has worked with throughout his career has also helped the objective of having him fresh. Other big names he worked with in the 80s included Talking Heads and The Rolling Stones, and other Smash Hits cover stars he produced albums for were Thompson Twins (1982’s Set, he also contributed to their 1989 album Big Trash); Toyah’s band Toyah (1982’s The Changeling); Stuart Adamson’s Big Country (The Crossing, 1983, and Steeltown, 1984); Jim Kerr’s Simple Minds (1984’s Sparkle In The Rain); and Kirsty MacColl’s 1989 album Kite. He also produced the first two singles for Climie Fisher which were included on their debut album in 1988.
NEW SINGLES on sale from Mar. 22
U2 A Celebration (Island WIP6770)
TEARS FOR FEARS Everybody Wants To Rule The World (Mercury IDEA9)