Some moments I can just perfectly remember, just perfectly. Here’s one for you:
It’s 1982, my family are moving out from Coronado, California on a cross country trip to upstate New York, where my dad will work overseeing a Navy training base for three years. I’m eleven years old, a mixture of excitement and anticipation and dread running through my head at this all, it’s all a bit fun and weird at the same time. I’m sitting in the back seat of our new blue Volvo station wagon, luggage, a dog and a hamster in the back, my sis next to me, my parents up front. One nice thing about the Volvo is that the sound system includes speakers in the back seat doors, so we can hear whatever’s on the radio better than we could in the old car. Top 40 is the logical soundtrack of our trip; it’s about the one thing we can all agree on, so the radio is tuned to whatever San Diego-area station is doing best at it at the moment, quite likely the Mighty 690.
We’re going over the San Diego/Coronado Bay Bridge, the first big step in a long road, and the radio’s on, and as we crest the bridge a song comes on that I’ve never heard before:
And my god was my world turned upside down a little, right there and then.
It was one of many such songs to do that to me that year, 1982; it’ll always remain a touchstone for me. “Tainted Love,” “Hungry Like the Wolf,” more besides. “Don’t You Want Me” was just WEIRD and strange, I’d never heard anyone quite singing like that before, the subject matter seemed unsettling to my young mind, something just kind of ‘ew, what?’, the main synth part after the opening beats, themselves a bit out of the ordinary, was grim and yet compelling. Sure I’d heard bits of ‘new wave’ and “Cars” had been huge and so forth but this just didn’t quite make sense to me. It was in the end a smash hit, number one in the charts, as it had been back in the UK some months previously.
The news of Martin Rushent’s death brings this moment back in a rush. As time went on and I learned more about music and the past and Rushent, seeing his name crop up seemingly everywhere for a time on a lot of bands I grew to love made more sense — a classic go-to guy, someone who had gone up the established route working in the industry and was in the right place and right time to make a mark on his own when the late seventies rolled around in the UK. For a while there I almost confused Martin Hannett with Martin Rushent, not surprising given the timeframe and the fact that they sometimes worked with the same group at different points, but they each had their own clear stamp; one was not the other.
John Robb’s note I’ve linked there will capture how many of his own time and place will remember him, firmly rooted not just in post-punk but punk as such, especially when and where it intersected with the charts and the radio — the Buzzcocks, Generation X, the Stranglers and much more. He knew how to make what was supposed to be noise work as an immediate dynamic that sounded like something you could hum, brought out the focus in performances. On that level alone his influence lingers — the past near-twenty years of pop/punk as such in the States arguably exists because he was one of the producers, in combination with a slew of notable bands, to provide an example of how it could and did work. Some examples:
And much more could be named and played and argued about and etc.
But I was too young and too far away to know about any of that at the time — or to learn that Rushent was far too open-minded a listener just to do that for the rest of his time. As interest among many fronts quickly shifted to what synthesizers could do on the pop charts in punk’s wake, Rushent was right there with it all, opening up his own Genetic Sound Studios for work and plunging into another wave of recordings that transferred his ear for focus and arrangement into another realm. It wasn’t a rejection of his past, merely a further exploration — if not x, why not y? Some of the results, whether synth or rock or whatever you want to call it:
And as a little bonus, a recording done at Genetic; even though Rushent didn’t specifically produce it, it probably couldn’t've been done anywhere else:
Then, of course, the Human League connection, a producer/collaborator/performer combination as emblematic of the time as anything Trevor Horn did in the same moment. Dare remains the remarkable album it is for just how well all the pieces come together — Phil Oakey and Ian Craig Marsh’s desire to play out the hopes they had had from the earlier incarnation of the group, the accidentally perfect charisma of Susan Anne Sulley and Joanne Catherall, Jo Callis’s circuitous route via the Rezillos and Bob Last and above all else Rushent, who got the group into Genetic and away from their Sheffield home base, recorded “The Sound of the Crowd” and watched with everyone else as it became their pop breakthrough.
Virgin Records kicked down the cash for a full album and now thirty years later Dare is like Rumours or Nevermind or There’s a Riot Going On or Kind of Blue or The Chronic or Thriller. Hell, even Born This Way, probably. It’s a moment album, something that seems to capture a time just so, just right, you can almost feel fingers pointing in awe and urgency, “Here! Here, here it is, it’s right HERE!” That’s the romance of the pop music construct, that’s precisely why it works. It doesn’t cover everything, it can’t and won’t, it’s not the ultimate immediacy of a standalone single or a one-off track, but it works on impact and it lingers, it’s something easy to refer to and seems almost too obvious as a result but that’s because it WORKS.
For each of the albums I named the producer or producers are as important as the performers, if they’re not one and the same. Hearing Rushent throughout the album, his engineering ears clearly being brought to bear, is to hear someone knowing the difference between “That keyboard sounds nice” and “What that keyboard is playing would sound really fantastic like THIS.” And it’s not just keyboards, of course, it’s everything, all that goes into the performances, vocals, beats, ‘atmosphere,’ however you want to call it.
Never, ever underestimate the impact the great popularizers have, and that was Rushent by default, a popularizer who was also a technical wiz, someone who never claimed to be avant garde per se but figured out ways to use and imprint the avant garde into the wider world. That he then nearly one-upped himself with the spin-off/remix League Unlimited Orchestra project, Love and Dancing, shows how much of a creative roll he was on; if he wasn’t the first remixer, he again helped by being a massive popularizer, spelling out some implications, giving a demonstration by default.
After his most famous days, Rushent — rather admirably to my mind — retreated to focus on family more, working more casually in the industry rather than trying to break his back obsessively keeping up with it, most recently having produced some work by the Pipettes among others. If that meant being associated with a time and place in the end, then hey — if you’re going to make a mark, make it a huge one. Rest well indeed — it took more than seconds and it’s lasted lifetimes.
(And I will say this — I wasn’t necessarily planning to resemble Phil Oakey in this random photo from last night but I wonder if there wasn’t something in the air.)