An interview with the legendary Steve Lillywhite, producer of Johnny Thunders’ solo debut
At a certain point, it is difficult to distinguish the ghost of Johnny Thunders — the fading chalk outline who released indifferent and sloppy albums and dragged his narrow legs around the world in a hooded-eyelid stupor — from the fantastic, atomic neon muppet who made some of the most effecting, frantic, and oven ring-burn hot rock ‘n’ roll ever recorded.
So let’s start here: On a slightly too-cool autumn weeknight in 1979, I saw the full, authentic Heartbreakers – Johnny Thunders, Walter Lure, Billy Rath and Jerry Nolan – play at Max’s Kansas City.
The stars collided that night: An emissary of a happy dark lord arrived on a Greyhound from Clarksdale, smelling of chicken fat and gris-gris; the same calloused fingers, made rough from the ritual raising of a cauldron of Juba fire, tuned the guitars and rubbed ash from the chimney grate of Chess Studios onto the strings; the fraternal twin spirits of Hank Williams and Amede Ardoin rode in on identical twin donkeys to ritually switch on a blue bayou dock light bulb over the low, square black-box of Max’s stage; and I saw a show which is still, in many ways, the standard against which I set all rock ‘n’ roll performances, the Boogie Beat beatdown to end all Boogie Beat beatdowns.
Imagine your favorite four seconds of your favorite 1960s Rolling Stones track looped again and again (and again and again), and then imagine if it was the color of neon-flavored rum. Or heck, just imagine the Sex Pistols if they had been fronted by Bo Diddley.
Over the next few months (and years), I returned to see Johnny Thunders over and over again, hoping to see/hear even a Xerox of the searing boogie voodoo I saw that autumn night.
And I never again saw it; I never even saw a tenth of it.
At every Thunders performance that followed (I attended perhaps, another dozen or so) I saw the ghost of Johnny, or even worse, a puppet held up by a very distracted puppeteer. If you saw Thunders when he wasn’t at his best, you’ll know exactly what I am talking about: He resembled nothing so much as a marionette that wasn’t working quite right, whose strings were tangled, who could collapse at any moment.
Johnny Thunders’ life as a recording artist was much the same.
There is one magnificent, essential album: So Alone, released in October of 1978, combined the defining factors of Thunders character – his louche spirit, his opium-meets-amphetamine playing, his ability to play all the right notes all wrong and all the wrong ones all right, his emotive cat wail of a voice, his entering-the-train-tunnel thwooooosh of rhythm guitar and his cat chasing a mouse up and down the fretboard leads – with masterful, nearly historic songs and shiny, big tight-but-loose production.
But after So Alone…there’s really nothing else. I mean, there’s no album that’s even worth considering against the achievement that is So Alone. There are moments here and there, but barely even that. Y’see, it’s the “Volare” syndrome: You can listen to Alex Chilton moan “Volare” and pretend it has some connection with the artist who made great bittersweet castles of chiming melting chocolate with Big Star, or you could just recognize that it is crap.
But at least “Volare” had intent. As howlingly awful and insulting to his fans as it is, Chilton at least thought about it; but Thunders, on his post-So Alone work, appears to have no thought at all, other than to get in and out of the studio and pick up the check.
But we have So Alone.
(And we also have the Heartbreakers’ LAMF, too: this hoarse, muffled, wagon-ride-down-a-Laurel & Hardy Staircase of an album is pure magic, somewhere between Mick Ronson and the Sonics and the Olympics and Bo Diddley and what happens when you do speed by accident while listening to Flamingo by the Flaming Groovies while channel 9 plays King Creole on the a little black and white TV. And please note: Walter Lure’s most recent album with the Waldos, Wacka Lacka Loom Bop a Loom Bam Boo, resonates with the Surf Ballroom-meets-100 Club greaser punk grease fire that the Heartbreakers, at their best, summoned. Please check it out.)
So: In honor of the late Johnny Thunders, who was the living embodiment of the 7 Second Delay, we are commemorating the 40th anniversary of his extraordinary debut solo album, So Alone, a month late.
We spoke with the producer of So Alone, Steve Lillywhite, CBE. Although Lillywhite would go on to become one of the most successful and skilled record producers in rock history (he is responsible for some of the very biggest and most respected records of our time, from artists like U2, Dave Matthews Band, the Rolling Stones, XTC, the La’s, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the abominable Matchbox 20, Chris Cornell, Counting Crows, Big Country, Simple Minds, and on and on and on), he was just 24 and relatively new to the game when he got the call to produce Johnny Thunders’ solo debut.
Lillywhite spoke to us on the phone from Indonesia, where he is involved in a unique partnership to help KFC market music in that music-mad country.
How did you come to be involved with So Alone?
Oh it was just a series of great coincidences. My roommate at the time was working at Island Records as an art director, and he knew Johnny. I’d worked with Ultravox, but I hadn’t really done very much else. But I was around, the scene, you know. I used to go to all the clubs, and I remember when I actually saw my name mentioned in the music press as being at a gig and I was called “ubiquitous.” And I thought that was fantastic except I had to look it up in the dictionary to see what it meant. It just meant I’d go to all of them! So I was on the scene, I knew all the bands, you know, and it was my era, you know. It was one of my eras. I’ve had a couple of eras over the years. But that was my first era.
So I was this sort of skinny white boy and I’d met Johnny and the Heartbreakers. The big word news at the time was that the Heartbreakers were one of the greatest bands in the world but their album sounded shit. And the band thought so, too. So I just brashly said, I’ll make your band sound good. I’ll make your record sound good, Johnny. And my friend at Island, he said, “Yeah, Steve’s really good.” And I was just a young kid. So I got to know Johnny and I got to know Johnny’s manager, B.P. Fallon.
Was the intention to record a Heartbreakers album? Cause that’s sort of what you just implied.
No, ‘cause the Heartbreakers had pretty much fallen apart, you know. They were as hot as could be, but I dunno, Johnny decided he didn’t want to be with the guys and he wanted to do a solo album.
I think, you know, he was a little boy on the inside and… yeah, it was very sad, very sad. He certainly, if you wanna say it nicely, he burned bright and he burned fast. Whatever that expression is. You cannot live that lifestyle forever. What can I say? I don’t wanna talk about the lives, just the music.
Right, of course.
But I suppose he was so wrapped up in the lifestyle that it became the music. Most of the great rock and roll songs are love songs to a thing rather than a person, and a lot of his songs were about that thing, I suppose.
Was it a difficult album to make?
Peter Perrett (of the Only Ones, the band who back Thunders on much of the record) had a lot to do with it being a sane session. He was a sane voice in a sort of crazy bunch. Peter Perrett was like the wise man, and I absolutely thank him for his help cause he understood Johnny more than me ‘cause I didn’t…well…I wasn’t so familiar with that lifestyle. And Peter Perrett was. So Peter, you know, would often say to me (theatrically coughs), “Johnny’s on form tonight. You’ve gotta push him. Johnny’s up, we need to get him to do a lot of work.” Because often Johnny was just sort of asleep. He would fall asleep tying his shoelace, that sort of thing. And just be a statue (laughs) with his hand on his shoelace. But other times, he was fantastic. He was the first artist I’d ever seen who put his scarf around his headphones on his head. Because he was always doing that sort of moving his head so much that his headphones would fall off. So he put his scarf around his headphones, I thought that was very cool. He was just a cool guy, you know, he was so New York…and he always felt he was a lot older than me, even though he’s only three years older than me.
What do you recall about recording “You Can’t Put Your Arm Around A Memory”?
Johnny just started playing it and the rest sort of joined in. I think it’s romantic, it’s sassy, it sort of, you know, lollups along. Lollups… that’s the right word? I mean Mike Kellie’s drumbeat is fantastic. The acoustic guitar’s sort of doing these Spanish flourishes, it just really worked. “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory” is also probably the greatest song title, certainly in my top five song titles ever. I think it’s by far the best thing on the record, you know. It is by far the best song he ever wrote
It was a very chaotic recording session, but it was also full of love and full of people wanting to do well for Johnny. That was it. Johnny inspired us — even though he was older than us, he was like this little boy that we wanted to make sure was alright and that we wanted to do good things for. But then he would do things like borrow money from you. B.P. Fallon once said to me, “Steve, don’t lend Johnny money, because he will never pay you back.”
Where did you record So Alone?
The studio we recorded at was called The Fallout Shelter. It was at Island Records at St. Peter’s Square in London. It was very, very sort of… down in the basement, we worked at night, we never worked during the daytime. It was a very sort of sleazy; it was exactly the right studio for this album. It wasn’t one of those clean type studios. Actually, that was where I recorded “Hong Kong Garden” by Siouxsie and the Banshees as well.
Speaking of the Banshees, Johnny’s album lead to my whole career. You know, without that album, I’m not sure any of it would have happened. Siouxsie and the Banshees’ manager at the time came down to the studio and heard “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory” and said, “Oh I like that drum sound, we’ve just recorded our first single but we don’t like how it sounds. We need to re-record it. Would you like to do it for us?” And I went, “Fuckin’ right,” because I knew at the time that Siouxsie and the Banshees was so hot that they would have a hit single. Producing is a catch-22, you only get the hit if you get the work but how do you get the work if you haven’t got the hit? So I was lucky to produce Johnny but from Johnny I managed to do the Banshees’ first single “Hong Kong Garden,” which was a hit. And from then on it was like, “wow this is great, I can choose who I want to work with cause I’ve had a hit.”
As someone who was very aware of the Punk scene and was still young enough to actively be a part of it, was it exciting to you to have Steve Jones and Paul Cook in the studio? (Cook and Jones, of the Sex Pistols, play on a number of So Alone’s tracks)
I wasn’t over-awed by them because, to be honest, they were like regular South London guys. There was no aura of them being stars. I mean Steve Jones still looks like a builder and he did then. They were just normal guys, especially Paul Cook. Lovely kid. Just the same now.00
From a pure production or engineering point of view (Lillywhite also engineered So Alone) how was it different recording Thunders and recording Steve Jones?
In both cases, really, it was all just a case of quick, quick, quick, put a mic in front of a guitar amp. Thunders was more erratic, though his sense of timing was just great actually. He was very angular in his playing. He would not hit on the beat, he was always just behind the beat or a little slip off the beat. Steve Jones was right on it. Steve Jones is more of a rhythm player, really.
Was there ever any discussion of you working with Thunders again?
Nope. I think Johnny lived sort of one day at a time in a way… not in the good way that other people do. But you know, he really went where he could get his next meal, as such.
That’s a good description.
And because (laughs) that album was not a big hit. It’s subsequently grown in stature, and at the time it was considered a good album, but it didn’t pay his rent. So Johnny went back to New York afterwards and gave up on London for a while. I don’t really know what happened to him.
And you never ran into him?
No, I never saw him again after that album. Never saw him again. But this is the way it is sometimes…when you’re making an album with someone it’s like being married but then afterwards it just finishes. You’re so close to someone for that time but afterwards you just move on. I’m similar in a way, I can move on and not really look back, which is very bad for the American vision of therapy. It’s very English in that you don’t really look at your problems; you just stuff them as far down as possible until they go away. (Pauses) That’s a weird thing to say.
As you moved on in your career, did some of the better-known acts you have worked with – say, U2 or Dave Matthews – have an awareness of So Alone?
Absolutely not with Dave Matthews, he grew up in South Africa. The only thing he knew about me was XTC, he really enjoyed Drums and Wires and Black Sea. That was why I was on Dave Matthews’ list. But U2, absolutely. Bono was very much into his punk heritage. I think maybe they were a little more into the Ramones than the Heartbreakers or the Dolls because the Ramones had sort of a pop sensibility that Bono liked. I think at the end of the day Bono is a crooner, so he gets off on pop melodies. But they were certainly aware of Johnny and the legacy as much as anything.
We all looked up to him in such a way and we all wanted the best for him you know but he was probably his own worst enemy.