Six Reasons To Miss Keith Olsen

The producer’s passing leaves a hole in the rock ‘n’ roll firmament

Keith Olsen on bass (Art: Ron Hart)

On March 9, the rolls of rock history marked another member’s shift to posthumous status with the loss of producer, engineer, and musician Keith Olsen.

Most people would be proud to have helped define the sound of just one period in pop culture, but Olsen contributed to sea changes in multiple eras of the rock ‘n’ roll continuum. Below you’ll find just a handful of highlights from a career that spanned some five and a half decades.

A sampling of the many albums produced by Keith Olsen (Collage: Ron Hart)

That’s not even mentioning his work with Santana, Joe Walsh, The Association, Ozzy Osbourne, The James Gang, and enough others to fill the book that deserves to be written about Olsen’s oeuvre. If you’re eager for more info, take a gander at Sound City, the Dave Grohl-directed documentary about the Studio of the same name, which includes commentary from Sound City fixture Olsen himself.

GARAGE GLORY

Even if Olsen had never produced a single record, his place in rock history would be assured, via his role as bassist in The Music Machine. Most of the world knows the short-lived but eminently influential L.A. band for their 1966 single “Talk Talk,” which became renowned as a garage-rock classic largely thanks to its inclusion on the immortal 1972 Nuggets compilation. Before The Doors rolled around, The Music Machine were the original bad boys of the West Coast rock scene, clad all in black and emanating bad vibes that positioned them as progenitors of punk attitude, but with a psych/garage vibe.

VIDEO: Music Machine “Talk Talk”

SUNSHINE POP PARADISE

Immediately after exiting the dark realm of The Music Machine, Olsen made a complete about-face and entered the L.A. sunshine-pop universe. Trying his luck on the other side of the console, he became production partner to Curt Boettcher, the now-legendary impresario of the scene. Working in tandem with Boettcher in the late ’60s, Olsen helped forge the era’s chamber/psych-pop aesthetic, yoking angelic harmonies to baroque arrangements and radio-ready hooks for a whole slew of Boettcher-associated acts including The Millennium, Sandy Salisbury, Eternity’s Children, and Sagittarius, as well as Boettcher’s solo work. And at the start of the ’70s he even managed to mix a pair of albums by legendary pop auteur Emitt Rhodes.

 

AUDIO: The Millennium “The Island”

THE MAC ATTACK

In the ’70s Olsen really started spreading his wings as a producer. As an engineer at famed L.A. studio Sound City, he was perfectly placed to hop into the production chair on promising new projects. One of those was the lone, self-titled album by singer/songwriter duo Buckingham Nicks, which led to Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks sparking a new lineup of Fleetwood Mac. Naturally, Olsen was on hand as well for the eponymous blockbuster that made the band ’70s superstars and created a pop production template for the rest of the decade. Olsen returned to the Mac orbit in the ’80s when he lent a hand with production and writing on Nicks’s Rock a Little LP.

AUDIO: Buckingham Nicks “Frozen Love”

 

RAISING THE DEAD

In the mid ’70s, The Grateful Dead’s studio productions were becoming increasingly sophisticated and complex. In 1977 Olsen helped the former psychedelic warriors reach the apex of the process by handling production chores for the mighty Terrapin Station. Boldly going where no acid rock jockeys had gone before, Terrapin took the Dead to a whole new level of achievement. The second half of the album is occupied by the title suite, an elegant art-rock fable that makes the most of lyricist Robert Hunter’s storytelling gift and even employs a full-on orchestra. It was no flash in the pan either; the suite would remain a vital part of the Dead’s repertoire for the rest of their career.

 

AUDIO: The Grateful Dead “Terrapin Station”

 

PAT PUSHES THROUGH

Women rock stars were not exactly ubiquitous amid the testosterone overload of the late-’70s/early-’80s music scene. But when Pat Benatar burst into the spotlight, Olsen was right there to aid in her ascent. The two Benatar albums he produced, Crimes of Passion and Precious Time, remain her biggest ever. And the magic Olsen was able to work at Sound City is evident on both. For all the arena-ready roar and rumble of tracks like “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” Rascals revamp “You Better Run,” and “Promises in the Dark,” the sound of the room and the air around the instruments is audible, lending a personalized punch to the tunes.

 

VIDEO: Pat Benatar “You Better Run”

 

RICK ON A ROLL

Don’t let Rick Springfield’s ’80s teen idol status distract you from the fact that he successfully brought snappy, nuanced power pop to its rightful spot at the top of the charts with his ’81 breakthrough album Working Class Dog and its 1982 follow-up, Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet. But without the expert assistance of Keith Olsen, who knows whether “Jessie’s Girl,” “I’ve Done Everything For You,” “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” et al would have lodged themselves so inextricably in our cultural consciousness?

 

VIDEO: Rick Springfield “I’ve Done Everything For You”

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