QUADROPHENIA ENGINEER RON
NEVISON, INTERVIEWED FOR WON'T GET
FOOLED AGAIN: THE WHO FROM LIFEHOUSE TO QUADROPHENIA
In some ways, Quadrophenia
was quite different from the only other full rock opera the Who
released, Tommy. Where much
of Tommy's story verged at
points on fantasy fiction, Quadrophenia
was an earthy excavation into the very roots of the Who's history. The
journey of its protagonist through mid-1960s British mod culture was
very much the same as the one the Who and their original audience had
made, unglorified and speckled with frustration and failure. Yet Quadrophenia was similar to Tommy, and much of what the Who had
done back to 1965, in its focus on a misfit in search of identity, torn
between a wish to fit in and untamed nonconformity. Nor was it absent
of the ambivalent spiritual redemption found by the protagonist of Tommy, though the hero's journey
toward it in Quadrophenia is
The recording of Quadrophenia
was, like most of the Who's projects, fraught with lurches and
calamities, and struggles to fit the limits of the era's technologies
and market realities into Townshend's outsized conceptual ambitions.
For a 1973 recording, it was complex, involving not just the band's
usual power trio-plus-vocals, but also much in the way of synthesizers,
horns, and sound effects. There were also attempts to make the album
itself quadraphonic that couldn't come off, more due to the
shortcomings of quadraphonic home equipment than the band's own
capabilities. Yet though it had a somewhat mixed reception upon its
release, in part because of the unavoidable comparisons to Tommy, Quadrophenia ultimately endured as
one of the Who's most significant works.
Ron Nevison, a young American who'd never worked on a major album
before, was engineer for most of Quadrophenia's
sessions. He'd go on to engineer mid-1970s hit albums by British hard
rockers Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, and Thin Lizzy, and then produce
records by numerous artists, including the Babys, Eddie Money,
Survivor, Chicago, Ozzy Osbourne, Meatloaf, Jefferson Starship, David
Johansen, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. He was interviewed extensively about his
work with the Who on Quadrophenia
in November 2009, for Richie Unterberger's book Won't Get Fooled Again: The Who From
Lifehouse to Quadrophenia, available from Jawbone Press.
How did you get involved with the Who
In the late '60s in Philadelphia, I was working for a sound company. I
started doing big tours as a sound mixer; we call them "front of house
mixers" now. They were just mixers then. But I was doing a tour with
Traffic in 1969 or 1970, and I was talking to Chris Blackwell, who was
the head of Island Records, and he offered me a job. He said, 'Hey, if
you want to get out of the touring thing'...I said 'Yeah, I'm thinking
about it. I'm blown out.' 'Cause in those days, the sound mixers didn't
travel with their briefcase with a band on a plane. They drove the
truck! So I was getting tired of doing that.
So I went over to England and started working for peanuts, like I think
15 pounds a week or something, at Island Studios. I somehow got hooked
up with this guy John Alcock, who was a fellow engineer-producer like
me. He started a company with Pete Townshend called Trackplan. The idea
was to build studios for musicians. Pete was always into that kind of
thing. He had two studios in his houses.
So I got involved with Pete and got to meet him, and got involved with
that company. Over the course of the next two years I built a couple of
studios for the guys in the Faces, one for Ronnie Lane, which became
known as Lane's Mobile Sound, in an Airstream Trailer. And I built a
studio for Ronnie Wood in his basement of his big mansion there in
Richmond; he was still then in the Faces.
The Who wanted to use Ronnie's [Lane's] mobile out at Stargroves, which
was Mick Jagger's house out in the country, out near Stonehenge.
Because the whole way this came about is that Ronnie and Pete were good
friends. They lived in the same area, and they were both followers of
There was an engineer that I think was all set to do the Quadrophenia album, an American. I
don't remember who it was, to tell you the truth. It was determined
that he was too inebriated to do the sessions. He was pretty fucked up,
in other words. They had some problems, but I didn't take charge of the
board or anything like that.
Over the course of a week or so, I got to know all the Who guys really
well, and especially Keith Moon, who kind of took me under his wing.
Stargroves was like this country manor house, and it had its own little
pub right at the entrance of the estate. I don't think it was part of
the estate, but it was a pub, anyway. I remember walking down the road
with Keith and going to the pub and having a beer. We were playing what
they call bar billiards [on] these little bar billiards tables. They're
not real billiards tables; they're tiny small tables that have holes
and little posts. Keith said to me, "You know, I got two of these
tables at home. You want one?," 'cause I really got into playing it. I
was thinking of saying yes, but I said "no no no, c'mon."
I called up his wife Kim like a couple of weeks later, a month later. I
said, "Could you tell me where Keith got his bar billiards tables,
'cause I'm thinking of getting one. But don't tell him I called." And
she said, "What bar billiards tables?" If he had found out that I
called, he would have bought two of them, one to send to me, and one in
case I ever came over. That was just the way this guy was.
So we finished up at Stargroves, and I thought that was it. I thought
it was just a gig for Ronnie for his mobile truck. I then got a call
that they wanted me to bring Ronnie Lane's mobile down to Ramport,
which was their studio. Because they had to start working on this
album, and the control room wasn't together. The studio part was
together, but I don't think all the modules were there on the console,
it wasn't all checked out.
So the first time you worked with the
Who as an engineer was when they were actually recording Quadrophenia?
I wasn't involved in any sessions prior to the cutting of the tracks on
Quadrophenia. Even though I
was there with this other engineer, they were messing around, but that
wasn't at Ramport. That was out at Stargroves.
They'd recorded a couple tracks ["Is It In My Head" and "Love, Reign
O'er Me"] in 1972 with Glyn Johns as associate producer and engineer,
but he wasn't involved with the Ramport sessions.
Even though I recorded the end of "Love, Reign O'er Me," when we did
this big percussion thing where we got the studio filled with
percussion and Keith trashed the whole thing. That's what you hear at
the end of Quadrophenia, him
pushing over like [a] massive amount, trashing percussive instruments.
I think I found out in later years that the reason they didn't go back
to Glyn Johns was because Roger was pissed off at him for getting
distortion on one of his vocals. An absurd reason. But anyway, I got
the call. I guess they figured that if I built the fucking studio, that
[they] could, you know, give me a shot at recording it. I was really
not hired to do the Quadrophenia
album. I was hired to run Ronnie's mobile, and get the tracks cut.
Now at that point, it was only 8-track. Ronnie didn't pay for 16, and I
had a lot of problems going 16, because – I don't know if you're
familiar with an Airstream, but they're like a tube. In those days, the
tape machines were enormous. There wasn't room enough, without putting
the tape machines right in the middle of the room, to go up to 16
tracks. So we had to put like 8 tracks down at the bottom, and 8 tracks
up top, and then I got into all sorts of problems with hum, 'cause it
was right next to the motor. We finally got it all sorted out. In fact,
it was the very first 8-up, 8-down Studer A80 [a two-inch, 16-track
tape deck configured so that eight tracks were above the deck and eight
below it] in history.
We cut the first half a dozen Quadrophenia tracks – maybe just four, I
don't remember – with the eight tracks, and then, over the course of a
weekend, I converted it to sixteen. And then we recorded the rest of
the Quadrophenia backing
tracks on 16-track. And I did eight to sixteen copies on the first few
backing tracks, so it ended up being 16-track. But I was only hired to
actually record the initial [batch], and they liked what I did. They
kept me on. So when we were finished with the backing tracks and the
studio was ready, I was on board as the guy. So I was just in the right
place at the right time. I'm sure I would have been out of there after
a day, but they loved what I did. They not only kept me around for that
album, but then they kept me around for the Tommy film [soundtrack], which was
another big project.
I had been doing sessions for two or three years, it wasn't like I was
a total novice. But obviously, this was the biggest album I had ever
done. I mean, this was probably the biggest album that anybody would
ever do! I wouldn't be talking to you if that wasn't the case.
Kit Lambert's credited as an executive
producer of Quadrophenia, and had produced most of their stuff
before 1970. Did he have any role in the production?
Kit at that time, and Chris Stamp, were the co-managers. And Kit had
very little to do with Quadrophenia.
He was there at some point, but I don't think he was there as any kind
of...he was just there as the manager. And Chris would come in every
once in a while. Pete really ran the show. Everything started when Pete
got there, and everything finished when Pete left.
One of the innovative aspects of Quadrophenia, and the Who's entire early 1970s output,
was Pete Townshend's use of synthesizer. What were the challenges of
integrating that into the recordings?
Pete was really big-time into the synthesizer thing. The ARP 2500,
which he used exclusively during the Quadrophenia
sessions, was a modular synthesizer. He never brought that down to the
studio. He kept that at home. You couldn't move that around. You
couldn't keep sounds on it. When you got one sound, you'd have to patch
everything up. You couldn't click a button and keep it. Then it used to
go out of tune all the time, so you'd have to tune up all the
oscillators. It was an enormous pain in the ass.
You'd spend an hour getting a sound, then you'd play it, and then you'd
have to take out all these patch cords and patch up for a different
sound. You'd never get the sound exactly the same, even though you took
notes. It would never be exactly the same the next time. So it was far
from perfect. It was a beast.
So Pete would work at night feverishly recording these things on his
16-track. That was mainly because Pete wanted to use the hours and
hours and hours of synthesizer stuff that he'd put in on these demos,
because there was no way that we could spend as much time as he needed
for the synthesizer parts.
Some of his Quadrophenia solo demos have been
issued officially, or circulate unofficially. It's amazing how close
they sound in some respects to the arrangements used on the final
tracks, recorded with the whole band.
The only thing demo about them was the fact that he played drums and
bass. That was the only demo aspect of it. He would lay a click down,
and he would put basic drums and bass. But he was very careful not to
do what Keith or John would do. 'Cause he didn't want them to follow what he wanted
them to do. He wanted Keith and John to do their own thing.
Now it's a three-piece band, so he'd be very careful to just do basic
bass and drum parts. He would play them himself with a click, and then
he would [do] his synthesizer work. So what would happen was, on these
synthesizer tracks, Keith would play to a click, and we'd record the
drums and bass and guitar. The only ones we did that on, were the major
synthesized tracks. The straight-on rock and roll ones, like "5:15," we
just cut without a click. Three of them would play ¬– well, four of
'em, you know, Roger would sing. And we'd just keep going over it until
we got it right.
So the arrangements were set; the tempos were set. But he'd leave
enough room for Keith to do his thing, and for John to do his thing.
I don't remember a lot of rehearsals. Pete would bring in the demos. I
can't be sure if Pete demoed everything; I definitely know Pete did the
demos on the synth tunes, which there was quite a lot of. I think he
just showed them the song, and they rehearsed it a bit and found parts,
and Pete like suggested things or whatever.
Aside from Townshend's impressive
technical facility with synthesizers, I think he used them with more
subtlety and taste than other people in rock were doing at the time.
Would you agree?
Yeah, I mean, he used them in more of an orchestral fashion. Beautiful
strings and orchestra. When you think of Quadrophenia, you don't think of
synthesizers so much. You think of strings and you think of horns. He
used synth horns, and of course, Entwistle used his real horns. It was
a nice blend, with the both of them. I never recorded any of the
Entwistle horns. He did them in his studio. He would take the tapes
home at night, and Pete would take the tapes home at night. They'd all
record stuff at their own studios. John had his own studio in his
house, and he had his own engineer. I don't think I ever met him.
Pete did orchestral stuff rather than synth-y stuff. The 2500 ARP
synthesizer was really brought in as an answer to the Moog. It was like
its competition. It's very cool. It's all big modules with a keyboard
in the front. I didn't record one synthesizer part. He did all of it
himself, and it was all done before we started. For that matter, all
the stuff on the Tommy film
too was done at Pete's house. All of the horn parts were done at John's
That's an underrated contribution that
Entwistle made to the album.
It was a plus. Look at that point in time. When I was a young engineer,
before synthesizers, what we had at our disposal was very limited. A
bunch of guitars, we had Hammond B-3, a Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer piano,
maybe a Mellotron, and that's it, to make music without orchestrations.
Because there wasn't anything else. You wanted to try and make
something big and luscious and moody. So the fact that John Entwistle
could contribute the horns parts, as a bass player, was a definite
plus. And they fit in nicely with Pete's synth horns. All the different
themes that Pete had for Quadrophenia
were perfect for that.
What were the biggest challenges of
recording Quadrophenia, where
there are a lot of elements in the mix?
It went very easily. Pete was very precise. He had it ready to go. It
was very smooth. I mean, he's so together. He knows exactly what he
wants. He was the guy. He was the director, the producer. It was his
baby. And what a great person for me to do a first big album with. I
was pretty much in awe of the whole thing.
[A] big challenge in recording the drums was Keith had so many drums, I
couldn't get microphones everywhere. He had two hi-hats, he had like
eight tom-toms, he had I don't know how many cymbals, and a gong. And
two kick drums, and oh my god...and so, that was a challenge. The rest
of it was very easy. Recording John's bass, I used mostly the amp. His
amp sounded great. He had a great feel and a great sound. And Pete,
same thing with the guitars. It was a very easy thing to do. And they
weren't real, real picky about their sounds either. I mean, they were
picky, but they weren't like up your ass about it.
I used to marvel at John's bass playing. It was just incredible. He had
his own sound. Bass is not something that's really easy to record. It
might be the toughest thing, as an engineer I can tell you that. He was
very easy to record.
uses a lot of sound effects, and more ingeniously than maybe any other
rock album. They're very important to the story.
I recorded most of 'em myself. The biggest project was the sea
[effects]. I took Ronnie's truck down by myself on a weekend down to
Cornwall, only because I had vacationed there previously. I knew where
I wanted to go, instead of having to go down there, scout locations,
and then drive the truck down. So I went down there and recorded – I
had a perfect spot, and it was a great day. I put four microphones out,
and I recorded quadraphonic sea sound. Of course, I only got to use
So I took the truck down to Cornwall and set up four U87s, two on the
rocks and two in the back, waited for the tide to come in; spent about
three or four hours, five hours, six hours, I don't remember. When the
tide went out, I kind of like went out without the microphones, [so
they] wouldn't be trashed, and recorded a bunch of sea noise. That's
the sea that you hear throughout the album, especially at the
We wanted some strikers striking for "Dirty Jobs," I think. They have
the Speakers Corner [in London's Hyde Park], so I went there. People
get up and people shout and stuff. I had my microphones out, and I got,
let's say, shown off the property. I got escorted to Park Lane and told
not to come back. You're not allowed to [record speakers]; I didn't
know that. Another sound effects recording, I went to Regents Park and
recorded a Sousa band. Now this time I was smart; I hid the microphones
in like a bag, and just stuck the heads of the microphones out to pick
up the noise.
I recorded the rain a couple of different places. I went out to Wales
on a rainy weekend, in a tent. I was hoping to get thunder, but you
can't wait for thunder. It's not something you can program. So I ended
up getting a lot of rain. Then I also recorded rain at Ramport on a
rainy night. I always had the recorder ready in case we got thunder,
but we never did. So I ended up having to use thunder from archival
There's the story that the studio was
actually flooded when you recorded "Drowned," one of the songs which
has Chris Stainton on piano.
I knew Chris, because Chris was in Joe Cocker's band, and I had been
the soundman on the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. Chris was lovely, a
wonderful guy. The night we cut "Drowned" in Ramport Studios, this was
still with Ronnie Lane's mobile studio outside; at this point it was
16-track. We were cutting a live track, which meant that acoustic piano
was in an isolation booth. As we're cutting the track, I started seeing
like emergency lights, 'cause an Airstream has windows, like a remote
truck wouldn't. There's lights pulling up behind me with like emergency
vehicles. I open the door – it was pouring rain – and it was the fire
department. What happened was, the roof caved in from water and went
right down into the vocal booth where Chris Stainton was playing, and
flooded his vocal booth. During the song "Drowned," if you can believe
that. Absolutely true story. I think Chris just kept playing (laughs),
and the roadies called the fire department, and they got there in two
minutes or something. I don't remember whether we were able to finish
the song at that point, but that was interesting.
The mixing of Quadrophenia was very involved for
a 1973 record, especially with all the synthesizer, horns, and effects
in addition to the parts the band usually did.
Pete and I did it [the mix], just the two of us. The biggest problem
was, his studio was great, but the speakers weren't terrific, and they
weren't tweaked. So we had to do quite a lot of work in the mastering.
We had to add quite a lot of EQ to it, the top end wasn't there. But
the quality of the mix was great. He had his house in a place called
Goring. I was staying at a little bed and breakfast, like a pub kind of
thing, on the other side of the river. He used to pick me up on his
boat and bring me over to the house, because it was quicker than me
going a couple miles down the river, crossing the bridge, and then
coming back. We spent a few weeks there mixing the whole thing, and as
you can imagine, it's not just mixing the songs. When we sequenced, we
had to cross-fade all of the things [that] went right in from one to
another. So it was a tremendous amount of work.
But the biggest thing I remember about the mixing – we had a lot of
sound effects, and we didn't have any room. We were on 16 tracks. Can
you imagine, with all the synthesizer, all the vocals, all the effects,
and everything? We didn't have room to put everything onto the
16-track. So Pete got hold of a couple of these cartridge players that
they used in radio stations for commercials. We had two machines – he
had one and I had one – and we would load the sound effects. You'd
click a button, and it goes off, and then the next one comes up, and
then you hit the button again and the next one goes off, like you'd [do
with] commercials. So we'd load them in in the order that we had in the
mix. He'd have like three or four on one side, and I'd have three or
four on the other side. When we wanted thunder, or a train whistle,
we'd be mixing, and just hit the button on the thing, and sound effects
would come out. That was how we achieved all the sound effects, 'cause
we didn't have room for them on the recording.
Once the whole thing was mixed, the next thing was cross-fading from
one song to another, which was a tricky thing. Each side of [the] four
sides of this record had like 100 edits in it. One time I was spooling
through one side of the record and the edit came apart and the whole
thing went on the floor. Luckily, nothing was injured. We were freaked
out, but a splice had come apart. So we just carefully picked it back
up, and certainly it was cool. But the whole Goring thing was just Pete
and I, the two of us, mixing. I don't even think there was an assistant
there, just the two of us did it. We were there maybe three weeks.
There were some subsequent reports
that members of the Who were dissatisfied with aspects of the mix,
I had heard the same thing. I never really heard anything from
Entwistle. But you know, bass players want their basses loud, and
vocalists want their vocals as loud as possible. And Roger was very big
on the ego thing. It doesn't surprise me. Pete and I did what we
thought sounded right. And this happens all the time. Not everybody's
happy with all the mixing you do. It's a fact of life. It happens in
almost every project I've ever done, somebody doesn't like something
about it. In this case as an engineer, I followed what Pete...Pete was
the producer. When he liked it, if I thought he was making a mistake, I
would speak up. But when he liked it, I liked it. But it wasn't about
Roger. It was about the Who.
The album was called Quadrophenia in part because it was
planned to be issued in the quadraphonic format. What happened with
The parent company of Track Records, which was their UK label, was
Universal and MCA, in the US in LA. Universal/MCA had adopted a certain
system for this quadraphonic bullshit, which is all it was. It was
supposed to be the next thing after stereo. But it was a bunch of crap.
They took the stereo and they folded in out-of-phase tracks. It wasn't
any kind of what we call discrete quad, where you have dedicated
left-right front, left-right rear. When we tried a test mix halfway
through with the album – when we finally got the equipment to encode
these bullshit quad tracks ¬– we realized that the front-to-back
separation was like 5dB [decibels]. It was like a big giant mono. And
Pete said, "You know, I am not going to do a quad mix that's worse than
the stereo mix. Period." Why do anything like that? And that was it;
whatever Pete said was it. He sent that memo to MCA. They were furious,
I think, because they wanted to launch their whole quad thing with Quadrophenia, a Who album, the
follow-up to Tommy, the whole
kind of nine yards.
And I was right with him, man. I thought this was a bunch of shit, you
know. I think that in one afternoon session, that all blew up when we
realized that it was a crock of shit, this whole quad idea. And it was
I think that in the end, the quadraphonic thing that MCA and record
companies were trying to do in those days was gimmicky. It would have
sold the decoder and two more speakers and amplifiers. So you have your
normal stereo, and then you put it through a decoder and add another
amplifier with two more speakers, and you have quad. But what you have
is mono. And we weren't buying it. It would have been nice to have done
a quad thing in 1973. Wouldn't that have been fabulous. But it wasn't
What you do think of how Quadrophenia sounds on CD?
The only thing I've listened to is the remix. You can do such more
nowadays, with the kind of quality stuff, limiting and all that. But I
have to say that the [original] mix still holds up for me. But I do
like the new mix. I did talk to Pete a few years ago, and he still
likes the mix that we did. If I had to pick a mix, I would go with the
new mix, 'cause it does sound better. It doesn't have some of the
qualities that we put in there. The train whistle is gone from "5:15,"
not that that's a big deal, at the intro of that song on the new thing.
Like I said, we had scattered all that stuff on cartridge machines,
even though I think I was very careful to archive all of the sound
effects on quarter-inch tape. We kept the reels of quarter-inch tape
that had all the sound effects on it. They probably should have been
stored with the mixes and everything else. But who knows who stores
stuff? But because stuff wasn't on the 16-track, they would have lost
has been overshadowed to some extent by the Who's other double-album
opera, Tommy. How successful
do you think Quadrophenia was
I think it was very successful artistically. Maybe I'm a little biased;
I thought it was just a fantastic project, and brilliantly done. And I
was just so proud to be part of it. Certainly I was thrown into Quadrophenia, and I had to swim, or
sink. And fortunately, I swam. It's a great experience.