Not a day seems to go by when some important figure from the music world, as it emerged in the 1960s and 70s, passes away. Following Peter Green, and of the most relevance to me was Martin Birch, not a musician, but recording engineer for Fleetwood Mac and many other English rock groups. Such is the cultural power of that period in music that even an engineer can be mourned, despite the fact that he retired from the role about 30 years ago, aged 42. He was actually a bit younger than Green and most of the other musicians he worked with early on, so got the dream job at a very young age.
It was certainly the age of the young artist, and Martin Birch was described as the catalyst for much of the music, particularly the rise of Deep Purple. In the press he was described as a ‘heavy metal producer’, due to his work with Iron Maiden. But we can forgive him for that. He should be remembered for his role in a run of classic LPs in the early 1970s, beginning with Deep Purple in Rock in 1970, and the period in which he also engineered for Fleetwood Mac and Wishbone Ash. My interest here is to look at a few of these albums, and try to see them as a particular genre, not the forerunner of ‘heavy metal’. Birch was so busy in 1971 and 72 it must be seen as a kind of peak of British rock.
Fleetwood Mac continued on without Peter Green after he left in 1970, with Birch being the engineer for Green’s solo album End of the Game, and the Mac LP Kiln House. Then Jeremy Spencer left for a religious cult, leaving Danny Kirwan as leader, and they recruited American guitarist, Bob Welch. Welch wrote the title track for the next LP, Future Games, and added his particular songwriting touch to that of Kirwan and Christine McVie. The track ‘Future Games’ is a strange one, and rather long, with Welch’s multi-tracked vocal kind of buried in the mix, and with various over-dubbed guitar parts that sometimes seem out of place. It’s hard to believe that Martin Birch would have mixed it that way as the actual producer, but it was the early seventies after all. Mac went on to release Bare Trees in 1972, which I think is a great album, with all three songwriters on great form. Danny Kirwan’s guitar instrumental ‘Sunny Side of Heaven’ is truly beautiful, no doubt assisted by Martin Birch’s recording of the guitar tracks.
‘Bare Trees’ is an another guitar-laden track with some perfunctory vocal lines, but with a clear theme. Danny Kirwan was something of a master of a kind of autumnal feel in his songs, a shame I can’t describe it any better. But there is a clear similarity to the music of Wishbone As in this period. This was another twin guitar group, without any keyboards, and with most vocals handled by bass player, Martin Turner. Their 1971 LP Pilgrimage appears with stylized cover art of an old bare tree, and contains a number of moody instrumentals, in which the lead guitars of Andy Powell and Ted Turner weave around each other. This distinctive guitar style was honed even further on the classic album that followed, Argus, which had a kind of ancient warrior theme happening on the second side. There is also a very distinctive LP cover designed by the Hipgnosis guys.
Argus is the most well known LP by Wishbone Ash in a long career, and is closely associated with the twin lead guitar approach, and with Martin Birch. Along with Bare Trees, it comes from the same period as Deep Purple’s Machine Head, perhaps the best album in the British rock genre. It’s well known that Birch was in charge of the Rolling Stone mobile recording unit that was based in Montreux, Switzerland, in the middle of winter in 1971. As described in ‘Smoke on the Water’, Deep Purple ended up in an empty hotel for the recording session, and came up with some long-lived gems, such as Highway Star, Space Truckin and Lazy. Of course, Purple only had one guitarist, Ritchie Blackmore, a man who could not have played with any other guitarist, and he wasn’t that keen on vocalists either. It was not long before vocalist Ian Gillan left, and while the follow up, Who do we think We are, wasn’t as successful, it still has a great sound.
In fact, the recording of those four Purple LPs changed fairly clearly over time. The breakthrough album, In Rock, has a deliberately raw sound. It’s almost as if Birch was still a novice at this point, not able to use all the tracks available in the studio; or, perhaps, that he didn’t use the latest technology. Though I’m not an expert on these things, sometimes it seems that groups did try to use all the tracks they could, and end up with a song that is too busy, a possible criticism of some of Bob Welch’s stuff. But In Rock sounded like a group in a hurry, with a live feel to the recording. The first side is one of the classics in rock: going from Speed King into Bloodsucker; and then the epic Child in Time, where Jon Lord’s organ playing has a classical feel, before we get to Ian Gillan’s so-called ‘silver throated’ screaming, and Blackmore’s extended guitar solo (then a reprise of Gillan’s screams). But what a tour de force the album is, and even if the second side is less memorable, it still has momentum, ending with Hard Loving Man. And with iconic cover art.
One of the interesting things about the Deep Purple albums in this period, and the Wishbone Ash LPs, was the format chosen. All the Purple LPs have seven songs, and with one side of three songs, it allows for an extended track. This usually worked well, except perhaps on the album that followed In Rock, called Fireball, which has a bit of a throwaway song, Anyone’s Daughter, ending side one; and then the second side loses its momentum in the middle track, The Mule. Ritchie Blackmore has suggested that the band had let the standards slip on Fireball, but it nonetheless still went to the top of the charts in Britain. Birch continued to produce for Purple until its temporary demise in 1976, the year that he worked with Blackmore’s new group Rainbow, producing the Rainbow Rising LP, which included Stargazer, recorded with the Munich symphony orchestra (something Blackmore was not usually keen on). And another iconic cover.
Rainbow also included the American singer Ronnie James Dio, who lasted in the group until 1978. He then replaced Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath for two LPs, both produced by Martin Birch. These did not sound that much like the classic Black Sabbath, but were more melodic, and closer to Birch’s early 70s guitar sound than the Ozzy era band. But it also meant that Birch became the so-called heavy metal producer, and Iron Maiden called. So what to say about Birch: you lucky man, well played old son, a glorious career.