interview was conducted by Phil Singleton (Editor) for the premier
Sex Pistols site God
Save The Sex Pistols
during November 2002. We post it here on stereosociety.com, with permission,
in identical form save for extra pictures, colors,
site links and a few grammar corrections).
interview with Mike Thorne.
Mike's standing within the Sex Pistols' saga cannot be
understated. Mike was the first EMI employee to seek out the Sex Pistols.
It was on Mike's recommendation that A&R man Nick Mobbs would eventually
secure the band's signature to EMI.
Mike became the group's A&R man for their turbulent stay on the
The release this year of the box set 'Sex
made demos produced by Mike in December '76 available officially
for the first time.
Mike offers a fresh, honest and unique insiders perspective
on a fascinating period in rock history.
Interview conducted by Phil Singleton.
in the bath after another hard punk day
was your music industry background prior to becoming involved with
had been six months on EMI's payroll - that was my mainstream biz total
experience. But I had studied piano and flute, and also composition part-time
at the Guildhall. Got fired from my first recording studio job in 1971
under slightly lively circumstances. Wound up writing about pop and contemporary
classical music for the Guardian
among others, and edited Studio Sound, which became the world's
leading professional studio magazine on my watch. Then off to EMI.
At my first record company, I didn't know how to behave. I tried the
time-honored method of hanging out at the Speakeasy and talking to publishers,
exchanging gossip, but the schmooze didn't suit (still doesn't). When
the punk scene grew, I didn't know any better than to jump in. It looked
like real action. However, having studied music and worked on sessions
with Fleetwood Mac, Deep Purple and others, I had a useful piece-meal
practical education by the time I encountered the Pistols.
You were to become instrumental in the Pistols
signing to EMI. When did you first become aware of the band?
I picked up the phone when Malcolm [McLaren] called,
then saw them at the 100 Club in Oxford Street. Couldn't persuade anyone
else from EMI to walk over from the Marquee where their signing Giggles
had just played. They werent hot property then, despite having
featured on the cover of Melody Maker (I hadnt noticed
since I never read the comics nor listened to the radio, and was just
pursuing my naïve
musical nose as ever). To many, it was probably just another of Mikes
crazy projects, and since the punk movement was quite esoteric at
that time they werent unjustified. That said, after three months
the companys swing in support of the group was enormous.
remember the first real meeting with the group, but it was probably
after they joined EMI and I was their designated A&R man. In my
tiny office (I had a nice corner one by the time of the Roxy
more thanks to a quick move and a nod from the departing occupant
than to status). Everything moved fast, thanks to Malcolm's shrewd
management and then the drunken
I enjoyed being around the group. They weren't hard to deal with,
although John took a while before relaxing his professionally cynical
stance. Since we were all interested in simply furthering the musical
action, there was a common goal and we settled into it.
The comment in the new CD release notes that
I did so well to get so much music out of them on a demo Saturday
afternoon is flattering. But I found them to be very applied and
hardworking if they felt with the program. Might be awful for credibility,
but there you go. I never really figured out what happened at A&M
(I was buried in the studio by then, producing five albums in 1977),
but apart from occasional edginess there was never any functional madness
at EMI. They would quite happily hang out in the main open A&R
area, along with other similar characters. That central A&R area
became quite a pleasant drop-in social scene until the fall (of high
management, some might say).
I've only recently listened to the demos we did, for the first time
in 15 years. They do sound good, but the most striking thing is the
energy in the playing. Everyone was relaxed, and the three instrumentalists
were loose and throwing in extras that probably wouldn't have been
part of the 'playing the notes' rule in the big studio. John had a
sore throat, and was as usual bickering with Glen, but despite this
his vocals still have force and character.
Am I correct in thinking the Pistols were your
first production job? Following in the footsteps of Dave Goodman,
Chris Spedding, & Chris Thomas, must have been intimidating, especially
had already been released as a single. How did it all come about?
The Pistols was not a production job. All
I did was go in and record a few demos for internal consumption
and backing tracks in anticipation of future TV action. I was exhibiting
production skills, sure, but producer was not my role and it wasnt
my intention to usurp Chris Thomas (not that I ever could have).
The Dave Goodman demos were energetic but their sound was, I thought,
not very palatable to the record company crew, and I wanted to gather
as much support for the music as I could. Bear in mind that this
music was very different from that of other acts at EMI in 1976,
and that punk would not become vaguely mainstream record biz fashionable
When Chris was dithering about whether to continue working with them
(that was how I heard it from Nick Mobbs, my boss) I asked if I could
be considered if Chris passed. He didnt, so asking was the closest
I got. I wasnt
intimidated by the prospect at all. But it would have been a challenge,
which is all I ever ask from the next task I tackle, those in 2002
with the energy they produced in the studio, what did you find
were the individual band members particular strengths in terms
of group dynamics?
Its difficult to comment on individuals
within a working group. To work, a band needs social glue elements
as well as the music, and individuals will fill them as appropriate.
In the studio, often when you look back over a project with some
good ideas, you cant
actually remember who proposed what, just that some inspiration arose
out of the encounter.
The obvious comment is about John and Glens differences, the subject
of so much chatter and enduring for John with remarkable bitchiness
in his memoir. But they were the two poles driving and defining the
group, and it worked. They were the Sex Pistols Mick and Keef,
their Roger and Pete. Creative tension can yield a lot, although it can
degenerate into shouts and fights.
Mention of the recording of backing tracks for
TV, which I take would be used for the band to perform along to, leads
me onto the commitment of EMI to push the group. The recording session
took place on 11th December in the wake of the Bill Grundy interview.
Did the Grundy incident lead to a noticeable shift in support within
EMI? If so, how did it manifest itself?
There was a big shift in support on the shop floor
within EMI, completely towards the group. This august institution hadnt
had as much fun in years, and it was exciting even for the most reserved
employees to be connected to something which was clearly noteworthy and
making big waves.
The senior management, however, took a different approach. They were
part of the establishment which the group was baiting, and a connection
with the Pistols would not help progress towards a mention in the Honours
List. Nick Mobbs had a meeting with Sir
John Read one
evening, for which he dressed in a dark suit. The august Sir John apparently
asked a few bland questions and then it was over. Clearly, the decision
was pretty much made at that time a few days before Christmas.
When the group was dropped, the workers were disgusted. What were we
doing trying to find and develop bright new and novel acts when one of
the most promising in years was kicked out by the bosses? Among others,
both Nick and I considered resigning, but we realized that it would accomplish
nothing: they were gone, and the regime would not change its attitude.
So we came back with the live Roxy Club album just five months later
with which the toffs might have had some problem if they ever listened.
(I had to remove some curses because the quality control department at
the pressing plant refused to handle it otherwise.) But post-Pistols
punk was relatively inoffensive to the super-bosses because it wasnt
targeting the establishment with which they identified. No OBEs were
With apprehension within the company, did you feel
you were on some personal mission to, as you said, make them more palatable
to EMI? Did the demos you cut with them help gather more support within
There was no apprehension within the company, just
skepticism. When I delivered one of several iterations of Anarchy to
the weekly marketing meeting (where A&R would present its new
recordings), there was shocked silence from most present. I said I
would put my shirt on this one (not too attractive since it was an
old, smelly blue T-shirt which Id had on all through the previous
late-night session at Wessex).
The recordings were intended to make the songs more accessible than
Dave Goodmans initial demo set, which captured energy but whose recording
I thought fairly erratic. I didnt want the recording to come
between the company and the songs and for it to be put off, so I recorded
them in straightforward rock+roll fashion, the approach of the eventual
album and which (of course) suited the music. I dont think the
demos were circulated since I didnt mix them for a week after
they were recorded (on the 18th), by which time the holidays were
starting. In any case, we would only let a few select people listen
to demos since (as now) many couldnt make the mental leap
from a demo to a final recording and would treat everything as if
finished and judge accordingly.
Do you recall why particular songs were chosen
for recording during your session?
The songs with vocals were candidates for the second
single, to follow Anarchy In The UK. The instrumentals were thrown
down as potential backing tracks for TV performances, where only the
vocal would be live. The group had done this performance mime already,
but with the building anarchy a little mayhem might have been expected
in the studio when they were asked again to go through this artificial
and stifling TV production process.
God Save The Queen is of particular interest
as the recording you made catches the song in its embryonic state. Were
you already aware of the song? What are you memories of its recording
and the groups approach to it?
God Save The Queen
was tangled up with and as No Future at the time of these recordings.
Obviously, I already knew the song in this form, but it would be
later to its punchy final version. Although John was feeling his way
with the lyrics, I rather liked the God save Windolene line
and thought it appropriate (Wipe in on/Wipe it off/Thats
how to get your windows clean was the fatuous contemporary
TV commercial for the glass cleaner).
As with all the songs, there was so much to get down that there was
no discussion about the music. This was how they played it then,
and I wasnt
interfering (I didnt think it was my place at the time, anyway).
Since there was no external meddling, the energy in the session
delivery was unusually high, translated straight from their recent
Were you aware that four of your demos (No
Feelings, No Future, Liar, & Problems), had been broadcast on Italian
radio in 1977, and as a result eventually turned up on an unofficial
I hadnt given the tape a second thought after
the Pistols were dropped by EMI. That year (1977) I produced five full
albums and a few singles as well as fulfilling A&R duties for EMI,
and was effectively buried in work. I cant resist buying any
Pistols CD that shows up, and have a fair collection of Sexpistolploitation
disks, but I never came across The Italian Job. Sounds like
an Ealing comedy film, The Lavender Hill Mob Part 2.
Future also appeared on a bootleg CD, Aggression Through
Did you have any idea that the demos had attained an almost mythical
status amongst Pistols fans?
When the group called it quits in 1978, I didnt
pay any attention to the legacy. It had been a fun and stimulating time,
and I was glad of the chance to grow and develop in those extraordinary
social and musical times, but new exciting things lay elsewhere. The
recording was nothing special, just all in a days work. Engineers
Ron and Dave at the studio in Manchester Square didnt like me
doing my own engineering, since it compromised their overtime. But by
engineering I could get very close to the people I was working with,
in a relaxed situation with no-one else around. Later, such sessions
would pay off when we were more easily able to speak the same musical
language. And it helped to demonstrate that the guy at the record company
knew where the on/off switch could be found on the big electrical recording
Fortunately, Ron and Dave never wanted to work Saturdays, so most of
those afternoons I would work with some prospect or, as with the Pistols,
put down demos to help clear ideas about the next master recordings.
I always made sure to leave the studio spic and span so that Ron and
Dave would have nothing to grumble about. Come Monday morning, you wouldnt
have known anyone had been there, let alone the band with the most destructive
reputation in the solar system. It might have been the same with a Wire
or a Kate Bush, or anyone else with whom I was working in A&R.
Thankfully, the release of the Sex Pistols Box
Set (Virgin) this year has made the recordings available to the wider
public and in pristine quality. In addition, three more backing tracks
from the session are tucked away as 'hidden' extras (Anarchy, God
Save the Queen and Pretty Vacant). No one knew about their existence.
It was clearly a productive afternoon. Are there any more we don't know
Hidden extras? I didnt know they were there.
Should I be that ashamed of them? [Goes fishing around the CDs.] Oh,
I get it, at the end of each CD without a separate index. Didnt
think that rather easy-going version of Submission that ends disk
two merited over eight minutes, and took the disk off. The backing track
of Anarchy that follows maybe isnt the most musically conclusive
way to finish disk one after the whole of the finished album tracks its
pace and energy sound a bit past sell-by date, although the sound is
fierce and gritty. It was a long afternoon. The other two are pretty
sparky, though, vigorous enough to be masters.
When I first heard the 'new' backing tracks, I
felt not only that the power of the tracks was amazing, but that they
gave perhaps the most clear indication of what Bollocks might
have sounded like with Glen Matlock still
on bass. Exciting, tight, and importantly, inventive, something which
was lost once he'd departed. Is this a viewpoint you share?
Yes. Musically, I thought the group stopped developing
when Glen left, and lost its musical coherence. Sid played better in
the shock/horror department but to be effective you need more than that.
With Sid on bass, the video looked great but the musical strength failed.
The most plastic MTV pop video still has to start with a good tune.
Glen did play on some of the Bollocks tracks, although I forget
the background to his being asked back. I get embarrassed for John when
reading his self-consciously strident comments about Glens helping
out in his book. Glens book has a measured and extended commentary
on the events leading up to his departure (he wasnt fired, that
was just Malcolms spin on Glens resignation when Johns
pop star poses got a bit too much to stand). Musically, the band could
have gone on to develop and keep innovating creatively, but that was
a complete social non-starter. That breakup was coming was pretty clear
in December 1976.
Did you think the band itself would fall apart,
or did you feel that Glen would be the one to leave?
I didnt really give it a second thought since
I was absolutely at full stretch dealing with the records I was producing,
starting just after Christmas 1976. In early January, while working
seven-day weeks and 14-hour days at the Manor studios, near Oxford,
my boss Nick Mobbs phoned to say that they had been dropped. I gave
myself a few minutes of being pissed off, then did the professional
thing and went back to work. I was exhausted almost to the point of
breakdown by the end of that month, at the ripe old age of 29. If they
had still been my A&R responsibility
at EMI, then obviously I would have been involved and concerned. But
EMI did of course court Glen during this period,
with a view to signing him independently of the Pistols, which is what
happened with the Rich Kids. What was the inside view on this?
The courtship, if thats the right word, was
only when it was confirmed that Glen had left the Pistols. Since I had
been the Pistols point man at EMI, I was straight to work with
Glen. The nucleus of the Rich Kids was Glen, Steve New and Rusty Egan,
but Glen wanted a classic guitar band with two front men. He contacted
Midge Ure at the time, as the rather teeny-rock band that he fronted
(Slik) was disbanding.
The new group was cemented by a spring expedition the two of us made
to a Rezillos gig at a small town just outside Edinburgh. We connected
with Midge there and he drove us to Glasgow, his home at the time. By
the following morning, the band was in place and heading to EMI. I produced
the first single with Midge taking lead vocals on one side, Glen on
the other, which was then reproduced by Mick Ronson, whose pedigree
was obviously significantly higher than mine. There was some debate
within the company about which was the stronger version. I never played
the two back to back, since I accepted the decision of the boss (for
Ronson) and just went on the next project.
It's interesting that you use the term 'a social
non-starter' regarding their musical development. Did you feel the Pistols
were already embalmed by their cultural position?
Ive worked with several initially raw bands,
such as Soft
years later in 1981, who found themselves suddenly and disconcertingly
thrust into the limelight. Its very difficult
for anyone in that position to handle the wild ride and to keep a level
creative head. Ive found it difficult enough in my own position,
at times. Youre surrounded by people who say how great everything
is, everyone likes to hang out. You can easily lose perspective and
you can start believing your own press. The Pistols were even more
exceptional and pressure-prone since they (and the punk movement)
were big daily news as well as hit recording artists. Sends the head
Everything happened at high speed. Somewhere back then, the generating
music got lost in a pile of self-reinforcing attitude. Its a version
of complacency, and it stops you developing. You just go through the
motions and cant escape to gain a sense of perspective. Embalmed
is a good way of putting it, although they were worthy cultural icons,
I thought. And even though the group came on as institutional bad boys,
they got absorbed comfortably by the media as happens to all rebels.
I dimly remember the public transition of the rough early Beatles into
the loveable mop-tops. When the Pistols finally broke up, they seemed
(from my distance) to be verging on caricature, a form of which you
can see in many punk
groups now. Act tough, jump up and down a bit, turn up your lip. But
you might as well smoke pot and wander round amiably mumbling, Love
and peace, man for all it matters.
was the extent of your involvement with the Anarchy Tour?
I had no practical involvement with the Anarchy
Tour. I was just the guy from EMI. The company wanted a representative
to be around to help and to observe as necessary, and as their A&R
man I was only too happy to oblige.
Perhaps my biggest contribution was suggesting to the General Manager,
Paul Watts, that it would be an appreciated gesture if EMI treated the
whole party to dinner at our hotel in Leeds (after several canceled dates).
He thought it an excellent idea, even when the bill came in at over £300.
It might have been even more expensive had the occasional flying roll
hit one of the Leeds city councilors quietly dining across the room,
near the ever-attentive press corps (who didnt get their dinner
paid for by EMI). The shock-horror possibilities were contained by everyones
good mood, although some hack goofball had earlier talked Steve into
knocking over a plant pot downstairs for the cameras. It was a good night,
and a big relief from the stress of the non-tour so far.
What are your abiding memories of the Tour?
It was in Derby where the wheels really started
to come off. I showed up at the gig, which was deserted except for Dave
Cork, the distraught tour manager who was by then facing serious financial
losses. The city councilors had proposed that the Sex Pistols play privately
for them so that they could judge the act for themselves. That could
have been one surreal and memorable scene, but the appropriate reaction
was piss off. Im sure Malcolm was very polite.
Next, I went to the hotel just outside Derby where everyone was staying.
I think it was a Saturday. The group, Malcolm, Tom Nolan (EMI press)
and I were jammed in one tiny room with the phone going every few minutes
and the press literally banging on the door. Good money was offered for
a story, but none changed hands as far as I know. One tabloid scribe
had a Sunday double-page spread reserved for his story, and was getting
really desperate. He probably made it all up when he couldnt get
anything real. Most of them did. It was a shock to me to see how venal,
dishonest and cynical many of these journalist characters were.
You became very busy in 1977 with production work.
Did you feel the Pistols had helped shape your own perceptions of the
type of musicians you wanted to work with?
The work with the Pistols was an integral part
of lessons many of us were learning in the mid- to late-70s. In music,
since the sixties and the raucous, revolutionary behavior, there had
been an almost imperceptible move (but inexorable) to experts,
people who could make a guitar rear up on its hind legs but, once the
notes were spent, were saying nothing. With my classical music education
and wholehearted subscription to sixties idealistic chaos, I was well-placed
to deal with and see through the empty experts. But they still got up
my nose. So the change in musical values to the importance of message
rather than medium, embodied in the punk movement, was enormously sympathetic.
The Pistols were figureheads, and that was their major contribution.
I made my own qualifications, however, for myself and of the scene. As
in the sixties, the baby often went out with the bathwater. Revolution
is a messy business. As a producer, I brought sympathetic expertise to
raw musicians who might have expected a raw deal from a previous regime.
It got wearing justifying myself and trying to demonstrate that my interest
in production was to facilitate the agenda of someone elses music
which I admired. But I cant think of a quick test of an expert which
will show quickly and conclusively that expertise is sincerely at the
service of the music and message, rather than being used to further social,
political or career agendas.
Im afraid many producers dont see the long-term benefit of
facilitating a novel and radical point of view. Theres a parallel
with the wonderful English politeness which is supposed to have come
from the need to be socially considerate. As we well know, in some
circumstances it can be used as a weapon. So beware of experts and
polite people. But dont think theyre all shits because
just a few would aspire to be cynical and manipulative.
Once I was established as a producer, my
formula was very simple. I would work with music that I liked
with people that I liked. By coincidence, I prefer tough, up-front
music in any style, pop or classical or whatever. So there was
Which projects most reflected this?
Just about all of them. I just looked for
music that didnt compromise and that posed a challenge
to me to deliver on its own terms. Just about everything Ive
done reflects this. When it got dull, I quit. Even though being
a successful producer is (ahem) glamorous and lucrative, after
a while I found myself going round the same block and teaching
the same lessons. Getting bored. It became time to find the trouble
and disturbance that had I enjoyed in previous years, which I
eventually would enjoy in the new technologies for a time (and
was more than I bargained for).
There was a crucial period for me towards the end of the eighties where
I took on increasingly challenging projects as the record business was
moving more towards the marketing specification project,
which would kill me with boredom. Eventually, no viable projects seemed
to reflect this ideal. I decided to quit hired-gun production in 1993,
finishing in June 1994 with delivery of a Marc Almond solo album which
I thought was among the strongest work we had done, separately or together
(as did Marc at the time). Then the whole lot was remixed/reworked
in London and came out to my ears sounding like limp Brit synthipop
and tired old cabaret, not the powerful guitar/techno concoction we
had developed. There goes marketing and norms. Could have used a bit
of bollocks back then. QED.
Can you bring us up to-date with recent, current, & future
Retiring from hired-gun production didnt
mean stopping recording, and certainly not from being active musically.
I created an online presence during the .com optimism wave which continues
as www.stereosociety.com. Out of this emerged fresh ideas for new and
niche artists to be self-supporting with the newly-optional assistance
of the new technologies and the powerful home computer. At this point,
no fresh ideas can come from a new artist burdened with the marketing
and promotion and distribution concepts/precepts of the successful generation
before. We need to rethink. The business confuses support with money,
since in the integrated system of ten years ago more money would imply
stronger support. No longer. More intelligent use of resources is needed,
with an acknowledgement that we must work on time-scales longer than
next quarters financial results.
I wrote an 18-page white paper on the issues involved, which I believe
to be crucial both to our evolving culture and a self-sufficient music
business. Its in private circulation at this point, but Im
almost ready to publish it on the site.
As for music, I havent stopped. Between now and next March I
expect to deliver five diverse new projects:
- my second CD, The Contessas Party, dance-oriented but
with a depth of music development to wave the brain around as well as
CD, which I am mixing and will help as necessary in January.
- the new, definitive performing version of Charles Ives Universe
Symphony, realized by Johnny
- a collection of ambitious club remixes
of Stereo Society music, among others.
- an as-yet unconfirmed recording of a special live event taking place
in downtown New York just before Christmas.
Thats enough. Im exhausted. It flattens you even more to
think also of all that energy 26 years ago, breaking out and breaking
What makes punk, something that was supposed to be iconoclastic, survive
to become worshipped in its own right? Beats me.
Reflecting on your career so far, which achievement
are you the most proud of?
I cant distinguish. About my recordings,
people ask which is my favorite, and I cant answer. Ive
had a really good run, and it hasnt stopped yet. I can only
point to my full body of work, as this integrated blob which is me,
as a cumulative contribution to various team efforts. Ive learned
a lot along the way.
And had some really good laughs.
- SEXBOX1) contains
Mike's demos from Saturday 11th December 1976:
No Feelings (instrumental); No Future; Liar; Problems; + instrumentals
of Anarchy In The UK; God Save the Queen; Pretty Vacant (the
latter three are 'hidden' at the end of discs 1,2 & 3).