Tony Clarke was, for much of the late '60s and early '70s, one of the three or four most well-known record producers in England, as familiar a name as George Martin was for his work with the Beatles,…
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Tony Clarke Biography

by Bruce Eder

Tony Clarke was, for much of the late '60s and early '70s, one of the three or four most well-known record producers in England, as familiar a name as George Martin was for his work with the Beatles, and Andrew Oldham and Jimmy Miller, respectively, were for their work with the Rolling Stones. As the producer of the Moody Blues' music from 1966 through 1979, Clarke was also unique as the first recording manager to make his name specifically in association with progressive and psychedelic rock, and he had bigger success than anyone else in the field, in terms of the sheer number of copies that the music on which he worked sold. More so than either Martin or Oldham with their respective groups, Tony Clarke was very much the architect of the sound that came to be identified with the Moody Blues during their psychedelic/progressive period. The group had aspirations in this direction, but were not trained in classical music, and neither -- amazingly for some fans to discover -- was Clarke, who had played bass in rock bands at the turn of the '50s into the '60s; but the producer did have a working knowledge of the orchestra, and a broad vision of which orchestral, faux-orchestral (i.e. Mellotron), and electric rock sounds could work together on record. He made it possible for their music, already moving in a poetic and art rock direction, to take on the proportions of the "world's smallest symphony orchestra," as the band was sometimes known in those days.

Tony Clarke was born in Coventry in the midst of World War II. Some of his earlier memories were of the sounds of the German blitz, which hit Coventry particularly hard. He entered his teen years in the mid-'50s, and discovered rock & roll during the days of the skiffle boom. He played bass in a succession of unsuccessful bands, and even crossed paths with the Beatles. The fact that he was a good bass player led to work as a sessionman at Decca Records in London during the early '60s which, in turn, directed Clarke toward the goal of becoming a producer. Clarke joined the company through the promotion department in early 1963, and moved into the production department after a year, working under Dick Rowe. Clarke also wrote songs during this period in his career, most notably a piece called "Our Song" that became a hit for Malcolm Roberts in South America, and which became the title track of a Jack Jones album. A lot of his early work, rather than supervising recordings, involved simply making notes of songs, composers, and running times, and coordinating the different musicians playing in different sessions. Clarke's actual career as a producer started with a group called Pinkerton's Assorted Colours and the single "Mirror Mirror," which rose to number eight on the British charts. His first chart-topping record was "Baby Come Back" by the Equals.

In 1966, Clarke chanced to be assigned to produce the Moody Blues, who were then on the declining side of an early rollercoaster of success, with a new lineup and not many prospects, in the eyes of most onlookers, being two years past their one-and-only major hit, "Go Now." The first product of their relationship was "Fly Me High," a promising single with a mixed acoustic-electric sound, written by Justin Hayward, who also made his debut as a singer with the band on that record. In the spring of 1967, Clarke was put in charge of a proposed experimental stereo demonstration recording for Decca's Deram Records label featuring the Moody Blues, that was to have been a rock version of Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony. Clarke and the band quickly threw out that concept and, instead, recorded a piece of heavily orchestrated, quasi-psychedelic rock built around the group's own songs, ultimately called Days of Future Passed. Originally rejected by the label's executives, who couldn't define what the album was, Days of Future Passed might've ended Clarke's and the band's career with the label -- instead, it was the first rock album in England ever released at the behest of the head of a company's classical division, becoming a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and yielding a chart-topping single, "Nights in White Satin." Clarke kept working with other acts, but from mid-1967 onward, the Moody Blues took up an ever-increasing amount of his time and energy.

With the growing complexity of their records from In Search of the Lost Chord onward, for which he was, in large part responsible, the time that Clarke spent on their albums grew exponentially, and by the beginning of 1969, he was working almost exclusively on the band's recordings. Indeed, during the recording of On the Threshold of a Dream, it was even suggested that he become the official sixth member of the group. (Surprisingly, given his past as a bassist, it was not Moody Blues bass player John Lodge but, rather, keyboard player Mike Pinder that he seems to have had the best working relationship with -- among other accomplishments, the two carried the sound of the Mellotron about as far as it could go as an instrument). If anything, Clarke was first-among-equals in the group. He didn't write or sing, or play, but he would suggest, negotiate, persuade, and cajole members to experiment with the songs each had written, transforming them in the process into creations that often sounded like movements from symphonies. The group, of course, embraced this sound starting with In Search of the Lost Chord, and were very much in the spirit of those records in their sentiments, but it was Clarke and engineer Derek Varnals -- who did, indeed, have extensive recording experience in Decca Records' Phase 4 classical line -- who gave the musical ideas shape and substance. He essentially became an employee of the Moody Blues' own Threshold Records, producing their work and their acts that they signed. Clarke was almost too good at his job -- he tried to get King Crimson signed to the band's company in 1969, but the proposal was rejected (in part, it is said, because the Moody Blues were intimidated by the musicianship of the other group). Instead, he worked with groups like the Anglo-American acoustic progressive band Providence, as well as on the various solo albums by the bandmembers (most notably the Blue Jays album by Justin Hayward and John Lodge).

Occasionally, he got to work with outside acts, most notably in 1972 when, at the request of Motown Records' management, Clarke produced a group of sides by the Four Tops, all songs written by the Moody Blues, including "A Simple Game" and "So Deep Within You," which were released on a British EP. Clarke ended up representing the group in their dealings with the label, and was particularly instrumental in getting the new Threshold Studio built to their specifications. The latter was intended to address all of the inadequacies they'd found with the existing trio of Decca studios -- ironically, because the band went on hiatus after the studio was completed, and then was required to record their comeback album, Octave, in America, immediately prior to Decca being sold to Polygram and dismantled, the group itself only got to use the studio they'd planned with Clarke once, on Long Distance Voyager, and that was after Clarke left. He was responsible to a large degree for the reunion of the band in the late '70s, although he found working on the resulting Octave album so distressing, that he abandoned work with them on any future projects. In more recent years, Clarke has worked with artists such as Clannad and Rick Wakeman, essentially doing for the latter what he used to do for the Moody Blues. He also produced sides for the late Nicky Hopkins and produced a number of film soundtracks.

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