Tony Cohen was a recording engineer and one without many peers. Perhaps the last of his kind? A wild man and a gentle and peculiar person. I write from the position of having worked with him more than several times and been present at other sessions he was chairing. I also write from the position of having heard him and others tell the stories of where he came from and what he could do that no others could. I must stress that I don’t pretend to have known the whole man, but I saw and experienced that studio buzzed side of his life.
When I first started recording, it was a hideously expensive exercise and mostly the province of radio and television jingle production. The engineers were not in white coats but it would have been only a few years before that they would have had to have dressed just so. They were on one side and the musicians on the other. They didn’t explain themselves to the players and didn’t really like them to be in the control rooms. Australian studios (I soon learned) were many years behind those found in the UK and the USA (where music culture informed audio recording more than AM radio advertising aesthetics) . All the rooms here were covered in carpet to better isolate all the sounds. (To then be able to assemble them together again in more complete sterility). It was no place for freaks.
Tony Cohen was one of “us”. He had that image from working with bands in the underworld scene of Melbourne. The ones that connected with me (there were many others as he worked hard and long hours) were the Boys Next Door/Birthday Party and the Models and the Laughing Clowns. Everybody wanted his name on their records, the Go Betweens did their first album with him and my band the Moodists did a recording with him in 1982 in a midnight to dawn (using cheaper time) at his studio home ground of the time, Richmond Recorders. We only had that short time and we came out with six tracks, recorded and mixed. Even then, Tony regaled us with war stories of working on Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs album MORE ARSE THAN CLASS when he was just starting out as a studio tape op. (A young apprentice whose job was to place mics, loop mic leads and make tea for a couple of years before being allowed behind the actual desk for a session). He talked of these giants striding into the session with boxes of 740 ml beers on their shoulders and staying up for days on end, husks of destroyed engineers being tossed in the corridor and another one chucked into the room - to their certain deaths. There was also the Doug Parkinson experience with young Tony falling asleep (somehow) under the desk and waking to see the big mans arse making lewd pumping motions in the carpeted darkness, plowing into some willing lover amidst overflowing ashtrays and empty bottles. Did I hear all this right? Tony was a great story teller. And a great story. Several people tried to get him to sit down and talk into a tape player. But he knew all the trickery of tape machines, didn’t he? People are trying to own him now but he was his own thing. He ruled that post punk scene but he came from a world of real experience in the pop and rock’n’roll worlds. Areas of extreme commerciality. As well as the Aztecs there was his work in 1977 with the Ferrets. They laboured for months on a multi-tracked epic debut album with Molly Meldrum yelling at one and all about the big bits and the loud bits and the need for something more here and there. The powers that were left the band with just Tony in the studio one day and their biggest hit “don’t fall in love” just happened. Billy Miller was the charming and handsome singer, aided by his two beautiful sisters, Pam and Jane and a cast of characters from the world of hustlers that was primo mid 70s Australian rock music. One of them was the late Ian Davis, who wrote – at least the words – for “Don’t Fall In Love”. I have only heard of him in legendary conversation. Far too wild for any “industry”. He seems to have spoken in a kind of Pentridge exercise yard argot with references to “dogs” and “maggots” that Tony always delighted in dropping explosively into conversation. (His conversations being commonly with a willing audience of private school alternative types).
I could list all the acts Tony worked with but I’m afraid I would only leave somebody out. He was a go-to man for most of the 80s and 90s. I use the term “worked with” as well because he didn’t really have whatever ego it took – or management – to get the title “producer” on many of the recordings he facilitated. He engineered and worked away at whatever sound he had in his brain. He was definitely pre digital. He worked less as music entered the pro tools, sound as visualized on a screen world of the late 20th and early 21st Century . (People just listened and stared at speakers and the desk before the computer screens came in with their easy graphic representations of sound files) It was mainly the speed and memory of early digital software that shat him. It couldn’t give him what he wanted at first, so he moved out of town and came back when the computers got better. When they could keep up with him. He knew all about mics and their placement, reverb, delays and tape splicing. He was a shaman in the studio.
Perhaps a UK equivalent to him would be Martin Hannett (Joy Divison) who worked in Manchester in the same period as Tony hit his stride in Melbourne, or Guy Stevens, (though he seems to have been much more violent), producer of the Who, Procul Harum and Mott the Hoople. Guy was the man the Clash hired to make London Calling. A fellow people hired to give them some fire. Tony was expected to bring that too.
We worked with him in 1982 in the Moodists, then again in 1993 on a record with our band Dave Graney and the Coral Snakes called Night Of the Wolverine. Before he came to the studio, he worked on successive albums for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Live Seeds) and the Cruel Sea (the Honeymoon is Over). Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds had gotten Tony in to remix an album called Henrys Dream the previous year which had been produced by American David Briggs. The record was missing something and they knew who to call. Tony had worked with Nick Cave and Mick Harvey in the Boys Next Door and the Birthday Party. For the Cruel Sea he was at the helm of an album when they had a large audience and a business waiting for something big from them. They’d developed slowly by themselves and were at such a creative swoon that someone really had to capture it. It was delicate, they were burning through stuff really quickly. Tony mixed and remixed parts of songs for days. He mixed with AM radio in mind, lots of treble and sizzle. He’d get into a state which would drive everybody out of the room, his hair all about his face, his hands and arms all over the desk like a spider or some greasy version of Richard The Third. Hunchbacked and scowling. He would turn inward and drive bands crazy – they’d walk out or begin to yell at him to get his attention. Or worse. But he got it down on tape.
He came to the studio after those two long and heated sessions. We had enough money for one day in Armstrongs studio (AAV) in South Melbourne. I was paying for it. We were there at about ten am. He might have arrived at 3 or 4pm, scowling still and growling under his hair at a business that was apparently running him into the ground. He rolled the chair out of the way as he always preferred to stand up at the desk. We were ready to pop ourselves and in the end, which is all that matters, he got an amazing sound onto the tape. Yes it was still tape, and we watched with hearts in mouths one breathless moment as he slashed the actual multi track tape with his razor in one swift, sure blow and edited two halves of two different versions of a song into one – perfectly - and continued mixing. Chuckling as he clocked our discomfort. In the end I asked him for any directions as I was taking the tape to a mastering studio. (The final sweep across a finished mix which polishes a set of songs into the right sonic continuity and sequence). He just said to tell them not to touch it. So that’s what it was when it came out. The record has a strangely soft and dark sound to it – unlike any of Tony’s other sessions and maybe due to the pounding his ears had taken in the long sessions leading up to it.
We worked with Tony again on the next album, “You Wanna Be there But You Don’t Wanna Travel” (which made much more use of his talents with sounds and breaks and snare rimshots and guitar licks all given severe attention to make tracks like “I’m Gonna Release Your Soul” and “the stars, baby, the stars” pop right out of their natural states and come to new life, glistening and febrile on the record) and then again remixing a reissue of an earlier live set called “Lure Of the Tropics”. He wasn’t really there for the latter, not in mind to begin with and then not in body as he nipped out for something at the shops and just didn’t come back. Of course we got mad at him for that sort of thing and swore never to work with him again but he was always a charming fellow to run into.
He loved to yell things like “Lets get this turkey in the shops!” (meaning lets finish this thing). Jim, Mick and Warren from the Dirty Three took that phrase from a Tony session into another studio with Steve Albini - who took it into a session with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page – who I am told had to stop and ask what was wrong with their session that it was being dubbed a “turkey” so casually.
For a while in the late 90’s he could be found invariably at an all night liquor stop in Windsor, near where he lived. He wasn’t the type to sit in a pub and didn’t really drink a lot. He just liked the atmosphere in the brightly lit bottle shop I guess. Someone said he had the demeanour of an eccentric ex British army type, though he was really all Australian. He took people as they came and didn’t give a damn for business or industry standing.
All the dark and dangerous sounding records he helped into the world will be his legacy, but he didn’t bring that darkness himself. He knew how to catch it and mix it right. But he was not at all gothic, dark or bluesy as a man. Well, perhaps when he was two or three days into fifteen seconds of a mix but that was when he’d gone into more of a sonic rabbit hole searching for that special something which Jimmy Page described to an impertinent interlocutor as “power, mystery and the Hammer of the Gods…..”
In a world littered with phony legends and generic icons, he was actually a unique, supremely talented and human being.
Film maker Kerry Negara did this short piece on Tony in 1993. He smartened himself up with a buttoned up shirt and tie for the occasion but his mad spark shines through really well.