5 Albums: Steve Lillywhite
Original by Don Morgan (2017-03-10)
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree and the launch of the tour, U2Songs is looking at the work of the production team that helped bring the album to life. We’ve already considered five albums each from Brian Eno and Flood, and in this installment we turn our attention to the man whose relationship with U2 goes back the farthest: Steve Lillywhite!
As the sole producer of the band’s first three albums for Island, Steve Lillywhite helped U2 define their early sound and transition it from its post-punk roots to something decidedly more accessible and anthemic. Beyond the first three albums, though, Lillywhite has been a constant presence throughout U2’s career, producing, co-producing, or mixing tracks on The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, The Best of 1980-1990, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and No Line on the Horizon. He’s a trusted voice whose opinion the band values and to whom it has returned throughout its career, even for projects on which his name does not appear in the liner notes. In fact, Lillywhite is back in the producer’s chair with U2 this very month (March 2017) at Electric Lady Studios in New York, working on tracks for Songs of Experience.
But U2 is not the first—or only—well known act to benefit from Steve Lillywhite’s services. From the late 1970s through the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, Lillywhite produced a number of noteworthy releases from a broad range of artists including Steel Pulse, Kirsty MacColl, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Matchbox Twenty, The Psychedelic Furs, The Rolling Stones, Thompson Twins, The Killers, Morrissey, XTC, World Party, and many, many more. Here are five essential Steve Lillywhite-produced albums outside the U2 canon that you should definitely check out:
Simple Minds/Sparkle in the Rain
After the considerable success of the Peter Walsh-produced New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) in 1982, Simple Minds was looking to embrace a rockier, more stadium-friendly vibe. Steve Lillywhite helped them deliver just that, resulting in the band’s first UK #1 album in 1984. Lillywhite’s influence can especially be heard in the bombastic drum sound that infuses many of the tracks here, including “Up on the Catwalk,” “The Kick Inside of Me,” and lead single “Waterfront.” Interestingly, prior to being recorded with Lillywhite for the album, “Waterfront” was premiered when Simple Minds opened for U2 at Phoenix Park, Dublin in 1983. There has always been a good-natured rivalry between U2 and Simple Minds fans, with disagreement over which band influenced the other. In hiring Steve Lillywhite and writing more stadium-friendly songs for Sparkle in the Rain, it certainly appeared that Simple Minds were emulating U2. However, U2 returned the compliment the following year when they looked to New Gold Dream as a “point of reference” in the recording of The Unforgettable Fire. One other fun fact about Lillywhite and Sparkle in the Rain—earlier in 1984, Lillywhite was in talks with Canadian trio Rush to produce their Grace Under Pressure album. When the offer came in to work with Simple Minds, Lillywhite had a change of heart and produced Sparkle in the Rain instead, much to the chagrin of Rush. The scramble to find a new producer (the band ultimately settled on Peter Henderson) is one of several factors that inspired the album’s title.
If you saw the names “Steve Lillywhite” and “Brian Eno” in the production credits for a band beginning with the letter “U” on Island Records, you’d naturally think of U2, right? Well, the two producers actually worked together well before U2, when they co-produced the major-label debut album for UK new wave band Ultravox in 1976. (Technically, the full album was co-produced by Lillywhite and Ultravox, although Eno is credited with production and studio assistance on four tracks.) Although Ultravox would later achieve pop stardom with lead singer Midge Ure, the band’s early releases with original lead singer John Foxx sounded like more of a blend of post-punk and Roxy Music. Less than a year after Ultravox!, Lillywhite would return (without Eno this time) to produce the band’s sophomore effort Ha! Ha! Ha!. Critically, at least, this second album might be even more significant than the debut, owing in no small part to the track “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” which incorporated the Roland TR-77 drum machine and is considered one of the earliest and finest prototypes for the synthpop genre.
The Pogues/If I Should Fall from Grace with God
In 1987, Steve Lillywhite was just finishing up working with U2 on The Joshua Tree when The Pogues’ manager, Frank Murray, asked him if he’d be interested in producing the band’s next album. The group had scored respectable hits with 1985’s Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash and 1986’s Poguetry in Motion EP, both produced by Elvis Costello, but the relationship soured soon after. With Lillywhite, The Pogues delivered the most successful album of their career as well as what is widely considered their artistic high point, If I Should Fall from Grace with God. The centerpiece was the sprightly Christmas ballad “Fairytale of New York,” a duet between Shane McGowan and Lillywhite’s then-wife, Kirsty MacColl. Released in November of 87, the song went to #1 in Ireland and, despite a ban by the BBC for salty language, #2 in the UK. It was kept out of the coveted “Christmas #1” position by Pet Shop Boys’ “Always on My Mind.” Unlike the Pet Shop Boys, however, “Fairytale” has reentered the charts almost every Christmas since that time and is considered a genuine classic. The rest of the album is just as good, combining Irish folk influences with punk rock attitude on songs like the politically-charged “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six,” the epic “Thousands are Sailing,” and the gorgeous “The Broad Majestic Shannon.” It’s an album for the ages.
The La’s/The La’s
This is the first and last album The La’s released. It’s not hard to see why. From 1987 to 1990, the band worked with a rotating list of producers in a series of controversial and contentious studio sessions designed to get their “sound” just right. The album that was eventually released (in 1990 in the UK and 1991 in the US) came from the sessions that were produced by Steve Lillywhite. (He gets primary production credit on the sleeve, although the album’s biggest and most enduring hit “There She Goes” was produced by Bob Andrews and mixed by Steve). Lead singer Lee Mavers disowned the album immediately after its release, but there’s no denying that Lillywhite was able to capture a bit of the magic despite all of the chaos surrounding its creation. The finished product is a concise serving of Britpop that sounds like a cross between The Beatles, The Smiths, and a kinder, gentler Oasis (Noel Gallagher has named it as one of his favorite albums). It wasn’t a huge commercial hit, but the critics loved it and it retains a huge cult following to this day. A 2008 deluxe edition included an alternate mix of the full album by Mike Hedges on Disc 2, along with assorted tracks produced by John Porter, John Leckie, and others. But it’s Lillywhite’s version that people will remember.
Peter Gabriel/Peter Gabriel (aka “Melt”)
The year 1980 was a busy one for Steve Lillywhite. In addition to U2’s Boy, he also produced one of the most influential albums of the decade, Peter Gabriel’s third self-titled solo album, typically distinguished from its predecessors by the nickname “Melt.” (1977’s solo debut is known as “Car” and 78’s sophomore effort is “Scratch.”) Bolstered by four singles and a number of album tracks that remain fan favorites to this day, “Melt” is considered Gabriel’s first true classic and a bold step forward from the prog-influenced sounds of his previous band, Genesis. Much has been written about the “gated drum” effect that Lillywhite, engineer Hugh Padgham, and drummer Phil Collins developed during the recording of this album. The sound came to define many iconic recordings from the 1980s and beyond, most notably Collins’ own “In the Air Tonight” in 1981 and songs by Duran Duran, XTC, Bruce Springsteen, and many others. Drums aside, Lillywhite created a fascinating sonic backdrop for Gabriel’s sometimes disturbing lyrics, aided by a host of supporting musicians including not only Phil Collins but also Kate Bush, Paul Weller, and Robert Fripp, among others. The album’s iconic final track, “Biko,” hints at the future direction of Gabriel’s music by incorporating source recordings of two different South African songs, both of which were performed at Stephen Biko’s funeral.