THE WIZARD OF OZ Australian Producer Mark Opitz (Pt. 1)

With a resume that includes work with
AC/DC, Vanda & Young, INXS, Hoodoo Gurus, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles and Kiss,
the studio whiz’s reputation precedes him.

 

BY MARCUS BLAKE

 

You never know
where good music and the people who make good music come from. Whether it’s the
British Invasion from England
or Electric blues from Chicago or Abba from Sweden or African Burundi music,
good (and bad) music can come from anywhere.

 

I have
interviewed several record producers from different parts of the world in the
past, but one man that’s a common link between so much great music that has
come out of Australia
is a producer/engineer named Mark Opitz. Although, Opitz might not be a
household name outside of Australia, his work with Australian artists like
AC/DC, Rose Tattoo, INXS, The Angels, Cold Chisel with Jimmy Barnes and Flash
In The Pan have resulted in multiplatinum success for each of those bands in
his homeland and, in the case of AC/DC and INXS, the world.

 

Ever staying
true to his roots, Mark Opitz has stayed in Melbourne,
Australia, where he is the
director of his company, One Music, Asia. In
addition, Mark does occasional lectures at the legendary Australian studio,
Studios 301, passing his knowledge of record production on.

 

Mark’s deep
grasp of production, engineering and of music making in general is from years
of hard work. From starting in the business at ABC-TV
Australia to working at
different labels in Australia
(Opitz goes into further detail of that in the following interview) in a
variety of jobs, Opitz’s contribution to Australian music is immeasurable.

 

Among the
production companies and music legends responsible for so much great music Mr.
Opitz has worked for is the company Albert Productions and legendary AC/DC
producers/ex-Easybeats members, Harry Vanda & George Young. Vanda &
Young served as mentors to Opitz in the 1970s, culminating in the trio’s work
on AC/DC’s incredible 1978 album, Powerage.
Not only has Opitz worked on a lot of great music to come from Down Under, but
the man has worked with artists ranging from Kiss, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles,
Lenny Kravitz and many more.

 

So, after
reading my interview with another top record producer and
occasional band mate, Daniel Lanois, BLURT president Stephen Judge asked me to
interview “this record producer from Australia” that he had met while
traveling on tour with The Church when the band played a sold out show at the
Sydney Opera House. You never know where great stories are going to come from
as well! Read on and learn why Bon Scott gave Opitz a huge chunk of hash, why
Gene Simmons would want to be in prison with him, and how he helped to get Bob
Dylan on the Academy Awards just in the nick of time! And, just what the hell
is “Sophisto-punk” anyway? Read on, brothers and sisters!

 

***

 

BLURT: I was recommended to interview you
by our mutual pal, Stephen Judge. He told me how you guys hit it off and how
you would make a cool interview.

 

MARK OPITZ: I
met Stephen in Melbourne
about six months ago. We went out to dinner with a group of friends. He turned
out to be [publisher of BLURT magazine] which [had previously been Harp magazine]. Anyway, Harp did an interview with Hoodoo Gurus
frontman, Dave Faulkner, in which he slammed me mercilessly. I was considering suing Harp for publishing the article!

 

  So, you don’t have a good relationship with
the Hoodoo Gurus right now?

 

  Not, really, no. Talking about the Hoodoo
Gurus, back in the 1980’s, they were a big college band in the U.S.

 

  Yeah, I liked them and saw them perform live
in the 1980’s as a matter of fact!

 

  They were signed to a record company in Australia
called Big Time. Big Time sold their contract to Elektra Records in America.
Elektra decided it was time for the Hoodoo Gurus to go “stadium rock” to break
out of the college circuit. So, Elektra asked me to produce the album. The
Gurus weren’t impressed that their contract was sold to Elektra, for a start. So,
I was kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place. I loved the Gurus and what
they did, but I was employed by Elektra to give them a bigger sound and give
their songs a bit more structure, which, I did.

        We had a massive hit in Australia
called, “What’s My Scene” but it was hard going. For instance, the drummer
wanted to do the rhythm tracks to that album, Blow Your Cool, by himself. He said, “I don’t want to play with
anybody in the band”. I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I just want to do
the rhythm tracks out of my head and record the drum parts by myself. I know
all the parts.” I said, “I’ll give you a click track.” He said, “No, no, just
let me play the drum tracks by myself.” He recorded all the drum tracks that
way in one day! He wouldn’t let any other member of the band play with him
while recording.

 

  So, when the other band members put on their
parts, how did it all work out?

 

  It worked out great. If you listen to the
record, it sounds like it’s one band. Obviously, I took a lot of time and
attention to how it was going to be done. At one stage, I was sitting with my
engineer and I was doing an overdub with Dave Faulkner. Out of Dave’s earshot,
my engineer said that it was going really bad. I said to him, “Do you think we
should get taxi licenses after this because we’re never going to work again.” But
it turned out great.

        But around the same time that we were
thinking that, in walked a guy named George Young. (George Young is one half of
legendary AC/DC producers, Vanda & Young, not to mention a former member of
Australia’s answer to The Beatles, The Easybeats and, later, one half of Flash
In The Pan.) I had just done a cover of an Easybeats song called, “Good Times”
with INXS and Jimmy Barnes. That morning, I had been up to see Ted Albert
(head of Australian musical production institution, Albert Records and Albert
Productions) and Vanda and Young to play them my version of their song. And, every
time that I had played them a cover version of a song that Vanda and Young had
done, whether it be by Rod Stewart or David Bowie, they would say, “Ah, that’s
crap!” So, I played this version and they looked at me with approval and said,
“Ah, okay.”

        So, about eight or nine hours later,
while I was doing an overdub with Dave Faulkner, George Young walked in the
room, drunk as a skunk, pushed past Dave, pushed past my engineer and grabbed
my hand. He shook it and said, “That’s the best cover version of any of our
songs.” So, I felt a little better after that.

        Anyway, I don’t think Dave ever forgave
me for the fact that I was foisted upon The Hoodoo Gurus by Elektra. My brief
was to give the band a bigger audience and I think I did that. So, Dave said
some hurtful things. When I contacted him about that, I told his management,
“Look, I should sue your asses but I’m not going to but you do have a whole
stack of royalties that you haven’t paid me for the past fifteen years. How
about you do that instead?” I said to Dave, “As a matter of fact, I use you as
an example to a lot of people of how to write lyrics and how lyrics tell a
story, etc. etc.” So, he was very contrite after that and, since then, we have
a very tenuous relationship. But, that’s rock n’ roll.

 

  Can you tell me about the beginning of your
career and how you got into the industry? I know you mentioned Vanda &
Young. But, you worked for Australian TV before that?

 

  Originally, when I was in high school, I
decided I wanted to be Australia’s
best film director or Australia’s
best record director. Those are very vein thoughts as a 17 year old. The first
show I ever saw was The Beatles in Brisbane,
Australia and
so I thought that was cool. After that, I went to every show. I saw The Who in
1967…I saw The Small Faces with Stevie Marriott… The Yardbirds with Jimmy
Page [1967, on the Yardbirds’ only Australian tour]. I was in the front row and it blew my fuckin’ head off!

        At that point, in high school, music
and football was what I lived for. I often had to get off early from football
practice to go to my bass lesions. They used to laugh at me but that was what I
wanted to do.

        I moved from Brisbane to Sydney. In
Brisbane I had very humble beginnings. I was very poor, so my dreams were quite
large. So, as soon as I left school, I headed to Sydney and I eventually joined
the ABC network. I worked there for two or three years up until the opening of
the Opera House and did some very big shows.

        At one stage, I transferred to the film
department. They had a TV department and a film department like the BBC.

 

  What did you do at the beginning at ABC?

 

  I was trained in everything at ABC; from
operating the cameras to editing to audio…everything. They had fantastic
training courses in the 1970s.

        When I got back from the film
department after doing a movie as assistant cameraman, they thought I left the
TV studios shorthanded and decided to “punish” me by banishing me to audio. Not
only audio but music audio, which is the worst thing they thought they could
possibly do. Cool! I’m in! (laughs) I did that for a while.

        I left ABC after that and played in a
band for about a year. I thought, hang on, second choice, be a producer. So, I
got a great list of studios and started at the top, which was EMI studios. Luckily
enough, I got a job as a mastering engineer, which I was over qualified for and
then one thing led to another. But I ended up getting sacked (fired) by EMI
because I was working on things on weekends. I would work on the weekends by
pulling tapes or getting bands in and experiment.

        One of these bands, to my surprise,
took one of my recordings and gave it to another record company without telling
me. The company released it and gave me credit as producer. I had no idea until
they came back and showed the record to me. “Look! Here you are! You’re a
producer now!” So, here is my first official record as a producer and it’s on
Sony! I said, “Oh my God! What have you done?!” The next day, I was pulled over
the coals by EMI because they thought I was making money on the side when I
hadn’t!

 

  Do you remember what band that was?

 

  It was a band called U-Turn. They didn’t do
anything. So, anyway, I was sacked by EMI, thinking that was the end of
everything. If you get sacked by the top studio, you think you don’t have any
chance of doing anything in the future.

        A couple of days later, Vanda &
Young rang me up asking me to come in for an interview. They spoke to me for a
few hours and after that, George Young said to me, “Listen, we’re looking for
an apprentice because we have so much work going on with AC/DC, John Paul Young
and other stuff. ” They had hit after hit in Australia at the time with Albert
Productions. They said, “Give us two days and we’ll ring you back with our
answer.” So, as you can imagine, I sat by the phone for forty eight hours
straight. I picked up the phone as fast as possible when they called!

        It was great. The first job I had, they
recorded a song by Rose Tattoo and asked me to mix it. It was a song called,
“Bad Boy For Love” which was huge here. That was my first thing and then I went
straight on to the Powerage album by
AC/DC and “Love Is In The Air” by John Paul Young. (Which went top ten
worldwide.) I was just an assistant to them. They were the producers and
writers. But it was fabulous working on these things. It was a very closed
shop.

        Christmas came along and Albert
Productions closed down for the holidays. George Young came up to me one day
and said, “Mark, so are you going away for Christmas?” I said, “No, George, I’m
going to be staying here.” He said, “What do you mean? Don’t we pay you enough
around here?” I said, “As a matter of fact, you don’t pay me anything!” George
said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “Well, I’ve never been paid!” He
said, “Why didn’t you say anything?” I said, “After not getting paid, the pay
must be the experience of working with you.” George just laughed. But, I had sold
my 1935 Gibson Kalamazoo guitar. I sold my ’62 Les Paul just to sustain myself.
 

        Anyway, good old Ted Albert came
downstairs with his big, red book and said, “Mark, sorry about that. What we’re
going to do is give you a hundred dollars a week as an advance against any
royalties you may earn for the company. And, we’re going to give you another
hundred dollars for the money we haven’t paid you for the last six months.” Oh,
okay, Ted, so a hundred bucks for the last six months after working for you on
all of these hits. Yeah, I get it. So, a couple of months later, Ted came down
to see me again…lovely guy, fantastic guy. He opened this big, red book and
said, “It appears to me that you owe us 800 dollars. What are you going to do
about it?”

 

  What!?!

 

  Luckily, two weeks later, we released an
album called Face To Face by The
Angels, which went five times platinum in Australia. So, I’m still getting
royalties from that.

 

  Is it true that Bon Scott and Malcolm Young
from AC/DC introduced you to The Angels? How did working with The Angels come
about?

 

  No, it came about from George Young…he’s the
leader of Vanda & Young. He’s the sort of guy who can look at any
instrument and play it. He could look at an ashtray and make it move. That’s
his determination. He was the very heart of Vanda & Young and Vanda was the
soul, if you will.

 

  How would you describe Harry Vanda’s role?

 

  A typical example is when we were doing “Love
Is In The Air”, the big hit by John Paul Young. One day, at 9:00 in the
morning, George said, “Okay, you have to do a record for Germany because we had
a hit with a song called, “Standing In The Rain”. He said, “Mark, get out the
loop for “Standing In The Rain”. That was a quarter inch tape that had a cool
percussion sound. He put it on and had this little chord organ with a set of
buttons and he would play some chords and would yell out to Harry, “Harry, get
out the song title book and see what we can come up with and read me out some
titles while I’m playing this.” So, George is playing out a descending melody
while Harry is reading out titles. “How about Crazy, Crazy”? No, no… “Angels
Don’t Cry”? No… “Love Is In The Air”? “Okay, we’ll go with that.” So, within a
day, we had the song pretty much recorded. At 9:30 that night, I rang up John
Paul Young and said, “Come in, we’ve got a song for you to sing”. He was gone
by 10:30 and, so, in one day we had this song. It took three weeks to mix, mind
you, because there was no automation back then. We had a big old Neve. George
then said to me, “Take up the seven inch tapes of mixes to Ted Albert and get
him to pick one. And, not more than twenty minutes later, Ted came down, picked
one and said, “This is it.” All he had done was picked the first one he
listened to!

        But, to answer your question, the way I
was introduced to The Angels was, George and Harry had done an album with The
Angels and it had sold 5,000 copies. It had sold very badly. They said to me,
“We’re either going to drop them or you can take over the full production.” I
said, “Well, I’ll take over the full production.” So, I went to a friend’s
place that night and smoked copious amounts of joints and started to think
about what to do about The Angels. How do I make this band bigger? I thought
that they’ve got to have a sound. I know the songs are okay. I remember I was
listening to the first Graham Parker album at the time. I thought that this is
punk music but it’s more than that because it’s become more sophisticated. So,
the phrase came to me, “Sophisto-punk”. I knew that was a sound I had to find
for The Angels.

        We went to the studio every other day
and weekends and, one day, they played me a seven minute instrumental which
ended up being called, “I Am The One”. It was based on an eight timing feel. I
said, “That’s it! That’s Sophisto-punk! Every song we’ve got, you’ve got to
transpose to an eight feel.” We did that to about six or seven songs. The other
ones we sort of hinted at that sound.

        I remember going out for lunch one day
the operations manager for Albert told me the record had just gone gold! I was
nonplussed about it. She said, “Why aren’t you excited about this?” I said,
“It’s going to go a lot fucking further than gold. It’s going to change the
Australian music scene!” Which it did. In fact, Bon Scott presented me with my
gold record for that to me.

        Speaking of Bon, he was working on Powerage at the time. I don’t know if
you’ve listened to that album…

 

  Are you kidding me? I love that album!

 

  A lot of people say to me that that’s the
album that changed AC/DC. A lot of people think that the album has the best
guitar sounds. I spent months working out which amplifier goes with which
speaker and with which guitar. I spent literally a month doing that because I
had 32 speaker boxes with 16 amps. I had to match them all up with a Gibson
just trying to find the best tone. I said, “That’s Malcolm’s and that’s
Angus’.”

 

  You mentioned how you recorded the Hoodoo
Gurus. What was a typical AC/DC session like? Did the band record live in the
studio?

 

  Yeah, very much so. A typical AC/DC session
started at 8:00 at night. We all had to bring in two packs of cigarettes
because anytime anyone smoked one, you would have to throw everyone a
cigarette. So, there I would be with George, Harry and the rest of the band
sitting around the control room, and as soon as Malcolm walked in, he would
open a pack of Benson & Hedges cigarettes and throw everyone one while
Angus would make a cup of tea.

        But, yes, they recorded live as a band,
which was fantastic. Quite often, Phil Rudd, Malcolm and I would finish about
eight or nine in the morning. Then, we would go out and bring a small Dinky (a
small motorboat) with a motorbike and go out to the middle of Sydney
Harbor…beautiful, glorious Sydney Harbor. There would be ferries out there,
taking people to work and we would be out there, smoking hash, drinking beers
and fishing. Great memories.

        Another time, Bon Scott said, “Mark,
I’ve got to write some lyrics tonight” for a song which later became my
favorite AC/DC song, “Riff Raff”. Bon said, “I’ve got to write the lyrics, do
you have anything I can smoke to help me along?” I had this little block of
hash. I cut it in half and I gave it to him and he thanked me for it. One day,
a couple of months later, after the album did well and the band had gotten back
from an American tour, I was in the Albert office and I could hear Bon say,
“Mark! Mark! Mark!” I turn around and there’s Bon chasing after me. He said,
“I’ve got something for you.” He pulled out this massive lump of hash about the
size of a chocolate block and broke it in half and gave it to me. He was one of
the most generous people I’ve ever met.

        The stories about AC/DC on the road
were legendary of course, but the thing people have to understand about them is
because they got all of their angst out on stage, they are very calm people in
real life. They sponsor spastic kids unheralded and stuff like that because
they didn’t want anyone to know. They did a lot of help in the community
without telling anyone at all.

        But, getting back to a typical AC/DC
session is the band plays live and we cut tracks and cut more tracks and fix up
mistakes. Bon wouldn’t necessarily do the vocals while the band was cutting
tracks live.

        Before we started Powerage, Cliff Williams (bass player who joined the band at that
time and has been with the band ever since) had a problem getting into
Australia because of visa problems. So, we rehearsed for a month with George
Young on bass.

 

  Very interesting! Do you have any recordings
of that?

 

  I’m sure they’re floating about. Anyway,
Harry and I would stay in the control room and George would be out there with
the band until all hours, going through songs.

 

  Were you there when the previous bass player,
Mark Evans, got the sack?

 

  I came in at the tail end of Let There Be Rock to do a bit of
cleaning up.

 

  Did you mix the album?

 

  Yeah, I guess I must have mixed some tracks
on it. Obviously, I mixed Powerage. Things
are fairly blurry at that point because I couldn’t believe where I was! I
couldn’t believe that I bit off more than I could fucking chew! I wonder how
long the bluff was going to last! (laughs) That’s a good thing.

        As I said, they hadn’t paid me for
months and that taught me a lesson in that I was in it for the right reasons. When
George found out, he looked at me slightly differently, I guess. Funnily
enough, when we were doing a track with someone else months later, George,
Harry and I would be in the control room, doing stuff and talking about shit
and George Young said to me, “What part of England are you from?” I said, “I’m
not from England, I’m from Australia!” He said, “You know what? If we had known
you are an Australian, we would never have hired you!” Australians are lazy
bastards according to George. Thankfully, they didn’t find out I was Australian
until it was far too late.

        That was an incredible period. The
things I learned from Vanda & Young, who were the top producers in the
country and internationally and great writers, is that you learn about
attitude. You learn about feel and honesty. You learn how to handle people in
certain ways. I could never thank those guys enough. I could never thank the
whole Albert family for making me part of their family.

        After that, I got an offer from Warner
Brothers to head their A&R department. They made an offer I couldn’t
refuse. The Angels went five times platinum. The next one I did went five times
platinum. So, I went over to Warner Brothers and signed a few acts over there. I
got involved with a band called Cold Chisel, who had done very badly with their
first two albums and then, I turned their next album (1980”s East) into a five times platinum album
as well as the next few albums they did. (Cold Chisel are a highly acclaimed,
band hailing from Australia becoming, at one point, the biggest selling act in
their country, beginning with the success of East.)

 

  That was Jimmy Barnes’ band?

 

  Yes, Jimmy’s band. In fact, they just
reformed for a tour. Anyway, I had that string of hits behind me and, all of a
sudden, I was in the driver’s seat in terms of being offered great things. When
INXS came along, I was offered that. The Hoodoo Gurus…. there’s a band called
Noiseworks… a ton of stuff.

 

  One more question about AC/DC. I have always
wanted to know this, so, excuse me for being an AC/DC geek here. Why was Powerage released in the U.K. with
different mixes of several songs? (In England, the first pressing of Powerage was released featuring
radically different mixes of several tracks like “Down Payment Blues” and
“What’s Next To The Moon” amongst other differences.)

 

  I don’t think there was a different mix. I’m
not aware of any remixing that went on. I know Atlantic Records weren’t happy
with it because it didn’t have any hit songs. So, we recorded a song called
“Sin City and put it on there. The Australian version has a slightly different
running order. (The original U.K. pressing also contained the song, “Cold
Hearted Man”, which did not appear anywhere else in the world until the 2009
box set, Backtracks.) We did do lots
of different mixes for choices but there’s no way Vanda & Young or Malcolm
Young, who rules with an iron fist, would allow anyone to remix it.

 

To be continued… Tomorrow, in part two of
the interview, Opitz talks about working with INXS, the members of Kiss and Bob
Dylan, as well as some of this philosophies as a producer and the master
classes in recording that he teaches, and more.

 

Pictured above: Alberts dinner 1978 – George
Young, Mark Opitz, Fifa Riccabono, Harry Vanda (obscured).

 

Author Marcus Blake
performs with Daniel Lanois, Mother Superior, Rollins Band and Pearl (just to
name a few); he additionally has a series of interviews with record producers
in Spanish magazine
Popular 1.
Contact him at the
Mother
Superior website.

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