The big 80s stood for
massive AOR productions, with the aim to score the best selling
record. In that period a lot of producers me household words,
such as RON NEVISON, MAX NORMAN, BEAU HILL, KEVIN ELSON, TOM
ALLOM, DESMOND CHILD, DIETER DIERKS, MICHAEL WAGENER, BRUCE
FAIRBAIRN, SPENCER PROFFER, and one of the biggest of them all:
KEITH OLSEN. They all had their own kind of sound, and best known
is that 80s AOR-rock sound of Mr. Keith Olsen. He produced
legendary records by PAT BENATAR, RICK SPRINGFIELD, SCORPIONS,
WHITESNAKE, HEART, KINGDOM COME, FOREIGNER, OZZY , FLEETWOOD MAC,
EDDIE MONEY, SAMMY HAGAR, and also a bunch of lesser-known
forgotten AOR jewels like 707, PREVIEW, TANE CAIN, DARE, MAGNUM,
SHADOW KING, FIONA and many more. From the late 70s until the mid
90s Keith was always producing records, and a lot of them went
straight into the US charts, so Keith is a legend. The best thing
is that he mainly produced AOR/Melodic/Hard rock albums, and this
probably made him the perfect AOR producer in the 80s. 15 years
after all the big successes Keith is settled in Hawaii, from
where he called me to talk about his past and present, and also a
bit about one of the first albums he has produced in 5 years, the
fantastic AOR debut of the American band BONRUD (out on Frontiers
So where do we start here, Keith, where are you exactly located right now...
Im living on the North side of Hawaii, at a small Island called Kauai. I moved here about a year ago, mainly because I was fed up with the busy LA area. I wanted to calm down, and live a normal life instead of the hectic life I had in California. I have had a very busy life over there for almost 30 years and it was actually time to find a bit of quality of life, and thats why I moved to Hawaii.
You can easily say that you have done a lot in your life as a producer, tell me about those busy days in the 1980s...
I can tell you that it was such a non-stop rollercoaster ride, a very hectic place to be, but it was fun. I worked with some of the best musicians ever, and I have always enjoyed producing, but it was just such a tight schedule. For 25 years, I never left the studio. It was non-stop producing records, and I can tell you that in this period I maybe have had 10 holidays or so, and those were not really holidays, but just me sitting at a beach somewhere listening to a walkman writing out charts for my next act. I just never saw the light of day and was constantly working with (I need to say this) fantastic musicians, so it was a great time, a lot of fun, but after some 25 years it got so much control over my life I just had to stop. I cut over 130 albums, by 45 different artists, each album I went through 25 or more songs, picked 10-15, learned them, cut them, put them out... then went on to the next album.... It's pretty hard to remember all the little details, but it took so much of my time. So I quit and calmed down for a bit, although in the late 90s I started working again, this time as a Director Global Recording Product Development for Mackie Designs, yes head first into a corporate company. I was responsible for spearheading the direction and development of products that target the Recording market, one of Mackie's main markets. Recently I packed my bags and moved to Hawaii where I joined some friends of mine (such as mixer/engineer DAVID TICKLE) who owns a production studio here in Hawaii, and now I work here behind my desk, making phone calls, going through e-mails, contacting people and working as a general partner for STUDIO PANEL (www.studio-panel.com). Also now I am able to pick things I really like to do, such as the BONRUD CD.
Yes, please tell me how you got to produce this BONRUD album...
Well, in my time as director at Mackie I was frequently in touch with Microsoft, and thats where I met Paul Bonrud, who is an engineer for Microsoft. And oneday he gave me a tape and asked me to give it a listen, so I did just that and heard some cool stuff on it, and thats when I decided to give him advice on future recordings, how to record it, etc. In the beginning I was just a mentor giving Paul advice every week, but eventually it turned out to be a closer working together in the following months, which led to the production of their first full-length CD, which has now been released on FRONTIERS RECORDS.
The album has that typical early 80s AOR sound you stood for back then...
Thats right, Paul wanted to keep it as close to that classic rocksound as possible. I can easily round up the best guitar players to play the guitar parts, the best drummers, etc. and can easily make a record sound perfect, but a lot of the new bands just arent good enough. Back in the 80s I knew exactly how to make a good record sound as good as possible and then it was up to the labels to promote it properly.
I would like to ask you to give some comments to some of the bands you produced, starting with RICK SPRINGFIELD...
Wow, this goes back a long time ago, because I actually met Rick back in the very early 70s. He lived in Australia, and was about to record his first solo-LP Speak to the sky, which was released in 1972. I worked with Rick on this album, then just as it was released the Label got caught with a band called GRAND FUNK RAILROAD, buying up thousands of copies and stored them in a warehouse somewhere, so the album would go to number 1, but the way it was done was very illegal. The label just bought their own albums, so it would hit big time, and people would eventually started buying the record. These are tricks labels sometimes do, which nowadays happens a lot (especially in Holland!), and this is something that basically killed Ricks career in the early 70s. He didnt make any money on this and around 1973 he was basically broke, had nowhere else to go, and so a friend of mine rented an apartment for him and paid him subsistence until he got a job as actor, and from then on it went fast and Rick became a soap star, although he definitely wanted to make music. Anyway, time went by and then at the end of the 1970s Rick wanted to make a new record once again (RCA records) and then they asked me to help out a bit, so I produced two songs, found the perfect musicians to play on it, had Rick record a SAMMY HAGAR tune, and it seems Rick had been given a second chance, because Jessies girl became one of the top songs in 1980 here in the USA. Suddenly Rick was a teen star, although he had passed his 30s already, but Rick was back on track, and I was in the middle of all the success.
Tell me about FOREIGNER...
That was funny, because I had known LOU GRAMM for a while, and back in the 1970s he was singing in this band called BLACK SHEEP. Their label just signed this band, because Lou had this amazing voice, but the band wasnt great. It was tough to listen to the band although Lou was just such an amazing singer. Lou eventually found fame and fortune with a very good band (FOREIGNER). BLACK SHEEP was only signed for 2 albums by a label because of Lous voice. And this is something that happened a lot, because the labels would only look for the perfect front man, and not the band behind the singer. Another example is PREVIEW!
Man, PREVIEW is one of my all-time favourite AOR records...
Funny you say that, because this band was the ultimate example of a very bad signing by a label, just because of the amazing front man. Man, the lead singer for this band (JON FIORE) was so amazing. He stepped up to the mic and sang, and basically everyone was blown away, also John Kolodner from the bands label Geffen Records. He was fooled, because the band backing Fiore was simply not good. The secret behind the recording is that I brought in some very well-known players from some very well-known bands (no names, it remains a secret!) and they played most of the parts on the album! These people are not mentioned, but just played the songs, because the band members couldnt play well enough! They had an amazing lead singer, and their songs were extremely catchy, but there actually wasnt a real band playing the songs on the album. Eventually there was no promotion and so the album never made it big time, although it was an excellent album, but this was not because of the band, but due to the performance and talent of Jon Fiore. He eventually became quite successful in his own right, went
on becoming one of the most wanted commercials singers in the USA. In the 1980s he sang so many commercials you heard on the radio, such as beer commercials, shampoo commercials, etc. etc. but PREVIEW was a band without any professionalism and Jon basically was the only one who went on do something in the music business
Never knew this, but PREVIEW is still one of my fave AOR records, but lets move on to TANE CAIN, another record you produced in the early 80s which never got that big...
The story on Tane, who is actually pronounced Tawney , is interesting. She was the daughter of a famous actor here in the USA called Doug McClure, and was born and raised in California. Anyway, it was around 1982 and JOURNEY just had hit big again in the USA, releasing their popular Escape record, which was one of the biggest selling albums back then. This eventually made the US labels looking for JOURNEY wannabies, and anything related to JOURNEY or its members was interesting for the labels to sign. Tane was the wife of JONATHAN CAIN for some time, who had previously joined JOURNEY, after meeting Tane while playing in THE BABYS back in the 1970s. Anyway, Tane and Jonathan, Journeys keyboard player, got an album deal with RCA RECORDS. It all turned out well, because the album featured some amazing songs and I brought in some excellent musicians. The TANE CAIN album was released with some moderate success, but not as big as the label wanted it to be, so eventually only 1 TANE CAIN album was recorded. After the record she focused her career in the movie industry, with some decent appearances.
Next band I would like to ask is one of your biggest successes, the 1989 SCORPIONS classic Crazy world...
OK, this was probably one of the more successful Scorpion albums, because the single Winds of change from the Crazy world album went on becoming the largest seller ever in the world for them. The song went to number 1 in 18 countries and in 40 countries it was a top 5 hit. That single alone sold millions of records, and of course so did their Crazy world record. Working with them was sometimes hard, but it seems like I work with many German bands and working with them always seems hard, but still it was a great job. I spent a few months in Hilversum (Wisseloord Studios) where I got to work with Erwin Musper and Attie Bauw. I would rather talk about my working with Attie Bauw, one of the nicest men I ever met and he is also a fantastic mixer, he does amazing industrial mixes. Attie is a great guy, and I had a great time with him in Holland doing the Crazy world record.
And how about the 1987 WHITESNAKE record...
Working with DAVID COVERDALE was just fabulous. He knows exactly what he wants, and thats nothing but the best. He works with the best musicians, treats them very well and he is the kind of guy you always want to work with when youre producing a record. The 1989 record Slip of the tongue, which was the follow-up to the multi-million seller 1987 was extremely hard to do, because after such a giant hit producing the next record is basically always a hard thing to do, and with WHITESNAKE there was even more pressure, because David wanted it to be perfect, and we didnt want to do 1987 part 2, but to release a great follow-up. However, I must say that it is always very hard producing a follow-up to a record that has turned platinum.
Speaking of Gold records, how many did you produce?
I produced 220 albums, of which more than 45 turned Gold, so thats 1 in 5 albums I produced went Gold or better. That also means I also produced a many that didnt become a a commercial success, such as PREVIEW or TANE CAIN. This is due to the fact that only priority releases of the major labels get promoted heavily, and each month a label has 5 priority releases, so the rest have to sell on their own. And if you then count the number of record labels in the USA (<88), you will agree with me that there is a lot of competition, which makes it impossible to make each record a gold record.
I always wondered where and when you started your career, please tell us...
I started in the 1960s playing bass in a band called MUSIC MACHINE. We had a major hit single with the song Talk Talk, toured for 18 months and released 2 records. I am classically trained, do play bass quite well, some guitar and arranger keyboard. I say I play guitar OK, but when I produce a record I always can pick the right guitar player to play a part exactly the way it should sound. I always say the best guitar parts are in the phone book, that means its who you call . you know who you bring in to play the parts. Look at todays records, some of the new bands feature guitarists who cant play the parts on their album, and if they have to play their songs live, they have a problem. When youre in the studio, you can always find the best guitar player or drummer to play on a record, because the best guitar parts are in the phone book.
What was the best produced record you did in your life?
Well you know, its hard to pick a favourite or say which one is the best, because basically all the 220+ records I produced are my children and you just cant pick a favourite child of your own can you?.
Which band you never produced before would you like to produce?
There are some bands I would like to produce, but Ill wait till something comes to me, its not like in the 1980s anymore when I produced non-stop. I know only want to pick stuff I really like to do. Some of the music now days is incredible, but theres also a lot of crap. Also the way they produce today is not what I would want ot do. Back in the 1980s when I started producing a record, I received a tape with 20-30 songs from the band and they let me pick the best songs, and I would make notes on how to get the most out of these 10 to 15 selected songs. The bands would listen to my comments and then we would go into the studio and record those songs. Now days everything is so processed, with computers doing the pitch correcting yuck . I would want to go back to capturing a performance not creating it on a computer how fake can you get?. However, I am glad I am now living in Hawaii, enjoying life and work under relaxing conditions, and basically doing the things I love doing..
Thats a good thing to hear, well, it was nice talking with you, I wish you success with your new company...
Thanks, yes, for anyone who wants to check out our studio treatment kits, please go to: http://www.studio-panel.com
Short bio of Keith Olsen:
Keith Olsen is an industry celebrated producer of such notable artists as: Fleetwood Mac, Foreigner, Pat Benatar, Rick Springfield, Santana, The Babys, Sammy Hagar, Whitesnake, Ozzy Osborne, The Scorpions, Heart, just to mention a few. His many soundtrack albums include: Footloose, Flashdance, Tron, Vision Quest, Top Gun, That Was Then-This Is Now and many more. See:
He produced and engineered more than 200 full albums garnering a 1 in 5 gold album ratio and was awarded 6 Grammys. He has sold over 110 million units at retail and his work appears on more than 250 albums.
During the late 90s he was headhunted by Mackie Designs, a pro audio equipment manufacturer, to design, develop, and define higher end very professional products for their newly started Mackie Broadcast Professional Division. Being an advocate on issues concerning the music industry, its problems and challenges, he ran for the Board of Governors for the Pacific Northwest Branch of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. He was elected to the post of National Trustee of NARAS in 2001. From this position he has had ever increasing visibility is areas of Intellectual Property Rights, Illegal Copyright Theft, and archival of past works. Being in close communication with noted alliances for the structuring and preservation of these rights, Olsen has worked tirelessly toward solutions to benefit all copyright owners. The purpose of archival so as to not lose the early works not just of old magnetic tape but also of the current generation of artists is currently the focus of Mr. Olsens work.
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