Half Deaf, Completely Mad: The Chaotic Genius of Australia’s Most Legendary Producer is the exciting memoir of the late Tony Cohen.
The maverick music producer-engineer helped to define Australia’s punk and rock sounds in the late ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. His long and celebrated career took him from the studios of Melbourne and Sydney to West Berlin and London’s Abbey Road, working with several iconic bands up until his death in 2017.
In candid reflections, Tony shares details of his decades-long relationship with Nick Cave (The Boys Next Door, The Birthday Party, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) and provides behind-the-scenes access to recordings by Cat Stevens, The Ferrets, Split Enz, Laughing Clowns, Models, Magazine, The Reels, The Go-Betweens, Cold Chisel, Beasts of Bourbon, The Saints, Michael Hutchence, The Cruel Sea, TISM, Paul Kelly and so many more.
As Cave once said of his former collaborator, Cohen was “the most obsessive, single-minded character I’ve ever seen, outside of the mirror.”
Cohen commenced writing his memoir in 2012, assisted by music producer and archivist John Olson until Cohen’s death six years ago.
In an exclusive excerpt below, Cohen recalls the tortuous process behind recording “The Mercy Seat”, one of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ most memorable songs.
Half Deaf, Completely Mad: The Chaotic Genius of Australia’s Most Legendary Producer is out on Tuesday, May 30th at all good bookstores. It’s available to pre-order here.
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“I need more!”
I gave him some more.
“You fucking idiot, Cohen. I can’t hear myself.”
We were at Power Plant Recordings in Carlton, March 1988. I had been working on “The Mercy Seat” for over six months. West Berlin, London, now back in Melbourne. Six different studios by my count, stumbling from one to the other. We’d gone quite mad.
Nick’s headphones squealed with feedback. “If that happens again I’ll punch you in the face,” he warned. “Turn my voice up.”
I put it on full blast and blew his head off.
Boof! He marched into the control room and punched me square on the nose. Fair enough, though he was being a cunt. I have no doubt “The Mercy Seat” took a few years off my life. Recording was always an event, but when you got involved with Nick Cave and his mob you knew you were in for something serious. I was immersed. Crazed. It didn’t help we were nearing the end of a nasty binge. Days without sleep, hallucinations. Everything was intense. Still, there was work to be done – Mick Harvey would see to that.
“The Mercy Seat” was an incredibly hard recording to control. Forty-eight tracks, two tape machines locked together in sync. So many overdubs and still we needed more! Well, according to the artistes. I turned everything up and it was just noise. Chaos. The band hadn’t performed the song live, instead building the track around a tape loop made at Hansa Tonstudio in West Berlin the year before. I love cutting tape and bouncing tracks. They’re almost lost arts. Put on a show! Oh the fun of it, swinging the razor blade like a drunken sailor. The rhythm of the song became a loop of Mick Harvey’s bass guitar, laid flat as he hit the strings with drumsticks. A click track, and a pretty bent one too.
It took Nick a while to be happy with his vocals. Boy could he give you a hard time, with the microphone halfway down his throat. But that’s the sound he wanted. Compressors couldn’t cope with it so I’d often use more than one. Something fast and powerful to grab the peaks and another with valves to smooth it out. I had trouble balancing the spoken verses and sung chorus, but what do you sacrifice? The sound or the performance? Sometimes it’s best to ignore a few mistakes. Music’s not meant to be perfect, nothing is. I’ve got my dad’s jazz records to thank for that insight. You can hit the odd fucking foul note as long as you give a fantastic performance. It’s about creating something that moves you.
“The Mercy Seat” wore us down, but the best songs often do. We first mixed the track in January at The Kinks’ Konk Studios in London, second at Strongroom, third at… I can’t remember, but each effort was a step closer to making it work. Practise. Sometimes it might be better to hand a recording over to someone with fresh ears to pick up on things you’ve missed, but we had Mick. He was always the voice of reason, the relatively sober one. Which I guess helped! I loved working with him. We would talk as we went, bringing instruments in and out. Wrestling with the noise. Mixing had become a good collaboration and lots of fun. The final pass was done live and I was extremely happy with the result.
The album Tender Prey was now complete.
“Watching Alice” had been mixed earlier by Chris Thompson at The Studio, formerly known as Richmond Recorders. It seems I’d gone missing for a while. There’s always a first! Maybe I was booked for another project. Or hiding under the bed? All very possible. Chris would help out if I went missing. We were old friends and didn’t need to talk about anything – he knew what to do. I’d spent enough time in the studio anyway. The mixes were sent off and part payment withheld due to excessive distortion.
By the time “The Mercy Seat” was released as a single I was back in London. But something was rotten.
What was fun in the early days had turned ugly. I was burning out. Before the second show of a short tour I was done as the Bad Seeds live engineer. I made it to the door, but didn’t want to go in. We finished mixing the readings for Nick’s debut novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, at 7 a.m. on Monday, 1 August, and that was it.
Already half my life had been spent in a recording studio. It was time to get out of the business for a while.
I was thirty-one years old.