Two Wednesdays ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Mike Thorne, a classically-trained musician whose career as A&R (Artist and Repertoire) Man and producer of such notable musicians as Soft Cell, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Til Tuesday, Soft Machine, Bronski Beat / the Communards, Lene Lovich and John Cale (to name but a few), is well-regarded and established. Beginning in the mid-1970s, his talent cultivation for EMI Records resulted in bringing musicians such as the Sex Pistols, Kate Bush, and subsequently, Wire - several of whose albums Mike also produced – to that label.
But what is less known about Mike Thorne is his affinity and talent for the high tech side of music. As I noted in a previous post for High Tech History, he was the very first to purchase for commercial application the electronic music composition and sampling system, the Synclavier. In 1979, having flown to the states with Mike Ratledge, founder-member of Soft Machine (and himself a classically-trained pianist and fellow graduate of Oxford University) on “a couple of cheap tickets,” he visited the Synclavier’s manufacturer, New England Digital Corporation of Norwich, Vermont. Thorne said he thought the three innovators of that company “complemented each other well”: Sydney Alonso the electronics expert; Cameron Jones the code programmer, and Jon Appleton, the Dartmouth College music professor and authority on electronic music. On this particular journey, he met Jones and Alonso; but later got to know and like Appleton equally well.
The cathedral bells he heard the first time he placed his hands on the Synclavier’s keys were the Siren call. He knew immediately he had to have this device – even though, in his own words, it cost the equivalent of a year’s retainer at EMI. Sydney Alonso later told Mike he believed this particular machine was the sixth one produced – the other five being in the hands of “more academic people” at universities.
After Mike received his Physics degree from Oxford in 1969, he could have worked in any number of scientific fields. But he chose instead to follow a personal passion: the science of music. This led him to devise a portable disk jockeying system he had personally crafted and modified from various electronics equipment. And though he modestly confessed to me he is “not a tinkerer,” who had only a minimal enthusiasm for the intricacies of a machine’s inner workings, he possessed more than sufficient aptitude and motivation to invent his own “disco” system, which he employed at, among other venues, private parties and some London clubs.
In 1971, Thorne entered Guildhall School of Music and Drama to study composition under the tutelage of Buxton Orr; but his continuing interest in popular music led him to become exposed to a wide variety of musicians and musical genres and resulted, seemingly inevitably, to the A&R position he secured with EMI in 1976. And though the tunes he occasionally spun as a DJ included the Doors and other more established and comparatively conventional rock groups, the talent he was beginning to cultivate and nurture at EMI had increasingly un-conventional attributes.
The mid-1970s brought Punk Rock to England, which drew on some American acts like the Ramones, the Stooges, Suicide, Television, and a relatively small clutch of other, largely New York City-based bands. Mike, on the other side of the Atlantic, facilitated the signing of the Sex Pistols to EMI – a band that, in many ways, superseded and commercially pre-empted the New York scene – not least because of their passionate, compelling and widely-shared anti-establishment message. Mike shortly thereafter became EMI’s house producer and went on to produce another Punk group, Wire, which he considers one of his fondest achievements. His Punk credentials reached their acme with his production of Live at the Roxy WC2, widely considered a cornerstone of the genre. But even throughout this musically “stripped down” period, the Synclavier was never very far-removed from his musical repertoire. In fact, Thorne purchased his Synclavier after producing the third Wire album, 154. It then featured on former Wire frontman Colin Newman’s first solo album, A-Z, recorded in 1980 after the band’s breakup.
During the 1980s, Thorne used his appreciation for new technologies and musical concepts to take popular music to new aesthetic heights. The Synclavier played a crucial role in such dance club standards as Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy, the Communards’ Don’t Leave Me this Way, and Soft Cell’s Tainted Love. And though it played, in Thorne’s words, “a comparatively minor part” in his production of John Cale’s 1982 release, Honi Soit, it helped establish the technological continuum that was becoming Thorne’s trademark.
the Communards – “Don’t Leave Me This Way”
During the 1990s, Thorne’s work with Warner Music resulted in his creation of The Stereo Society, an interactive, web-based, multi-media recording and publishing company that comprises and utilizes Thorne’s personal recording studio – the product of decades spent in his pursuit of both the innovative and inventive in music composition. Anchored by his much-loved Synclavier, Mike has used his studio to explore new concepts in musical recording. With the Internet and other virtual resources changing the landscape of the music business so quickly and in so many ways – both commercially and creatively – Thorne believes that giving listeners more options to access his company’s music will result in added opportunities to market The Stereo Society’s offerings. He also believes strongly in his studio’s ability to drive the creative process. As Mike told Tom Flint of Sound on Sound (a Cambridge, England-based music technology magazine) recently: “Creative people are everywhere – you just have to give them toys.”