Call Mickie Most ‘The Hitmaker’

Mickey Mouse? What can I say about him? When making an album with the band laying down a track in the studio, Mickey is always in between; it’s like a big war, you can’t get him to turn the knobs… He can produce Nancy Sinatra and Herman’s Hermits, but he couldn’t produce the Jeff Beck Croup.
— Rod Stewart

Most had a lot to do with the Yardbirds breaking up. His whole bag is Herman’s Hermits. Donovan used to do his own recordsMickie was the coordinate producer. In other words, when the whole product was finished, he’d go in and choose the singles.
— Jimmy Page

Mickie wasn’t the slightest bit interested in recording my sort of music and I couldn’t say to him, “Look, you don’t know what’s going on,” because he had 20,000 gold discs on the wall saying “I do know what’s going on.” So for a couple of years I wasted my career doing junk tunes.
— Jeff Beck

Mickie Most is just terrible. He treated Lulu horribly.
— Maurice Gibb

LONDON — Mickie Most is best described by his moniker — The Hitmaker Producer. He has taken artists as diverse as Terry Reid, Mary Hopkin and the Animals and helped make them record stars with consistent chart hits. Yet, so many negative comments are heard about the man, that many people have gotten the impression he forces his artists into the studio at bayonet point, lashes them if they refuse to perform the song he has selected and wraps up the entire matter in less than an hour’s time.

Things aren’t quite that way, according to Most, interviewed at his office in the Mayfair section of London. Most’s baby face is crowned by wavy, orange-tinted hair. The walls of his office are lined with Rak (his label) singles.

“All that work with Jeff Beck and Led Zeppelin, all that work with Donovan and him saying ‘I can do it better without you,’ working my balls off making Lulu the number one international female vocalist and reading in the papers how she’s looking for a new producer — I just went ‘I’ve had enough of these people.’ Most of the artists are slags: they use you, vacation on your yacht, borrow money and never give it back, and they don’t have the decency to tell you to your face.”

MICKIE MOST’S first recollection of rock and roll dates to his mid-teens when he saw Blackboard Jungle and was somehow introduced to Bill Haley. “Then Elvis made an enormous impression on me,” said Most. “I got a guitar and spent a lot of time on London’s underground railway system — the Circle Line — practicing until they got wise to what I was doing. Then I played in Hyde Park where I turned professional. Hookers used to pay me 50 cents so they could circulate and solicit business among the crowd I had attracted.

“From there I met an old school chum whose name was Most, and we became the Most Brothers. That’s how I got the name: my real name is Michael Peter Hayes.”

Mickie migrated to South Africa for a short period where he racked up eleven number one records. “I always realized that my talents as a vocalist were limited,” he said. “So, I wanted to be a producer and find someone with the abilities to do what I couldn’t. I had the ideas, but not the skills.”

In 1962 Mickie returned from South Africa, but there was no one around to produce right away and he went back on the road. He toured with people like the Everly Brothers and Bo Diddley. performing mostly rock standards. Observers recall that Most’s presence was pretty ridiculous: a plump figure leaping about, falling on the stage, all the while shrieking in a laughably inadequate voice.

“Once I was on a Rolling Stones tour. It was in Newcastle, and they were nothing at the time. I went to a club and saw the Animals and they were exceptionally good, and they became the first people I produced other than myself. The first song we recorded was ‘House of the Rising Sun’. It took only 15 minutes. ‘Baby Let Me Take You Home’ was released first because the record company didn’t want to release ‘House’. They thought it was too slow and dreary.

“I next became interested in Herman’s Hermits from just a photograph of the group. I thought Peter Noone looked very much like President Kennedy, and I thought they’d make it big in the States because of that.

“In early 1964 I went to America with ‘House of the Rising Sun’, ‘I’m Into Something Good’ by Herman’s Hermits, and ‘Tobacco Road’ by the Nashville Teens, which I also produced. No one wanted to release any of them — I was turned down by everybody. So I came back to England and I had a good friend at EMI who believed in me. He released ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and it became number one in two weeks. [Re-released recently on Rak, ‘House’ is doing well on the oldie-riddled English charts.] MGM picked it up in the Slates and my relationship with them [for the Animals and Hermits] was formed.”

In the eight years he’s been producing, Most has established a reputation for having an uncanny ear for hit songs. “I select all the material my artists record. I chose all of the hits that the Hermits had. John Paul Jones [currently bassist for Led Zeppelin] used to arrange everything for them. In fact, he played bass on nearly every Hermits’ record. Jimmy Page played guitar on a lot of their songs: I think it’s either him or Big Jim Sullivan on ‘Silhouettes’.

“My philosophy is that if you have people in the band who are more talented than John Paul Jones or Jimmy Page or the other studio musicians, let them play on their own instrumental backings. The Hermits only played their own instruments on ‘Mrs Brown’, ‘I’m Into Something Good’ and ‘Henry VIII’. I don’t think Jones could have played the bass that poorly on ‘Mrs. Brown’, but I suppose that was part of the appeal. During their existence the Hermits had 23 hits and sold 40 million records.

“Talking about Donovan is no problem because he writes thirty songs a week and we select one or two good ones to record. Everything is in cycles. After he split from me four years ago he went cold.

“During that period Donovan essentially recorded seven LPs that the record company refused to release because they were so awful. We’re back working together now, and his new album may be his best ever. Material comes in fits and starts, sometimes there’s an abundance of good material, sometimes bad, but the thing is you have a product commitment.

“I selected all the Animals hits too. They didn’t really like ‘We Goua Get Out of This Place’ or ‘It’s My Life,* but they were hits. Blues couldn’t be a hit, so we left those for the LP tracks; hook the public with a hit, and expose them to R&B via the LP.”

The Animals chose not to renew their two-year contract with Most and it expired late in 1965. “The Animals left me simply because they were offered more money elsewhere, and being from the depressed part of England, the offer made a big impression. As far as I’m concerned, the group fell apart when Alan Price left. He was a big influence.”

* * *

Hilton Valentine (ex-Animal): “He was really good for the Animals; he had a sense of knowing hit material. We left because we thought we were being screwed. The way we understood it, Most was getting two percent, Mike Jeffrey, our manager, was getting two percent, and we were getting two percent. But our two percent had to be split five ways. I don’t think I ever received any royalties from the Animals.”

MOST HAS never made any bones about making records precisely for their hit potential. But he maintains there are artists who are so immersed in their music that they fail to realize their compositions are only average. Then there are managers:

“There are only half-a-dozen decent managers in the world,” said Most. “The rest are ex-hairdressers or accountants — amateurs. To be a manager you have to be a born showman. Colonel Tom Parker is fantastic. What Peter Grant does for Led Zeppelin is marvelous — he’s never played them out. The others are stage-struck and money-struck. They figure, ‘We’re losing money by not having any songs on the LP.’ Records cost $5.95 and the public is entitled to an album of decent tracks.”

In 1967 when Jimmy Page joined the Yardbirds, Most became their producer. All of a sudden the group’s highly electric and experimental rock sounds gave way to strings and outright pop songs like ‘Ten Little Indians’ or ‘Ha Ha Said the Clown’.

“My involvement with the Yardbirds was nothing, really. It was toward the end and the fire had gone out. It was more out of contractual obligations than anything else. They liked doing the songs.”

(A little over a year ago a Yardbirds Live: Featuring Jimmy Page LP was released only to be recalled by Most when he reconsidered about the “lack of a quality performance — despite the near unanimous favorable reviews the album received.)

Five years ago, after Jeff Beck left the Yardbirds, he formed his own group, with Rod Stewart. It was perhaps Beck’s attitude toward Most that caused Mickie to re-examine his position in the pop music business. “At that time Led Zeppelin, Cream, the Jeff Beck Group, the heavy groups couldn’t get arrested. No one would book them for $5 a night. Jeff was trying to hold together a group of fantastic musicians, but they weren’t working. We were paying them a retainer and losing a fortune. We had to make records to get them in the charts so they would get bookings. ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ was the first single. Beck, who is no vocalist, sang that one. Rod Stewart wouldn’t sing because he wasn’t under contract to us. Beck didn’t want us to record Stewart in case he became more popular. So what are we gonna do? An instrumental?

“So, we recorded ‘Love Is Blue’. Jeff didn’t seem to mind at the time. It went into the charts and got the band work, so it served its purpose. No one had any money. Rod Stewart was in debt, and we’re paying them $400 a week because they’re not working. The type of music they were playing was emptying theaters — it wasn’t popular.

Jeff Beck: “He wanted to put an instrumental on the A side with Rod singing on the B side. That was just garbage. I chose Rod in the first place for my vocalist, and I wanted to play lead guitar, and perform the same role in that group as I was performing in the Yardbirds, but just do a better job. Rod didn’t have a name and I did, and Mickie Most as a producer just said, ‘OK, well I’ve got to go where the money is.’ And that’s it — he didn’t want to know about Rod Stewart. I bet he’s kicking his ass now” ( — RS No. 120).

As much as Beck cringes over ‘Love Is Blue’, he readily admits that the Jeff Beck Group’s first album, Truth, is still better than anything he’s recorded since.

Most: “Truth was a collection of songs that the group was doing live at the time. I was producing Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man album at the same time. Jeff would come into the studio in the morning, do some recording, and at night he’d lay down a few tracks for Donovan. He was originally on ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’, but he had an off night and we used Alan Parker for the final version.”

Three years ago Most lost “complete interest” in the music business, “I was tired of the teeth and troubles with Jeff Beck. I personally financed their first tour to America and supported them. Epic Records didn’t want to release Truth. Record companies talk about how they are the creators of artists — they don’t know a crochet from a hatchet about music. All these people in the record business don’t know anything. How do lawyers, accountants and businessmen know about music? But they always stand up and take the credit.

“It wasn’t until Peter Grant took a New York Times review of Beck’s first US performance at the Fillmore East and telegraphed it to the president of Epic who was at a convention at Las Vegas — they’re always at conventions — that he agreed to release the LP.”

A solution to the whole mess, Mickie thought, would be to establish his own record company, Rak. In Britain Rak has had 27 hit records in two years, but distribution in the States has brought the same old problems. “One of our first releases was ‘Whole Lotta Love’ by CCS, but CBS didn’t want to release it in the States. Then when King Curtis recorded a cover version, they agreed to put it out. And, although it was a moderate-sized hit, we lost half of the sales. Those people amaze me.”

Most seems at once modestly content and a trifle restless. “There’s just no buzz in England like there is in the States,” he said. “Americans are so much more enthused. The British press is terrible; the radio and television is awful. The people out in the street are nice enough, but they’re just plain dull, English groups that are making it now are not living in that world, but they’re hidden away living in the world of Yes, or whatever.”

Mickie paused a second and glanced straight ahead towards the window. “You know,” he said, “I’d like to attack America with a supergroup. I’d like to find myself another Animals.”

© Harold BronsonRolling Stone, 21 December 1972

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