This obituary was written by Adam Sweeting and printed in the Guardian on 7th June 2011.
The record producer Martin Rushent, who has died aged 63, established himself as a pivotal figure in British pop music through his work with the punk-era bands Buzzcocks and the Stranglers, then later with his revolutionary contribution to the Human League’s bestselling 1981 album Dare. But though he achieved his greatest success with the digitised electropop of the 1980s, Rushent had learned his trade as a studio engineer in the analogue tape era of the late 60s and early 70s, when he worked with a broad range of artists, from T Rex to Yes and Shirley Bassey.
The first time he saw the inside of a recording studio was when he visited EMI in Manchester Square, London, with his school band, in which Rushent was lead vocalist. However, it was in the technical and engineering side of music-making that his genius lay, and Rushent had already experimented with multitracking himself at home, on a four-track tape recorder. His first job was in a chemicals factory, but he left and “went to work for my dad in the motor trade while I looked for a studio job,” as he put it.
He landed the role of film projectionist at Advision studios in London, then single-mindedly worked his way into a job in audio engineering, ending up as Advision’s head engineer. This brought him into contact with leading musicians, and he engineered T. Rex’s 1971 album Electric Warrior alongside the producer Tony Visconti. All of this gave Rushent the experience to launch himself as a freelance engineer.
He was then employed by United Artists Records, where at first he found himself “doing middle-of-the-road stuff like Shirley Bassey and people like that”. He recalled his first encounter with Bassey, when he announced that he was to be her engineer and co-producer. “Whereupon she threw a mic stand at me. She apologised afterwards, I hasten to add.”
Rushent formed a partnership with UA’s A&R chief Andrew Lauder, combining his audio expertise with Lauder’s talent-spotting skills. When Rushent heard a demo of the Stranglers’ Grip, he saw its potential. He bullied Lauder into signing the group and set about producing them himself, getting their debut album Rattus Norvegicus and most of the follow-up No More Heroes down on tape in a six-day session. Those albums, both from 1977, generated the hits Peaches, Something Better Change and No More Heroes, and made the Stranglers the bestselling band of the punk boom. Rushent also produced Black and White (1978) and Live (X Cert) (1979).
Rushent’s collaboration with Buzz- cocks on their first three albums, Another Music In a Different Kitchen and Love Bites, both 1978, and A Different Kind of Tension (1979), also proved both successful and influential, yielding the hit singles Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve) and Promises. They fashioned a sound which mixed a dense guitar barrage with commercial melodies, and would later be echoed by bands from Hüsker Dü to Nirvana and the Foo Fighters.
Now much in demand, Rushent left UA at the end of the 70s. In March 1979, he recorded some demo tracks with Manchester’s Joy Division for his own Genetic imprint, but the group opted to go with Factory Records and the Rushent tracks remained unissued until they surfaced on the Joy Division box set Heart and Soul in 1997.
Rushent sensed that a revolution in sound recording was in the offing. He built his own studio, Genetic, in Berkshire, and presciently kitted it out with the latest synthesizers and digital recording equipment. One of his first projects was the solo album Homosapien (1981) by Buzzcocks songwriter Pete Shelley, where Rushent handled the digital programming while Shelley played guitars. The tracks were only supposed to be demos, but they sounded good enough to earn Shelley an album deal with Island Records. Meanwhile, Virgin’s Simon Draper heard the Homosapien tracks and decided that Rushent was the man he needed to produce Virgin’s signing the Human League.
The League duly turned up at Rushent’s studio with an early version of their song The Sound of the Crowd, and were miffed to be told by Rushent that “we’re going to start again and do it a lot better”. It duly became a hit, which they followed up with Love Action and Don’t You Want Me, the latter reaching No 1 on both sides of the Atlantic. The parent album Dare (1981) became a defining artefact of the early 1980s, a sleek electronic masterpiece which has influenced several pop artists. It earned Rushent a Brit award in 1982 as best producer.
“Making Dare was a unique experience and we were on a mission,” he reflected. “We were trying to make most of this primitive gear work most of the time. It was like climbing fucking Everest!”
A remixed version of Dare, Love and Dancing, soared up the charts in 1982, but recording a new studio album proved frustrating. Rushent finally walked out after a spat with the vocalist Susanne Sulley. Despite all his success (he also steered projects with Generation X, XTC, the Go-Gos and Altered Images), Rushent ended up selling his home and studio to pay off bills, and was diagnosed with clinical depression. He left the music business, and spent the rest of the 1980s looking after his young children.
He made a comeback in the 1990s, launching a club called Gush at Greenham Common, Berkshire, where the Prodigy performed on the opening night, then assembling a new home studio using digital recording equipment which had become vastly more affordable since his Genetic days. He produced Hazel O’Connor’s 2005 album Hidden Heart and worked on projects by the Pipettes, Enid Blitz and the Reading band Does It Offend You, Yeah?, which is fronted by his son James.
Rushent is survived by his wife Ceri and children Amy, James, Tim and Joanne.